J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for May, 2009

Valkyrie

Posted by J on May 23, 2009

It is hard to believe that Valkyrie is a Hollywood movie.  This is the industry where half the Best Documentary Oscars 200px-Valkyrie_postergo to Holocaust movies, and all of the major studio executives understandably have a tribal beef with Nazi Germany.  Valkyrie is fundamentally about Nazi officers — long-time Nazis — who at the end of WWII hatch a secret plan to assassinate Hitler and take over the German government.  The fact that these guys served the Nazi party for years is never explicitly mentioned and thus never questioned in the movie.  Never!  Quite unexpected.  A movie with this subject matter and with these lead characters has a 99.9% chance of containing at least one didactic, moral moment.

We’re not complaining, just amazed.  The major message of this movie — perhaps its only message — is that there was a German resistance, a supreme dislike of the Nazis by people in the Nazi party, and that this resistance cared deeply about its mother country.  The main character, Karl von Stauffenberg, repeats again and again how he is planning Hitler’s assassination for the sake of “sacred Germany.”  Think about that.  “Sacred Germany.”  We’ve all been taught to hate all Nazis, to distrust German history, to read into everything German that came before Hitler a deep wish for the Fuhrer’s “cleansing program.”  Yet Valkyrie wants to celebrate Germany, just without the Nazis.

That Valkyrie is slightly anti-PC doesn’t make it a good movie, and you’d think the fact that you know the ending of the movie before ever watching it would be sort of anti-climactic.  Suspense is what holds most $100 million-dollar-plus movies together.  This movie should have none, because you know that Stauffenberg fails and Hitler lives.  But no.  This movie is suspenseful, and it’s hard to imagine how it could’ve done a better job of keeping up the tension, even with a well-known ending.

One problem unaddressed here is what impact the assassination of Hitler would’ve had if Stauffenberg had succeeded.  This particular attempt — the last of 15 such attempts, we are told at the end of the movie — occurred in mid-1944.  Only nine months after that, Berlin fell and Hitler committed suicide.  So the impact of taking out Nazi high command might not have been as momentous as Valkyrie makes it out to be, though it’s a fun “What if …?” scenario to ponder for five minutes.

And it’s nice that a major motion picture dwells fondly on an old aristocrat.  Von Stauffenberg is an honorable guy, who in the movie is shown as deeply caring of his family and country.  There’s even a hint that he’s a Roman Catholic, and our guess is that he probably was.  Usually American movies diss aristocrats, even though American culture has its own faux-aristocracy made up of moronic celebrities and high-ranking politicians.  But von Stauffenberg is dignified and honored in Valkyrie, at least according to our redneck sensibilities.

During a pause late in the movie, C. turned to J. and asked, “Is this an all-time great?”  The answer is “no,” though it could crack a top-25 list of WWII movies.  But since C. is a female, who has a distinct taste for rom-coms but not one for war movies, this might be a good “guy” movie that you fellas can enjoy with your wives.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 8

This movie has nothing in it except one brief war scene and an F-bomb, which was carefully placed in the movie to keep it from getting a PG rating. Gotta love that idiotic ratings system! It’s otherwise a nice historical piece for the teenagers to see and learn from.

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Posted in Pretty Good, War | Leave a Comment »

Lost: Season 5

Posted by J on May 15, 2009

Lost has nearly lost it.  We think that the unraveling has slowly been occuring, but sped up greatly when in this season the main characters traveled back in time.   Mind you, the show is still pretty good sci-fi — better than just about anything else on TV right now — but that’s a long way away from the world-class, timeless-tale aspirations the show had in the first two seasons.  Let’s figure out why.

First, the show has employed the old sci-fi time-travel paradox.  Say you traveled back from 1985 to 1955.  You accidentally run into your mother, who is attracted to you instead of the man she is supposed to marry, your father.  Then you cause the key moment in your mother and father’s relationship to not happen.  You then have inadvertently changed the future, which means  you shouldn’t exist, because your mother and father do not marry and thus you are not born, but nevertheless you have not disappeared after all.  You still exist, but solely for the sake of the plot.

In fact, by merely traveling to the past for a few days, you have already changed the future.  You have caused things to happen that didn’t happen already when 1955 occured the first time (without you).  There is no debate about this.  You cannot avoid changing the future when you travel back to the past.   The past occurs with or without you, but both possibilities cannot have the same future.

Also, if you travel back to 1955, what has happened is that the future causes the past to happen.  Normally, 1955 precedes 1956. Thus 1955 causes 1956 to happen, which causes 1985 to happen, the year you supposedly traveled back in time.  But, by having you travel back in time to 1955, what your contradictory but entertaining story is saying is that 1985 causes things to happen in 1955.  This is a logical impossibility, as an effect cannot be a cause of its own cause.

