Saturday, July 24, 2010

Monty Python: Almost the Truth

The Monty Python guys are brilliant first of all for their humor.  Their brand of original, intelligent yet silly, timeless humor has not and maybe cannot be duplicated.  But their other brilliance is their marketing.  From their earliest albums, they have managed to reproduce and repackage things many times to continue finding new audiences and feeding their always-growing audience's hunger for more Python.
They've aged well and are as funny as ever.

Almost the Truth is a rare opportunity not to hear new comedy from the British comedians, but to hear new perspectives and history about them.  This was produced as a documentary in 2009 for the Independent Film Channel.  It's long--6 hour-long episodes, plus extras--but any fan of Monty Python will love just about every minute.  Through interviews with the surviving members, behind-the-scenes clips from the Flying Circus show and their movies, and from interviews with other comedians and actors who MP influenced, we get a nice backdrop for appreciated MP and their impact.

A non-fan would be better off picking up a copy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Live at Hollywood Bowl, or even episodes of Flying Circus for an introduction, but fans will not be disappointed in this documentary.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Serious Man

Some of my favorite movies have been made by the Coen brothers: Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?  These, along with Fargo and The Big Lebowski have stood the test of time and remain favorites, or at least cult classics.  So of their others haven't been too bad, but not as enjoyable for me.  Rank A Serious Man on the low end of the Coen scale.

College professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is having a rough week.  His children don't like him, his daughter wants a nose job, his son smokes pot, and his wife announces that she wants a divorce so she can marry Sy.  Larry, an observant Jew, seeks answers from his rabbis, but to no avail.  Nothing seems to be going right for him, but I don't really care.
Gopnik seeks answers to the big questions.

There is some characteristic Coen black humor here, and they cleverly recreate the cultural milieu of the American midwest in the 1960s.  There's a lot going on in the movie.  With all the social commentary and symbolism, the story takes a back seat.  This one is best viewed as an art film, where individual elements are more important than the whole.  The result is a serious disappointment.

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

If you've seen the preview for this movie, you know the whole story.  Richard Gere brings home a lost puppy he finds at the train station.  He grows attached, and his wife reluctantly agrees that they can keep him.  The dog follows him to the station every day, then comes back to the station at the end of the day to greet him as he gets off the commuter train.  Gere dies, but the dog still greets the train every day.  He does so for years, and becomes a fixtures in the little town.
Even knowing the story, and even though it's told in a white-washed, Hallmark movie-of-the-week way, Hachi is still a moving story.  It's based on the true story of a dog who continued coming to the train station in Tokyo for 9 years after his master's death.  A statue of Hachiko was erected in 1934 at the train station.
Predictable, yes.  Manipulative tear-jerker, yes.  Sappy, yes.  Thoroughly enjoyable and heart-warming, yes and yes.  I watched it with my boys, who weren't quite as impressed, but they liked it just the same.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I've said before that I'm a sucker for sci-fi, even the mainstream special effects blockbusters.  Sometimes they're terrific, sometimes a waste of money and time.  Surrogates may not live on as a classic, but I liked it.  It's thoughtful and well-done.

Like lots of sci-fi, Surrogates takes a current phenomenon, alternative identities taken on by people on the internet, and draws out a possible extension: human-looking robots who are controlled remotely by their owners.  These "surrogates" go to work, shop, socialize, live daily life, while the owners remain safely ensconced in their homes.  Many surrogates resemble their owners, if a younger, fitter, better looking version, but others are completely different.  Imagine how surprised that guy would be to find out that the good looking young lady he picked up at a bar is actually a surrogate for an overweight, middle-aged man!

There are a few humans who resist using surrogates; many live in a surrogate-free zone, and are fomenting rebellion against the surrogate society.  When FBI agent Tom Greer's (Bruce Willis) surrogate is killed, he gets an first-hand perspective on life as a "meat bag."  Someone has developed a weapon that, when used to kill a surrogate, kills its operator as well, shattering the illusion that life through a surrogate is safer.  Greer's task is to find out who developed the weapon and destroy it.

