Thursday, June 30, 2011

Day 30 - Your Favorite Film This Time Last Year

My top 100 changes a lot over time.  I’m trying to watch all my top 100 films, plus others that could make my top 100, and make a definitive list.  But in another five years I’ll have to do it all over again because a top 100 is supposed to be flexible, moldable, especially for a film buff who is still going through his film education.

But my number one hasn’t shifted or moved an inch from the time I first saw Spirited Away.  It was like a revelation of cinema. It touched me as no other film had and, perhaps, never would.  I will get older and I know that my personality will change.  One day, a film will come along that will stun me like Spirited Away did.  But I don’t expect it to be soon.  For me, I have a rating system.  It is from 1-5.  If I give a film a one, then I despised that film.  A two means that I didn’t care for it.  I rarely give ones or twos.  A three means “Meh, it was okay, but don’t expect me to remember the plot next week.” A four means “I really liked this.  Maybe I’ll watch it again, someday.”  A five means that it is one of the finest film experiences I have ever had.  I just want to let you know, however: Only Spirited Away on my rating scale gets a ten.   That’s true love, folks.   The real thing.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Day 29 - Your Favorite Film As a Kid

As a young child, I had most of the songs from Mary Poppins memorized and I took joy from every scene. I still love that film and think that Julie Andrews is a remarkable performer.  There is so much to love about that film.  Dick Van Dyke is truly funny and three of the songs: "Sister Suffragette", "The Life I Lead", and "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" are brilliant social satire, poking fun at the thinking in a lighthearted manner, yet still skewering the hypocrisy. And the theme of the film as the maturing of the head of household instead of the children is brilliant. Still one of the best films ever. 

As a young teen, my favorite film was the epic The Ten Commandments. While I still can appreciate the work involved, the film and story I appreciate much less.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Day 28 - The Most Obscure Film You've Ever Seen

Northfork is petty high on the list of obscure films.  But let me ask you: Have YOU seen it?  James Woods?  Yeah, I didn’t think so.  And if you did, did you remember it?  Did it strike you at all?

Northfork is about some angels.  And a flood.  And some people.  There’s a plot, but it’s pretty tricky to figure out.  A lot of people just shake their heads, not bothering to understand it.  But Northfork is a film you have to watch twice.  That’s what I did.  Right in a row.  I watched it, then started it up right again. Because it didn’t make sense, but there was something there… and the second time I got it.  Ah, what satisfaction to get the film the second time around.  Yeah… good times.

Day 27 - Your Favorite Independent Film

The definition of “independent” is a little tricky.  It means that it was produced out of the major studio systems, but doesn’t mean that it didn’t have help or distribution from major studios.   In looking at the list of independent films, you might be surprised at some of the major films with great special effects that are included.

One of the films that surprised me to be found “independent” is Memento, Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece.  Not only is the script one of the tightest, most surprising Hitchcockian thrillers ever, but the acting is fantastic and the camera work is excellent.  This year I watched for a second time and it was as wild a ride as the first.

Day 26 - Your Favorite Foreign Language Film

How do you know if it is a foreign language film or not?  Doesn’t it depend on which country you are in? If you are in Japan, Kurosawa isn’t a foreign language film and Jaws is.  The category, for me, should be called Any Film Not in English.  Perhaps it should be re-stated Your Favorite Film You Watched with Subtitles.  And why specifically have a category for foreign language film?  Are they inferior and need some help up, a separate category otherwise they wouldn’t be voted on at all?  Hey, I just want you to look at my Favorite Film.  Yep, Foreign Language.   Just prejudice, that’s all.  Okay, enough of my rant.

