Sunday, October 28, 2007

First Thoughts on Bella the Movie

What can I say about Bella the movie? It's beautifully filmed, beautifully acted, beautifully paced--it has everything a "nice" "inspiring" film has--except it has some unnameable other thing, something more. Director Alejandro Monteverde has given his vignette a subtlety of symbol that filmmakers like Spielberg and Shyamalan should study. The film has a couple of moments in which the significance of people, things, and events deepen beyond their simple appearance--moments and images which, like icebergs, drag with them the immeasurable bulk of Something More below the visible tip.

The best example of this is the Edenic imagery of the film: riding the train out of the city, Bella gives José a very green apple, then pulls another one out for herself. What distinguishes this from all other tired references to the fall of man is that it inverts it: the apples become a communion, a shared meal. It is a refiguring, not a replay of Eden. Stepping off the train, they walk to Jose's parents' house, and meet his father (read Father?) who puts them to work planting his garden. "It will be Paradise," he says in Spanish. Again, the film takes the simple act of gardening--taking with it the events of the fall of man--and refigures it as Eden should have been--man and woman working together WITH the Father, to "till and keep" the garden.

Perhaps more on this later.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has received as many critical awards as its transcontinental name has letters. Some critics love to have their sense of established film conventions jostled significantly, but not this critic. The sprawling episodic plot never departed enough from its literary source (Ron Hansen's novel) to become a good movie in its own right. The haunting riff that signaled the transition between loosely connected episodes grows more clangy and less haunting with each hour that passes until the central story line--Robert Ford's obsession with the glory, power, and mystique of Jesse James, who he follows and eventually murders-- finally gets some steam about 2/3rds of the way through the movie.

The last third of the movie is worth the wait. With all the superfluous characters (and oddly well-developed) dead or in jail, we can focus on the primary psychological conflict between Jesse James and Robert Ford. It's compelling though the camera can never quite reach inside the character's heads the way Ron Hansen's prose can. The camera strains to tell us what's in Jesse James' head through close-up after agonizing close-up, but can never quite articulate it. That's the problem with adaptations that aren't adapted. The beauty of the original is lost in an extended effort to be faithful to the source.

I don't get all the fuss surrounding Brad Pitt's performance either. It was neither striking nor powerful. I guess people are just floored that he took a complicated role.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Central Station - A Film from Brazil

Last night I watched a great foreign film, titled CENTRAL STATION, or in Portuguese, CENTRAL DO BRASIL. I was totally surprised. Director Walter Salles brings together a hardened, selfish retired teacher and a little boy whose mother has just died in a car accident. The retired teacher is a letter writer at the Central [train] Station in Rio, and gets drawn inexorably out of herself as she tries to decide what to do with the boy. The result is a search for the boy's father that becomes a pilgrimage of its own--almost a spiritual journey for this woman who has given up loving others.
Salles directs a paradoxically gritty and transcendent film; the poverty and shocking depravity of Rio contrast greatly with the simplicity and natural beauty of the poorer rural villages. I can only describe the film's visual style as luminous. The picture is filled with shining Light. Not shining lights, but Light. Salles tells a story of a woman who has never been a mother, but who becomes a Mother in the fullest sacrificial sense.

A beautiful and moving film; put it on your list of things to watch.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

If only Hitler had denounced British imperialism...

I know I'm late to the bandwagon, but Forest Whitaker's portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is perhaps the finest performance I've ever seen. While Whitaker perfectly embodies the irresistible charisma and brutal egomania of the man, director Kevin Macdonald's accomplishment is no less great. It's probably the finest, most emotionally engrossing movie I've seen since The Lives of Others.

If you don't currently appreciate the the virtue and restraint of our American revolutionaries, this movie will definitely give you time for reflection. Bloody revolutions only lead to more perpetual cycles of blood as the liberators become the oppressors. If there's one lesson the 20th century has taught us repeatedly, it's this one. It's interesting, however, to see the fascination liberal intellectuals still have with the figure of Idi. A documentary accompanying the movie hardly dwelt at all on Idi's genocidal tendencies, preferring to sentimentally recall Idi's relentless verbal jabs at the British crown. The interviewees were fascinated with the way Idi "gave it" to English imperialist pigs. This then is what they consider to be the majority of Idi's legacy, rather than the mass, lazily unhidden graves constructed by his regime.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

In the Valley of Elah

It shouldn't bother us much when big screen stars patronize us daily with their moral superiority, or when they sound off on politics with inflated self-importance, or when they do all of the above while sporting the latest fashions trademarked by murderers like Mao and Che Guevara. It's all part of that frivolous pageantry that forms the background static of our national culture and without it we'd have to go back to thinking about something meaningful. It should only cause annoyance when the seriousness employed when sounding off in the public square inspires film. The "war as irrationality" stance taken by so many Hollywood elites may make for good posturing in the public eye, but produces terrible drama. Anyone who saw Troy, or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, or Jarhead knows that the theme of alienation doesn't translate well to the screen. Who wants to see Achilles mope around like a disaffected teenager mourning the irrationality of war? Alienation may work in a Camus novel, but not in a movie. Combine the theme of alienation with the inflated sense of seriousness and self-importance and you have Paul Haggis' latest movie In the Valley of Elah. Haggis admittedly wanted this movie to be an important statement concerning the Iraqi War. I just wish Mr. Haggis would have confined his serious statements to the background static that we live with daily rather than awkwardly converting it to film. Read this interesting Variety article about the flick.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Fellini's 'La Strada'

Martin and I recently watched Federico Fellini's La Strada (stay tuned for his more sophisticated opinions), on a special edition DVD introduced by Martin Scorcese. Scorcese cites Fellini as a seminal influence; watching La Strada, it's easy to see how.

La Strada (meaning The Road) tells the story of a young, simple woman, Gelsomina (played by Fellini's wife Giuletta Marsina), who is sold to a travelling circus strongman to work as an assistant clown, cook, and concubine. She is simple-minded, innocent, sweet, and loving; he is brutish, arrogant, and very angry. The film was mostly about him brutalizing her in spite of her efforts to love him, and his eventual self destruction because of his own anger.

Sound familiar? It was very much like Raging Bull, only this one at least had one sweet and likeable character. Gelsomina stays with Zampano despite being given opportunities to leave him; the idea, I suppose, is that her love will ultimately redeem him. The tragedy of the film, however, is that it doesn't; at the end we see Zampano miserable and, we can assume, remorseful, but is that enough after Gelsomina has sacrificed her life loving him?

The story was practically the definition of tragic, but I couldn't help wanting to give Gelsomina the most basic piece of advice ever given to a young girl: you can't change that man! I suppose,though, that wasn't the point - we were meant to watch her tragic innocence trampled by the brutal cruelty of a world that doesn't care how sweet your intentions are.

What it comes down to, then, is that this is just a genre of film that I don't like - I don't enjoy watching angry self-destruction and pointless tragedy. I'd rather see a compelling story or some sort of anecdote to the anger and sorrow of daily life. There are so many angry people in the world - you only need to go as far as the grocery store to see people yelling, shouting into phones, suffering from the angst and anger of going through life concerned only with yourself. I think I'll avoid Fellini's and Scorcese's furious, 'raging' characters and turn to cinema for beauty and something uplifiting - escapism, I guess, but isn't that the point of film anyway? It's what I'd prefer, at least.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Michaelangelo Antonioni, RIP

Check out this video of Monthy Python making reference to Michaelangelo Antonioni, another great film director who died on July 30, the same day as Ingmar Bergman. Anontioni was a mid-century Italian neorealist, whose desparate dramas focused on characters suffering from ennui and malaise. (Keep listen to the character speaking after the credits and music start to roll).

