J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for July, 2007

Michael Palin: Sahara

Posted by J on July 28, 2007

And now for something completely different. In 2002, BBC produced a travelogue of the Sahara desert region, with Michael Palin of Monty Python fame as host. Palin’s goal was to tramp around the Sahara and see the ancient sites–taking just one small bag and a skeleton TV crew. The name “Sahara” evokes a far-off empty wasteland (it is the size of the United States), but as Palin notes at the beginning, the Sahara is only 300 miles from Gibraltar and is loaded with diverse peoples. The Sahara, we find, is not just sand after all. This is one of the major points of the travelogue. Except for one lonely camel journey, Palin befriends scores of people and finds loads of evidence of the human imprint on the region: from the 800-year-old dye-making process in Fez, Morocco, to the vast iron ore mines of Senegal, to the 6000+ year-old rock carvings in Niger, to the rich oilfields of Libya. With Palin we zip from one place to another, each new and unique, all containing lots of people.

As a traveler and interviewer, Palin is interested in culture. He visits the Muslim Arabs on the north coast, the West Africans in Senegal and Mali, and several tribes without traceable roots. This journey is a bit anthropological, since Palin is quick to describe the cuisine (often camels’ heads), and ask the locals about marriage customs. In fact he asks about this latter topic about fifteen times. Marriage in the Sahara region is practiced a variety of ways, but it’s clear that polygamy and fornication are rampant and that no one in the Sahara embraces Western feminism. And there is some rejoicing about the effects of Islamic religion and custom, particularly in regard to art and architecture. But this is a “non-judgmental” documentary, so no value system gets its toes stepped on.

One of the most interesting things about this series is its presentation of itself as an unplanned trip. Palin doesn’t seem to have booked transportation to the places he’s going, and when he tries to board the iron ore train in Senegal and hire a boat to ride up the Niger river, we believe him. And popping up here and there–seemingly by accident–are displaced Westerners and expatriates. They show up in every place Palin stops, whether at a Senegalese bar, where Palin meets an American jazz saxophone player, or in no-man’s land in Southern Algeria, where Palin runs into a retired RAF officer driving around the desert. The most interesting for us were the Anglican church in Morocco, attended by five British subjects and 195 Nigerians (cellphones ringing during the service and all), and the Christian Norweigian missionary in Mali. This latter lady seemed quite exuberant about her work, but Palin tried to squelch her fire by asking her again and again how many Malisian Muslims she’d converted. When she responded that her mission isn’t about numbers, it’s about living for Christ, Palin wasn’t satisfied and kept pressing her about number of converts. This is the last we see of her, and we were left feeling that it was too bad we had to keep going with Palin and couldn’t travel around with her.

In fact, this documentary works in spite of Palin, who draws people out in interviews very well but whose knack for on-camera improvisational joking is probably poorer than yours. Our household had this exchange about him:

“This guy is actually a famous comedian.”
“Really? He’s not funny.”
“Yes. He was in Monty Python’s Flying Circus and several comedy movies.”
“Huh. I thought he was just another one of those travel show hosts.”

Even worse, Palin ends up judging his Sahara project in terms of European immigration. The journey ends where it started, the Rock of Gibraltar, where Palin investigates evidence of African refugees crashing on Gibraltar’s shore, then interviews Nigerians who trekked across the Sahara by themselves. His tentative solution is humanitarian aid and a free invitation into the E.U. for all who want to come. Of course there is no analysis of the potential effects of this invitation, and Palin doesn’t seem to understand the difference between visiting alien peoples and living with them. Palin didn’t like the socially restrictiveness of Islam (he needs a bodyguard in Algeria because of a fatwa on foreigners) or the filthiness of countries like Mali (the banks of the Niger are covered in sewage, to Palin’s dismay as he walks on it). Why then would he want to invite the Sahara into Europe? The documentary fails to reflect on what it shows, but despite that, we can partly recommend this one as something far better than what PBS or the Discovery Channel could produce.

Note: We particularly recommend the first two of the four episodes. The third only shows a camel journey, which plods on a bit, and the fourth is hardly about the Sahara but instead about the tourist traps on the North African coast. Also, Palin has numerous other travelogues. If you’ve seen them, let us know what you think.

