Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How I Was Converted By A Film

I am a pastor of a church of the homeless.  I'm not one of those guys who feels like he needs to evangelize every homeless person he sees, first of all because I believe in showing more than speaking, and secondly I know that most these folks are doing the best they can, whether being a Christian or not and they don't need anybody yelling at them, and only occasionally telling them what to do.

One thing I've always been firm about and that's politics doesn't help anybody who really needs the help.

I've got a lot of reasons for that.  First of all, democracy is about helping the majority, and the desperately poor is certainly the minority.  Second, to really get political action done, especially national or state action you need money and even if you got some political money it means compromising with the big boys who do not have your best interests at heart.   Finally, politics has a lot to do with bureaucracy and petty rules.  I am allergic to such things.

Instead, we get help for the homeless from community groups, especially churches.  We do as little as we can with the various governments.  Last year, when doing activity that benefited everyone, a local city governance group tried to shut us down, and that had been the extent of our relations with them.

Last week, I saw the movie Milk.  It stars Sean Penn, co-stars James Franco and is directed by Gus Van Sant.  It is based on a true story, chronicled in the film The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, about a gay community representative that becomes a city supervisor and eventually gets assassinated.  I heard that it was good and I'm a fan of Van Sant, so I thought I'd check it out.

It was a revelation.

Like the homeless, the gay community was actively oppressed, with laws on the books giving permission to their oppression.  Like the homeless, the police targeted them as a community and would do violence to them with no provocation or criminal activity.  Like the homeless, the gay community had community centers, but no voice in their community.

Through tenacity and a slow process of learning, Harvey Milk changed that.

Like Harvey Milk, I just want to see the books that actively oppress the homeless shut down.  I want to see people granted freedom to be who they became through no fault of their own.  Honestly, although it may be hard for some of my supporters to hear, Harvey Milk inspired me.

The fact that the film was so well made doesn't disturb me at all. Van Sant is a master-- no, strike that-- genius filmmaker, who can tell a story is many different ways and yet put it all together in a mind-boggling continuity.  Penn is very good and Franco is fantastic.  Each character is seen as a full human being, not just a gay stereotype (although you can see where perhaps some of the stereotypes originate).

Mind you, I am not ready to run for office.  In fact, my wife said that she'd vote against me if I did.  But it did happen that this last weekend a couple city officials did come up to me and say that they'd work with our goals for the city this week.  Huh.  Maybe there's something to this politics thing after all. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Feasting Amidst Famine

From ancient times, food and community have been connected, and this with spiritual life.  Sacrifices weren't the surrender of goods so much as the participation of feasts with one's family and friends, held before the gods or God.  One of Moses' tithes was an annual community feast, held at God's temple, which was so rich that ten percent of all their harvest that year was to be used at one time.  To eat together was to be family, even if you were not blood, and to be family was to be unified before God.  From this rich tradition Christians have their mass, and Muslims have their Id.  And Americans have Thanksgiving.

The film Babette's Feast (1987) imagines a town where everyone was so pious that feasts were unknown.  Not hard to imagine, is it?  To partake in pleasure, for many, is to forsake God, and a feast is tantamount to a gluttonous orgy.  That which God had originally ordained to enjoy, these religious zealots determined to forsake.  A "sacrifice" for God.

Through a particular, and wonderful, set of circumstances, this group of aesthetics sat down to eat the most scrumptious meal ever presented.  Each course is described in the most delectable detail, and the palate is cleansed between them with the finest of wines.  They are determined not to enjoy themselves but the spirits-- or Spirit?-- fill them and they are beside themselves with joy at this feast.

The film itself is simple and quiet, but full of joi de vivre.  It is like Amelie without the quirkiness or plotting.  Despite the spare tastes of this religious order, the film is full of deep charity, deeper relationship, all of it finally spilling over to overwhelming joy.

The basic conceit of this film is the idea of a group refusing to take pleasure in the most magnificent feast.  How difficult this must be!  And the idea of refusing God's gift of enjoyment of food, the very mortar of community, for the sake of God? Truly an abomination.

However, how much more of an abomination that there could be someone watching this film who did not have enough to eat.  A hungry man after laboring all day watching this film would be horrified at the town's refusal to enjoy what any starving child would take the greatest enjoyment in!  To think that some might have the greatest feasts, while others have nothing.  That some could eat whenever they felt like it, while a billion people go to bed hungry each night.  That there is now an orphanage in Uganda, in the midst of a famine-covered region, where the managers desperately seek to find food for their children, while I am overfull of my wife's soup and banana bread, writing about a movie about feasts.  That is an abomination.