Much of Surrogates is standard sci-fi action film fare, but it does raise some interesting questions about humanity and identity.  The Prophet (Ving Rhames) lives in the surrogate-free ghetto, and speaks of a post-surrogate world.  He admonishes his followers, as well as the surrogate-operating public, to join him in restoring humanity: "When you sacrifice your own personal desires for a great cause, a greater good, you never die.  That is what it means to be human. . . . We sacrifice many modern pleasures and conveniences to feel truly connected.  Not with machines but with ourselves. . . . This is what gives life meaning."
"Getting your face done" takes on new meaning.

Surrogates raises the questions, Does technology make us more human or less?  Are there limits to the use of technology for social interaction?  Do technological innovations isolate us or bring us together?  The answers are unclear; most of us have experienced both the positive and negative expressions of technology and communication.  But I do appreciate the movie's basic point: there is no substitute for face-to-face, skin-to-skin contact and communication.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Book of Eli

Is the Bible a tool for manipulating and controlling people?  Or is it a civilizing, democratizing force?  The Book of Eli asks that question in the context of post-apocalyptic America, in which anarchy reigns and there is no remembered sense of morality, culture, or societal structure.  One man believes he holds the key to rebuilding civilization: Eli (Denzel Washington), armed with the sole remaining copy of the Bible.
It's crazy and absurd, in a way, but as we learn during the course of the movie, many people blamed Christianity for the war that led to nuclear annihilation.  As a result, Bibles were burned and religion was wiped out.  Eli has been carrying the Bible for 30 years, heading west.  (I know it's a big country, but it seems like he could have gotten there in less than 30 years. . . . Unless I'm too dense, we never really learn why it's taken him so long.)  In the course of his travels, he happens on a town ruled with an iron fist by Carnegie (Gary Oldman).  He has tried to rebuild a semblance of civilization, but through terror and vice, as a dictator, not through democratic, cooperative means.

Eli meets up with Solara (Mila Kunis), the daughter of Carnegie's concubine/slave.  She asks Eli, "Do you really read the same book every day?"  Eli unhesitatingly responds, "Without fail."  He quotes several scriptures on occasion.  You do have to admire his devotion to the Bible.  He reads and memorizes it daily, and he protects it from all comers, which are legion.  Eli's finely honed fighting skills leave any and all attackers dead or dying, such is his passion to continue his quest and protect the Bible.
Eli's face-off with Carnegie reveals Carnegie's motive for wanting to get his hands on the Bible.  "I know its power.  If you read it, so do you."  He appeals to Eli's desire to restart civilization, saying he needs the Bible to help him develop the town and enhance his leadership.  "Just staying alive is an act of faith. . . . But they don't understand that. . . . I don't have the right words to help them, but the book does.  Imagine how different, how righteous this little world could be if we had the right words for our faith.  It's not right to keep that book hidden away.  It's meant to be shared with others.  It's meant to be spread."  Amen to that last part!  But Eli easily sees through Carnegie's agenda (not hard to do since he's surrounded by henchmen poised to kill Eli!) and moves on.

Eli turns reflective after his final showdown with Carnegie's men.  "All the years I've been carrying it and reading it every day I got so caught up in keeping it safe I forgot to live by what I learned from it.  Just do for others more than you do for yourself."  An overly simplistic and theologically inaccurate summary of scripture, to be sure, but a nice reminder not to worship the book but to live in service to the author.  I was reminded of the Fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.  They were so caught up in protecting the Bible from what they perceived as a liberal onslaught that they neglected to love their brothers and sisters in the convention, driving them away through deceptive and evil means.

I really liked this movie.  Aside from any theological or moral problems, the overarching theme of Eli's commitment to scripture made the movie for me.  Imagine if, unlikely as it may be, all Bibles were destroyed.  We could piece together what we've memorized, but to have the words on the page would be irreplaceable.  God has given us a tremendous gift in his written word.  Eli teaches us to treasure it.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Invention of Lying

For a funny movie that has the potential to tell a creative, profound moral lesson, The Invention of Lying stinks up its message and presents a simplistic, insulting criticism of Christianity--really, of any revelatory religion.

The set up is pretty brilliant, and the first part of the movie is very funny.  The setting is a world much like our own, excecpt  that no one has ever told a lie. The real humor comes from the fact that not only does no one tell a lie, but everyone says exactly what's on his or her mind.  When the main character Mark, played by Ricky Gervais, of The Office fame (he also co-wrote the screenplay), takes Anna out on a date, they can't help but be honest with one another.  The waiter, too: as he comes to take their order, he says, "I'm very embarassed to work here."  Anna orders the salad, "because I think I'm fat but I also think I deserve something that tastes good."  Mark, the fish tacos, "because I had them once and it's all I know."  When Anna's mom calls during dinner, she openly discusses her date: "No, not very attractive. . . . Kind of funny.  A bit fat.  Funny little snub nose.  No, I won't be sleeping with him tonight." 
We get an example of advertising, a Coke commercial.  "Hi, I'm Jim and I'm the spokesperson for the Coca-Cola company.  I'm here today to ask you to continue buying Coke. . . . It's basically just brown sugar water, we haven't changed the ingredients lately, so there's nothing new about it I can say.  We changed the can around a little bit. . . . It's Coke.  It's very famous.  I'm Jim, I work for Coke, and I'm asking you to not stop buying Coke."  Later we see an ad on the side of a bus: "Pepsi.  When they don't have Coke."  And how about this for honesty in signage: the nursing home where Mark's mom lives is called "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People."

Mark works for Lecture Films: "We film someone telling you about things that happened."  That describes the whole of T.V.  There is no fiction, no movies as we know them.  Fiction, art, it's all lies.  Creativity is nonexistent.  Therein lies the first problem: the movie portrays all of life and culture as bland and uninteresting without the ability to lie. 
Mark, desperate for money, lies to a teller about his bank account balance--the first lie ever told!  Mark uses his new "power" to enrich himself, but he also uses it for good.  He gives some of his new wealth away, but he also uses what we would call white lies to encourage people, to give his suicidal neighbor hope, to bring young lovers together, and, most importantly, to give his dying mother something to look forward to.  She tells her son she's scared of dying, but Mark tells her he has a surprise for her, and goes on to describe what will happen after she dies.  "You're going to be young again, and you'll be able to run through the fields and dance and jump, and there will be no sadness, no pain, just love and laughing and happiness. . . . Everyone will live in giant mansions. . . . and it will last for an eternity."

The hospital staff overhears all of this.  Of course they've never heard anything like it and are filled with hope.  Word quickly spreads of Mark's revelations and crowds surround him, wanting to hear more.  He writes all night and emerges from his home, holding his revelations taped on two pizza boxes, looking like Moses holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments.  Mark attributes all he's learned to a "man in the sky" who rewards us according to how good we are, and if we do bad things we go to the worst place imaginable.

Of course all his fame and notoriety take its toll on Mark, especially since he's still the only one capable of lying, and is forced to keep that secret to himself.  The story from there isn't all that interesting.  I was uncomfortable with the portrayal of lying as a means to self-aggrandizement and the generally positive effects on Mark's life and others; there was no sense of the consequences of lying. 

I was more disturbed by the turn the movie took from a funny fantasy to a caustic mocking of Christianity.  I try to put myself in the shoes of a secular person, or someone who has a vague understanding of the Bible, and can imagine them thinking, Yeah, that sounds like Christianity, and it must be all made up by some guy.

Clearly this is a movie with an agenda.  They are not interested in provoking people to think; they are interested in knocking down people's beliefs.  I am not opposed to inviting discussion, challenging faith, examining belief.  But that's not what this movie does.  It's an all-out attack on Christianity. 

Bottom line, 1/2 star (for the funny parts)

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Like many films from Film Movement, Gigante tells a simple story, eschewing Hollywood cliches, special effects, and sappiness.  The gigante in question in Gigante is Jara, a night security job at a supermarket in Montevideo.  Julia, one of the night cleaning ladies catches his eye.  As he sits at his video monitors, he becomes obsessed with her, watching her at her duties.  He even begins following her outside of work.
This sounds creepy, but Jara maintains his distance, and does not watch and follow in a leering, inappropriate way, but in a way that reflects his extreme shyness and discomfort with conversation.  When he sees Julia cleaning up an accidental mess on her aisle, and then notes that the supervisor is heading her way, he leaps to action, heading off the supervisor so that Julia has time to finish cleaning, avoiding the wrath of her boss.

Jara's shyness and simple crush on Julia, and Julia's corresponding coyness make the viewer hope they will get together.  They may not be the typical romantic comedy screen idols, and the story may not fit the typical mold, but Gigante's quiet, slow-paced storytelling will surely leave you smiling.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.