Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Nowhere in Africa

I didn't know anything about this movie except that it won the Academy Award for best foreign film. It involves the Jewish family of a lawyer, Walter Redlich, which emigrates to Kenya to flee Nazi persecution in Germany. They encounter hardship in Africa, yet come to love the land. The couple's marriage goes through rocky times, yet they decide to stay together. Their daughter falls in love with the people and the land. The British are quite decent to them, even thought they detain them for a time (as German citizens) during the war.

A movie crier might shed some tears. The Redliches left most of their family behind in Germany. Things look bleaker and bleaker as the persecution of the Jews intensifies. They try to balance their grief over their struggles in Kenya with their relief to be alive. This little description does not do the movie justice, but if you like this sort of historical family epic movie, this is definitely a winner. Bottom line, three and half stars.

The Host

Otherwise known as Gwoemul, this Korean movie is sort of in the same genre of your classic Japanese monster movies. I used to line up with my dad and brother to see the latest Godzilla offerings, so I guess I have an ingrained inclination toward these.

The Host beats those movies on two counts: First, the production values. This is not so much a sign of the filmmaker's skill as a sign of available technology. I'm sure those old Godzilla movies were OK, given the technology available. The Host uses computer graphics well. The monster looks great, and it's integrated into the real-life scenes beautifully.

Second, I don't remember those crazy old movies focusing on a family or individual; I remember them more as war movies, army vs. monster. In The Host, a little girl is lost to the monster, along with a crowd of others, in a terrifying attack. (Well, terrifying to those being attacked; rather amusing to the movie watcher. That was a quirk of a movie; it wanted to be scary and funny at the same time.) She isn't dead, gets a hold of a cell phone (off a dead guy) and calls her dad. He rallies the family to get her back.

Much of the story is pretty standard hunting the monster, running away from the monster stuff. There were some very strange things in it, though. After the big attack, a memorial is set up with all the victims' pictures. The little girl's dad, grandfather, aunt, and uncle are there. They start wailing and rolling all over the floor. It's quite comical, so overdone, but made me wonder--is this a Korean cultural expression? Am I being insensitive thinking they're goofy?

Later, the family takes a break from their search for the little girl, and has a meal in an abandoned snack bar. They heat water, pour it in little cups of instant noodles, and wait for them to cook. Then they all eat together. I just thought that was a funny thing to put in, their waiting the prescribed time together. . . . Then while they were eating, the little girl appears at the table. They offer her some food; no one says a word. I thought maybe she had found them and would show them how to find the monster. But no, it was some sort of fantasy or waking dream. That was the only scene of its kind in the film so it didn't seem to fit.

This was a cool movie in a way, but mostly forgettable and a waste of some good technology. There were some good scenes, but not enough to make it a very good movie. Bottom line, a weak 2 stars.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Thing About My Folks

I didn't watch "Mad About You" very much, but Paul Reiser was very funny on that show. His pairing with Helen Hunt was perfect. In this movie, Reiser plays a similar role, but rather than the husband/wife dynamic, he gets to spend some time with his dad, played by Peter Falk. Dad shows up late one night and announces that his wife has left him. She left a note to that effect, with no indication as to where she had gone or when or if she would ever return. In a questionable plot trick, Reiser digs up a letter he found in his mom's things when he was a kid, and which he has saved all these years. His mom had written the letter to his dad before Reiser was born, but she had never given it to him. In it, she makes the case that her workaholic husband has been inattentive to her and their daughters, and that she had only stayed with him out of a sense of duty and obligation. So Reiser gives the letter to Falk, and it much reminiscing occurs.

I have not done the plot justice, but that's really pretty much it. This is a warm story of reconciliation overcoming regrets. It has a feel-good tone, some laughs and chuckles, and a good message: enjoy your family while you can, and never think it's too late to say your sorry and start over.

