Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Movie Prayers: The Trial of Joan of Arc

"O gentle Lord, if you love me, tell me what to say to these churchmen." -- Joan

Sunday, January 28, 2007

2007 Movie Journal

Attentive readers to this blog will notice that I've added a viewing journal for 2007.

This is a bit uncharacteristic for me, since I find the self-absorption of many bloggers or Internet posters to be somewhat ludicrous. Just about anyone who might care what I'm viewing is a Netflix friend or on a discussion group with me.

Still, it is an interesting exercise in one sense. Just as the first step in budgeting money is to chart your spending, so too the first step in focusing time and energy in writing and artistic engagement is to chart what you're spending time on.

It's actually been an interesting exercise thus far, and more affirming than I might have thought.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Coming Soon: Contrarianism Blog-A-Than

Jim Emerson over at Scanners Blog has announced a contrarian blog-a-than for February 16-18th.

What makes a good contrarian argument? When is going against conventional wisdom inspired and when is it just cranky ad-hominem nit picking? What film do you think is unjustly maligned or inexplicably praised?

Should make for some interesting reading.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Painted Veil

My review of The Painted Veil is now up at Christian Spotlight on Entertainment; here is the link.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Growing Old in Christ

For the last year or two, I've been looking for a really good book about aging informed by a Christian perspective.

It's been hard. Many books are more about elder care or informed more by a Jungian archetypal overview of life.

I just started Growing Old in Christ edited by Stanley Hauerwas, et. al. and I think it may be just what I was looking for. The opening chapter, "The Christian Practice of Growing Old: The Witness of Scripture" by Richard B. Hays and Judith C. Hays goes beyond homilies about respect for the elders to help instruct how to ground our attitudes about aging (and the aged) in Biblical examples.

Especially poignant is their section reminding us that Jesus did not live into old age:

Jesus models for us a resolute trust in God that empowers us to act freely and bear witness to the truth, even if such witness-bearing leads to death. [...] Thus, Christians are taught by the example of Jesus that we do not have to live in a cautious mode of self-protection, clinging to our lives desperately at all costs, making an idol of our physical survival. (12)

I'm appreciative of this section that it emphasizes cultivating a Christ-like attitude towards our (aging) lives rather than merely listing a prescriptive set of actions. I'm also glad to be reminded (earlier in the chapter) that old age is often a time of unexpected abundance (what a resonant phrase!) and not merely gradual surrender.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Half Nelson

My review of Half Nelson is now up at Matthews House Project.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Requiem (2006)

The Cary News picked up my review of Hans-Christian Schmid's Requiem. It is available here.

Also, the review of Perfume is finally available at Christian Spotlight. It is available here.

Annual Snarky Sports Post

I had about as good a long weekend as a Washington Redskins fan staring at a 5-11 season could have.

What an excrutiatingly painful way for the Cowboys to exit. One can only hope that they will bring Terrell Owens back and that Parcells will have had enough.

Oh, and it looks like we finally settled that arguement about who is truly deserving of being called the second best college football team this year--that would be The Ohio State Buckeyes.

Plus, Campbell won its conference home opener in double overtime. Go fighting Camels.

Two Kinds of Movie Reviews I Despise

With the turnover of the year, I usually read more film reviews than usual in anticipation of finding some quality films on top ten lists to see. I've noticed the growth of two types of non-review/reviews that irritate the heck out of me.

1) The "This movie stunk/I wasn't much impressed and someone convince me otherwise" review. Lazy, lazy, lazy, lazy. Sets up reviewer as arbitrer with the final word and depends on people who like the film to actually do analysis which can then either be cherrypicked or rejected without counterargument. Lazy, lazy, lazy.

Did I mention this was lazy?

2) The "this movie is either great or horrible, but I won't say which because I don't want to influence people who will decide for themselves or get into an argument with people who are wrong...did I say wrong...well, you and I reader know which--great or horrible--it is, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, but we just won't go on the record until there is a consensus upon which we can rest" review. Gutless, gutless, gutless, gutless.

Other than that, I enjoy reading most reviews, even if I don't agree with the take or estimation. I've even "gasp" been known to change my mind in the face of a good analysis.

Any other types of review templates irritate you?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)

After not much activity for awhile, I feel like I've had a spate of reviews recently. Just filed my review of Tom Twyker's latest at Christian Spotlight on Entertainment.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Queen (2006)

Finally saw this today, and I liked it quite a bit. Mirren is all that and the bag of proverbial chips, and I appreciated the way she showed nuanced and controlled emotion where a less accomplished actress might simply go for one note stoicism punctuated by a single, actorly break to signal (without conveying) hidden depths.

I did have a reservation, about which I'm struggling.

On the one hand, I felt like the film committed one of my pet peeves, which was too much underlining, underscoring, or repeating that seemed more for the benefit of the easily bored (or less perceptive) than I like. I'm thinking of the first scene with the buck, replete with tears and dialogue (along the lines of "oh you beautiful thing") that was superfluous; the sort of emotionally intrusive musical soundtrack to create the illusion of emotion that one associates with mainstream, commercial film; not one but three expository speeches from Tony Blair--the "when you get it wrong, you get it really wrong" speech to the aide, followed by the speech to the wife, followed by parts of the postscript scene with the queen; not one but three or four cards on the flowers followed by a reference to the cards on the flowers in the postscript exchange.

On the other hand, a part of me said, "This whole film is about making concessions to the hoi poloi, about having to do violence to oneself and one's ideals so that one's meaning can be received more easily (and lazily) by a mass who isn't sufficiently attuned to or appreciative of one's artistry or performance. For that reason, I thought, "well, maybe those scenes are supposed to grate and in doing so to help you forge an emotional connection with the queen from the inside rather than just as an observer.

My wife's response to that comment was, "Well, that's a nifty spin, hopefully if that wasn't the intent, one of the publicists could come up with it in defending the film." I'm slightly less cynical, and have enough reader-response in my blood that if the film works for me on that frequency, it doesn't exactly matter if that was Frear's motivation for crafting it that way. Sometimes there are fortuitous accidents or results, especially in art that is created through a longer process. It may, for example, have been for non-thematic reasons, that we never see the kids directly, but the effect of their omission coupled with all the rhetoric about protecting them and doing what is best for them informed my response to her character that rippled through the other relationships and parts of the film.

Even within that line of thinking, I really disliked the postscript, but I think fading to black after the archival film of Diana looking at the camera after the funeral session would have been construed as too cynical and left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

I thought Alex Jennings gave a nice performance as Charles, too. What a pill. Hard to do that role without making him come across as a blithering idiot and, hence, totally unsympathetic.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Have a tentative date with the spouse to see the midnight show of Rocky Horror Picture Show tomorrow.

I've never seen this "cult classic." Any suggestions about how to calibrate my expectations or what to do to enhance the experience? I'm sort of approaching it as a cultural anthopological experience, but I'm not above actually trying to enjoy the experience.

Any tips for a RHPS newbie?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Army of Shadows (1969)

In her informative and englightening commentary track, Ginette Vincendeau describes Army of Shadows as demythologizing the resistance. (And, no, I'm not saying that particular description is an example of great insight, just using it as a starting point.)

One of the things I admire about the film is how it accomplishes that feat without being cynical. The film eschews, for the most part, spectacle, and its power doesn't come from the action set pieces we are weaned on and come to expect in genre films, set pieces so increasingly frequent that they have become divorced from any real, consequential meaning and hence don't really thrill so much as distract...but I digress.

The film is somber and filled with loneliness, yet it never seems self-conscious. In a short interview clip accompanying the DVD, director Jean-Pierre Melville talks of himself in somewhat self-deprecating terms, insisting that he is not special for having fought in the war. His affect comes across as neither coy nor angry, and it is this perspective that really distinguishes Army of Shadows, I think, from the films that mythologize war or resistance with insistnence on triumphal justifications or laments of martyrdom. (I'm thinking, for instance, of the ways in which Munich covers similar thematic ground but leaves the grating impression that its protagonists are unique for having been bent by environments not of their choosing and are thus somehow not just pitiable but heroic in their suffering.)

The closest recent studio film that I can think of that reminds me of Army of Shadows is not Munich, in fact, but Unforgiven. The latter, with its tone of introspective weariness, eschews violence but doesn't Romanticize damnation or self-castigation the way too many premature reminisces do. In a Summer filled with a wave of 9/11 films that felt suspiciously self-aggrandizingly martyristic (is that a word?) in their totality, it was strange to see this reminder of other worlds shattered, other lives disrupted.

I haven't said anything about plot, and I find it hard to speak of the film on that level. It is not plotless, but a narrative summary gives away plot points and connections between them best made by the viewer himself. Army of Shadows begins with a painful image of the Germans marching down the Champs d' Elysee and a speaker saying he will not flee painful memories because they are reminders of his youth. The (relative) retrospective distance allows the film to follow several members of the French resistance and the psychological as well as physical damage that the war inflicts upon them.

Everything and everyone seemed so remote in this film, and that, too, is strange for a war film. So often there is a fraternity amongst those who have seen combat or other rough times together, and the way that the necessities of the resistance robs these fighters of even that is strangely touching. Despite the omnipresent threat of death and one up-close-and-personal assault on a German soldier, the war itself, the rest of the world, seems remote, not a maguffin, surely, but not exactly an antagonist upon which all the moral and spiritual problems of the people in the world can be blamed, either. Normalcy--life without war--is even more remote, and these seem to hold a fear within them, especially in an early, brutal scene, that the change in circumstances for which they hope will not restore the ties they had to the world and others in it.

All of which makes Army of Shadows sound nihilistic and despairing. My central conundrum in thinking about the film is that I did not find it so, and yet I struggle to see a source of hope from within the film. There are things I bring to the film that make it possible for me to see the lives that are depicted as something other than wasted; I must think so, for I believe in one who knows the number of hairs on their heads. But that's my sensibility, not Phillipe Gerbier's.

Perhaps I see hope in the film's postscript, suggesting that we may not be able to escape our fate, but we can find dignity in how we accept it. Perhaps there is meaning simply in telling the truth, however painful, and a nobility in refusing to mythologize one's pain to make it more spritually palatable. Perhaps there is meaning in the small connections, touches, fleeting moments that fill the fringes and transitions of our lives (if not the bulk of them). Perhaps the film gives us a model for not mythologizing our own lives, for accepting the truth of Ecclesiastes that says:

Sow your seed in the morning,
and at evening let not your hands be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well. (11:6)

[For more on this film, see also John's write up at Gladsome Morning. And look for a (hopefully) more coherent discussion of the film next month at The Matthew'sHouse Project.]