And speaking of dead directors, Alfred Hitchcock was born on this day in 1899.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Becoming Jane

While Martin was on business trip to Wichita, I went with my sister to see Becoming Jane. It's a biopic (sort of) about the early life and romance of Jane Austen. (It's very much a fictional tale, based on a relationship mentioned in about two sentences of Austen's letter.)

It wasn't a bad movie, but it wasn't great. One of the biggest problems was the male lead, Tom Lefroy, played by James McAvoy. He's introduced as a sort of rogue, and his first scene did not endear him to me at all. It also didn't help that he looks too young and scruffy for elegant Jane. So, I knew they wouldn't end up together (the real Jane never married) and from the very beginning I was happier for Jane that way - the whole time I was thinking she was being saved from making a huge mistake. Lefroy does get better, and we see his sliver of a good side. He's supposed to win us over with his witty comments and sharp mind, but the writing didn't really exhibit this and was not very clever.

There's also a lack of a narrative thrust carrying the entire movie. When Jane first meets Tom, she overhears a disparaging comment he makes about her writing. Although she's a strong, independent proto-feminist, the offhand comment of a complete stranger wounds her so deeply that she destroys the particular piece of insulted writing. This bizarre event leads to what one assumes will be a major story arc - worldly Tom helping sheltered Jane with her writing. But after he suggests to her in a rather nauseating way that she needs to widen her horizons through sexual encounter, and recommends the novel Tom Jones, that storyline disappears. It's not an extremely obscene encounter, but the aforementioned scene suggests that sex is a singular gateway to acquaintance with the world, without which a novelist must remain prurient and obscure. Ironically, Jane Austen describes romance as affection, honesty and genuine love, without extramarital sex - what love is meant to be, in other words. It's a ridiculous insinuation and a pointless scene.

So after Tom criticizes her writing, recommends Tom Jones, and listens to her criticisms of his favorite novel/justification of his promiscuity, and then they're in love. The story then ambles over their ensuing romance with its predictable hurdles, and - well, I won't tell you what happens to conclude the movie, but let me just say that knowing Jane never gets married really punctures what little suspense there was.

The filmmakers were clearly trying to arrange Jane's life to parallel her most popular work (especially popular of late, with two new film adaptations and a 10th anniversary of the best one), Pride and Prejudice. Unfortunately, Becoming Jane is much the worse for the comparison. Darcy, supposedly modeled after Tom, follows the pattern of jerk-turned-lovebird, but Darcy really was a noble man underneath his brusque prejudiced exterior, whereas Tom seems like he's truly just a jerk, who does some nice things. Elizabeth Bennett seemed so much more mature that Anne Hathaway's Jane, who is played like a petulant teenager making irrational decisions. It's hard to sympathize with a character you think should really just grow up.

The film's major flaw is its adopting of the mistaken modern notion that love must be passionate, and to be rational when making decisions concerning marriage means one is cold and dull. This, of course, is the antithesis of Jane Austen. Overall, the film wasn't terrible, but its ambling pace and dull story lacked a compelling narrative that could have turned the sparse story of Jane Austen's single romance into an interesting film.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Gospel According to the Simpsons

Here we go, another Simpsons post....

This morning talk show host Laura Ingraham was talking about Mark Pinsky, a journalist with the Orlando Sentinel and author of the book The Gospel According to the Simpsons. The book is about the religious nature of the Simpson family - they pray, go to church, and turn to God in need. According to a quote from Pinsky posted today on Laura's website, "For 'The Simpsons,' [religion] is just a part of their lives, but in that way it's in marked contrast to most commercial television where religion is almost wholly absent."

I had never really thought about that before, but it struck me as very true. As I complained in my review of Evan Almighty, it seems that characters can't pray or attend church without the film being labelled "Christian" and therefore not mainstream, but of course it's different in the Simpsons. (For better or for worse: that doesn't mean that their portrayal of God or religion is something I endorse or even always enjoy, but perhaps it's better than nothing.) Either way, the book might make an interesting read. Another interesting tidbit: although the Simpsons are Protestants of the Western Branch of American Reformed Presbo-Lutheranism, Pinsky is Jewish.

And here's a short Simpsons' take on where Catholics fit into all this (an excerpt from the Season 16 episode "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star," in which Homer and Bart convert to Catholicism).

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman Dies at 89

The associated press reports that Ingmar Bergman died at the age of 89. The only movie I've seen of his was the abstruse and densely allegorical Seventh Seal, an existential tale about a knight's game of chess with Death. Despite his obsession with the theme of existential crisis (which apparently permeates many of his films), he was quoted as saying he was quite comfortable with the idea of nothingness beyond death and his lifestyle certainly seemed to corroborate this quip. It's fascinating that figures like Bergman and Sartre are obsessed with the idea of existential despair, yet possess none of it themselves. Sartre loved to talk about the horror of war, while eating chocolates behind the lines. Both Bergman and Sartre basked in celebrity lifestyles.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Simpsons Movie: A Return to Form

I filed into the theater last night at midnight with an eclectic throng of Simpsons faithful. While not as rowdy as the Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean crowds whose wild din pierced through my adjacent bedroom window this summer, they had a similar level of devotion and expectancy. Being a Simpsons buff myself, I was paradoxically excited and scared at the prospect of the movie. The show began a sustained nose-dive as its number of seasons entered double digits, and any true fan will admit that the freshness and humor of the early seasons that elevated Homer to cultural icon status stagnated.

The problem can be boiled down to a departure from character-driven story. The Harvard cabal of Simpsons writers felt the pressure from the skyrocketing popularity of shows like The Family Guy and American Dad. Complex, character-driven plots gave way to the dumb explicit political satire featured on American Dad, while Homer morphed into the stupider, edgier, and insensate Peter Griffin of The Family Guy. The Simpsons writers tried to sustain Homer's character with nothing but static, one-sided stupidity. It wasn't enough, and Homer became as boring as his two knock-off characters in The Family Guy and American Dad. It was hard for die-hard fans to see The Simpsons gracelessly attempt to stay abreast with the tastes of a new generation of teenagers bred on South Park. They utterly failed—the world of Springfield could not sustain the violence.

The Simpson family, however, is hilarious when placed in an actual story and forced to face real conflicts on a personal and societal level. In later seasons, an overt liberal agenda trumped the story. The jokes were generated from awkward attempt at satire rather than the spontaneous effect of funny characters in odd situations. In the movie, however, Homer's humor burst forth from his irrepressible character and the conflicts created therein. The movie returns to the old formula that was so successful in the early years. The conflict between the desperate need for family and the constant threat of its dissolution was what powered many of the stories of the earlier seasons. It’s what made the family and their world engaging; the movie employs this formula with fantastic results.

From many initial reviews, I feared the movie would turn into another sermon on global warming, creator Matt Groening's religion; yet, Mr. Groening’s environmental convictions only occupied the backdrop of the movie, never controlling the story or suppressing the characters. Their treatment of the "big" issues was reminiscent of the old days when their agenda was subtly and powerfully communicated or at least balanced with insight from both sides. Many conservatives will chuckle at the choice of the EPA as the misanthropic villain, though one should keep in mind that they are portrayed as corrupted by a monolithic and corporate Republican regime.

In a side note, it’s odd that the movie connects a religious prophecy with an impending apocalyptic eco-disaster; Evan Almighty used the same connection as the basis of its plot. It leaves one to wonder if this is the beginning of trend in Hollywood identifying global warming as a critical issue in matters of faith.

In any case, The Simpsons movie is a must see for all who grew up admiring the show’s world and humor. The Simpsons return to form left me waxing nostalgic and hoping for a sequel.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"You Talking About Cuba?"

