J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for the ‘Great’ Category


Posted by J on April 16, 2009

Though it features the Catholic church, Doubt is a fine morality play about modern Christian churches in general.  Here 200px-doubtposter08you have an authoritative nun, Sister Aloysius, who faces the wind of change blown in the early 1960s by the relatively new priest in her local parish, Father Flynn.  Flynn, in the first sermon we hear from him, channels Paul Tillich by claiming that doubt is the essence of faith.  Flynn says he wants to bring love, compassion, tenderness, and tolerance to the parish and Catholic school, while Sister Aloysius only seems to want to bring hard-headed authority.  Flynn thinks the secular “Frosty the Snowman” would be a fine song to sing at the school’s Christmas pagaent, while Sister Aloysius thinks that the song is purely pagan superstition.  So here’s the age-old fight between the revolutionary and the conservative.

Caught between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius is the young nun, Sister James.  James is innocent and trustworthy.  She’d like to be compassionate to her eighth grade students, who in Aloysius’ opinion would love to turn the wimpy compassion offered by James into rebellion.  James would like to side with Father Flynn, but one day she notices something odd about the behavior of the relatively new black student.  He is called to Flynn’s office in the middle of class, and he returns to class with alcohol on his breath.  She reports this to Sister Aloysius, and here’s where the ball gets rolling.

Sister Aloysius, without firm evidence, thinks something inappropriate has happened between this black male student and Father Flynn.  Aloysius pursues the truth, making firm accusations along the way, but how can she know? She may be completely wrong.  With this scenario Doubt plays with our contemporary knowledge of the recent sex scandals in the Catholic Church.  Father Flynn vehemently denies Aloysius’ charge, and Sister James, a possible witness to the scandal, would really like to believe Father Flynn is innocent.


So from here on I’ll discuss the movie looked at from the ending backward.  You’d think, in a typical Hollywood production, that Sister Aloysius would be typecast as a grim, cruel authoritarian.  To some extent she is, but then the movie makes room for the idea that such a person and position is necessary, especially in a school environment.  Further, Aloysius represents old time values — specifically, for Catholics, the glory days before Vatican II.  Father Flynn is obviously a Vatican II revolutionary, the kind of guy who thinks the church needs to modernize for the sake of … well, what exactly?  Either the church, or possibly himself.

Flynn makes his case for change based on several points that political and religious “progressives” would love to associate themselves with.  For example, absolute civil rights and social tolerance for nearly everyone and everything, including the idea that homosexuals are homosexuals by nature.  While the movie makes room for a viewer’s acceptance of many of Flynn’s beliefs, it associates them with Flynn’s probable pedophilia.  As we all know, being a pedophile today is the worst social sin one can commit, down there in a gutter with being labeled a racist.  So it’s funny that Flynn wants to blow the wind of tolerance through the church — which would elicit a loud Hurrah! from a whole lot of people these days — but he does it while seducing little boys in the rectory.

What is the movie’s point of view? Which character does it side with?  Obviously the writer-director, John Patrick Shanley (whose only other movie as a director is Joe Versus the Volcano, interestingly enough) has crafted a story built on the favorite aesthetic value of writers and artists since the mid-nineteenth century: ambiguity.  What is really true, and who is really right?  The movie does a fine job of leaving these questions open-ended, while humanizing all of the characters — the title of this movie says it all.  We have no doubt that even a few viewers might sympathize with Father Flynn’s pedophilia.  Still, it’s hard to say that — from the point of view of the mainstream in 2009 — Sister Aloysius isn’t ultimately the good guy (or nun).

It’s worth pointing out that there are a few theological howlers in the movie.  It concludes with Sister Aloysius’ doubts, but if she is talking about her faith in God, she has a deep problem. Contra Tillich, doubt is a sin; it is the opposite of faith.  Also, Sister Aloysius claims at least twice that she is “stepping away from God” in order to pursue Father Flynn.  Either she is joking or stupid, because bringing sin to the light — especially such wickedness as Flynn is accused of — could never be called “stepping away from God.”

