Friday, 30 December 2011

Hugo 3D Revisited

I watched Hugo 3D again last night, this time with J&L (and Kathy). I knew in my gut that they would love it, and they did. Janelle, as usual, offered reflections on the film which had not occurred to me, forcing me to reconsider what I had previously written. But first, my initial observations upon a second viewing.

I was surprised that I found the story even more compelling this time. As in my first viewing, I found the screening of the early films of George Melies somewhat distracting and the story rather predictable, but neither of these would prevent me from giving Hugo ****. However, if anything, I found the 3D even more problematic for me on second viewing and realized that my initial ***+ rating was caused almost entirely by the 3D presentation. In my previous review, I mentioned that I could appreciate the 3D if I thought of it as an experience other than a film. But the bottom line, for me, is that I find 3D ugly. I found it ugly in Avatar and I find it ugly in Hugo. For me, 3D literally saps the beauty out of any film it touches.

Janelle, however, suggested that 3D is integral to Hugo because it is about (among other things) the wonder of watching films for the very first time. Because 3D is still fresh, it can help recreate that feeling of wonder. The 3D also gives Hugo a surreal dreamlike quality which connects to Melies’ comments linking films and dreams. I can see her point, though it frightens me. Apparently the Lumiere brothers who invented film thought it would be a passing fad, as I believe 3D to be a passing fad. If I am as mistaken as they were, then I fear the world of film is heading down a dark and unfortunate path, though obviously many people must disagree with me.

Further to the theme of rediscovering the wonder of the earliest films, Janelle pointed out that viewing excerpts from Melies’ films was likewise integral to Hugo. Laurens added that the theme of fixing broken people includes the theme of finding lost things and bringing them to light to be appreciated for what they have given us.

If those aspects of Hugo which I found most distracting are in fact integral to the film, then I must reevaluate my previous rating and give Hugo a somewhat reluctant ****.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Young Adult

The writer/director duo who brought us Juno (Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman) are back with another wonderful, intelligent, adult comedy drama called Young Adult. Reitman is also the director of Up in the Air, one of my favourite films of 2009.

Young Adult stars one of my favourite female actors, Charlize Theron, perhaps the most beautiful woman in film today, playing a woman who, incredibly, is actually insecure about her beauty and goes to great lengths to make herself more attractive. Theron plays Mavis, a woman who is not only insecure but also a self-absorbed, depressed alcoholic recovering from a failed marriage and a failing career (as a ghost writer of young adult fiction). Mavis is a very unsympathetic protagonist and only a terrific performance by Theron and a brilliant screenplay by Cody could make this work.

The title of the film refers not to Mavis’s writing but to the fact that she is still living in the world she writes about. She still misses the life she feels she should have had with Buddy, her high school sweetheart. When Mavis discovers he has a new baby girl, she is determined to get him back.

But the first person she meets when she returns to the small town of Mercury, Minnesota is Matt who, as a boy, had the locker next to hers and who no doubt worshipped her, but was completely ignored by her. He was the victim of a hate crime that left him permanently disabled. In a way, Matt is also still living in the past, having given up on a normal meaningful life. But he immediately understands Mavis’s desperation and tries to talk some sense into her, without much success. Patton Oswalt plays Matt to perfection and his character is the key to making Young Adult the excellent film that it is.

Young Adult’s dark intelligent humour and profound wisdom is miles away from most of the popular comedy dramas made today. Among other things, it asks important questions about the meaning of life (if you stayed in your home town, you must be stupid and worthless), about happiness (we made it to Minneapolis -we must be happy) and about self-delusion (we hear how Mavis uses the protagonist in her final book of the young adult series to justify the craziness of what she is doing).

Young Adult gets a solid ***+. My mug is up yet again as 2011 continues to impress.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (IMAX)

I need to start with a story (if that sounds boring, skip to the third paragraph). So Kathy was flying in from Iraq yesterday and I planned to watch a film at the nearby mall (Polo Park) on the way to the airport. Just as I was about to leave, Kathy called to say she had missed the Winnipeg flight and would be arriving three hours later. For some reason it occurred to me that this would give me the chance to watch MI:Ghost Protocol at the IMAX. It would be tight but not impossible. Why did I want to see MI:GP at the IMAX in its first few days in town? Well (sarcasm alert!), apparently everyone else in the world is doing it and I do so much want to do what everyone else is doing. Besides, it was getting good reviews and it was NOT in 3D and I hadn’t visited an IMAX since London.

