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The Great Gatsby (2013)
I did not entirely hate it
What I thought worked in Luhrmann's Gatsby:
I thought DiCaprio was a better Gatsby than Robert Redford (Redford was too old and underplayed the character). I thought DiCaprio understood a complex character and was adequately convincing.
I Love Carey Mulligan and thought she was mostly convincing as Daisy.
I liked it when the story stuck to Fitzgerald - which was about 75% of the time. (having just read the book again in the last 6 months, I recognized most of the Dialogue as true to the book)
I thought the Costume Design was exquisite. Catherine Martin has done costume work for all of Baz Luhrmann's films and won an academy award for costumes in Moulin Rouge!(as well as being nominated for Romeo + Juliet and Australia. Her work is again superior here - one of the real strengths of the film...
I thought the 2nd half of the movie was much better than the 1st. While I generally did not like the soundtrack I loved that Gershwin's' Rhapsody in Blue' snuck in there in the first scenes in Manhattan.
The "Valley of Ashes" and the "Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, Occulist" sign are really well done - but sadly, the scenes there are so rushed and so downplayed as to prevent that location from being the symbol of death Fitzgerald intended it to be...
The scene in Nick's house where Daisy is invited to tea and re-meets Gatsby.
What I did not like about it:
Every scene with Tobey Maguire in it. His Nick Carraway is too much of Gatsby's lapdog. He is too wide-eyed throughout the story. By the end of the movie I was praying for George Wilson to shoot him.
Luhrmann's story telling device (Nick Carraway in a Sanitarium telling the story to a Doctor who encourages him to write it) - Really Baz Luhrman, you're gonna improve on Fitzgerald?
Luhrmann's other story telling device: the words on the screen. Yuck!
The Art-direction. Everything was too over-the-top and garish. Gatsby's house looks like a Disney creation. One might argue that this is okay because the new-rich are often garish. But part of the character that Fitzgerald wrote was that he was convincing as a monied man.
The sound-track of the 1st half of the movie. Typically Luhrmann; and I have loved it in other contexts. It did not work in Gatsby. After the last party scene, the soundtrack was much better and the rest of the movie felt like Fitzgerald to me.
BTW - I generally am a fan of Baz Luhrmann's work. I loved Romeo + Juliet while it was being panned by professional critics. And I found Moulin Rouge! delightful..
Moet Champaign (which apparently bought huge stock in this movie)
Joel Edgerton ('nuff said)
The over-the-top garishness of the production is so distracting that the great social themes of the day are almost completely lost. They are so subtle int he book and they must be subtly depicted in cinema. They are so subtle as to be almost entirely lost in this production. When I first read the book I felt such sympathy for almost every character (except Tom Buchanan). I did not really care about the characters in this movie at all.
That Damn green light - much too much. It is a powerful but subtle symbol in the book. Let a symbol be a symbol without having to constantly refer to it and without hitting your audience over the head with it.
Because I did not think it entirely sucked, I will give it a 5. Adolescent girls will disagree with me (even as they are failing their Gatsby finals because they based it this mediocre retelling of the story). Fitzgerald and Gatsby fans will think I am being too generous
Note to Hollywood - If you are going to make a movie based on a great work of literature, respect and humbly submit to that greatness, and make a movie worthy of the original.
October Baby (2011)
Latest in a long line of "Christian" stinkers
As a priest, whenever I go to see a "Christian movie" and don't like it, I feel a little guilty and am afraid of being judged harshly: it's a Christian movie, you call yourself a Christian, you have to like it." But that's a little like saying you have to like a Last Supper painted on velvet because it's a Last Supper. Or you have to like to like the L.A. Cathedral because it is a cathedral (incidentally, I like a lot of things about the L.A Cathedral.) Sometimes I have been told "if you don't have anything good to say, you should just be charitable and keep your mouth shut." That might be true of an amateur production put together by my students to advertise a Newman Center event. But if you release an amateur production in general release in movie theaters around the country, let the chips fall where they may. You are subject to the same standards other movies that get shown in those theaters. Works of art that should be judged by their merits as works of art. And as a film, 'October Baby' left a bad taste in my mouth. Don't get me wrong, it is very earnest and well-intentioned; but so are all the other so-called Christian movies I have disliked. When judging a movie as a work of art, one looks at the camera work, the story, the script, the acting, the direction. And with the possible exception of the camera work, this movie fails on all accounts. That's not to say that I hated the movie, I even had tears in my eyes at the end (not, per se, a sign that a movie is good, I wear my emotions pretty close to the surface), but through most of the movie, I had to actively will myself to keep watching. Let's start with the story - besides being incredibly improbable, it depends on the illegal actions of a cop and a nurse to make it happen. They were well-intentioned and it certainly advanced the plot much more quickly than having to go through the arduous and difficult real task of finding a birth parent who doesn't want to be found. But what's a little law breaking when it is so well intentioned. Really? This is the message we want a Christian movie to send. But it's not the moral message that bothers me. It's the deus ex machina that prematurely advances an already weak plot. The person who wrote this movie clearly knew nothing about 21st Century college students and thus created a gaggle of 2 dimensional stereotypes that did nothing to make me want to keep watching this movie. On top of a bad story - the script was also overly earnest and preachy. As a character, Hanna was so completely unlikable and pouty that I found her hard to watch. In this case, it was not the acting, it was the melodramatic and unreal script. But I also found the acting was uniformly mediocre. Again, as I reach for an adjective, the only one that comes to mind is earnest. I like Rachel Hendrix, she wasn't terrible. John Scheider has been playing the same role for years (at least as far back as the 1st season of Smallville): well-meaning sensitive and wise adoptive father who gets it wrong but makes everything right. But how much bad melodrama can one career endure? Jason Burkey was decent, but I wanted the kids who played Truman and Alanna to just stop trying to act altogether. The one kind of bright spot in this otherwise dim cast was Shari (Rigby) Wiedmann, who played Cindy (more about her later). I even found the soundtrack overly earnest and preachy. in the end, I found the move, on the whole, amateurish and throughout the movie found myself distracted by one thought: how does this movie get funded and distributed? and why? Is this movie intended to spread the pro-life message? In the end, I am certain that the only people who will see this movie will be those who don't need to see a 'pro-life' movie: those who read about it in their church bulletin. A general release movie like 'Juno' (decidedly NOT a Christian movie) does more to make you reflect on the difficult issues associated with unexpected pregnancy, abortion and life than any 'Christian' movie I have ever seen about the subject.
So what did I like about the movie? Well it was partially filmed in Mobile, Alabama, which is one of my hometowns. Even the scene set in New Orleans was really the balcony of a bar on the corner of Dauphin and Joachim Streets in Mobile. I selfishly like the idea that everything get resolved in Birmingham's St. Paul's Roman Catholic Cathedral (once again the Church cleans up the mess). I liked the montage at the end of the movie that sort of tied up the loose ends. And I liked the epilogue. I hope that if you go to see the movie that you will stay to see the interview with Shari Wiedmann that runs during the final credits. I don't want to ruin it by revealing the substance of the interview, but let me say that it explains why her acting was so much better than everybody else in this film, and I think that the story she tells would make a much better movie than the one I sat through today.
When I like a movie for its values, I recommend it highly to my parishioners and even sometimes arrange for group viewings at a local theater or at our Church.. I cannot recommend this movie and won't be showing at the Newman Center when it comes out on video for the same reason that I won't be arranging an art exhibit of velvet Jesus paintings. If you want to see a great pro-life movie, stay home and rent 'Bella.' Instead of stars, I give 'Octber Baby' @@.
The Hunger Games (2012)
Okay Adaptation of a Bad Children's Book
I am decidedly NOT a fan of the Hunger Games. People my age may remember the Hunger Game's plot from a 1987 movie called 'The Running Man,' starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Richard Dawson. I found myself squirming at the premise and really uncomfortable at the story. It is very transparent, I figured out virtually every important plot point very early in the movie. Plot devices like little parachutes delivering sponsored favors and controllers who can introduce forest fires and genetically-engineered Cujos into the arena do not make it more interesting, they make it even more ridiculous than it was to begin with. Katniss and Peeta are certainly "redeemed" characters and Peeta's desire to transcend the games certainly made it easy to figure out how the plot was going to wrap up. But even with these compelling heroes, the world is just as dark and hopeless at the end of the movie as it is at the beginning - in fact worse, because Katniss is pretending to be in love with Peeta. I know we are only a third way through the story, but still there should be triumph and hope. (Think about the end of Star Wars episode 4 or the Fellowship of the Rings - darkness still threatened in those stories, but hope was plentiful). So there is no redemption at the end of this very dark story. I have kept hearing about how it is "poignant social commentary on American life." The book may be, but the movie really misses the boat here too, making the movie even less relevant.
