J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for November, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean 1 and 2

Posted by J on November 30, 2007

In our misspent youths, we played a computer game called Pirates: Gold! The object of that game was to assemble a pirate crew, sail the Caribbean, and plunder the ships and cities of various empires. The game had a lasting effect: it taught us the detailed map of the Caribbean, which we remember to this day. It also taught us that 17th century piracy was fun. Gold, babes, and destruction–what more can a young lad ask for?

In spite of this characterization, piracy in the 17th century wasn’t good times, nor is it today. As we learned later in life, pirates are essentially ocean gangs, packs of greedy barbarians who plunder private property and, if they can, rape and murder whomever. This is where Disney’s pirate trilogy comes in. Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2, and probably 3 (we haven’t seen that one) depict pirate life–albeit a sanitized one–as whimsical and glamorous.

What’s the harm in that, one asks? It forms the conscience in a similar way as our old game Pirates: Gold! did to us in the late ’80s. The skull-and-bones flag, Davy Jones, squawking parrots, and Johnny Depp dominate the movie’s image of piracy. Theft and destruction, meanwhile, are far removed from it. This misses the essence of piracy, which is theft. Is it ever proper to depict thieves as they are not, in this case, as rockstar metrosexuals?

While the answer to such a sharp question seems pretty easy to come up with, we do admit to indulging in the viewing of this series of movies. The plots are nonsensical, and so if you enter the movies expecting anything but watered-down tripe for a story, you will be sorely disappointed. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the stunts and special effects a bit too much. Here again, movie-magic lulled us to sleep, because the portrayal of the dead is goofy and pagan. Thus we advise staying away instead of getting sucked in. You are better off answering the question at the end of the second paragraph, applying it to these movies, and sticking to the moral imperative of that application. Don’t give in to mass marketing.

Entertainment: 8
Intelligence: 0
Morality: 0

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Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Silly but Entertaining | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Zulu

Posted by J on November 30, 2007

The forgotten war movie of the last century, Zulu is an Anglophilic celebration of the heroism of British soldiers and a depiction of incredible military tactics. It is not filled with fluff, however, or emotional phoniness as so many post-Vietnam era war movies are. It is instead all guts.

The situation plays out simply at a small British supply station in present-day South Africa. After successfully attacking 1500 British soldiers, a Zulu army of 4000 warriors comes to attack the supply station at Rourke’s Bluff. With just over 100 men, several of whom are sick or injured, the British must defend their post from attack.

A simple situation, but a unique cinematic approach. There is almost no John Williams-esque music, complete with a pompous brass section, to overarouse a viewer’s emotions. Instead we wait and wait for the Zulu to arrive, while the two British commanding officers make tactical decisions. This results in a build-up to the battle with an interesting blend of anticipation, boredom, and anxiety. Zulu is the only movie in which being bored for a few minutes in the early going greatly enhanced the payoff at the end.

The movie’s lone misstep may be the inclusion of the missionary and his daughter, both of whom deplore the coming battle as a gross violation of the Sixth Commandment. The missionary comes off as a loony prophet and a scared drunk, who harbors far less aplomb and righteousness than the stiff-upper-lip British officers. He might’ve been better left out than included, but he also provides the lone voice that puts the forthcoming action in the context of Christian morality. He is also the only go-between for the Zulu and the British, who obviously do not understand each other’s military culture and instead harbor a different warrior ethos. That might be needed, because the movie gives an unusual amount of respect to “the other side,” which in this case are the Zulu.

Should we ever have to choose just two war movies to watch on a desert island, it might be Patton and this one.

Engagement: 8
Intelligence: 9
Morality: 9 **

** Note: The early moments contain National Geographic-like nudity, though it is not wholly superfluous. This is, we suppose, the exception to our house-rule of watching no movies containing scantily clad or less than scantily clad people. Do with this piece of information what you will.