Entertainment: 5.5
Intelligence: 7
Morality: (okay, except for a half-second shot of Palin demonstrating a Saharan shower)

Posted in Documentary, Pretty Good | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Mary Poppins

Posted by J on July 27, 2007

If Mary Poppins is anything, she’s a savior from the sky. The question is, what does she save? We’re inclined to be a bit cynical about Ms. Poppins’ magic, which is enlisted to turn hum-drum business-types into whimsical sillies. This is something like what Disney movie magic is supposed to do to audiences: after long, dull days at work, you go to the theater and experience the escape that Mary Poppins allows. Most of this movie’s running time is dedicated to its song-and-dance numbers, which contribute almost nothing to its story arc. But they do to its worldview. There is a deep anti-Enlightenment strain in the movie’s plot and form, the view that imagination must overcome reason at all costs. This is what Mary teaches the family she works for, and this is what the crotchety bankers learn in the end.

But imagination itself can be an idol, which is always trouble. Mary saves the upper-class British family (the Banks) to whimsicality through movie magic. Whether it’s jumping into animated worlds or floating above rooms by telling jokes, it is always, as we’re told, a “jolly holiday with Mary.” The Banks’ family structure re-forms because Mary turns a dim house colorful by making the impossible happen. Then she floats away, sadly looking at the family she’s reformed because they seem to have forgotten her. Of course she’s been a bit impersonal all along, and the final results appear to be the effects of her teaching, which advocates lounging in one’s own imaginative world.

Aiding Mary’s cause is Bert the Chimney-Sweep, a figure almost as pervasive and other-worldly as Mary. He enlists his chimney-sweep buddies to sing on London rooftops, then to invade the Banks house and have fun with Mrs. Banks’ secretive “Votes for Women” campaign. While it might be fun to watch these soot-covered sweeps dance till they drop, they will probably all contract emphysema and die within two years. Chimney-sweeping was a deadly profession, yet the bankers in the end learn not to have compassion on the poor but to go fly kites and yuck it up (though perhaps the bird-lady is the exception). And so Mary doesn’t change hearts; instead she teaches minds to create and live in their own jolly worlds. We live in a darker world than the one in Mary Poppins. Movie magic cannot overcome that, but thankfully the operations and offices of our Savior are far greater than Mary Poppins’.

Entertainment: 6
Intelligence: 2
Morality: see review

Posted in Musical, Silly but Entertaining | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Big Country

Posted by J on July 27, 2007

It’s been said that the most impressive feature of the American West is its sky, an all-consuming blue that swallows up the Earth below it.  The Western sky is the main star in The Big Country, a ’50s cowboy epic directed by William Wyler (of Ben-Hur fame). This is in a movie with Charleton Heston, Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, and Burl Ives, whose Academy Award for this one shows how silly that award can appear in retrospect.

Wyler’s strategy in The Big Country was apparently to outdo John Ford by making the all-consuming sky and landscape the film’s prominent feature. Scene after scene we see long shots of that landscape, with characters either walking or riding into the horizon, appearing like little blips of nothing. It’s unclear whether Wyler, with these wide-angle views, wanted to show the insignificance of the human condition in relation to nature or the universe, or whether he just wanted to show off, but this persistent camera viewpoint is inconsistent in terms of the movie’s narrative.

And what a sprawling morality tale the movie presents us with. It begins with Peck’s character, a former sailor, riding into an unknown frontier settlement (somewhere between Wyoming and New Mexico).  Peck runs right into trouble with a bunch of ruffians from Ives’ clan, who play a prank on Peck, leaving him a little dirty and ashamed.  This irks Peck’s host, a rich Southerner who’s a figurehead for the wealthy cattle ranchers in the area.  Eventually a showdown takes place between these wealthy ranchers and the poor segment of the settlement, represented by Ives and his ruffians.  Everyone is to blame for this showdown; the ruffians are ruffians, but the ranchers are infringing on water rights and being pompous jerks to their poor neighbors.

That leaves the noble Peck as the go-between.  He obviously represents the middle-class, civil law, and U.S. state rule (ala Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence).  He preaches a doctrine of non-violence throughout the movie, even though he carries around his father’s dueling pistols.  What’s going to happen with these pistols is important, obviously, and we learn about them in the first thirty minutes. In fact, the movie telegraphs most of its problems and resolutions in the first thirty minutes, and since you’re in for a 167-minute epic, you’ve got a long wait in front of you.

Included in this longish tale is a romance plot. Peck has traveled to this frontier settlement to return to his fiancee, the daughter of the rich Southern cattleman. Of course Peck, being virtuous and all, can’t marry into that family. That would mean that the middle-class and upper-class have bonded, leaving the poor behind.  Thus the plot throws us a landowning schoolteacher for Peck to fall in love with, demonstrating that the key values for the middle class are private property and education.

This judgment is easy to make because the movie is not subtle in its political and social statements. Wyler’s clear aim here is to trumpet a quasi-populist agenda–most of which we might agree with but which is also made far too obvious by cardboard cutouts that substitute for characters (Sidenote: expect bad acting, especially from Heston).

But then there’s the landscape, which consumes whole shots. It’s unclear whether the vastness of the frontier, as presented in The Big Country, undermines Peck’s values by visually representing the smallness of human beings (thereby colliding with the messages of the plot), or whether we are shown this vastness because there’s a whole lot of it to be conquered by Peck’s values and, golly, we the U.S. of A. had better get on that. Whichever the case, you have better options. Anything by John Ford makes similar points in half the running time, though Ford’s characters don’t trumpet non-violence. The Big Country is ultimately too plodding and easily forgettable, but if you like the genre of the Western like we do, the movie will keep you somewhat interested even until the end.

Entertainment: 4
Intelligence: 4.5
Morality: 6

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Western | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Posted by J on July 23, 2007

We only lasted 45 minutes into Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). That was 45 minutes of idle, plotless chit-chat, with a mean stereotype of a Japanese man (and we don’t ever care about P.C. flimflam) and an urban party that celebrated lewdness and dissipation. Both of the main characters were basically self-absorbed prostitutes, and we were supposed to care about them “falling in love.” After Audrey Hepburn snuck into bed (merely to sleep) with Hannibal from “The A-Team,” and after Buddy Ebsen showed up to declare that Ms. Hepburn was both his adopted child and wife, we couldn’t take much more. The 1950s and 60s contained plenty of moral freaks, and we don’t spend time with that which celebrates them.

Entertainment: 1
Intelligence: 1
Morality: 0

Posted in Modern Drama, They Spent Millions on This? | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

You’ve Got Mail

Posted by J on July 23, 2007

We seek to provide equal opportunity offense. No idea–whether in a chick flick or testosterone thriller–should escape critique. So in this installment we assault the beloved fortress of modern American women: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. No matter how cute this pair appears to be, they tend to make sentimentalist tripe together, and You’ve Got Mail is no exception. We don’t blame the actors solely; the heart of this movie is its writing. But Hanks and Ryan make adultery and the fiction of the One True Love look fun.

We begin the movie with Hanks and Ryan shacking up with different lovers. This is presented as quirky in a fun way, since Ryan’s boyfriend is a Luddite and Hanks’ girlfriend is mouthy and self-absorbed, but in a fun way, you see. Since these matches aren’t perfect, but we’re having fun in New York City anyway, it’s okay for Hanks and Ryan to seek a different, secret, anonymous lover on the Internet. The development of this secret relationship is the heart of the movie. Hanks and Ryan exchange cutesy banter in personal emails, then compete to see who can act cuter just as their respective bookstores compete in the business world. Cutesy, cutesy, cutesy, all in the name of adultery.

After the movie laughs off their lovers, Hanks and Ryan meet in a garden and declare their Eternal True Love for one another. Returning to Eden, Hanks has found the “one single person in the whole world” who he can spend a blissful life with. While we hope so for the sake of his future children–in the movie, Hanks’ father recites his own list of lovers and Hank’s grandfather sires a daughter at the approximate age of 75, making Hanks 35 years older than his aunt–we were ready to set the betting line for when Ryan breaks up with Hanks. 2 years, 5 years, it doesn’t matter. In the real world, these characters would be self-centered melancholics. They love to be loved, and after exiting the garden, it might be a matter of time before they again found themselves searching for another Internet lover.

Entertainment: 6
Intelligence: 5.5
Morality: 0

See also: The Shop Around the Corner

Posted in Comedy, Modern Drama, Silly but Entertaining, They Spent Millions on This? | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Facing the Giants

Posted by J on July 21, 2007

Facing the Giants is a million-dollar skit. It uses the kind of dialogue and plot elements found in Sunday sketches in evangelical churches, usually acted out some time during the worship service, just prior to the sermon. In fact, Facing the Giants often feels like that skit and sermon rolled into one. Not surprisingly, it was funded by a baptist megachurch in Georgia, which also contributed–so the credits tell us–catering, settings, and volunteer actors. Given the amateur involvement, the construction of the movie isn’t as bad as you’d think. It has some nice individual moments where personal and corporate piety is acted out in a not-terribly hoaky way. You might be inspired for a minutes. But the sum of those moments rests on overly pietistic notions: that God is a quasi-genie and that our lives of faith are emotional rollercoasters. This is the Second Great Awakening packaged in a twenty-first century sports movie.

The plot borrows from the Eternal Sports Story: underdogs overcome long odds to win the Big Game. When a character named David enters the movie, struggling to kick footballs and to believe in himself, we sort of know where this is going. When we discover that the best team in the state is nicknamed the Giants, we have a good guess ten minutes into the movie that, yes, David will kick the winning field goal to defeat the Giants. But this isn’t all. Our main character, the football coach of Shiloh Christian Academy (SCA), undergoes severe hardship. He hasn’t won in six years, has his job threatened by vicious parents, has his assistant coach turn on him, struggles to pay the bills, and learns that he can’t conceive children with his wife. But once Coach repents and dedicates his life to Christ, all of his problems are solved. His team starts winning, his assistant coach apologizes, someone gives him a new truck, he gets a $6000 raise, his team overcomes long odds and defeats the Giants for the state championship, and his wife gets pregnant. The final scene shows that Coach Faith wins back-to-back titles and has baby #2 on the way. By our count God performed six miracles in the movie after the school’s revival, including turning a dumb football jock into a math genius and changing the direction of the wind at the perfect moment. All that, with only one very brief disappointment (a loss turned into a win).

Facing the Giants tells us not to care about winning football games, until its final moments, when it focuses on winning football games. Along the way, Coach Faith weeps a lot and yells a lot, in an attempt to inspire his players to glorify God. Testosterone-laced scenes drag on for minutes, as Coach Faith screams at his players to give everything they’ve got. Almost every scene inspires a different kind of emotional high, with the aid of contemporary Christian music. Meanwhile, we yearned for a quiet break, wondering when SCA’s revival would inspire someone to go sit at a pond and fish for a few hours. Perhaps, while at that pond, Coach could ponder what happens when all his problems aren’t solved instantly via miracles. Perhaps, while pondering, he could think about the difference between caricatures and characters. And maybe he could turn a skit into a script. Chariots of Fire and Tender Mercies would be places to figure out how to do that.

Entertainment: 3
Intelligence: 1
Morality: 10

Posted in Modern Drama, They Spent Millions on This? | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Death and Resurrection List

Posted by J on July 21, 2007

Here we keep a list of all the movies featuring the death and resurrection of a character. It’s a dynamic list; we’ll add to it when we think of more. Email us with your suggestions.

  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  • The Matrix
  • The Iron Giant
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • Star Trek II and III
  • Alien 3 and Alien:Resurrection
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (forthcoming)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • Halloween
  • The Abyss
  • Contact
  • The Passion of the Christ
  • Groundhog Day
  • Pirates of the Caribbean series
  • High Plains Drifter
  • Field of Dreams
  • Big Fish
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still
  • The Prestige
  • The New World
  • Solaris
  • Ernest Goes to Jail
  • Any Frankenstein movie
  • Any zombie movie

And this is a list of “almosts.” E.g., people turn into ghosts, resurrections don’t take place due to a technicality (like Superman traveling back in time to revive Lois Lane).

  • The Princess Bride
  • Star Trek: Generations
  • The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
  • Superman
  • Lord of the Rings Trilogy
  • The Terminator series
  • The Sixth Sense
  • Stranger than Fiction
  • Beetlejuice
  • Ben-Hur (Christ isn’t resurrected in this one)
  • Star Wars series
  • Ghost

Posted in Brief Commentary | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus Versus the Martians

Posted by J on July 19, 2007

Our movie bias here at TPR leans towards reviewing what are supposed to be excellent films, those “classic movies” that appear near the tops of best-of lists. But every now and then, we have shake that up with something else. Of course for every one of the “classics,” there are ten thousand non-classics. Almost all of those (and many of our beloved “classics”) are worthless. They’re the cultural detritus that’s flowed from the sewer pipes of Hollywood into theaters and TV sets for over a century, rot made for audiences worldwide to consume. We don’t refer just to that which glorifies immorality, but also that which is just plain crap — poorly-made fare for souls who only want entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

The cult cable TV show of our youth, Mystery Science Theater 3000, lived to mock the worst of the worst in movie history–and this is the subject of our review. The show’s concept was simple: three people (one guy and two robots) watch a movie and make fun of it. The comments were scripted rather than made as improvised quips, allowing intelligent jokes to emerge slowly, ones that could be developed over the course of the movie. The show also engaged viewers of all levels of knowledge, so that if you knew something about Maynard Ferguson, Citizen Kane, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell-Jar, and Joseph Biden and Teddy Kennedy, you’d be rewarded. But if you didn’t know those, you’d still get half the jokes.

There are two problems with the show. The first is whether it is actually a postmodern celebration of the cheesy movies it makes fun of. To air Santa Claus versus the Martians in the show’s format, a movie no human being should ever see, is to revive and repackage it for mass-culture consumption. The result is an updated bad movie, one with layers of cultural commentary (MST3K’s jokes and observations) added on top of it. There is nothing more postmodern–if such an idea or movement exists at all–than watching a movie about people watching a movie.

The second problem is deeper: whether cultural satire like this show’s is Biblically justifiable. Leaving aside the two or three risque jokes per episode (it’s clean comedy otherwise), we wonder what place satire has as a form of entertainment. Classically speaking, satire was not just meant to poke fun at something but to provide some moral corrective for a bad or idolatrous idea–see for example Gulliver’s Travels. If viewers take the show this way, they might learn something. In fact MST3K’s Santa Claus Versus the Martians episode has several corrective points to make (critiquing, for example, a bad movie’s celebration of Christmas commercialism). But if viewers take the show as mocking for mocking’s sake–and it sometimes veers that direction–then MST3K advocates apathy and cynicism. That kind of talk is obviously vain and wrong. Viewers who tend toward it and are influenced by it–including almost all male youths–should stay away.

Santa Claus Versus the Martians (1964), the movie under this MST3K episode’s attack, is well worth pummeling. Not only was it horribly made and acted, but it’s a subversive children’s movie that promotes both Christmas commercialism and the military-industrial complex. These are visually represented as toys and bombs, two things Americans perhaps can’t do without. In the movie Santa Claus is kidnapped by Martians, who have a society where children pout unhappily in boredom and adults are wooden stiffs and harsh taskmasters. But over the course of time, merely through his jolly laughter, Santa wins over Martian hardhearts. And by building a toy factory on Mars and by attacking the main Martian villain with the toys that that factory produces, Santa saves the day.

All of these plot points, plus the abominable production design and directing, are ridiculed by the MST3K crew. Witty jokes, mostly one-line observations, take apart the absurd ideology that Santa Claus Versus the Martians tries to perpetuate in its plot and presentation. We admit, we laughed quite a bit. Probably too much. After a long day of working on scholastic achievement tests, we were ready for this. But after the show, we weren’t wholly sure how much good MST3K promoted. Would this keep us from encouraging others daily, increasing in proper thoughts and actions, and abounding in the grace we’ve been allowed? If so, to any degree, it would be best to stay away.

MST3K: Santa Claus Versus the Martians
Entertainment: 8.5
Intelligence: 7
Morality (see review)

Santa Claus Versus the Martians
Entertainment: 0
Intelligence: 0
Morality: 3

Posted in Comedy, Pretty Good | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Great Expectations (1946)

Posted by J on July 16, 2007

David Lean’s Great Expectations is a Dickens novel turned Gothic film that uses the conventions of early twentieth-century horror movies. Sure, there are quaint, Dickensian characters like Herbert Pocket and Mr. Wemick’s father, but Miss Havisham’s estate is a cobweb castle and the wall of Mr. Jagger’s office are draped with masks of his former clients who’ve been to the gallows. Lean frames scenes so that shadows are larger and far more menacing than the people that make them. The movie is not scary, but it deliberately surprises, as in the opening scene where Magwitch emerges out of a foggy swamp to grab Pip. This is an intriguing way to reconstruct a Victorian story that, when we read it, was more whimsically melancholic than Gothic.

Great Expectations would be a good case study for students on the significances of story endings. Dickens wrote two different endings and Lean’s movie makes a third, one impacted by the demands of the movie audiences and the conventions of 1940s romances. It might be the most satisfying for some viewers, because in one short burst Pip strips away the Gothic and the feminist idea of emancipation from marriage. It is, admittedly, also a little rushed and a little hoaky.

We should state our biases outright: we appreciate Lean’s films, especially ones with Alec Guinness, which would pretty much be all of them. If the movie isn’t totally pleasing to watch–and a 40-year-old actor playing 20-year-old Pip is a great annoyance–then it is at least pleasing to view. Lean is a master at framing pictures and crafting scenes. Probably this movie could be shown in a Christian film class for aspiring directors. In fact we highly recommend that, so that we no longer have to endure cheesy “Christian” fare like the Omega Code and Facing Giants.

Entertainment: 5.5
Intelligence: 9
Morality: 9

Posted in Great, Period Drama, Poignant but Boring | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Posted by J on July 15, 2007

The world of Wallace and Gromit is mostly harmless and tranquil. Except for thieving penguins and dog robots, Wallace and his faithful sidekick live in harmony with their neighbors, inventing new contraptions and turning them into entrepreneurial ventures. Clearly Wallace is no self-made genius though; he needs Gromit to correct hisabsent-minded mistakes. In Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the same problems happen as in the older Wallace and Gromit shorts. And the same kind of resolution occurs, order and tranquility being restored (mostly due to Wallace’s inventions and Gromit’s resolve). This is an excellently constructed movie, and Gromit could’ve been up for best dog-turned-actor awards. Just like Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, the best “actor” in that sci-fi flick, no one says more with less than Gromit. All he can do is move his forehead, but that forehead tells us everything.

Leaving aside this movie’s delights, let’s turn to its possible objections. The Anglican priest is slightly conniving at the outset, then turns a bit warped, warning us all to “Beware of the beast within!” It’s a tongue-in-cheek treatment of the old penguin. If the priest is taken as a stand-in for the Christian religion, a part of this movie is a mockery. But it’s hard to blame the writers and directors (probably British neo-pagans anyway) for making the priest what he is, since the C. of E. is a bit loony these days, the Archbishop of Canterbury being a druid and all. A good satirical basting was probably in order. Also, there are several hidden adult jokes in this movie, a few of which we missed on first viewing. The British like to be a bit coy about these things, but we were annoyed at the utter lack of necessity for such jokes. They’re out of place in the world of Wallace’s breakfast machines and small-town vegetable-growing fairs.

We appreciated the voice-work in this movie, especially Lady Tottington and her courtier. And we learned that we shouldn’t shoot rabbits, that we should be careful when inventing mind-altering machines, and that cheese is good. We’ll eat to that.

Entertainment: 10
Intelligence: 4 (though there are some great puns)
Morality: 6 (the adult jokes are the problem)

Posted in Animated, Pretty Good, Silly but Entertaining | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »