Friday, August 3, 2012

Machine Gun Preacher

You just have to admire someone who takes radical steps to live out their faith.  Machine Gun Preacher is based on the story of Sam Childers, a low-life biker ex-con who was radically saved from a life of crime and drugs.  Inspired by a guest preacher at his church, Sam, as a new, zealous Christian, traveled to Africa to help with a mission construction project.  While there, he visited the war zone of southern Sudan, and had a first-hand encounter with the senseless brutality of the Lord's Resistance Army.  He dedicated his life to rescuing children from these heartless criminals, opening an orphanage in Sudan.
Because of his going about armed, and his willingness to gun down LRA soldiers in order to rescue children, he became know as the machine gun preacher.  Here's where the story gets complicated.  Childers is out there serving "the least of these."  I mean, how much more needy is a kid who lives in one of the earth's poorest regions, whose parents have been killed by marauders, and who may be forced by the marauders to fight?  I applaud his conviction and celebrate the fact that hundreds of children are safe, alive, and healthy because of his efforts.  Yet, I can't help but cringe at his use of violence.  Pure religion is caring for orphans, but does that mean shooting down their oppressors?  Maybe it does.

I was inspired by Machine Gun Preacher.  In many ways, it is an evangelistic film.  We see Childers's drastic transformation and his living out his faith.  The other Christians in the film are portrayed respectfully (although church was a little on the cheesy side).  We celebrate with Childers in his baptism, share his struggles as he lives out his faith and tries to convince others to join his vision, and cringe (maybe with painful recognition) as he has some failures.  This is a very Christian movie, but the portrayal of sin will bother some.  The language and violence is definitely rated R.  Although we learn that Childers's wife was a stripper before she got saved, there are no scenes of nudity.

Inspiration, action, conviction, controversy, and challenging questions about the use of violence to good ends.  A nice mix for a movie!

Bottom line, 3 stars.





For more about Sam Childers and his ministry, see: http://www.machinegunpreacher.org/

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Marriage of Figaro (Movie Glutton Opera Edition)

Kelly, Elliot, and I attended the Sunday matinee of the Fort Worth Opera's presentation of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.  This is one of those classic operas that define opera.  It might also serve as a litmus test to determine, Are you an opera lover or not?

Just as I have come to expect, the FW Opera put on a fantastic performance.  The lavish sets and world-class singers, accompanied by the terrific Fort Worth Symphony, came together for a performance that surely would match any put on anywhere in the world.  The singers in the lead roles had a flawless performance, as did the supporting cast.  If I had to come up with one criticism, it would be some of the slapstick staging; it is a comedy, but sometimes the silliness seemed a bit over the top.

The count doesn't recognize his wife because she . . . changed coats?
Which brings me to my next point.  I am not a musician (okay, I sang in the choir and play a little guitar), so I am really in no place to criticize the music.  It all sounds great to me.  But I do read a lot of fiction and watch a lot of movies.  Again, my tastes may not be the most refined, but I feel like I can judge a good story.  I have to say that the story of Figaro is stupid.  It's a sit-com, and not a very good one.  The misunderstandings, jealous lovers, then the whole let's-switch-clothes-and-meet-our-lovers-under-cover-of-night deal, it all adds up to a movie that would not be made or a novel that would not be published.  At least if I was the editor.

And I was surprised at the audience, refined opera lovers, guffawing at the most inane semi-comedic moments.  Sure, it's mildly funny at times, but these people are laughing like it's the funniest thing they've ever seen.  Maybe it is.  The music is great, for the era in which it was composed, and some of the arias are very beautiful.  But taken as a whole--musical theater that tells a story--I just don't get why this thing has endured for over 200 years and ranks as one of the most-performed operas.

I did enjoy it, even though it is pretty long and I was feeling sleepy, not having had time after church for my Sunday afternoon nap.  Did I love it?  Am I an opera lover?  Maybe not.

Once again, I probably sound like an idiot trying to talk about opera.  Here's the Star-Telegram review, from someone who actually knows what he's talking about!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Living My Own Life: Adults with Disabilities

Through the years, families of people with disabilities have chosen to place them in institutions, nursing homes, and group homes.  This is an especially crucial decision for families when the parent or other family member dies or otherwise can no longer care for the family member with disabilities.  But these are not the only options available.  There is a growing movement paving the way for individuals with disabilities to live independently.

Skeptics may object and argue that it's impossible, but in Michael Loukinen's film Living My Own Life: Adults with Disabilities, we meet several adults who, in spite of their disabilities, have managed to live on their own.  The argument of the film is that "people with disabilities have the same vision of adult life as everyone else does--a chance to live as independently as possible in their own home, to control who comes in through the door, to work at a real job and to be surrounded by friends."

Each of the individuals profiled in the film have disabilities which at first glance appear to need constant assistance and supervision.  While each does have support from others, whether from parents or home health assistants who come to the home, each one makes decisions about his or her life on his or her own.

The mother of one man profiled in the film summed up her own acceptance of the goal of her son's independence: "The most I ever hoped for was him just to be able to get out of the house. . . . and here he is, he's surviving by himself."  She had to give up her overprotectiveness, but, like any parent, came to see that he could manage independent of her.

Several of the subjects of the film have jobs, not aimless tasks in a sheltered workshop, but in actual businesses among non-disabled people.  Dohn Hoyle, an advocate and friend of one of the men, points out that some would say "that some people don't have the capacity to work.  What we have to look at is what can people do, not what their limitations are, not what their disabilities are, but what can people do."

Can the individuals in this film and other people with disabilities live completely independently of anyone?  Likely not.  Like all of us, they depend on others for support and community.  Their support may be more deliberate and intensive, but the key is that they choose their community and their support.  They have achieved a high level of self-determination.

Hoyle concludes, "This is possible for everyone.  The level of disability, medical needs, they don't matter; what matters is early planning and giving them a chance. . . . Limitations mean far less than letting people . . . get their piece of the American dream. . . . That's all any of us can ask."




Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Thor

I haven't seen The Avengers yet, but I'm guessing I'll be glad to know a little back story on Thor.  In Thor, we learn that the Nordic gods were actually aliens, and Thor was exiled to Earth by his father.  During his brief time here, he comes to admire humans and to consider us worthy of his protection.
Thor with his traitorous brother.
There's lots of action, of course, but Thor goes beyond the action to inter-planetary political intrigue and an operatic story line.  Thor probably would not win any awards for the acting, but it's still pretty good.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.



Tuesday, May 22, 2012

50/50

Normally, the cover blurb "from the guys who brought you Superbad" wouldn't turn me on to a movie.  But this one sounded promising, so I gave it a shot.  It has the crude humor of Superbad but speaks to a wholly different coming of age type of story.

Meet 27-year-old Adam, played by Uncertainty's Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  He likes his job, has a girlfriend, a faithful best friend, and seems to have a good life.  Then he's diagnosed with rare type of cancer, a tumor on his spine.  Chemotherapy doesn't shrink the tumor, so he has to have surgery.  Along the journey of treatment, he learns about family, friendship, and life.
Adam's not to excited about being only his therapist's third patient.
The best thing about 50/50, which makes the movie believable and moving, is that the writer, Will Reiser, wrote from his own experience with cancer.  The result is an honest and surprisingly moving and thought-provoking account of the effects of cancer on the patient as well as on those whose lives bump against his.

I saw this quote in Bob Hoose's review on PluggedIn.com, which describes how I feel about putting such a potentially great movie under the cover of a foul language filled sex comedy:
The lowball dross seriously cheapens the powerful statements they set out to make. The truth is, if you have something that's cinematic gold and you cover it with a layer or two of filth, nobody can see the value lurking underneath. And if they discover it accidentally, they're still going to be left longing for a good scrub brush and a hose.
Bring on the scrub brush!  But besides all that, still,

Bottom line, 3 stars.



Thursday, May 17, 2012

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Robots.  Explosions.  Guns.  Robots.  Exotic cars.  Explosions.  Hot British girl in tight dresses.  Explosions. Over-the-top special effects.  Explosions.  Exactly what you expected.  Entertaining, but not very memorable.
Let's blow up downtown Chicago!

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Uncertainty

Uncertainty starts off with one of the more compelling set ups in recent memory.  On the morning of the Fourth of July a young couple in the middle of a bridge tosses a coin.  Based on the outcome, the sprint in opposite directions, where, strangely enough each meets the other at the end of the bridge.  The two couples then spend the rest of day on separate time lines, one visiting with her family in Brooklyn, the other caught up in a criminal conspiracy, running for their lives in Manhattan.
Spend time with family or running from vicious criminals?  Let's toss a coin.
It's a little intriguing watching as the movie switches back and forth between the two stories, but I had trouble drawing a connection between the two.  The lesson I came away with is this: given the choice, spend the holidays with your family.  Otherwise, you'll get into all sorts of trouble with some terrible people.

Bottom line: 2 stars.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Tosca (Movie Glutton Opera Edition)

This weekend marked the start of the 2012 Fort Worth Opera Festival!  Opening night was terrific, with a performance of one of the classics, Puccini's Tosca.  As usual, the Fort Worth Opera put on a fabulous, world-class performance.    My mom and dad joined Elliot, Kelly and me at Yucatan Taco Stand (yum!), then we headed downtown to Bass Hall for the opera.

Tosca, set in Rome in 1800, opens with Mario Cavaradossi painting the Madonna in a church.  He is surprised by the appearance of Cesare, an escaped political prisoner with whose case Mario sympathizes.  They plan to go to Mario's villa, where Cesare can hide.  Before they can leave, Mario's lover Tosca, a famous singer, shows up, wanting to rendezvous after her performance.  After Mario and Cesare flee, the evil Scarpia (with a name like that, he just has to be a bad guy!) comes to the church, searching for Cesare.  He manipulates Tosca into thinking that Mario is having an affair with Cesare's sister, who happens to have been the model for Mario's painting of the Madonna.
I can't say enough good about Carter Scott's performance.
A beautiful voice, a perfect performance.
Scarpia's deception works, Mario is captured, Cesare commits suicide rather than be captured, and Tosca is distressed.  Scarpia offers Tosca a horrible bargain: he will let Mario live and give them safe passage out of the country if she will succumb to his lustful desires.  She agrees, and he gives the order to spare Tosca by faking his execution, and writes a letter giving them passage.  But before he can fulfill his desires, Tosca kills him.  She meets Mario before his scheduled execution, letting him know that the firing squad will be firing blanks, so he will simply need to fake being shot, then they can run to her waiting carriage and on to freedom.  Since happy endings don't seem to be allowed in grand opera, the firing squad somehow didn't get the memo and used live ammo, killing Mario.  Just as Tosca discovers that Mario is dead, officers come after her, having discovered Scarpia's murder.  Distraught, Tosca jumps to her dead.  The fat lady has sung, and it's over.
The production featured gorgeous, elaborate sets.
Puccini based the opera on Victorien Sardou's play, La Tosca.   It's one of those melodramatic stories which make you think, why would it come to this?  Deception, manipulation, torture, suicide, jealousy, lust.  Sounds like a modern soap opera.  I was actually struck by the timelessness of the story.  The opera does refer to its historical setting, but it could easily be set to take place in any time and setting.  (I can't help but think surely it has been. . . .)

I was also struck by the role of Tosca's faith.  She is presented as a faithful church member and believer.  As she's struggling with giving in to Scarpia, first to give up information about Cesare to spare Mario from torture, then to sleep with Scarpia to spare Mario, she cries out to God in a "Why me?" moment that most believers can relate to:
I lived for art, I lived for love, I never did harm to a living soul!  With a secret hand I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of.  Ever in true faith my prayer rose to the holy shrines. . . . In the hour of grief why, why, Lord, why do you reward me thus?
Alas, the Lord does not come to her rescue, so she resorts to murder, then suicide, to find respite.

