J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for December, 2009

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Posted by J on December 19, 2009

The subtitle of this X-Files movie is inappropriate, since the object of investigation is fairly believable, relatively speaking.  There are no UFOs, monsters, freaks, or paranormal phenomena.  Instead, just the good old Russians doing medical experiments on humans.  This probably helps and hurts the movie.  For those of us who want aliens, we’re disappointed.  And yet the subject of investigation is excellently captured in the tone of the movie, which features a dark snowy landscape and almost no special effects sequences.  Kudos to this movie for containing a suspenseful plot that features no gun shots, no explosions, and punches that actually sound like punches.

The major problem is that this movie carries much baggage from the original TV show.  For those who don’t care all that much about Mulder and Scully’s personal relationship, we’re in for far too much of it.  One minute of it would’ve been too much.  Like Star Trek, the baggage of the characters’ past, and the hardcore audience’s knowledge of that past, get in the way.

The plot, of course, is a vehicle for both ex-FBI agents Mulder and Scully to come out of retirement.  Both investigated paranormal activity in the past, as a team.  Mulder is the resident believer in all the ghosts and hoodoo, while Scully is the skeptical scientist.  Here, they investigate the disappearance of an FBI agent.  An ex-priest and pedophile has visions relating to this agent, and apparently he’s receiving visions from God, which lead him to clue after clue.  It’s up to Mulder to be the only character to have faith in this priest’s ESP, while it’s up to Scully to 1) disbelieve everything, and 2) give a tongue-lashing to the priest for his awful sins.  But you already saw that coming.

There are a host of present-day issues that the film touches on. First is the Catholic church and its pedophilia scandals, about which the movie seems to be on the side of forgiveness, since the ex-priest seems to be genuinely repentent.  Next is stem cell research.  The movie appears to be in favor of this.  Scully’s patient at the Catholic hospital she works at can only be saved via a stem cell operation (we do not know what is meant by “stem cell,” but we do clearly see Scully type “stem cell research” into Google, as if she’s never heard of it, even though she’s soon going to perform brain surgery involving stem cells).  The priest in charge of the hospital does not want Scully to use stem cells, a fact he never announces but is quite obvious by his attempts to stop her.  Scully is determined, however, to perform her scientific, Frankenstein-like experiment on her patient.  The message she receives from the ex-priest, via a vision from God, is: Don’t Give Up.  Which apparently means, don’t give up on performing your stem cell operation, although the movie leaves this vague statement open to interpretation.

Scully’s ethical, hospital-based Frankenstein experiment is contrasted with the backwoods, dirty-lab Frankenstein experiment of the movie’s bad guys.   These bad guys — foreigners of course, and Russians, the go-to bad guy foreigners of Hollywood — are kidnapping young females so that they can perform whole limb and body transplants.  They aren’t doing this for kicks or for science. Instead, there’s a married gay couple, one of which is an official transporter of organs and the other of which is just a head.  Yep, the “head” is a guy dying of cancer, but to keep him from dying the Russians have taken his head and attached it to another body.

So to sum up, a married, gay, Russian couple is harvesting organs from innocent victims and experimenting with these organs in the mountains of West Virginia.

Like we said earlier, this is not as implausible as E.T. abducting cows and making crop circles.

It’s probable that somebody out there in the world believes that this movie is friendly to Christians.  After all, Christian iconography is everywhere in the movie.  We see plenty of crosses, Virgin Mary statues, priests, rosaries.  There are numerous references to prayer and belief.  The fact that God is giving visions to an ex-priest is a subject of heated debate amongst FBI agents.  Yes, you’d think that Hollywood had found Jesus.

Don’t be fooled.  Once again, the Christian religion is used as spectacle, or in this case an entertainment extravaganza.  The Christian subtext helps amplify the Mulder-Scully dynamic, which is centered around two problems: will the believer or the skeptic win, and will they or won’t they get together and have sex?  And of course the most fantastic and bizarre elements of Christianity are used.  Roman Catholicism, as in so many other films, is employed because it is the more visually rich than, say, Southern Baptism.  Priestly pedophilia, visions from God, tears of blood — this is standard fare for the portrayal of anything Christian in the genre of sci-fi suspense.

As usual, the realm of the sacred is not reaffirmed as sacred by Hollywood.

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence: 3

Morality: 3


Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Sci-Fi and Fantasy | Leave a Comment »

Julie & Julia

Posted by J on December 17, 2009

CHICK FLICK ALERT!  Well, mostly.  Julie and Julia is not as saccharine and stereotypical as others have made it out to be, thanks to a dual narrative approach that compares a modern female writer to a 1940s female writer.  Those two writers would be Julie Somebody, a blogger who became famous by cooking all of Julia Child’s recipes in one year and writing about the experience, and the famed Julia Child.  Both women are fun-loving, both love to cook, both have tremendously dedicated and loving husbands, and both struggle to become writers.

By comparing these two women, the movie compares two eras.  And boy, do moderns come off looking badly.  This is not intentional on the part of the movie.  Perhaps it’s because it compares a well-known cookbook author and TV personality to some New Yorker who became famous off a novelty blog.  But still.  Any reasonable viewer will clearly see that a world full of Julias is far, far better than a world full of Julies.

The movie tries to deny this and attempts to portray both women as equal in problem and triumph. Julie, the modern woman, is as spunky, ambitious and GASP! feminine as the late 1940s version of Julia Child.  Yes, feminine.  Dear reader, this movie just loves chicks.  Chicks who desperately need men.  Chicks who desperately need loving husbands. Chicks who would die without husbands. This movie is good evidence that serious feminism has lost out over human nature.

But Julie is far more narcissistic than the pre-WWII female that she is compared to.  The movie even makes an overt reference to this when Julie’s husband points out that — in the middle of her year of cooking and blogging — she has become ultra-narcissistic.  Acknowledging the obvious fact that blogging all the time has made her focus on Me, Julie becomes even more narcissistic by blogging about the fact that she is narcissistic.  After a period of separation from her husband, Julie emerges as the same person.  “I have 53 comments today.  ME!!”  “The Christian Science Monitor wants to interview me tomorrow. ME!”  “The New York Times wants an interview. ME again!!”

The idea here is that blogging, while a painless, costless path to instant fame, is focused entirely on the individual blogger.  This contrasts sharply with Julia Child’s pursuit of writing a cookbook.  Child focuses on her audience, or more generally on helping others.  She repeats many times that her cookbook is for American wives who don’t have servants and who haven’t been shown the French way of cooking.  With that in mind, Julia grinds away for years at an eventual 700-page manuscript that would result in 49 editions of her famous book.  She was rejected by Houghton Mifflin and had to continue to plug away before her book was eventually published. Julie’s path to a published book was, by comparison, a piece of cake.  Cook good food for a year, blog about it, have the New York Times feature her in a story, and PRESTO! — offers for book contracts!

Really, the movie raises a couple of questions.  Would you rather have a world of your grandparents or of Julies who daily blog about themselves?  The social mores of the 1940s or the social mores of modern-day New York City liberals?

Entertainment: 5

Intelligence: 4

Morality: see above

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

A Christmas Story

Posted by J on December 15, 2009

The Simpsons didn’t come from nowhere, and A Christmas Story appears to be a direct inspiration.  Here you have a somewhat dysfunctional family — a slightly mischievous kid, a goofy dad, and a forebearing mother — which is celebrated as a nuclear family.

Not having seen this since childhood, it’s surprising to us that this movie is now a Christmas classic that the whole family gathers around and watches.  Frankly, you can’t understand it well as a kid, probably not even as a teenager.  It’s told from the perspective of the voiceover narrator, who looks back on his childhood both nostalgically and critically.  The obvious lesson he learns is about human nature.  The man working as Santa Claus in the department store does not want to work past 9 pm, the Little Orphan Annie radio show manipulates you into participating in its Secret Decoder Ring group only to further market its Ovaltine product to you, and lying to your mother sometimes works.

These lessons, contained by several short stories that are strung together to make the movie, are what keeps the movie from veering off into goofy or childish comedy, and are therefore what gives it its potency.  Even the dream sequences, with their hammy acting, are interesting because they demonstrate what most everyone has thought at some point.  For instance, that your teacher is going to extol your praises once she reads the “brilliant” assignment you are turning in to her.

Consider the prize the Old Man wins.  As a kid, you don’t quite get why this guy is so thrilled that he won a woman’s leg as a lamp.  But it’s clear — if you’ve got the perspective that the voiceover narrator has — that the Old Man has his blinders on when it comes to the aesthetics of the lamp, and to how his wife views the lamp, but that he views it as a symbol of his intellectual prowess.  Like so many Tom Wolfe characters, the Old Man is promoting the triumph of Me.  He’s proud to display his ridiculous lamp in the front window of his house for all his neighborhood to see.  He believes vainly that his newspaper puzzle is a challenging test of brainpower that he has soundly defeated.  Of course, for his wife, the lamp is not only a violation of her household decor but also a kind of rival.

The absence of Christianity (this is the 1950s American Midwest) is curious.  Given the old man’s parenting ways, it’s not hard to see how kids like Ralphie can turn into 1960s teenagers — individualistic, hedonistic, and probably rebellious in one way or another.

Note: the movie contains a hilarious jump cut which you should watch for.  At the end of one scene, we see Randy walking into the bathroom and getting ready to sit down on the toilet.  Then the movie cuts to a pot of boiling food on the stove and then pans over the kitchen table.  We’ve already seen Randy eat like a pig, so once again the joke’s on Randy.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 6

Morality: 5

Posted in Comedy, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Food, Inc.

Posted by J on December 11, 2009

“Our food has changed more in the last 50 years than it has in the last 10,000.”  So begins Food, Inc., a short and incomplete documentary about industrial food production and the alternatives to it.  This is not, if you think these labels are somewhat negative, a “green” or environmentalist video essay.  It is at least trying to raise the question, “Do you know where your food comes from?”

Of course most people don’t want to envision the slaughterhouse, nor is the slaughterhouse in and of itself an evil.  Obviously the cow or the chicken has to be killed.  But Food, Inc. is concerned with how the cow or the chicken is raised and then turned into food.  The image of a farm environment does not correspond with reality, the movie says.  As it points out, most packaging at the supermarket implements a pastoral fantasy of a red barn, a older, friendly farmer, and green and golden fields.  And yet almost every cow or chicken these days is raised in a controlled environment in which bacteria (e.g., E coli) can be easily transmitted.

The movie ranges through a host of subjects, some of which are not directly on the topic of food production.  And yet it does not talk about most food production.  No mention is made of fruits and vegetables, or anything in a brightly colored box.  Mostly the subjects are meat and poultry and corn. The movie points out that corn is used in a majority of foods and grocery products.  It is subsidized so heavily that beef and poultry corporations can buy corn below the cost of production, which they feed to their animals.  This is a problem, the movie argues, because cows (for example) are meant to eat grass and yet corn-fed cattle are particularly susceptible to E coli.

Here is one place where the movie strays and neglects to give much information.  One advocate for food safety, a mother whose child died from an E coli infection due to the consumption of a hamburger, is featured prominently.  She tells her story, there is much pathos for her dead son’s story, and yet we do not see or hear the number of E coli infections and the likelihood of contraction.  We know that she, the advocate, is lobbying Congress — and is up against corporate interests which supposedly dominate Congress — but we do not come close to understanding the full scope of this issue.

Yet we do learn that food production is centrally controlled by a handful of multinational corporations, whose end goal is profit and the means to get there is increased efficiency and, if that doesn’t fully work, control of food legislation passed in Congress and state legislatures.  Monsanto comes off particularly poorly.  Owner of a patent for genetically modified soybeans, Monsanto strictly enforces its legal right to be the sole manufacturer of soybean seeds.  Farmers, then, must buy seeds from Monsanto every year, rather than save seeds from one year’s harvest and use them in the next.  Here it is apparent that Monsanto enjoys the federal government’s monopoly privilege and reaps the rewards, while farmers have mostly lost the understanding of how to save and engineer their own seeds, and when they try to, they face Monsanto’s wrath in the form of a lawsuit.

