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.