While I did enjoy the performance, I was not as moved as was the opera lover we spoke to as we were leaving.  Several minutes after the ovations ended and the curtain fell, she was still dabbing her eyes.  Apparently she has seen Tosca performed many times.  "I know how it ends, but it still makes me cry every time!"

Even if you're not an opera lover, make time to take in Tosca.  Yes, it's in Italian, but English translation is provided on screens above the stage.  I love the step back to the past, the musical delight, and the pageantry that classic operas like Tosca give.  It's not too late to catch it; there are three more performances, May 20 and 25, and June 2.  Check it out!

Here's a review by someone who might actually know what she's talking about!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Dark Water

I don't watch many horror movies.  They rarely tell a satisfying story, and when they get close they often have some supernatural theme that I can't buy.  Dark Water tries hard, sets an appropriately creepy tone, and creates characters you can care about.  But the end result--and the ending--were disappointing.

A young mom and her daughter, separated from their husband/dad, find an inexpensive apartment on Roosevelt Island.  Soon they see a strange leak on the ceiling, and hear noises from upstairs, in an apartment that isn't supposed to be occupied.  The little girl gets an imaginary friend, who, of course, isn't just imaginary, and the mom keeps having flashbacks to her childhood and her own neglectful mom.  While there is some sense of anticipation through the film, the "reveal" left me with an Oh, is that all? feeling.
Better call the plumber.  The ceiling's leaking again.
Maybe I should give the movie a little more credit, but ultimately I can't buy into the worldview that it espouses: that the souls of the dead hang around their old homes, looking for some satisfaction.  I know, I know, it's just a movie, but still, it's a rare movie that can take that idea and make it compelling (like The Sixth Sense).

Bottom line, 1 1/2 star.



Wednesday, May 2, 2012

30 Minutes or Less

Pros: very funny, and filmed in Grand Rapids, Michigan, my home for four years.
Cons: crass and crude, which overshadowed the humor and story.

I love a good comedy, and I (confession time) have a rather high tolerance for low-brow humor.  But it seems that a spate of recent comedies have pushed the bar lower than ever.  30 Minutes or Less does fall into the low-brow category, but tells a rather entertaining story in a very funny way.  I love Jesse Eisenberg; his everyman persona, sort of clueless and earnest, was perfect in this role as Nick, a pizza delivery man who isn't sure what to do with his life.
Are you guys really that dumb?  Yes.  Yes they are.
Nick gets a little more focus to his life after a couple of nitwits strap a bomb to him as part of a hare-brained scheme to raise some cash--they're forcing him to rob a bank so they can hire a hit man.  Of course it gets all messed up, resulting in more violence than I would have expected from a goofy comedy.

I have to admit, I did somewhat enjoy the inane, yet sort of clever story line and some of the resulting "How can they be so stupid?" comedy.  But with the constant cursing and crude elements, I cannot recommend it.

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Zookeeper

Family movie night!  Plus: wise-cracking, talking animals.  Minus: basically a romantic comedy.

Zookeeper is a fun movie, as you might expect, with the goofy Kevin James and a bunch of live-action talking animals.  James plays Griffin, a zookeeper who loves his job and loves the animals.  They love him back, and when they overhear him talking about taking another, higher-paying job so he can get his girl, the animals make it their mission to help him get the girl while keeping him at the zoo.  They break their animal code of silence and talk to Griffin.  His interactions with the animals are the best parts of the movie.  Their romantic advice doesn't quite help him out but gets some laughs.  The monkey says to throw poop; the wolf says to mark the territory by peeing.
A conference with the animals.
Other than the funny, slapstick, poop- and pee-humor (which my 10-year-old loved), the story is a pretty standard guy loses the girl, gets the wrong girl, loses the right girl, gets the right girl back romantic comedy story line.  Griffin's not a bad guy, but I was still wondering why both of these beautiful women were crazy about him.  They can both do much better.  All-in-all, Zookeeper is an entertaining but not great movie, with funny parts and a decent do-what-you-love, be-who-you-are message.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

X-Men: First Class

I'm not a big comic book reader, but I'm always a sucker for comic book movies.  I've never read X-Men comics, but the movies are pretty good.  X-Men: First Class gives the back story of the X-Men, telling us where they came from, how they got together, why Dr. X and Magneto are enemies, why Dr. X is in a wheelchair, how Beast got to be blue and hairy, and more.  But more than just giving these back stories, the movie itself tells a good story.

I especially enjoyed the James McAvoy as the young Charles Xavier.  He captures Patrick Stewart's charm, brilliance, humility, generosity, and leadership in a younger, more winsome version.  I now realize that one reason I must have liked him so much is that he played the wonderful Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Dr. X with hair, and not in a wheelchair.
Yes, it's a comic book movie, but it has great effects, a story and heroes you can get behind, multiple levels of relationships to develop and characters who mature, and, of course, some rollicking action scenes.  And, to top it off, we learn what really happened with the Cuban missile crisis!  Comic book fan or not, I recommend that you check it out!

Bottom line, 3 stars.





Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Midnight in Paris

I'm not one of those film snobs who thinks Woody Allen is a comic genius, but, well, he is a comic genius.  His films are almost without exception funny, entertaining, touching, and on a higher plane than the typical mainstream comedy film.  In Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson plays a young Woody Allen.  OK, he actually plays Gil, a screenwriter who wants to be a novelist, but the character and Wilson's portrayal perfectly capture the Woody Allen from his earlier films: whiny, struggling with his identity, insecure, but funny and lovable.

A night on the town with Gil's literary heroes.
While on vacation in Paris with his fiance and her parents, Gil fantasizes about what he considers the golden age of Paris, the 1920s, where Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, and other luminaries interacted.  The clock strikes midnight, and he's transported to that time, meets his heroes, and even gets Gertrude Stein to read his manuscript.  His nightly forays into the past increasingly distance him from his fiance and deepen his love for the city of lights.
I have no love for Paris, and have always scorned those who romanticize the city.  But Midnight in Paris invokes a longing for a city I've only visited briefly, a nostalgia for a time about which I know little, transcending time and place for a reflection on contentment, idealization of the past, and making the most of your present. 

