J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for December, 2007

Amazing Grace

Posted by J on December 25, 2007

Now before our readers accuse us of being grumpy, which we prefer to call tasteful discrimination, we should say that Amazing Grace is pretty good. It does its job, which is to sneak its moral in while being somewhat pleasing to watch. We suspect a number of our readers will feel roused by the ending. That ending features bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace,” the only tune that bagpipes ever seem to play these days, but in this case it seems relevant. Not only is “Amazing Grace” the movie’s title, but the author of the lyrics, John Newton, is a central character.

The story is essentially about William Wilberforce’s efforts to get the slave trade abolished in the British Empire. This is sometimes difficult to understand, though, because the movie mixes moral issues and political goals into the ambitions of six or seven different characters. We weren’t sure which reformer cared about which issue: was the slave trade their beef or were they gunning for the abolition of slavery? The movie even seems to hint that slavery was legal in England, which it was not. Eventually everything gets sorted out and we end up with Wilberforce, after years of toil and doubt, getting Parliament to ban the slave trade in 1807. Good for him, we say, since manstealing is a heinous crime under Biblical law. Of course, slavery wasn’t abolished in the British colonies until twenty-six years later, in 1833, but tacking that onto the end of the movie would’ve delayed us from being roused by bagpipes.

Let’s now use Amazing Grace as an example of a general problem we constantly face. The movie casts Wilberforce as a tall, dashing gentleman. His wife, too, is a model of beauty; even in the wee hours of the morning her crisp, red hair and makeup are perfectly in place. They’re obviously the most beautiful couple in England, which adds to our acceptance of Wilberforce as a moral leader and reformer.

This is radically different from historical reality. Imagine if Wilberforce was cast as he really was: as a crippled, nearly blind, short man. (Wilberforce’s spine was curved, and so he was only 5’3″.) Imagine further that the actress that plays his wife is average-looking, which is probably historically accurate. We would then have an unwatchable movie, which doesn’t conform to the ridiculous standards of beauty that all movies conform to. Those standards in practice mean accepting traditional ways of “improving” looks — you know, like having one’s face surgically altered over and over again. Now we don’t have a serious problem with seeing extra-beautiful people every now and then on the big screen; it’s probably an inevitability in a highly competitive visual medium. Still, what if we saw Wilberforce as an ugly cripple, getting his reforms passed in spite of his obstacles and handicaps?

Perhaps the ending would’ve been even more rousing than it was. “Gee, he had those problems but did that?” we might exclaim. “He really was blessed with amazing grace.”

Entertainment: 6
Intelligence: 4
Morality: 9

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Period Drama | 2 Comments »

2007 Ten Best

Posted by J on December 22, 2007

Our 2007 top-10:

1. King Lear, performed by our local theater company.
2. Ratatouille
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.

Unfortunately numbers three through ten have yet to be filled in, seeing as how we didn’t keep up with the new releases and no other 2007 movie was memorable. Not only was time scarce, as it always is, but nothing seemed particularly worthwhile for us to rush out and watch.

The top honor on this list goes to a local performance of King Lear, put on by our city’s yearly Shakespeare festival and performed by no-name actors. It was both engaging and moving in ways that movie theaters never can be. We endured no commercials or previews, and didn’t have to view gigantic faces that have been surgically altered to look “movie star-ish.” We were also guaranteed one of the best scripts ever written, by a scriptwriter who didn’t have to conform his vision to the demands of major studio executives or the silly expectations of modern audiences.

Not that we entirely dismiss theater experiences or new releases. Ratatouille was not only very good, it was even better the second time. We have changed our earlier judgment on it: it’s easily the best of the Pixar bunch.

Should there be a 2007 movie worthy of this list, we shall add it eventually. Perhaps in 2009, or 2014, or 2020. Whenever we get around to it. There are plenty of old movies to watch, there are even more great books to read, and there is an even greater amount of family time to spend together unmediated by LCD screens and Surround Sound.

Posted in Brief Commentary | 1 Comment »

Pirates of the Caribbean 3

Posted by J on December 21, 2007

So at the end of this trilogy we find out that pirates are heroes of a sort. They are heroes when compared to the British empire and the East India company, which is inaugurating a “new era” on the seas. This era, in case you are wondering, is English mercantilism. In other words, the combined efforts of government and corporations will rule the world with an iron fist. As the dying villain tells us, ruling the seas is “just good business.” Thank goodness our multinational pirate coalition (hey that’s a great description of the United Nations!)–made up of Chinese, Mexican, French, and African pirates–destroys the corporate hegemony so that piracy can continue unhindered on the open, blue seas.

This movie is completely incoherent, while making the afterlife a joke and a sham. There are something like five or six resurrections from the dead in this series. Clearly pirate rockstars should never die. The downside to this final sequel is that it is a bit more darker and vulgar than the first two, with fewer whimsical stunts and more swords thrusted through stomachs. We stand by our earlier review and add that movie #3 is easily the worst of the bunch.