Okay. Mission One: Purchase ticket online to avoid last-minute problems. The website, however, is very unfriendly (poorly worded) and I wasted a precious three minutes finding the ticket-purchase page. Mission accomplished. Mission Two: Print out the ticket. I suddenly realized the laptop I was using was not set up to use my wireless printer. So run to my MacBook, which for some reason did not receive the email from cineplex using the same email account I had just accessed on the Dell. So run back to the Dell and forward the email to myself. Yes, it worked. Mission accomplished. Mission Three: Drive through the heart of Winnipeg in the middle of rush hour to get to the theatre before showtime. Already ten minutes later than I thought I could possibly be, this mission sounded impossible. But I drove like one of the maniacs who regularly frustrate me, weaving in and out of lanes like I was in the Indy 500. I’m getting close, but I’m trapped behind buses. Cut through the mall parking lot. Stopped by a huge crowd of college students crossing at the crosswalk. Drive another fifty yards. Stopped by an ambulance driver redirecting traffic in the opposite direction of where I needed to go. Don’t panic. Things are crowded ahead and not moving. But there’s an open parking spot. Park and hoof it, walking very fast through the entire length of Winnipeg’s largest mall six days before Christmas. Then zip through the parking lot and into the theatre. Get to the ticket checker. A newbie. Never seen an online ticket before. Don’t know why this machine not working. Getting manager. Manager scans ticket and I am in the theatre with five minutes to spare (good thing: there were no ads whatsoever before the film started - that’s worth the extra five bucks right there). It’s 25 minutes later than I had wanted it to be (I insist on a good seat) but the theatre is less than one-quarter full, so I actually found a decent seat. Mission accomplished.

That the above experience was thoroughly apropos to what I was about to see did not occur to me until well into the film. When it did, it enhanced my viewing experience, because MI:GP is just one long exhilarating roller-coaster ride of impossible missions needing to be completed within a four-minute or four-hour time frame while facing one obstacle after another. I understood. I was pumped full of adrenaline already. Bring it on!

So what have we got here? Fantastic exotic locations, nonstop action involving constant death-defying feats of agility, implausible minimalist plot, state-of-the-art cars, gorgeous women, the latest in technological gadgetry… wait a minute, this sounds like … Yeah, I’m no action fan, but I’m a sucker for a good Bond film, and when MI gets it right it is almost as good. And unlike MI II and III, MI:GP gets it right. At least at the IMAX, which immerses you in the action with its huge screen and mind-numbing sound.

The actors in MI:GP are well-cast, with Cruise at his best as Ethan Hunt (a man who endures more pain than is humanly possible; Cruise looks and acts WAY too young for his age), Simon Pegg providing lots of comic relief, Paula Patton, who grew on me throughout the film, Jeremy Renner, who can do no wrong, and my favourite Swedish actor, Michael Nyqvist, on hand as the baddie.

Brad Bird has made an action film that no action-lover or MI fan can afford to miss. I am no big fan of sequel films, so I should mention that MI:GP is no more a sequel than the Bond films. Maybe because of the IMAX or maybe because my life and that of Ethan Hunt are virtually indistinguishable ☺, I am going to give MI:GP ***+. My mug is up.

Monday, 19 December 2011


Trust is a small 2011 independent film that, as far as I know, never even made an appearance in Winnipeg theatres. Its title does not seem well-chosen to induce mass attendance, but it is certainly apt, for Trust is primarily the story of how a trusting 14-year-old girl learns to distrust almost everyone around her, from her best friend to her parents to the 35-year-old man who seduced her in an online chat-room and then raped her.

If that sounds horrifying, it is. But how David Schwimmer (writer/director) deals with this horror is uniquely unsensational and unpredictable. Trust could have been a thriller of sorts or pure melodrama, but in my opinion it chose to stay real and focus on how two traumatized people (Annie and her father, Will, played very well by Liana Liberato and Clive Owen) try to deal with the horror of what has happened in their lives.