I thought the acting was good (Great to see Lenny Kravitz acting again. Loved him in 'Precious'). The cinematography, art direction, and and costumes were great. Since I have not read the books, I cannot comment on the adaptation. I saw the film with my friend Jennifer Serling, who had read the books and thought the adaptation was more than adequate. There are some cute little plot points that I thought were okay - e.g. the "fire costumes" and "mocking jay" calls.) I found the movie visually stunning. the costuming in the capital was interesting but derivative (did you see a little film from 1939 called 'the Wizard of Oz'?)
On the whole I think that the movie is a just okay adaptation of a children's story that is far too violent for children in both premise and story-telling. I won't be bothering to read the books and I could probably tell you the plot of the second book without much trying or thought...I was prepared to like it. I was hoping this second movie in one day would redeem another bad movie experience from earlier in the day (October Baby). Not so much. 4/10.
Another pleasing turn from Director, Joe Wright
Joe Wright makes good character-driven movies. But they are also visually stunning (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, The Soloist) Remember his incorporation of LA as a stunning canvas in The Soloist? He does that again with the varied settings of Hanna. from the forest, to the underground bunker, to Morocco, to Spain, to Berlin and the Grim House - every locale becomes a "character" in the film. The story is somewhat conventional, even a little predictable. The story-telling transcends the material to make for a good film. The casting and acting are uniformly good. Saoirse Ronan is again quite impressive in the title role. I really believed that she was discovering the world for the first time throughout.
Jane Eyre (2011)
A Beautiful Film
Superb film-making. Beautiful script, exquisite acting, marvelous adaptation of a powerful story of how real human character and love transcend everything! Director, Cary Fukunaga, is really a cinematographer and it shows as the primary strength of his direction. But his direction may also account for the star quality work of Mia Wasikowski, who was wonderful last year in both Alice in Wonderland AND The Kids are Alright. She showed the appropriate restraint as Bronte's heroine and this role transcends her previous work. Michael Fassbender's Mr Rochester is superb: his movement between the mysterious and conflicted on the one hand, and tender and vulnerable on the other was quite believable. Judi Dench is, well, Judi Dench; which is to say remarkable. And that whole group of girls who said "awwwww...." when they heard I was going to see this movie tonight will love it - and so will their dates.
Coppola's fingerprints all over this redemption story
Anyone who saw (and liked) "Lost in Translation" will easily recognize the light-handed direction of Sofia Coppola (long silences, limited- perspective camera work, minimalistic and thoughtful dialogue)in this subtle redemption story. It is a slow movie (I kept waiting for something, anything to happen), but like a subtle seasoning with cayenne pepper, the beauty hit me in the after taste. Stephen Dorff's turn as a bored stimulation-junkie Hollywood actor was rich. He is constantly looking for his next fix (but not in a "leaving Las Vegas" way) He is restless and that restlessness finds momentary reprieve in a bottle, in a pain killer, in a video game, in a meaningless sexual encounter. In the space of a few minutes at a party in his own hotel room, he washes down a pain killer with scotch, lights a cigarette and beds a woman he just met. In the middle of that encounter, he falls asleep. This quick sequence is a perfect metaphor for his life. In between stimulating encounters, he spends a great deal of time on his hotel balcony looking for "what's next." Unlike similar characters in other movies, he is not in danger of dying from his overindulgence, he is rather in danger of dying from boredom.
Redemption will come for Dorff's Johnny Marco not as the result of a tragic heart-breaking event, but rather when he is forced, over the course of a couple of weeks, to establish a relationship with his precocious 11 year-old daughter, Chloe - played charmingly by Dakota Fanning's kid sister, Elle. I don't want to say more about what transpires in this relationship, but I will say that Sofia Coppola was wise not to depict the typical negligent father/angry daughter relationship one might expect in this movie. The two seem to have essentially a good relationship from the beginning, making for a much more subtle transformation throughout.
Without saying so much as to spoil the movie for anyone who might reed this, I just want to say that the first and last sequences of the movie, both involving Johhny's Ferrari, make beautiful metaphorical bookends for the story. This is the kind of movie that Sundance audiences eat up and Sofia Coppola again shows why she is a darling of film festivals.