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 9

Morality: see above, but it’s far tamer than Kids-in-Mind says.


Posted in Great, Period Drama | Leave a Comment »

Bringing Up Baby

Posted by J on March 25, 2009

This is probably the classic screwball comedy.  It is perfect for a bad day, a recession, or whatever else might dampen 215px-bub1938 your mood.  Admittedly you have to be able to enjoy 1930s-1940s acting, writing, humor, etc., but once you clear that hurdle this movie is, like we said, perfect.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 8

Morality: 9-10

Posted in Comedy, Great | Leave a Comment »

Doctor Zhivago

Posted by J on December 20, 2008

After reading around the web, few movies attract as many conflicting opinions as Doctor Zhivago, and so it was in our drzhivago_asheetown little household.   Was it too long?  Does it praise Zhivago’s adultery? Are the characters’ actions unrealistic? Go elsewhere and others will answer with a raging “yes” or a shoulder shrug and a smile.  We hardly know what to say ourselves.

It’s even hard to say what this movie is really about.  Yes, it’s about a poet/doctor who apparently loves one woman (his wife) but desires another, the lovely Lara, whom the movie equates to yellow flowers and the blazing sun.  Yes, the movie is also about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath.  It’s also about poetry versus ideology, Zhivago’s private world of family life and writing versus the political reality of the Bolsheviks.

It’s even arguable that this is about the framing device.  The movie is really one long story told by the Alec Guinness character, a high-ranking Soviet who is looking for his niece.  Finding a girl he believes to be the one, he tells her of the father she never knew, the story of the renowned poet, Doctor Yuri Zhivago.  So the entire movie is a Soviet officer’s romantic tale of events, many of which he may be inventing.  Why exactly is he telling it to this poor worker girl?  We think it’s because the girl is orphaned and the officer is alone, both isolated by the grim ideology of the Soviet system.  The story of Zhivago offers them a rare chance to connect relationally, and the audience a chance to see a Soviet humanized.

But above all else, this movie is about movies.  You will see Lara dissolve into a flower.  You will see several seconds of a completely black screen, as a train travels through a tunnel.  You will see the camera pointed at the tops of trees.  You will see a Russian mansion’s interior covered in ice.  These are formal techniques you won’t find in other mediums.  Attach a sprawling Victorian-era plot, a love triangle, and pretty pictures courtesy of David Lean, and it’s not so unclear why people have always liked this movie, despite numerous features easily characterized as flaws.  Doctor Zhivago feels like an event.

Calling Doctor Zhivago a “love story” would be too hasty.  Zhivago does have a inexplicable obsession with his mistress, and the movie accentuates this obsession by showing us yellow flowers and playing the four-note “Lara’s Theme” over and over and over.  But Zhivago is also obviously an adulterer, a fact which the movie makes clear.  For one, his wife is unwaveringly faithful and sweet.  “How could anyone cheat on her?” C. repeatedly kept saying during the movie.  Also, when Zhivago first considers Lara lustfully, we see him only in the shadows, which suggests the blackness of his desire.  Lara herself, a fallen woman of sorts, has been used and abused by two other men in the movie.  When Zhivago asks one of them about her, before he fully knows her, the man replies that he will give Lara to Zhivago as a wedding present.  So Zhivago is one in a line of men to dominate Lara, who consents after initially refusing him. Most telling of all, Zhivago loses his wife forever and is enslaved in the Red Army precisely because he is returning home from a tryst with Lara.

So Zhivago’s adultery is not necessarily mishandled.  Recall the early scene where Lara goes to church.  After she confesses, the priest reminds her of the story of the woman whom Jesus told to “go and sin no more.”  What happened to that woman,the priest asks rhetorically.  We do not know, he answers, and then he exhorts Lara to heed the commandment.   The rest of the movie offers us a chance to see what happens when the characters do not heed that command.  The ones who suffer most: Zhivago’s family.  In the end, Zhivago collapses and dies while frantically pursuing Lara.  This final scene may be unforgivably sentimental, as Roger Ebert argues, but it is anchored in a relevant moral point.