Apart from the many non-English films I’ve already mentioned in the 30 Day challenge comes my favorite film from the director Kieslowski: The Double Life of Veronique.  This film is a mood poem more than a cohesive narrative.  It is about two women with the same name: one Polish, one French.  But they share many characteristics.  I think this film is a spiritual and sensual masterpiece.  Difficult to understand, but in the end it just doesn’t matter.  Even if it cannot win you intellectually, it will win you with beauty of sight and spirit. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Day 25 - Your Favorite Documentary Film

At the beginning of F is for Fake, Orson Welles tells you that everything in the film is true. That, of course, is a lie. But he says it with a wink and begins on orations of magicians and art and personal narrative and fictional biographies, all in that deep, resounding voice. Welles has always been a master storyteller and here is craft is more story than visual, but it is a supurb movie, nevertheless.  F is for Fake is the film that begins to subvert documentaries so that we do not know what is true and we begin to question all truth. Especially that which declares itself true.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Day 24 - Your Favorite Animated or Children's Film

As a genre (although, in reality, animated/children’s film are TWO genres as there are many films that are one or the other, not both; Paprika anyone?)… ahem.  As a mismatched genre, this is (these are) easily my favorite(s). Animated films, especially. Some don’t care for voice acting, some don’t appreciate animation as an emotional art, but for me it is perfect. Disney, Miyazaki, Pixar, heck, even Dreamworks and WB on good days. 

But which one could I choose? We've already covered a lot of ground here on the 30 day challenge.  I already talked about Spirited Away.  And Finding Nemo. And Nausicaa. And The Emperor’s New Groove. And Princess Mononoke. And Wall-E. What is left? 

Let me pick another from among my favorite animated films: The Lion King. It is fantastic melodrama with excellent songs. Probably the most moving, most Shakespearean of all of Disney’s films. The voice acting is some of the best out there and the animation is, at points spectacular.

Just watch it again. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Decisions of Conscience: Of Gods And Men

The French film, Of Gods and Men,  is about a community of monks living in Algeria.  They have a medical center for the poor and hire a number of people from the local village to support their cause.  They pray and have good relations with their Muslim co-religionists.  However, thinks turn dark when Muslim fundamentalist revolutionaries attempt to take over the region.  The monks offer assistance to all, but many are recommending, even demanding, that they leave the country.  Their lives are certainly in danger.

But what should they do?  Should they leave where they believe God has called them?  Or should they remain, whatever the consequences?  This is their basic struggle and the focus of most of the film

Below is an analysis which talks about the film in view of its ending.  If you don't want spoilers, then don't keep reading.  You have been warned.

The genre in which Of Gods and Men belong to is martyrography.  The Last Temptation of Christ is an example of this, as well as The Passion of Joan of Arc as well as The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.  But martyrographies go back to the first century B.C. with the book of IV Macabees, so it's got a long history.

In a martyrography, it basically describes the way someone dies in order to inspire them to be like the people who died.  The importance of the martyrography is not how great it is to die (well, most of them), but they are rather displaying such a good way to live that if it leads to death, so be it.

Of Gods and Men is a classic example.  The emphasis in the film is not how brave these monks are-- note that they jump almost every time a gun comes onto their compound.  Nor is it how noble they are-- many of them question their religious calling due to the danger that faces them.  Rather, the emphasis is on faithfulness in service.  That no matter what danger comes, we need to be faithful to love those whom God has given us to love.

The depth of this particular martyrography is that these particular Christians are being faithful to their Muslim brothers and sisters, even terrorist.  

One of the other martyr films I was comparing Of Gods and Men to is my favorite: The Mission, which IS a Hollywood film.  The Mission focuses on three men, and while I would have rather have had one of them be a native, the fact is it shows three different church perspectives, which I really appreciate.  OGAM is more shallow in that regard, only dealing with the doubts of some individuals, but the church seems relatively unified.

Honestly, Of Gods and Men is a textbook example of what Jesus is all about.  It's propaganda for my kind of Christian faith, which is Anabaptist/Mennonite. And this is what real missionary work is all about-- not the bastardization of it that the Mormons and evangelicals have.   It has all the verses, as well as some gorgeous poetry put to chant.  If they ever have a soundtrack of this movie, I will jump at the chance to get it. 