Sergei Eisenstein, despite his fall from Soviet grace, left a powerful resume as the most prolific and talented propagandist to ever live. His energetic "collision montage" painted an image of drama and life onto an utterly dead and desiccated regime. I've written here about his cinematic genius, for only a man of immense talent could peddle monumental lies with such grace. After reading several initial reviews of Michael Moore's Sicko, I think we might have something greater than Eisenstein here.

"You talking about Cuba?"
-Fidel Castro's reply to Mr. Burn's request to live in his "socialist utopia" in an episode of The Simpson's.

I'm not sure even Eisenstein could make Cuban health care look glamorous. The vast majority of Cuba's population doesn't have access to the upper level hospitals that cater to party officials and the tourists who pump dollars into the regime for a cheap liposuction or face-lift. In the state run hospitals for those who can't pay, it's better to stay home and care for yourself. Patients must supply their own toilet paper, light bulbs, and other necessities, and doctors work with next to nothing. Moore glosses over the hundreds of testimonies from dissident doctors or the ugly fact that simple aspirin commands a huge price on the Cuban black market. Only the greatest propagandist of all time could make this brutal reality look like a sunny utopia.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Where have all the ideas gone?

It's been a common complaint of late that Hollywood has lost its creativity. The theaters have been inundated with sequels and remakes, or both. Who would have thought a few years ago that one of this summer's huge blockbusters would be the third installment of a franchise based on a theme park ride? Or another record-smashing grosser, hailed as the summer's "most original," would be the story of a decades-old cartoon remembered primarily for its toys? The 80's are being revived with gusto, between Rocky VI, Die Hard 4, and Indiana Jones 4. And the number of "thirds" is unbelievable (Pirates, Shrek, Ocean's, Spidey, Rush Hour, Bourne - I'm sure there are more).

Anyway, the reason I'm raving is because this lack of originality has led to scores of adaptations of classic or popular older novels - many of which have gone very, very poorly. Of course, adapting stories is as old as Hollywood. The book "The Art of Adaptation," by Linda Seger, shows that of the 60 Best Picture Oscar winners from 1930 - 1960, only 9 were original stories - the rest were adapted novels, plays, or true-life stories. Then there were the Lord of the Rings movies, which were both an adaptation and a trilogy, and I had no real problem with those. So it's not adaptations per se - it's just disappointing when there's a book that you think would make a great movie, and the movie rights are bought up and produced and the film is tripe.

First there was the Nancy Drew adaptation - now, I didn't see it, but it seems that the beloved 18 year old heroine in the blue convertible from the books I loved as a kid didn't quite make it onto the screen that way. Martin wrote earlier about the Children of Men adaptation, which could hardly have been more different from the book, and he's mentioned the impending Scorcese adaptation of Shusaku Endo's Silence (it's hard to imagine how Scorcese will use his trademark expletives in a story about 16th century Japanese missionaries). And another of my childhood favorites, The Dark is Rising, is being adapted to film, with a very disappointing preview. (That was what really prompted this raving post!) Even The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, while not exactly bad, and rather well-received, was a bit lackluster and could definitely have been better.

It really could be the subject for a long debate - to what extent are movie-makers bound to stay "true to the book"? Or, once they buy the rights, are they at liberty to add, change, and omit whatever they want? Even an adaptation that I would consider successful - The Lord of the Rings - changed some key elements, like Faramir's character, who was honorable and noble in the book but lame in the movies. Books aren't movies (though it seems like current novels are being written with the movie adaptation in mind, and have a very cinematic style), so obviously they've got to change before they hit the screen, but how much? There's a difference, too, between changing the plot or combining characters to streamline a story, and then changing the intent or the theme of the work. I guess it's a question that won't ever really be resolved.

(As a footnote, may I recommend the 1981 miniseries Brideshead Revisited as the best adaptation of a novel ever put on screen? It's the most wonderful 11 hours you'll ever spend watching anything. Then again, this reminds me of the feature film version that's supposed to come out in 2008 - and again, I'm ready to be disappointed!)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Raging Bull

Jake LaMotta reportedly quipped that he didn't know the full extent of his own depravity until he watched Raging Bull, Scorsese's 1980 flick based on the boxer's autobiography. It's a testament to Scorsese's genius that he was able to convert this faithful depiction of a thoroughly detestable man into a movie widely considered a classic. Jake LaMotta lacks appeal on any level. Despite the box's assertion that the movie is a "penetrating psychological study," LaMotta comes off as much more of a shallow, one-dimensional jerk than a complex set of neuroses - a problem that screenwriters are supposed to fix with a little liberal tweaking of the real life story. The movie is further damaged by its duration, and we're forced to follow him through his transformation from being an arrogant, violent, and youthful jerk to an old, washed up, fat jerk.

Stories traditionally are about moral becoming. Characters begin as bums, conflicted, or in trouble and end in a better state of reconciliation, understanding, and triumph. Movies which lack a character arc generally do worse at the box office. There's a reason why depressing, static stories are confined to independent theaters or enjoyed by the French because the common non-aesthete doesn't want to be plunged into darkness and then left there.

I understand the appeal of Scorsese's Raging Bull, however. The beauty of its form lends quasi poetic lyricism to even the most perverse pounding inflicted in and out of the ring. Young males can consume the testosterone rush with a side transcendence. Scorsese's skill balances the brutal realism and stylized form with deftness that has earned him a preeminent spot in the history of film. Still, I think it'll be awhile till I pick up a Scorsese flick. Watching The Departed and Raging Bull in short succession is like getting a chair smashed over your head.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Evan can wait

Hello! This is Martin's wife Sara and I'm going to join him as a contributor to this blog. I'd like to begin by offering my thoughts on "Evan Almighty," the recent mega-million dollar "Christian" comedy that tanked (get it?) at the box-office. Martin and I went to see it mostly out of curiosity, eager to comment on a film that is supposed to appeal to us (as Christians), fully expecting a lousy film. Well, we weren't disappointed!

First, let me say that normally I would be cautious about revealing "spoilers" for those of you who hate sunlight so much that you still would want to see the film. But, if you've seen a preview, you've seen the movie. They even show the flood in the preview, which I thought could have been left as a mystery (will it come? won't it?). But no, they reveal everything.

The preview made me wonder about applying the label "Christian" to this movie. Somehow I thought that, if anything, there would be references to God and prayer but nothing particularly Christian, and I was right. The extent of the religion practiced by the characters is a prayer in the very beginning offered by Evan Baxter (Steve Carell [Michael Scott]), and his wife mentions that she has prayed with her sons, off-screen. Then, of course, there are the frequent appearances of God (Morgan Freeman), and obviously, the entire plot that's ripped from the story of Noah. So that's what makes this a religious film.

But, as Martin's said before, Hollywood has a flawed understanding of Christianity in general and what makes a film that Christians will want to see. Producers seem to think that Christianity is something that people do, like play soccer, or enjoy, like NASCAR, instead of something that people are. So a "Christian" or "faith-based" film will be one that wears its religion like a conceit. There are two aspects to the religion in this film: the religious story that makes up the plot, and the jokes and one-liners that refer to elements of Scripture, etc. The plot is substantially "religious" but operates on the assumption that when God calls you to something, he has to transform you into someone else entirely. If you must emulate an Old Testament figure, then you have to wear his ancient robes and scruffy hairstyle. Then again, it's a fantasy, and there would be no plot (and what's more, no jokes) if Steve Carell didn't suffer prodigious inexplicable hair growth, or wasn't accosted by animals from all over the world who travel from their native Africa or Asia to be saved from a local flood in Northern Virginia.

Then there are the throwaway jokes about unleavened bread and frankincense that are meant to make Bible readers feel like insiders (I know what myrrh is! Ha ha!) without making actual sense. Again it's obvious that this religion thing is just something thrown in to make the film appear Christian and attract Christian dollars, while completely lacking anything authentically Christian.