In the background of Zhivago’s follies is the destructive transformation of an entire nation.  Living under the old Russian czar wasn’t so pleasant, but communism couldn’t be said to be much of an improvement.  The movie presents multiple views of the Russian Revolution, primarily from the eyes of Zhivago’s upper-class family.  At times they praise the removal of the old injustice, but what dominates is the fact that everybody gets really poor, really quickly.  Zhivago’s family is hounded by Bolshevik officials, and Zhivago himself is nearly accused of corruption on multiple occasions, though he has no political affiliation.  So the family travels from Moscow to the deep countryside, fleeing the poverty and political oppression of the big city.  The countryside provides respite, but we find civil war raging even there, and the Red Army’s operation, we discover, are everywhere.  For Zhivago and company, there is no escaping a time of terror.  The movie does a good job of conveying the general feeling of catastrophe and economic loss, and this in fact is probably the best reason to see it.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: somewhere between 2 and 8

Morality: 7 (a couple of risque scenes, and this score will drastically drop if you think the adultery is glorified)

Posted in Great, Period Drama | Leave a Comment »

The Dresser

Posted by J on December 9, 2008

The Dresser is about a dynamic master/servant relationship, much like the relationship between the Fool and King 200px-481391020aLear in Shakespeare’s famous play.  In Lear, the relationship is  reversed.  The Fool is the wise man, and Lear, the powerful ruler and king, becomes a senile fool.  So it is in this movie, and it is fitting that the backdrop of this story is a stage production of Lear.

The impossible task for the servant, Norman the “dresser,” is that his friend and employer, a great actor who we only know by “Sir,” has had a senile episode.  “Sir” is supposed to play King Lear that evening, but his ravings combined with his egomania make this seemingly impossible.  Yet the effeminate Norman perseveres, enduring the selfishness of his employer.   What’s in it for Norman?  This is one of the central questions of the movie, and it is not certain that we ever fully find out, though there are several possibilities.

Perhaps the reason is simply what “Sir” calls “struggle and survival.”  That, Norman reminds him, sums up life.  The two are engaged in a production of King Lear during WWII-era Britain.  German rockets land perilously close to the theater.   Lear was the most popular Shakespeare play of the twentieth century, perhaps primarily for its powerful grimness.

The movie focuses on the backstage preparations, and then production, of this version of Lear.  “Sir” has acted in the play 227 times, but he has never been less prepared or more prepared to play Lear.  Less prepared, because his mania overwhelms him.  More prepared, because he is senile and manic.  Off-stage, Norman prods “Sir” to apply his makeup, to put on his frocks, to remember the lines.  Norman is as much a moral supporter as he is a personal assistant.  The other actors, fearing or disdaining “Sir,” couldn’t possibly understand Norman’s drive to get “Sir” onstage.  The show should be cancelled, but Norman persists.

What transpires during and after the production of Lear is for you to find out, but we recommend being familiar with King Lear before watching this movie.  It is an acting tour de force, centering on long scenes with the two men, Norman and “Sir.”  You must beware: this movie is extremely rich, but it is also exhausting.  It feels like a Wagnerian opera, invoking so many emotions over a short span that it feels longer than it is.  It is very funny, but as a tragicomedy, it has what might be called a grim worldview.  Yet the final emotion offered here, like the one Lear invokes, is perfectly reasonable, as long as it is not meant to be overwhelming.