Entertainment: 5
Intelligence: 0
Morality: 0

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, They Spent Millions on This? | Leave a Comment »

No Country for Old Men

Posted by J on December 14, 2007

No Country for Old Men is yet another recent, ultra-bleak movie that has had critical praise heaped on it. It almost won the Cannes Film Festival’s top award and might garner others. But even though the movie is a smashing success in its depiction of a tense hunt for money and the showdowns that accompany that hunt, it is an utter failure on a philosophical level.

Part of that is because it is too faithful to the original storyline of the Cormac McCarthy novel it is derived from, which doesn’t work for a tense action movie because it ends up sputtering in the concluding moments. Having read the book, we think the movie is a unnecessary accompaniment to it. Yet almost wholly lacking from No Country is McCarthy’s dual-level minimalist dialogue, which on one level mirrors everyday conversation but on another poses basic, philosophical questions to people who live entire lives without asking them. It is Anton Chigurh, the ruthless drug hunter, who stimulates that kind of dialogue. Unfortunately he had only one profound conversation, which takes place early in the movie and left us wanting a bit more. Chigurh needs to be attached to that kind of dialogue, or else his character is nothing more than your average movie psychopath. He is the most significant character in this story–the only one who, as one character says, lives by a principle, and who keeps his word. For us, he is the pivot on which the story’s various symbols and meanings turn. But other than looking mysteriously bad, he does not live up to that level in the movie.

Instead, Sheriff Tom Bell takes over the movie’s quest for meaning. Bell is chasing Chigurh, who is chasing Llewelyn Moss, a poor Texas welder who stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong and runs away with a briefcase full of two million dollars. The movie is an elaborate chase, albeit a slow-moving one, in which Chigurh hunts down Moss, leaving the slow Texas cop two steps behind. Near retirement, Bell becomes ultimately disillusioned with God and life. His viewpoint, which the movie exits with, is fatalistic: life is random and vague, ho-hum. Chigurh’s coin tosses, in which are decided his victims’ fate, augment Bell’s attitude. No Country tips its hat to the idea that life, like the stark violence it contains, is meaningless.

McCarthy’s book was about far more than that though. The story’s texture suggests that, in our ever-slipping society, evil is outpacing good. Society is in decline: the lust for drugs and money and the fulfillment of base desires (Moss’s ultimate problem) push us toward outright decadence. Law, symbolized by Sheriff Bell, cannot quell or contain the forces of drugs and decadence; it is too old and out-of-date, ready to be retired, like Sheriff Bell. In this way it seems to us that McCarthy has a Hobbesian view of the world, that without law, society collapses into anarchic madness. These social views pop up in the movie–Chigurh takes out good old Texan folk every chance he gets–but the movie’s ultimate messages simply reinforce the kind of decadence the story tries to deplore. If life is determined by luck, by a simple coin toss, who cares about moral decline? In the words of a song from the generation of people who were in attendance at our theater, nothing really matters. And in the words of another song they know and probably live by, nothing else matters. No Country for Old Men desperately needs the God of Love.

Engagement: 7
Intelligence: 6
Morality: 2 (rated R solely for violence)

Posted in Pretty Good, Western | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

The Emperor’s New Groove

Posted by J on December 13, 2007

Somewhere, lost in Disney’s 1990s collapse into multiculturalism and embrace of CG animation, is The Emperor’s New Groove. This is a full-length Looney Tune with an obvious, decent moral. That means it is zany and manic at the same time that it strives to teach about the need for repentance, humility, and wholesome family life. We don’t quite know what younger viewers might take away from it, but as Christian adults we prioritized the moral and enjoyed the zaniness for what it was. May wise guardians make wise decisions.

The story involves the Emperor Kuzco, who desires to take away a community’s hilltop village by virtue of his sovereign will (known in our day as “eminent domain”). Reminiscent of Ahab’s maniacal theft of Naboth’s garden, Kuzco wants the hill for his pleasure palace, only to be opposed by the good-hearted peasant Pacha. Kuzco, however, faces his own internal threats. His right-hand lady and her sidekick use a potion to turn Kuzco into a llama, kicking him out of the palace and taking over in a secret coup. It is up to Pacha to help Kuzco return to the palace and change back into a human, so that Kuzco can return to power.

And therein lies the problem. Kuzco remains a self-centered jerk, a snideful mocker of a teenage boy, even while Pacha tries to help him. Ever a model of patience, Pacha lets Kuzco fail in his own selfish schemes again and again until Kuzco eventually relents. You know what will happen after this, but the story is told in an upbeat, postmodern way. By “postmodern” we mean nothing bad. It’s only that the story is self-referential, constantly talking about the way the story is being told. The narrative starts and stops and restarts often, providing spunk and wittiness to an otherwise mundane, familiar plot. This we liked, as well as the failed empress’ sidekick, Kronk, who is a humorous mix of Rocky Balboa and Sancho Panza. Characters like Kronk are few and far between.

