Monday, December 29, 2008

Valkyrie

Wow!

I compare "Valkyrie" to "Apollo 13" - we all know how it turns out, but in the telling of the story, we're mesmerized in it's unfolding, anxious for all the maybes and could-have-beens.

Cruise is excellent in this role - Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg - a professional soldier - a Prussian - dedicated to his work and utterly devoted to his Fatherland. But that's the rub - whose Germany is it? Is it Hitler's Germany to which he's loyal, or something larger, something better?

Several TV reviews last night (December 28) took Cruise to task - one said, "too bad he's in every scene."

In my take on things, not even close to the truth - he's perfect for the role. A devoted man, good looking and utterly clear - so Prussian!

A Wikipedia picture of Stauffenberg with Hitler bears a striking resemblance in profile and carriage to Cruise in the film - standing erect on the far left.

But this film, unlike "The Wrestler," is story-driven, not actor-driven. It's a big story with dozens of characters - large and small (had the feel of "The Longest Day" now and then); I was pleased with the casting - everyone seems just right for their respective roles - from the pompous and self-important, to the cautious and reluctant, and those in the middle - utterly clear about ultimate loyalties and the price to be paid, for both success and failure.

It's a story we rarely hear, often believing that the whole of Germany stood with Hitler, but the facts are otherwise. There were a number of plots to remove Hitler, beginning in the late 1930s (see excellent article about German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Many a German disliked Hitler and Nazism, but the little madman held all the cards, having gathered around him thousands of small-minded men and bureaucratic sycophants devoted to a dream of world-domination.

I was utterly taken by the music - I try to pay attention to such things - whether they work or not - and it all works - the music got to my guts again and again.

Visually, a beautiful film - beginning in North Africa and then on to Berlin and the German High Command. Rich in color and simple camera angles - it all works as the drama unfolds.

The film ends as we know it will - but what a story for us all.

Ever since Vietnam and Reagan, we've seen a false patriotism rear it's ugly head, the kind of patriotism that drove the German nation to ruin, and the kind of patriotism seen as false by Stauffenberg.

Historical accuracy is high - as far as I can tell from what reading I've done - including the discarding of the second plastique bomb as Stauffenberg and his adjutant drive away from the Wolf's Lair after the explosion, convinced Hitler is dead, on their way to Berlin to continue the coup.

That the plot unfolded as it did ... that a man like Stauffenberg could carry a brief-case-hidden bomb into the room wouldn't happen today, what with hyper-surveillance and searches.

The irony is that nine months later Hitler commits suicide, and tragically, those not already executed for the bomb plot were all executed just days before the end.

Stauffenberg's wife lived until April, 2006 - as noted in a few historical notes tagged on at the end. That little note jolted me - it was the connection between the film and its story to the reality of it all - these were real people living in extraordinary times - making fateful and dangerous decisions - to stay the course and see what happens, or take up the cause and actively plot to remove Hitler.

A chilling tale well told. Hats off to the directory, Bryan Singer, and the whole crew.

Marley and Me

Yes.

Not only a film for dog-lovers, but a film for just about anybody who wants to see a young couple work their way through marriage, family, love and loss.

Having lived through much of this myself, I appreciated the thoughtful and realistic manner in which the story was told. Marriage and family are all about love, but challenges lie along the way - like just being dead-tired with babies and a crazy dog.

Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson are a great movie couple; hope they do another. Both gave hints of their growing ability as actors, and conveyed the various stages of their unfolding relationship which spans Marley's life-time.

Marley ... or, Marleys - in all of his permutations. Hats off to the trainers - this dog is hoot. Some wonderfully hilarious moments (without being slapstick), and a lot of chuckles along the way - never a down-time, but well-paced with a lot of story being told.

With an ending we all know, and dread ... without being a tear-jerker.

It's well-done; a great Holiday movie for the entire family.

You'll be glad you went.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

A film the size of “Forest Gump,” the granddaddy of all “big-story movies,” and “Big Fish" – both incredible tales of adventure and love – folks looking for who they are, trying to figure it all out. Set in New Orleans - why do so many great tales have their locale in the South?

Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born a shriveled old man – his mother dying at his birth; his distraught father grabs the infant and flees into the night, ready to toss this ugly creature into the river, but an eagle-eyed police officer forces the father to run and finally leave the child, wrapped in a blanket, on the steps of a nursing home.

Reared with the elderly, Benjamin button begins his life in a wheelchair, afflicted with all the infirmities of age. He likes the nursing home; it’s quiet and peaceful – a place where folks can sit and think about the world.

Then he meet Daisy (Elle Fanning), a red-haired girl full of life – she’s a 7-year old child, and so is he, but he looks like Methuselah. She says, “I think you’re odd,” and he is.

The acting is so very good, and the combination of prosthetics and CG wizardry make for an incredible feast for the eyes. If nothing else, an Academy Award for this.

For me, one of the great images - Benjamin on a 50s motorcycle ... jeans and t-shirt - an homage to two iconic figures: James Dean ("Rebel without a Cause") and Marlon Brando (The Wild One").

“Nothing stays the same,” is a constant refrain in this love story, and that’s what it is finally – love in many different forms: the love of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) for the ugly little baby left on the steps of the nursing home she manages … the love of Daisy … the love of his father, driven as it is by guilt and loneliness – the love of Elizabeth Abbot (Tilda Swinton) a married woman eager to have an affair, in search of her own destiny, intrigued by the man/boy Benjamin, who's now a tugboat man in Russia. But this kind of love can only be for a moment; she leaves Benjamin a note under his door and with that, she's gone, only to be seen years later in TV news - she finally did it (and you'll have to see the movie to discover her accomplishment).

The theme is time … beginning with a blind New Orleans clockmaker who loses his son in WW1, and when commissioned to build a clock for a railway station, he carefully crafts a masterpiece, but when unveiled and started, everyone is shocked to see the secondhand running backward, trying to undo time and its horrors and sadness. That’s when Benjamin is born, and while he grows younger, the rest of the world can only grow older.

Ultimately, he and Daisy meet somewhere in the middle (she, now a talented dancer in Europe – done so well by Cate Blanchett) – their love for one another, not quite in sync, but as the story unfolds from a hospital bed in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina bearing down, a love that finally connected, but with the strangest of results.

The story unfolds with a Daisy’s daughter (Julie Ormond) reading Benjamin’s diary – reading aloud to her mother in the hospital … her voice blending with Benjamin’s, and the scene shifting from now to then.

In one of the most remarkable moments in film, a car accident is analyzed backward … if so-and-so had left but a moment later, if the driver had looked this way rather than that way, and if … ah, the vagaries of time.

I suppose we all learn, sooner or later, that love can be had only on its own terms – that love and all of its desires will have its own way with us, but Benjamin is no mere victim, and neither are we. Decisions can and must be made on behalf of things greater than ourselves.

Across the broad horizon of this remarkable story – nobility in love and loss. A simple reminder to each of us that our humanity is quite extraordinary, that we’re capable of great love and sacrifice.

In the end, to have loved and be loved. Isn’t this the sum of it all?

Rarely as we hope, but if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, it will be just fine.

A film extraordinary in breadth of story and depth of meaning. I loved it, and will see it again, and likely again and again.

This is a must-see film.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Wrestler


What an amazing film, poignant story, actor-driven ... mesmerizing ... sort of like watch a train wreck in slow motion, and unexpectedly seeing survivors.

Mickey Rourke is at the top of his form, and so is Marisa Tomei.

Both are at the end of the road, so to speak, for their respective "careers" - he, a wrestler, and she, a stripper.

Both struggle alone - she has a young son for whom she's working hard and hopes to go to school soon, and he, a broken relationship with an adult daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) for whom he's missed too many birthdays. She doesn't want to see him any more.