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Higher Ground

Corrine gave her heart to Christ as a child at Vacation Bible School, but without a supportive home environment, didn't really start following him until after she was married.  The "Jesus People" came to town, and Corrine and her husband became involved in a fundamentalist church.  Higher Ground depicts Corrine's struggle with her faith over the next several years.  She wants to embrace the faith, but it never becomes real to her, and the sense of detachment grows.

The tongues just aren't happening for Corrine.
Corrine's struggles are real, and common.  Many Christians, in their honest moments, probably share her struggles.  We have to laugh with her as we watch her reactions to some familiar Christian quirks, like her surreptitiously wiping the communion cup before she drank from it, or locking herself in the bathroom and attempting to come up with a prayer language.  While the Bible studies and church services seem for the most part quite genuine and heartfelt, the movie does fall into the common trap of portraying Christians as self-righteous and superficially pious.

As Corrine continues to feel more distant from her faith, her best friend gets a brain tumor.  She survives, but is severely disabled.  Who doesn't share her questioning, as she hears songs and sermons about God's power and God's plan?  How can that be in God's plan?

She finally reaches a breaking point.  As she sits in her car listening to Keith Green's "Create in Me a Clean Heart, she pleads, "Lord help me.  Because I can't feel you.  I feel nothing.  Draw near to me, Lord, where are you?"  Then she proceeds to leave her family, starts driving a convertible, fixing her hair differently, and flirting with the mailman.  While I certainly share Corrine's struggle, and have prayed that prayer with her, this is the kind of message that drives me crazy in this kind of movie or book: the answer is to break away from this confining lifestyle and find freedom away from Christ.

In spite of what I perceive as a bias against conservative Christian theology, Higher Ground is to be commended for its questions, if not its conclusions.  I don't think I'm alone in sharing Corrine's feelings, as expressed in a speech toward the end of the film.  This just might bring you to your knees:

I invited him in.  "Welcome," I said, and I gave my heart outright.  And I'm standing here today, and I'm telling you, I'm telling you today, that I'm still waiting for him to make himself at home.  You know, I call and I call, and there have been times where I know he answered me. . . . But other times, I've got the porch light on, and he doesn't come.  And I feel like I live in an empty place. . . . I need all of this to be real, and I don't always know how to make it real.  
Higher Ground in interesting, thought provoking, and maybe even convicting and inspiring, but be warned: it earns its R rating with language and sexual references.

By the way, Higher Ground is based on the memoir This Dark World, by Carolyn S. Briggs, who also wrote the movie screenplay.  I have not read the book, but the title alone makes me think Briggs's story is even more bleak than portrayed in the movie.

Bottom line, 3 stars.








Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days)

In the midst of World War 2, a significant student movement arose opposing Hitler's policies and the Nazi regime.  They believed that Hitler had Germany on a suicide path and that his policies were going to drag Germany into the disdain of the rest of the world.  Of course they were right, but it's easy to see that from this end of history.

The real Sophie
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days tells the story of Sophie, her brother, and other martyrs to the cause (There's a spoiler--now you know she dies.).  Sophie and her collaborators, known as die Weiße Rose, or White Rose, mostly students at the University of Munich, are considered heroes today for their resistance to the Nazis.  Seven of them were executed, and many others severely punished.

The film shows Sophie's resolve as she and her brother distribute leaflets on campus and are arrested.  Sophie owns up to her actions and attempts to deflect blame from the other White Rose students.  The heart of the film, with its long segments of interrogation and brief "trial," show her defiant commitment to the cause of nonviolently bringing down Hitler.

Julie Jentsch was wonderfully intense as Sophie.
My favorite scene shows her passion in the interrogation room, as she criticizes the Nazi's practice of killing the mentally ill (which, in the parlance of the day, would include people with many types of intellectual and mental disabilities).  She asks Robert Mohr, her questioner, "Do you realize how shocked I was to find out that the Nazis use gas and poison to dispose of mentally ill children?"  Defending the policy, Mohr responds, "These are unworthy lives!"  He goes on to insist that Scholl, who had trained as a nurse, should recognize their unworthiness.  Scholl objects,
No one, regardless of circumstances, can pass divine judgment.  No one knows what goes on in the minds of the mentally ill.  No one knows how much wisdom can come from suffering.  Every life is precious!
Powerful words indeed from the lips of a 21-year-old college student.  (Much of the film is based on trial transcripts.  I don't know if these words actually were spoken by Scholl, but they certainly reflect her motivation in opposing the Nazis, belief in the dignity of all people and objection to Hitler's mass killings.)

I loved this movie.  Because so much of the story plays out in the interrogation room, Sophie's cell, and at the trial, it's dialogue heavy and light on action.  Although clearly committed to the historical record, the events provide plenty of drama to keep this from feeling like a dull documentary.  This is definitely one worth watching.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Big Miracle

You gotta love a feel good movie like Big Miracle.  Everyone loves whales.  Big Miracle follows the story of a family of whales trapped in the ice in Alaska.  Those of you who are old enough, and who have a decent memory, will remember the media circus around these whales in 1988.

The story revolves around a reporter who first found the whales, his Greenpeace activist ex-girlfriend, and the head of a big, bad oil company who wants to drill, baby, drill.  As it turns out, they can all work together, with a ton of help from the locals (whale hunters, no less) and even some evil (this was before the fall of communism, after all) Russians.
A great subplot: this traditional grandpa passing on the ways of his people to his modern-minded grandson.

It's a heart-warming tale, without being too sappy, which captures the spirit and climate of Alaska well.  I was surprised how respectful the film was toward all the parties involved, honoring the traditions of the native Alaskans, showing the friendly side of the news media, making me not hate Greenpeace, and making greenies not hate the oil company.  As a bonus, we get a cameo of Sarah Palin, the big-haired sports anchor, in all her 1980s glory!  Watch for her at the very end of the movie.

My one complaint: this is billed as a family movie, and there was a lot of mild swearing.  My 10 year old was appalled.  He wanted to leave the theater, but I insisted we stay (Does that make me a bad dad?).  At the end he gave me a tally: around 20 cusses.  I wish I could ask the filmmakers why they insisted on including such language (although to most people, it may seem like the language is unrealistically mild).

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen (The Forest for the Trees)

This was a painful movie to watch.  The Forest for the Trees is a good movie, but the pain of the protagonist and her professional struggles as a new teacher hit too close to home.  Melanie, young, idealistic, and a bit awkward, takes over a ninth-grade class at mid-term.  They are impossibly rude and unruly.  The other teachers and parents have no sympathy for her struggles in the classroom, making her school day miserable.  I totally related to her plight; my undistinguished teaching career fizzled out in the face of such students.  I hated every minute of it.
This movie reminded me how much I hated my students.
On top of her horrible school experience, she is a young, single girl in a new town.  She attempts to reach out to her neighbor for friendship, but makes a few too many faux pas, destroying that connection.  I have been lucky to have been able to make friends quickly, and to have a wonderful wife to share experiences with, so I couldn't relate first-hand to Melanie's social pain, but I think we all do feel lonely sometimes.

The Forest for the Trees is a very real, almost documentary-like, story of a common struggle.  Melanie, wonderfully portrayed by Eva Löbau, becomes everywoman or everyman, either reminding us of times we've felt the same as her in a new job, home, or social situation, or giving us pause to be thankful that we're not her.

Bottom line, 3 stars.






Monday, March 12, 2012

Mammoth

Leo is a millionaire video game/internet/social networking guy (we don't get to see him at work, and all we really know is that some Asian investors are considering putting tens of millions into the company he started).  Ellen, his wife, works tirelessly as a surgeon in a big-city E.R., on the night shift, getting the hard cases.  Well, she does get tired actually.  They have a daughter, Jackie, who's cute as can be, smart and perfect, but who is mostly being raised by the Filipino nanny.  In a sense, they're the perfect little family, but Leo and Ellen are both so flaky that I can't believe they're so successful.  Sure, there may be some flukish internet millionaires who had a great idea but are nincompoops otherwise.  And a doctor doesn't have to have her life together outside of the O.R. to be successful in it.  But this pair is not credible.

That criticism aside, Mammoth turns into a pretty good story about family life.  Not all of us can relate to having a foreign, live-in nanny, but surely we can all stop and think about how much time we spend with our kids.  And not all of us are flying overseas for multi-million dollar investment capital talks, but we can all stop and think about how our business life affects our family life.  Thankfully, we, in the U.S., don't typically have to relocate halfway around the world, leaving our kids behind with relatives, while we struggle to earn money to send home so our family can have a decent life, but we can stop and think about what sacrifices we make for our families.
The perfect, not-so-perfect family.
Mammoth explores these dilemmas as Ellen cares for a boy who was stabbed by his mom while Gloria care for Ellen's daughter, as Gloria's children miss her and wonder why she can't come home, as Leo twiddles his thumbs and gets into some uncharacteristic trouble in Thailand while his wife is at home.  On a larger scale, the contrasts between Leo's family's struggles and the struggles of Gloria's family in the Philippines, as well the poverty Leo observes in Thailand send a strong secondary message.  Written and directed by Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson, Mammoth has a mood and pace that set it apart from most American films--in a good way.  The strings of the story come together in the end that may be a little too neat and clean, contrasting with the seedy, disturbing paths the characters traveled, but I was left feeling good about the pro-family message here.

Bottom line, 3 stars.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Kærlighed på film (Just Another Love Story)

Here's a movie from Denmark that was unexpectedly compelling.  Jonas, not particularly happy in his marriage or his job as a crime scene photographer, witnesses a terrible wreck.  He assists the victim, Julia, young and pretty, but does not stay at the scene after emergency crews arrive.  The next day he heads to the hospital to see how she's doing.  As he's leaving, one of his colleagues asks if she's pretty.  Jonas admits, well, yes she is.  His colleague quips, "A beautiful woman and a mystery.  Isn't that how any film noir starts?"
Julia's family is so pleased to meet this man who clearly loves her.
And noir it is.  When Jonas arrives at the hospital, he is immediately assumed to be Sebastian, Julia's lover whom the family has never met.  She comes around, but with amnesia, so she starts thinking Jonas is Sebastian.  Jonas falls in love with Julia, and although he makes a few half-hearted attempts to disabuse them of the notion that he is Sebastian, he does not want to give up Julia.  As you might expect, Julia's memory starts coming back, and there is some question whether Sebastian is still alive. . . .

I have said before that movies whose whole premise is based on stupid choices by the main characters drive me nuts, and there's some of that here.  Why didn't Jonas tell everyone from the start that he wasn't Sebastian, that he was just a nice guy who wanted to check on Julia?  Well, if he had, we wouldn't have the noir, would we?  He keeps digging the hole for himself, and the suspense builds as we wonder how it's all going to come crashing down on him.  I liked it.

Bottom line, 3 stars.



Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Jaffa

In many ways, Jaffa is a typical domestic drama that could take place anywhere in the world.  Reuven owns a garage in Jaffa; his son, Meir, and daughter, Mali, work for him there.  He also employs Hassan and Hassan's son Toufik.  Unbeknownst to anyone else in either family, Mali and Toufik are in love, making plans to elope.  Tragedy strikes when Toufik and Meir get in a fight and Meir is accidentally killed.

The twist here is the religious and cultural setting.  In the ethnic and religious mix that is Jaffa, Jews and Muslims get along well enough to work together, but prejudice and suspicion abound.  Reuven values Hassan and Toufik as employees, but Meir and Reuven's wife criticize and deride them as lesser people.  Mali and Toufik share a love that transcends their differences, but are still wary enough to keep their affair secret.
I know I, like every other human, harbor prejudices and preferences that can taint my relationships with others.  But I simply cannot wrap my mind around the animosity between Jews and Muslims as portrayed in Jaffa and many other films (not to mention the nightly news).  Sure they can get along in small ways--hiring them to work in your business, falling in love--but as a whole, they're blowing each other up.  What a sad way to live.  Good movie, though.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dragon Wars: D-War

This is one of those movies I'm almost embarrassed to admit I saw.  I checked it out thinking it might be fun to watch with my boys, but, besides some bad language, I am reluctant to expose them to such a bad movie.  In keeping with a Korean legend, a dragon arises after its 500-year slumber in, where else, L.A.  Big monsters attack L.A.  That's all you need to know.  Big special effects, cheesy acting, and bad writing.  I'm not saying don't watch it, I'm just warning you about what to expect.

Bottom line, 1 star.



Friday, February 17, 2012

Jolene

I have to admit that I have never read anything by the famous American author E. L. Doctorow.  His is one of those names I know but about whom I know little to nothing.  After watching Jolene, based on one of Doctorow's stories, I don't really want to read anything of his.

Poor Jolene.  An orphan raised in, and serially abused in, foster homes, she finds someone to marry her at 16, seeing her way out of her hopeless life.  She shortly makes things worse for herself, going through a series of hard times and relationships that begin ideally and end in horrible circumstances.  If there's something to be gained from this film, it's a positive message that we are not defined by our past but by our hope for better things.  But Jolene takes an ugly path to get there.
Flattery will get you everywhere with Jolene.
Especially troubling is the last relationship depicted in the movie.  She meets a young man who is the only son of Tulsa's leading family.  A caricatured evangelical, he declares that the Lord sent her to him and inquires whether she is saved, all on their first date.  Jolene tries to put him off when he asks her to marry him, but he declares his love for her no matter her past, and again affirms that the Lord meant them to be together.  When he turns out to be an abusive, critical husband who in fact cares very much about her checkered history, the viewer is supposed not to be surprised by his hypocrisy.  This treatment is in stark contrast to the Vegas bookie who treats her like a queen.  Does Mr. Doctorow really see Christianity solely as the realm of hypocrites?  Or do some of his other stories give a more balanced, realistic view of life?  It's just troubling for me to see such depictions, especially since it seems like an anti-Christian raises a writer up a notch as more enlightened.

Good for Jolene for pressing on in spite of the repeated bad hands she's dealt.  Bad for Doctorow for demeaning the greatest source of hope she might have found.

Bottom line, 2 stars.



Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hanna

Hanna, played by Soairse Ronan, is a lovely but deadly teenager who has been raised alone by her father in a remote area near the arctic circle.  Under his tutelage, she has become an accomplished hunter and fighter, as well as gaining an encyclopedic knowledge of, well, everything in the encyclopedia.  What she has not encountered, however, are things like electricity, plumbing, and other people.

When she finally decides she is ready to leave home, her father digs up a transmitter and we learn that he was a CIA asset, and that he disappeared off their grid years ago.  He and Hanna become the hunted, leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake.
Hanna: pure, innocent, and deadly.
Hanna is a fabulous action movie which will have you cheering for this determined young woman who is trying to find out who she is.  Sure, she's a cold-blooded killer, but given the circumstances of her birth and upbringing, she seems to be the righteous one.

Bottom line, 3 stars.





Monday, February 13, 2012

Diva

There was something off-putting about this movie that made me not excited to see it.  I guess because today if you hear "diva" you think of some teeny bopper movie or pop star who thinks the world revolves around her.  But apparently the word was originally meant to mean, as it does in the move Diva, a great female opera singer.

Diva brings together the titular great opera singer and a postman who is her undying fan and who surreptitiously records her performances.  They, and the postman's tapes, get mixed up with a tape recorded by someone looking to expose corruption in the Paris police department and the people willing to kill to keep that tape secret.
The Diva lets Jules listen in as she rehearses.
This is a beautifully shot movie, with a great mix of class, humor, and action.  It's refreshing to see someone go gaga over an opera singing diva rather than the pop tarts kids go crazy over now.  If I knew Paris better, I probably would have better appreciated the setting, but still enjoyed the variety of settings: the opera house, fancy hotels, seedy neighborhoods, the subway chase.

Diva is 30 years old, but still has a fresh, timely feel to it.  Enjoy!

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.



Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Omen (1976 & 2006)

I probably saw the 1976 version of The Omen when I was kid.  I was pretty addicted to HBO.  For some reason I decided to watch the old one and this new version back-to-back.  I wouldn't have thought the movie was crying out to be remade, but here it is, and I think it's better than the first.  The new version also updates the signs of the coming of the antichrist.
Creepy kid 2006.

Creepy kid 1976.
I tend to be agnostic about end times discussion and biblical apocalyptic prophecy.  I never read the Left Behind books and don't have any desire to.  There's no way I can know what's right and what's really going to happen, so I lean on this truth: I know who wins in the end, and I'm on his side!  So these movies about the antichrist don't interest me much.

Creepy kid, clueless parents, violent deaths, the devil at work.  Thank you Jesus that you are Lord of all.

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars for both.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Creation

Common misconception: Darwin's theory of evolution is completely incompatible with theism.  Even if you fully accept every jot and tittle of Darwinian evolution, the theory itself does not exclude the possibility of an intelligent designer, e.g. the biblical God.  Unfortunately, many people have accepted Darwinism to the exclusion of Christianity, and many Christians have had their faith shaken or even lost because of a misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution.