Of course this is pure speculation, as no one has ever traveled through time (yet).  Yet it has long been recognized as a convenient but silly sci-fi scenario to get us to ask: “Could I change the past?”  This is the eternal question the Lost characters wrestle with through half of this fifth season.   A major problem with this is that it is not, and has never been, a deep human concern.  As a speculative exercise it can be intriguing, perhaps entertaining, but it will never strike us as a very moving or powerful question because it’s not a question that affects any of us at all.  Perhaps it will be on the day time machines are invented.

Consider some of the questions posed in the early seasons of the show.  “How do I deal with this group of people (strangers)?  Who do I trust?  How do I really know what I know?  How do I deal with these other people who think they really know something that I think is a bunch of nonsense?”  Now these are questions that we all, everybody in the world really, deal with on an almost daily basis.  Done well, a powerful story can be based on these questions.

Season 5, however, is mostly concerned in its plot and character development with a speculative problem of the realm of science fiction.  This can be entertaining, but it is not particularly thoughtful.    One of the biggest problems that sci-fi has had over its one-hundred year lifespan as a genre is that it always tends to put aside real human problems in favor of problems that have never happened and may never happen.  This is why sci-fi tends to create one-dimensional characters, whose job is simply to wrestle with the speculative problem at hand.  The characters on Lost in this season, a few of them already well developed, devolve into one-dimensional characters because they are worried about whether they can change the future by changing the past.

The show’s other, major problem is that there are simply too many characters now, many of whom are paper-thin.  These characters are part of the show’s mythology, so they have been getting more and more screen time.  But the writers seem to have forgotten that the mythology, the mysteries of the Island and such, must be a mere backdrop to the real foreground,the character interactions of the several people who initially crash-landed on the Island.  In fact, much of this mythology doesn’t need to be explored at all; we would simply be better left speculating about it after the fact than having so much of it revealed to us.

In the process of exploring this mythology, the writers have dumped their two best characters, Jack Shepherd and John Locke, whose views of the island — resulting in crucial decisions in leadership — were the greatest source of conflict early in the show.  But Jack was almost totally ignored (in terms of screen time) once he traveled back in time, while Locke is not really Locke but some other person.  Surely the writers are not dumb enough to have killed off a character they spent four seasons deeply exploring, perhaps the best character on the show.  If the real John Locke, the man who crashed on the Island, is really dead for good, the show’s title will aptly describe the situation the show’s writers are in.

This season’s final episode had its sloppy moments.  It only takes two hours to dismantle a hydrogen bomb, which can be easily done if you follow the instructions in a notebook?  When did Jack hit the shooting range (for a doctor, he’s quite good with a gun in these pointless gun battles)?  You can get tortured but emerge from it with no cuts and bruises?  You can get in a long fistfight but still be energized enough for a gun battle?  The show is a sci-fi fantasy, but there still are limits to our willing suspension of disbelief.

Having dogged on the show enough, we’ll repeat that it’s still pretty good sci-fi.  “316”, the episode in which the six plane crash survivors returned to the island, was one of the best of the entire series.  “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham” and “The Variable” were quite good too.

Pretty good sci-fi, sorry to say, is a disappointment for this show.  It is as if the show had (after its first two seasons) hit a homerun.  All it had to do was round the bases.  But after touching second, for some reason it stopped heading toward third and now is wandering around outside the ballpark.  For all practical purposes, lost.

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After Season 4 we made this observation:

The series is slowing peeling back layers of power, but we haven’t nearly reached the core yet.  First we thought the survivors could find their way off the island (Season 1).  Then we see that the survivors are naive, and that the Others possess the island’s secrets and the power to escape (Seasons 2 and 3).  Then, by Season 4, we see Ben Linus and Charles Widmore as the two major players gunning for control of the island, while everyone else, including the Oceanic crash survivors, seem to be mere pawns.  But then, clearly, something more powerful is controlling Linus and Widmore.  Is that Jacob, and is there something more powerful than him?

The answer is “yes, Jacob is the next layer of power.”  The final episode of Season 5 revealed that the island has yet another layer to its power structure.  Apparently Jacob and a rival, already nicknamed “Esau” on other sites, have been playing a long game on the Island, seemingly hundreds of years long.  Recall all of the black/white imagery — it comes up overtly every three episodes or s0 — and all of the instances in which people are playing board games.  This all apparently refers to Jacob and Esau, who wear white and black shirts respectively, and who appear to be playing games with people who come to the Island.  Somehow Jacob and Esau (perhaps just Jacob) control all events on the Island.  Esau wants to kill Jacob, apparently to take over Jacob’s position as Island ruler, or perhaps to “win” the game.