Day 23 - Your Favorite Thriller/Mystery Film

Due to my father’s influence I am a fan of mysteries—both books and film.  It is said that an exegete’s favorite genre is mystery because they are people drawn to puzzles.  However, most puzzles that are presented on the screen bore me.  They are too easy to figure out, or they spell out too much, telling us what they should just be showing us (my biggest problem with the film Inception last year).  

Rear Window, however, is perfect.  Not only does it have my favorite actor (James Stewart), one of the most beautiful actresses of all time (Grace Kelly) and an amazing character actor (Thelma Ritter), but it is Hitchcock’s best directed film.  There are so many windows to distract us, so many questions, so many reasonable doubts, not only is it a great film, but it is a great mystery.  Such a joy to behold. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

More Malick Madness: Just Another Review ofThe New World

Technical—5/5--Never have I been more disappointed at not seeing a film on the big screen.  How I wish to have seen such magnificent beauty writ en large.  I wished to have heard the swelling of the music in contrast to the usual quietness of most scenes. 

Interest—5/5—The main reason I hesitated to watch The New World is that the story of Pocahontas has been done so badly for so long.  I have read her history and am disappointed at John Smith’s fantasies being played out, and I cannot forget that Pocahontas was, at most, 12 (probably 9) when his fiction took place.  It is true, Malick takes some (okay, a lot) historical license here, but the end of the story is accurate, so I forgive all.  Some would say that the film is slow, even boring.  What is there to be bored about?  This film was crafted perfectly.  The beauty, the romance, the sorrow, the action, the final scenes—everything is fascinating and perfect.

Tension—4/5—The movie really is slower paced, which can reduce tension.  But Malick uses that pace to help us feel  the tension between the father and the daughter, to sense Pocahontas’ conflict within herself, who loves both the English and the Native.   Only Kubrick could have done better.

Emotional—5/5—It took a while for the emotional impact to hit me.  At first I was very critical of the film.  Pocahontas is too old, her relationship with Smith is too direct… blah, blah, blah.  But Malek won me over by sheer majesty of presentation and storytelling.  Although everyone is quiet (what is it with the constant whispering?), the emotional weight is communicated perfectly.  We know what all of the main characters are going through and experience with them their sorrow and pain.  I know, that is what a movie is supposed to do, but it so rarely happens so perfectly.

Characters—5/5—The actors all did a magnificent job.  Everyone was perfect.  But I want to give credit where credit is due and that is probably to Terrance Malick.  Never have I seen Colin Farrell or Christian Bale give a better performance.  Never have I seen them act with such emotional power, yet with speaking so few words.   They showed it, they carried it, and it had to be because Malick was directing.  Unless they were inspired by the trees.

Theme—5/5—True love.  What is love, really?  Is it a youthful passion?  Is it a committed relationship?  Is it found with the dangerous, powerful man that can be tamed?  Or with the kind man that loves you more than you love yourself?  While not denying any kind of love, it speaks to the lasting power of one.

Ethics—5/5—The saying goes, “All is fair in love and war”, yet we know just how untrue that is.  There are ethical limits to war but especially to love.  Perhaps the rules of love are unique to each relationship, nevertheless they are there.  What constitutes a marriage, what is unfaithfulness? When hurt increases, so do the ethical principles.  Although the ethical situation in this film is unique, it speaks to the limitations of love in all contexts.

Personal—5/5—One thing I loved about the film that I haven’t mentioned yet is the focus on courtship.  Most films spend time on how a couple meet and fall in love then move quickly to sex or even a wedding—some sort of consummation.  Here, in both relationships that are depicted, the focus is less on the falling in love as on how the couple spends time together, the joys they have with each other apart from orgasm.  This is much more realistic and romantic and makes me reflect on my own “romantic period”. 