Yes, the movie is rich. It goes deep into the following topics:  senility, servanthood, egomania, male-male bonding, aging, death, romantic longing, and acting versus being.  A far from exhaustive list.    Watch “Sir” apply his makeup for the part of Lear, and you watch a man age quickly.  He knows it.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 10

Morality: see above

Posted in Great, Modern Drama | Leave a Comment »

The Spirit of St. Louis

Posted by J on December 8, 2008

It was just a plane trip across the Atlantic ocean.  So a simple viewer might think of The Spirit of St. Louis, the story of 200px-the_spirit_of_st_louis_vhs_coverthe first flight across the Atlantic, made by Charles Lindbergh in 1927.  It’s quite easy to take Lindbergh’s flight lightly.  After all, dozens if not hundreds of planes now cross the Atlantic each day.

Back in ’27, however, Lindbergh had to endure almost forty hours of nonstop flying, in a plane he couldn’t see out the front of, with technology that no one was sure about.  Before Lindbergh, several flights across the Atlantic had been attempted — there was a $25,000 prize for completing the flight — but none obviously succeeded.  Most that didn’t succeed resulted in death, so when Lindbergh took his plane up, he was taking the ultimate risk.

The movie honors this risk in a glorified way, and we admit we were sucked into it.  Lindbergh exemplified the best of American pluck and determination, which is what this movie celebrates.  Lindbergh even put his own money into his plane — $2000 of the $15,000 cost, according to the movie.  The story begins with Lindbergh seeking private investors for his plane, then the construction of the special plane, then Lindbergh’s gritty, mostly boring but harrowing at times, flight.  This movie is all about how private risk earns bountiful rewards, and how a determined soul can push creative and geographical boundaries.  Good grief, we wish people nowadays could catch this fever.  If they made an exemplary biopic of the 2000s, it would be of some greedy banker begging at the feet of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve.  Give us Lindbergh and the pre-WWII generation any day.  These people had a much better understanding of what it was to be free and responsible.  This movie, and not To Kill a Mockingbird, should be required viewing in American classrooms.

Jimmy Stewart plays Lindbergh here, and though he’s too old and his toupee is quite bad, his agitated determination and jittery voice are perfect for a role that could otherwise be dull.  Half the movie takes place in the tiny cockpit of a one-man plane, so Stewart had to deal with not being able to move.  Much of the movie is propelled by his voiceover narration, which heightens the suspense considerably even though you know the result of the flight.  Lindbergh indeed deserved the nickname “Lucky Lindy.”  What disasters he avoided during his transatlantic flight are amazing to behold. It is fitting that he, though not apparently a praying man, utters a pray to God right before he lands.

The movie is based on Lindbergh’s Pulitzer-Prize winning memoir of the flight, and it is surely ten times better than this movie.  YetThe Spirit of St. Louis does offer the visualization of the event, and this at least got us thinking.  What would it have been like to be a shepherd in Ireland, watching Lindbergh’s plane come from the ocean?  Or what would it have been like to have lacked sleep for 72 hours, only to be mobbed by 200,000 people after you landed your plane?  These and dozens of other intriguing circumstances make Lindbergh’s more than just a simple flight across the Atlantic.

Though the movie probably would lose its power during a second and third viewing — one of our qualifications for deeming a movie “great” is its rewatchability — we make an exception for this.   Surely not all viewers will care for it as much as we did.  But no doubt, it is a great movie.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 10

Posted in Great, Modern Drama | Leave a Comment »

Ace in the Hole

Posted by J on November 27, 2008

200px-aceIt’s only a matter of time before Ace in the Hole gets resurrected and put in the Film Canon of film canons.  It’s already in ours.  This cynical movie covers ground already staked out by some culturally conservative political and religious groups.  It would not work for any group intertwined with the powers-that-be, since it is a firm indictment of any reigning media establishment. But it is so biting, and so true, that we highly recommend it for anyone with a countercultural mindset.  That includes those of you who have gladly taken an axe to your TV set and are slightly cynical about present-day politics.

The irony is that Ace in the Hole — like so many classic movies from the first half of the twentieth century — was originally a liberal critique.  Back then, in the 1950s, liberals were only mild hypocrites with a good sense of Christian morality.  So while Ace in the Hole is a critique of capitalism, it actually critiques it on the basis of Christian morality, and not for multicultural tolerance or just because.

