J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

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Archive for the ‘Modern Drama’ Category

The Straight Story

Posted by J on February 10, 2011

There are a lot of road movies, many of which are about individual catharsis. Few, if any, are better than The Straight Story, a celebration of the upper Midwest.  If you’ve experienced them, you’ve probably enjoyed leisurely drives on two-lane highways through the endless cornfields of the Midwest.  This movie offers you such a drive, only you’ll be going at a much slower pace.  Think three miles an hour, on a lawnmower.

Why a lawnmower?  Well, Alvin Straight doesn’t have many options.  He’s diabetic, so he can’t see well, and his hips don’t work so he has to use two canes.  Somewhat stubborn, he insists on going by himself.  And there’s no bus to his brother’s house.  You can’t expect any kind of transportation from Laurens, Iowa to western Wisconsin, unless you provide it yourself.

Straight hasn’t talked to his brother in ten years, when he learns that his brother has suffered a stroke.  73 years old, given a bill of poor health by his doctor, it is now or never for Alvin.  He desires reconciliation with his estranged brother.  With no wife and and one adult child at his home, Alvin could leave, if there were any way to do so.  How can he get to his brother?  That clunky old Rehms lawnmower might be the way to go.

So Alvin stocks up on hotdogs, builds a trailer to tow behind his lawnmower, and heads out.  He’s got 400 miles to traverse.  As it will turn out, this journey is not simply about reconciling with his brother, but dealing with loneliness and old age.

Based on a true story, The Straight Story is not straightforward in its description of Straight’s history.  During his six-week journey, he meets several strangers — a pregnant runaway, a group of bicyclers, a Catholic priest.  At each stop, in each conversation, we learn something new about Straight.  He had 14 children, but only seven lived past childbirth.  He has been a widow for 15 years.  And he is a WWII vet who lives with the pain of a terrible accident.  The more we learn about Straight, the better the movie gets.

Does Straight reach his brother?  He is threatened by the fast pace of vehicles that pass him by.  He also doesn’t have brakes on his trailer, a major problem because his lawnmower is certainly not designed to pull that trailer.   It’s hard to imagine the transmission on his ’66 John Deere lasting for 400 miles — his old Rehms broke down a few miles into the journey.  What would happen if the John Deere breaks down? Not only do we find out, but the movie makes you feel as if you are traveling at Straight’s pace, watching everything else move too quickly. Straight’s pace, it seems, is the right pace for such a journey.

At one point, Straight tells us that he and his brother had, at their last meeting, the harshest of exchanges, fueled by alcohol.  But they used to camp out every summer night on their Minnesota farm, as children, talking to each other.  A brother knows you best, Straight reasons, because he knows your whole life.  Straight’s journey and his attempt to reconcile with family is deeply affecting.  It is a puzzle why more movies like this — G-rated, but not saccharine — don’t exist. The Straight Story is the opposite of Facing the Giants and it makes the hyper-emotional nonsense of such Christian fare look foolish. We should not forget it.


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The Prisoner (1955)

Posted by J on February 3, 2011

The cardinal is arrested.  He is told that he is a man of the church, someone outside of the state.  For suspected treason, he is interrogated and tortured for weeks, and he is ordered to confess his crimes against the state.  So goes the setup of The Prisoner (1955), a movie relevant today for its portrayal of a lawless democratic regime that has no regard for habeus corpus or human dignity.

This movie was somewhat scandalous when it was first released.  Banned at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals, the movie might have been considered, by any viewer, an attack against post-World War II, Western governments that were occupied by Germany during WWII.  In the opening scene, the cardinal, pictured on the DVD cover, is arrested just after mass.  What he is arrested for is unclear.  He soon faces an interrogator, a seemingly friendly man whose job it is to get the cardinal to confess something.  This begins a battle of wits between the two men.  But the interrogator has resources on his side; he can edit the cardinal’s tape-recorded words, and he can torture him psychologically.

What crime did the cardinal commit?  We are never even told. The Prisoner is quite vague on details, and so it can apply to many historical scenarios.  The characters do not have names; they are simply the cardinal and the interrogator.  We do not know the country in which the cardinal is arrested, although there are hints that it takes place in France.

We do, however, know that both he and the interrogator were part of the Resistance movement against their former Nazi occupiers.  After the war, each man finds himself loyal to different authorities.  The cardinal’s chief crime, it seems, is to harbor some loyalty to an authority outside the state, in this case, the Catholic church.  As he tells the interrogator, the modern Western state that has arrested him has acted no differently than the Nazis.  The Prisoner is adamant that democracies can be totalitarian tyrannies.

Essentially a simple morality tale about the modern state run amuck, the movie is a setpiece for its two main actors, Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins.  Guinness plays the cardinal, a man subjected to thorough psychological examination, whose crimes — a suicide attempt in his past; little affection for his mother — really amount to nothing except “human weakness”.  The interrogator, played by Hawkins, tries to know the cardinal better than the cardinal knows himself.  His attempted friendship, however, will only be used to get the cardinal to confess uncommitted crimes against the state in court.

The highlights of the movie are its themes about democratic tyrannies — as relevant today as ever — and the interplay between Guinness and Hawkins.  The script is its chief problem; many lines and scenes are predictable.  We wished that Graham Greene would’ve written this script instead, but Greene would never have written anything this aesthetically simply.  The movie displays many of Greene’s major themes, one of which is the Western trudge towards a totalitarianism accepted by the general populace.  The key character in the The Prisoner is the interrogator, a nice man, whose unquestioned allegiance to the state ruins the application of his intelligent mind and warps his human compassion.  There are a lot of these people today.

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The Social Network

Posted by J on January 21, 2011

The Blu-ray and DVD covers for The Social Network aren’t typical covers, since their focal points are critics’ blurbs about how great this movie is. “An American Landmark!”  “A Brilliant Film.”  “Mammoth and Exhilarating.”  This all seems a little too boastful, and the curmudgeons in us, upon seeing this cover, immediately wanted to dislike this movie.

Well, we were entertained enough, though there were no exhilarating mammoths. But The Social Network ultimately fails in number of ways and it might be quickly forgotten.  As is well known, the movie is about the creation of Facebook.  500 million people use Facebook, and so the movie has a ready-made audience.  The story is told through a legal deposition in which Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is sued by his former business partner, Eduardo Saverin, who put up $19,000 to in start-up cash, and an identical twin pair, the Winklevosses. The movie is almost as much about the failures of Saverin and the Winklevosses as it is about Zuckerberg’s successes.

The movie cuts between flashbacks to Facebook’s formation at Harvard and California in 2003-2004, and the 2008 testimony at the deposition.  This structure works well, but it assumes that viewers know what Facebook is and why this deposition matters.  Yes, most people know this well today, but they may not tomorrow.  The problem with giving an Oscar to this movie is the looming threat of irrelevance.  How much would people today care about a 2004 movie about the founding of Myspace?  A 1995 movie about the founding of Microsoft or Apple would still be relevant; a similar movie about AOL or Sega would not be.  And we all would be bored to death now by a movie about Atari, Netscape, and Gateway. (A list of failed tech companies from the 1970s would be too obscure.) Obviously, powerful tech companies can vanish very quickly.

The Social Network sharply contrasts modern entrepreneurial spirit with the narcissism and arrogance of those same entrepreneurs.  In the opening scene, Zuckerberg has a conversation in a bar with his girlfriend, Erica. How Zuckerberg ever got a girlfriend, and one as patient as her, is a plot hole that is ignored.  Zuckerberg is a narcissist and an exacting logician, so Erica dumps him.  Angered, Zuckerberg returns to his dormroom to create a website called Facemash, in which users choose who the hottest girls at Harvard are.  Zuckerberg is best when programming at his computer — a phenomenon termed “wired in” in the movie — but worst when he’s talking to others.  This is the Nerd that you’ve seen a thousand times in movies, only this Nerd is annoyingly arrogant, not shy.

The Winklevoss twins hear of the success of Zuckerberg’s Facemash website, and so they ask him to work on a “Harvard Connection” website.  Zuckerberg agrees, but then never does anything for them.    This leads the Winklevosses to believe that Zuckerberg, once Facebook’s success is obvious, stole their ideas.  They are rich, handsome and athletic, and the movie makes them out to be spurned, prideful, gentleman jocks.  Once again, the Nerd defeats the Preppy Jock at the movies.

The Social Network makes it clear that Zuckerberg’s only good friend is Saverin.  It is supposed to be ironic that Zuckerberg, who creates a website where you could find 500 million friends, abandons his own friend to create a billion-dollar company.  Repeatedly, Saverin claims that Zuckerberg is not interested in money.  He may not be, but he seems interested in the power that money brings, a temptation offered to him by Sean Parker, founder of Napster.  The film’s last act shows how Saverin was pushed aside and how Parker stepped in to own 6% of Facebook.  Parker is a successful entrepreneur who seemingly has no friends, but he does have money and women.

So Saverin sues Zuckerberg because he, Saverin, put up the initial capital for Facebook and was CFO. It seems that he was tricked into signing a bad contract that, eventually, made his share of the company drop from 34% to .03%.  Since that company is supposedly worth $25 billion, Saverin is just a little peeved.

This is a movie that misunderstands what its major themes should be.  It focuses on the irony of the lack of friendship between its characters, who nevertheless are creating a website about finding friends.  But Facebook is not a website about finding friends, which is so easy to do that it makes the term “friend” meaningless.  Facebook is about proclaiming yourself to the world, about showing the triumph of you and your likes and dislikes, of trying to tell everybody that you matter.  Given who these characters are, it makes complete sense that they would create such a website.

The final scene — spoiler alert — shows Zuckerberg as desiring the thing he couldn’t have.  He sends a friend request on Facebook to Erica, the girlfriend who broke up with him and whom he mistreated.  Then he refreshes the page over and over to see if she will “accept his friend request.”  This is ridiculous.  Would Zuckerberg, a 25-year old billionaire and head of a global company that 10% of the world’s population uses, care about something so insignificant?  The movie has spent so much time trying to show Zuckerberg’s arrogance and narcissism, and he is clearly at the point in life where the abundance of money and power that he has would feed those qualities.  And yet the ending of the movie tries to figure him as a man longing for the past, a quality that usually manifests itself in much older people. Remember Charles Foster Kane uttering “Rosebud”?  It’s as if Kane were long for his Rosebud as a young newspaper owner, not as an old man on his deathbed. Reader, if I were a 25-year old billionaire, the last thing I would ever think about is the girlfriend I barely knew who dumped me five years ago.  Try me when I’m 75, maybe.

Posted in Modern Drama, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again | 1 Comment »

Winter’s Bone

Posted by J on January 19, 2011

Winter’s Bone is that rarest of movies that has a modicum of respect for the most hated of classes, the rural, poor  white.  I have been reading through Stuff White People Like recently, in which there is a repeated observation that there are “white people” — meaning hip, liberal-ish urbanites — and the “wrong kind of white people.”  This “wrong kind” has certain, vulgar tastes that offend the sensibilities of white people: Budweiser, professional wrestling, pickup trucks, Ed Hardy clothing.  And this offense is affirmed by dozens of movie examples.  Usually in Hollywood it’s the poor rural white who gets to play the moron, the buffoon, or the serial killer.  So when I see that a movie about poor, rural whites wins major film awards, I get a bit suspicious about its portrayal of the “wrong kind.”  (Confession: I am of the “wrong kind.”)

Yet, while there are some creepy people in Winter’s Bone, most of the poor Arkansas characters depicted therein are decent folk.  The movie, if I am reading it correctly, does not look at these characters condescendingly, but instead lets viewers enter their world and experience it in a fairly neutral way.  Incredibly, this movie is a reasonable presentation of the “wrong kind.”  This is especially true of the main character, Ree, a 17-year-old girl who must take care of her sick mother and two younger siblings.  Because of her delinquent father, Ree is forced to learn to be a caretaker and provider. She and her family live in a cabin in the Ozarks.  Ree attends school, but also must find food and fuel for her family, which includes shooting squirrels and chopping wood.  Ree’s family is almost too poor, and so they must rely on the good will of neighbors for provisions.

The backdrop to Ree’s life is drugs.  She has avoided them, but a few of the characters are either addicted to them — as is the case with her uncle, nicknamed Teardrop — or are making them.  The drug of choice to make is meth.  Her father’s involvement with meth is greatly responsible for his absence.  The story begins when Ree’s father, Jessup, has gone missing.  This isn’t all that unusual, but the stakes are far higher this time, because Jessup has put up the family home and their acreage on his bailbond.  He must show up to court, or else the family will lose everything.  Ree discovers that no one knows where Jessup is.  To avoid being instantly homeless in a week’s time, she tries to find out where Jessup is.

Netflix calls this movie “noir” and a “detective story.”  Others have called it an “odyssey.”  All of these descriptions are somewhat close to the mark, but none are precise.  It is above all else about the persistence of Ree to help and provide for her family, and the movie returns again and again back to Ree’s homestead.   At 17, she is now father and mother of this household.  Late in the movie, she tries to join the Army to get the $40,000 that the recruitment poster offers her.  And she risks harming herself by confronting shady characters to find out where exactly her father is.

Fatherlessness is the main issue of the movie.  Jessup’s absence is at the forefront. Indeed, there would be no plot without his absence, and he is practically a main character, someone talked about in almost every scene.  He has, we are told, loved his family, but he is also an adulterer and a drug runner.  When we finally meet him — alive or dead, I will not reveal — he is dealt with surprisingly.

Winter’s Bone offers what hope it can.  The growing kindness of Teardrop, coupled with Ree’s determination, are all that we can hang on in the film’s rather bleak, cold world.  This hope, however, is not enough, and I highly recommend that you not watch this movie in a semi-depressed or despairing mood.  Yet the characters are fairly realistic, people like I have personally experienced, and above all the movie represents them as human beings, and not as moronic rednecks or depraved sickos.  Hopefully it contributes what it can to overturning the notion that these kind of white people are the “wrong kind.”

Posted in Modern Drama, Pretty Good | 1 Comment »

The Blind Side

Posted by J on May 4, 2010

We wanted to dislike The Blind Side, and we do, but let’s give it props.  This is one of the few movies of the last thirty years in which rich white Southerners aren’t portrayed as scumbags, nor are Southerners portrayed as “Deliverance” wannabes.  Of course the Deliverance joke has to be made in this movie.  But we find sympathy with the main characters, a wealthy family that adopts a teenage black male, who turns out to be a great football player.

And, even better, the movie has fine morals: namely, the adoptive love of the family, which offers charity, hope, and forgiveness.  Perhaps the family is too much a cookie-cutter family, but then it’s a relief to not have intra-family tensions that dominate any kind of family drama.  This family is happy.  It’s happiness rubs off on Michael Oher, a practically abandoned teenager who thankfully hasn’t been corrupted by his upbringing.  For Oher, it’s a rags-to-riches tale in two ways.  He immediately becomes wealthy after his adoption, but he also becomes wealthy in that he takes advantages of opportunities that his new life affords him.

But family dramas like this can be done well without all the fluff and corniness that’s inserted into such movies.  Perhaps fluff and corniness garner a wider audience, and thus more profit, for all involved.  Yet did any of the following need to be inserted into this movie, for any reason?

1) Sandra Bullock’s character, the driving force behind the adoption of Oher, drives nonchalantly into the slums with Oher.  He warns her, she says it’s not a big deal, then she looks out the window at the gangbangers sitting around a rundown apartment complex.  Suddenly she locks her door, as if she didn’t have a clue where she was.

2) Later, Bullock’s character confronts the same gangbangers, by herself, dressed in a revealing outfit, in the same slums she had previously visited.  She talks smack to them.

3) Bullock’s character runs onto a high school football practice field, tells the coach to butt out, and instructs Oher in how to play the offensive tackle position.

4) Later, Bullock’s character calls the high school football coach’s cellphone during an actual game, and the coach answers, then takes her advice.

5) Bullock’s family invites no one over to Thanksgiving dinner — it’s just the five of them — and their idea of Thanksgiving is watching college football around the TV.  No ceremony, no nothing.  But Oher sits at the dining room table — he’s never had a real Thanksgiving dinner — which prompts the entire family to turn off the TV, sit at the dinner table with Oher, and pray on camera.  While lots of people love the sentiment of such a scene, it is so contrived that it should put off any viewer who has a teaspoon-full of decent aesthetic taste.

6) Product Placement.  This movie is sponsored by Pepsi, Ford, and the SEC.  In a movie that tries to play up certain morals, we are also told to buy buy buy the products that the characters used.  Product placement is ubiquitous these days, but it’s more blatant here than normal.

7) A seven-year-old spends an entire summer training Oher in football conditioning and techniques.  This seven-year-old, like other movie kids, is wiser than just about everybody in the movie.

We could add to the list, but you get the point.  The Blind Side uses so many family drama cliches that it can’t be taken seriously.  Any viewer will have to mine out the few good nuggets of material out of the vast caves of nonsense that make up this movie.

Posted in Modern Drama, They Spent Millions on This? | 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

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The Mosquito Coast

Posted by J on September 5, 2009

“The United States is going to hell in a handbasket,” so we’ve heard many say, including the main character of this mosquito_coast_ver2movie, The Mosquito Coast.  The movie provides a reasonable moral warning to those who think they want to pack up to leave this country for a better land, either because the country’s going socialistic, going capitalistic, getting immoral, or any which way you think is bad.  As well, The Mosquito Coast is a commentary on the classic American ethos: self-made, independent, and always on the go.

Here the main character, Allie Fox, is a genius inventor who grumpily complains to his oldest son that America is going down the toilet.  “We eat when we’re not hungry, drink when we’re not thirsty. We buy what we don’t need and throw away everything that’s useful,” Allie complains while in a grocery chain store.  He is not a Marxist, however, but a quasi-traditionalist who believes partly in classic American values and completely in his own self-determination.  Fox’s complaints include consumer culture, the possibility of nuclear war, and increasing dependence on government.  He has an absolute trust in progress, and he demands that others adopt his pluck and inventiveness: “It’s an absolute sin to accept the decadence of obsolescence. Why do things get worse and worse? They don’t have to. They could get better and better.”

Fed up with the United States, Fox decides to pick up his family of six and move to the Mosquito Coast, manifesting his American spirit.  Even though he is sick of the U.S., Fox is thoroughly American.  He wants to enter a natural paradise and create civilization, a civilization on his own terms.   He wants the wilderness and the machine at the same time, with himself in control and as few people around as possible.

So Fox and family move to the jungle in the Caribbean and end up buying a small village in the middle of nowhere.  Along the way Fox runs into a charismatic missionary, Reverend Spellgood.  As something of an atheist, Fox demonstrates that he is the intellectual better of the two, and thereafter the two become rivals, competing for the hearts and minds of the locals.  Spellgood doesn’t much like what Fox is up to, and Fox thinks Spellgood is a charlatan.  In a sense, the movie seems to say, both are two of the same spirit: crafty leaders, one scientific and one religious, both quintessentially American.

Needless to say, Fox’s social and scientific experiments are utter failures, in stark contrast to his views on human progress.  Fox directly compares himself to Dr. Frankenstein, an apt comparison which plays out symbolically in the fate of Fox’s pet project, an enormous ice machine that uses nothing but fire and ammonia to make ice.

The story is told through the eyes of Fox’s son, Charlie Fox, a teenager who is unsure how to view his independently-minded father.  Fox’s entire family suffers from his obsessions and self-centeredness, especially in the latter stages of the movie when Fox takes them all — starving and weary — on a raft up a river, ala Heart of Darkness.  There are a number of discussion items for fathers and husbands in a study group to get out of this movie, particularly on the subject of overbearing or tyrannical family leaders.

To be sure, there are a number of flaws in the movie.  For example, the local Caribbeans are treated cinematically almost as noble savages.  Innocent and good-hearted, they are the pawns of Fox and Goodspeed.  The tribal drumbeats even serve to tempt young Charlie, who eschews the call to go native. The movie — in typical late 20th century fashion — compares the ambitious Americans with the happy-go-lucky Third Worlders.  In most respects it seems the Third Worlders are better, though the movie clearly serves to praise and critique the Fox family, while allowing the natives to only be background participants in the drama.

In spite of these and other flaws, The Mosquito Coast is intriguing enough to watch carefully.  It’s worthwhile to resurrect it in a time when your conservative or far-left friends are grumbling loudly about socialism and fascism and our national downward spiral.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 7

Morality: 7 (on par with Pixar and other animated films, in terms of the lack of sex and bad language)

Posted in Great, Modern Drama | Leave a Comment »


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

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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

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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

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