Just as shady, though not directly related to the topic of food production, are food corporations’ use of illegal immigrants.  Once again enjoying government privilege, these corporations are never raided for widespread use of illegals (who are paid rock bottom wages).  Instead the illegals themselves are captured 10-15 at a time, at their own residence, even if they’ve worked for their company for decades, so as to not interrupt production in the factories and to avoid a P.R. mess.  The movie argues that NAFTA caused a flood of cheap, subsidized U.S. corn into Mexico, which put millions of Mexican corn farmers out of business, causing them to relocate to the United States.

Food, Inc. is clearly on the side of “organic” food production, which, using only one example of a Pennsylvania farmer, is supposedly just as efficient but safer and more wholesome.  This farmer is perhaps the star of the movie, uttering such profundities as,”A culture that just uses a pig as a pile of protoplasmic inanimate structure, to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter, will probably view individuals within its community, and other cultures in the community of nations, with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling type mentalities.”

Unlike most expose documentaries, this one actually ends optimistically.  We are encouraged to know what we are eating, to buy organic, to start a garden, and if nothing else, to ask why we do what we do.  Perhaps that’s the ultimate value of watching Food, Inc.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 6

Morality: —

Posted in Documentary, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Our Man in Havana

Posted by J on December 10, 2009

It’s the Cold War.  The fading British empire, in cahoots with the new American empire, needs a spy in Havana, Cuba.  Intelligence is vital to the nation.  The Cuban government is threatened by revolution.  So the spy you choose is . . . a vacuum salesman.

Our Man in Havana is the antithesis of the myth of James Bond.  It is Graham Greene’s take on the art of spycraft, which, because 20th century nation-states are involved, is inefficient, stupid, and self-serving.  Greene assumes that a government spy is concerned with the only incentive he has, which is to keep himself on the government payroll.  That means pleasing his superiors.  And that’s where our vacuum salesman, played by Alec Guinness, comes in.

Guinness is a fairly simple man with an imagination and a daughter who’s being pursued by an important Cuban government official.  He’s approached by the British Secret Service to serve as a contact, someone who will gather information and recruit others to gather information for the British.  The lure is money — Guinness wants to please his daughter, and himself, with a wealthy lifestyle.  He’d like to join the local country club.  So he becomes a secret agent.

Of course Guinness is incompetent.  Unable to approach anyone, let alone recruit them, Guinness resorts to making up intelligence.  Fantastic, science-fiction-like intelligence, in fact.  And of course the British Secret Service believe him.

The best parts of Our Man in Havana apparently derive from Graham Greene’s script.  There are a host of good lines, comments on modernity, which the actors do not seem to understand.  Burl Ives, as an ex-pat German doctor, is particularly inept as Guinness’ friend.  Maureen O’Hara is not suitable to her part, and so the movie — poorly cast except for Guinness — seems uneven and inconsistent in tone.

Yet anyone paying close attention can see what Greene was getting at.  Guinness becomes part of the bureaucracy of spycraft, in which each member, in order to please his superiors, feels free to lie to them.  Each of them has risen above their highest level of competence, and in the end they are all rewarded for that incompetence.  Surely this movie, unlike the dozens of spy thrillers that come out each other, is a worthy antidote to the myth of the superspy — the James Bonds, Jack Bauers, Jack Ryans, who are super-competent individual men who end up saving the world.  No, Greene says.  The average man in the bureaucracy is only after one thing — to serve himself.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 8

Morality: —

Posted in Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Gone With the Wind

Posted by J on December 9, 2009

If Gone With the Wind serves any purpose, it should illustrate how quickly values can change.  They wouldn’t touch this movie today.  Rhett would have to be a Yankee spy trying to free slaves, and Scarlett would have to have several speeches on the evils of slavery.  It’s a wonder this movie is re-released every few years, this time (in 2009) on Blu-Ray.