I am stunned.  Stunned, I tell you. This is one of the finest crafted films ever made, and full of power and emotion.  How can I not put it on my top 100?

Day 22 - Your Favorite Horror Film

I’m not a huge fan of the horror genre. Gushing blood and axes just aren’t my idea of entertainment. A Nightmare on Elm Street is clever and The Shining is brilliant, but long. But the only horror movie I can truly say I adore is Ghostbusters.  

Okay, now, stay with me, here. When Ghostbusters was released in 1984, it was advertised as a comedy/horror movie. Really, it was. Perhaps the “horror” elements weren’t that scary, but I remember jumping a couple times when I watched in the theatre.  The first time. Now we think of it as a family comedy classic, but it wasn’t originally intended that way.  Perhaps it isn’t the best horror film, but it is a great film. 

Remember, “Ray, when someone asks you if you are a god, say YES”. You gotta love it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Day 21 - Your Favorite Sci-Fi/Fantasy Film

Fantasy is supposed to light and airy, filled with elves and fairies and men in tights.  But not Pan’s Labyrinth. Pan’s is as dark of a tale as we could endure in a fantasy. It takes place during the Spanish Civil War and is about despotism and hard decisions and torture and war and a girl forced to protect her unborn brother in the midst of forces she cannot control. It is also about spirits and belief and truth. Fantasy is full of symbolism, of truths that are not what they seem, but rarely does a fantasy make you think so much to force you to look in this world’s darkness straight in the face. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Day 20: Your Favorite Romantic Film

Romances are a dime a dozen. It’s easy to throw up on screen a couple people whom everyone will fall in love (or at least in lust) with at first sight. But it takes real talent to make you feel for a lovelorn robot.

  Yep, Wall-E is probably the greatest romance for men ever created. When it comes to romance, men are out of their league. They don’t know what to say, so it is better to say nothing. The woman knows what she wants, but how can a clueless man fulfill her longings? Wall-E shows us the way. Remain silent, dance to Hello Dolly! and have a cockroach as your best friend. Oh, and when she becomes comatose in the rain, hold an umbrella over her. Sure, some see him as eccentric, but cuteness wins the day.

Yep.  The above is what I WAS going to write.  But this last week I saw The New World. 

 I don't think I have ever seen a more romantic film ever.  Wall-E is cute and I love it, but The New World is majestic and the emotions are powerful and it doesn't encapsulate the romance into a single sexual act, a wedding or long discussions about whether he's a good match (sorry Jane Austen fans).  Instead, the lovers spend time together, they flirt, they touch, they struggle with their social groups, they pine, they cry, they woo, they care.  And most of all, they commit.  Never have I seen a film that so captures and idealizes the different aspects of real love.  So, The New World wins it. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tree of Life: Getting an Idea of It

This video gives you just a hint of the visuals of Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life: Review and Analysis

Going into the theatre to watch The Tree of Life yesterday, I didn't know that much about it-- which is how I like it.  I knew it was the latest film by Terrance Malick, who is the magnificent director of Badlands, Days of Heaven and The New World.  I knew it starred Brad Pitt.  I knew it was about a family. And I knew that it was going to be one of the most beautiful movies ever.

It is certainly one of the most beautiful movies ever.  It is also one of the most thought provoking movies ever, and unlike many other films, it gives you time to think, during its run time and keeps you meditating on it long after.

Sean Penn plays a middle age business man, who, at the peak of his success, considers his brother who died at 19 years old and the grief his mother had to deal with.  Why did he die?  Why do the good suffer?  And how does one deal with this grief?

But the film, thematically, goes way beyond a movie about grief.  Going into the film, it is helpful to know that the pacing of the film is similar to Malick's New World and Days of Heaven.  It is slow, and filled with beautiful, almost breath-taking images.  There is also a twenty minute segment in the first third of the film that takes us through the creation of the universe, earth, life and dinosaurs.  It may be confusing, but the introduction to that segment is introduced by the question, "Why did he have to die?" And just like the book of Job (quoted at the beginning of the film), the answer to suffering is seen in the themes of the creation of the universe. 