His effort to reach out is poignant, to say the least. And for a few moments, it works. In one of the most touching scenes I've ever seen, the two of them are walking through an abandoned amusement park on the boardwalk. He's walking toward the camera, she following behind, and then, with quickened pace, she catches up and loops her arm through her father's arm and leans her head on his shoulder.

His daughter's heart is reachable, but she knows the terrain of her father's heart, too.

At the end of the career road, he doesn't want to be alone; she says, "You just want someone to take care of you." In the end, he blows it again - did we expect anything else? Perhaps in a fairy tale, but a tiger doesn't change it stripes, and neither does Randy "The Ram" Robinson.

A heart attack finishes him. No more wrestling, so he ups his hours at the local grocery store, taking a weekend job in the deli. If there's ever been a better portrait of the humiliation of the worker, I've yet to see it. He gives it his best shot, but in the end, he can't take the humiliation, so he quits, and quits with style - his pride intact. I'm not gonna take this any more.

Meanwhile, at a local strip club, he's formed a "relationship" with an aging stripper. For her, he's a customer, but he'd like it to be more, and, as we discover, so would she.

In one of the best plot devices I've seen, they're like two ships passing in the night - needing love and companionship, but unable to connect, unable to be anything else then what they're doing. Are they trapped? Sort of! But they are who and what they are - a combination of choice and circumstance.

Both end up rebuffing one another - she at her work when he asks her for something more, and he, when he decides against doctor's orders, to enter the ring once again - she left work early to stop him before he wrestles, prepared to tell him, "Yes," but he enters the ring instead.

This story is about redemption - not the kind we'd like to see, what with a "they lived happily ever after" - but something simpler, and more profound at the same time - grace within the boundaries of our life; mostly a life accidental, a life of mistakes and short-sighted decisions, but it's the only life we've got.

Theologically, I ask, Where's God?

The film suggests (in a purely secular fashion) that God is found where we are, not where we're supposed to be, and likely, there is no "supposed to be" - there is only, Where we are! And that's the hope we see at the end - God with Randy "The Ram" in the ring, and with Cassidy in the stip club.

This is terrific film in all regards ... sad, but not a tear-jerker. A bit violent, that's for sure, as we get a picture of the professional wrestler playing all the American legion halls - wherever they can, for the love of the game, and whatever money they can make. Some of the scenes are "rather graphic," but don't let that deter you. This is a story worth knowing and a film worth seeing.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Gran Torino

Gran Torino,” directed by and starring Clint Eastwood and a host of unknowns (we will be seeing more of them) portraying the Hmong family next door and the members of a Hmong gang, is a remarkable story and a very good film.

It’s a story about redemption!

Filmed in the Detroit area, it was fun for me (having lived there 16 years) to see the homes and streets so typical of this workingman’s city, and a few remarks about the cold weather uttered by Walt (Eastwood) – weather that ought to keep the foreigners out.

Which brings me to the heart of the story: Walt is a retired autoworker who put the steering column into his pride and joy, a mint-condition, 1972 Gran Torino. His is the story of Detroit – the auto industry waning, the population flux overwhelming, and the world Walt knew is no more – he’s a stranger in a strange land, right in his own neighborhood.

His wife of many years died, his children don’t understand him, and he sits on his porch, guns ready, drinking gallons of beer and smoking, grumbling and mumbling to himself about the “slopes” next door and the general condition of the world he no longer understands.

The story is really very funny much of the time as the script unloads virtually ever racial and ethnic slur in the American vocabulary (with the exception of the “n” word, for which I was grateful). Walt doesn’t know how to talk about anyone different than him other than in crude ways. Even his barber who’s been cutting his hair for years is greeted with a string of ethnic epithets and curses, and gladly returned by the barber. As Eastwood delivers these lines, the audience is heartily laughing, though guardedly, I noticed.

As Eastwood grudgingly gets to know the family next door, and grumpily befriends the young man, they both go to the barber shop where Eastwood is going to school him in the fine art of man-talk. It’s comedic energy reminded me of the scene in “The Bird Cage,” when Robin Williams tries to teach Nathan Lane how to walk like a man. Enough said. It’s great and full of belly laughs.

But Eastwood is doing more than an Archie Bunker routine; Eastwood captures the alienation of an American workingman who sees his world fading away. It’s a lonely, angry, time.

The Hmong family next door and their traditions is a highlight of the film – there are other cultures and other worlds, and these days, the borders between are growing thin. What will we do?

Religion plays an interesting role here. Fr. Janovich (Cristopher Carley) is young and “just-outta-priest-school” befriended by Walt’s wife in her dying days. She made the young priest promise to get Walt to confession, and he works at it with considerable pastoral skill. Though collared and liturgically garbed some of the time, much of time the young priest is dressed casually. Does this young priest represent a new world as well?

Being a pastor myself, I’m sensitive to the stereotypes that mostly show up on the tube and the silver screen – no stereotypes here – a well-done job by the writers and Eastood.

The most striking feature of the story is the ending, and I won’t give it away, other than to say it’s a real surprise – a moment of redemption and love, and as every religion knows, redemption and love are costly! But the price is worth it!

An entertaining film with a very good story – the price of seeing this film is worth it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Doubt

No doubt about “Doubt.”

A remarkable film – actor-driven … great story … a parable about doubt – the doubt we have about others, and the doubt of our doubt.

Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman (as Fr. Brendan Flynn) and Meryl Streep (as Sister Aloysius Beauvier), the film adaptation of the drama (click HERE for a March, 2005 review of the Broadway play) by John Patrick Shanley is filmed during a dreary Bronx winter – as is the story, so the setting: cold, damp, without much light … and a few blown light bulbs along the way.

Hoffman is his usual best – he always surprises me with how effectively his lines are delivered – always the emotion, tuned so finely to convey the power and despair of the moment.

Streep is equally good, but not as consistent. They were times I knew she was acting, and that was getting in the way of her character. At the risk of being a bit too critical, I’ve always felt this was her burden in an otherwise brilliant career (her work in “Out of Africa” remains her high water mark for me; and who could beat her in "Mama Mia").

At the risk of giving the story away, Sr. Aloysius has her doubts about Fr. Flynn. Has he or has he not. As the story unfolds, we see her determination grow stronger, convincing herself, and others, of the Fr.’s guilt, slowly building a case against him in her own mind, involving others in her effort to snare the priest and compel him to confession.

We learn along the way that she herself has suffered serious loss. A WW2 widow who then, for whatever reason, became a nun, fierce in her determination to run the school and destroy this bad priest.

Set at St. Nicholas church and school, 1964, it’s a story about changing times and the clash of cultures. The priest represents change; Sr. is tradition, and never the two shall meet.

Sr. James (brilliantly played by Amy Adams), a sweet and innocent nun caught right in the middle –  wavers constantly between her trust of the priest and her grudging admiration for Sr., trying to be as tough as Sr., at one point in a difficult classroom, but failing miserably and disgusted with herself, she apologizes to the student.

The film ends dramatically, leaving one with all the questions, and none of the answers, as a good parable often does.

When seeing it, don’t be sidetracked with the wrong questions – one of the first lessons learned when reading and interpreting parables. This is NOT a film about religion, although religion is the context. It's not about gender issues, although they flavor the story. It's not about race, though race has a major role to play. It's about the darker side of the soul, obsession, and the power we have to assassinate someone's character.

The film reminded me of a David Mamet play, "Oleanna," wherein a student accuses a professor of impropriety and destroys his chances for tenure. At the end of the play, as here with "Doubt," we're left wondering just what it was the priest did, if anything, and if something was done earlier in his career, was it related to Sr.'s suspicion, or something not even connected.

Be focused on the central issue, not sidebar questions that cannot be answered, or, if answered, will only lead to further misleading questions.

This is a fine film, but not one for holiday jollies. If you want to think, try “Doubt.”

Sunday, December 14, 2008

De-Lovely - 2004

Kevin Klein is just one of the best, and his portrayal of Cole Porter is amazing.