The production values may not be outstanding but they are adequate. With the excellent acting by Liberato, Owen, Catherine Keener and Viola Davis (and a very scary Chris Henry Coffey as the rapist), Trust is a powerful and haunting film well worth watching (especially for 14-year-old girls). I am therefore going to let it slide into ***+. My mug is up.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Skin I Live In

Once again I was not expecting a horror film.

Watching one of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's films always feels a little risky and unpredictable. That an Almodovar film should also feel a little perverse is nothing new (e.g. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Live Flesh, Talk To Her). But generally I appreciate most of his films and at least two in the last decade (Talk To Her, Volver) made my top ten of the year. I particularly look forward to Almodovar’s suspense films because there is an obvious Hitchcockian element to these films. The Skin I Live In is no exception and may even be one of the clearest expressions of this. But I would describe this film as Hitchcock Dark. Maybe even Hitchcock Dark and Twisted. Indeed, The Skin I Live In also reminds me of many mad scientist horror films.

More precisely, The Skin I Live In is about a mad plastic surgeon (Robert Ledgard, played by Antonio Banderas) who, after failing to give his wife a new face after a car crash, seems determined to perfect his ability to restore or recreate skin, moulding it into whatever shape he wants. But nothing in The Skin I Live In is what it seems and it takes one dark turn after another as it explores the importance of the skin we live in.

Like all of Almodovar’s films, The Skin I Live In is full of rich colours, beautiful cinematography, good acting and lots of style. Banderas makes a good mad scientist, a very different kind of role for him (at least compared to Puss in Boots). Elena Anaya is excellent as Vera, a woman Ledgard is experimenting on as if she is nothing but an android he is building. Since The Skin I Live In is as much science fiction as horror, that was indeed an option I was considering before the film took its final dark turns.

This is a film that starts off in a very disturbing place and finds a way to get more disturbing with each passing minute. It is therefore not something my average reader is likely to enjoy. But if you are a fan of Almodovar or of dark and twisted stylish thrillers, then you probably want to check it out. As for me, I will give The Skin I Live In a solid *** for keeping me intrigued and for the allusions to my favourite Hitchcock films. My mug is up.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Margin Call

From the opening scene in a major Wall Street investment firm to the digging-a-grave-on-the-front-lawn scene that ends this unique film, the word that kept occurring to me was “fascinating”, in the best sense of the word. Margin Call is endlessly fascinating, providing an inside (albeit fictitious) view of the mortgage speculation crisis unfolding during one fateful night (presumably in 2008). Margin Call features a splendid ensemble cast, led by Kevin Spacey (playing Sam Rogers) in his best role since American Beauty (though I had to get over his similar, yet also very different and very inferior, role in Horrible Bosses). Margin Call feels like a play at points, probably because it is so deeply layered, the dialogue is so intelligent and real and it makes no attempt to talk down to the viewers. It certainly does not feel like Hollywood (this is a very good thing).

Margin Call was written and directed by J.C. Chandor. Amazingly, this is his first film. With a small budget, Chandor uses his excellent cast to both humanize the people who precipitated the crisis and show the dehumanizing impact of money. Spacey’s Sam is a case in point. By showing us how devastated Sam is by the death of his dog and how uncomfortable he is with what his superiors are proposing, we are invited to sympathize with him. But we also know that he has risen to his extremely well-paid (millions a year) position through constant compromise and stepping over those who callously get the axe so the firm can make a bigger profit at any given moment.

In 2008, the men most responsible for the financial crisis which messed up the lives of millions of people around the world, walked away with millions of dollars in their pockets. Margin Call does not claim to be about these men (it’s not a true story) but we presume it is giving us a glimpse of what might have happened in those first days of the crisis.

The big cheese in the firm is John Tuld, played brilliantly by Jeremy Irons. Tuld tells Sam that there will always be the haves and the have-nots and the percentage of those who are rich and those who are poor will always be the same. That is just the way the world works. I would like to see some statistics to back this up, but even if it is true it does not address the fact that in recent decades the rich minority have been getting richer while the poor majority have been getting poorer. In any event, to use such a statistic to justify being one of the wealthy and to justify destroying the lives of millions of people is the utmost in cold-hearted arrogance.

The question that comes up repeatedly in Margin Call is whether the work these investment traders are doing is worthwhile – does it contribute to the wellbeing of society. The usual response in the film is that it of course it helps people, but when Sam makes his big speech to rally his traders to sell worthless investments, he is completely unconvincing as he tells them that the work they do is for the common good. For me, the underlying message of Margin Call is that the way money is traded today is a game that only benefits the rich. As the Occupy movement has identified, it’s time to investigate and evaluate the ridiculous greedy practices on Wall Street, the ones exposed so well in the great documentary Inside Job (one of my favourite films of 2010).

Margin Call may be one of my favourite films of 2011. It gets a very solid ***+ heading toward ****. My mug is up.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Harry Potter Revealed as Christ-Figure?

Months ago, I promised to provide a theological reflection on the final Harry Potter film. I did write such a reflection at the time but it was published elsewhere and I was unable to put it on this blog. I do so now:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (DH2), the final installment of the hugely popular eight-part Harry Potter film series, was released this summer to overwhelming acclaim. Like the first two Narnia films, DH2 focuses unnecessarily—and disturbingly— on a climactic epic battle between good and evil. Apparently, filmmakers are convinced that this is what filmgoers want to see. For that reason alone, DH2 is not, in my opinion, the best film in the series, although it is certainly one of the better ones, highlighted by the acting of a brilliant ensemble cast (most of Britain’s finest actors). However, DH2 is clearly the most theologically profound film of the series, positioning the young master of magic as a Christ-figure.

In a discussion during one of my seminars at this summer’s Mennonite Church Canada assembly, participants argued about the use of the term “Christ-figure.” It was noted that many so-called Christ-figures bear little resemblance to Jesus, especially in their attitudes toward violence, and are often labelled as Christ-figures simply because of the manner of their death. This argument is especially pertinent to Harry Potter, where the films and books apparently do not convey the same message.

When the first Harry Potter film—Sorcerer’s Stone—was released in 2001, many Christians condemned it because of its positive portrayal of magic and witchcraft. Since the film was about children, it was feared that impressionable young viewers would develop an unhealthy interest in paganism and witchcraft. I have seen no widespread or convincing evidence to validate this claim. In fact, a strong argument could be made that the eight Harry Potter films promote Christian values, culminating in a film which suggests that author J.K. Rowling is telling a story with a solid Christian foundation.

Throughout the series, Harry Potter is the focus of messianic expectation. His behaviour seems to be driven by an innate wisdom and “compassion for all” that is beyond his years and distinct from his peers. This is exemplified in DH2 by Harry’s willingness to risk his life to save the lives of his “enemies.” Then, near the end of the film— in a scene reminiscent of Gethsemane— Harry makes the decision to give up his life to save his friends and destroy the power of evil. When he “dies,” he finds himself at “King’s Cross” subway station, where he learns that he is protected by his mother’s blood and did not actually die. In the film, this is not as clear as it is in the book, and Harry’s return comes across as a resurrection. What did die, however, was the part of Voldemort—the evil one— which was inside Harry and which Harry needed to kill before Voldemort could be defeated.

The final confrontation between good and evil in DH2 makes it look like Harry Potter returns to life and overpowers Voldemort. But book readers interpret Voldemort as being defeated when his killing curse bounces off Harry and returns to kill him. Apparently, the final book suggests that Harry eventually renounces violence and power as a way to overcome evil. DH2 and the other films portray Harry as one who does not want to kill others and who uses violence only in defence, but not as one who rejects the possibility of redemptive violence. Such a rejection, combined with his love and compassion, his passion for justice and his willingness to die to save the world, would package the protagonist into a true, albeit fictional, Christ-figure.

In the end, the Harry Potter books and films provide a lot of food for theological reflection, especially for Christians who appreciate the re-telling of the gospels in a way that engages a new generation. For non-Christians, the thematic significance and parallels to Scripture may be lost. Among the questions I am led to ask are:

Is the fear of death, which led Voldemort to split up his soul, the root of all evil? (See Daniel Liechty’s Reflecting on Faith in a Post-Christian Time.)

Is killing the shadow within us the only way to make peace with our souls?