I want to describe the themes at length, but for those who have not yet seen the film, I might recommend skipping the rest of the text, look at the images, go see the film (as soon as it arrives in your city) and then come back and read the rest of the review.  If you've already seen it, or are particularly daring, read on:

There are three big themes all folding over each other in The Tree of Life.  The obvious one is the grieving process.  I think that the final section with all the folks in the desert and Sean Penn having difficulty deciding to walk through the door is the place of acceptance.  The whole film is about a struggle to accept a tragedy.  Not just that, but that's a good portion of it.

Second theme is related.  It's the big question of "Why do bad things happen to good people?"  If there is a God and God is both powerful and good and you have people who live for God, why do bad things happen to those people.  That boy who died in the middle of the film-- he was just a kid, he didn't do anything wrong.  It is at this point that the boy's problem with his father becomes his problem with God-- "You don't want us to do anything bad, but You do."

The third theme is nature v. grace.  Clearly the mother is the representation of "Grace" and the father the representation of "Nature".  This is an common Christian theme, which Malick uses for his own purposes.  To get the idea you could read Thomas Kempis' Imitation of Christ, chapter 91, but I'd like to give you part of a song (by Catholic artist John Michael Talbot) that summarizes it well:

Nature and Grace
Deep within me there lies a true distinction
Between the things that I would and what I really do...
Nature will seek only its own advantage
It considers only how another might be used
Grace will breath a new humility
To comfort the afflicted and to help those once abused

Nature might seek it's fair compensation
It never offers its help without its price, without reward
Grace finds reward in another's consolation
Learning in this paradox the power of our Lord

Nature will seek to be exalted in authority
To argue its opinion and to have all the world conform
But grace humbly comes in a silent assuredness...
Nature isn't always violent or evil, but it is about "the way the world works."  Grace is always about charity and freedom.  Nature sees the way of Grace as "naive" and Grace sees Nature as brutish and hard-hearted.

Although Grace has the upper hand in Tree of Life, and is the final transformation Sean Penn's character finally falls on, it isn't seen as exclusively the winner.  When the mother is raising the boys on her own, they lack in discipline, which seems joyful at first, but it also allows our boy to give into trouble after trouble.  After he shoots his brother with the BB gun, he realizes that the hypocrisy he sees in his father (and God) is in himself as well. 

This is what I think the film is about: Sean Penn's early decision in his life to follow his father's Nature, because he couldn't help himself.  He quotes Romans 7-- "What I would I do not; what I hate, that is what I do".  He can't help but be the person he sees his father being.  But after examining his memories, he determines that he can follow the way of Grace, as his mother displayed.  That Grace was what was missing in his life.

So the decision at the end was a multi-decision: To accept the death of the brother; to live a life of Grace; but also, to see that Grace is at work in the world, even in the difficult things.

This is significant.  Seeing that Grace is at work in the world.  This is what the whole creation segment is about.  It doesn't have anything to do with science or non-scientific view of creation.  It has to do with the purpose of creation.  Creation has a constant movement-- toward life.  Big bang, creation of stars, creation of planets, water (more about that in a moment), the creation of life, the multiplication of life and more complex life.  And it all culminates in the dinosaur showing mercy to the other dinosaur: all of the universe led up to that moment where Grace could be demonstrated.  Where the other is more important than the desire of the self.

The segment is introduced by the mother asking "Why?"  Why did her son have to die?  Why did he and she have to suffer?  Why did God/the universe do this to her?  She is reminded, like the quote from Job, that the answer to suffering is found in creation.  And she is reminded that the whole of creation is about the creation of life, of grace.  But then, right at the end of that majestic creation movement, she is reminded of the meteor that crashed into the earth, causing a massive destruction of species.  Death.  Every time life succeeds, death comes in and destroys all life and grace.