So what will happen?  With Jacob’s dying breath he sighed “They are coming.”  Probably this is a reference to our ragtag group of heroes, the survivors of the Oceanic planecrash.  If this show actually has a “good” guy and an “evil” guy — which is doubtful, because the writers love to reverse these roles and create ambiguities — Jacob is likely the good guy.  He visits all of our heroes, physically touches all of them, and gives some of them a choice but leaves that choice entirely up to them. Esau, meanwhile, seems to be tricking everyone by taking on apparitions and tempting them (especially Ben).  Perhaps all of the previous dead people who reappeared were just manifestations of Esau; perhaps our previous encounters with Jacob’s cabin was just Esau.  And the whispers in the forest too.  Remember when someone — Jacob, so we thought — whispered “Help Me” to John Locke. That may have been Esau.

We have no idea who the groups will be.  Somebody will back Esau, while others will back the apparently deceased Jacob.  And that will be the final contest, the coming “war” that Widmore told Locke about in Season 5.  Almost certainly Jack will see a manifestation of his father in the last season.  Also Jack will probably die, sacrificing himself while saving everyone.  The series started with Jack, so it will end with him.

There will be redemption for two characters who have been set up as irredeemably evil: Sayid and Ben.  The writers have leaned too heavily on their evil doings, while endearing them to viewers, to not allow them to do something redemptive in Season 6.

What does all this have to do with ancient Egypt (hieroglyphs, statues, etc.)?  We can’t imagine, but they better not try to explain it, because it will probably be something stupid.

What is the entire show about?  What might we say its worldview is?  There will probably no way to answer those questions definitively until the very end.

Posted in Pretty Good, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, TV Series | Leave a Comment »

Fireproof

Posted by J on May 13, 2009

Although under high standards it deserves a trouncing, Fireproof is decent entertainment. fireproof-poster-kirk-camer Realize that our bar is quite low here and that we laughed at the movie’s blunders.  Still, this is comparable to 95% of the fare you’ll find either on  the small or big screen.  It is certainly no worse, cinematically speaking, than the several dozen brainless romantic comedies released each year.

Fireproof is, above all else, a religious tract.  There is nothing wrong with making a tract movie — Hollywood is churning out several a day — though one must realize that a tract is not on par in terms of quality with a timeless theological treatise. That this tract is a full-length feature movie should point us to the obvious: that it’s ridiculously expensive for Christians to engage in making “Christian” movies.  The time and capital put into Fireproof boggles the mind. Dreams of a Christan movie industry or counterculture will continue to be dreams without billions of dollars invested.

This Fireproof tract is mostly about how to make your marriage work.  The formula for successful marriage is here: first convert to faith in Christ, listen to your parents, humble yourself, pursue your spouse. The characters fit into the formula perfectly; they are not played with subtleties, but then no one here is aiming for high praise.  The main character works through a 40-day, win-back-your-wife recipe book, which looks like it was inserted into the movie as a marketing tool to sell the Fireproof Your Marriage Devotional Guide.    Make no mistake, the suggestions in this recipe are quite good, although some require a decent income.

The pleasant surprise in this movie is that certain problems and moments are genuine.  Unlike its sister movie, Facing the Giants, Fireproof does not allow its main character to win life’s lottery immediately after conversion.  He still suffers internally, and he still faces a looming divorce.  He considers indulging in pornography.  Probably every modern American, bourgeois, Christian adult will find some problem or temptation to relate to in the movie.   Roughly 50% of Christian marriages end in divorce, so this movie should hit a nerve with the greater population.

Yet the movie is nearly ruined by its sideshows.  The main character is a firefighter, which calls for two unnecessary action scenes that have relatively little to do with the rest of the plot (yes, we get it: he saves total strangers but can’t love his wife; he needs to “fireproof” his marriage just as he does his job, etc.).

Those action scenes are acceptable given what Fireproof is, but the firefighter practical joke scenes are ridiculous.  This has to be the first serious movie about a dissolving marriage that’s interrupted by a hot sauce eating competition.  What exactly is it about mainstream evangelical culture that loves goofiness for goofiness’ sake?  Nothing else can explain the character of Wayne Floyd except that occasionally acting juvenile — e.g., imitating Adam Sandlar, performing silly dances, etc. — is a virtue for American Christians.

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence: 2

Morality: 10

Posted in Modern Drama, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again | Leave a Comment »