J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for October, 2007

Secondhand Lions

Posted by J on October 18, 2007

Now this is sad. The “Making Of” special feature on the Secondhand Lions DVD is more entertaining than the movie. There, you’ll learn that the script for this movie circulated amongst movie studio execs for over a decade. They all cried when they read it, they are quick to admit, but circumstances kept them from greenlighting it. Further, the movie’s director (also the scriptwriter) had to have his vision and no one else’s. He bashes movie execs for trying to alter his vision, accusing them of money-grubbing, but of course he makes a movie so saccharine that it could easily define the phrase “pandering to an audience so as to generate cashflow.”

Now, you might cry during Secondhand Lions, but only if you are not thinking. The movie tries its best to keep you from thinking, thanks to its use of emotion-drenched cliches. These include the neglect of our main character, Curious Boy, by his easily abused Single Mother. Because of her neglect, Curious Boy finds himself one summer in the company of strange relatives. These are two uncles–Robert Duvall and Michael Caine–who relate their mysterious pasts to Curious Boy in bits and pieces throughout the movie. They are rich, he knows, but why? Might they really be bank robbers, and not volunteers in the French Foreign Legion who acquired magical treasure?

It ultimately does not matter, for two reasons. First, the uncles’ backstory turns into a ridiculous bit of Orientalism, capped by the utterly moronic ending in which a Middle Eastern man helicopters down to visit Curious Boy (now fully grown). It is made emphatically clear that Middle Eastern man is a bigwig in an oil corporation. Why? You see, the uncles in their youths some fifty years earlier fought *against* the forefathers of Middle Eastern man. But now, in today’s world, the new generations meet each other cordially. The suggestion is that East meets West, big Middle Eastern oil interests meet typical American male, in order to show their full cooperation and friendship. Is this the kind of ending that makes studio execs cry? In the context of this movie, this ending is utterly stupid.

The second reason that the truth about the uncles’ backstory does not matter has to do with Secondhand Lions‘ worldview. This is summed up in a speech given by Robert Duvall’s character. All movie long, Curious Boy has been demanding that Duvall give him the speech. When that time comes, Duvall lets some howlers fly:

“Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love… true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”

So let’s see. People are naturally morally good, and it’s fine to believe in lies as long as you believe in a good one. Thanks for the moralistic mush, Bob! Guess it doesn’t matter whether you’re an honest man or a thief. Just believe whatever.

So that’s what we say to the possibility of seeing this movie ever again: whatever, man.

Entertainment: 4
Intelligence: 1
Morality: 2

(One final note of pickiness: Michael Caine’s attempt at Southern accent is probably the worst attempted accent since Kevin Costner talked AM-MUR-I-KIN as a twelfth century Englishman in that lame Robin Hood movie he did.)


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Word Wars

Posted by J on October 6, 2007

We’ve noted before the emerging movie genre we’ve labeled game-umentaries. Word Wars, a movie about four contestants in the 2002 National Scrabble Tournament, is the best of them, which is really not saying much.

Now competitive Scrabble itself is not exciting at all, but as Word Wars tries to demonstrate, the world of Scrabble tournaments is pretty interesting because it is full of quirky nerds. For instance, there’s Joe Edley, who’s won the national championship several times. He’s been a high-level Scrabble player for two decades, but he constantly annoys his opponents by playing psychological games during competition. Yet on camera Edley tries to project a humble image. He practices tai chi and mumbles over and over again, in New Age speak, that competitions mean nothing to him.

All of Edley’s opponents are after him. The weirdest is “G.I.” Joel Sherman, a dead ringer for Pee Wee Herman, who gets his nickname because of his constant acid reflux problem. Sherman, like the other professional Scrabble players we meet, does not work. He studies Scrabble five hours a day and gambles with fellow players. It’s never clear how any of these Scrabble pros earn a living. The tournament prizes are not even a month’s normal wage, and even if one won the national tournament, he’d only get $25,000.

The four contestants followed in Word Wars interact in complex ways. They are at once friendly, competitive, and distrustful of one another. They oftentimes surprise. Sherman, who we’d all judge to be talentless at first glance, is a fine piano player and singer. And Marlon Hill, a pottymouth and proud pot smoker from the Baltimore ghetto, who complains that the English language oppresses him and oppressed his ancestors, came in 2nd at the 1996 national tournament. There is a reason they surprise us: they are exceptionally lazy. Three of the four characters do not have jobs. They are all extraordinarily smart, and they are all clearly wasting their God-given mental abilities.

Word Wars‘ main point is that the Scrabble tournament world, far from being filled with boring nerds, contains diverse personalities, hierarchies, rivalries, expectations–in short, nothing different from the mini-worlds that we know and interact in. Its attempt to construct complex, sympathetic characters is the means by which it draws viewers into this world. We are supposed to sympathize, and thus better understand what being “human” means. For secularist critics, Word Wars succeeds at this.

But let’s not kid ourselves. This is Word Wars, not Hamlet. “G.I.” Joel Sherman is not Hamlet, and a hotel conference room in San Diego is not the kingdom of Denmark. We are dealing with Scrabble, and so the cares of this tournament world are extraordinarily petty. This point is all we could dwell on at the end the movie, and so our final question was, “Was the hour and twenty minutes we spent watching this movie worth it?”

If this short review gives you a reason to do better things, then maybe.

Entertainment: 7
Intelligence: 3
Morality: It depends. (a lot of foul language from one particular character though; should be rated R)

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Black Hawk Down

Posted by J on October 3, 2007

When I go home people’ll ask me, “Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?” You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a **** word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.”

This apathetic philosophy of war, the philosophy that soldiers fight only for themselves and each other, is the prevailing message of Black Hawk Down. Spoken at the end, these lines sum up a movie that for its last two hours is nonstop war. Spoken by an Army Ranger who barely survives a modern urban warfare battle, it questions the entire point of the preceding events. Why are U.S. Army Rangers fighting Somali warlords in Mogadishu? What is their purpose in a Third World desert country? More generally, how did we get from the Battle of Bunker Hill on U.S. soil to a military and P.R. catastrophe on the other side of the world?

St. Augustine once formed the Just War Theory, founded in Biblical principles (admittedly mixed with natural law), which prevailed for the most part in the Christian West for well over a millennium. It has since been totally abandoned by modern states and empires, which practice warfare purposefully on civilian populations when convenient. We currently find ourselves in a “War on Terror,” but basic assumptions about this war are never addressed. What is “Terror”? What are the conditions of victory in this war? Can a state really be fighting a “war” against a non-state entity? How should Christians respond to such wars? In seeking answers, Christians do not to seek the church’s response because the church has no response of its own. It is far too weak. Instead, national loyalties are far stronger and more concrete than church loyalties, and in our experience, they tend to determine Biblical interpretation of both war and politics for individuals and church bodies.

In its own way, Black Hawk Down is about these issues. It does, however, appear simpler: the story involves the U.S. Army conducting a mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, when one of its Blackhawk helicopters is shot down and crashes into the city. The Army conducts an operation to extricate the downed soldiers, which is when the real shooting starts. This is because Mogadishu is controlled by Muslim warlords, not a national government. And the Army, ultra-powerful but inefficient, is controlled in part by Pentagon headquarters and the Geneva Convention. Getting the soldiers out involves all of these factors, plus the fact that Mogadishu’s urbanites have crude weapons and little affection for the United States Army. Such is usually the problem of colonizers and occupiers, as Britain found out in 1776.

We suppose, since this story is one incident, that others may extrapolate from it something wholly different from what we’re arguing. They may say that full support must be given to U.S. military operations. After all, the Blackhawk fiasco occured under the Clinton administration, which is perceived as liberal and therefore half-hearted in its support of the military. Yet, no degree of support ultimately matters in this Black Hawk Down situation. One side is a modern military that practices siege-and-occupy warfare, and the other is an undeclared entity that blends into populations. There is no “winning” when the enemy can’t be identified or represented; such an enemy can’t really be sieged or occupied, and a formal declaration of peace doesn’t do much good, if one could even be attained. Black Hawk Down depicts the tactical and theoretical faults of this sort of warfare. By doing so, it does not necessarily push us to turn to our Bibles to answer the basic questions asked above, but we hope that our readers will consider doing that anyway.

Engagement: 10
Intelligence: 7
Morality: 3 (lots of bullets and foul language, a lesser vice of soldiers)

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Pan’s Labyrinth

Posted by J on October 2, 2007

SPOILER: Plot revealed herein. It’s completely impossible to discuss this movie otherwise.