May we all find ways to help the hungry to be fed.  Wherever they are.  Whoever they are.  To deny food is to deny community, to deny God.  Let us feed others, not just ourselves.

This post is part of Blog Action Day: 2001

100 or 10,000?

This has nothing to do with movies, but with blogging.

I originally started blogging in order to publish my writing, which wasn't going to be published any other way.  At the same time, I didn't think anyone would really read my insane ramblings, at least in this life.

So when I created a blog, it was only to speak to one topic.  When I wanted to write on another topic, I created another blog.  Right now I have more than 30 "blogs".  But I don't consider them all REAL blogs.  For me, a real blog has to have at least a hundred posts.  It doesn't matter so much how many people read the thing, because my goal was publishing, not actually being read.  I know, that's weird, but, again, I really didn't think anyone would want to read my blogs.

Sometime last year, Blogger established stats for their blogs, and I started looking.  I was shocked how many people actually read my blog posts.  Some blogs got almost no traction, while others did reasonably well.  Frankly, considering that I didn't expect any readership, that was pretty good.

Then I started a blog on movies.

Frankly, this blog really took off after I posted on the summer art film, Malick's The Tree of Life.  I'm happy so many people read that post because the film was a revelation to me and I'm glad to share my vision of the film to others, especially those who left the film saying "WTF?"

Last week I realized that this blog is nearing 10,000 views.  Not only have none of my other blogs gotten that many views (the others are more theological or deal with poverty topics), none have taken off so quickly.  I only started posting here in March.

Then I found myself in a quandary.  My movie blog only had 91 posts.  So it was on the edge of getting 10,000 views but according to my basic definition, it didn't have enough posts to be considered a "real blog".  So this last week I worked at fixing that problem.

I updated some reviews I wrote earlier, posted those.  That brought me to 99 posts.  Today, this is post 100.  And today, the blog reached 10,000 views.  Thank you for reading my blog.

P.S. What would you like to see more of on this blog?  The movie reviews that are separated into categories, like my recent review of Red Beard?  Analyses of complex films, like the review of Tree of Life? Or would you like to see reviews of more recent films? Perhaps you like the personal stuff like my favorites?  What about discussions of groups of films like my recent three part discussion of thrillers?  Also, I've been thinking about a series on "Basic Films To Watch Before You Become a Film Buff"... any other ideas?  Any films you'd really like me to review?  Comment away!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

ER in Early Tokyo

Red Beard

One of the things I love about Akira Kurosawa is his ability to take films that are in completely different situations, and turn them into high drama.  Sure, it’s easy when you are doing a version of Macbeth (Throne of Blood) or King Lear (Ran), but this film is about a medical clinic in a poor area of Edo (which in a later era becomes Tokyo).  Could high drama be found here?  Perhaps the stakes aren’t as high as Ran or even The Seven Samurai, but this film expresses the drama of each human life, even the “small” life.  Red Beard is about the drama of compassion.

Technical—4/5—Nothing spectacular, but pretty sharp film quality for its era.  The script and direction are marvelous, if not exceptional.

Interest—5/5—Every time a story arc ends, there is another that has already started.  It is a powerful drama, filled with a number of laugh-out-loud moments, not least the out-of-context fight at the brothel.

Tension—4/5—At first, it seems pretty light, but as we follow the experiences of the new doctor, we join him as he bit by bit becomes more involved with those in the clinic.  At first, we have a bit of curiosity, then we experience the horror of death, then we appreciate the tragic story of the life of a good man, and then finally we are weeping at the tragedy of a small character.  I think I lost a bit of tension because I’d seen it just a year ago, but give me another year and I’ll be ready to see it again.

Emotional—5/5—Played me like a yo-yo, and I'd go through it all again, just for the enjoyment of the emotional manipulation.

Characters—5/5—This is the final pairing of Kurosawa and Mifune, but Mifune is as brilliant as he ever was.  He plays the title character with that perfect balance of seriousness and willingness to make fun of himself that is so well done.  The character of the girl taken from the brothel is also perfectly played.  I wish that some of the smaller roles were given more room to develop.

Theme—4/5 Compassion over honor.  Pretty basic, but well done.

Ethics—5/5—There are no deep ethical questions brought up here, we are all familiar with the stakes here.  However the rewards of a life of compassion, as dubious as they are, are clearly presented.

Personal—5/5—I hope I’m not boasting, but it is my attempt to be a man like Red Beard and to create a community of help like he did.  And I think that this, more than anything else, is what touches me about this film and makes it my favorite of Kurosawa’s films.

Mifune's doctor is an amazing character, (if one ignores his out-of-the-blue martial arts scene).  He is quiet, gruff and tough on his doctors.  Yet we love him so.  How is it that we want to identify with him so much, even though his lifestyle is so far from most of our own?  It is because, in the end, we all desire to be good.  We don't have to be as good as Mother Teresa, but we want to be seen as compassionate and caring in at least some aspect of our lives.  And Mifune invites us to identify with him.  We can, if only for a couple hours, can be the compassionate hero.

And Your Mother Is an MILF, Too

Y Tu Mama Tambien

I had some trepidation approaching this film.  The brief synopsizes I’d read of the film emphasized how “erotic” it was to such a degree that I wondered if it was almost pornographic.  But it was praised so highly by filmspotters, that I figured I’d give it a chance.

Well, the first scene is pretty explicit, shockingly so.  But it turns out it is a wonderful little coming of age story about two older teenage boys and an older woman who go on a trip to a beach.  Yes, there are a lot of sexual undertones and a couple sex scenes (beyond the first scene).  But the important part of the film is how the woman teaches them to have relationship—not only with women, but with each other.  They gain a full education on what it means to be faithful, to forgive, and to balance responsibility with joy.   This is about character growth, not sex.  Well, not primarily about sex.

Technical—5/5—I loved the camera work here, the unique angles, especially when they were driving and a lot of the shots come from outside.  

Interest—4/5—The earlier scenes which were laying out the boys’ characters were a little dull for me.  But once they went on the trip and their discussions in the car and her deep sorrow—it was all good and I was caught. 

Tension—4/5—Certainly a fair amount of relational tension on occasion, especially in the middle part of the film.

Characters/Emotional—3/5—Look, I believed in the characters.  I did.  But they were so separated from me or the people I knew that I just couldn’t relate.  So the characterization was fine, but the boys still seemed like cartoons of horny, out-to-have-fun teen boys—but I wasn’t one of these boys and I didn’t know them.  Still don’t.  What the woman was doing made sense by the end of the film, but, again, I don’t know if I know of anyone like this.

Theme—4/5—The need to live life to the fullest in relationship.  Pretty well realized.

Ethics—5/5—Actually, there are a lot of ethical questions brought up in this film, all relating to the right and wrong in relationship.  It openly talks about faithfulness, keeping to principle, forgiveness and freedom.  Not what I’d call a textbook film, but the questions brought up were excellent.  The most important thing was the hurt that was expressed when an ethical principle is broken.  These aren’t arbitrary ideas that can be thrown away if you don’t care for them.  And the seriousness with which the boys take relationships become the cornerstone of their maturity.  Excellent.

Personal—1/5—There was nothing I could connect to in the film, which really made it fall flat for me.  That was disappointing.

While there’s a lot of things to like about this film, I couldn’t really connect to the characters, and that leaves it off my top 100 for certain.

A Happy-Go-Lucky Life on the Streets of Helsinki

The Man Without A Past

This is a Finnish film of 2002, about a man who is brutally mugged and so forgets everything about his past, who he is, everything, and then tries to make do amidst the down and out of Helsinki.  Despite the obvious plot devises, this is a subtle and hilarious film.

I placed this film in my top 100 last year partly because of the characterization and partly because of the personal connections to those struggling to make due in an urban context.  For some reason, there were two things I forgot.  First of all, it’s in color.  I don’t know why I thought it was in black and white, but there you have it.  Secondly, it is hilarious.  The humor is sly and quiet, and I’m sure much of the humor I didn’t get the first time around.  All this to say, I enjoyed this film even more this second viewing.

Technical—4/5—It’s fine.  Nothing special, no tricks, no fuss.  Just basic filmmaking.  Nothing more than necessary.

Interest—5/5—I really enjoyed it this time.  I was hesitating seeing it again because I thought it would be too dull for me to watch only about a year or so since I last watched it.  Oh, I was wrong.  It was great, every scene.  It was good to know the end this time as well because it helped me to recognize where it was all heading.  And this time, I could see the quiet joy in almost every scene.  Wonderful.

Tension—3/5—Not much tension, this time around, except when the muggers show up.  

Emotional—3/5—There is some emotion, but it’s hard to feel when the acting is so dry and flat.  It is flat on purpose, and it helps one appreciate even more the obvious happiness that is there.  But we have to put that in, the actors won’t help us a whit.  On the other hand, see what I say under “personal”.

Characters—4/5—Excellent.  Sure the acting is flat, but since everyone does it, it looks like Helsinki is just that way.  I suspect that they are playing it as a Finnish stereotype, but it just adds to the humor and the local color.  The characters themselves are wonderful and funny and clever.  I wish more had been done for Kati Oetenin, because she just seemed sad.  

Theme—3/5—It’s not a strong thematic film.  I’d guess the theme might be, “It will all work out” or “There is a place for everyone” or some other generally uplifting cliché.

Ethics—5/5—I love films that show communities that work well, even in difficult circumstances.  Lars and the Real Girl and Notting Hill are among my favorites for just this quality. In TMWaP, the way they took our hero in and how he was instantly accepted, and the community helped him in quiet, small ways but that brought him life was wonderful to behold.  It is the ideal for my community as well, but that's getting toward...

Personal—5/5—I live and work amidst a community much like this.  Yes, there are struggles and not many resources, but there can also be joy and strength.  This personal connection is probably what really makes me emotional about this film. Not even so much because of these people, but because of the people I know on the streets of Portland and their joys and strengths.  It makes me happy.

This film is really a favorite of mine.  It gets better and more enjoyable with each viewing.  

Synecdoche, Schenectady

The final item my friend Ferris was going to do before he left the movie forum we both participated in was to watch Synecdoche, NY and make a line by line audio commentary on it.  We were supposed to get together and comment together, but it just didn’t happen, which is sad.   Ferris and I are both in our forties and we both could appreciate the considerations of late-life themes in the film and the struggles of the protagonist.  Ferris claimed that he had a specific concept of the theme of the film, which I never heard.  Perhaps it is not too late, but we shall see.

So I watched it on my own and below I give my own thoughts of this film  I have to say that for about two years I was quite enamored of Charlie Kauffman, but this has become less so of late.  I still appreciate his unique approach to storytelling and his themes are significant.  However, as a unit, his films seem a bit whiney.   Certainly, though, Eternal Sunshine is going to make my top 100.  So what about Synecdoche?

Technical—5/5—For a first film, Kauffman did a fine job on this. Especially the creation of the town and the theatre as the town within the town was marvelously done.  The acting was top notch and the script was intellectually fascinating.

Interest—4/5—There is so much going on in this film that it is hard to turn away.  I’ve watched it almost three times and I feel that I would need to watch it three more times to even catch all the main themes.  There are allegorical pieces, like the house on fire, that seems to conflict with the more realistic approach, but that only increases the mystery of the basic question, “What the hell is this film about anyway?”

Tension—2/5—There isn’t really much tension in the script.  It is just one damn event after another, and while they are all connected on the surface, one thing doesn’t really lead to another.  Events come out of nowhere, unexpectedly.  Thus, no tension is really built.  The only tension, again, is the meaning of the film.

Emotional—3/5—While the structure of the film makes it difficult to feel emotionally connected to the events, still Phillip Seymour Hoffman makes an empathetic character.  Kauffman’s script doesn’t make this easy, however.

Characters—4/5—Like Ikiru, this is really a one character film.  It is about Caden’s experience of the second half of his life, and everything we see is from his perspective, and most of the lack of realism is because his perspective is so skewed by his constant vision of death.  Thus, in a sense, the entire film is about character.  But this character is so confused, so horrified by his dismantlement of all that was significant in his life, that it is hard to appreciate this perspective.

Theme—5/5—The whole movie is about theme, really.  It is about one’s life when death is at the forefront of it.  There is much made of a near-death experience that gives one a new perspective on life.  However, this film could show the opposite of that.  What if one becomes so focused on death that life becomes meaningless?  So concerned about guilt and regret and health and powerlessness that life itself is simply a regurgitation of itself?  SNY is the perfect example of how obsession, even on a general positive thing, can be taken out of balance so that it becomes destructive, sucking in not only your life but the lives of those around you.

Ethics—5/5—Caden’s self-focus is so complete in this film that no one else really matters (except, on occasion, Hazel, excellent portrayed by Samantha Morton).  Finally, even he himself doesn’t matter and he allows Dianne Weist to direct every action in his life.  What I don’t know is whether Kauffman is making a sad commentary on Caden’s life—this is what we should avoid—or whether he is saying this is what we all experience.  We will all, eventually, be directed by others to do what we do, we all, at times, obsess on death and we all make errors because of it along the way.  Whichever the case, it is thoughtful and encourages thought.