I think Christian filmgoers want to see movies that portray Christians as we really are - normal people, motivated by our Christian faith. Filmmakers don't understand that there are countless people obeying God's call to extraordinary things who aren't covered in white beards or bird poop (there really were no jokes apart from the hair and the animals). A Christian film could just show people acting on their Christian principles in normal situations, but for some reason, if a character mentions God or goes to a church it becomes a specifically "Christian" film, and is only marketed to Christians (unless they go to a Catholic church, in which case it's a mobster film). It seems that producers are so afraid of alienating atheists or whomever that if, say, the kid in "Toy Story" were to return from church one day to play with his toys or have two parents then no one would have seen the film. (Christians, however, aren't alienated by watching characters with no discernible religion because we're long used to it.)

The writer also had no idea what sort of issues or themes interest religious moviegoers, either. God's reason for the ark-building and the flood-sending was to return a developed valley to its natural state and stop some legislation that would sell off the edges of national parkland. So God sends a flood to destroy countless people's homes and inflict severe damage on Washington DC so that trees will have someplace to live. Apparently God has never seen the wide expanses of wilderness that cover the central-western United States, or almost all of Canada, or huge chunks of Russia and central Asia and much of Africa and Australia, not to mention all the oceans, so he needs to reclaim a DC suburb for the wild. And of all the human affairs in which God can interfere, he chooses national park re-appropriation. The greatest evil facing mankind, after all, is cruelty to the planet and some trees.

So overall, the movie wasn't morally offensive or anything, just another misfire from movie execs trying to cash in on the vast and apparently incomprehensible Christian market. Stay tuned for Martin's review!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Harry Potter

Despite the relentless prodding of my sister to read the Harry Potter books, I've fallen too hopelessly behind in the series to care much about the release of the new movie and last book. For all those who didn't rush off to the midnight showing, Thomas Hibbs has written an insightful review of the movie.

Ignorance has never stopped me from weighing in on a subject before, so I'll say this much: Harry Potter should die in the last book. I say this not out of macabre blood-lust, but out of respect for the world J.K. has created. There's something to be said about preserving a magical world that has captivated children and adults around the globe from the law of diminishing returns. The cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes ended much too soon for me, but its sudden finish preserved the freshness of the world Bill Waterson had created. The books still sell well, and there's always a sense of wonder and a feeling of expectancy when I go back and read them. On the flip side, Just think of how George Lucas' Star Wars universe has been written out of existence by the hundreds of hacks who write Star Wars novels. I'm afraid J.K. will grab the millions to be had by continuing the series at the expense of the world she's created.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Leo Tolstoy on Film

I found a pretty cool quote from Leo Tolstoy the other day. The great 19th century Russian author saw the immense impact film would have once it emerged on the world stage - and he died in 1910 at a time when critics scoffed at the primitive cinema technology and dubbed it mindless entertainment for the masses, many stating emphatically that it will never rise to the level of art. Tolstoy, on the other hand, prophetically foretold the revolution film would bring to the artistic world.

“You will see,” Tolstoy writes, “that this little clicking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution in our life—the life of writers. It is a direct attack on the old methods of literary art. We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine. A new form of writing will be necessary. I have thought of that and I can feel what is coming.”

From this cold sense of foreboding, Tolstoy continues cheerily “But I rather like it. This swift change of scene, this blending of emotion and experience—it is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash by before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is greatness.”

Thursday, July 5, 2007

"Worst Miscalculation This Side of Ishtar"

A JP Catholic student recently forwarded this very interesting article about the failure of Evan Almighty in connecting with Christian audiences. Though I haven't seen the movie yet, the author seems to have exaggerated a few points ("worst miscalculation since Ishtar" is a pretty bold assertion). Still, his thesis rings true:

"The inability of Evan Almighty to connect with the faith-based audience is deeper and goes to the choices made by the studio, the director and the writers as well as the systemic problems with the way Hollywood has always done business and seems resistant to changing. The notion that millions of conservative Christians (a large majority of whom are also politically conservative) were going to flock to a movie that depicted obviously conservative political leaders as corrupt politicians going against the will of both a modern day Noah and God himself by trying to ruin the environment by opening up government-owned land for development, is nothing short of madness. It's one of the worst cinematic miscalculations this side of Ishtar....

Despite the bomb that was Evan Almighty, millions of devout Americans are still waiting to be invited into a theater to see a film that is entertaining, affirms their values and doesn't trivialize their deeply held religious beliefs. If Hollywood continues to create films like Evan Almighty, millions of traditionalists may grow to rue the day when Hollywood, with dollar signs in its eyes, began courting them with wilted flowers and stale chocolate.Mixing religion and entertainment has been long avoided for a reason: It's difficult to do well. But if the result of this grand new experiment is films that are neither faithful nor funny, millions of traditionalists will likely find less expensive ways to be entertained and inspired."

I've already written here about Fox's inability to attract Christians with its insipid "faith" label because of similar miscalculations. One would think the prospect of loads of cash would motivate them to open their eyes and study Christians objectively.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Pixar Produces Another Instant Classic

Just when you think our culture's imagination is in full retreat, taking to the comfortable hills of easy formulas, Pixar strikes again with another instant classic. Unlike the Shrek series, Pixar's humor doesn't lean upon the crutches of pop-culture references or salacious innuendo, nor is its imagination wholly derivative or reactionary. Ratatouille, while not as laugh-out-loud funny as earlier Pixar movies, is the most clever and charming offering to date. Its premise is so outlandishly creative as to seem impossible to deliver. One can just picture a Pixar writer staring at the word "ratatouille" on his menu in Paris, and conceiving a story involving a rat whose highly developed senses lead him to a passion for fine food and eventually to the position of top-ranked chef. Coming into the movie, I couldn't imagine how this premise could possibly develop into another one of the tightly structured, exciting, and hilarious movies Pixar regularly produces. Ratatouille stretches the bounds of imagination and comes out a winner.

A couple of issues ago, Ross Douthat, the prolific movie reviewer for National Review, bemoaned Shrek's insipid attempt at morality designed to "flatter the prejudices of... the most narcissistic generation of Americas in history, by imparting a moral--be thyself-- that's as old as Polonius and as new as The Secret, and as brainless as both." Ratatouille's message is much more palatable, mixing in a good dose of democratic sentiment ("anyone can cook!") with a passion for confronting intractable nature despite the impossibilities (confronting the antagonism in rat / human relations while resisting a rat's penchant for theft).

The animation is also astounding. There is no doubt that Pixar has revolutionized animation, and Ratatouille exceeds their accomplishments in The Incredibles and Finding Nemo. The rats are almost too well rendered, slightly more disgusting than cartoonish.

See this movie! It's simply a good time for every age group.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Hilarious Short

Take a look at this short comedy film by uber-talented On the Lot contestant Zach Lipovsky. This is not the last time you'll hear of Mr. Lipovsky-- I can't imagine he'll lose the competition or fade into obscurity. Watch his other shorts at to get a fuller idea of his talent, versatility, and endearingly dorkish charm.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ebert's Take

Last week, I struggled to put my disappointment with Ocean's 13 adequately into words. Roger Ebert's review , however, expresses my pent-up frustration perfectly. He has some interesting thoughts about the nature of the "caper" film too, though by these standards Oceans 12 (a personal favorite of mine) is equally insufficient.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Departed

The history of most genres consists of a fairly irregular pattern of peaks and valleys. A set of brilliant movies establish a given genre and its conventions as subsequent directors try to create unique and fresh stories based on the tried and true patterns; yet the possibility of new twists is not limitless, and many genres pass out of popularity before being rediscovered by a director with a new take on the old genre conventions. Ridley Scott's Gladiator renewed the old sword and sandal epic established by movies like Spartacus and Ben Hur, and its success paved the way for a glut of movies and TV shows set in classical antiquity. The organized crime / mobster genre that was so popular in the 1930's also experienced a resurgence in the 70's-90's with The Untouchables, The Godfather, and a whole host of followers. In my estimation, we've been so saturated with movies and TV shows in the narrow mobster genre in the last 15 years that I imagine success in it will be difficult down the road. One of the most important elements in a lucrative box office is how a given director approaches the genre question-- how can one produce a fresh take on a genre that's so familar as to be reduced to staleness? How can one avoid the "I've seen it before" vibe?

