Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

In “The Adjustment Bureau,” Matt Damon and Emily Blunt star in a romantic metaphysical thriller that aims to provoke thought about free will. Damon stars as Senator David Norris, whose up and coming political career continues to be at the mercy of his bad habits. Along the way, he meets Elise, a free spirit of a woman whom he has an instant attraction with. However, due to a fluke, Norris stumbles upon a group of men who appear to be in the habit of mind control.

The film is based off of a story by Philip K. Dick and it sets up some great questions with obvious metaphor for free will. That is the strength of this otherwise mediocre affair. It’s not that “The Adjustment Bureau” is a bad movie so much as it feels mundane. With the topic, actors involved, and set piece of New York City, it feels like we have a movie that could do so much more. Thrilling chases end up feeling pedestrian, revelations come quick and fast, and tension rarely exists.

Plot questions begin to arrive left and right – Like, why for all their supposed special powers do the Bureau employees so rarely seem to use them? (Mild spoiler) In one scene, a character is supposed to have coffee spill on him to distract the path of his day. When things change, a bureau member chases after the character, only to use his special powers at the last minute. Why not just use them from the outset? There are many more, but my questions would spoil too much of the plot.

Also troubling is how much of a wasted potential the aesthetic of the film is. The Bureau employees look awesome – the top hats, trench coats, and slick suit make them potentially menacing and imposing. Yet, they are framed so blandly – no shadows are used, nor are there ever interesting camera angles. Perhaps it is the Melville (Le Samourai, Army of Shadows) lover in me, but after seeing what he does with these types of characters I now have come to expect all other filmmakers to make good use of it. It doesn’t help that the music is bizarrely out of place and will find itself detracting more and more from the movie as time goes on. It’s not that the visual or music aesthetic is ever outright bad – just bland.

Yet, the movie’s interesting questions are what kept me interested. Once Terrence Stamp shows up, I suddenly was in the grip of the questions. They are interesting because they are clearly about how we see God involved in the affairs of man. Of particular note is some dialogue between Damon and Stamp about God’s intervention and then leaving mankind before the Bureau has to step in again. Once certain questions are raised, it left me with an immediate answer based on my worldview. I wanted to take the concepts further – what about mans access to God or the moving of His heart through prayer? The questions raised are certainly the films strength.

When my wife and I began discussing the movie afterwards, she seemed to be taken in by the love story between David and Elise. For what is there, the chemistry is believable even if the time jumps (3 years later, etc) feel less like years and more like days. Still, I appreciated that the leads seemed connected to each other. Otherwise the whole motivation of the story would have fallen apart.

Bottom line, this is an entirely mediocre adventure from a visual and aural perspective but one that is interesting for the mind (and possibly soul). The film certainly attracted its fair share of attention – cameos are littered throughout the film. If the tension could have been thicker, this could have been a great film. As it is, I can only get so excited. Then again, I watched “Hunger” by Steve McQueen earlier in the day (a visual masterpiece rife with visceral tension and passionate acting). Perhaps that was the Bureau’s way of affecting my viewing of this film.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

More Quick Thought Reviews

Time is fleeting, so here are some brief reviews:

Some of it is netflix, some of it is in the theater. All of it is opinionated. Read on and don't forget to comment on what you have seen lately below in your own 2-3 sentence reviews!

The Trotsky (8/10) - Rushmore set in Canada. Jay Baruchel's character is simply hilarious. The movie has some seriously flawed elements, but it is mostly funny if you can accept the premise.

Kick Ass (5/10) - Gratuitous in every sense. Nicholas Cage was watchable, Chloe Moretz made me cringe...not because of her, but because of what she did in the film.

The House Bunny (6.5/10) - Guilty pleasure with a terrible message. However, it gave me a new favorite line - "The eyes of are the nipples of the face." Anna Faris is hilarious in it.

MacGruber (4/10) - Manages to be simultaneously better and far worse than everyone said it would be.

The American (6.5/10) - Slow paced, great cinematography, dull. It wishes it were Melville or Leone and ends up being neither. Where those directors milked tension, The American ends up being boring. Fantastic ending though.

Cyrus (6/10) - Wants to be awkward, but too self conscious to achieve it. The awkwardness didn't feel natural. Some brief, but genuinely funny moments.

The Kids Are All Right (4/10) - Massively overrated family drama with two leads who feel like they are trying too hard to be in an awards contender movie.

Dinner For Schmucks (6/10) - Completely stupid, but I laughed out loud numerous times. Too sexualized for its own good.