A gentle-souled man, hugely talented, looking for love - Porter says: I wanted every kind of love that was available; I could never find it in the same person, or the same sex.”

The film’s clever story-line: an aging Cole Porter, sitting in a empty theater with Gabe (Jonathan Pryce), a director, watching himself on stage, rehearsing a three-act show – his life story, told through his music.

The central feature is his meeting with and marrying Linda - as he sits in the theater, watching rehearsal, the actors gather on stage to rehearse "Anything Goes" - and then, emerging from the dancers, Linda (Ashley Judd).

Judd is terrific - portraying a woman deeply in love, but profoundly realistic about Porter: “You don’t have to love me the way I love you Cole. Just love me.” Judd demonstrates a great deal of maturity in this challenging role.

In three acts: (1) Porter and Linda meet in Paris, and they marry, in spite of her knowledge that he’s gay. (2) On to New York and Hollywood, and fame, with all the attendant joys and sorrows, including a good many young men who capture Porter’s attention. (3) A brutal horse-riding accident leaves Porter seriously injured, and in months of therapy and surgeries, Cole and Linda are drawn ever closer together.

The film is all about music, but it’s also a love story – messy, chaotic and ultimately beautiful. As one of Porter's songs asks, "What is this thing called love?"

Yet as Gabe says to Linda during rehearsal, “Have you eve seen a musical without a happy ending?” 

When it comes to love, the pathway is often tortured, but love endures, as the Bible says. And here’s a love that endures every test and emerges the winner. So, "let's fall in love ...

The most refined lady bu-u-ugs do it 
When a gentleman calls 
Moths in your rugs do it 
What's the use of moth balls 

locusts in trees do it
bees do it
even over-educated fleas do it
let's do it, let's fall in love!

let's do it le-e-et's fall in love
let's do it, let's fall in love!

I absolutely love this film – the music and dancing, of course, are great, and happy, and profound, as is Porter’s music. The script is brilliant, loaded with marvelous throwaway lines that entertain and surprise with both wit and profundity.

Looking for something to do on a cold wintry night? Rent “De-Lovely. It’s de-lightful, it’s de-licious … it IS de-lovely!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Frost/Nixon

Directed by Ron Howard and starring two first-class actors, Frank Langella (Richard Nixon)  and Michael Sheen (David Frost), this is a remarkable film with a remarkable story. Prior to seeing the film, and having seen only the trailers, I was a tad bit concerned that Nixon would be mocked, his mannerisms lifted up for ridicule, but such was not the case. Langella's performance is worthy of an Academy nomination, if not the award for best actor.

The story itself is riveting!

A brash and somewhat superficial British talk show host suddenly gets a brainstorm - interview Richard Nixon. Putting together the cash to pull it off is a long-shot, but to make a long story short, it's done.

The heart of the story, however, is the interview itself. Nixon, the consummate interviewee, playing Frost like Fritz Chrysler played the violin. Nixon's advisers, skillful in manipulating the truth, help him trump Frost in the first three two-hour taping segments. Frost is visibly slumping under the Nixon onslaught; it looks like all is lost, and the interview nothing more than a puff piece.

But Frost gathers his wits, and relying on his own advisers, especially James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell), Frost finally engages Nixon about when Nixon knew about Watergate, and if the timing issue was right, then, in fact, Nixon had engaged in a cover-up.

The moment of confrontation - a Nixon adviser interrupts the taping and calls for a timeout. Nixon returns from the conference room deeply sobered. The interview continues, and Nixon comes as close as one can to an admission and an apology. It's a profound moment in the story.

I couldn't help but make comparisons to our current experience. Five years from now, will someone attempt an interview with Bush, and will we hear from this addled little man any admission about the Iraq war, the bungled economy and the pillaging of the environment?

Having recently seen "W," another terrific film, I measured my reactions: for Bush, a sense of sorrow (not sympathy), a man way over his head, a man of limited intelligence driven by a need to win his father's approval.

Nixon, on the other hand, a tragic figure. A man of considerable intelligence who understood much of the world, whose achievement with China will stand the test of time, but driven by demons. While "W" is much more a study of Bush, "Frost/Nixon" is a moment in time, with only hints at the personalities. Though in one remarkable scene, a drunk Nixon calls Frost in the middle of the night, and in a powerfully delivered monologue, reveals something of his soul - an outsider, perpetually the outsider looked down upon by the privileged wealthy, a man rejected by his father.

I left the theater with an appreciation for Nixon - a consummate politician, a man with a grasp of the world, but driven by fear, willing to do anything to protect his hold on the government.

A Shakespearian tragedy if ever there was - a man doomed to fall, brought down by his own demons.

The last few moments are touching - Frost visits Nixon one last time in San Clemente - Nixon, just off the links, apologizes for his casual dress, "what the retired wear." Frost gives Nixon a pair of "Italian shoes" (without laces) which he mistakenly thinks Nixon admired. Frost takes his leave and Nixon stands on the balcony of his home overlooking the Pacific - alone, with a pair of shoes, and the darkness descending - the end of a career.

A great film to see.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire


"Slumdog Millionaire" - an amazing film ... awesome music, great acting ... cinematography ... a jewel of a film.

Incredible scenes - poverty, slums ... that anyone should live like this ...

Congestion unlike anything any American has ever experienced - think rush-hour on the 405 around the clock, every day, world without end.

And the power of love in a little boy who was born with a determination gene - e.g. the moment of decision - trapped in an outhouse suspended over the river by his older brother when a movie star pays a visit to their slum, he holds in his hand a photo of the star, hoping to get his autograph. But what to do - he can't break through the outhouse walls ... looking downward into the shit and refuse, he makes his decision ...

Powerful acting by children - trapped in poverty, orphaned by the death of their mother in vicious inter-religious conflict, victimized by ruthless professionals who organize the children as professional beggars, often disfiguring them to make them a more sympathetic figure - or putting them to work as sex slaves - a hideous, horrible, picture - a world of unimaginable sorrow and violence.

But at the heart of it all, a love story - one of the most unique I've ever seen - beginning in childhood - a time of suffering, fear, loyalty and tragedy - but the love persists, growing deeper. The film juxtaposes the dark and the light, the terrible and the wonderful - a profoundly difficult challenge, but here, brought off with total success.

I found myself cheering them on ... though the odds against it were stupendously high. My heart followed their journey ... the move had me.

By hook and by crook, the young man lands a spot on "You Want to be a Millionaire" - and ...
Do the lovers meet again?
Will she escape her enslavement to a brutal gangster?
Will the young man win the game?

Well, you'll have to see it for yourself.

The film ends with one of the most imaginative ending endings ever ... but I'll not tell.

Go see it!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Australia


A big film with big ideas: love, loyalty, greed and betrayal - all the romance anyone could want, and a powerful social message wrapped up in one of this year's best performances - the charmer of the story, Nullah, a "creamy" - a half-breed Aborigine - 12-year old Brandon Walters.

The Australian outback (is that the term?) has the same sweeping vistas of a "Lawrence of Arabia" - and I think the film tried to capture something of this epic-sized film. Not sure it entirely succeeded, but the message and the acting are superb.

Surely "Gone with the Wind" was another inspiration - note how similar is the accompanying poster is similar to one featured on IMDB for "Gone with the Wind." And Kidman and Jackman are a romantic paradigm, like Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable.

Kidman, the proper English lady goes to Australia to find her husband, sell the ranch, and return home. Jackman, "the Drover" - brawny, tough and independent - no one hires him, no one fires him ... he's his own man.

From the moment she sets foot in Australia, we know what's going to unfold for this proper lady - mostly comedic at first - what's a proper lady like this doing here - the story soon turns dramatic. Upon her arrival at the "ranch," she learns of her husband's murder. Now what? Cheated by the competitor, King Carney, sold out by one of her own men, she grits her teeth and sets her face to save the ranch, including an Aborigine family and the little boy Nullah, who's wisdom and grit win Kidman's heart.

With Jackman on the scene, there's hope - drive their good cattle to Darwin for the army more critically in need of beef as World War 2 heats up. With a rag tag band of drovers, including Kidman who's a horse lady trained in England, they get under way.

But what's a good cattle drive without King Carney, the only other competitor for the army contract, sending his bad guys to stampede the cattle off a cliff ... and what's a stampede without the good guys valiantly standing in the way to save the herd - it's all there - with an Indiana Jones like feel - what with special effects and literal cliff-running drama.

I think of John Wayne's "Red River" as the quintessential image of the cattle drive, surely an image here. Filled with lots of adventure, odd characters and drama, this 165 minute film passed quickly - I was surprised when it ended.

I enjoyed myself, had some good laughs, loved Kidman and Jackman, but will not likely forget the little boy, Nullah, and the horrors of the Australian effort to "breed out the blacks" by taking "creamies" from their families, bringing them to a mission run by the church (what else?) to separate them from their Aboriginal moorings. Once again, the church posts the lowest possible score for humanity. As the close of the film, this note - it was only in the early 70s that the Anglican Church finally ended this mission effort.

The film successfully stitches together odd images: that of the outback, what with horses and ranches, and the Japanese, Pearl Harbor-like attack on Darwin. When I first saw the previews, I wondered how this would be done, and it was done well. Another arresting juxtaposition: Jackman the Drover, roughly dressed and unshaven, and Jackman the clean-shaven man in the white tuxedo - not sure that juxtaposition made it, but it was enough to send the romance meter sky high - the closest this film came to the afternoon soap operas.

But if you like romance without bodice ripping, if you like manly-man adventure, if you like a blend of comedic and dramatic, if you like a big film with big ideas and a social message, go see "Australia."

Transporter 3


Fun, action, story ... sure, it's a formula, but what fun.

A roller coaster ride ... it's over when it's over, but what a ride.

Great special effects ... good acting ... Jason Statham is the Transporter ... tough, gritty, but with a heart.

Great performances by everyone ... but especially one to watch for: Natalya Rudakova.

Enjoy.

Milk


One of the best ... and Sean Penn is the best, with a tremendous supporting roles, including Josh Brolin (what a roll he's on - as Dan White), Emile Hirsh, and James Franco.

In all regards, editing, music, script, acting - an Academy Award level film ... but more importantly, this is a film that takes the soul on a journey.

Stylistically, the film moves alongside scenes of Milk taping a message to be played only if he's assassinated - sort of a narration as the story unfolds.

Milk was 40 when he finally came out of the closet and moved to San Francisco. Determined to do something, he began to work for gay rights, ultimately becoming a San Francisco supervisor, the first openly gay person elected to office anywhere in the United States.

Hats off to Penn for taking on this role - nothing is held back in his portrayal of a gay man, his love, his passion, his hopes and dreams - finally, one gets the impression: guess what, gays, like anyone else, want to love and be loved. It's as simple and as powerful as that.

The film is all the more poignant in view of California's recent passing of Prop 8. That California could defeat Prop 6 in 1978 and then pass Prop 8 in 2008 is beyond me. This will go down as a black mark on California's spirit. Yet I hope that either through the state Supreme Court, or another Prop measure, we'll be able to correct this hideous mistake.

In terms of a message - our American Constitution provides and protects equal rights for all, including gays ... and conservative Christians are at the root of the effort to restrict or deny those rights because "it's God's law."

As a life-long Christian who has championed the cause of social freedom, it's heartbreaking and maddening to see the arrogance of an Anita Bryant and others who so easily claim god for their side - made all the more clear because of the film's use of archival footage.

Upon seeing and hearing Bryant, my first thought - Palin!

Where do they come from? How do they think? And how can Christians see these folks as heroes of the faith (for an example of this, click HERE)? Thankfully, Bryant's career tanked, and so has her life. While one hates to see anyone suffer, I can only be grateful that her presence has been essentially removed from the American scene.

But thinking is not to be found in their ranks, only prejudice and the overwhelming confidence that their take on things is the right and only way - as god would have it!

To think, even for a moment, would bring down the house of cards, and that's what it is - an inherently unstable world view trequiring enormous amounts of energy to keep it propped up - is it any wonder fundamentalists/evangelicals are so edgy? They talk but to themselves, endlessly congratulating one another on their faithfulness to God while deriding and debasing anyone who calls them into question.

Go see the movie! It is a journey for the soul.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Twilight


A movie theater filled with young teen girls ...

"Twilight" - hmmm ...

I was incredibly glad to get out of there ... the film left me cold much of the time (is that a pun?) - felt disconnected, campy, often the feel of a 50s B movie.

The girls in the audience were going crazy ...

Having not read the books, the film has some very important messages:

Edward (Robert Pattinson) the vampire, along with his "family," have chosen to be "vegetarians" - that is to live on the blood of animals, not humans. The live in the Pacific Northwest - so little sun - not that sun destroys them (one of the "myths" dispelled), but rather they glisten in sunlight, as if covered in diamond dust.

In their posh home in the woods, I noticed a cross as part of the decor - another dispelled myth?

His family: a group of "vegetarian" vampires - the "father," a local physician, and the rest of the family - diverse and mostly loving - much like any family anywhere.

Edward's the quintessential hero/lover for a young girl's imagination, but so important for these days, he's in control of his passions, protective of Bella, with something more on his brain than boobs and bodies. No doubt, in a time when young girls are bombarded with pretty dysfunctional images and messages of who they need to be, a film like this must feel so very safe ... and maybe for boys, too.

I can't say this film is well done, but the story trumps the medium.

Bella, played by Kristen Stewart, is a smart, savvy, young lady, not interested in being a part of the crowd. She reminded me a bit of Juno.

Lots of young actors, each of whom show promise. I think we'll be seeing a lot of them in the years ahead.

Supporting roles were all well done ... and, of course, Pacific Northwest scenery - unbeatable, with evocative music.

Will this be a hit?

With the teen-girl crowd, for sure.

Worth seeing? I'm glad I went - it's a cultural thing, for sure. I was glad to leave the theater, but appreciated the message!

And as I think about it, it might be worth seeing again ... though I doubt I'll do it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas


This remarkable film achieves a level of political commentary without direct confrontation of the people or positions under critique.

I thought of Jesus and his use of parables to stir thought and confront indirectly the day's ideological orthodoxy and, thus, confront it very effectively, for what he taught left it's mark on both brain and soul, requiring people to think about it, long and hard.

This film does that all the way. It is a parable!

A simple story of a Nazi general "promoted" to direct a concentration camp. With much excitement, the family leaves their home in Berlin to take up residence in the country, just a mile or so from the "camp."

The father, of course, is proud - he's a soldier playing his part for the fatherland's glory. His father is proud, too, but his mother isn't. The story adroitly reveals the undercurrents of anti-Nazi sentiment.

The general's wife is delighted, as well, not knowing anything about where it's all headed. The two children, a 12-year old daughter (Gretel) and an 8-year old son (Bruno) aren't so sure.

As the story unfolds, the daughter quickly becomes enamored with a young Ayrian lieutenant assigned to her father's staff who quickly fills her mind with disdain for the Jew - "not even human beings." She soon effects the look of the young German ideal - blond pigtails and a head full of rhetoric, festooning her bedroom with Nazi posters.

The boy, however, doesn't see it that way. This little boy is fiercely independent and sees the world through his own innocent eyes.

He's an explorer and soon, against his mother's wishes, wanders through the woods to the edge of the concentration camp, there to meet another 8-year old boy (Shmuel) on the other side of the fence, a Jew, wearing "pajamas." Bruno says, "I've never heard of anyone with that name." Shmuel replies, "I've never known anyone named Bruno." Two different worlds, and how easy it is to build a fence, and even easier then to hate.

As the story proceeds, an inadvertent remark by the young lieutenant to Bruno's mother - about the stench in the air - "they stick as much when you burn 'em" - suddenly pulls the curtain back and she sees what her husband is doing. She's devastated beyond all words and confronts her husband - a man utterly devoted to the Reich, but also to his family.

A story filled with subtleties, questions, and love.

For me, Bruno represents humanity at its best - to see beyond the fences that divide, to make friends, to feed the hungry and recognize the common humanity which we all share.

The father represents blind duty.
The mother, blind love.
The daughter, gullibility.

Politically, the film reveals the horror of nationalism - country first - a pathway to destruction paved with bricks called hatred of "the other."

Bruno is not without fault - at a critical moment in the story, Bruno becomes a coward - but who can blame an 8-year old. The audience groaned in the moment. But what could a child do when faced with the rage of the young lieutenant who thought Bruno had befriended and feed Shmuel who was called to the house, because of his small hands, to clean goblets.

Bruno knows what he did, and tries to make up for it.

Shmuel, for his part, accepts what happened and their little friendship, with a fence in the middle, goes on. Delightedly in the sunshine, they play checkers - Shmuel can only direct Bruno - "move that one there."

In the end, just before leaving for his aunt's place (the father rightly decides that living near the camp is no place for children), Bruno digs a small trench and slips beneath the fence to join Shmuel in a search for Shmuel's father who's "disappeared." To get on the other side of the fence, Shmuel has brought pajamas for Bruno who sheds his clothing and leaves them outside the camp. Once inside, with a cap to hide his full hair, they begin to search for Shmuel's father.

I'll not give the rest of the story away ... but it ends like all such stories must end - nationalism without thought, commitment without question, devotion buttressed by rhetoric and hatred - can only lead to great sorrow.

The children are all remarkable actors:
Asa Butterfield (Bruno)
Jack Scanlon (Shmuel)
Amber Beattie (Gretel)

Not to mention the adults:
David Thewlis (the father)
Vera Framiga (the mother)

And a fine supporting cast ...

Based upon the book by John Boyne.

This IS a must-see film

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Quantum of Solace


Wow, I loved it.

From the get-go, adrenalin-pumping scenes ... all the car and boat chases one can hope for, in exotic cities around the world - from Haiti to Bolivia to Italy and Russia ... wonderfully Bond.

The most amazing thing: the two Daniel Craig Bond films have completely reinvented Bond without destroying the character - there is a clear continuity between Craig and the other Bond films, but what we have in the series now is Bond for the 21st Century.

Tougher, grittier ... no gadgets, only one bedroom romp - what's Bond without it? - but not the stylized sexuality of early Bond. The series is clearly moving away from the "Bond Girl" pattern.

Craig's co-star, Olga Kurylenko (Camillie), is a women intent on revenge, as is Bond. The two stories intertwine nicely as the film unfolds. Though beautiful, Bond and the story resist the obvious potential for a love interest. Bond's lost his true love, and for now, Camillie is his partner in a mutual-interest partnership to undo the bad guys.

Shaken or stirred? You'll have to see the film to see where this one goes.

Some of the best music I've heard in a long time.

Craig is Craig - cold and dangerous ... yet touched by the love of a woman, Vesper Lynd, now dead. Be sure to see Casino Royale first, or see it again, to catch the flow - Quantum of Solace picks right up where Casino Royale ended.

Judi Dench as M is incredible - tough, focused, kind - a great role for her.

The bad guys are bad in a 21st century fashion - oil and water and politics in a volatile mix of desperate schemes. Though kept to a minimum, there were some trenchant observations about American CIA tactics in light of the Bush years.

For anyone in or around LA, saw this at the ArcLight in the Dome.

Worth seeing?

For sure, if you're a Bond fan, and if you're just looking for some adrenalin flow and beautiful scenery, you'll love it as well.

And 2010? Another? Hope so ... I think so ... Craig and MGM have found the right formula.

The New York Times has a thoughtful review, though I'd take issue with a few of its comments - apparently the reviewer wanted a few more computer gadgets, but I'm glad to see gadgets disappear. The new Bond genre is not about techno-wizardry, but about Bond's world of geo-political soundrels still to be defeated, not by computer geeks but Bond's steel-hard determination.

P.S. saw the first trailer for Star Trek (2009) - thrilled the audience, me, too.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Changeling


An amazing film detailing multiple tragic stories, paralleling them for a while, making the audience wonder what's up, and in the end, like a mighty crescendo, bringing them together.

Thanks to Clint Eastwood, director and composer - for this remarkable piece - not an "enjoyable" film - but an important story being retold, and as in all such stories, themes and ideas that remain relevant: power and its abuses, women and men of conscience and courage, determination and a positive role for a Presbyterian pastor taking on the city of LA (I'm a Presbyterian pastor in LA, so it resonated well for me).

Angelina Jolie is the missing boy's mother - she's good much of the time, but I felt her performance lacked convincing depth at some critical moments. Hard to put into words, but not serious enough to detract from an over-all fine performance in a very large story with many characters.

John Malkovich portrays the Rev. Gustave Briegleb who's taking on the city's corruption through a radio program - he captures the passion and danger of social criticism. Briegleb is a semi-fictional character, an amalgam of two pastors ( who were companions in their effort to clean up the city.

In the film, several real life characters are merged for the sake of the story. In the film Briegleb is depicted as a radio preacher, though none of the 176 times mentions of him between 1921 and 1943 in the Los Angeles Times cite that ministry. Briegleb was a colleague and friend of Methodist minister R.P. Shuler, who did conduct a radio ministry.

Briegleb and Shuler were community activists and partners in challenging the vice and crime of the city and the corruption of the police and city officials (from a review by Ed McNulty)

Jason Butler Harner portrays a serial killer - a powerful role that reminded me of Jarvier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

The story is sweeping, almost epic, in size, but driven by a very simple theme - a mother's love and a mother's hope.

Her boy kidnapped. A police investigation. A gala moment at the train station when her "son" returns from DeKalb, Illinois. But he's not her boy. The police, already embarrassed by numerous scandals, hush her up, finally arranging for her commitment to a mental institution as she continues to protest.

The film had me feeling her despair - will no one listen? Am I crazy? What's going on here?

An involved story with plenty of twists and turns, it reminds the audience: Don't give up!

The story ends on a sad note (though all the evidence points to her son's death, she remains hopeful that he's alive somewhere).

A movie for thought - not for pleasure, though Eastwood's film-making is a pleasure to watch.



The King of California - 2007


What a delightful "small" film - written/directed by Mike Cahill - "The King of California" is loaded with good acting in a marvelous story about big dreams and family love.

I call films like this "small" in the sense of looking at a small art collection - it doesn't fill an entire museum, just one room. But so very good. A bit draggy at first, I had to tell myself: "relax, sit back, and watch the story unfold."

Starring Michael Douglas (Charlie) as a mentally ill father who believes a Spanish treasure of gold doubloons is buried near his home, now in the middle of a sprawling SoCal suburb, the story quickly becomes a parable for anyone who believes beyond the ordinary. "We're all searching for something" and "you've got to believe in treasure to find it."

His daughter, played wonderfully by Evan Rachel Wood (Miranda) is forced to drop out of high school and get a job, to pay the bills, while her father is hospitalized.

Upon his release, he begins his project - what with maps, old books and survey gear, he determines the spot - six feet beneath the floor of a Costco Store. I supposed one might see here a stinging critique of suburbia - the "treasures" of a superstore have covered over real treasure. But the story isn't preachy, nor should be this review!

Charlie's engaging way, his fervency of belief, and all the books and research, lend credibility to the dream. Miranda, in spite of herself, gets on board and helps her father.

It's not all sweetness and sunshine however. Charlie's dream is costly. Miranda drops out of school, has no friends, struggles to pay the bills. Her father rents a backhoe to dig along the supposed route of the Spanish priest carrying the gold. A few days later, Miranda discovers her beat-up car is gone, having been sold by her father to pay the backhoe rent. She's furious, of course. It's her only way to work.

Will she and her father make it?

Does he find the gold?

You'll have to see the movie to find out.

A perfect film for a good evening home - a bowl of popcorn and someone you care about ... a delightful story of big dreams.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Synecdoche, New York


Phillip Seymour Hoffman - surely one of the greatest actors ever!

In this wonderfully convoluted story (written by Charlie Kaufman) , a portrait of a tragically convoluted man, Hoffman commands every scene with a breath-taking range of emotion, without every stealing a scene. Every film he does is a tour de force - he is the character, and the character is him. For me, an amazing skill, a gift, to bring such a diverse amalgam of portraits to the screen.

Along with Hoffman, an incredible cast of women: Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, Dianne Wiest, to name only a few.

In every respect, stellar performances in a story that moves fluidly between "reality" (whatever that is) and imagination - in Caden Cotard's mind, nothing is clear ... a ceaseless dream to do something great, but never doing it. Life is constant rehearsal, growing ever-larger, including more and more players, scenes, but the play never happens.

With a fine makeup scheme (Judy Chin), we see Caden and everyone else age and die.

Life and love slip away ... without purpose, without accomplishment - a lot of hopes and dreams, but in the end, nothing! Always too late.

But it is just fate that drives him?

Could he, might he, make other choices?

Synecdoche refers to a figure of speech in which a part refers to the whole, as in "the law" referring to a police officer, or "all hands on deck" referring to sailors.

Synecdoche, a play on the New York town of Schenectady, reminds us that Caden is everyone ... his quest, his confusion, his sorrow, his fear - the common stuff of our common humanity.

There's a clergy preaching at a funeral, who dares to tell the truth about life ... not some hokey religious stuff, but the hard reality - is there anything to it? Or is all just a big rehearsal for a play that never happens?

I'm particularly sensitive to the religious dimension - I know how easily the church "fakes it" for the world, forcing millions of people to "fake it" as well. It's as if the church has taken some simple truths and put on too much makeup, over-dressed and can only talk in the most exaggerated forms. The pomp of the Middle Ages and the "more is better" energy of America has done great harm to the gospel - a simple of message of love, forgiveness and hope. Maybe Caden needs to know that life isn't a rehearsal for a play that never happens; it is the play, and every part is real, here and now. That life consists, not of big plays, but small moments, wherein we often fail to live up to our own expectations, but often succeed as well.

The film moves effortlessly between past and present - with careful editing, directing, keeping the story intact. I was pulled into Caden's sorrow, enjoyed his rare moments of pleasure, and laughed at his bittersweet clown-like failures.

A film worth seeing.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

W


A very, very, good film - not a slam, but an exposé, a character study of a simple man desperately seeking to escape the shadow of his father and brother.

Oliver Stone has not produced a parody of Bush, but a film that reveals the insanity of those around him: Rove, Cheney (nailed by Richard Dreyfuss), Rumsfeld and a ship of fools, intent on American Empire.

Josh Brolin as W clearly captures the man who believes he can do no wrong, yet without the malicious, malevolent, spirit of those advising and using him. W is tragically innocent - a Billy-Budd like character who has no sense of the harm he's doing. Buttressed by prayer and the strange sense of "being anointed," Bush lumbers into the White House intent on finishing his Daddy's war.

Colin Powell is portrayed, rightly so, as the only voice of sanity in the White House Asylum. Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton) comes off as a total sycophant, the world's biggest suck-up.

Aside from the message, I thought the film well done with plenty of character development - H Bush, a man of some dignity, who despises what was happening to the Republican Party with the likes of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, but who, in the end, chose his election over ethics which makes him, in my opinion, worse than the son who has neither his father's intellect nor character. If H sells everything, W has nothing to sell. James Cromwell portrays H powerfully well as we watch his character ebb away under the corrosive advice of Karl Rove and his growing sense of disappointment in his son's militarism.

Dreyfuss is an incredible Cheney, Ellen Burstyn gives feeling and power to Barbara Bush, with a huge cast fleshing out the story. Special mention of Stacy Keach and his portrayal of Rev. Earle Hudd who captures the southern ethos without making Hudd into a fool. Here as well, Stone rightly stayed away from what could have been an SNL moment. Hudd, and many like him, are not evil men, but only lost in the thick air of Texas and the thrill of victory.

A film this "large" might have ended in a muddle, but it "stays the course" and delivers the message.

The ending is profound ... a close up on W's eyes, scared, confused, bewildered - looking for the ball.

Someone said, a film made either too early or not soon enough. But it couldn't have been made any sooner for the story it tells - so many Americans bought the Reagan/Bush world and believed in it fervently; they wouldn't have been ready to hear the truth, but they are now.

Long after the election, this film will retain it's value, because we will all be years in picking up the pieces left behind by Bush.

Stone makes a genuine contribution to America's changing political climate.






Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Duchess


Frankly, I went with some reservations ...

I had heard, "The Duke is everything in this film."

"It's all about hair and wigs."

I was wonderfully surprised.

The film drags a bit at times, but it's a giant performance by everyone ... with a lot of character development - we get to know these people, what makes them tick, and their inner reflections.

A powerful drama about loyalty and commitment - what it means to be a family, a parent, a lover ... and "judge not."

The Duke is terrific ... played by accomplished actor Ralph Fiennes, his Duke is a study in both debauchery and hope. That a man as powerful as this, who never negotiates, who never makes a deal, should find some remorse, and something beyond his Captain-Ahab like obsession with a male heir, is a study in redemption ... if not complete, at least in part.

The Duchess, Keira Knightley, is a remarkable portrait of a mother's love - and what one might do in order to provide and protect her children. She exudes fire and intellect - a great passion, a great sense of self. She's a young lady thrust into prominence as the Duke's wife; after three girls, now what? She falls in love with another young man, a rising politician, but what about the family. The Duke treats her ruthlessly; her heart aches for love. In the end, we see that her love, her maturity, sparks an admiration, if not love, in the Duke as well.

I expected a lighter-weight performance from Ms. Knightley (don't ask me why), but she delivered a forceful, nuanced, dramatic performance - her character, with very much the feel of Princess Diana, is caught, as women were in that time, and to some extent, still are - in a male-dominated world. What can one do to survive with integrity, and with any regard for the future?

As much as any of us would like to cast care to the wind and follow our fortune, life isn't that easy - not then, not now. Responsibility creeps in, and ultimately wins the day. As it should. In order to be mature, whole human beings, it's not about every whim and need that arises, but a larger picture of commitment and hope, and sometimes, the greatest of all sacrifices are needed to sustain the greater love.

Hayley Atwell portrays Bess, a lover of the Duke, a woman who sacrifices herself to see her children. A threat to the Duchess, they ultimately work out an arrangement, and ultimately, the Duchess finds herself in a situation for which she roundly judged and condemned Bess. A reminder that what goes around comes around.

Charlotte Rampling portrays the mother of the Duchess - a woman ever-so wise about survival. In a world utterly dominated by the whims of men, how does a woman of character make it? She brings plenty of strength to this role, a study in power when there is no power at all.

If you're looking for a fine film, a period-piece for sure, what with plenty of wigs and big dresses, this is for you. Don't let the big dresses deter you.

This is a fine film with plenty of fine acting, and a great soul-searching story to boot.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Appaloosa


If ya' like Westerns, pardner, you'll like Appaloosa.

Written, produced and starring Ed Harris, it felt like a vanity film. I've got a story to tell, and I've got the money to make it. Sort of life self-publishing these days.

Up front, the sheriff who's gunned down in cold blood by the bad guy (Jeremy Irons) speaks his lines so poorly, I might have shot him, too, had I been the director.

Every Western cliche is used here, but I enjoyed it - a pleasant afternoon diversion.

But then I love Westerns. Two of my all-time favorites stand tall in the saddle: Silverado and Red River - both, in my judgment, flawless, and by such standards I judge all other efforts. By comparison, Appaloosa has the feel of a "B" western. But, hey, I love Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, too. Just glad Harris and Mortensen didn't pick up a Gee-tar and start pickin'.

Renee Zelweger is delightful as a woman who can't make up her mind - she loves the nearest top dog, whoever the dog may be. Getting to the top, so to speak, is her mission in life, and like women then, and still too often today, a woman has to pay the piper - somewhere I read, a man loves in order to get sex; a woman gives sex in order to be loved. Zelweger's face is utterly unique - sincere, innocent and selfishly dangerous, all at the same.

The side-kick deputy (Viggo Mortensen) does exceedingly well, as does Harris, although even here, there was a certain dark passion missing. Hard to put my finger on it, but it's like a loaf of home-baked bread that didn't have enough salt in it.

Mortensen's character is the most complex - a man of unceasing loyalty to the Sheriff (Harris) - he wants Allison French (Zelweger) who makes a play for him, but walks away for the sake of his friend. There's a quiet passion in the character, and Mortensen conveys it, mostly.

Sometimes the feel of good actors saying mediocre lines telling a formulaic story.

Other pieces fit well - the costuming, the music, the cinematography.

Worth seeing?

Sure, why not? Bang, bang!


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Happy-Go-Lucky


A parable of sorts ... the story of a perpetually happy young teacher, Poppy (irritatingly and winsomely portrayed by Sally Hawkins) who makes the best of everything, trying with all her might to walk on the sunny side of the street and put a smile on everyone's face.

The move drags a bit, suffers from some editing issues ... but Mike Leigh's purpose makes it happen: via a snapshot of life, a moment in time - Poppy comes off, at first, as an irritating bit of sunshine creeping in past the curtain on the only morning one has to sleep in.

As the story begins, her bike is stolen. Okay. I'll take driving lessons, offered by Scott (Eddie Marsan - brilliant role), a sad, angry, paranoid, low-self esteem sort of guy who tries desperately to believe that he's a great driving instructor. In an explosive rant, every bit of social hatred and bigotry pours out of Scott's mouth - spit literally running down his beard (a powerful moment powerfully acted) - not unlike what we're seeing at some of the McCain/Palin rallies.

Here's a relationship that could go south a dozen ways. In a twist I didn't expect, after Scott is caught lurking around Poppy's house, he returns for one more driving lesson. It doesn't go well, and as he's about to leave, he says, "Same time next week?"

I expected Poppy to say yes, but she's wiser in the midst of her good cheer then one might think; though an optimist, and a risk-taker (her encounter with a homeless man), she says no to Scott. Though perpetually happy and seeking to bring happiness to others, this unexpected response reveals more than just a clown, but someone wise and thoughtful.

In the end (there were times when I wondering when it would end), she and her roommate are side-by-side rowing together in a small boat on a placid city park lake, each pulling an oar ... Poppy says, "You keep on rowing, and I'll keep on trying to put a smile on peoples' faces."

That's the parable, that's the image: are we not all in a rowboat? Sitting beside someone who's pulling their oar as best they can? Some are realistic and practical, some are bright and cheery, but together we have to sit, and pulling together, we can reach our destination.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

RocknRolla


Guy Ritchie's new film - terrific.

The opening scenes begin with a musical score that grabbed me right by the throat and got me into the film.

A marvelous ensemble of characters - essentially all buffoons, but not a hint here of slapstick. As seen in the poster, and from the opening moment, a "gun" plays a significant visual role - but it isn't what it looks like, and I won't give it away. But it's a reminder that things are not what they appear, and it's always worthwhile taking a second look.

Gritty and entertaining, with plenty of laughs ... revealing, I suppose, the banality of evil (Tom Wilkinson in his mobster sunglasses is brilliant as Lenny Cole), how folks on the underside of things get caught up in the flow of life (Gerard Butler as One Two) and can only make the best of it. Some are really scoundrels, dirtbags ... others are just there because that's where they showed up.

Mark Strong as Archie (Lenny Cole's right hand man) is the most drama-like character here - funny and ironic, taking Lenny's crap with philosophical distance. He sees how silly it all it, but here he is, and it's the only gig he's got going.

The most chilling portrayals (is this a political statement?) are the Russians - cold and calculating, and more money than you can shake a bribe at.

Visually, I was reminded of "Sin City" - and even some of the feel of it for story.

Be prepared to listen carefully ... lines delivered with a heavy cockney accent.

Definitely worth seeing.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Religulous


Bill Maher has done everyone a favor.

As only a comedian can, with his acerbic humor, he cuts through the fog of religion to reveal it's heart ... and, frankly, as one who has been a believer for 64 years, and a Presbyterian pastor as well, of the liberal sort, Maher uncovers the elephant in the room, the dirty little secret harbored in the back rooms of thought - that much of what passes for religion is invented and dysfunctional.

That Maher doesn't talk with folks like Desmond Tutu or Bishop Tom Wright leaves the impression that religion is pretty much the domain of kooks and imbeciles harboring the worst kinds of prejudice.

Well, if the shoe fits wear it.

Folks like Wright and Tutu are a voice in the wilderness, and though their voice is important, it's the wilderness that prevails.

Even in the sweetest folks I've known over the years, an unthinking acceptance of ideas, few of which are grounded in Jesus, but mostly in unexamined traditions that have more to do with culture and prejudice than faith, hope and love.

Maher sounds a warning that many within the folds of religion are wont to ignore, but only at great risk. From the Truckers Chapel in Raleigh, NC to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY, there is apparently no end to the incalculable depths of ignorance, blind belief and prejudice.

Yes, there are a lot of great and good minds at work, and women and men of vision and courage, who believe, and do so with great integrity, compassion, wisdom and wit.

But the Palins and Huckabees stand stage center - Palin is actually a believer; Huckabee a huckster - like glove and hand, a dangerous but an oh-so-comfortable fit.

I suspect that some who listened to Jeremiah and Jesus would say, "But it's not that bad!"

But it is, and only by going to the heart of the craziness can we ever hope to send the demons packing.

Anyway, as a documentary - excellent.

Editing is terrific ... and the whole thing, greatly entertaining. The title itself, amusing and important: a combination of "religion" and "ridiculous."

Maher's comments in the car after an interview, the sub-title comments during the interviews, the interspersed film and news clips, are hilarious, but don't let the humor fool you - Maher is a thoughtful man who's done his homework. The questions he raises and his sense of "doubt" are a needed ingredients for anyone who wants to a person of faith.

Doubt, the source of humility, was recognized by Paul Tillich in his book, The Dynamics of Faith and by St. John of the Cross in his Dark Night of the Soul.

Sometimes the best prayer is simply, "I don't know."

But I have question: not for Maher, but for the reader: What's the alternative? Smoke a joint and pursue whatever the instinct might be? Become our own little, very little, god? Retreat into some ultimate hedonism of self-interest? Pleasure?

Though religion is "shamelessly invented," there remains for me something good and important strong enough and good enough to counterbalance the centripetal energy of the ego. Hence, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Shane Claiborne.

Check out Toby Jones, an emergent church thinker for some further reflection on the future of faith and the church. Or David Crumm's "Explore the Spirit."

Is the film worth seeing?

You bet.

If you believe without thought, if you need others to be wrong in order for you to be right, you'll find this offensive and disturbing.

But if you want to see religion in the mirror of critical examination, and you're willing to see how bizarre your "fag-hating, bible-thumping" cousin down the block is, then "fasten your seat belt" and get ready for bumpy ride with lots of laughs and a serious message: "Grow up, or die" - "because we figured out nuclear weapons before we figured out how to be rational and peaceful."

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist


I wouldn't have gone to see this film were it not for a family member in "the industry" here in LA who knows the director.

Am I glad I went?

Sort of ... a cute story, in a loosey goosey fashion - mostly formulaic - slob-guy and bitch-girl finally get what's coming to them ... and nice-girl, nice-guy find true love.