Ace in the Hole is the story of Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter on the lookout for number one.  Tatum seeks instant fame for himself, and, having been kicked out of the major cities on the east coast for his drive and determination to get The Story, he winds up in New Mexico.  Tatum takes a job at an Albuquerque newspaper, whose editor has an embroidered sign outside his door that says “Tell the Truth.”  Tatum sneers at this, complains about being in the desert, where nothing happens, and heads off to do another story.

On the way to that story, Tatum finds another one.  He learns that a man is stuck in a remote cave, an old Indian burial ground.  Smelling a major human-interest piece, Tatum crawls inside the cave to talk to the man.  Here there is little wrong, the man is only trapped in a cave-in, but the rescue job should take just a few hours.  But Tatum sees something in this situation he cannot resist: opportunity.

Here is where things get interesting.  Tatum stalls the rescue job.  After sending a piece to his newspaper about a man trapped in the mystical Mountain of the Seven Vultures, Tatum convinces the local sheriff to drill from the top instead of the bottom.  This will take days, as opposed to hours, but the benefit is that Tatum will make this a national story and turn the sheriff into the hero.  Not coincidentally, the sheriff is up for a tough re-election very soon.

The conspiracy further escalates.  The trapped man’s wife runs a diner nearby.  Like Tatum, she hates the remoteness of New Mexico.  When Tatum’s story breaks nationally, and tourists arrive in droves, her business increases exponentially.  She begins to be attracted to Tatum.  He’s an icon, a rockstar, the lone reporter who has access to the cave and the man who provides the scoop to the entire country.  She wants to run away with him to New York, and forgets about her trapped husband.

And then there are the tourists.  These naive people begin arriving at the cave-in after Tatum’s story breaks.  Soon, the cave is surrounded by commerce.  Ferris wheels, food vendors, impromptu concerts, and hundreds of people.  This cave-in, thanks to Tatum, is big business.

Everyone seems concerned about the trapped man, or is that the real concern?  The tourists, like good sheep, do not realize they are simple, manipulated consumers.   They think the trapped man will be rescued in a few days.  The other newspaper reporters feed their respective papers with information.  But the entire situation is a money machine, engineered by Tatum, who resigns from his New Mexican newspaper and earns a thousand a day working as an independent journalist.

So this movie is cynical about the following: consumerism, celebrity culture, media power, political electioneering, the purpose of human interest stories, and the neutrality of journalism.  But it is cynical in a morally critical way.  Watch how Christian iconography is used at the end, as the trapped man nears the end of the drilling and the end of his life.  Will he die?  This question is not as important as, what does that really mean for Tatum?

This is a movie that regular readers of this blog will definitely want to see.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 8

Morality: 9

Posted in Great, Modern Drama | Leave a Comment »

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Posted by J on November 21, 2008

“This is not Jane Austen,” says C.  She is correct, though the plot is faithful to Jane’s book.200px-prideandprejudice-movieposter But having studied this movie shot-by-shot, we can easily declare it a well-crafted movie.  In terms of applying film technique to an early nineteenth century plot, the movie is a classic.

Austen diehards like C. will undoubtedly have issues.  Some of the actors may seem miscast, or at times inept.  We refer especially to Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennett, whose interpretation of Bennett as a low-key mumbler seems to be different than the sarcastic jokester that Austen had in mind.

Likewise, the movie veers towards a kind of kitsch romanticism that the book never approaches.   But of course it does; it’s a movie, and they all do that.  Consider that Austen’s book is concerned with virtues and manners, with educating readers on the degrees of appropriate conduct and sentiment.  In the book, the first thing that Darcy and Elizabeth do after getting engaged is to talk about what was wrong with how they previously acted, particularly with their manners.  Darcy even goes into a psychiatric evaluation of his childhood, and how that childhood programmed him to act prideful and conceited “in practice, though not in principle.”  This is not the kind of thing that couples do ten minutes after getting engaged, but oh well, it’s a Jane Austen book.

This movie, however, focuses on Elizabeth’s internal emotional state and projects that turmoil onscreen.  There are two or three short dream sequences, one of which has her standing on the edge of a cliff, the wind threatening to blow her off.  The scene in which Darcy famously gives Elizabeth a letter likewise focuses on Elizabeth.  That encounter here is as much fantasy as fact, as much Elizabeth’s baffled, emotional interpretation as a coherent, realistic sequence of events.  This movie is not Jane Austen; it is a romantic fantasy.

Despite this, this version of Pride and Prejudice aims to be the most realistic of all film versions.  The opening sequence swoops through the Bennet household in one take, in which we see the animals in their front lawn and the laundry strung out in front of the house.  Later, at the ball, we watch perhaps a hundred people happily dance, though we can almost smell the sweat and stink of the place.  The sets, when we reach Lady de Bourgh’s and Darcy’s estates, are elaborate and realistic.  Someone spent a lot of money to make what we see look like early nineteenth century England.  Even the ladies appear to have gone lightly on the makeup.

About this film’s craft.  Everyone should notice the extraordinary long takes, in which, for example, the camera swoops through the entire scene of the ball.  This is unusual, perhaps unprecedented for Jane Austen period movies, but it aims to relate the connected intricacies of the English social world.  In that way it is faithful to the book.  Jane is not much one for detail, but she is one for relationships.  Here, the camera has found a way to visually demonstrate those relationships.  In that way, we guess this movie is like Jane Austen.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 8

Morality: 10

Posted in Great, Period Drama | Leave a Comment »

Stalag 17

Posted by J on November 15, 2008

Stalag 17 suffers from neglect because of its later spawn, Hogan’s Heroes and The Great Escape.  This is the 200px-stalag_17movie in which Sergeant Schulz first appears, that duddy German barracks officer who’s always the butt of American POW wisecracks.  If you know that fact alone before watching the movie, you’ll be completely surprised by Stalag 17‘s depth and its formal intricacies.  This is a great example of a well-made movie, a genuine classic.

The vast difference between this movie and The Great Escape is in its aim.  The Great Escape, a movie about American POWs in a German WWII prison camp, is all about escape.  It’s a fun action-adventure flick, with some colorful characters and charismatic actors.  It’s also a decent pickup in the $5 DVD bin at Walmart.  Too bad we’ve never seen Stalag 17 in the same bin.  It’s about escaping from a German WWII prison camp too, but it aims for the deeper themes of community and individualism, loyalty and betrayal, and justice and injusitice.  It also has Billy Wilder’s crafted, framed shots and a first-person narrator, which adds complexity that The Great Escape lacks.  Complex movies are rewatchable, which is why they’re a good deal for $5.

Frankly, to have made Hogan’s Heroes from this movie is like taking the Fool from King Lear and making him the star of a low-brow slapstick comedy.  Like any Shakespearian tragedy (though we don’t say this movie is Shakespearian or tragic), Stalag 17 has its comic moments, particularly with two bumbling bunkmates who have babes on the brain.  But there is tension and melancholy underneath the humor, since these POWs have a genuine dislike for the Nazis, and vice versa.  The Nazis are fine with playing nice, unless they are disobeyed.  Then it’s death by machine gun.  These American POWs look like they aren’t sure they’ll ever get home.  The best they can do is make a home at the prison camp.

The main issue in Stalag 17 is that there is a traitor in the barracks.  Somebody is tipping off the Germans about all that the American POWs do.  Who is it, the narrator asks?  It could be anybody, but one of the men is a loner and an opportunist.  Another is crazy, perhaps.  Whoever it is, he is responsible for the loss of important goods and a breakdown in community trust.

We won’t say who it is, leaving the analysis to you, but notice the way economics and sociology clash.  The opportunist makes money (cigarettes) on the community and accumulates a huge stash.  Seemingly jealous, the rest of the barracks is automatically suspicious of his success.  He is not contributing to their well-being, nor does he help himself with his aloof remarks.  This situation quickly turns into a problem of loyalty and justice — and it’s impossible to not abstract the particulars of the plot onto 20th century American history.  It’s a particularly interesting exercise to consider this movie in light of HUAC’s activities in the 1950s and Hollywood blacklisting.

Anyway, just remember this is nothing like Hogan’s Heroes, and probably tied with The Bridge on the River Kwai for the best WWII prison camp movie.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 6

Morality: 9

Posted in Great, Jailbreak, War | Leave a Comment »

Groundhog Day

Posted by J on November 7, 2008

Groundhog Day is now nearly universally hailed as a masterpiece that exhibits exemplary spirituality and 200px-189656groundhog-day-postersethics.  Let’s unpack this claim a bit.

First, the ultimate goal for Bill Murray’s character is not explicit.  Murray is stuck in the same day, living it over and over again.  It is never clear why Murray is stuck in Groundhog Day, nor is it clear what he must do to get out of the day.  Unlike Clarence the angel and George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Murray is never told what he must do.  The repeating day is an inscrutable mystery, and no higher power intervenes to reveal anything to Murray.  Heck, the movie contains no religious imagery.  Not a church, not a cross, not a Buddha statue. In that sense, we could call it functionally secular.

With no higher revelation available within the movie, we must infer what Murray’s goal is from the way he finally ends the repeating day.  Murray, it seems, must win the nice-looking (to him), intellectual woman who he otherwise cannot easily conquer.  To win this woman, he must avoid directly wooing her and instead must indirectly woo her by performing acts of kindness to strangers in Puxtatawney, Pennsylvania.  Murray’s acts of kindness win over many of the townsfolk, who boast about Murray’s character to the intellectual female, who eventually sleeps with Murray to end Groundhog Day.  Murray thus attains his goal by earning a sleepover without sex.  Here, we see what movie genre we are in.  The sleepover is the goal of most modern Hollywood date movies – of for example romantic comedies as different as Roxanne and Say Anything.  To Murray, Hollywood is saying “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Murray’s relative indifference, a state of being he attains by living through years of a repeating day, is Zen-like.  The inscrutable, repeating day is basically a koan that Murray has to live through.  He can’t figure out why Groundhog Day keeps repeating, it’s completely perplexing, and so he adopts a “why care?” attitude typical of the spiritual emptying that Zen Buddhists are supposed to achieve to attain enlightenment.  And that’s what Murray achieves in the end: enlightenment.

But Groundhog Day is more complicated than this.  Murray does achieve certain goals, such as piano-playing and ice sculpting.  One of the points of the repeating day is to show Murray what he can accomplish, given time, effort, and discipline.  Just look at the structure of Murray’s journey through the repeating day:

1) Relishes in hedonistic pleasures (e.g., junk food and loose women).

2) Despairs of his existence and tries to kill himself.

3) Attempts to directly woo his female and fails.

4) Actively seeks to be charitable, partly succeeding and partly failing.

5) Learns a kind of indifferent selflessness, woos the female, and ends the day.

From #1-5, we can easily see the hierarchy of most ethical systems.  Murray progresses from materialism, to can-do individualism, to selflessness.  Or, another way to view it, he goes through Kierkegaard’s three stages of existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the spiritual.  Murray’s progression is general enough to be taken a number of ways, but specific enough to be appreciated by anyone who values selflessness over selfishness.  No wonder all the mushy religionists of the day love this movie.  And no wonder we can all get something out of the movie, even if we disagree with its positive portrayal of shack-ups.