Despite its title and marketing, Pan’s Labyrinth is not wholly a fairytale. And despite its apparently redemptive ending, it is not pleasant. Ubiquitous critical praise for it makes you wonder how much darker and depressing well-loved stories can get. This movie arrives at a time when Oprah is pushing an apocalyptic story of a father and son running from cannibals. What, are suburban soccer moms eating bon-bons and weeping when they read The Road? Does Roger Ebert really want to see the “one of the greatest of all fantasy films” multiple times, wherein are many violent deaths and Alice in Wonderland is murdered? When Ebert and Oprah are pushing archetypical myths bleaker than most any other widely praised myth ever written, you know that the times are dark indeed.

Anyway, Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t exactly a fairytale because it’s grounded in historical reality, specifically in the tail end of the Spanish Civil War. In 1944, somewhere in the mountains of Spain, Francisco Franco’s henchmen are pursuing “rebels” or “freedom fighters.” They’re probably Communists, but we’re only told the positive angle, which is that they celebrate the fact that “we’re all equal.” The man who tells us this is the movie’s villain, Captain Vidal, who makes Hitler look like Mr. Rogers. Vidal is obsessed with two things that insane Fascists are always obsessed with in movies: the birth of his yet unborn son, so that he can preserve his genetic heritage, and murder, particularly the slow, unsightly kind. Vidal’s latter obsession leads to some unnecessary, grotesque scenes, which is the reason for this movie’s rating.

Vidal is the stepfather of our heroine, who we’ll call Alice in Wonderland. Alice enjoys fairy stories, much to the Spanish fascists’ disgust. One evening she visits the Captain’s garden labyrinth, where she encounters a faun, who tells her that she is the daughter of the King of the Underworld and that she must perform three tasks by the next full moon. The rest of the movie deals with Alice pursuing her three tasks, while Vidal and his goons try to murder all of the “freedom fighters.”

Now Alice’s visions and adventures tend to be in step with what will happen next in the movie. This leads to some interpretive questions. Is she dreaming? Does she have uncanny premonitions? Does she affect the future? The answers to these questions are key, because they influence how you interpret the ending of the movie. Pan’s Labyrinth suggests that, in the end, Alice is resurrected from the dead. (If she’s only dreaming about the afterlife, this movie is seriously depressing.) But what Alice is resurrected to is the problem. Being the daughter of the King of the Underworld, she of course becomes Princess of the Underworld by default. And the way she becomes princess is by playacting the right moral choice in her imagination . . . although it might not be just her imagination. Pan’s Labyrinth engages in a recent formal device we’ve noted before, which is the inextricable blending of fantasy and reality, so that we viewers don’t know which is which. The movie allows us to believe that either one (fantasy or reality) is more real than the other. Much of the critical praise heaped on this movie is probably due to this ambiguity, which, admittedly, is constructed far more complexly than Big Fish or Finding Neverland.

Since Fascist rule is the key concern of most of Pan’s Labyrinth, it seems to us that the movie’s emphasis is on an interpretation of fairyland rooted in politics. This kind of interpretation answers a constant, fundamental literature question: what do people mean when they write stories about fantasy worlds? Answers always vary. Stories can have implicit political, cultural, personal, or theological meanings. By setting fairyland in Franco’s Spain, Pan’s Labyrinth is using fairyland as a political critique of WWII Spain and our present-day global political situation. Thus, it seems to us that Pan’s Labyrinth, as a comment on fascism and its opponents, is a modern global democratic view of fairyland. It is therefore a different kind of fairyland. Compare it to any of the following scattered examples: the original Arabian Nights (Islam), Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (Japanese; Shinto), or Edward Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (Christian). In fact, think of any story where a boy or girl enters into a fantasy world. In nominally Christian fairy tales, Alice receives sound moral instruction, or the maiden becomes queen, or everybody lives happily ever after. But Pan’s Labyrinth–a liberal democratic fairyland–is the most dismal fairyland you will have ever seen. In the end, Alice is murdered in cold blood, and she either simply turns to dust or becomes the Princess of the Underworld. All possibilities in this fairyland of anti-fascist politics are totally bleak.

Engagement: 9 (well-done, though sometimes revolting)
Intelligence: 8
Morality: 0 (see review, and a bit of unnecessary language)

Posted in Clever but Immoral, Reality-Fantasy, War | Tagged: | 2 Comments »