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Walk the Line

Posted by J on November 26, 2007

Walk the Line is never sure if it’s a morality tale or a rockstar celebration. On the one hand, it praises a mass-marketed icon’s rise to fame and iconographic status. On the other, Johnny Cash’s story keeps wanting to veer toward Christian repentance and redemption. He does not exactly find that repentance and redemption here, unless June Carter is an able substitute for Christ. Since she is not, we wonder what lessons this movie actually teaches.

Yes, we learned, celebrities tend to be pampered delinquents. In Cash’s case, drugs, booze, women, and money come all too easy to him. Unfortunately in Walk the Line, Johnny’s fall into licentiousness goes on and on and on. There is nothing else but this fall, for almost two hours of this movie, except the hope that he might be saved by June Carter.

We also learned that being a rockstar is sexy. This movie is a de facto musical, since all of Johnny’s songs are used to augment or comment upon the plot in key moments. And so we see Johnny and June up on stage for what seems like a quarter of the movie. And they look real cute together, even while married to other people.

This was our problem with Walk the Line. While we appreciate the plot arc that leads to Johnny and June’s marriage after which everyone lives happily ever after, the movie throws away opportunities to deride Johnny and June for their three divorces and extra-marital activities. In fact, just the opposite. In several scenes, they are married to other people, but the movie-language makes clear that these two people always have been Meant To Be. In early scenes we almost want them to quit their spouses and fall in love. Then, in a later scene, we encounter a puritanical witch in a corner drugstore, who tells June that she has committed an abomination by twice divorcing, because “marriage is for life.” Here, June is supposed to be the sympathetic character, but this lady has a point. June and especially Johnny have alienated their families by living somewhat decadent lifestyles, from which ensues divorces and wrecked relationships. It is therefore difficult to praise their final marriage when we were supposed to want it to happen when it should not have even been considered.

A more mature screenplay would’ve realized that–gee whiz–Johnny and June’s early flirtations are not just dumb but immoral. June does recognize this to a degree, but yet she keeps touring with Johnny, smiling cutely on stage at his antics. In the end, it is she–and not the message at the church the two of them attend–who saves him from drugs and isolation. When Johnny asks her to marry him for the fortieth time–on-stage, embarrassingly enough–she accepts without any reason, reversing her previous adamant decisions to not marry him. The camera shows the two of them kissing, with the stagelights creating a bright aura around them. This is Johnny’s salvation, of sorts. June has offered him grace, and thereafter we see Johnny reformed and his broken relationship with his father repaired. This is not to say that Walk the Line is necessarily blasphemous; there’s enough Jesus stuff in here to lend weight to a counter-interpretation of some parts of this review. The movie just struck us, in its use of the modes and messages of conversion stories, as a bit cock-eyed.

Entertainment: 6
Intelligence: 5
Morality: see review (but not as bad as a PG-13 rating these days suggests; two bad words and Johnny pops some pills)

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

Shadow of a Doubt

Posted by J on November 17, 2007

The central conundrum of this movie is, who is Uncle Charlie? Let’s try to figure this out before the movie starts. Here are the facts:

  1. This is an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

So the answer is obvious.

By the time you get to the point that Uncle Charlie has revealed himself as Uncle Charlie, you realize that an hour of your life has slipped by. By the time that Uncle Charlie tries to do what Uncle Charlie has done many times before, you realize that two hours of your life have slipped by.

There is a two-minute ending that attempts to say that Uncle Charlie was bad. Well, no kidding!

Entertainment: 1
Intelligence: 7
Morality: 2

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

Breaker Morant

Posted by J on November 15, 2007

Breaker Morant is the best movie about the Boer War. It is probably the only movie about the Boer War, but if they made fifty of them it still might be the best. This war, of course, was one of the nastier of modern colonial wars, wherein both sides lusted for diamonds and gold and the Brits began the modern practice of rounding up women and children and shoving them into concentration camps. It was a very complex colonial situation, with native Boers, native Africans, and Brits and British colonials all involved.