Not being a big fan of the organized crime genre (with the notable exception of On the Waterfront) I didn't see the Best Picture-winning The Departed until just recently and was pleasantly surprised by the novelty of its plot. For a movie bathed in blood and profanity, The Departed's plot is built around the moral insight central to the mobster genre: inexorable justice. Mobster movies generally thrive on the audience's paradoxical indulgence of mobster's violent vices and the inevitable dispensation of justice. Scorcese scores on both points. The Departed's violence, captured through Scorcese's brilliant direction and editing, is intense, real, and (for weaker stomaches such as my own) unwatchable. Scorcese also expresses the theme of justice in a new and poignant way.

Approach this movie with caution, though. The "F-word" is used quite elastically, functioning as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb and expressing the whole gamut of feelings from hatred and contempt to attraction and sensitivity. If you can stomach it, The Departed is a good movie-- it won Best Picture for a reason.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Shotgun Evangelization

My recent article "Bella: A Powerful New Pro-Life Movie, but Will Christians Accept It?" has drawn a variety of responses. Here's one of the more vociferous ones:

"Color me a unsubtle simpleton, a moralistic moron, but since when is a direct, unequivocal Christian message a bad thing? Look, I understand and agree with all the criticism made about popular Christian films, like the “Left Behind” series, but because the “Jesus loves me” crowd is sadly incapable of theatrical depth and polish in no way removes the obligation of Christians and Christian media to be blunt, bold, and direct. You know, like Jesus was.

And speaking of Jesus, He always spoke the law first, before He offered grace. he told people in essence, “Turn or burn”. No sugar coating, no moral ambiguity, no subtley complex plot lines that could be interpreted as the listener liked. No, He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light. No man shall come to the Father except by me.” (believe that’s John 4:16) Now I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up on current events, but that sounds pretty “obvious”, and “spelled out” to me.

Christianity is all about uncompromising, harsh, narrow morality. I couldn’t care less, and neither should you, about being sophicated and worldly when talking about something so starkly moral as choosing to murder one’s unborn baby for one’s convenience or allowing the child to live and be raised to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

And another thing, you know why Christian filmmakers are so “obvious” in conveying the essential message? Cause people, yeah including many church-goers, don’t have the first clue what’s written in the Bible and only have the vaguest, most limited concept of things like moral imperatives, natural law, absolutism, and “morally complex” stuff like that. People are stupid - clueless - morally and intellectually bankrupted - corrupted by a toxic culture of Political Correctness. Piercing that armor requires “explicit message over subtle metaphor”.

Would I like it if Christian filmmakers produced films that were to Christianity what “Saving Private Ryan” was for moral clarity and national pride. Hell yeah! (pun could possibly be intended) But Christendom and the rest of Western Society is a lil’ weak on the basics of morality right now so we need to save the “moral complexity” (whatever that means) until people are well grounded in the idea that there really, really, really is a God, and He really, really, really is Righteous and Holy, and He really, really, really will send your sinful ass to hell if you turn your back on Him. How’s that for 'obvious'?"

Monday, June 18, 2007

Bella Needs Your Support

Check out my article on Bella at

JP Catholic is currently hosting one of Metanoia Film's marketing teams for the big summer push. We all have to be doing what we can to help this movie-- get the word out to everyone you know and more importantly PRAY FOR IT. Bella is such a crucial movie for our culture and the growth of the Christian film industry.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Little Heavy-Handed Moralizing

In Peter Suderman's interesting review of the new zombie flick Fido, he highlights what I consider to be a unfortunate trend in Hollywood. "Director Andrew Curry," Suderman writes, "weights his film down with metaphorical dead weight, so that it lurches from half-dead idea to half-dead idea with all the grace and wit of its big, dumb zombie characters — which is to say very little. And what it tries to say isn’t even worth getting out of your grave for: Diversity is good! Capitalism is bad! Suburbia breeds stifling conformity! Did somebody eat this movie’s brain?"

Anyone who levels the criticism of amorality at the entertainment industry simply hasn't watched much media in the past few years; the sheer number of celebs who are jockeying for moral superiority is staggering and certainly not confined to the usual suspects of Clooney, Spielberg, and Jolie. The metaphor seems to be their preferred vehicle in the race for humanitarian/activist of the year, being the most facile way to create devastating satire without the cumbersome prerequisite of clear thinking. I wouldn't mind it at all if the story remained afloat after all the moralizing; the director's diligent efforts to help the audience in drawing a clear conclusion often scuttles the story... if there's a story to begin with. Al Gore's filmed lecture An Inconvenient Truth is hopefully the beginning of the end of that genre.

Nowhere is the penchant for brainless metaphor more pronounced than in comedy. I know I'm not the only Simpson's fan who has bemoaned the loss of intelligent satire. The last few seasons have resembled modern morality plays with its conclusions as obvious and humorless as its medieval predecessors. I'd rather watch Seinfeld, a self-proclaimed show about nothing, than be beat over the head with transparent and fashionable moral conclusions. At least this trend hasn't reached epidemic status-- sitcoms like The Office and Arrested Development still provide welcome relief.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Mike Judge's Idiocracy: An Evolutionary Biologist's Nightmare

I'll bet Margaret Sanger never imagined in her wildest eugenic fantasies that her principles could possibly lead human progress backwards. Idiocracy's premise introduces into the evolutionary picture the wild, unpredictable, utopia-crushing principle of free will. In its opening sequence, a sophisticated couple complain that "market conditions" aren't amenable to having children; several cuts later their contraceptive mindset ends in their irreversible infertility, while backwoods rednecks promiscuously copulate with reckless abandon. Thus, we are lead to the creation of Idiocracy, a future world where marketing slogans are elevated to the level of absolute truth and art is as obscene as it is stupid.

Unfortunately the premise, while inherently hilarious, is merely a vehicle for writer/director Mike Judge to display his impressive array of fart and sex jokes, the knowledge of which was integral to his creation of Beavis and Butthead. A few funny moments remain; all in all it was an enjoyable DVD rent. But enough from me, Steve Sailor has a great review of Idiocracy here.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Unlucky Thirteen

The early arrival of my baby boy on May 15th solved a difficult conundrum for me: Peter's original due date and the release of Ocean's 13 coincided on June 8th. Of course I exaggerate the crisis-- my wife would justifiably create a much greater predicament if it were actually a conflict-- but at least it gives you a sense for the magnitude of my anticipation. With the months of giddy expectancy aside though, Ocean's 13 would have deflated my lowest expectations. Now I'm not a superstitious man, so I'll have to chalk this one up to bad writing. The predictable, lumbering plot didn't bother me as much as the flat wit and botched attempts to force comedic chemistry. Though many heaped scorn on its predecessor Ocean's 12 as a convoluted mess of a movie, it ranks as one of my favorite films because of the clever, witty banter of Ocean's gang. I'm a sucker for hilarious dialogue, and will overlook even the most egregious cinematic lapses because of it. I guess that's why I feel so let down by the latest Ocean's movie.

The undoing of Ocean's 13 was the inherent inertia in its premise. The revenge plot took so long to set up that Soderbergh was forced to cut rapidly from location to location and have characters finish each other's sentences in order to keep the pace up and avoid audible snores from the audience. There wasn't enough time left to really create the same chemistry that the all-star cast enjoyed in the last two, and the plot never recovered from the lost momentum. The finish was just as disappointing as what preceded it. My wife pointed out that it lacked the great twist of the previous two and was unable to generate even the slightest amount of suspense. Still, I guess if you put aside all comparisons with the last two, it's a mildly enjoyable movie worth a DVD rent.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Cashing In

I can't believe that I'm just hearing about this now, but Fox started its own faith label. Apparently the label's definition of "faith" encompasses anything considered bland and inoffensive like Garfield cartoons and Strawberry Shortcake: Adventures on Ice Cream; there was nothing advertised on its website that seemed worth seeing. Fox wants to cash in on the Christian market, yet still does not have enough respect for Christian consumers to really break the piggy bank open. I can't imagine this label has been very successful. Its profitability will be limited until it can really break free from its stereotypes.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

I guess every genius is entitled to one blunder....

So I gushed here and here about the genius of Kieslowski's Decalogue parts 1-3. Sara and I rented parts 4-7 from Netflix awhile ago, and it took some gumption to actually get around to watching them-- despair and moral crises in urban Warsaw isn't the most invigorating thing to watch after a long day at work. Judging by the first three installments, I thought we'd be in for another masterpiece with part 4; yet we were instead forced to cringe our way through the longest hour of our lives. Kieslowski's penchant for plumbing man's depths gets away from him a little here-- he digs so deep that he finds madness instead of conflict and crisis. Part 4 features a mentally ill girl who believes she's found evidence that the father who raised her has no biological relation to her, developing a disturbing Electra complex on him. It's hard to identify with a character who should be institutionalized, and Kieslowski's sophisticated style in the first three installments devolves into a cheap lighting display designed to force an emotional response in the fourth. I guess everyone is entitled to a stinker. Both Sara and I hold out high hopes for parts 5-7.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Postmodernity and the Family

My wife and I just finished the last DVD of Arrested Development, which, in my estimation, is one of the finest sitcoms ever created. Much like The Office, Arrested Development relies on the interaction and growth of well-developed characters through a linear plot line for most of its laughs, though its unique and hilarious manipulation of editing and narration puts it a notch above other character-driven comedies.

The story line revolves around the Bluths, a real estate developing family, whose extravagant lifestyle is disrupted by the sudden arrest of the corrupt patriarch by the SEC. The odd-ball family is kept together by Michael Bluth, who simultaneously despises and (though he rarely and begrudgingly admits it) needs his family. Michael is the hardworking, ethically driven member of the family, whose exasperation with his needy, self-centered family is a source of much of the show's comedy. The world of the family is masterfully developed, so much so that it's difficult to get into it half-way. So many jokes and character nuances become show motifs and grow in hilarity as they are repeated throughout all three seasons.

Arrested Development is interesting on an intellectual level as well. The underlying premise of the show is the inescapable importance of the family. The more dissolute and fractured the family becomes, the more they feel the urgent need to put it back together. Michael's concern for the ethical is constantly disrupted by his own sinfulness and by postmodern confusion on what comprises an ethical action. The show is provides interesting insight into one of the primary problems in postmodern life: conceptions of morality and family have been tossed aside, yet we still have a basic need for these things in our daily lives-- the show creates a multitude of funny moments arising from this contemporary conflict.

This show should not be approached without caution, however. Like all modern comedies, it has its fair share of lewdness, though I think it deals with these areas with much more humor, cleverness, and tact than any other comedy out there.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Double Feature

JP Catholic hosted a double feature screening last night of two outstanding documentaries: The Call of the Entrepreneur and Champions of Faith. The former, however, eclipsed the latter in terms of production values and structure, though not to say Champions of Faith wasn't an enjoyable watch. The Call of the Entrepreneur simply was one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. It seamlessly interwove the stories of three entrepreneurial visionaries whose paths never cross, but are nevertheless interconnected in the grand scheme of things. It convincingly lays out the case for the vital role of the entreprenurial vocation in creating America's freedom and prosperity. Far from being a "zero sum game" or mere poker contest consisting of only winners and losers, the success of the entrepreneur creates wealth and opportunities for others. The dehumanizing influence of command economies is chillingly depicted as well. I'm not sure if I've ever seen a documentary as well made as this one and I heartily recommend it.

It's a shame Champions of Faith had to follow that act. While it was entertaining, it often resembled the cheap baseball highlight tapes you see in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart-- there was a ton of deadweight material that could have been easily cut. The nasal/slightly annoying voice of the narrator didn't help either. Still, it was an enjoyable ride. Mike Sweeney and Rich Donnelly's stories were pretty cool. A good pick for any baseball fan who takes his faith seriously.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Another Lost Opportunity

Just as P.D. James' Catholic vision was supplanted in the blandly secular adaptation of Children of Men, it seems another Catholic classic novel is in the wrong hands. My wife and I recently finished Shusaku Endo's novel Silence, a fictional account of a Portuguese missionary's struggle with faith during the brutal persecutions in 16th century Japan, and were thrilled to find out that the film adaptation was in pre-production and would be directed by Martin Scorsese. In my unbounded naivety, I believed Martin's Scorsese, who has never been able to distance himself from his Catholic upbringing, would render a faithful and compelling adaptation. Unfortunately in a recent IMDB newsfeed Scorsese explained the story as an extended metaphor for the failure of the US invasion of Iraq and the folly of imposing Western cultural norms on foreign cultures. It would be thoroughly disappointing to see Endo's complex theological themes get subsumed into another multicultural manifesto, and I hope it's just bluster to get press attention. Proclaiming a movie to be an extended metaphor with Iraq seems to be a popular fad these days-- Mel Gibson promoted Apocalypto the same way. I'm preparing myself for disappointment though.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I take it back...

One comedy short from On the Lot contestant Adam Stein made me want to retract my previous uncharitable comments about the show. Maybe I'm just a sucker for this brand of physical humor, but I thought it was hilarious. Watch it here.

Mike Judge's Idiocracy: An Evolutionary Biologist's Nightmare

I'll bet Margaret Sanger never imagined in her wildest eugenic fantasies that her principles could possibly lead human progress backwards. Idiocracy's premise introduces into the evolutionary picture the wild, unpredictable, utopian-crushing principle of free will. In its opening sequence, a sophisticated couple complain that "market conditions" aren't amenable to having children; several cuts later their contraceptive mindset ends in their eventual irreversible infertility, while coarse backwoods rednecks copulate with reckless abandon. Thus, we are lead to the creation of Idiocracy, a world where marketing slogans are elevated to the level of absolute truth and art is as obscene as it is stupid.

Unfortunately the premise, while inherently hilarious, is merely a vehicle for writer/director Mike Judge to display his impressive array of fart and sex jokes, the knowledge of which was integral to his creation of Beavis and Butthead. A few funny moments remain; all in all it was an enjoyable DVD rent. But enough from me, Steve Sailor has a great review of Idiocracy here.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Snores and Spectacle: Pirates III at My Wits' End

(May contain spoiler material)
Last night I went to what I hoped would be the movie event of the summer: Pirates of the Caribbean III: At World's End. We went an hour early to get good seats: we were excited and ready for a fun and entertaining motion picture.

What we got was a nearly-three-hour-long napfest of explosions and confusions.

The film opens with a grisly assembly-line hanging of like a million pirates, eight at a time, including a child. Shudder. This sets off a "time of crisis" for all the pirates in the world, and they must hold a pirate council. The rest of the movie is a "build-up" to the final showdown between the pirates and the Evil British Empire (Hey! I'm British!), whose navy is led by the octopus guy Davy Jones.

I cannot even begin to explain to you how complicated they make this: William wants to save his Dad who is a monster-slave to the octopus guy, so he wants to stab the heart-in-a-box of the octopus guy, who happens to be the octopus guy just because he's not fulfilling his job as courier-of-the-dead (it's a curse from the voodoo lady who I guess fell in love with him, but she turns into these gray crabs a lot, even though she's trapped in a human body.) Elizabeth is guilty because she killed Captain Jack (who is now in a kind of desert hell with like fifty of himself), but Will thinks she loves Captain Jack, but she doesn't, but she doesn't talk to her fiance' William about it for some reason, but the pirate council wants to free the voodoo lady who is actually the goddess Calypso and when they free her she turns into a giant naked screaming monster-of-crabs, and then she unleashes her fury on all the pirates and they have this cosmic ship battle in the middle of a cosmic whirlpool but the whole time everyone is fighting over the key-to-the-box-of-the-heart-of-the-octopus-guy-but-we-don't-

Deep breath. . . .

My friend Caroline fell asleep at this movie.

Add to this magical goulash (it felt a little like the socio-politico-economic-hodgepodge in Star Wars Episode I) some just needlessly gross stuff (a guy gets frostbite and breaks off his toe, and it's actually a "comic" moment.)

There are too many characters (who is the mean cockney guy with the little gun again?), too many pirates (the Hong Kong pirates are pretty gross, I must say), TOO MUCH EXPLOSIONS. Seriously there was like a ten minute slowmotion woodchip explosion scene. I thought I was going to die.

Even Johnny Depp wasn't that funny the third time around--although he did have some good one liners, like the "Q.E.D." quote. I like his dialogue; it's snappy.

The actress that plays Elizabeth grows more anorexic every film, too: she looks more and more like a boy. It's sad because she's pretty.

Did I mention it was almost three hours long (also about fifty five previews).

Ok, now for the things I liked:

1) Keith Richards makes an appearance as Captain Jack's father: that was a nice touch.
2) Some great images of natural beauty: some island shots and ice shots that were very stunning--they made an odd juxtaposition with most of the grimy tone of the film.
3) That it ended.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Abortion Film Wins Top Award at Cannes

Read this news story.

A Romanian director just won the top prize at Cannes for his film about a woman seeking an illegal abortion in Communist Romania. I'm surprised it didn't make the Cannes ideologues more uncomfortable, though I can see why they voted for it. On the one hand, it graphically portrays an aborted fetus because, according to the director, "there are consequences to our actions."Additionally, I can imagine the Neo-Marxists at Cannes were squirming in their seats at the depiction of gritty despair in Romania. On the other hand, I imagine they saw the film as a valuable lesson against oppressive abortion laws, which is probably what catapulted it to the top prize.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Christian Aesthetics

I would never direct a scene that would embarrass the Blessed Mother," said Alejandro Monteverde, the award winning director of Bella.

Is there value in portraying vice as it is-- a destructive, disgusting, and degrading reality? Or does the Christian filmmaker become complicit in the evil act he depicts. even if he stands in judgement of that act? I can see it both ways, but I tend to side with Monteverde in favor of a sanitized aesthetic. No matter how hard a filmmaker tries to emphasizes the consequences of an act or the spiritual death of sin, a sensual aesthetic never reaches its audience on an intellectual level. Many Christians believe we can change the culture through this kind of "subversive" content, and that by refusing to glorify sin they have somehow stripped it of its luster and attraction. I disagree. I don't think the audience of The Sopranos or Kill Bill thinks much about the causal ties between endless cycles of death and the multifarious sins of the characters. It seems much more plausible to me that they are instead participating vicariously in the rush of adrenalin that accompanies such vile acts.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Top Undiscovered Talent Needs to Stay Incognito

I was able to watch (between my baby's bowel explosions-- his most pronounced personality trait) most of On the Lot, Fox's new American Idol of filmmaking. The show's premise is a competition between amateur directors whose short, no-budget films earned them a place in the contest. The winner of the competition will be hired for a movie deal with Dreamworks. The first event was assembling and pitching a story from an assigned log line. Maybe it was the pressure of the moment or the lack of time, but I would renege on the deal if I were running Dreamworks. America's top undiscovered creative talent lacks the rudimentary imagination of a child. Even the top performers, the best of the bunch, spun tales that we've seen a million times on the USA network. It was a brilliant trick to weed out the contestants in the first round, but unfortunately backfired since they all deserved to go.

Robert McKee, a legendary screenwriting consultant, wrote that Hollywood's imagination is impoverished and forced to rely on the same dead ideas over and over again for sequels, prequels, and spin-offs. I was excited for On the Lot because I believed it would bring to the surface new creativity so needed in a stagnate industry. All of the contestants, however, strove to shock, excite, and entertain but ended up doing none of the above. McKee would be rolling in his grave if he were dead. I think there must be some connection between our generation's complete reliance on visceral media (TV, film, internet) and the loss of creativity. I'm not sure how that back up that assertion, but somehow it seems appropriate to me. The contestants could form visual images well enough or they wouldn't have gotten picked, but were out to sea when required to construct interesting and compelling content.

I personally can't stand American Idol; it's painful to watch people fail at something they've identified as the sole measure of their worth and human dignity. In On the Lot, the pain was even more pronounced because the contestants seemed even more insecure. I can't imagine I'll stop watching it though.

Monday, May 21, 2007

So I Wasted a Day of My Life: 24's Season Finale

I don't think a TV show has ever brought out as much ambivalence in me as 24's Season Six. Is it possible to love Jack Bauer but hate 24? I don't think any male can watch Jack without a surge of adrenalin, but it was painfully hard to go between doses this season. All the down time between instances of Bauer's patriotic sadomasochism was filled with silly political intrigues and melodramatic romances. The soap opera love triangles in CTU reminded me of something my classmates and I were too mature for back in fifth grade. For the world's most intelligent tactical team in the midst of unparalleled crises, their capacity for petty jealous was unbelievably high. In the postmortem (an appropriate word if I ever used one) analysis, it's unclear whether it was the best use of a day of my life. At least the show's conceit allowed me to easily calculate the time lost.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Liberty Film Festival

With the blessing of my wife, I abandoned my new parental duties for a night to attend the Liberty Film Festival in Orange County. Started by Yale grads Jason Apuzzo and Govindini Murty, the Liberty Film Festival is the premier outlet (perhaps the only outlet) for conservative filmmakers who have imprudently revealed their leanings to the established industry. As expected, the night was much more of a three hour pep rally and unabashed plea for funding than it was a film festival. Still, I had fun-- the founders of the festival put together an impressive slate of political filmmakers. David Zucker (Airplane, Naked Gun) outshone them all, but perhaps that conviction stems more from my lingering adolescence than from any profound thought expressed on Zucker's part. I'll never cease being impressed by him. Who else can build an entire career around endless variations of basically the same pun?

The whole experience brought to mind the ancient philosophical conundrum: "if a tree falls in the woods but nobody hears it, does it make a sound?" Most of the filmmakers were talented, passionate, and articulate... but marginalized. Despite the rah-rah atmosphere, it was evident that none of them were going to make a ripple any time soon. Only one of the films has a chance: a political documentary on Hillery Clinton featuring Dick Morris. This documentary had two factors going for it that none of the others did. Firstly, Dick Morris, being a long-time Clinton confidante, is a heavy-hitter; thus, it can't be smothered to death by media silence. It reminds me of advice Steve McEveety lent our students: The Passion of the Christ only received media attention because of Mel Gibson's stardom. If it had been done by any moe-shmoe the media would have simply ignored it-- McEveety told JP students to start secular and get big before making huge overtly religious films. Secondly, the film has money behind it. They don't care about being rejected by the liberal distributors because they're simply going to buy the theaters out.