Bored to Death Season 1 (8/10) - I laughed a ton and have a new show to add to my favorites which include Arrested Development and Extras. Great cameos as well.

Waynes World 2 (5.5/10) - A rehash of the first movie with some hilarious bits. Seeing Chris Farley made me sad because he was at one time my favorite person to watch on screen.

Get Him to the Greek (3/10) - Gross.

American Experience: Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple (9/10) - A completely absorbing, engrossing, heartfelt documentary on one of the greatest tragedies in human history. Stories from former cult members and eerie footage are nothing less than heartbreaking.

Despicable Me (7.5/10) - The best non-pixar movie toon to come out in the last 10 years. Almost achieves the zen balance of kid/adult, funny/endearing with too much annoyance from the main villains writing and voice acting. LOVE the minions!

Exit Through the Gift Shop (10/10) - If you haven't seen it yet, why not? Brilliant on every level.

Tron: Legacy (7.5/10) - Awesome, exhilarating visual and aural experience with a story that is mostly coherent. What could have been a brilliant allegory of God and humanity gets sold short.

True Grit (9/10) - When I wasn't laughing, I was engrossed by newcomer Heilee Steinfeld in the lead female role. Great script by the Coens, who after two disappointing movies in The ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty have been on a consistent winning streak.

The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights (8/10) - Lots of fan service in the form of well cut live performances. However, when Jack White talks about himself and the band it becomes grating. However, watching them perform affirms much of the brilliance Jack brings to the table.

Good Hair (8.5/10) - Completely hilarious, and surprisingly interesting flick about the hair industry and African Americans. Chris Rock narrates and hosts as uneducated folks like me learn about weaves, sulfates, and India.

Brooklyn's Finest (4/10) - A relentlessly bleak picture of being a cop in the projects where everyone shoots each other and wishes they were in "The Departed." Don Cheadle's lines are either spot on or unintentionally hilarious.

Almost Famous - Directors Cut (10/10) - A literally perfect movie with endless amounts of character, warmth, and rock and roll. I had forgotten just how great this movie is until visiting it again on BluRay.

Let Me In (7/10) - Absurdly creepy, with some boring stretches and sprinkles of gore. The ending is unsettling, with an enormously effective finale. I also saw the Swedish version, but am not loyal to either side - It's nice to see vampires be scary again.

The Fighter

I rarely give actors and actresses credit for amovie. In fact, I am frequently irritated at how much credit they get at the cost of the writer, director, and cinematographer. The director shows you how to look good, the screenwriter gives you good things to say, and thecinematographer makes you look good. In only a few movies have I been thoroughly had by great acting – DeNiro in “King of Comedy” and “Raging Bull,”Jim Carrey in “Man On the Moon” (which I saw ages ago), and Frances McDormand in “Fargo.” I now can add Christian Bale to the list for his performance in "The Fighter."

“The Fighter” is a movie about Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg in an understated performance) and his brother Dicky (Christian Bale). Micky and Dicky have grown up loving the sport of boxing. Micky in particular has always looked up to his older brother Dicky. Dicky wants everyone to know his claim to fame – that he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. He is the pride of Lowell (his hometown where he and the family still reside) and Micky is the next rising star.

The problems then avalanche. The family is a brand of dysfunctional called “Enmeshed.” Enmeshment is when youhave family members who are so intertwined in one others lives that it is suffocating. Alice the Mom, played brilliantly by Melissa Leo, is the matriarch and proud whip cracker of the family. She is Micky’s manager, while Dicky serves as Micky’s trainer – if he can ever show up on time to train him. That Micky and Dicky’s sisters look like a row of 7 year olds playing dress up in 40-something-year-old’s bodies further emphasizes the enmeshed nature of the family.

Then there is Dicky. Dicky is addicted to crack and it has done what you expect crack to do to a persons life. Difficultscenes to watch involving groups of people in crack houses with Dicky at the center populate the first two thirds of the film. It is heart breaking – but with any less skilled actor, it would be silly. Bale’s portrayal of Dicky is the perfect portrayal of an addict – on the one hand you completely despise him. On the other, you can't help but love him.

What breaks the barrier of enmeshment in Dicky and Micky’s life is the arrival of Charlene, played by Amy Adams. Normally Amy Adams is played as sweet and innocent – her character in “Catch Me If YouCan,” or more famously in “Enchanted” come to mind. However, here she is a no nonsense street tough bar tender in Lowell. She sees the problem of the family system and starts to disrupt things in a big way. Things start changing, and Micky’s boxing career is right in tow.

