Saturday, November 29, 2008


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.



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


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


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.