The Emperor’s New Groove was part of Disney’s effort to move away from traditional European settings and artwork, so the movie is a send-up of Peruvian and Ecuadorian landscape and Incan artwork. Unfortunately, the Incan empire was far from zany and cool, as The Emperor’s New Groove might have it. Probably a real Incan emperor would’ve been more interested in burning Pacha’s children than in repealing a decision to steal property. The Emperor’s New Groove engages in historical anachronism and bad judgment when it praises the continuation of Kuzco’s bureaucracy and empire. Still, Looney Tunes always simply use history as a prop rather than strive to make a point with it. In that sense, the movie is simply innocent and ignorant.

Entertainment: 9
Intelligence: 3
Morality: 6

Posted in Animated, Pretty Good | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Meet Me In Saint Louis

Posted by J on December 12, 2007

How’s this for surreal? While singing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” Judy Garland holds two crazed-looking toy monkeys and croons to her kid sister, Tootie. This is the same Tootie who proudly announces that she’s been burying her animal toys in the local cemetery, who cross-dresses during an extended Halloween scene, and who gets injured while trying to throw a fake body in front of trolley (leading one of her sisters to announce, “My, you could have killed somebody!”).

Well, okay. It’s not that Meet Me in Saint Louis is deliberately bizarre, like the nightmare sequences in Oklahoma and Singin’ in the Rain. It’s just that from the vantage point of sixty years later, it’s weird. The lone plot point, in a movie set in St. Louis circa 1903, centers on a father’s complete disconnect with his family. They don’t seem to communicate with him, and he doesn’t communicate with them. He, for example, doesn’t know that one of his daughters is being pursued by a young man, in a noteworthy scene where that young man calls long-distance during dinner. His family also doesn’t know ahead of time that the father has taken a cushy lawyer job in New York City. They don’t want to move, Judy Garland doesn’t want to move due to a love interest, and that’s the entire story.

It seems that just when the family looks disconnected, they start singing songs, which make their problems go away. That works well in the world of musicals, but one can see quickly why this syrupy genre faded away: it was too hoaky for a culture knocking at the door of southeast Asian countries and the attendant, all-too-real cultural and political problems with barging in through that door. Meet Me in Saint Louis is too hokey for today’s world too, though all the cutesiness of musical performances is here, ready to be appreciated for their own sake.

Entertainment: 5
Intelligence: 0
Morality: 6 (nothing bad, but you wouldn’t want to emulate anybody in the movie either)

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

Tunes of Glory

Posted by J on December 10, 2007

Picking up where The Bridge on the River Kwai left off, Tunes of Glory tells the story of a Scottish battalion’s change-of-command in the post-WWII, post-empire era of Britain. Walled up in a scenic castle that substitutes for a barracks, the battalion’s commanding officer, Colonel Jock Sinclair, is being be replaced as C.O. by Colonel Basil Barrow. This creates a major problem, because Sinclair is well-loved by his men and too interested in being C.O. to let Barrow take over. The Oxford-educated Barrow, heightening the problem, is too anxious to take over; as the son and grandson of former C.O.’s of the battalion, he is steeped in its traditions of formal dance and bagpipe-playing and eager to set them right. What is worse, being dedicated to the idea of commanding this battalion, Barrow alienates his men with his ill-temper and stricter regulations. In short, this is a simple story of a clash of authority, tied to the themes of disillusion and despair so intricate to twentieth-century stories.

Now the power struggle between Sinclair and Barrow is the central and only propeller that moves the plot forward. Not that this is all bad, since the movie is well shot, well acted, and well written. Barrow represents the upper-half of British society, while Sinclair, a whiskey-drinking commoner, represents the lower-half. Both men have complicated relationships to military tradition and public virtue, but their particular loyalties come under great pressure when one of them does something he should not, while the other has to make a key decision about the fate of his rival. The two men, of course, do share one thing in common: both are former battlefield veterans. In fact, Barrow seems to come straight from the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai, his P.O.W. experience possibly shaping his paranoia and quick-tempered ways.

Tunes of Glory is one of the few peacetime dramas about military life that doesn’t involve flashbacks on past battlefield action or a military trial. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of monologue and dialogue in this movie, which amounts to too much pontificating on the story’s thematic concerns for a contemporary American audience. We write that last sentence, not as harsh commentary on such an audience, but as members of that kind of audience. British class divisions and military traditions aren’t so terribly interesting as to be engaging and moving when placed in a strung-out drama. Mid-twentieth century British colonels may have been great men, but their downward falls are nowhere near as tragic as, say, Agamemnon or King Lear. What’s more, while the choice made at the end of Tunes of Glory is quite sad, the motivations aren’t all that clear. So we want a script revision, while keeping the same actors and nice-looking sets.

Entertainment: 3
Intelligence: 6.5
Morality: 7 (nothing bad in here)

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