Personal—3/5—As important as I think SNY is, it doesn’t connect with my life as much as I would think it should.  I am the right age, but perhaps not the right temperament to really see myself as Caden.  Sure, I think about death, although usually in a way looking forward to the break than anything else. 

I think that Synecdoche is an important film about death and life, as important as anything that Bergman has done.  I also think it is a difficult film: it is often unpleasant, often confusing and sometimes seems masturbatory on Kauffman’s part.  It is like a distasteful medicine you take because its good for you, a difficult class in college you take because your major requires it, but there is little pleasure in it, except, perhaps the intellectual pleasure of obtaining a hard-won nugget of knowledge.  It is on the edge of my top 100, but I don't think it will make it this year.

As time goes on, I find Mr. Kauffman's films to be more smart and intellectually satisfying than enjoyable.  But as I keep watching them over and over (and I will) perhaps they will grow on me again. 

I think I still have much more to say about this film.  It isn't like a straight forward narrative, in which a plot outline adequately summarizes it.  Rather, it is a film like A Serious Man or perhaps even Tree of Life, which is conceptually driven, and plot is secondary.  However, it has more details (perhaps) than either of the other two films and so requires even more careful study.  I shall return. 

Philip Marlowe Wins The Day

I frankly have avoided this film for years.  It’s not that I don’t like Bogie—he’s good for the occasional anti-hero.  But I really didn’t care for The Maltese Falcon and that film and this were strongly connected in my mind.  They were both Bogie noir based on classic detective novels of the 30s.   So if I disliked the one, I should dislike the other, right?

Not at all.  The big difference for me comes in the main characters: Sam Spade v. Philip Marlowe.  Frankly, Sam Spade has few redeeming qualities, and I strongly disliked him.  It must be to Bogie’s credit that just as much as I disliked his Sam Spade, I really enjoyed his Philip Marlowe. Marlowe was funny, smart, laughs easily and is much more enjoyable to spend time with.  And he doesn’t consider violence the first resort, especially in dealing with women.  I appreciate that.

Technical—5/5--In all probability, another aspect I really appreciated about The Big Sleep over MF is the direction in general.  Howard Hawks is one of my favorite directors and I love his dialogue-filled, constantly moving films.  This isn’t as frantic as some of his films, but it certainly has his touch.  Having William Faulkner as a writer for this film couldn’t hurt, either.  The script is smart and the dialogue rich.  And, most of all, the film was humorous throughout, which I didn’t expect, although I should have with Hawks at the helm.

Interest—4/5—Although most of the other characters aren’t as interesting as Marlowe, of course Bacall is fantastic and the plot is interesting.  I can’t say that I was as interested in the mystery itself, but it was fun getting there. 

Tension—4/5—There are some real tense moments in there, especially in a couple of the shootouts and in the involvement of Bacall’s sister.

Characters—3/5—It’s difficult to pinpoint my feeling of the characters of this film.  Frankly, few of them were believable.  They were all movie stereotypes (and I recognize that this film helped to create some of these stereotypes) except for Marlowe, who wasn’t really the hard-boiled detective, or perhaps he was but didn’t always act like it.

Emotional—3/5— Because I didn’t buy most of the characters, their dilemmas weren’t very compelling for me.  Certainly I was tense when someone got shot, but overall it didn’t matter. 

Theme—2/5—I didn’t really catch much of a theme here.

Ethics—3/5—I don’t think the movie is encouraging us to think about ethics, other than the illegality of shooting people for financial reasons.  There is a moment in the DA’s office where Marlowe’s style of solving a crime is held against a police procedure.  The main thing seems to be that Marlowe’s style, although he lies, leaves dead bodies around, spends questionable time with women and sets people up to be shot, but he gets the job done (and he has friends in high places).  That seems to be good enough for the DA, so it should be good enough for us?  Hmmmm.

The real ethical question: Should Bacall be smoking?  In public?

Personal—3/5—I related to Marlowe’s easygoing style, although it is not my own, and I did relate to his use of humor to ease tensions.

A good movie, really enjoyable.  One I will probably watch again.  But it wasn’t so enjoyable that I’d put it in my top 100.

The Secret Life of C.C. Baxter

The Apartment

Billy Wilder is an amazing director, not that he wrote and directed such popular movies, but that so many of his movies are seen as classics more than 50-60 years after they were made.  His movies consistently have stellar performances, often better than the stars shine in films apart from his own.   And many of his films regularly make top lists of all time, including Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and Some Like It Hot, and he stands with Akira Kurosawa, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese as being among the most praised directors of all time.   The Apartment, about C.C. Baxter making his journey from milquetoast to mature man, is one of Wilder’s most popular and highly praised films.

Technical—As Wilder films are opt to be, The Apartment is practically perfect.  A perfectly honed script, fantastic performances by Lemon and MacLaine,  cinematography that may not be the most interesting, but is very functional, especially for a story that exists mostly in offices and apartments.   As if we didn’t know, Wilder knows how to make a film.

Interest—3/5—Here’s my problem with the film, and it is personal, not having to do with the film itself.  I find upward mobility in an office setting to be stifling, even to watch from the outside.  It is great to see the characters grow and become something more than an office flunky, but getting there is so dull for me.  The best thing to watch was the performances.

Tension—3/5—There wasn’t much tension, except for his relation with his neighbors when MacLaine was knocked out in his bed.  The tension of him maintaining his clearly false “tiger” persona in the face of truth coming to haunt him was pretty tense.

Emotional—3/5—Again, the plot didn’t hold a lot of interest for me, so I didn’t feel very much, except for Fran and her dilemma.

Characters—5/5—Like the Big Lebowski, most of the characters didn’t interest me at all, but Lemon and MacLaine were marvelous, possibly giving the best performances of their careers.   Their chemistry rapport were fantastic and I loved the scenes of them together.  When C.C. gets them to play chess, that was great, so real.

Theme—4/5—Love is greater than ambition.   Sure, its cliché, but it’s a believable cliché here.

Ethics—4/5—I love how we are dropped in the middle of C.C.’s dilemma, with little context of how he ended up loaning out his apartment for his boss’ infidelities.  We don’t need to see what a wimp he is, the situation speaks for itself.  Even when he asserts himself, it is clear who has the power.  At the same time, we know that C.C. has no power because he has granted himself no power.  When he stands at the end we can feel the ethical backbone forming.

Personal—1/5—There was really no personal identification with this film, which is not the fault of the film at all.  It just had no real connection with my life.

This is an enjoyable film and I can say that I can see why it is considered a great film.  Actually, by all objective standards, I'd have to say it is a great film.  It is an early and very successful example of dramedry, in the way of Punch Drunk Love and Lost In Translation.  The acting and characterization was top of the line.  But my personal lack of empathy for the characters' situation reduces it in my personal rankings. 

Everybody Loves Bergman

Bergman, Bergman, Bergman...

All around me are Ingmar Bergman fans.  He is so loved.  Perhaps it's the existential angst, or the black humor, but if a person appreciates art film, they always appreciate Bergman.  Almost. 

 I tried, I really did.  I watched Fanny and Alexander (twice), The Seventh Seal, Through A Glass Darkly, the first half of Winter Light (I’ll finish it someday)… I’m sorry, folks, they all bored me.  They weren't bad movies, of course.  But to me they were dry, unfunny and generally dull.  Watching a bunch of people looking for meaning without a clue—I see that everyday.  The portrayals of mental illness or angst didn’t really seem true to life for me.  So, just to appease my internet friend Chardy, I agreed to watch Wild Strawberries.  But I don’t expect much from it.   Here goes...

Technical—5/5—Bergman is always a fine filmmaker, nothing to object to.  His actors are all great and his technique is good. 

Theme—5/5—As always, Bergman is thematically rich.  Wild Strawberries is about a man reflecting on what is important in life.  God was never present and science is significant, and he received a lot of honor.  And his life is empty.  What is wrong?  What is he missing?  Relationship, a real connection with others.  That’s a great theme.  Much better than no answer at all.  This reminds me strongly of Ikiru, without the Capra overlay.

Characters—5/5—But here is what Wild Strawberries has that other Bergman didn’t.  These characters are well portrayed and the development seems natural and powerful.  Victor Sjöström and Ingrid Thulin do especially exceptional work at portraying the aging doctor and his lonely daughter in law. 

Emotional—5/5—Most importantly, I felt for these characters.  Their quiet heartbreak is powerfully told and the realization of their mistakes and regret comes slowly upon them, allowing us to go on the doctor’s emotional road trip with him. 

Interest—4/5—This film grew on me.  At first, it seemed like other Bergman films I found uninteresting, but as I attached to the characters, I wanted more detail, more understanding of the struggles they were going through.

Tension—3/5—Not much in the way of tension, except how the doctor will react.  A very relational film and all the tension resides in how they act toward one another.

Ethics—5/5—A powerful ethical message, probably the most important of the films I’ve seen by Bergman.  Rather than focusing on what we cannot experience, Bergman shows us what we can, what really is significant in life. 

Personal—4/5—The older I get the more I appreciate the doctor’s position.  Sure, perhaps I’m correct in what I do, but that doesn’t make me right in relationship.  People are more important than ideals.  It is so hard to remember that.

Finally, a Bergman I appreciate and, actually, love.  I like this one better than Ikiru, actually.  It’ll make it my top 100, probably.  (At least it did this year.  Next year, we'll see.)  Still, it's nice to at least partly join in the Bergman party.

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I [Heart] Nemo

My son, on his 18th birthday this last December decided to celebrate this first step into adulthood by inviting a couple of his friends to our home to watch Finding Nemo while eating homemade Portal Cake (recipe changed from the original).  This was a marvelous idea and a great opportunity for me to reevaluate one of my favorite movies of all time.

When I first watched Finding Nemo, my reaction was much like a comment made about this film, “A talking animals movie—how unique!”  The story was simple, and while Dorry is hilarious, overall the impression it left me was “meh”.   After watching it with my children more times than I can count, my appreciation for this film knows no bounds.  This is a deep film, a touching film, a truly human film that has to be told in the sea, for only the sea has the complexity of human society.  Yeah, it’s played for laughs—a lot of wonderful, freeing, joyous laughs—but it isn’t just a funny film.  It’s a film about love and relationships.

Technical—5/5—Amazing.  This is one of the peaks of Pixar’s art.  Every plant, every tentacle, every fin is perfectly realized.  The characters are completely fish and completely human, much in the way Disney has done at their best.  This is a marvel of computer animation.

Interest—5/5—How can I turn away from this film?  Every second is interesting.  It’s funny, then tense, then touching, then funny again. 

Tension—5/5—This is the first film I remember Mercy and I watching together.  We saw it in the theatre, she was three, and was scared to death.  The sharks, the lantern fish, the whale… it was all too intense for her (she still gets nervous about too much tension).  She wanted to leave, but I just held her in my lap and told her to shut her eyes if it was too much.  By the end of the movie she loved it, but it was touch and go for a bit.  Sure, it’s not really scary for adults, but the lantern fish still creeps me out a bit and the jellyfish scene still makes me tense.

Emotional—5/5—Yeah.  When the Pelican tells Nemo the story of his dad braving all of the dangers of the ocean to find his son, I get tears in my eyes.  Heck, they are there right now, just thinking about it.

Characters—5/5—This is the best.  Rarely is character better shown through plot than in this film.  The prologue which establishes the reason for Marlin’s fears, but especially the time taken for Marlin’s attempt at humor.  He can’t tell the joke because he needs to over explain everything, and that tells us everything we need to know, and we can see from the beginning how this damages his relationship with his son.  And instead of Dory and Nemo just being “the funny one” and “the object of desire”, they are given character arcs as well, where all three of them learn to trust.  Marlin learns to trust his son, Dory learns to trust a family and Nemo learns to trust himself.  Brilliant.

Theme—5/5—There’s a lot going on in the film, as it is a quest movie.  Most quest stories rely on the next thing coming to keep the interest, as does FN.  But this is the most human of quest stories, because it is about relationships and how trust is essential.  It isn’t just that the father needs to give the son more freedom (like the shallow Little Mermaid), but that they all needed to trust each other, and to trust the love that they have for each other.  And the way to develop trust is to see each other (and oneself) in crisis.  After the worst has happened and every acted heroically, there is no more need for fear.   This is simple, a child could get it.  But there’s enough in the telling of it that a psychologist or ethicist to spend hours on it, understanding how it works.

Ethics—5/5—Fear leads to overprotection, trust—even dangerous trust—builds love.  That’s powerful.

Personal—5/5—Despite it’s depth, its hilarity, its ethical nature… Finding Nemo is a story about parenting.  We all have a tendency to overprotect as parents (unless we are so wigged out on addiction we don’t notice our children).  It is interesting that a significant part of the story is Nemo learning from Gil what Marlin couldn’t teach him.  It isn’t that Marlin didn’t get Nemo back, but Gil is just as important to Nemo’s growth as Marlin was.   Letting go, in parenting, often means letting others teach what you cannot.  That is real trust.  It is hard to let our children go, and necessary.  These are all lessons I am still learning.