I don't want to get into an extended discussion of Darwin's theories (I think he was partly right), but I do with people would recognize that biblical Christianity has room for Darwin.  According to Creation, Darwin, his wife, and his contemporaries thought otherwise.  Darwin was convinced by his colleague Thomas Huxley that his theory has "killed God."  His religious wife and their pastor were similarly convinced.  As a result, Darwin delayed completing and publishing his work On the Origin of Species for many years.
Seems like Darwin would have been awestruck by God's power in creation rather than thinking he had eliminated the possibility of God.
Creation follows Darwin's struggle with whether to publish, and the resulting personal and family issues.  His biggest struggle was dealing with the loss of his oldest daughter; his writing and research take second place to the grief and guilt he feels over her death.  Creation gives a unique glimpse not only into the mind of a genius, but into his family life and the cultural and religious setting in which he lived.  In spite of the flawed dichotomy between religion and science at the core of the story, this was a really good movie.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Rabbit Hole

Are you depressed?  No?  Watch Rabbit Hole and you will be, especially if you're a parent.  The Corbetts are happy, beautiful and apparently rich, but their picture-perfect world was shattered when their son was hit by a car and killed.  With grueling realism, we see them avoid their friends, deal with the irresponsible, unmarried sister who becomes pregnant, and struggle with getting rid of their son's toys and clothes and deciding whether to sell their house.

In one particularly painful scene, another couple at a support group talks about dealing with losing their child.  "God needed another angel."  This doesn't sit well with Becca Corbett.  She doesn't buy it.  "Why didn't he just make one!  I mean, he's God after all!"  Later, her mother gently reminds her that religion and God can be a comfort in a time of loss, as it was for her when Becca's brother died.  Mom says, "You're not right about everything, you know.  What if there is a God?"  Becca shoots back, "Then I'd say he's a sadistic prick. . . 'Worship me and I'll treat you like sh--.'" 
She's very, very sad.
Wow.  That's painful to hear.  But to be honest, who can blame her?  I might have the same reaction if I were to lose a child or go through another painful loss.  Rabbit Hole is depressing, and doesn't offer much hope, certainly not from a Christian perspective, although we do see steps toward rebuilding of the Corbett's marriage, as well as genuine movement toward forgiveness of the young man who hit their son.  This is a solid, thoughtful film reflecting on rebuilding lives after the loss of a child.

 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

A few weeks too late for Christmas, I know, but still you have to see this, one of the funniest, strangest, yet somehow rather endearing Christmas movies you'll see.  Don't worry, It's a Wonderful Life and other Christmas favorites need not worry about losing their top spot, but Rare Exports will elbow its way in on the quirky end of your list.
Have you been a good boy this year?  You'd better hope so.
In arctic Finland, some young boys observe a mining company's work on a nearby mountaintop.  The boys overhear conversations indicating that the company has found Santa Claus himself.  The boy researches Finnish legends of Santa, learning about the dark Santa who boils bad kids, and who was mysteriously replaced by the "Coca-Cola Santa" about the time the real, dark Santa was buried.  Suddenly it's up to the boy and his reluctant dad to save the town's kids, restore the local economy, and save Christmas itself.
Think twice before opening that last door on the Advent calendar!
Clever and hilarious, plus plenty creepy, Rare Exports will make you look twice at the mall Santa next year, and keep your kids a little closer when you hear that Santa's coming around!  (Speaking of kids: this movie is not for them!)

Bottom line, 4 stars.



Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ajami

Fact: In the Middle East, Arabs and Christians are locked in a death feud, even though they're neighbors, often trade peacefully, go to school together, their children play together and marry.  But they keep killing.  I don't begin to understand it.  Same goes for different groups of Arabs.

Fact: poor young men in poor, hopeless neighborhoods worldwide turn to murder, drugs and other black market activities to try to get by.  I guess I naively thought that religious young men living in the Holy Land, a day's walk from some of the holiest sites of their faith, would somehow rise above.
Fact: revenge killings only lead to more revenge killings.
In Ajami, these two realities come together dramatically and tragically, as several interrelated stories illustrate the struggles in modern Tel Aviv.  It's fast-paced, with sequences deliberately out of order, and sometimes a little complex, one of those movies where they jump to the next scene and you (OK, I.  You are probably a more attentive movie watcher than I am.) have to stop and think, who are these guys and how do they relate to the other guys?  But even my little brain could grasp the stories as they snowball together.

Ajami is gritty, at times violent, and tastes genuine.  Well-made, well-acted, well worth a look.  This land of the Bible is calling out for redemption and reconciliation.  Let it be soon, Lord.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.



Sunday, January 22, 2012

Atlas Shrugged Part 1

I finally got around to watching Atlas Shrugged Part 1.  I knew I would be sort of disappointed.  There's just no way a movie, or a series of movies, can capture the epic scope and vast ideas of Ayn Rand's classic novel.  The good news is that, first of all, the movie is well made.  It's a solid, quality production.  It also makes a great effort to capture the tone and message of the novel.  Clearly, the writers and producers respect the novel and wanted to bring Rand's message to a broad audience without a lot of editorial alteration.
Taylor Schilling is perfectly cast as Dagny Taggart. 
The end result is a movie that a bit wooden, with a primary appeal to fans of the novel.  It's a decent Cliff's Notes introduction, and hopefully will inspire viewers to pick up the book.  I know I'll be watching when Part 2 comes out.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sucker Punch

I don't think I was the target demographic for Sucker Punch.  However, I'm not exactly sure who this movie was directed at.  It's full of pretty girls in awesome martial arts scenes, so guys into superhero type movies will like the action, but the story itself, well, it's too clever and odd for its own good.
Girls with guns (and swords and kung-fu skills) can't save this movie from stinking.
After Baby Doll's mother dies, her evil stepfather tries to molest Baby Doll's sister.  She tries to defend her sister, but ends up accidentally shooting her instead of Stepdad.  He uses the occasion as an excuse to have Baby Doll committed to an asylum and claim his late wife's fortune for himself.  Baby Doll immediately leaps into a parallel fantasy world, rallying her fellow inmates in a rebellion.  The action flows between fantasy sequences within fantasy sequences.  The action is intense and visually stunning, which is the whole point.  Other than that, this is a bad movie.  Bad, bad, bad.