Can Harry Potter, despite his association with witchcraft, be a positive role model for our youth?

Whatever our answers, the Harry Potter films can be the subject of much fruitful engagement.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

My Week With Marilyn

Despite my love of classic films, I have never been a fan of Marilyn Monroe. My Week With Marilyn does more to help me understand why I have never been a fan than it does to help me rethink my position (i.e. I just don’t get why people were so enchanted by Monroe). It does, however, begin to make me a fan of Michelle Williams, whose portrayal of the troubled Monroe is so spot-on that she will surely be nominated for an Oscar.

My Week With Marilyn is a quiet British drama that avoids sensationalizing and melodrama and gives us a wonderful glimpse into what it was like to be involved in the making of a film starring Monroe and the great Laurence Olivier (brilliantly played by Kenneth Branagh). Based on a true story by Colin Clark, My Week With Marilyn stars Eddie Redmayne (well-cast) as the 23-year-old Clark who gets to be Monroe’s closest friend during the final days of filming The Prince and the Showgirl in 1956.

Everything about My Week With Marilyn is very well done, with the acting and the dialogue being the highlights. Judi Dench shines in a small but vital supporting role, Emma Watson is perfectly cast in another smaller role and Dougray Scott is surprisingly effective as Monroe’s husband. While some will think the dialogue uninspiring, I was impressed by its intelligence. Some, perhaps most, will also think this film is about Monroe. I am not convinced of this. Monroe’s insecurity and deeper problems are well-known. What makes My Week With Marilyn work for me is that it’s about a young man whose dream comes true when Monroe turns to him for comfort during a difficult time (well, that and the performance by Williams). Watching Clark bounce between Olivier and Monroe is precious.

My Week With Marilyn is not an outstanding film but I think it’s better than most critics think it is, so I am going to let it slide just into the ***+ category. My mug is up.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Horrible Bosses

Roger Ebert gave Horrible Bosses ***+, so I thought it must be worth taking a look at. It wasn’t. Roger, my confidence in your appraisal of films is waning - sigh!

I put Horrible Bosses in the same category as The Hangover: utterly inane, insulting and offensive excuses for comedy. The cinematography, especially for such a film, is outstanding, but other than that, Horrible Bosses is a complete mess that deserves no further comment from me (because I wasted enough of my time watching the stupid thing).

If you liked The Hangover, by all means give this one a try. If you prefer intelligent rewarding comedies, well, even something like Friends With Benefits looks like a classic beside Horrible Bosses. ** for the cinematography. My mug is down.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Like Crazy

Like Crazy is a serious indie romance about a British college student in L.A. (Anna, played by Felicity Jones) who falls in love with an American student (Jacob, played by Anton Yelchin). Anna decides to overstay her visa so that she can spend the summer with Jacob, with consequences that will haunt them for a very long time.

Like Crazy works as well as it does primarily because of the acting of, and chemistry between, Jones and Yelchin (with some excellent supporting work from Jennifer Lawrence, Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead). You may recall that I was recently singing the praises of Yelchin and Lawrence when they teamed up in The Beaver. It seems rather coincidental that they would team up again here. I predict great things for all three of the young actors.

Like Crazy’s forte is not its dialogue (which isn’t profound but did feel very real), but the way emotions are conveyed by these actors without dialogue. I always felt like I knew exactly what these characters were thinking and that drew me in and helped me to care about them. This is important because the structure of the film actually works against caring too deeply for the characters. In fact, the characters consistently disappoint (e.g. If Jacob loves Anna as much as he says he does, then why doesn’t he move to London?). At the same time, I have watched a number of actual young romances in the 21st century which have taken similar paths after that initial burst of ecstatic passion (i.e. I think Like Crazy reflects a fear of commitment which is fairly common among today’s young adults - less so when I was a young adult).

Taken on its own, Like Crazy is an original and entertaining film, with more than its fair share of precious scenes, both joyous and depressing. But I could not help but compare it to one of my favourite serious young adult romances: Before Sunrise. The dialogue in the latter film made me hang on every word, and watching the film, which also reflects the values of many of today’s young adults, was a profoundly satisfying experience. Like Crazy was not. Still, I will give it a solid *** that verges on ***+. My mug is up.