Okay, yeah.  It still belongs in my top 5. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Dark and Stormy Night, #3: Favorites

Here are some favorite thrillers of mine, as defined in the previous post.  No spoilers are included.  I hope I can encourage you to watch some or all of these classics.

Dial “M” for Murder
A cuckolded husband plots to rid his wife (who had an affair with a mystery writer) and obtain her fortune with the help of a college “friend”.  I recently watched this Hitchcock-directed classic, and it is an excellent example of a traditional formula of the thriller genre.   The husband is so smooth and conniving, Grace Kelly so beautiful and helpless, and the detective smart and manipulative.  It all takes place in a single apartment, there are five characters, a murder in the first act and new twists in the second act.  There is nothing exceptional about Hitchcock’s directing, and there is little innovative in the story itself.  But as an introduction to the genre, it is pitch perfect. 3.5/5

Two playwrights of thrillers, two women (one a psychic) and a lawyer plot and scheme for fame and fortune in a house full of weapons. One of the greatest things about Deathtrap is that it teaches us about the genre itself.  It stars Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve as writers whose plots become horrifyingly real.  This is probably the cleverest of scripts in the genre, written by Ira Levin who wrote the original novels of The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby.  The movie is so self-referential it twists upon itself and mocks itself at every turn.  Such wonderful fun. 4.5/5

A cuckolded mystery novelist plots to get rid of his wife… by having his replacement steal his precious jewels?  This last week I watched Sleuth, which inspired me to write this series on thrillers.  It is an excellent thriller about a plot to steal, or to murder, or to humiliate… what actually occurs is hard to determine.  What is clear, however, is that Laurence Olivier and a young Michael Caine are at their best in acting.  They both ham it up, but neither at the cost of the other—rather they play off of each other so well that it is clear this film was a joy for them to work together. 4/5

A note: Sleuth is difficult to find, as it has not been released on DVD.  However, it is available, as a whole, on YouTube: 

My favorite thriller is:

Rear Window
A journalist is stuck in a wheelchair in his apartment (and Grace Kelly) with nothing to do but peep into his neighbors windows—but he suspects one neighbor of murder!  It could be questioned as to whether Rear Window even follows the formula.  But I think it does as long as you don’t mind bending a couple rules.  The two acts aren’t so clear, and most of the action doesn’t take place in the apartment our hero is trapped in.  Yet this is the least intellectual, most psychological of thrillers.  What happens in the bottom apartment is simply one act in a whole human menagerie, where a whole host of stories take place.  If the various apartments are red herrings, they are the most fulfilling of them.  And what happens to our three “heroes” becomes important to us.  I believe that Rear Window is the most perfect thriller ever made, and it gives me great pleasure to watch each and every time.  5/5

A Dark And Stormy Night, #2: Thriller

Despite this horrific experience, and the tremendous risk to my psyche, I watched other thrillers of this genre over the years and found I enjoy them immensely.  They are highly intellectual and rarely do they contain superior acting, for rarely is the actor called upon to display more subtlety than badly hidden jealousy.

One cannot make such carefully plotted dramas out of thin air. There are rules to these thrillers.  First of all, the space must be limited.  At first it was because most of the thrillers were originally performed in the theatre, but  later it was a standard of itself.   The space could be a single room, like the Spider’s Web, an apartment or a house,  or perhaps a manor, but one cannot just be wandering about the countryside namby-pamby like that Mr. Holmes.  The cast is also limited.  No more than eight members, and it could possibly be limited to two.  It has been mentioned that the classic number is five. 

Of course, there must be a murder, or at least the plotting or suspicion of a murder.  And there must be detection.  The putting together of the pieces is traditionally done by a detective, whether of the police or private.  Sometimes the plot is puzzled together by another party, but it is done through many twists, some surprises and multiple red herrings.

One more rule: there must be two acts.  Again, this is a device borrowed from theatre, but it gives some structure.  In the first act, the murder is committed and the basic plot is revealed.  In the second act, the original act comes to fruition, twists multiply, and, in the best thrillers,  the plot goes in directions we never would have suspected.

The thriller might seem stilted to some with so many rules.  But the best writers can make the tightest sonnet seem free of all restrictions.  Even so with the best thrillers.  In my next post, I will give spoiler-free descriptions of my favorites of the genre.