Michael Cera (Nick) is terrific. Linking this with his role in "Juno," he's carving out a great personna - a gentle-souled young man who's a real catch, but otherwise easily overlooked, if not ridiculed by "the cool people."

Kat Dennings (Nora) does a fine job - a bright, talented, young lady who stands above the crap of her crowd, secretely in love with Nick because she's listened to his CD compilations intended for Tris (Alexis Dziena) who promptly throws them away, and cheats on Nick when they're going together.

Nick's friends are the band with whom he plays, three gay guys who see to it that Nick and Nora finally get together - they're cute and bring it off well. Does a film like this help or hinder the gay community? I don't know. I thought it was well-done, but featured, I suppose, what some would consider "typical" images of the gay guy. If there are any gays or lesbians reading this review, please leave a comment about this.

Music plays a minor role here - the band, and much of the story revolves around trying to find "Fluffy," an alternative rock group who leaves clues around town where they'll be playing. The club scenes were shot on location in East Village, lower east side - had a good and realistic feel.

As I write this review, I find myself recalling the excellent teen documentary: "American Teen" from Paramount Vantage.

Clearly a teen-film, "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist," but I wonder if it'll have legs. Is it the kind of movie kids will tell their friends about? Will anyone see it twice?

The film moved along slowly for the first half - audience reaction was tepid, but everything picked up in the second half, and when Nick turns on the windshield wiper and spritzer to remove bitch-girl's lipstick, the audience really laughs - one of the few good-laugh parts.

At the end, a good many in the audience clapped.

I tried to put myself back in time - late high school, early college ... how that young mind thinks and what it's seeking. Did a film like this capture where kids are today? Perhaps so.

Perpetual questions associated with a film like this: 1) is irresponsible sexuality encouraged? 2) And what about under-age drinking?

The "drunk" (played creatively by Ari Graynor) makes a complete idiot of herself - with one incredibly gross scene involving puke, a cell phone and her gum. The overly-sexualized Tris is just that - empty and gross.

Again, if someone reading this review can post a comment, I'd like to hear.

Directed by Peter Sollett, a young director building a fine career.

Is it worth seeing? For someone who seriously sees movies, who appreciates the effort, the craft, young actors, directors, yes.

Otherwise, wait for it on Netflix.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Eagle Eye


Shia LaBeouf is terrific as an aimless young man suddenly "activated" as part of giant conspiracy to "save the nation." He plays the role with a marvelous understated bewilderment, yet fully there for the character. This young man has a huge future ahead of him. And maybe another Indiana Jones with him? But what would they call it? Mutt Williams?

His brother, an air force intelligence officer, falls under a cloud of suspicion after dying in a horrible call accident. After coming home to his apartment, only to find it loaded with weapons, explosives and military intell, and then being warmed by phone to leave, because the FBI will be there in 45 seconds, he slowly becomes engaged, in the hopes of clearing his brother's name.

Michelle Monaghan
his "partner" in all of this, a young mother whose son, a grade school trumpet player, has been brought into the conspiracy unknowingly, is "activated" and does as she's told if she wants to see her son again.

These two finally meet n a dramatic car chase scene, brought together by cryptic phone messages and a seemingly endless manipulation of the electronic network surrounding all of us - from cell phones to surveillance cameras, traffic lights and subways (what isn't monitored and controlled by computers these days?)

It's all about a super computer "who" sees the current administration as a violator of the American Constitution (a contemporary message here?) in its pursuit of terrorists - quoting from the Declaration of Independence:

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Think of Hal on steroids.

A rip roaring story, with plenty of action, the story moves along well, if not predictably.

A bit formulaic, but sustained well with fine acting, special effects and music, the film entertains well.

For ladies? Perhaps, because of Michelle Monaghan's sensitive portrayal of a single mom coping with way too much, and now her son's innocent entanglement from which he can be rescued only if she cooperates.

And LeBouf's "gentle" kind of guy role - he's got guts, moxie, but not the James Bond kind. Both gals and guys will like him.

Directed by D. J. Caruso.

Worth seeing? For sure.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Righteous Kill


De Niro and Pacino are what they are - at the top of their game. They're fun to watch.

As detective partners, Turk and Rooster, they're an effective team with " 120" years of experience - Ha!

My son, a wise commentator on all things film, suggests that the film, if not starring such giants, would likely have gone straight to DVD.

He observed, "Stories with such a twist are a little tired right now."

And I agree ... it was a bit formulaic, but fun to watch nonetheless. The movie held my attention, but then I'm an easy rider when it comes to movies.

In their earlier meeting in "Heat," Pacino does in De Niro; but here ... oh well, I don't want to give it away.

Great music, cinematography - some very cool lines, almost aphorisms ... like:

You don't become a cop because you want to serve and protect. You join the force because they let you carry a gun and a badge. You do it because you get respect.

Most people respect the badge. Everyone respects the gun.

Nothing wrong with a little shooting, as long as the right people get shot.

Who finally says these things and why is part of the fun.

Worth seeing?

Sure, why not? Especially if your fan of De Niro and Pacino.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Burn After Reading



A very good film ... lots of ironic laughs ... subtle and rather dark as it unfolds, brought to us by Cohen Brothers (Ethan & Joel). Some critics have panned it, saying that it "fails to ignite" - hardly! If you're looking for out-and-out slap-stick, go to "Step Brothers."

"Burn After Reading" actually takes you places and gives you something to think about even as it provides plenty of laughs. Perhaps it requires a level of thought or sophistication to appreciate the skillful manner in which the story is told and the characters revealed. All right?

This is a story of bumbling people bumbling their way through love and life (do we every really do any differently) - managing to do some serious damage along the way. If the film has message, it's likely this: play with fire, ya' get burned, and burned badly!

An all-star cast wonderfully restrained and comically intense.

Brad Pitt is terrific as a gum-chewing, not-too-bright, slightly whatever, physical trainer (Chad Feldheimer) who cooks up a scheme to extort money from a CIA analyst after he discovers on the gym's locker room floor a CD with apparently valuable information.

Francis McDormand is terrfic as "Linda Litzke" (echos of her Fargo twang) who wants to meet a man and finally decides she needs some physical enhancements. The only problem being: her insurance won't pay for for the surgeries. So when "Chad" shows her the CD, she's in.

Richard Jenkins (gym manager, Ted Treffon) portrays wonderfully the wounded soul who so badly wants to date Linda who "shuts him out all the time." Ultimately, after Chad disappears, Linda gets Ted to sign-on to steal more information from the CIA analyst.

The CIA analyst is played wonderfully by slightly loony John Malkovich who's wife, "Katie" (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with George Clooney - "Harry Pfarrer."

"Katie finally decides to seek a divorce so she and Harry can get married, but Harry's not so sure now. In an effort to secure her husband's financial records, Katie burns a CD, which her attorney's secretary leaves in the gym - see above.

Clooney, by the way, is terrific - the slightly simple gun-totin' playboy, with some remnants of a conscience left, profoundly paranoid - he's right - and in one fine explosive scene near the end, he bolts from the park bench where he and Linda have become a number (they met on an internet dating service), exclaiming, "Who are you? Who do you work for?" when he discovers that Chad, the guy she's looking for, and he, with his "connections," is helping, learns that he disappeared at Katie's house. In his mind, it's all some horrible CIA plot, and he's smack dab in the middle of it.

Are we complicated enough yet?

After the shooting and the ax murder are done and the bodies disposed of, two CIA officers are discussing the case - a great scene of CIA a operative (David Rasche) hesitantly reporting delicate matters to a blunt, only-the-facts, superior (J.K. Simmons).
"Well, what did we learn?"
"Not to do it again."
"If only we knew what we did."

In the end, so to speak, Linda gets her operation.
And Harry is on his way to Venezuela "because we don't have an extradition agreement with them."

A lot of good laughs, some terrific acting - worth seeing, that's for sure.