Finally, at the end, both the mother and Sean Penn accept that even Death is part of grace.  It is difficult to accept, but Death is, ultimately, a part of life.  Thus, rather than living in fear of death, in living for nature, which demands control, they choose to live for Grace, to trust that Grace rules the universe, despite death, despite Nature's presence.  

This is a religious film, but one doesn't have to be religious to appreciate the message.  To determine to see all existence as a movement of Grace is a decision we can all make.  To reject the narrow-minded ways of Nature is something we can all do.  

Finally, about water.  Water is used again and again in the film, but there is one short closeup of a waterfall that is used three times.  The first and third times seem random.  But the second time, the waterfall is shown as the bed of life in the creation sequence.  Thus, water is another symbol of Grace, the mother in which life is bred.  Water is birth, water is life, water is grace.  Without grace, there is no life.

I still need to see the film again.  There's so much I've missed and I want to see how well this analysis holds "water".  

As far as my audience reaction.  First of all, I was pleased to see a full house, and two other showings at the theater were sold out (it's playing in two theaters in a multiplex in downtown Portland).   For the most part, the crowd seems taken in by the family story.  No one snored.  At the end, however, the comments I heard were: "Well, I... don't know.  It sure was beautiful, though."  And "It was soooo pretty!"  Um, yeah.  Well, it seemed well received, although I think most people just didn't know what to do with it. 

Day 19 - Your Favorite Action Film

In a week’s time recently I watched three classic all-time-favorite action films: Terminator 2, Aliens and the original Die Hard. Then I struggled for two weeks trying to determine which of the three deserved the title of Greatest Action Film of all time.  It was difficult, but the winner is: Die Hard. 

Even if Bruce Willis isn’t the best action hero of all (which he arguably is) and the script wasn't the tightest, most fun action script ever (which it is), then it must be admitted that Die Hard has the greatest villain of all time: Alan Rickman. So cool and completely in control even when all hell breaks loose. And as important as the hero is, it is hard to be a superior villain. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Day 18 - Your Favorite Comedy Film

I do love quirk. The quirkier the Coens are, the better I like the film. Terry Giliam, Buckaroo Bonzai, Ferris Bueller—all favorites. But the queen of quirk is easily crowned: Amelie.  The only time I do not have a stupid smile on my face while watching this film is when I am laughing out loud. Her odd way of seeing the universe, her matter-of-fact narration, and the elaborately staged plans, as if life were a machine built by Wallace and Gromit, are all magical and wonderful to me. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Day 17 - Your Favorite Drama Film

The term “drama” is pretty broad.  Aren’t most Westerns dramas? Science fiction? Thrillers? If we take the term “drama” in the most narrow sense—a film that takes itself seriously but isn’t included in one of these other genres—then my choice is not easy, but one film must be mentioned: In America. 

It is the story of an Irish family having moved to New York in order to make a better life. It certainly is not a film about immigration, but about family and tragedy and marriage and such wonderful, wonderful characters. You can laugh and cry in every scene, at the same time. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Day 16 - A Film You Used to Love, But Now Hate

Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Don’t ask. 

Well, look, when I was a kid I thought it was great. I bought the book. It had all these Beatles lyrics in it, which I dutifully memorized. Yeah, well, some films just don’t retain their pleasure. Nor should they.

If you thought Across The Universe was bad, check out Sgt. Peppers to see what a REALLY bad film based on Beatles songs would look like.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Day 15 - The Film That Depicts Your Life

I absolutely adore The Mission (1986). It is gorgeous. It is moralistic while still presenting different points of view.  It both upholds and tears down religion. All good things I like. The priest that Jeremy Irons plays is, more than anyone else, the movie character on which I have based my life. Like him, I jumped into a culture that is not well understood, embraced that culture, loved those people, built community among those people and stand up for them before authorities that try to tear it down. I might hope that my end would be different than Father Gabriel, but what comes is what comes.