J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for the ‘Poignant but Boring’ Category

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Posted by J on August 20, 2009

Don’t be fooled by the title. This movie sounds as if it’s going to model one of those wild and cool dime novels of the late 5463919th century.  You know the ones with elaborate treasure hunts, train robberies, and escapes — the kind of thing Tom Sawyer suckered Huck Finn into at the end of Huckleberry Finn.

No, none of that.  Instead, this is a meandering, weenie psychodrama of a movie.  Which is a heckuva feat, because any Jesse James story ought to be far from meandering.

But first, we’ll give some due credit to the movie for the sake of our film-loving friends.  This movie is nicely shot — good cinematography and lighting — and they get the sets and costumes perfect for the period.  And then there’s the language, which is marvelous.  You don’t hear too many people calling the outhouse “the privy” these days, nor a playboy an “inamorato.”   Lots of good 19th century jargon in this one, so watch it with the subtitles.

Unfortunately the movie focuses far too closely on its two main guys, James and Robert Ford.  James’ character, played by Brad Pitt, is never consistent.  He seems to change personalities every ten minutes — gregarious, gloomy, playful, sadistic, all of these and more.  Pitt didn’t even follow the movie’s opening description of James, who, we are told, had a physical condition that made him constantly blink his eyes. Pitt instead plays James like a movie star would, with eyelids glued open.

Ford, on the other hand, is well acted by modern standards.  A young pup with a James’ obsession, because he’s read the zany dime novels about James, Ford has self-esteem issues related to being the lowest member in the James’ gang’s hierarchy.  Still, Ford doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d boldly rob trains and kill someone if need be.   He has more in common with a brooding Gen. X, Ethan Hawke character, which means he ‘s pretty much a weenie throughout.

Both James and Ford here seem to have a celebrity/fan relationship, as well as a mafioso/underling one.  Ford is obsessed with James’ famous name, so much so that the movie suggests he killed James in order to become a celebrity like James.  More bizarrely, the movie’s ending suggests that James groomed Ford into killing him.  For no good reason, James wants to be killed by Ford, as if to win some kind of psychological wrestling match.  There’s no way the real James would even do such a thing.  Only a therapeutic culture doped up on psychotropic meds could dream up something this weird.

Yeah, the movie is really slow.  It’s got an Andrei Tarkovsky-like pace, only with the bad habits of Terrance Malick.  It makes us ponder the looks on people’s faces for what seems like forever.  In one extended scene, we have to dwell on the petty infidelity of a young wife and a member of the James’ gang, which is totally pointless.

This is a travesty to the historical accounts of James, which are quite exciting.  If you don’t believe us read the Wikipedia article on him.    Even stranger is that James and post-Civil War Missouri are morally and politically complex subjects.  That’s just the kind of subject Hollywood loves to explore, but for some reason we get none of that here.  James and his gang had political motivations for their deeds, as well as personal ones, since James’ own house was firebombed.  The movie relates none of this, except to show that the governor of Missouri (played by James Carville) is out to get James.

Probably this all means skip the movie, save yourself three hours of your life, and stick to reading about James if you’re at all interested.

Entertainment: 4

Intelligence: 6

Morality: 3 (yes, the movie shows us that we are all sinful — well duh!)

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Posted in Poignant but Boring, Western | Leave a Comment »

Who are the DeBolts?

Posted by J on August 29, 2008

We once encountered a female who openly celebrated the fact that she was having no more than two kids.  She was normal, middle-class, friendly-looking, and happy to announce to complete strangers that she would no longer reproduce.  Her car even featured the vanity license plate, 2ISENUF.

She would’ve fainted had she seen this short documentary.  The DeBolts have nineteen children.  Many of them are physically handicapped.  Yet for the DeBolts, nineteen is not enough.

Who are the DeBolts? was a TV documentary that aired in 1977, and it subsequently won the Academy Award for Best Documentary that year.  By today’s standards, it is not a great documentary.  There is neither a narrative arc nor a single charismatic personality we are supposed to attach ourselves to.  It is much closer in style to a high school educational film than it is to a Michael Moore project.  Modern viewers could get bored.

At the same time, it does positively depict the daily life of a huge family.  Mostly, it celebrates the DeBolts.  The family seems to have one water balloon fight after another, right after they run and laugh in a park.  No family can operate so well, it appears.  But the movie’s point is simply that a huge family can be normal and fun, too, to counter the prejudices of the kinds of people we mentioned in our first paragraph.

It does help that the DeBolts, from all appearances, are rich.  But they obviously foster in their children a can-do attitude.  Many of the DeBolts are adopted from other countries, some of them can’t use their legs, one of them has no legs and arms, and a few received their injuries during the Vietnam War.  All of these children seem to flourish once they enter the DeBolt household, and so we watch scenes of the handicapped children perform chores and happily interact.

There is no sign of Christian faith or any religious practice in the DeBolt household, but it is still a wonder why this documentary is not promoted to death by Christian adoption agencies and pro-family groups.  It might have the power to change perceptions about what is possible in child-raising, especially for those with special needs children.  It certainly makes the 2ISENUF license plate look extremely foolish and selfish.

Posted in Documentary, Poignant but Boring | 1 Comment »

John Adams

Posted by J on August 16, 2008

Note: This review only covers parts 1 and 2, for reasons explained below.

Remember the way the Joker’s lair looked in the old Batman TV show from the 1960s?  It was always tilted at an angle, as if the level on the camera were somehow broken.  Someone forgot to check the level on the camera that filmed this John Adams series.  The debates at Independence Hall look like the Joker’s lair, angled for no apparent reason, so that you can almost see the Penguin and the Riddler sitting with the Virginia state delegates, cackling wildly while they and George Washington plot to take over Gotham.

That’s not the only directorial problem in a series that suffers from weird shot after weird shot.  There are scenes where there’s an unfocused object in the extreme foreground, for no apparent reason.  There are even plenty of shaky, handheld-type camera movements for those who think eighteenth-century parliamentary procedure needs to look like The Bourne Supremacy.

Maybe the reason for this is to spice up the subject matter, namely John Adams, which is pretty dull at times.  Even Adams tells everyone how bored he is at the meetings of the Continental Congress.  They’d introduce a motion that two plus three equals five, he says, and then debate it for two days before motioning to approve it.  But then, in Episode 2, we see meeting after meeting of the kind of debate and discussion that Adams says he’s weary of.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of watching some Congressional committee go at it on C-SPAN, which no one these days has the patience to watch for two minutes.

So yes, John Adams suffers from being dull.  It’s not as if Adams himself was boring — take a look at his resume sometime — but the way he’s portrayed here should make any viewer wonder why we are watching a series about him.  Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson all come across as much more intriguing characters than Adams here.  The drama of the early Revolutionary War is barely seen, but when it is we are much more interested in it.  Even the Adams’ family’s daily life — Abigail Adams’ floor-scrubbing techniques, the family’s bout with smallpox — are more interesting than Adams’ many speeches about liberty.  At least HBO has created something that will make a better substitute in public high school history classrooms for the next two decades.

Episode 1, “Join or Die,” begins with the Boston Massacre.  Adams famously defended the British soldiers accused of murdering a bunch of Bostonians, so the episode is dedicated mostly to the trial, which comes off as just another episode of Law and Order except that the lawyers wear wigs and use big, Latinate words like “desanguination.”  The main point of this episode is to show that the American colonists were rabble-rousers who tended to use mob tactics.  They form a mob that leads to the Boston massacre, they scream for British blood throughout the trial, and then they tar and feather a British ship captain afterwards.   Above it all is Adams, who looks on the tar-and-feathering scene with disgust and says that most men are weak and need “strong government.”  It isn’t more than a few minutes later, however, that Adams is denouncing British tyranny in a church after just being elected to represent Massachusetts at a meeting of the Continental Congress.  All men have their contradictions, but this Adams doesn’t know what kind of story he is in, or else he’d be screaming for a more coherent representation of himself and his fellow colonists.

Episode 2, “Independence,” is the C-SPAN-like episode we mentioned above.  There are interesting moments, however.  Maybe the best is when Franklin and Adams are reading Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence.  Franklin, who is portrayed excellently in this series as a shifty character prone to ironic humor, starts to edit the document.  Jefferson complains that every word was precisely chosen, but Franklin insists that “sacred and undeniable” is pulpit language, and that “we hold these truths to be self-evident” is a much more palatable and pragmatic choice.  You get the feeling throughout these two episodes that church doctrine mattered less to these guys —  it is totally absent, after all — than eighteenth-century philosophical abstractions.

Scenes like this demonstrate that the series should’ve been reconceived as Founding Fathers or From Colony to Nation or something broader like that.  The mix of personalities we’ve known since grade school, portrayed here with a good degree of accuracy, is quite dynamic at times, so that focusing on Adams seems merely opportunistic, coming on the heels of David McCullough’s best-selling, pop biography of Adams as it does.  We couldn’t make it to Episode 3.  Adams’ was a life of debate, negotiation, and politics, and so it seems likely that the rest of the series will have the same problems as the first parts of it.  Let us know if this isn’t true.

FYI: There’s a brief shot of unexpected full-frontal nudity when the British captain is being tarred and feathered in Episode 1.  The series is rated “TV-14,” probably just for that.

Posted in Period Drama, Poignant but Boring, TV Series | Leave a Comment »

Becoming Jane

Posted by J on July 28, 2008

Wouldn’t Jane Austen like to become one of the characters in her stories?  In Becoming Jane, she basically does.  This movie is a lame attempt to make Jane Austen’s life a Jane Austen story, except that the ending is a bit different, in that the female heroine becomes a famous spinster instead of a blissful bride.

Yes, we gave away the ending, but it’s common knowledge that Austen was a spinster.  So you know where this movie is going from the beginning.  She will not really run away with the penniless, rambunctious man whom she loves, even though she wants to.  Why, then, would she choose a mundane life over a wild love affair?

As it turns out, the Jane Austen in this movie is something of a moral hypocrite.  She’s faced with choosing to run away and eloping with her beau, Tom Lefroy, or staying with her family.  Austen at first chooses to run away, but when she finds out that Tom is ditching his responsibility to his own family, she gets upset and chooses to return to Spinsterville.   So Austen is irresponsible to her own family, but she gets put off when her man is irresponsible to his.  The movie basically says that it’s okay to elope when you don’t owe any money to your family.  In other words, pay your debts first, then head to Vegas.

Emotionally scarred for life from this lost love affair, the movie makes it clear that all of Austen’s writings were derived from this event.  She makes makes sure that all of her characters get happy endings and wonderful marriages, the kind of ending she never got.

Ho hum.  The Austen expert in our household described her viewing experience as “very mediocre,” while the other half of our reviewing team picked up a book midway through the movie.  Ladies, listen carefully.  Do not put your husbands through this movie.  Watch it with your friends, or offer to try with your husband the best version of Emma or Pride and Prejudice you can find.  But do not bore your husband so much that he will despise even the thought of coming within 100 yards of an Austen book or movie.  Becoming Jane will leave that bad a taste in his mouth.

Entertainment: 3

Intelligence: 4

Morality: 3

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

Tunes of Glory

Posted by J on December 10, 2007

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

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

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

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

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Howard’s End

Posted by J on September 7, 2007

Based upon a 1910 E.M. Forster novel, Howard’s End is firmly entrenched in the long tradition of British stories about aristocrats. Several things always happen in this tradition. The aristocrats always seek happiness in marriage. They move between the country and the city, demonstrating the urban-rural dynamic. There are always concerns, usually in the problems of minor characters, about family inheritance. Finally, they are typically comedies, in the sense that they always end well. Howard’s End toys with all of those conventions, but set in the early twentieth century–with trains, motorcars, and bootstrap capitalists–it distorts them so that the ending is not exactly comedic. In fact, it isn’t even close to happy. Howard’s End is basically a Jane Austen story that needs psychotropic meds.

To fully understand this story, you have to see the three levels of society it portrays. First there are the Wilcoxes. Henry Wilcox is a wealthy businessman who married an heiress with a small country house called Howard’s End. Next, there are the Schlegels, a lower-class aristocratic family descended not from Englishmen but from Germans. They can afford a nice London flat, but they can’t pay for it when the rent rises astronomically. Finally, there are the Basts, a poor couple at the bottom end of society. The interaction of these three groups is important. The Schlegels at first are a happy family, but they split themselves in two: one Schlegel sister has sympathy for the Basts, but the other Schlegel sister develops a devotion and dependence upon the Wilcoxes. This is one of the main sources of conflict in this movie, and what happens to the Basts and to the Wilcoxes will tell you the social moral that the movie trumpets.

It is not so easy to say that these families merely typify economic classes though. Margaret and Helen Schlegel are characters in their own right. The way these two split is the heart of the movie. While they enjoy their tea parties and London social life early on, they slip ever so slowly into an antagonistic relationship. Howard’s End does not depict this split as occurring instantaneously, as in one dramatic scene where something major happens. Rather, the two sisters slowly move away from each other, towards either the Basts or Wilcoxes. For Margaret, her communication becomes totally stunted, so that when she marries Henry Wilcox she is never able to talk to him honestly (as if Henry could be honest anyway!). For Helen, her passion moves her to alienation from the family and a sinful act. But Helen is not vilified in Howard’s End, as in earlier novels in the aristocratic tradition when fallen women are castigated (they usually die at the end of the story). Rather, it is Henry Wilcox who is castigated, primarily for being the one who is forgiven but who cannot forgive others. But this movie ultimately offers no solution to the decaying society it depicts, nor to the Schlegel family split or the problems between the Basts and the Wilcoxes. After Howard’s End ended, we were the ones who needed psychotropic meds.

Entertainment: 3
Intelligence: 8
Morality: 4

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Great Expectations (1946)

Posted by J on July 16, 2007

David Lean’s Great Expectations is a Dickens novel turned Gothic film that uses the conventions of early twentieth-century horror movies. Sure, there are quaint, Dickensian characters like Herbert Pocket and Mr. Wemick’s father, but Miss Havisham’s estate is a cobweb castle and the wall of Mr. Jagger’s office are draped with masks of his former clients who’ve been to the gallows. Lean frames scenes so that shadows are larger and far more menacing than the people that make them. The movie is not scary, but it deliberately surprises, as in the opening scene where Magwitch emerges out of a foggy swamp to grab Pip. This is an intriguing way to reconstruct a Victorian story that, when we read it, was more whimsically melancholic than Gothic.

Great Expectations would be a good case study for students on the significances of story endings. Dickens wrote two different endings and Lean’s movie makes a third, one impacted by the demands of the movie audiences and the conventions of 1940s romances. It might be the most satisfying for some viewers, because in one short burst Pip strips away the Gothic and the feminist idea of emancipation from marriage. It is, admittedly, also a little rushed and a little hoaky.

We should state our biases outright: we appreciate Lean’s films, especially ones with Alec Guinness, which would pretty much be all of them. If the movie isn’t totally pleasing to watch–and a 40-year-old actor playing 20-year-old Pip is a great annoyance–then it is at least pleasing to view. Lean is a master at framing pictures and crafting scenes. Probably this movie could be shown in a Christian film class for aspiring directors. In fact we highly recommend that, so that we no longer have to endure cheesy “Christian” fare like the Omega Code and Facing Giants.

Entertainment: 5.5
Intelligence: 9
Morality: 9

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The Shop Around the Corner

Posted by J on July 5, 2007

Falling in love in Hungary is on par with the idea of falling in love in Des Moines.  It’s not exactly Paris, but it’s somewhere.  The Shop Around the Corner is about falling in love in that dull somewhere, at a time before WWII, when Hungary was still letting capitalists run shops and hiring guys like Jimmy Stewart to manage them.

You have probably come to this movie because you know that it’s the original from which You’ve Got Mail has been cloned.  But The Shop Around the Corner has far less charm and consistency than its recent remake, even though this movie is not about people trying to find love on the Internet.  Instead, it’s about people trying to find love in a commercial district of Hungary.

That description nails the excitement level of this movie.  It’s missing a musical score and the Stanislavsky acting method, which isn’t always needed, but in this case somebody needs to spice up the screen with a reasonable performance.  We wondered at the beginning of the movie how the heroine (played by Margaret Sullivan) was reading her character, because she is fairly inconsistent.   By the end of the movie we realized that she had no plan. Her character wavers between being deliberately deceptive and innocently perky.  It’s as if she’s got multiple personality disorder, which makes the fact that Jimmy Stewart wants to go after her seem bizarre. Meanwhile, Stewart himself looks like he’s working to get through the shoot and earn the paycheck.

There is a fine subplot, involving the Wizard of Oz, as the owner of the store where Stewart and Sullivan work.  He feels suicidal thanks to his cheating wife, but there is redemption to be had. His return from despair was the best part of the movie. You will never care so much for a Hungarian entrepreneur.

Entertainment: 3
Intelligence: 6
Morality: 7

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