Not a bad movie. Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Empire of the Wolves

I guess I checked this out because it stars Jean Reno, who has been in some pretty cool action movies. He's always good, especially in his supporting roles, and he was OK in this, too. But the movie wasn't that good. Better than Reno was Arly Jover as Anna; she should have gotten top billing. She played the wife of a government official. She's plagued by a sense of selectively losing her memory. For instance, she recognizes historical figures, but not her husband. That internal conflict is interesting, then it starts to become clear that her husband is fully aware of the cause of her memory problem, and that she is part of a secret government experiment. But when Reno gets involved, and the Turkish drug runners, and the old Reno/Anna romance, and the weird human sacrifice cult or something, it just gets muddled. A good effort, and some good performances, but they don't add up to much.
Bottom line, 2 stars.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

Every now and then I see a movie in an actual theater. This one was definitely worth watching. I remember reading Ludlum's Bourne books when I was a teenager, and I saw and liked Bourne Identity and Bourne Supremacy. I liked all of them, but I think this one topped them. Bourne has elements of James Bond, Jack Bauer, and maybe Jack Ryan. He's a highly-trained killer, but is searching for his identity (the one which he was born with. Get it?). He tries to put clues together and track down his trainers, while they are trying to track him down so he won't expose the secret training program in which he was trained. Along the way they send some other trained killers after him.

One of my favorites scenes was in Morocco. An "asset" (assassin) is chasing Nicky Parsons, a CIA agent who is aiding Bourne, through narrow streets, over rooftops, and ultimately through labyrinthine apartments. Bourne is tracking the killer so he can save Nicky. It's a pretty tense chase scene, but when Bourne catches up with the killer, the fun begins! They pummel each other like crazy! There's no music, and, if I recall correctly, it's all in real time (no slo-mo kung-fu stuff). Very raw, very intense. I don't have to tell you which of the fighting machines prevail!

The whole movie had a very raw, in-your-face look to it, with lots of hand-held, jerky shots, but not so much you get motion sickness. As with any movie like this, there are plenty of "no way" moments, but it's close enough to realistic that you can still cheer for Bourne. (He does seem to heal up quickly, though. . . .) The biggest quibble I have is that this cute young girl, Nikky, is supposed to be an experienced CIA field agent, but, other than her entry, when she manages to stay cool when Bourne holds a gun on her, she acts like a damsel in distress. She just didn't seem tough enough for the role.

A fun, edge-of-your-seat thriller! Three stars!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Black Snake Moan

I was curious about the premise of this movie: A black man, living alone in the country, finds a young, white girl unconscious on the road near his home. He takes her in and nurses her back to health, but, discerning her compulsion to go in search of drugs and/or sex, he chains her up so he can cure her! Sounded crazy enough to be interesting, but Black Snake Moan was deeper and more satisfying than I anticipated.

Take Samuel Jackson's character, Lazarus. The name itself is significant. He has been killed by the pain of his wife leaving him for his little brother. He is a believer, reads the Bible, but has his flaws. He sees his rescuing Rae as a God-given mission: "God seen fit to put you in my path and I aim to cure you of your wickedness." She's not exactly a willing subject. First she thinks she can offer sexual favors to get what she wants (a tactic that usually works for her). Then she tries to run away--but the chain won't move and neither will Lazarus. He definitely sees her plight as spiritual warfare: "You got a sickness. . . . Now we gonna break the hold the devil got on you."

There's no dramatic conversion scene, no exorcism, no presentation of the gospel. But there's plenty of redemption and probably some soul-saving here. Lazarus calls his pastor and friend to come talk with Rae. Like many non-Christians, she thinks she's not good enough to come to God. She doesn't understand his unconditional love and forgiveness: "You can't go around hurting people and then just say you're sorry and it all gets washed away. What would heaven want people like that?" The pastor's answer is less than satisfactory--he talks about looking for your piece of heaven here--but I took it to mean seeking the joy of the Lord in this life as a taste of heaven to come. She takes this message to heart, and they all live happily ever after.

If Billy Graham films had cussing preachers, hard-drinking reformers, and nymphomaniac drug addicts, this could be one. As good a story of a changed life as I remember seeing for a while.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.