So, what makes the movie so good? Well, a number of things really. David O Russell, a filmmaker whom I really enjoy (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) keeps it gritty without being dreadful (I’m looking at you “Brooklyn’s Finest”). Cinematography is up close, with a handheld style that is not overbearing (Rachel Getting Married). Additionally, there is a wise choice to use HBO cameras from the era in which the movie takesplace that provide a classic look to the boxing matches. Then there is the music. Wonderfully – if not perfectly – chosen and implemented songs up the adrenaline that make the final match one in which I literally had to be kept in chair for fear of jumping up and cheering at the fight that takes place. But really, the actors drive it home. The performances make the script go from formulaic and predictable to breathing and living. I have not been this captivated by acting in a long time.

Bottom line - Do we really need another boxing film after Rocky and Raging Bull? Not really – those two films captured the sport in really unique ways. Every film about the sport from then to forever will be compared to those films. But the film isn't merely about boxing in the same way the aforementioned films aren't either. Family systems and drug addiction give the story extra interest. Besides, how many sports movies have been made that all feel like must see inspirational “you already know the ending” types? We love to watch underdogs fight through their battles and come out on top. It’s ingrained in the human narrative –If you try hard enough and commit yourself, you can break through.

Of course, it helps when the people in front of and behind the camera know how to make it all work.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Exit Through The Gift Shop

I have been keeping most of my writing here: However, I decided to post this one here as well. Enjoy!

It is hard to explain “Exit Through the Gift Shop” without giving too much plot detail away. Where some films are more character driven, ETTGS has some of the most intriguing characters of any film I have ever seen. Where some films have an ever twisting plot, ETTGS has one that bends and curves. Where some films are a hoax on the viewer, ETTGS makes me wonder just what happened. It’s an experience that will make you laugh, give you a unique glimpse into a world that is notoriously exclusive, and leave you thinking about a handful of themes – hype, value, and art being somewhere on the list.

The first thing about the film you have to pay attention to is its director – Banksy. Google image search his name for a moment and then come back to this write up. Banksy is brilliant at what he does – he takes images that are uniquely his and makes opportunity for social commentary and creative expression that are pioneering in their creativity and depth. It could be worded statements plastered across a bridge, images painted on walls, or bringing Guantanamo Bay to the Magic Kingdom. He is brilliant, and far more on his game than you may want to give credit for. It’s also why he is notoriously wanted in Great Britain for numerous vandalism crimes but has never been caught.

ETTGS is told in 3 acts. As each act unfolds, an ever so slight bend to the story comes through that sucks the viewer in a layer deeper. The film first introduces us to Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman in Los Angeles who runs a high-end fashion shop. Except for Guetta, the fashion shop is him buying bulk stacks of clothes and calling them “designer” for no other reason than he has created the hype to do so. A shirt that cost him 35 dollars for purchase at another location will go up on the racks for 350 bucks. There is no good or logical reason for it. He just finds a way to call it “designer” and his store has a reputation for being hip.

Guetta also is notorious for bringing a movie camera with him everywhere. He films everything from flushing a toilet, to cherished memories with the family. The film later attempts to uncover the reason for his camera obsession but establishes that not all who hold a camera are filmmakers. This eventually leads to how Guetta shot most of the footage but Banksy has the credit as director.

The footage that the film highlights is in incredible work done by the street artists themselves. These individuals are seen (some of their faces are blurred out) scaling buildings, running from cops, and carrying large buckets around filled with glue like substances as they risk and thrill to put up their art. The footage really is amazing – seeing them do giant “OBEY” spreads that appear to be 2 stories high, painting with spray cans, or using tiles – it really is an art form. There is something often much deeper to the image than just the images themselves.

The film is nearly unclassifiable – is it a documentary about street art? Is it a documentary about Banksy? Is it a commentary about art? Maybe it is all of these things at different times and with different potencies. The bigger question however would be is it real? Remember who is directing the film and what his art does – Banksy makes you think. Questions have arisen about whether or not the events of the film are a hoax, or are real. But does it really matter? Whether or not the principal players are real, the effect at the end (in a conclusion you won’t see coming from any distance) that is achieved by street art enthusiasts and the means by which they express it is nothing less than brilliant. It makes a point that I don’t want to say more about because it is worth discussing and thinking more about on your own. Suffice it to say, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a must see movie for anyone remotely interested in good art, and why we consider art “good.”

As a bonus, Netflix subscribers can presently stream the film in high definition. I suggest you do it!

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Social Network

While working for Pepperdine University as a Resident Director, I was first introduced to facebook by an administrator. Though brand new (and frankly silly sounding to me), he spoke of it in common terms. He told me that students were flocking to it, but the catch is that only those with e-mail addresses ending in “.edu” could be on it. I set up a profile due to my “.edu” password, and it felt kind of cool to be portraying some of my college self again – music, films, friends, etc. It soon became fascinating as I heard students ad lib about status updates, pictures, and gossipy pronouncements. Students didn’t censor themselves. They didn’t have to worry about their profiles being observed by curious parents, University employees, or others – just their friends (which of course rapidly changed and again redefined the term “internet privacy”). What at first was silly and fascinating soon became frightening – talking about it with students was like walking on eggshells filled with rusty nails.

“The Social Network” aims to document one author’s perspective on the events and development of facebook. It begins with an anxiety bathed Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) having a conversation of sorts with his girlfriend. The set-up perfectly introduces us to nuances of the character – excluded from clubs, insecure, and brilliant – who goes on to became the world’s youngest billionaire.

First, don’t forget that the movie is a fictional movie. How much of it is true, dramatized, and outright false is not entirely known. In a film like this, truth affects the viewer because we want to know how much of the story can be believed. And just how good is the story? In a word – engrossing. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay hooked me and ended in what felt like an abrupt manner. It is fantastic – the filmmakers made 120 minutes feel short. Major praise goes to David Fincher (Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) as he handles the acting so well, that my major concerns (especially regarding Jesse Eisenberg) were put to rest. It’s not that I think Eisenberg is a bad actor, it’s just that he seems to play off the same personality type: insecure, anxious, and nerdy (“Zombieland” uses it for laughs, “The Squid and the Whale” to make us cringe). It’s sort of like Michael Cera, who never seems to be anyone but George Michael. However, in the film Eisenberg has a level of depth to him that utilizes these strengths and makes them blend in beautifully with the character, creating a certain kind of depth. A worthy nod during awards season is entirely appropriate.

Big nods as well to Justin Timberlake, who looks about 10 years younger, playing Sean Parker – the founder of Napster/former President of facebook. All other players, especially Andrew Garfield as Zuckerberg’s best friend and facebook co-developer Eduardo Saverin are perfectly cast and played. Everything feels tight, clean, and focused. Much of this is due to rapid fire cuts that highlight Sorkin’s words and Fincher’s trademark browns and natural colors. The movie is a clean, slick, no nonsense production.

So, the filmmaking elements are all in place which leaves the big question – is it a good movie? Yes it is, but its long term relevance is worthy of questioning. It documents something very “2000’s” by displaying a familiar character – the fractured genius who wants to be accepted. But 10 years from now, will we care? While facebook has changed the way we communicate, will it matter in 5 or 10 years? While the question may seem silly, ask the creators of other major internet sites like myspace or Napster – it’s very much a fair question.

Perhaps this is the bottom line – if it were the “myspace movie,” would we care? Probably less so, but assuming the characters and storyline are the same I’d still be interested. Zuckerberg is still the underdog, and I couldn’t help but grin when he snidely remarks that he is happy to be sticking it to people who have gotten whatever they have wanted their whole lives. These kinds of characters are compelling because they are the archetypes of a certain brand of hero. It’s just that in this case, the hero is an insecure brat.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Waiting For Superman

I am surrounded by people in the helping vocations. My Father and brother are pastor’s, my Mother is a nurse, my wife and my brothers wife are teachers (one in inner city LA at a school featured in the film, both a part of Los Angeles Unified School District), and I worked as a school based therapist in inner city Los Angeles (essentially a Clinical Social Worker). My experience and family environment have informed me and colored my biases about the problems of education - especially in areas where poverty and immigration create challenges for teachers. I have been and am presently surrounded by people in the trenches of the education war.

I was cautious going into “Waiting For Superman” due to its director – Davis Guggenheim. He is responsible for “An Inconvenient Truth,” a film that has polarized while igniting a political fire. On the other hand, his most recent film “It Might Get Loud” inspired me to play music again, and as a result I started a band for the first time in 9 years. To say that Guggenheim’s films leave an impact is an understatement. He gets people to talk.

“Waiting For Superman” chronicles the failure of the public education system. He cites several sources for blame, among these issues are Teacher’s Union’s, lack of accountability, and bureaucracy. The film tells the stories of several children from various neighborhoods in the United States, all but one of whom are from what appear to be low income areas. The film chronicles these children and their family’s journey’s to get kids into Charter, boarding, and other advancement level schools. Meanwhile, several administrators, teachers, and parent’s are given the opportunity to speak up on the issue.

As a film, it looks slick and moves at a good pace in spite of a long running time (the version I saw was 120 minutes long). The students themselves are the highlights – their candid comments and truthful expressions leave an immediate impression. However, for the genre of documentary, this feels less like a documentation of a problem and more like a message movie. My main problem is that Guggenheim plays mostly on his side of the fence and doesn’t present both sides of the arguments.

The main example is with regards to the argument made about tenure and the Union’s power. In the film, we see student captured video of teacher’s getting paid by the state to do little more than babysit as kids play craps and socialize during what is supposed to be classroom instruction. We learn that these teachers got fired as a result of the video. However, we also learn that not only did these teachers get their jobs back a year later, they were back paid for a year’s worth of not teaching. It’s maddening. In addition, Guggenheim alleges that Teacher’s Unions are the most powerful in DC, and have given more money than any other group to Democratic candidates for office. The film appears to allege that a dollar to the Union is a dollar to a Democrat.

But, Guggenhiem never interviews Union members, nor does he spend much time interviewing the teacher’s themselves. What do Union leaders think of his arguments about tenure? What about the pressures teacher’s face to appease unreasonable parent’s (something I have witnessed first hand), peer pressure from card carrying Union members (“side with us, or we won’t be helping you out anymore”), or the natural problems of many “failure factories?” Like, how do you address the fact that students are bringing English written homework home to parents who are monolingual Spanish speaking? What about the devastating effects of poverty – that some elementary and middle school aged children are forced to work because they would rather have food to eat as opposed to doing their homework?

My last social criticism of the film is in Guggenheim’s conclusions. He doesn’t look at the parent’s and make them take responsibility for their children’s performance. True – he does chronicle and we do see parent’s helping their children do homework and fight for the lottery system, but he sees the problem strictly through the lens of the school system itself. Agreed – the school system is a giant mess. However, parent’s have to follow up on their children’s homework, provide accountability at home, and support teachers who at times don’t give their children “good” grades. The school can’t do the parenting part, and Guggenheim’s neglect to confront this is curious, if not frustrating.

That’s a lot of criticisms, but what about the positive? Well, there’s a huge amount to give – this film will provoke you. You will feel sad, you will laugh, and you will be left asking the question “what can I do to help?” On these merits, the film is successful. The film also knows how to balance entertainment with information. His bottom line is glaring – shouldn’t every child be at a school where there are quality teachers who care about the students and do a good job? Why is it that some children get to by chance enter lottery schools, while the rest get the crummy ones? Shouldn’t each child have an equal share of the same slice of educational opportunity? Additionally, Guggenheim’s statistics hurt. The United States is producing 120+ million skilled labor jobs, but due to the poor academic performance of our schools, but we are only producing 50 million qualified students. The labor is being filled elsewhere, because across the globe, we are being beat.

I could continue writing, which I suppose is high praise to the film. See it with your family and think about it. Discuss it – education is the vital component of our nation. But think critically about it – how do you hold your child accountable? How do you support your child’s teachers? My wife saw the film with me and she was engaged wholeheartedly. She later commented that she felt the film could have been even longer. She is right – there is so much ground to cover in a conversation about education. But then again, if I have learned anything over the years, it’s that she is always right.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Town

On my facebook page, I am part of a group called “Ben Affleck sucks as an actor.” My friend Ezra made the page around the time Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez were media magnets, and the backlash was massive. But then a curious thing happened – Affleck made the outstanding noir thriller “Gone Baby Gone.” It worked because “Gone Baby Gone” was anchored by what Affleck appears to know well – Boston. In addition, the performance onscreen by his brother Casey is among my favorites in the genre.

For the unfortunately named “The Town,” Affleck returns to a different neighborhood in Boston to tell a story that is less about mystery, and more about heist. Affleck stars as Doug, a hockey flunkey who makes a living robbing banks with longtime friend James (played wonderfully by Jeremy Renner) and 2 newcomers to their crew – Albert and Desmond. Things get all tricky when Rebecca, a bank manager, gets taken hostage by James during one of the heists. Soon after she is let go, Doug begins to “bump” into her around town. During this, the FBI starts to close in on Doug’s crew, all of which tests relationships and decisions within the bunch.

Heist films are a favorite of mine, especially older ones. Heist characters often having me on their team hoping they get their score, which is hard to do seeing as these characters aren’t usually “good” guys. The best parts of these types of films are the planning and casing of the scene of the future crime, the character tensions as the planning happens, and the tension existing in the heist itself. Each heist film I see will always be filtered through Rififi and Le Samourai – two masterpieces of the genre. They both feature nail biting heist sequences with no music, jump cuts, or fast pacing. They are beautifully tense, wonderfully shot, and feature rich characters.

Where “The Town” succeeds is in the characters, most of whom are interesting, with the one let down being FBI Agent Adam Frawley, played by Jon Hamm of “Mad Men” fame. I am not sure where to point the finger, but Hamm appears to be either poorly directed or underutilized. We never sympathize with his character because his role is played in a flash, and with limited emotional range. However, Affleck is great, and he disappears into his role and character. Better yet, Jeremy Renner adds another notch in his belt after his turn in “The Hurt Locker.” I have to give Ebert credit for mentioning this in his review, but there is one scene where Renner has to play restrained and playful. The scene is so tense and uneasy, it is a testament to the ingredients of the film – writing, story, direction, and acting.

However, for all its positive qualities (and there are many) “The Town” disappoints in other key areas. I have a fairly critical reaction to how the film concludes, because it does not seem true to the events on screen. I wish I could say more, but to do so would be to spoil (comment below to discuss). Additionally, some of the plot points become a tad muddy. Why does James sister show up at convenient plot points, and what is she there for? Same with Fergus (the head of…the local mafia?) who appears briefly, but always appears threatening. Lastly – it’s okay to slow it down in these types of films. Let the tension build more, no need to rush through.

Nonetheless, “The Town” is a solid, recommendable heist flick that both enjoys and rejects cliché’s of the genre (thankfully there are no major plot twists in the end). The film certainly earns its R rating due to sexual content, strong violence and language, but it feels true to these characters and their world. Overall, “Gone Baby Gone” is a stronger film in terms of its coherence and depth (especially the fantastic moral dilemma). Still, “The Town” is great at times, and certainly worth seeing in the theaters. So – Melville, Dassin, Affleck? No, not yet. But I do think I need to unsubscribe from my Ben Affleck sucks group on Facebook.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Christian Movies!

It had been at least 10 years since I walked into the Family Christian bookstore around the corner from where I went to high school in Costa Mesa. I used to go there on weekdays in the lull between the end of the school day and the start of theater practice. I went there for music, and Tooth and Nail records was all the rage. With the exception of Wish For Eden and Everdown, I bought nearly everything that had the labels name on it, and Family was my Christian music dispensary of choice. Half the store was CD’s, and the rest of it could have been stocked with groceries for all I cared. It was my music place.

Revisiting Family Christian bookstore 10 years later was sort of disheartening. What used to be rows of CD’s was a sparse collection of music comprised of worship leaders and things they play on KFSH. Taking its place was the hot new Christian media – the DVD. Several aisles of colorful DVD’s, sitting right next to a DVD player that would censor out the naughty bits of whatever you were watching, which was certainly nothing carried on the shelves. In fact, they even have 30 dollar versions of your favorite secular movies, without any of the aforementioned corruptible content.

Recently, I spoke with filmmaker David DiSabatino for (he made “Frisbee: Life and Death of A Hippie Preacher”) and our conversation reminded me of this visit. We were talking about the Jesus People movement. In his mind, the downfall to this remarkable movement of God came when the church stepped in and softened things, effectively changing the wine back to water. This soon led into a conversation about Christian music and Christian movies. Christian movies have an identity crisis on their hands, and all we need to do is go back a few years and learn again from what Christian music has been through. What started out great has with few exceptions continued to be a joke, with CD’s that I can’t help but think say the Lord’s name in vain more than Eminem’s latest album.

Now, taking the place of CD’s are colorful DVD’s. They are separated by genre such as comedy, drama, and other forms of Christian DVD’s that want to hang out with your wallet. Like music 10 years ago, the tools were there for independent artists to make music, but they were just out of reach. The tools to make Christian movies are so close, but still a bit far off in terms of what is needed in any form of accessibility. There’s no Guitar Center for filmmaking gear. By contrast, radio friendly tunes can be made in the living room or the studio by anyone with a half decent computer.

Movies are close, but the problem is money. We need money to make the media, and we need someone to hand it over. Said person wants to give you the money if they know that they will make more back. Problem is, once we start making movies for the faithful, we lose. Do you know anyone who isn’t a believer that was jonesing for the Left Behind trilogy on DVD? Haven’t we learned yet from Christian music?

The genre of “Christian film” is saturated with overly dramatic faith crisis’s that hinge on life and death decisions, the rapture, funeral services, and generally unrealistic depictions of humanity. These unrealistic depictions are most plain in the end of the film’s, which always promise a conversion sequence and canned “hope.” It’s as subtle as Lady Gaga. More so, it’s embarrassing. But the people with the money to finance these projects turned giddy when Mel Gibson opened up the heavens, and they want in. For them, if your movie can’t be shown at church and accompanied with a study guide for a few dollars more, it won’t see the light of day. And just what kind of a film will get shown in church on movie night? Check the racks at your local Christian retailer.

The opposite is certainly true – movies in general don’t get made unless they can make money back. I recognize the common sense aspect of this; we all have to make a living. And yes, content is often vulgar in movies and not suitable for families. I am not equivalating Forgetting Sarah Marshall with Toy Story. The difference is that we have a voice about the unseen, and in this time of uncertainty we should feel a Jeremiah like burn to open up our mouths and make art that means something. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t care about how much more money it could make back if we tweaked things to white bread absurdity. We should piss people off, rattle cages, and make people talk. It doesn’t have to have special effects, or labels on the cover like “Hollywood production values!” to make it worthwhile. It should simply mean something. Instead, we are so contented to sit next to what is safe and easy. Again, I reference the growing Christian movie genre as evidence. recently listed their top 100 films that combine…art and faith. Alongside Bresson, Tarkovsky, and Bergman sit one of a handful of modern day films that fits their perplexing choices (Punch Drunk Love is my favorite film of all time, but how it ended up as #85 is head scratching). The film is “Frisbee: Life and Death of A Hippie Preacher.” So, instead of picking up the next colorful DVD box with smiling white families or people who dress like white people, try something different. We don’t need Christian media – music, film, or otherwise. We need truth and beauty. If we can express that honestly, perhaps we will avoid repeating the past. Perhaps we will be taken seriously.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Coming of age films are a favorite of mine. There is a certain quality to this genre that reaches me unlike any other. Children know blunt emotion at its simplest and most raw – happy, sad, angry, nervous – while adults attach more convoluted subcategories to these feelings. Seeing kids experience these feelings on screen takes us back to our own childhoods to when we first felt them. A good coming age film will remind us and make us feel those feelings again.

In Rob Reiner’s latest film “Flipped” (adapted from the book of the same name), Juli Baker and Bryce Loski describe their journey to and from first love with one another. The uniqueness of the film is that each section of is replayed so that each character narrates their male and female point of view of the same scenario. The effect provides an original take on the traditional romantic film. What one character saw as love, the other was narrating as annoyance. When one character describes passion, the other sees crazy.

My expectations ran high for “Flipped.” Reiner is a proven director whose films span multiple genres, with numerous classics that solidify his body of work in cinema history – “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Spinal Tap," and “A Few Good Men” are all to his name. Each film sits at the front end of their respective genres. Additionally, "Stand By Me" is among the greatest coming of age stories ever made.

And while "Flipped" should be outstanding, it is merely decent. It appears to be simple and warm, but something gets lost along the way. I don’t think it’s much fault of the actors – the cast is mostly great, with extra nods to Aidan Quinn as Richard, and Madeline Carroll as Juli (Richard’s daughter). Carroll’s full of charm and appeal, easily the most likeable part of the film and the one with whom the audience will eventually side, if not right away. Quinn’s character reaches some genuinely intense highs and reserved lows – all played with believability. The Father/Daughter bond with its joys and conflicts feels great.

One of the elements that keeps the film in average territory is its familiarity. The memory of Reiner’s classic “Stand By Me” is present in the setting and tone, perhaps to a fault (The film is even liberally graced with 50’s and early 60’s doo-wop standards, including the song “Stand By Me”). Additionally, while the film is ripe territory for clever, the cross sexes observations don’t seem as charming as they could be. Appealing and grin worthy, yes, but hardly laugh out loud hilarious.

The film also struggles to find its balance. On the one hand, we have cliché’s of family movies that play things really safe – a kind Grandfather who is clearly the most wise, or the buttoned up Mom who seem to be wide eyed and gasped at their children’s outlandish acts (such as a child’s funny faux pas at dinner), etc. Yet, there are scenes where we see some oddly placed foul language and a particularly intense Father/Daughter confrontation.

To its credit, there appears to be earnest warmth in the film and I sense Reiner’s love of simple feelings is present. The territory is deep and can potentially inspire great conversations - love, loss, disability, Father/Daughter and Father/Son dynamics, etc. That it’s set in its early 60’s time period is Reiner’s choice, and I think the film benefits as a result. Reiner knows this era – it’s the one he experienced childhood in. It’s a very cute story, and the double perspective style is fun (if slightly tiresome by the end of the film’s 90 minutes). The cinematography appears beautiful in some scenes with warm autumn tones, even if the landscapes appear digitally manipulated.

Perhaps it’s because Pixar has spoiled me with what I expect in a family film – hilarious for kids and adults, but genuinely heartfelt. Perhaps my expectations from Reiner were unrealistic to begin with, but I can’t help but feel that this film was waiting to be placed in the front of the line of great coming of age kids movies like “The Sandlot,” “Simon Birch,” or the excellent “Millions.”

As I've thought about it more, I've appreciated it more, but it just seems too safe, and strangely not safe enough. While Juli’s character is especially endearing, there are too few laughs, and the emotional depth is fairly limited in spite of the ripe territory. I recommend “Flipped” for families who are tired of explosions as mindless summer blockbusters come to a close. It will certainly recall memories of first love for parents and inspire some great conversations with the kids.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Summer movies have been a huge disappointment so far. Not merely in quality, but also in selection. I haven’t been eager to see any films outside of the annual Pixar voyage demanded every summer. Not so with “Inception” – a thrilling, psychological, science fiction, heist flick blend that had me glued from the first frame.

The story is this – a team of mental ninja’s (led by Leonardo DiCaprio) are commissioned to go into the minds of others and extract information. In addition to extraction is inception, a nigh impossible technique where said team of ninja’s go in and implant ideas into the mind’s of others. I don’t want to say more – the less known the better.

Let’s talk the good, firstly being the structure of the story. If you are going to introduce new rules of reality, make sure the audience gets it, and we get it. I have never seen a film like this before, but Nolan and company do an excellent job of setting up the parameters, the rules, and show us how they work in the first hour or so. The second half or more of the film is the team of mental con artists playing by the rules. In terms of genre I have a positive bias towards heist flicks, especially the “one last job” noir style tragi-drama. “Inception” is a great heist flick.

The effects and the means by which they are employed are perfect. Nolan blends the best of naturalistic effects with CGI. There are things on screen that happen that I have never imagined, and yet I was thoroughly immersed - I believed it all. Especially memorable is a hallway fight that involves a spinning room and drunken laws of gravity. Acting is uniformly convincing, but I have to give a big nod to Joseph Gordon Levitt whose athleticism, wit, and acting chops have appealed to me beyond nearly all other big screen actors.

Now the critical – the movie is so densely packed with information, that the emotional intentions get obscured. Nolan goes for big emotional buy in – marriage, death, grief, Father/Son relationships, and love all make weighty appearances. Yet, the viewer has been on alert since the first act that it might all be a dream. My attention to all of the details made me work at the film, so much so that I had a headache at the end of its 2 ½ hour running time. I praise that it made me work to be in the film, but it was hard to let myself get emotionally invested.

Psychologically speaking, the film is one big, intensive therapy session for one of the characters. We are introduced to the power of the mind, dreams, and memory interacting like a volatile chemical with feelings waiting to explode. The film almost espouses Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy (CBT), a popular brand of therapy which posits that when the thoughts are changed, the feelings will change as well. This brand of emotional confrontation seems to be at the center of the mind game. The characters experience a confrontation of painful truths, changed ideas, and big feelings to mix it all together.

There is much to be theorized about the film, and it certainly demands multiple viewings. However, I want to point out that it’s nice to see Nolan sit comfortably as an auteur – something of a lost brand in modern filmmaking. It would seem that he, Scorsese, Spielberg, and few others share a common creative control, touch, and feel in their films. In other words, Nolan’s films – cold and detached, yet slick and innovative – have a look and feel that are distinctly his. His creative touch is all over “Inception” with what appears to be almost no interference. With “Inception,” Nolan has managed to live up to the hype he created for himself after making “The Dark Knight,” creating even more hype and expectation for what he will make next. I can’t wait to see.