One technicality we enjoy about this movie is its interesting use of closure.  Closure is the word for the way we movie viewers connect one shot with another.  If a movie jumps from an outside shot of a spaceship to an inside shot of a spaceship (like the opening to Star Wars), we viewers mentally make the assumption that the second shot is of the spaceship we just saw from the outside and not another spaceship at another point in space or time.  In Groundhog Day, there are a number of second takes that exemplify closure.  Murray walks into a bar, talks to a female, and then we see him walking into the bar again.   This second bar scene we all automatically assume is another day that Murray is living through.  There is no announcement that that’s what is happening, but we don’t need such an announcement.  The movie does a great job of establishing its own world and the premises of that world, which is why it’s worth studying for you future filmmakers out there.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 5

Posted in Comedy, Great | 2 Comments »

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Posted by J on October 9, 2008

“Ah, those were the days! Halcyon days.”  So one character sighs in the six-episode Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  We couldn’t agree more.  The world was a simpler place when they were commies and we were capitalists.  The USSR was the ultimate baddie and we, the forces of good, were its opposite.  Nowadays the world is integrated, complicated, a giant hodgepodge of corporate conglomerates and individual consumers.  What happened to the exotic world of spycraft and a firm knowledge of what good and evil are?

But Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy explodes this myth of what the bygone days of spycraft were like.  We couldn’t be more wrong, so the miniseries tells us.  We weren’t necessarily the good guys.  We operated a Department of Espionage, a bureaucracy of spies that was as self-serving as it was essential to national affairs.  There is not necessarily a good guy in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, though there is a master detective who solves the crime.  The men who are spies hide secrets, push and make way for their own self-interests, and blind themselves to good, ultimate goals.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a 1979 miniseries put out by the BBC, based on a novel of the same name.  It is a miniseries that requires lots of work on the part of its viewers.  All of its characters assume a level of knowledge that viewers won’t attain until at least the fourth episode.  We advise keeping a scorecard of names and relationships.  There is only one action scene, in the first episode, and every scene after that is dialogue-only.  This is a series whose engine is words and only words (not visuals).  Thankfully, it is probably one of the best acted miniseries ever made.

The series begins with the head of the British spy organization plainly stating, “We have a mole.”  But which British agent is working for the Russians?  It is at least one of five men, all at the highest levels of “the Circus,” the pet name for Britain’s spy bureaucracy.  It might be more than one of them.  One of these men — George Smiley, played by the wonderful Alec Guinness — is chosen to find out who the mole is.  So begins Smiley’s investigation, which requires plenty of cooperation and coercion, and lots of sly, subtle dialogue.  One of the pleasures of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is analyzing the way these characters talk to each other.  They hint, imply, feint, pretend, but never reveal.  Smiley has quite the task.  Good thing he is a mastermind.

There are even suggestions that Smiley himself is the spy.  Why, after all, was he pegged as a suspect?  Where is his wife, Ann?  Why do we never see her?  Her name may be code for something else.  In this miniseries, any word or gesture may be a code that we viewers are unaware of.

The point is that, as viewers, we can trust no one.  All of the British spies work for themselves.  They all understand the lure of money and power.  They understand and sympathize with their Russian counterparts, who alone know what the Brits are going through.  These spies operate on the border between nations, the muddy in-between where anybody can be loyal to anybody, as long as they are being paid a sufficient amount of “chickenfeed.”  As one of them says, “I’m a good socialist, always looking to make a buck, and a good capitalist, always ready for the revolution.”

Does Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy really deserved to be called “Great”?  Probably not.  It will be out-of-date soon, when generations who know nothing of the Cold War mature.  But as an example of a provocative series constructed almost entirely out of dialogue, it is far more engaging than you’d think.  Just stick with it through Episode Three.  And remember to keep a scorecard.

Though the series offers little in the way of redemption, even though the mystery is solved, each episode ends with a shot of a cathedral.  In the background, choir boys sing a traditional hymn.  The point, if anything, is that the world of spycraft needs Christ too.  Otherwise, Smiley’s mission to out the mole is all for nothing.

Entertainment: 5-9  (depends on the episode)

Intelligence: 7

Morality: 7 (one risque scene in Episode 2)

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