I sure was looking forward to seeing this one. This is the Wachowski brothers' movie from before they made The Matrix. The Matrix: a masterpiece. Bound: just a piece. I liked Joe Pantoliano's character OK. He went on to play Cypher in The Matrix and Teddy Gammell in Memento, both of which were terrific roles. There's this creepy love triangle, the women betraying the ganster boyfriend, but mostly a boring movie, certainly nothing special. Thankfully, the creative bug really bit and the brothers gave us the Matrix trilogy!
Bottom line: one star.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Darwin Awards

Okay, I have a weakness for crummy comedies, and I have always gotten a kick out of the "Darwin Awards," so when I saw this movie at the video store, I had to get it. It was as dumb as expected, but pretty enjoyable nonetheless. Stars Joseph Fiennes, the less talented brother of Ralph Fiennes, who was great in Schindler's List, The Constant Gardener, and others. The female lead is Winona Ryder, also terrific. Unfortunately, they both struggle in this not so great movie. Suffice it to say, if you enjoy reading about the foibles of the recipients of the Darwin Awards, and you're willing to put your standards aside for the sake of a silly movie (guilty on both counts) you will probably enjoy this film. If not, well, you'd better look elsewhere for entertainment.
Bottom line, 2 stars.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The French Connection

This movie's a classic, the winner of the 1971 Academy Award for Best Picture. I'm not sure it's as good as all that, but it is definitely a good one. Roy Scheider, pre-Jaws, and Lex Luthor--I mean Gene Hackman, pre-Superman, are partners in an NYC narcotics unit. The sort of accidentally figure out a smuggling scheme. There are some gripping chase scenes, but mostly Hackman and Scheider and the rest of the cast give great performances. It's better than most modern cop movies, without the snide humor and excessive/explosive special effects.

A few thoughts, of no particular importance, but stuff I thought of while watching. Early in the movie, the two stars go to a nightclub, where they spot the drug smugglers and begin to put their case together. It struck me that if the movie were made today, that would have been a strip club, but in this movie the performers were a Supremes-like trio, with the long dresses and gloves. Quite modest!

The trio, I guess an actual group called Three Degrees, was singing a song I had never heard before, called "Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon." There were some funny lines to contrive a rhyme with moon: "It's customary in songs like this to use a word like spoon" and "It's customary in songs like this to use a month like June." I just like that kind of silly verbal humor.

On another level, how about these lyrics: "Now don't you think its a miracle/ that we are the generation/ that's gonna one day populate the moon/ we are, and that's gonna be fun! And its got to make you glad to be alive/ yes it got to make you proud to be a man!

I was born the year of Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind, and grew up reading science fiction about space exploration, particularly Heinlein's future history, but I have no memory of the space program until the shuttle program. It's very frustrating to me that we have lost the kind of popular optimism about space exploration that this song embodies. The movie was made in 1971; I wonder how widespread the view was then that man would live on the moon, but it seems like it was taken as a given that it was inevitable. No longer. Maybe my kids' generation will populate the moon!

Another observation: the collateral damage of the war on drugs. I don't really know when they started calling it that, but, like so many cop movies, this one unintentionally makes the case against the heavy-handed methods used to quash drug smuggling. What a tremendous waste of resources, manpower, and, ultimately, lives. I recently heard presidential candidate Ron Paul comment on the government's overuse of the "war" label. It's as if when something is a war, the government expects carte blanche and opposition to it is unpatriotic: the war on poverty, war on terror, war on drugs. Collateral damage is expected in a war; if it was just an "effort to reduce drug smuggling" the ill effects would not be tolerated. But since it's a war, we must accept negative repercussions without complaining.

