I was eager to see director Niki Caro's new film because her previous feature, Whale Rider (2003), struck me as a quiet yet profound work. The harsh setting of North Country is a far cry from the intimate Maori village of the earlier film, but Caro brings her powerfully human style of filmmaking to this story, which is simultaneously tragic and encouraging.
Released in the United States the fall of 2005, this simple and charming comedy-drama is now available on DVD. An unassuming and unexpected film from Israeli director Giddi Dar, Ushpizin follows the story of a pious rabbi and his wife on the Succoth holiday in Jerusalem. This movie should draw the attention of Christians and Jews alike for its humble but convincing portrayal of a couple's faith in God. The rabbi, Moshe, has recently undergone a major conversion from a life of crime, and he is too poor to afford the items necessary to celebrate the upcoming holiday. In their despair, he and his wife turn to God to provide a miracle. Their miracle comes in unexpected ways, however, when two guests (in Hebrew, ushpizin) impose on the couple and disrupt the sacredness of the holy day. Consistent with the humble story and characters, Dar’s style of filmmaking is so simple as to go almost unnoticed. What is so remarkable about this film is its exaltation of religious devotion, its celebration of conversion, and its unapologetic praise of God. For those uncomfortable with subtitles, the Hebrew in Ushpizin may seem daunting, but it can provide an excellent introduction to foreign film. Ushpizin is accessible, beautiful, and inspiring, and I recommend it with enthusiasm for all audiences.
Let me begin by saying that I have never seen an episode of any Star Trek television series. Nor had I seen a Star Trek movie until J.J. Abrams’s recent update of the cult classic. No longer held prisoner by obsessive fans and Trekkie conventions, Star Trek proves itself to be a stylish and intelligent story, palatable to wide audiences.
Joe Wright is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors. I fell in love with his 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, and, although I have yet to see his Oscar-nominated 2007 film Atonement, I think he has another winner this spring with The Soloist. The story depicts real human misery and authentic compassion, packaged together in a refreshingly unique style of filmmaking.
I don’t get to the movies very often these days. So, it is especially disappointing to waste my time on an artistically and morally bankrupt film that lacks even vague entertainment value. The one thing that redeems my experience of I Love You, Man is that by writing this review, I may be able to spare others the agony.
Based on the trailer for writer/director John Patrick Shanley’s recent film, I expected Doubt to be a predictable cheap shot at the Catholic priesthood. Since the sexual abuse scandals of recent memory, it has been far too easy for filmmakers and media outlets to demonize the clergy. Because Doubt deals directly with the topic of clerical sexual abuse, I pegged this movie as more of the same.
A rare word-of-mouth phenomenon, Slumdog Millionaire has captured the nation’s attention in the last few months. To me, the most impressive feat of this movie has been its ability to attract everyday Hollywood moviegoers to arthouse theaters to watch a foreign film. I am still a little mystified by the question: What about this movie has made it so universally appealing?
Directed by Christopher Nolan, the talent behind Memento (2000), The Prestige enters the secretive world of magic to tell the story of two men hungry for fame and obsessed with revenge. Although the dialogue eventually succumbs to cliché, Nolan’s story is refreshingly subtle and mysterious.The Prestige follows the rivalry of two young magicians, Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), who repeatedly ruin one another’s performances and often place each other in physical danger. As it unfolds in scattered fragments of time, the narrative requires viewers to participate actively in piecing the story together. That is, until the ending when all the details of the plot are spelled out in a needlessly melodramatic death scene.The film’s title refers to the third act of a magic trick. “The pledge” shows the audience a seemingly normal object; “the turn” conceals or alters the object; finally, “the prestige” is the return of the object in a surprising manner. Dealing with an art form that creates an illusion for audiences, it is hard not to see echoes of the cinematic medium. To me, the cleverest part of The Prestige is this reflexivity that is implied in the very framework of the film. Does cinema not conceal and manipulate reality in order to create an illusion?Several violent images earn this film a PG-13 rating, but it should be easily digestible for audiences of that age. The persistent presence of revenge proves that obsession with vengeance is futile and unfulfilling. Ultimately, The Prestige does a good job of inserting intelligent cinematic elements into a familiar genre. If you enjoy this movie, I recommend going a step further and giving Ingmar Bergman’s classic film Persona a try.
A surprise hit of 2005, The World’s Fastest Indian is an outstanding celebration of humor, simplicity, perseverance, and kindness. This charming film is based on the true story of Burt Munro, a motorcycle enthusiast from New Zealand with aspirations to make history.Impeccably acted by Sir Anthony Hopkins, Munro embarks on a journey to America to race his rebuilt 1920 Indian, an American-manufactured motorcycle, in a land speed competition. His humble beginning is reminiscent of many a Biblical character. To make it to the States to put his unlikely vehicle to the test, Munro must rely on Providence working through the charity of strangers who are charmed by his simple kindness. In one scene, the innocent and quirky Munro enters a used car lot in California to purchase a clunker he can use to transport his Indian to the Salt Flats for the big race. Before the end, he has talked the salesman down in price, secured the use of his workshop, and picked up a little extra cash fixing cars around the lot. All this by virtue of his cheery disposition. The World’s Fastest Indian is more than just a good story; it is a beautiful piece of filmmaking. Director Roger Donaldson combines lingering shots of the striking Utah landscape with fast-paced digital video in the racing scenes. This style imitates Munro himself, a peaceful soul who thrives on speed.Unfortunately, Munro engages in two sexual affairs in the film, which alone prevent my recommending him as someone to imitate entirely. Aside from this, he possesses virtues often undervalued in society, such as fortitude, humility, and charity. More revealing than his display of character is the reaction of the world around him. It is for these virtues that people respect and befriend him, not for his worldly success. That is a reminder much needed in film and in our culture.
Part of a recent influx of movies about heroic servicemen, Flyboys tells the story of WWI fighter pilots from America who volunteer to fight for France prior to the United States’ entry into the conflict. These young men learn to operate frighteningly primitive machines merely three years after the invention of the airplane. Unfortunately, given this foundation of heroic courage and sacrifice, Flyboys achieves only mediocrity.The men who form this crude air force fill a variety of American war movie stereotypes: the Texas cowboy, the virtuous farmer, the pious Christian, the yuppy socialite, and the obligatory racial minority. Together, of course, they work through their differences to conquer their common enemy. I was impressed by the way the characters genuinely care for one another in stressful and tragic situations, but they lack authenticity as individuals. For example, the squadron leader is a lone wolf who works tirelessly with no apparent motivation besides bitterness.Flyboys also centers on a romance between the main character, Rawlings (James Franco), and a French woman he meets at a brothel. She turns out not to be a prostitute, and he pursues a relationship despite the fact that neither speaks the other’s language. The brevity of their refreshingly chaste interaction compromises the credibility of their love, but their relationship allows Rawlings to test his courage when he puts himself in danger to rescue her from the German army. Overall, Flyboys is an entertaining film that unfortunately lacks a deeper purpose. I struggled to grasp the men’s motivation for fighting beyond combat for its own sake. The clearest indication of this point is perhaps the leader’s funeral, which was secular and unemotional at his request. My lingering thought was that without something he loved enough to die for, his death was meaningless.
I loved Zach Braff’s film debut in Garden State (2004), and so I had been eagerly looking forward to his role in the new release The Last Kiss. The movie’s other promising credit is writer Paul Haggis, who recently provided the complex and profound script for Crash (2005). Emerging from this talent is a film of real artistic quality that falls regrettably short of moral or human truth.Braff plays Michael, a 29-year-old architect living with his pregnant girlfriend, Jenna, in Madison, Wisconsin. Michael faces what might be called a quarter-life crisis as he realizes his perfectly planned out life offers no surprise or spontaneity. Feeling trapped and afraid, he covertly pursues a relationship with a spunky but manipulative college student. Meanwhile, other failing relationships provide an interesting comparison: Jenna’s parents are separating after 30 years of marriage, the couple’s recently married friends split up, and other friends inevitably fail at romance. The theme of these individual stories is an important one: romances based on feelings and pleasurable experiences are bound to fail. Commitment and selflessness are the only salvation for human relationships.For what this film is, The Last Kiss should be celebrated for its messages about self-sacrifice and commitment, but I couldn’t help but feel that the characters’ lives were still overwhelmingly empty without some larger spiritual purpose. Ultimately, the truths contained in the film fail to justify its graphic sexual content, which alone forces me to discourage all but the most mature audiences from viewing this film. To learn these truths about selfless love, I would prefer to read the writings of the late Pope John Paul II any day.
Invincible tells the story of Vince Papale, an unemployed substitute teacher from Philadelphia who remains a loyal Eagles fan despite a string of losing seasons. Set in 1975, the city of Philadelphia undergoes hardship in its economy as well as its professional sports, and Papale becomes a sign of hope when he earns a spot on the Eagles roster, living the dream of every fan. It is Dick Vermeil’s first season coaching the Eagles, and he attempts to raise the fans’ morale by holding open tryouts. Among the repulsive and humorous fans who try their luck, only Papale emerges as a potential candidate. He is invited to training camp and continues to prove himself at every stage until he finally makes the team. Although this movie is utterly predictable, I found myself rooting for Papale and even succumbing to emotion during some of the most sentimental scenes. Aesthetically, the best part of the film is its collection of classic 1970s music. This is not a DVD I would add to my personal collection, but I would certainly buy the soundtrack. There is no explicitly Christian content here, but the virtues of courage, perseverance, and humility permeate the film. I was especially struck by the locker room scenes, in which seasoned players scoff at Papale for his audacity. It reminded me of the Pharisees’ reaction to the lame and the sinners who dared interact with Jesus. Fortunately, as St. Paul says, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame what is strong” (1 Cor 1:27).
Recently released on DVD, this profound film was produced in India by writer/director Deepa Mehta. Water tells the story of Chuyia, an eight-year-old girl who is widowed. Against her will, she goes to live in a home with other widows, who, according to Hindu tradition, are to live their remaining days in prayer and penance. Amidst this landscape of shocking injustice emerges Gandhi, a hero who brings hope for those oppressed by social customs and by British imperial rule.Chuyia has no desire to live a life of penance, and her feisty temperament causes quite a stir in the convent-like house. Some of the women are pious Hindus, and some, inevitably, use religion for their own personal gain. This hypocrisy seems to justify the actions of one woman, Kalyani, who plans to defy tradition and remarry.As I know little about Hindu culture, I cannot presume to interpret the religious and social customs present in Water. Some basic human truths do emerge, however. For example, Gandhi exhorts his followers to recognize the dignity of every human person, which is no small feat in a society that banishes its lowest classes to the streets. This film is visually remarkable, capturing beautiful images in a setting that would be stark and unappealing without the aid of a filmmaker’s careful eye. Water is an omnipresent image in the film, symbolizing everything from purity and cleansing to transition and death. The artistry will likely be lost on young audiences, as will the subtleties of the difficult and sometimes disturbing subject matter. Although its lack of graphic images has earned Water a PG rating, I recommend it to more mature audiences who can appreciate its thoughtful treatment of controversial and vitally important topics.
Oliver Stone’s new film about the September 11th attacks is the first big-screen portrayal of those events with big names and a budget large enough to reach major audiences throughout the country. Based on the true story of two port authority police officers pulled alive from the collapsed towers, World Trade Center is an attempt to bring a story of hope to memories of violence. In other films (Platoon, JFK), Stone has been criticized for sensationalizing actual events, mingling fact and theory so they are indistinguishable to most viewers. What impresses me most about WTC is that Stone did not exploit video footage from September 11th as he could have. He omits shocking images that are burned into our memories, including the plane crashing into the second tower and both towers collapsing. I expected to see familiar footage at these moments, but instead the events unfold from the officers’ perspective with only a noise and a rumble. In this way, Stone shows unexpected restraint.WTC follows not only the police officers John and Will, played by Nicholas Cage and Michael Peña, but their wives and families as well. The story was written with the help of these men and their wives, and it is convincing in its realism. I was especially impressed with the quiet courage of John, the team’s leader, as he leads his officers into the building without hesitation. The tower collapses before they reach any victims, and only John and Will survive. Waiting for a rescuer, the two men rely on each other to fight off the sleep from which they may never wake. Their perseverance is heroic. Eventually, a retired marine from Connecticut feels God calling him to travel to New York to help the rescue efforts, and he searches through the rubble until he finds the two survivors.Parts of WTC (the marine’s call, a vision of the Sacred Heart offering Will a water bottle) are enigmatic and a little hokey. Still, it is a captivating and artistically adequate movie. The intensity of the situations and some graphic images earn this film a PG-13 rating, which may underestimate the severity of disturbing content. As for September 11th movies, I prefer United 93, released earlier this year, but World Trade Center is worth a first viewing.
Without question, The Heart of the Game is the best film I have seen in 2006. The only unfortunate thing about it is that it is in limited release throughout the country. If it is currently playing in your area, see it soon or you may lose your chance. This engaging documentary about a high school girls’ basketball team originated as the chronicle of a single season. Thankfully, director Ward Serrill was so taken with his subjects that he continued filming for seven years. The result is a 97-minute exploration of leadership, team dynamics, virtue, and the drama of a young person’s life.The Heart of the Game follows coach Bill Resler, who takes a struggling Roosevelt Roughriders varsity team and turns it into a competitive program in only a few months. His method is as impressive as his results, a method that challenges the girls to form their characters as well as their bodies. He teaches them to work out the problems in their team relationships, building trust which leads them to victory.The beauty of Serrill’s film goes beyond valuable lessons about leadership and virtue. Its style is refreshingly simple, and the lack of showy technique allows the story to take center stage. Serrill could not have captured a more perfect narrative if he had worked from a purely fictional script. The drama on the court and in the players’ lives is real and far more engrossing than most fiction films. Most of the story centers on Darnellia Russell, an extremely talented player who draws national attention from college recruiters. When she is declared ineligible to play her last season (for reasons best left as a surprise), the team chooses to stand by her, which may force them to forfeit their entire season. Her legal battle for the right to play is an inspiring display of courage.Overall, The Heart of the Game is impressive because it is a humble and exuberant portrayal of real people living the human drama of sin and redemption. The filmmakers are fortunate they stuck around to witness these events, and I am grateful they did.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the 109 minutes I spent watching The Devil Wears Prada, primarily because Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep are quite amusing in their roles. Nothing in this movie was profound enough to provoke a second viewing, but it does offer a needed message about simplicity and integrity.Hathaway plays Andy, a recent college graduate longing to make it big as a journalist in New York City, who finds herself working as the second personal assistant to Miranda, the infamous editor of Runway fashion magazine, played by Streep. The job proves to be more difficult than Andy imagined, but she rises to the challenge of working for an absurdly (and humorously) demanding boss.Andy soon becomes stuck between the world of her down-to-earth college friends and her trendy workplace, where ridiculous and unflattering styles somehow pass for fashion. Trying to fit in both places, she soon loses touch with what really matters to her.I was impressed by the way this film subtly promoted virtue, especially charity and perseverance. In the end, Andy succeeds not because of her beauty or intelligence but because of her kindness and determination. I also appreciated the moments when Miranda, the tough career woman, showed the authentic and vulnerable side of her character. The only morally troublesome part of this innocuous film is its casual treatment of sex, which is not seen onscreen.Good for entertainment and a quick lesson in integrity, The Devil Wears Prada will especially benefit teenagers. Adults looking for a harmless laugh will appreciate it as well.
Pirates of the Caribbean has become quite the cultural phenomenon since its release in 2003, spawning a plethora of popular quotations, Halloween costumes and Happy Meal toys. Personally, I am not ashamed to admit that I have seen the original film several times. Its charm lies in its originality; it was unexpectedly mature for a Disney film, and Johnny Depp’s idiosyncratic Captain Jack Sparrow revived the morally ambiguous character of the pirate.The biggest disappointment of Dead Man’s Chest is that all the originality of the first film has become cliché. As with most sequels, favorite characters (Mr. Gibbs the drunkard, the talking parrot, and the undead monkey) exaggerate their quirks. Consequently, what was once humorous is now somewhat tiresome. Dead Man’s Chest, nevertheless, is a story good enough to fill its 150 minutes with energy and action.Our romantic duo, Elizabeth and William, have been arrested for helping Jack escape the gallows, and Will strikes a deal to free them both if he can retrieve Jack’s infamous compass. Jack, however, is busy dodging the devil, literally Davy Jones, who has come to claim the servitude Jack owes him on his gruesome pirate ship. Fighting various enemies, including a giant sea monster and an evil capitalist, our heroes grapple with their own complex relationships. All in all, the film offers a clever and entertaining story, and I can honestly say I am looking forward to the final episode.Dead Man’s Chest contains little problematic content and should not pose a problem for children over thirteen. Its action scenes are rather violent and may be too graphic for young children. There are also several instances of sexual innuendo, but they are subtle enough to skip young ears. As an added bonus, try to pick out as many Catholic references (probably unintended) as you can, including the Rosary, martyrdom, scourging, and the stigmata.
Imagine a combination of Garrison Keillor’s radio show A Prairie Home Companion and Robert Altman’s unique style of directing. In its execution, this film blends the two distinct styles to create a product that lies somewhere between absurd and profound.The story chronicles the variety show’s last live radio broadcast before being shut down by new ownership. Absent-minded private eye, Guy Noir (also security guard and part-time narrator), spends the evening chasing down the beautiful angel of death, who has come to collect one of the show’s stars. Otherwise, it is business as usual at the Fitzgerald Theater, creating good, nearly wholesome entertainment.Keillor himself wrote the story and the script, and he also stars as himself in the film. Consequently, PHC the movie contains classic elements of the show, including quirky characters and an unapologetic presentation of fiction as reality. The best examples of the latter are repeated advertisements for products that don’t actually exist, improvised on-stage sound effects and Keillor’s exaggerated tall tales.Robert Altman (MASH, Nashville, Gosford Park) is the master of the ensemble cast, making him the logical choice to direct this film. His movies typically exhibit a worldview which I would call cautiously pessimistic. For example, PHC addresses the difficult topics of death and human indifference, but Altman simultaneously entertains us with lighthearted, nostalgic music and ridiculous jokes. Ultimately, this film is either a confusing mess or a brilliant juxtaposition of joy and suffering.The only troubling content in PHC involves the frequent inappropriate jokes. When the singing cowboys take the stage, beware. Slightly more disturbing is the feeling of despair that permeates much of the film. The presence of the angel of death begs the question: what are these characters living for? Whether they figure it out or not, the question makes this film about more than just an entertaining show.*Special thanks to Joe Hercik for his contribution to this review
First, I admit that I have never read Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, nor have I ever been tempted to do so. Consequently, I will do my best to judge the film on its own merits, making no comparison to the book's style or content and attempting to lay the hype and controversy aside as much as possible.