Bottom line, 1 star

Monday, January 16, 2012

Meek's Cutoff

I have sometimes thought that it would be cool to be a pioneer to a new territory.  The pre-Colonial Europeans who came to America to settle in a new world, the American pioneers who headed west to largely unknown, certainly untamed lands in hopes of establishing a new life, those are heroes in many ways.  Meek's Cutoff might portray some of those heroes, but not in a way that makes me wish I could have followed their path.

Under the leadership of hired guide Stephen Meek, three families heading west to start a new life get seriously lost.  Meek thought he knew a shortcut off the Oregon Trail.  Tensions run high, the men wonder if Meek is lost or just leading them astray, and an Indian they capture doesn't seem to be any more reliable.  Of course, they can't talk to him, since none of them know the Indian's language.  The stark, high-desert landscape is beautiful, but desolate, and very, very dry.  If they don't find water soon, they may perish out there. . . .
It's a long walk to Oregon.
For a sense of what these early pioneers went through to settle the West, Meek's Crossing, which is based on true events, tells a pretty good story.  But it also does something that drives me crazy in a movie: it just stops.  Call me simple-minded, but I prefer a bit of resolution.  However, the acting is good, the slow-building tension is palpable, and the historical and geographical setting draws you in.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.



Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Everything Must Go

I'll tell you right now, I hate depressing movies disguised as comedies.  The worst offender ever: Mrs. Doubtfire.  Robin Williams dresses up like an old nanny so he can spend time with his kids.  There's comedy there, but the whole movie is under the dark cloud of the depression of a man who is separated from his children.  How sad.

In a similar vein, Will Farrell, who has been hilarious in several movies and on Saturday Night Live, tries to be funny in a depressing movie.  He plays a somewhat successful businessman whose struggle with a drinking problem gets him into trouble and gets him fired, after some business trip revelry which included a tryst with a female colleague.  So he gets fired, and when he gets home his wife has left, changed the locks on the house, and moved all his things out on the lawn.  He "moves in" to his front yard and contemplates getting his life back together.
OK, there are some funny lines, funny situations, and even some touching moments with the neighbor across the street and the neighbor boy who hangs out with him.  But mostly, it's a bleak, sad picture of a man who has truly hit bottom.  This was painful to watch.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Conspirator

The Conspirator may not be the best movie I've seen this year, although it is very good, but the best thing about it is the faith it restores in me in film as a medium.  I am a self-described movie glutton; I watch a lot of movies.  Many of them don't even make it on this blog.  (Sometimes that's the case because I watch a movie that's so bad, I'm embarrassed even to admit I've watched it.  Like the made-for-TV movie I watched last night.  It's so bad I'm not even going to tell you the name!  Other times, it's just that I fall behind in my posts, and put off blogging until I can barely remember a movie enough to say anything about it.)

Back to The Conspirator.  The story begins with the assassination of President Lincoln and the arrest of the conspirators who worked with John Wilkes Booth to pull it off.  One of the conspirators was John Surratt.  He and his cohorts met at his mother's boarding house for their planning sessions.  John is the only conspirator to slip away; his mother, Mary, is arrested and held less for her complicity in the conspiracy than for her usefulness as bait for John.
Believe it or not, Mary is Buttercup, from The Princess Bride.
I have no idea how historically accurate the movie is.  I think it follows historical events fairly closely.  The main plot surrounds Frederick Aiken's defense of Mary.  He unsuccessfully prevents her from being the first woman executed by the U.S. government.  With the period costumes and sets, the movie draws the viewer into the period, telling a story that is not only historically significant but also gripping.  I'm left thinking about how a nation which suffers a major blow seeks out someone against whom to retaliate.  A nation mourning the death of their president found the conspirators to blame and punish; quick, retributive punishment became more important than truth and justice.  After the attacks of 9/11, I wonder how much retribution was done at the expense of trust and justice. . . .  Just a thought.

Bottom line, 3 stars.




Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Olympia

In 1936, Hitler wanted German, and German/Aryan superiority to go on display for the whole world to see.  Hosting the Olympics gave him the stage, and, to the credit of the Germans, they did raise the bar for the Olympics, elevating the games beyond a sporting event to a spectacle.  German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was there to capture it all on film.
The diving scenes are among the most famous.
The greatest contribution Olympia gives us is the extent to which Riefenstahl documented the events themselves.  The games were broadcast on television, but in a very limited way.  The massive coverage we enjoy of every Olympic event today was unheard of then, of course.  Unlike sports coverage today, Riefenstahl does not emphasize the names, countries, or back stories of the athletes, but the form of their bodies and the mechanics of their feats.  She includes little dialogue or commentary, but focuses on the beauty of motion and athletic skill.  You definitely see more glory than agony of defeat.  Even on decades-old film, Olympia captures the speed and grace of the athletes beautifully.
See how the runners had to dig out their "starting blocks"?
We, of course, have the benefit of historical hindsight watching this today, but I think surely even objective viewers at the time must have been put off by the fawning over Hitler.  Overseeing the games as the grand host, Hitler appears as the almighty game master.  Tens of thousands of citizens in the stands gleefully salute the Fuhrer.  He smugly celebrates the victories of his Aryan subjects.  But--hah!--when that African-American superstar, Jesse Owens, wins medal after medal, beating out Hitler's chosen ones, what did he think then?
The opening ceremonies would have been better without all the goose-stepping and heil-ing.
Riefenstahl's Olympia is considered one of the great sports films and pioneered several filming techniques.  I know nothing about making a movie, or about the technical requirements of certain kinds of filming.  I do know this: most of this movie can be done better today with a low-cost, commercially available, hand-held video camera.  This is not to slight Riefenstahl, but to say that the modern film watcher is spoiled by what we see in theaters and what we're able to film on our own.

As an historical artifact, Olympia is valuable and important both for the Olympics and for the filming of sporting events.  But for purposes of entertainment and enjoyment, you might be left wondering what's the big deal.