In many ways, The French Connection is a standard cop movie. But it's an exceptionally good one. Most of the time, the line "This is the police! You're surrounded! Come out with your hands up!" would be greeted with a groan for its triteness. But in this case, for some reason, it works. Check this one out for a good cop story and a glimpse into another era. Bottom line: 3 stars.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Gospel

It's nice to see a positive movie every now and then, that does not present Christians, in particular clergy, as hypocritical, worldly, or downright evil. The characters in The Gospel are real folks, not preachy and self-righteous, but more like the kind of people you might go to church with every week. That is, if you go to an African-American church with really great gospel music! I am white, and go to a mostly white church with contemporary/charismatic worship, so worship music with a beat and worshippers that move around a bit don't bother me. But the worship in The Gospel rocks! I'm not sure my personality would fit in a church like that, but I would enjoy it from time to time. The worship in the movie was probably the best part. Most movies that have worship services, even Christian movies, are pretty lame. It's actors acting like they're worshipping. In The Gospel, it seemed very genuine, and made me want to join right in!

The story is of a pastor's son, David, who leaves the church and is estranged from his father. He becomes a popular hip-hop artist, with the lifestyle to match. When he learns his father is sick, he comes home and becomes involved with the church's building plans and the transition to his father's successor, who is an old friend of the pastor's son. In many ways the story is predictable, but it's well-told.

I like the theme of grace in the movie. David is the Prodigal Son (although he's not exactly living in a pig pen) who returns home, not to judgment, but to a warm embrace and a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his father (and, though it's not directly addressed very much, his heavenly father as well). His father's successor objects to David's taking a role in leading worship because of his music and lifestyle, but David's father is firm, giving David lots of room to reenter the family of faith.

The gospel itself is not presented in the movie, but Christians will see it played out throughout. If the movie makers are not committed Christians, they at least present a very sympathetic portrayal of Christians and church life. Several gospel artists make cameos in the movie.

One last note: as the product of a democratic church tradition, I was not comfortable with the seeming autonomy of the pastor and his choosing his successor by fiat. As the successor found, the temptations of power and ambition are quite strong and should be held in check by a circle of accountability of some form.

Bottom line: two and a half stars

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia

How about a decent film version of a classic movie for my first movie post? I guess I read this book as a kid, but I didn't remember it until I read it with my 5th and 6th grade special ed. students a couple years ago. It's quite a tear-jerker! I like the book a lot. The movie's not bad, but I'd just call it an above-average pre-teen/teen flick.

One quibble I had is the overdone fantasy sequences in Terabithia. First of all, the previews all made it look like that would be the focus of the film, but it wasn't at all. Second of all, they did not get so much treatment in the book. I think they must have wanted to build on the Chronicles of Narnia audience. Walden Media produced both, and there was a bit of "If you liked Lion, Witch, etc., you will like Bridge. . . ." in the promotion.

As a Christian I was intrigued by the theological interplay between Jess and Leslie. Leslie goes to church with Jess's family, and expresses her appreciation for the gospel. Jess and his sister, life-long churchgoers, aren't too impressed--offended by the "scandal of the cross." Jess says, "You have to believe it, and you hate it. I don't have to believe it, and I think it's beautiful." At the end, Jess's dad assures Jess, "I don't know everything about God, but I do know he's not going to send that little girl to Hell." Not really deep theology here, but certainly some fodder for discussion.

The best thing about this movie: my wife watched with me! Usually she's ready for bed long before me, as soon as the kids are settled in, leaving me to stay up watching with my headphones on. But we snuggled up and watched this one together. What a treat!

Bottom line, a strong two stars.

Why this blog? An introduction.

I watch a lot of movies. A while back, I thought I ought to start a little notebook to keep track of any thoughts I had after watching a movie, and a record of what movies I watched. I never did, but I wish I had about 300 movies ago. Better late than never. Here's a little blog with some non-profound insights from a shallow movie watcher.

I read somewhere lately that we have an abundance of culture with too little reflection of what we consume. I am guilty. Like shoving down a gourmet meal, I watch movie after movie. Maybe this blog will help me with my digestion. If you like it, drop me a line.

I'll use a simple rating system.
Four stars: This was great! Definitely a movie I'll watch again.
Three stars: I liked this movie a lot and would recommend it to friends.
Two stars: Not a complete waste of time, but not great.
One star: Used the fast forward key a lot and/or fell asleep. Don't waste your time.

Eventually maybe I'll figure out how to dress up my posts a bit. In the meantime, words are worth 1/1000th of a picture, right?