The Book of Eli (2010)
The Road and The Book of Eli - wonderfully similar, wonderfully different
I wrote this essay for the 1/31/10 Sunday Bulletin at the University Parish in Tucson (of which I am the Pastor): I have to admit to liking movies with post-apocalyptic themes. The triumph of the human will or human spirit makes for good story telling. Whether it's overcoming the aftermath of some cataclysmic human folly (The Matrix, Terminator) or surviving the results of some natural disaster (2012), the potential is always there for a good story, even if the resulting movie is not always great. There have been a number of such movies recently and I found two particularly good and worthy of recommendation to you: The Road and The Book of Eli. These post-apocalyptic stories are wonderful in their common characteristics, but are made even more wonderful by their differences. Both left me feeling hopeful.
The Film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road is very faithful to the novel. Set against a bleak backdrop of a world still reeling several years after an unspecified cataclysm, the story focuses on a father and son trying to make their way across the scorched land to an indeterminate "south" where they hope they will have a greater hope of survival. Hunger, thirst, and a seemingly never-ending winter are their primary obstacles. Every human being that they encounter in their journey is suspect because so many have survived by resorting to cannibalism. To the father, this represents the final loss of humanity and he is determined that he and his young son will never fall to it. The key to hope in this story is the love between the father and son. When I read the novel, I found that love so compelling that I could not put the book down, even though it is a hard story to read. The film captured that. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee were superb as the father and son. Their performances drew me into every anguish and triumph of the story.
I kept expecting Denzel Washington's Eli to run into Viggo and Kodi while on his journey. Less ambiguously, The Book of Eli is set 30 years after an all-out nuclear war. Eli too is on a journey. Guided by a voice in his head (God? The Spirit?), he heads West across the western United States carrying a mysterious book. Like in The Road, cannibalism is a threat in the The Book of Eli, but there are many more non-cannibals and pockets of survivors. The key to resettlement is water; but water is not the resource around which the central conflict of this story revolves. The Book turns out to be the only surviving copy of the Bible our Bible. In an interesting commentary on religion, it is revealed that all the Bibles were destroyed in the aftermath of the war because religion had been the cause of the war and its resulting death and destruction. Eli has become the guardian of the sole surviving copy of the Bible and protector of the power in the words. He is an unwitting evangelist who has so internalized the Word that it becomes the driving principle of his life. On the other side of the current conflict is Carnegie (played unevenly by Gary Oldman), a man who also recognizes the power of the Word and who will stop at nothing to possess it. He recognizes that the Bible is a powerful weapon and that whoever possesses that weapon, can control the hearts of men. The Book of Eli is a much more explicitly religious film than The Road, but both are filled with religious (even Christian) imagery and both are tales of the most Christian of themes: the triumph of the human person. (I have been saddened to see that some reviewers who like everything else about The Book of Eli downgrade it because of its explicit religious themes ) Neither of these stories ends with the protagonist(s) walking off into a hope-signifying rising sun or blue sky. The landscape is every bit as bleak in the end as it was in the beginning. There are still obstacles to be overcome, enemies to vanquish, and miles to travel. The hope does not come in the form of a literal end to a dark night, but rather, the bright hope of the human experience and goodness of the human person. The rising sun at the end of these stories is in the human heart.
Generally The Road is a much better film than The Book of Eli. Eli resorts to comic book violence and at one point I characterized the movie as "The Road meets Mad Max." I did not intend it as a compliment. But both are well worth seeing and discussing. Unfortunately, The Road has left local theatres, but will soon be available on DVD. The Book of Eli is still showing all around town.
An aside while we are on the topic of religious movies don't bother to see Legion, it is literally the worst movie I have seen in the last ten years!
The Road (2009)
Loved the book... Loved the Movie
"It's not as good as the book." seems to be one of the most common sentences in discussions about movies. I have certainly uttered it many times. I try to judge a film on it's own merits as a separate art form, but cannot help the comparison, especially when elements that I love in a book are sacrificed in the translation to the screen (especially if I felt the changes were made in service of some 2 hour "time limit"). I can only remember one time that I thought a movie improved on a book (The Godfather and the Godfather Part 2.) There are certainly many times I felt that a mediocre book served as the basis for a mediocre movie (The DaVinci Code). Cormac McCarthy's works have generally translated well to the screen, especially No Country for Old Men. The Road was one of the most wonderful books that I can remember - to create a sense of hope against an overwhelmingly dismal post-apocalyptic backdrop is no small feat. As I read it I found myself sympathizing with the fears and frustrations for the man and, at the same time, completely drawn into the innocence and wisdom of the boy. I could not put the book down - I had to know the ending of this story.
As I sat watching the movie, I was right back in the book. John Hillcoat and Joe Penhall's collaboration made for a marvelous adaptation of this compelling story. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee were outstanding. The film editing and art direction in this picture really contribute to the overall post-apocalyptic feel. The use of color in the otherwise gray backdrop was pure film-making genius. I was dragged to the height and depths of emotions and felt every anguish and small triumph experienced by the on-screen duo. In the end, I experienced both the triumph and the uncertainty of the human condition. And felt that I had seen a movie that was as good as the book.
Amazing Grace (2006)
An exceptional film about an exceptional man
What follows is the text of a letter I composed for my parish bulletin (I am a priest and pastor of a University Parish in Tucson) after having seen Amazing Grace. I often recommend movies to my parishioners, but seldom write a full-fledged review. This weekend I made an exception for an exceptional movie.
It is a movie-lovers' favorite weekend: Oscar weekend. So I beg your indulgence as I offer not just a movie recommendation, but an actual review of the remarkable movie I saw on Friday. I had been hearing about it for several weeks and looking forward to its opening in Tucson. "Amazing Grace" tells the story of William Wilberforce, a young American Revolution era British Parliamentarian who waged a three-decade legislative battle to end Great Britain's involvement in the African slave trade (Slavery was outlawed in England six decades before our civil war.) Among those who had influenced this remarkable Englishman was John Newton, the slave ship captain turned evangelical preacher, who penned the lyrics of arguably the best known sacred song in the world, which also lends its title to the movie. Newton had known Wilberforce as a child and, in the film, serves as his conscience when the task is unclear or proves daunting..
This is no schmaltzy feel-good biopic. Everything about it is compelling. It is beautifully written and directed. The cinematography and film-editing are superb. The costume and sets are exquisite. And the acting is top-notch. Ioan Gruffudd, the young Welchman best known for his excellent portrayal of C.S. Forester's seafaring hero, Horatio Hornblower, in eight made-for-A&E movies (1998-2003), brings great depth and passion to his portrayal of this complex hero of social justice. Gruffudd's star is on the rise. Awardwinning actor, Albert Finney, graces this picture as an aged and eccentric Newton. The cast is rounded out by a gaggle of veteran British character actors who lend profundity to this compelling story. In addition to the cinematic elements that make this one of the few movies I have seen that I consider to be worth the $9 it costs to see a movie these days, it is first-rate storytelling! And Wilberforce is a hero whose story must be told. He grappled with one of my favorite issues: the place of faith in public life. As a young man, the rising political star began to rediscover an intense faith that had lain dormant for a time. His fire of conviction that something must be done about the slave trade was fueled by this reemerging faith. As he struggled with whether he should use his oratorical talents a politician or a preacher, he is convinced that he can use his popularity as an MP to do God's work by actively advocating for the voiceless slaves. The movie presents the story of a man who finds a perfect balance between his faith and his public lifeeach shaping the other in the face of a clear vocation. That his secular realm is that of politics and the time is one of great fear and institutionalized injustice gives this period movie much relevance in today's world. I hope every person of faith watches this movie. I especially think that it is pertinent for our student parishioners who may be struggling with the same issues as Wilburforce. (While I fear it would bore younger children, it would be good for older children and teens.) It opened on Friday at the El Con Cinema. I will be organizing a parish outing to see "Amazing Grace" in a couple of weeks. Whether you go then or another time, I recommend this movie as a great Lenten exercise. I loved it and consider it one of the most socially relevant films I've ever seen. "Amazing Grace" has long been one of my favorite sacred songs, but I will never hear it the same again.
Peace, Fr. Bart
Such a disappointment - Do Not Bother
This is easily one of the worst movies I've ever seen. I was deeply disappointed because I love the Little Flower and feel that her life does have something to teach contemporary society. Everything about this production (acting, direction, editing, sets, script)is amateurish. The costumes are adequate, but also amateurish. Defilippis is a stage actor who tackles religious (Catholic) subjects in one-man shows that he writes and produces. This is his first film and he makes many first film mistakes. The most egregious of these is being married to the screen writer. I'm afraid his critical judgment was clouded. This is her first effort as well and it is simply bad. Even in the 19th Century, people did not talk like this. The 1986 French film 'Therese' is much less hagiographical and pietistic, but still respects the life of this remarkable young woman. If you are a lover of film, don't waste money on this fiasco - go rent the better French film.