None of the other films had these two factors going for them. After every clip I saw, I couldn't help thinking, "that's great, but who's going to watch this?" Even the head of Genius Products (a DVD distributor), couldn't shed any light on the impossible up-hill distribution battle for conservative documentaries without much money or a big name. Only the immortal (and at times immoral) David Zucker alluded to the answer: the new media. Zucker's zany political shorts were made for U-Tube, gaining millions of eyeballs and a number three overall rating. The truth, it seems to me, is that the future for these filmmakers is online and not in the traditional distribution channels (theaters, DVD, television). What else can they do? Go from film festival to film festival begging crowds to support them? It's unclear how that approach leads to anything.

To make matters worse, these poor political filmmakers suffer, by no fault of their own, from the Michael Moore syndrome. Moore's ridiculous antics have degraded political documentaries to the point that no one can watch one without a certain amount of resistance. He has played so fast and loose with the facts in service of an ideology that its natural for any viewer to assume these excesses are unavoidable for anyone with convictions. This is why political documentaries don't interest me as much lately because its hard to gauge their impact.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

It's a Boy!

I've sired an heir! Peter Martin Harold was born on 5/15 before noon. Sure I'm a little biased, but objectively little Peter is the cutest baby ever. Despite being 3 weeks premature, he popped out a whooping eight pounds, four ounces. Look at those humongous hands! I'm tempted to retire on the prospect of him playing in the NBA. I know I'm getting ahead of myself (we haven't quite taught him how to eat properly yet), but I'm on cloud nine and want to indulge myself a little.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Producer of the Passion Visits JP Catholic!

Steve McEveety shared his wealth of producing experiences with the JP Catholic students today. None were more powerful than his description of the very real spiritual attacks the production team came under during the filming of The Passion of the Christ. Filming it changed the course of McEveety's life, transforming his previously nominal faith. Hearing him relive the stories brought out a comforting fact: even when Satan pulls every punch and throws the whole weight of his power against something God still triumphs. McEveety has made some good movies with Braveheart, We Were Soldiers, and Hot Shots among them. He didn't seem to want to talk about any of them except The Passion. Such was the effect it had on him.

On a side note, McEveety is involved in a very interesting start-up company. He's building a company that will censor objectionable TV content for private homes. It works like a normal cable subscription. In my estimation it's a huge innovation with fairly wide appeal. Not only does this clean up TV for those who want it, but it also provides a platform for small JP Catholic companies to deliver content. It will be interesting to see how it develops.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Disappointing Adaptation: Alfonso Cuaron missed the point in Children of Men

As Europe's population ebbs dramatically these days, Children of Men's premise of inexplicable world-wide infertility takes on some added muster. Though not everyone is suffocating their parental instincts (Muslims seem to be cresting over Europe's boarders with even greater rapidity), I can't imagine the log line of total infertility carrying the same kind of metaphorical weight at any other moment in history. A culture steeped in secular narcissism cannot remain so without a slight amount of self-consciousness of the nihilistic consequences. Seinfeld, for example, spun this self-consciousness into humor; yet, despite our culture's penchant for distraction, occasionally a subconscious awareness of the consequences bubbles to the surface (what else can explain Anna Nicole's postmortem parade?). It isn't surprising that it took only a brief glance at the premise for publishers to agree to print P.D. James' novel Children of Men.

James' bleak nihilistic world is chilling because it is clean and well-ordered, efficiently administrated by a gentle despotism committed to easing England into its future of complete oblivion. Empty swing-sets, bereaved impotent mothers, euthanasia, pornography, and wild fascination with the younger generation are the constant reminders of the end of humanity and complete despair which cannot be glossed over by superficial cleanliness and order. Against this hopeless backdrop, James introduces us to Theodore Faron, a 50 year old Oxford historian who has drunk in the nihilism of the times too deeply, barely keeping himself going despite the diminishing therapeutic value of his work. Without giving too much of the story away, I will say that Faron unwittingly becomes involved in safeguarding the birth of new life on Earth. While the birth represents a renewed hope for humanity, it is only a symbol for the true source of rebirth in the book: Faron's conquest of his nihilistic narcissism by self-sacrificing love. James, a Catholic, was explicit in her prescription for nihilism; humanity's hope lies not in progress of history but in the logic of the cross.

Unfortunately, only character names and the bare bones plot skeleton remain in Alfonso Cuaron's recent film adaptation. All of James' penetrating insights were swept into his secular vacuum, and the nihilistic backdrop of the movie is distinctly different from the book. Cigarettes, mistreatment of immigrants, and general public disorder are the film's symbols of despair. Rather than being symbolic of something incisively deeper, the new birth which Faron safeguards doesn't point to anything past the surface event. In the documentary accompanying the movie on its DVD, a slew of profoundly incoherent European professors imposed a Marxist meaning on the birth. They stated (beneath a mass of superfluous jargon) that it was story of hope for Marxists living in a post-Communist era, teaching us to place hope in the progress of humanity and its ability to recover from its loss of utopia. I do applaud their ability to be intellectually excited by such a banal and boring movie, though I can't understand where they could have possibly gleaned those conclusions.

Visually, the movie was excellent. Cuaron created a convincingly apocalyptic vision of the not too distant future. Shooting with a hand-held camera and a documentary filming style add to the total disjointing effect. It's too bad Cuaron missed the insight of the book because he's a very talented filmmaker.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Lives of Others

I initially came across the preview for The Lives of Others when I went to an independent theater to see Into Great Silence. In-step with most independent film fare these days, the preview emphasized the voyeuristic sexual encounters suggested by the movie's title. For all those who live under the delusion that "independent" is consonant with "artistic", it's a hard truth that independent film has all the same vices as mainstream, except the depravity is different in nature, being more eccentric and, in my estimation, more disgusting. My initial misgivings were finally overcome by several positive reviews, which portrayed it as both spiritually deep and challenging and not the peeping-tom adolescent fantasy the preview made it out to be. I was not disappointed.

As the Clinton years were the ideal backdrop for a golden age of comedy, cold war tensions were fertile ground for churning out taut political thrillers. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (a name Steve Sailor described as "heel-clickingly Teutonic") has produced a movie that differs markedly from most movies set during cold-war (perhaps due to Donnersmark's lack of anglo-centric perspective). The story centers on two true communist believers, an artist and a secret policeman, and their eventual disillusionment with a political system that sucks the spiritual life out of its populace. The artist, played with boyish enthusiasm by Sebastian Koch, puts faith in man and man's ability to transform his nature; the policeman, on the other hands, ardently believes in the political system. The two character's worlds collide through the power posturing of the communist elite, a world where truth is merely a pragmatic weapon. The movie's beauty lies on the subtle spiritual regeneration of both characters-- I won't give away any more because I'm already dangerously close to spoilers.

My old political science professor loved to harp on the most prevalent feelings in communist countries: boredom and despair. Donnersmarck places these feelings front and center and powerfully dramatizes them. It's the first cold-war movie I've seen (perhaps there are others) that places such an emphasis on the rape of man's soul under communism.

Visually, Donnersmarck's austere and restrained style is magnificent. Never does he detract us away from what's dramatically important or fall into the trap of giving into the insecure need to sensually excite the audience. He doesn't even use editing's rhythmic power to force thrills on us by shortening each scene in building to a climax; he simply lets the drama speak for itself. Through dark gray color tonalities and claustrophobic framing, He effectively creates a world of stultifying despair.

See this movie! Be warned though-- It's rated "R" and for a good reason. The more salacious scenes are not gratuitous though, and are carefully filmed so as to reveal poignant insights rather than to prick our nerve endings. One particular lascivious scene, for example, is carefully filmed in a repugnant way in order to expose the character's spiritual death. Still, it should be noted before going to see it.