This is supposed to be a American Southern epic which focuses on a Southern belle, who lives it up as a coquette during the antebellum years, changes for the worse during the Civil War, and then rebuilds her life after the war is over.  Of course, for her and everyone else, there is nothing like the good old days before the war, when the South flourished.  We are even told during the opening credits that the movie is about the last “Knights and Cavaliers” who roamed the earth, only to vanish forever during the Civil War.

The narrative focus is on Scarlett, which is useful because it means we the audience can follow her wherever she goes.  Since she’s not a man, she’s relatively free to roam because she doesn’t have to go off to battle.  Thus we have a behind-the-scenes Civil War movie.  The war only appears when it has to, when General Sherman’s army marches through Atlanta, which is where Scarlett happens to be.

Scarlett is a complicated flirt, desperate in the early moments of the movie to marry her beloved Ashley Wilkes.  Her problem is that Ashley is pledged to another woman, and then he goes off to war for five years.  Scarlett hangs on to Ashley as a sort of idol, marrying Ashley’s brother, hanging around Ashley’s wife, in part to remain close to Ashley.  In the opening half of the movie, she’s a combination of pluck, vivacity, selfishness, quasi-friendship, and connivance.

Then there’s Rhett Butler.  Like Scarlett he is fairly selfish — getting rich of a for-profit war business while living a luxurious life during the war years.  He’s also happy-go-lucky, and possibly in love with Scarlett.

The Civil War changes both characters in important ways.  Scarlett is taken to what for her is a low point.  She loses her husband and she misses Ashley, she endures the horrors of an army destroying the region she inhabits, her father “turns idiot,” and her Southern plantation, Tara, is reduced to almost nothing.  By intermission we see Scarlett desperate, but determined to rebuild the plantation and work as a farm laborer.  Rhett, on the other hand, gives up his independence and risks his vast wealth to become a Captain in the Confederate Army.

The post-war years feature the love story of Rhett and Scarlett, and since this is an American love story, you have a pretty good idea of what will happen to man and woman in the end (i.e., they can’t stay together).  For Scarlett, the most important earthly possession in the end is her land, Tara, the plantation that was the place of her birth.  When she realizes this, it’s yet another opportunity for nostalgia.

Thankfully, this movie is not quite a soap opera on an emotional level, though it has has many moments where the music swells and the actors overact in love scenes.  The reason to see this movie — whether you hate the portrayals of the old South or of blacks or not — is the Blu-ray restoration.  This is easily one of the best-looking movies we’ve ever seen, due to whatever they’ve done to get it on a Blu-ray disc.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 4

Morality: 9

Posted in Great, Period Drama, War | Leave a Comment »

Dr. No

Posted by J on December 8, 2009

For all the lore that James Bond has surrounding him, he’s never been in a good movie.  That’s not just if you define good as “world classic” or “temporary classic,” but “well above average.”  This  starts with the first Bond movie, Dr. No.

In Dr. No you will see James Bond and friends, chased by a tank with teeth painted on it, moving at a crawl.  This tank’s weapon is a blowtorch, so it doesn’t take an Olympic sprinter to get out of harm’s way.  Of course Bond and his sidekick park themselves in the brush and shoot at the tank, hoping to blow it up.  When that doesn’t happen, and as the tank inches forward, Bond’s sidekick stays where he is.   Cut to the tank, blowing fire out it’s front.  Cut to Bond’s sidekick, who throws his gun down and screams for a few seconds.  Cut to tank, which approaches the camera and lets out a tremendous fireball.  Cut to James Bond, who looks away in pain and grief.

Those are the kinds of scenes you will be subjected to with Dr. No.  You will have a good time if you get your buddies together and ridicule the movie, MST3K style.

As for Bond, he’s a womanizing, booze-drinking, debonnair secret agent who looks cool and acts cool at all times.    If you’ve ever seen a government agent like this guy, you’ve seen the only one that ever exists.  Surely this guy has the world’s greatest collection of STDs, but you’d never know it — doesn’t even bother to scratch an itch once.   As Austin Powers says, women want him and men want to be him, which is probably why they’ve made twenty-five or so of these movies.  But every one of them is about style, not substance, so you can decide if  you want to spend two hours living vicariously through a fictional government agent and his fantasy of spycraft.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 0

Morality: 0

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