In Breaker Morant, this complexity is figured in the trial of three men–Lt. Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and two Australians. The men are charged with murdering three Boer prisoners and a German missionary. They will be tried by a military court and, if found guilty, sentenced to death. Appointed to their defense is a native Australian who has never practiced law and has one day to prepare for the trial, in contrast to the British prosecutor, whose bushy moustache signals smarminess. The movie intercuts present-day narration (the trial) with past goings-on in the accused men’s military company, so that the historical truth from the perspective of the camera eye is contrasted with what at times is a sham trial with false witnesses.

Why is it a sham trial? There appears to be a cover-up. British high command, led by Lord So-and-So, had possibly ordered British companies that engaged Boer commandos to take no prisoners (i.e., kill them even if they wave a white flag of surrender). And the reality of Boer war battle is that guerrilla warfare tactics were used by both sides, so that no one in any situation could be trusted. Enter the German Missionary. An old man who claims to be spreading the Word of God in a warzone, he is not trusted by Morant and the soldiers, who think he’s spying. But is he really guilty of anything? And do they really murder him?

The answer to these questions complicates the moral position of this movie, which lays it on a bit thick about the culpability of British high command and the “just doing my duty, sir” of the three accused soldiers. These accused men and their noble defense lawyer claim to be scapegoats for the moral and tactical failures of British command. This command, they say, is part of a corrupt and falling empire, which, soddened by its own unChristian brutality, needs to be cleansed of its sins. What better way to “cleanse itself” than to lay blame for atrocities on colonial underlings paid to do the biddings of imperialists?

If Breaker Morant at all exemplifies cultural feelings, Australians must really loathe their past associations with the British empire. For a non-Australian, however, Breaker Morant can be appropriated to other contexts wherein empire is waning and its overseas efforts are destructive to all parties involved. Of course warmongering imperials–guilty of great crimes–tend to blame others for their failures. Although they may not receive justice in the moment, as in this movie, we know that they will indeed beyond this Earth.

Engagement: 8
Intelligence: 7
Morality: 8

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Miss Potter

Posted by J on November 7, 2007

Movies like Miss Potter remind us that the American self-made man myth has expanded. It now firmly and happily includes females too. Nevermind that this movie takes place in late-Victorian England, hardly the place of modern feminist ideals. It plows ahead with the idea that Beatrix Potter can and will be an Independent Woman. Every scene constantly reaffirms how easy it is for a plucky female to get rich, and how happy she is when she gets to do what she wants.

But Miss Potter does not fully indulge in feminist ideals. The fictional Beatrix Potter relishes the idea of marriage, and the movie in fact repudiates the feminist viewpoint of one of Beatrix’s friends, who at first says that men are only good for procreation but latter reverses that statement by enthusiastically urging Beatrix to marry because that’s what women need to do. You see, moviemakers understand that women need to have their cake (Marriage) and eat it too (Independence). Thus ideology, despite its attempts, will never totally trump biology.

The story engages in another cliche when Beatrix removes from London into the rural Lake District. Here, the old city/country dichotomy flourishes. In London Beatrix is cooped up in her parent’s upstairs studio. But once she leaves London and inhabits the Lake District, she’s surrounded by the inspiring beauty of the countryside. Not surprisingly, something tragic happens in London (always a place of disease in these kinds of stories), and as Beatrix copes with that she finds redemption in the country. The message, as always: stay away from cities! This message is further augmented by the last 15 minutes of the movie, wherein Beatrix battles real estate speculators from — cue bad guy music — the city, who want to develop the country into the city. Wouldn’t that be a shame? So Beatrix uses her enormous wealth to thwart the bad guy speculators, and we are told in the end that she establishes a land preservation trust to give to farmers. How agrarianism meshes with female independence beats us, but then again, this is a movie where you just have to shut the old brain down and take the night off.

Entertainment: 5
Intelligence: 3
Morality: 6

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Period Drama, Silly but Entertaining | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »