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Noah (2014)
12 out of 33 people found the following review useful:
An Atheist's Badass God, 30 March 2014

The storyteller telling the Noah story faces this serious challenge: how to make the protagonist sympathetic. This is a bigger challenge than explaining the logistics: How one man and his family were able to build an ark capacious enough to accommodate all species on earth and sturdy enough to withstand a flood; how rain could fall hard enough to flood the entire planet; how to feed all those creatures and eliminate their waste products. I've worked with animals and mucking out five stalls every morning was, well, Herculean.

No, the bigger challenge is how to get the audience to sympathize with God, the real protagonist of the story (Noah is just God's tool). The God of the Noah story is all too much like the Pagan divinities of ancient Greece: petulant, fickle, and not all that bright. God creates mankind and loves mankind, but then God turns on mankind, eager to wipe out mankind. God preserves some humans, but among the humans God preserves is Ham, who is accused of "seeing his father naked," which some take to mean that he humiliated, castrated, or perhaps sodomized Noah. In other words, the remnant this God saved is not any better than the masses God drowned. Duh.

I was looking forward to Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" not only for the special effects flood and animals, but also because I wanted to see how Aronofsky would justify his God.

What would be the great evil that Aronofsky would attribute to humanity? Why did we deserve to be wiped out? If this were Cecil B. DeMille, our sin would certainly be sex. Sex sells tickets and entertains audiences. A swaggering, bare chested Yul Brynner married to the very hot Anne Baxter deserved God's smiting!

Aronofsky assigns a much more prosaic sin to humanity: environmental destruction. Noah, Aronfsky's hero, subsists on lichens. This is ridiculous; no one gets to be as beefy as Russell Crowe by eating lichens only. (Jennifer Connelly, Noah's wife, is quite thin and I can believe that she eats nothing but lichens.) The rest of mankind hunts animals, eats meat and mines minerals. Also humans chop down a lot of trees.

Tubal Cain, the king of the bad humans, is a miner. There is a scene where Noah walks through a blasted wasteland of tree stumps. Think of that the next time you use toilet paper, made from trees!!! Also, humans are shown eating flesh ripped from a living animal. People also engage in much violence, and there is a smudgy rape scene. The sin that gets the most attention, though, is environmental destruction.

"Noah"'s greatest strength, for me, was its seriousness. The God of "Noah" is a badass God who gets very, very angry and takes no prisoners. He is a mythic, superhero God who supplies his chosen with "Watchers," giants made out of stone who have glowing, fiery eyes. Darren Aronofsky is a self-described atheist, but he has put a Godzilla divinity on screen. This God is not New Age. He is not touchy feely. He is not singing Kumbaya. There is such a thing as sin, and if you sin, Godzilla's foot squashes you.

The angry God and sin part of "Noah" surprised me and gripped me. The scenes of humans clinging to rocks and howling as they drowned were powerful and frightening. I would not bring a small child to this movie.

The rest of the movie was only so-so. The special effects were meh. The animals are all CGI; Aronofsky has said that he does not believe in working with real animals, presumably because it discomfits the animals. A lover of good animal footage would get much more enjoyment out of watching any given animal video on youtube than from "Noah." The flood was okay. The stone giant Watchers were interesting at first but quickly became semi-comical. The second half of the movie revolves around a couple of non-Biblical subplots – a stowaway on the ark, and Noah becoming obsessed with killing someone – and those did not grab my interest.

36 out of 77 people found the following review useful:
Christophobia on Campus; Disappointing, 25 March 2014

Christophobia on campus is all too real. I have attended faculty meetings that open with professors making the most egregious comments mocking Christian students. I have helped students who were harassed and bullied by professors once they made their identities as Christians known. I know of cases where hiring committees did look askance at applicants after discovering that they were Christian. I have seen hostile professors mock not just Christians, but also devout Muslims for belief in God. I have heard reports of devout Jews also being openly ridiculed in university settings.

"God's Not Dead" was a profound let-down. Christophobia on campus is a real problem, and it deserves better treatment than this ham-fisted, simple-minded, sadistically triumphalist film.

"God's Not Dead" opens provocatively. Josh (Shane Harper) a college freshman, takes a class with a professor (Kevin Sorbo) who requires his students to write "God is dead" on a piece of paper. Josh refuses to do so. He and the professor square off. The professor challenges Josh to convince his fellow students of God's existence. Harper and Sorbo are both good in their roles. The film's premise is excellent. The film does almost nothing with it.

Instead, through choppily edited scenes, it juggles several strands of subplots. A Muslim college girl converts to Christianity and her father reacts with hostility and heartbreak. An American minister wishes he were in Africa, but learns, through a providentially malfunctioning car, that life here in the US presents important challenges. A reporter having an affair with a callous, selfish man gets some bad news about her health. An elderly woman has Alzheimer's. Her daughter is involved with … the arrogant, atheist university professor. Two Duck Dynasty TV stars appear; this celebrity scene took me out of the movie completely. There is a concert with a Christian rock band called the Newsboys.

The duel between the frightened but determined college student and the arrogant professor was the most promising plot thread. It could have made a great, great movie. Instead the script fritters this contest away. It is never developed.

For me the most moving scene from the various subplots was also one of the most obvious and ham-handed. In a darkened room, a woman who is otherwise rendered senseless by Alzheimer's suddenly delivers a powerful sermon about how Satan can keep people trapped in comfortable prison cells.

Commentators have blasted the movie for depicting a Muslim father reacting with hostility to his daughter's conversion to Christianity. In fact Marco Khan depicts the father with great sensitivity. He obviously loves his daughter and he wants to protect her from negative influences. When he learns of her conversion, he is practically in tears. This is a complex and human character, not a hateful stereotype.

I won't reveal the end of the movie here, except to report that it is shameless. The movie handles the atheist professor shamelessly. This ending portrays God as much more shallow than he could ever be.

"God's Not Dead" struck me as a film that reflects some of the, to me, less attractive features of modern American Evangelical Protestantism. I reflected on Catholic films that, I think, handled issues of faith in deeper, more complex, more human ways. I'm thinking of pop movies like "Going My Way" and "Bells of Saint Mary's," blockbusters like "Sound of Music" and Fred Zinnemann's 1959 classic, "The Nun's Story."

These films show all the ups and downs, the pimples and pockmarks, the real-life roadblocks, mazes, and dark nights of the soul of a life of faith. In "Bells of Saint Mary's," a pacifist nun teaches a bullied boy how to box. In "Sound of Music" faith goes up against lust and Nazism. In "The Nun's Story" the atheist, Dr. Fortunati, is an ally of a person of faith. In "God's Not Dead," all the Christians are purely good, and all the non-Christians are close to being purely bad. In "God's Not Dead," it seems all you have to do is say, "God is good all the time" and presto changeo, even cars obey God's will to make your life better, and everything ends up as a triumphant sing-along.

1 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
As Aunt Tetka Might Have Said, "Smutna ale Krasna", 21 March 2014

My Aunt Tetka lived most of her 101 years in Bayonne, New Jersey but she never learned to speak English well at all. Who needed The New York Times, Kennedy's inauguration speech, or William Shakespeare? Aunt Tetka could sing all one hundred verses of Slovak folksongs.

Visiting Aunt Tetka was a trip to another world, a world she took with her when she (finally!) died. There were many curtains. The air was inside her home was as thick as soup. It smelled sweet, like Uncle Strecko's pipe smoke, and pungent, of cabbage, onions, and ham. There were sepia photographs of grim faced men with serious mustaches and women in embroidered babushkas, oil paintings of peasant huts and high mountains, figurines of goose girls, brass ornaments incised with pagan sun symbols and a graphic crucified Christ. Aunt Tetka consumed only pastries, sprinkled with powdered sugar, served on handmade doilies. Five minutes into Wes Anderson 2014 film "The Grand Budapest Hotel," I was weeping. Anderson took me back to Aunt Tetka.

Mitteleuropa means "Central Europe" in German. Mitteleuropa has had many meanings, some of them frightening, geopolitical, and military. The friendlier Mitteleuropa references musics, languages, cuisines, colors and attitudes of Central Europe, an area stretching roughly from Germany to Ukraine, from the Baltics to the Balkans, a region sharing slivovice, zither and cimbalom, Gypsies, irony, pastry, sentiment, Catholicism, Judaism Orthodoxy, empire and cataclysm. Given recent news events, Mitteleuropa is much in the news: today we speak again of Cossacks, Crimea, and empire.

There aren't many American films that encapsulate the feel of Mitteleuropa. "The Third Man" comes to mind, with its famous zither score. There's the original Bela Lugosi "Dracula" and "Fiddler on the Roof." Most of these films emphasize the dark side of the region, and that's too bad. Mitteleuropa has a rich tradition of joy and humor. It's remarkable that Anderson, an all-American filmmaker produced "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

When watching this film, I really wondered how much of it the audience would understand. GBH so tenderly reflects the peculiar history and experience of Mitteleuropa. For example, the movie is told as a reminiscence by a writer remembering an encounter from his youth with another person who retells the life story of yet another person. Why this "as told to as told to" feature? Why not just present the narrative directly?

The "as told to as told to" feature adds to the feeling of a lost world, of the antique, of a word-of-mouth story that is not reflected accurately in official histories. If you read the official histories of Mitteleuropa in the 20th century, you read of battles and massacres. If you know the people from Mitteleuropa, you encounter warmth and humanity and fate and humor and hair's breadth escapes and moments of generosity and grace that never made it into official histories. If you hadn't gone to that one déclassé health spa in the Zubrowkian Alps, you never would have met that one person, and never learned the story of Monsieur Gustav, and the tiny nation of Zubrowka would always be a mystery to you.

The opening scenes, in rapid succession, show the Grand Budapest Hotel under communism, and then in its glory days, under something like the Hapsburg Empire. These very brief juxtapositions are brilliant. They really capture what those of us who traveled to Mitteleuropa saw under the Soviet system, even the creepy green paint.

Monsieur Gustav is a concierge and gigolo. While training a new lobby boy, Zero, Gustav becomes entangled in a family scandal, a heist, and a prison break. There is a war in the background. For all its silliness, the movie brings M Gustav to life. Ralph Fiennes MUST receive an Academy Award nomination, and he really ought to win. He plays his part completely straight. His deadpan delivery of funny lines and his commitment to M Gustav brings this parody character in a wacky film to complete life. You love Gustav. You admire him. He moves you. You care about his fate.

Tony Revolori is very good as Zero Mustafa, Gustav's protégée. His relationship with Gustav is adorable.

The movie moves at a surprisingly brisk pace. The film itself may be looking back with nostalgia, but it is an action film. There is a genuinely exciting chase scene on skis.

GBH doesn't attempt to honor the horrors that took place in Mitteleuropa in the 20th century. The Holocaust is just one of these horrors; there was also the Holodomor, the mass migration of starving peasants to the US, battle casualties, and too many other atrocities to mention. There are scenes where characters speak of being displaced and on the run, of families massacred. The viewer knows what Anderson is referencing. At one point the GBH is taken over by evil forces whose insignia, a design close to a swastika, appears on banners draped all over the hotel, in the same way that a swastika was draped over the von Trapp home in "Sound of Music."

Anderson's answer to this evil is M. Gustav: be kind, be a friend, and be quietly clever. Make connections with other humans. Do favors, and rely on favors. This focus on the ordinary gestures of good hearted people in the face of enormous evil is deeply touching.

I wish there had been more women in this film. Saoirse Ronan is the one female part of note, and she speaks in an Irish accent as sharp as a blade that totally took me out of the film. Her screen presence is cold and not fitting. I wish there had been more peasants, and more outside scenes. Mitteleuropa was built on peasantry and GBH needed at least one buxom earth goddess binding sheaves of wheat or milking a cow.

Son of God (2014)
62 out of 133 people found the following review useful:
Sloppy and Dull. Not Recommended., 1 March 2014

"Son of God" is the kind of movie I'd go out of my way to warn people NOT to see. It lacks narrative coherence, drive, and a point of view. It is visually unappealing. I was with a friend so I could not walk out of this movie; had I attended alone, I think I would have. I found it physically painful to sit through this entire film. I nodded off more than once.

The film took forever to get started, going through Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses, and it took forever to end. Most lives of Christ select one gospel's passion narrative to recreate. For example, in the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks only three brief sentences. This film had Jesus speaking endlessly from the cross and were this not so painful it would have been funny.

The movie stumbles onward after Jesus' Resurrection and his Ascension into Heaven. St John mopes on an island waiting for death and has a vision of Jesus there. That this limping, pointless coda was tacked on after the obvious climaxes of the Resurrection and the Ascension is evidence of the filmmakers' ineptitude.

The film's best feature is Diogo Morgado as Jesus. He is charismatic and appropriately mysterious. You get the sense that there is more there than meets the eye. The rest of the cast is also fine. Adrian Schiller is especially good as Caiaphas the High Priest, depicted as Jesus' nemesis.

For me the biggest problem with the film was the lack of narrative drive. I had no sense that I was watching a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end. There is no tension, no coherence, from one scene to the next. A viewer has to come to this movie with some background on Jesus' life. Anyone without that background would be watching an incoherent muddle.

There is no point of view. Who is telling this story? Why? Again, point of view is random and fluctuating and this adds to the film's lack of a spinal column.

The film appears to have been shot with hand-held cameras. There is little variation. The constant close-ups with shaky cameras get very, very monotonous. "Son of God" is 138 minutes long. Watching randomly tossed together scenes, almost all shot with hand-held cameras, was a soporific experience.

"Son of God" is ugly and inauthentic. Jesus was a Jew and he lived his entire life in a Jewish country. Jesus and his followers should have been played by Jews or people who look Jewish. The actors playing Jesus, Peter, John, Mary the mother of Jesus, are not Jewish and don't look Jewish. For the most part the actors look like models in a Benetton ad: white liberals' idea of multiculti. There are extras who could be African or Asian. But Israel isn't a Benetton ad. Producer Roma Downey should not have cast herself as Mary, the mother of Jesus. Roma Downey is a Hollywood actress in her fifties, and she looks like it. Her face shows evidence of Botox and other products and procedures. She doesn't fit in a film full of filthy faces untouched by modern surgical procedures.

For some reason, the filmmakers decided to make everyone filthy. I have lived in traditional, pre-modern villages and people in such settings don't walk around with dirt caked on their faces. They do groom their hair. Jerusalem is plunked down in the middle of a lifeless, moonscape desert. As any resident or pilgrim can tell you, it does rain, and there is green, in Jerusalem.

In the Huffington Post, Abe Foxman of the ADL argues that "Son of God" is without anti-Semitism. I'd have to disagree. Paul Marc Davis, an actor playing a hostile Pharisee, does look Jewish and he is dressed in Jewish garb. Touches like this impressed me as treading unnecessarily close to anti-Semitism. Another such touch: Caiaphas manipulates the crowds who voted for Pilate to release Barabbas instead of Jesus. This is not recorded in the Gospels. The film depicts Nicodemus praying Kaddish over Jesus. This may have been a conciliatory touch.

If you are looking for a cinematic life of Christ, there are many better options. George Stevens' "The Greatest Story Ever Told" is gorgeous, if slow. Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is undeniably powerful, but disturbingly violent. The PBS miniseries "From Jesus to Christ" is fascinating.

11 out of 22 people found the following review useful:
Irritatingly Frenetic and Ugly to Look At, 23 February 2014

"The Lego Movie" is irritatingly frenetic, smug, and so ugly to look at it hurt my eyes. Its message is a mess of predigested secular or Pagan takeoffs on the Judeo-Christian tradition, not direct takeoffs, but borrowings of borrowings. "Jokes" come fast and furious. They come so fast you don't have time to assess whether they are funny or not. Example: Liam Neeson voices a police officer, and he sings a few seconds of "Danny Boy." This is supposed to be funny because Liam Neeson is Irish. It's a joke! Get it huh huh? Get how clever it is? You don't have to think about that, because another joke is coming down the chute.

There's something really smug and divorced from the audience about all this joking. I can just see the writers slapping themselves on the back, congratulating themselves, "Gosh, aren't we clever?"

Morgan Freeman, whom I used to like but who has become predictably ubiquitous in his unending God roles, plays the part of God, or close enough in this secular/Pagan/superhero super derivative mash-up. He tells Emmet (truth in Hebrew; not sure if there is any intended connection) that he, Emmet, is the Messiah. Only the film uses the word "Special." Same thing. Eventually the moral of the film is revealed: if you believe in yourself, you are the Messiah, the most intelligent, powerful, interesting person on the planet. Wow, that will make for healthy and happy kids. Not. Luckily the film is incoherent enough that many kids won't even realize that that is the film's message.

In this heavy-handed movie, there's a heavy-handed, live action coda that breaks with all that has gone before. The message of the coda: suit-wearing, rules-following, heterosexual white American businessmen are the biggest menace to the planet, and we should all be more anarchic, creative and narcissistic. Wow, that's a message that Hollywood has never sent before.

Nothing that happens in the action on screen matters. It's one long chase, with Lego characters turning themselves into whatever they want at will, and flying freely. Since they can do this – turn themselves into weapons or escape vehicles – it doesn't really seem to matter that they are occasionally captured by a character named "Bad Cop" – problems with authority much? – tortured, and threatened with genocide. Yes, really. There are torture scenes in a movie meant for preschoolers. I found the torture scenes hard to watch, not because they were moving, but because they were weird and out of place. I sat there thinking, what kind of mind puts torture scenes like this in a movie for little kids?

I found the movie so ugly it was hard to look at. You are, after all, looking at computer-generated pieces of plastic. There is no sun, no light, no texture, no authentic color. Just – pieces of plastic. The perfect metaphor for this film.

Pompeii (2014/I)
21 out of 29 people found the following review useful:
Cheesy. Okay. *Just* Okay., 23 February 2014

"Pompeii" is cheesy and okay. Just okay. The special effects are good enough, and the cast is very good, so it could have been a much better film than it is. Ooooh well.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje stood out for me as Atticus a noble, undefeated gladiator. I couldn't help but think that this guy should be a bigger star, and that perhaps his difficult name stood in his way. Kit Harington is charismatic and believable as Milo, a sensitive, horse- loving Celt who is forced to fight as a gladiator. He charms Cassia, a rich Roman girl (Emily Browning) and their love is believable. Kiefer Sutherland is an evil Roman Senator. Sutherland camps it up, doing a Boris Karloff imitation throughout the film. Not sure why he picked Karloff; perhaps just to see if anyone would notice. Sasha Roiz, who is from Israel, has a face, head and hair right off of a Roman mosaic, and he's good as yet another sadistic Roman officer, Sutherland's right-hand man.

This movie is obviously thrown together with little thought or heart, and it's a shame that more was not done with it. There's a scene where Milo and Cassia escape on horseback. That scene could have been classic – you've got a handsome slave who faces nothing but death in the arena, a beautiful maiden being menaced by a predatory Roman senator, and a nighttime escape on a gorgeous white horse: so much to work with! Instead their escape is just plopped on screen with no artistry at all. You're watching a rehearsal, not a real movie.

Special effects include aerial views of ancient Pompeii, earthquakes, cracking villas, sinkholes, volcanic eruption, and a tsunami. These are all okay, but I bet you could see equally good footage, if not better, on televised nature documentaries. There is lots of gladiatorial combat. I'm not qualified to judge these scenes. I usually squint my eyes and grimace throughout them and I have no idea how accurate they are. Somehow the consistency with which Milo and Atticus are able to defeat many more, and better armored opponents didn't convince me.

While watching this movie I couldn't help but reflect on Cecil-B- Demille-style sword and sandal movies from the fifties and early sixties. Those movies had special effects, but they also focused on gripping storytelling, larger than life stars like Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, and Richard Burton, and they had some larger point. Even without the CGI, those movies were often more satisfying than more recent films who sink everything in special effects and ignore more old fashioned storytelling craft.

Martin Luther (2002) (TV)
Anti-Catholic Propaganda, 16 February 2014

I tried to watch PBS' "Martin Luther: PBS Empire Series" four or five times before I could get all the way through it. It is hateful anti- Catholic propaganda and it made me sick to my stomach.

I'm pro-choice. I'm actively gay friendly. I think I will encounter Jews and atheists in Heaven. I'm a feminist. I don't attend mass regularly. In short, I am hardly an orthodox Catholic. Even so, this documentary made me ill.

"Luther" walks the viewer through Catholic churches. As classic Catholic images appear on screen – candles, chalices, stained glass – horror movie music plays on the soundtrack. The viewer is shown images of a naked pope sharing bodily fluid (semen? mucus? I'm not sure) with horned Devils. Liam Neeson's authoritative voice – this is the Liam Neeson who saved Jews in "Schindler's List," who rescued his daughter from slavery in "Taken," who faced off with wolves in "The Grey" – Liam Neeson's authoritative voice informs the viewer that, without qualification, the Catholic Church is corrupt, exploitative, false, and evil.

The Catholic Church is described as completely divorced from the wider population of Europe. In fact Europe itself WAS the Catholic Church. Peasants were the Catholic Church. Nobility was the Catholic Church. Merchants were the Catholic Church. Protestants were the Catholic Church. Luther was a Catholic priest, John Calvin was prepared for the priesthood, and Henry VIII was a defender of the faith.

Contrary to PBS, the Catholic Church was not an alien, evil, Italian institution that had nothing to do with Europe. Protestantism began as a movement within the Catholic Church. If "the Church" condemned or supported this or that behavior, that's because pretty much everybody in Europe condemned or supported this or that behavior.

The Catholic Church is described as being all powerful. Yet Luther, who defied the Church, died of natural causes, an old man in bed. Apparently the Church was not as all powerful and oppressive as PBS insists.

PBS tells us that the Catholic Church controlled innocent Europeans through the sacraments. PBS tells us that it was a really wonderful thing when Luther "liberated" Europeans from the sacraments. Uh huh. Tell a teenage girl that she can never marry – that she needs to be "liberated" from her wedding day. Absurd. Scholars like van Gennep and Victor Turner have described how rites inscribe belief and enrich lives. People want their sacraments.

PBS gets its message across, not just with Liam Neeson's narration, but with scholarly talking heads. These talking heads were the least charismatic talking heads I've ever seen. Miri Rubin was hardest to take, harder even than big-forehead-man with scary looking teeth, or receding-hair-mole-man who insisted that no one before Luther was an individual.

Rubin is excruciatingly self-dramatizing. She whispered. She raised her voice like a roller coaster. She made eyes at the interviewer. She wriggled her eyebrows. She thus, in cheap opera heroine fashion, communicated that the Catholic Church was just a big joke. Apparently Rubin focuses on anti-Semitism. An important focus. But is that all there is to say about Catholicism? It's fake and anti-Semitic.

I've traveled the world. People ask me my favorite destination. The ONE place I would return to is not the Taj Mahal, is not Jerusalem, is not the African rain forest or the desert. The ONE place I would go back to is Chartres Cathedral. Chartres Cathedral is a product of medieval Catholicism. Nothing that is mere corruption could have produced the most sublime place I have ever been.

During the Enlightenment, some wanted to obliterate Chartres Cathedral. Stone masons, forfending this abomination, argued "It would take us years to clear the rubble from the streets." Thus saving Chartres Cathedral from anti-Catholic campaigners who were blind to the sublime.

Who will save Chartres Cathedral from the bomb throwers at PBS?

Nazis quoted Luther's writing on Jews to justify their slaughters. Peasants were inspired by the Reformation to rise up against their noble exploiters. Luther knew that if the peasants had their way, his protectors would be shaken. Luther urged the nobles to "whip, choke, hang, burn, behead and torture (peasants), that they may learn to fear the powers that be…A peasant is a hog, for when a hog is slaughtered it is dead, and in the same way the peasant does not think about the next life…stab them secretly and openly, as they can, as one would kill a mad dog." Erasmus estimates that a hundred thousand peasants were killed, with Luther's encouragement.

The documentary does mention these aspects of Luther's career, but briefly and as if they were … footnotes. Not essential. But they are essential. Luther was fond of hate speech, and spoke in the most violent and hateful way against Catholics. The wars between Protestants and Catholics that lasted for two hundred years, and the enmity that exists today, were sparked at least partly by Luther's intemperance.

Imagine this. You tune into PBS and see images of the interior of a mosque. You hear horror music, and Liam Neeson's powerful voice informs you, without any question or hesitance in his voice, that Islam is corrupt, exploitative, evil, and must be destroyed in order to save the Middle East. Would you not realize that you had entered an alternative universe?

Tell me then, why is it okay for PBS, a taxpayer funded broadcasting station, to peddle anti Catholic hatred like this?

Killer (1994)
Sick, Twisted, and Extraordinarily Potent, 12 February 2014

"Bulletproof Heart" Anthony LaPaglia stars as a mob hit man, Peter Boyle as his contractor, Matt Craven as his drooling sidekick, Mimi Rogers as his mark.

Very stripped down movie. Only (roughly) eight people have any kind of speaking parts. Only four sets.

A noir, of course. You know when you pick up a movie like this, just from looking at the box, even if you couldn't read the blurbs, that it's a noir. He, very unsmiling, has got his black hair slicked back; sultry she is in a low-cut sequined dress; the spotlight is on his big, shiny gun.

It is a B movie. One feature that separates B movies from A's is editing. Someone needed to step in and arrest scenes that went more or less like this: "You have to kill her." "I don't want to kill her." "You have to kill her." "I don't want to kill her."

And someone needed to snip bits where the movie tells rather than shows. LaPaglia is reduced to verbally explaining that he is an amoral hit man, after the movie has already sufficiently shown that he is an amoral hit man. An A movie would have just shown him being an amoral hit man, and skipped the didactic speech explaining what the viewer has just seen.

The direction was thoroughly flatfooted. Director Malone seems to hate three-dimensional space. Actors were placed within it the way figures are placed on ancient altar triptychs. They are in the center of a rectangular frame; they occupy three quarters of the screen; and they are shown full front. Snore. And I never got a sense of any space any character occupied other than that necessary to create the rectangular frame around that rigid composition.

Having said all that, I've gotta say, this movie wrecked me. I cried. I was tremendously moved. I kept thinking of Noel Coward's famous line, "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is." There were two hit men, and I identified with – and actually pitied – both of them.

LaPaglia has to kill Mimi Rogers. He arrives at her apartment and a sexual game right out of a Strindberg play begins. Who has the power? Who is afraid of whom? Who is killing whom? Who is resurrecting whom? This all sucked me in. It had genuine tension. Neither overplayed, but you could see the shifts on LaPaglia's face, from amoral hit man to possible prey animal to something entirely other.

I was a bit put off by Mimi Rogers' acting at first. When she wanted to emote, her eyebrows began to jerk and quiver as if they were caterpillars being directed by an offstage wild animal trainer. But she grew on me.

She seduces him. The director did handle the intimate scenes well. If I said I came three times, would that turn this review into something other than an intellectual discussion of a movie? Not knowing the answer to that, I won't say it.

La Paglia and Rogers develop fantastic chemistry. It seems to grow, in a real way, out of their peculiar situation.

La Paglia is given a few chances to deliver the kind of witty and surprising speeches hit men deliver in gangster film noir. They are surprising, of course, because you have this totally exotic creature, a hit man, speaking about banalities we all share, like the boredom that sometimes comes with doing the same work day after day, and surprising because they offer a chance for identification with such an exotic, condemned creature, and surprising because you begin to identify, to see the world through his eyes, "Oh, yeah, if I look at it that way, being a hit man makes perfect sense!" to see how his world and your world aren't so different.

And surprising because you begin to see how his morality could be superior to that of someone who has a more conventionally valorized way of making a living – Mimi Roger's psychiatrist, for example, is shown to be a real sleaze -- and even murderer -- in comparison to LaPaglia.

Rogers and La Paglia begin a dialogue on the worth of human life. And, I gotta tell ya, for all the guns and the really good sex, that's what got me. These dialogues and scenes aroused in me confrontations with my own thoughts and feelings about life, death, murder, suicide, love, the human capacity for regeneration, faith, hope, investment, what we expect / need from people we love … what we need / expect from film noir – a very important question !!! I don't wanna give too much away, here.

There is a genuinely, darkly funny moment when Mimi Rogers shrugs and says, "Men." You have to see the movie, and you'll know what I mean.

This is exactly the kind of movie I think of when I think of people who walk out of movies and drive me crazy by saying something like, "Hey, that was nice. Wanna go get something to eat?" and more or less abort any conversation about the movie. If a date said that to me after this movie, I'd have to be physically restrained. This is the kind of movie I'd have to talk about afterwards. Really, this may sound sacrilegious, but it's the kind of movie that leaves me with a feeling close to reverence – like, after seeing it, I need to inhabit a liminal zone before I segue back into real life.

21 out of 40 people found the following review useful:
Big Fun, Big Heart, Old Fashioned, 8 February 2014

"The Monument Men" is a fun, old-fashioned, feel good movie. I walked out of the theater inspired. The movie isn't perfect but its gifts outweigh its flaws.

"The Monument Men" tells the story of a group of art experts recruited by the US armed forces during WW II to ensure that Europe's artistic heritage was not destroyed in the war.

Hitler had been a painter before he became fuhrer. Joseph Goebbels was a novelist. Speer was an architect. Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl did as much to spread Nazism as many troops. Nazis didn't just mass murder human beings. They burned books and paintings. They worked very hard to destroy "decadent" art and to elevate and appropriate art they deemed worthy. Nazis plundered and stockpiled other countries' art. Just the other day, Feburary 6, 2014, art the Nazis stole from Poland was repatriated. In January, 2014, the World Jewish Congress demanded that Germany do a better job of returning art.

There's a long tradition of World War II movies about international, all-star teams of experts uniting to achieve some goal: "The Great Escape," "The Guns of Navarone," "Kelly's Heroes," "Dirty Dozen," "The Longest Day," "A Bridge Too Far." And of course George Clooney is a veteran of the "Oceans" movies.

"The Monument Men" is a little bit WW II team movie, a little bit Oceans. The team members are shown going about their day to day lives when George Clooney shows up and signs them up. The movie is based on a real project, and it plays like the best anecdotes from that project's team members. It's a series of vignettes that aren't particularly coherently connected. Some of the vignettes were not clear to me. Why was Matt Damon suddenly flying in a biplane over Paris at night? It was a pretty scene but I didn't understand how it fit into the rest of the plot. Why was the German-Jewish translator, Sam, suddenly carrying a wounded soldier into a mobile army surgical unit? Who was that soldier? Not sure.

Other vignettes are really gripping, moving, suspenseful, and/or funny. The movie won me over with its depiction of a British art expert's heroic attempt to rescue a Michelangelo Madonna from Belgium. I cried. I was inspired.

There is a funny, scary, sickening scene where a beefy German dentist hammers away at Bill Murray's teeth with a mallet and pliers while Bob Balaban makes provocative commentary about how he bets all the Germans were innocent – not.

There's a powerful scene where Americans are invited to a German home for dinner, and discover that the paintings on the dining room walls are too good to be reproductions.

The movie is flawed. Its editing is choppy. It feels rushed. I got the sense that not enough time was devoted to cast members building bonds with each other. John Goodman and Jean Dujardin are meant to be tight team members, but I saw no real chemistry between them. Not nearly enough time is devoted to fleshing out the all-star cast's characters, or to simple exposition. I'd simply like to know more about everything on screen, from the Ghent altarpiece to Hitler's Nero decree. I would like to have seen the Nero decree's destruction of art placed into the context of the mass suicides at the end of the war. Hitler's suicide isn't even mentioned in "Monuments Men."

Sam, a GI, is recruited as a German translator. The average moviegoer might have no idea that Sam is Jewish. Sam says, "I'm from NORTH Newark." How many moviegoers know that North Newark was a Jewish neighborhood? Sam says that his grandfather in Germany was not allowed to enter a museum and joked about being barred because he was "too short." The real reason he was barred is that he was a Jew, but the movie never states that plainly.

I got the impression that Clooney was making his film for people with short attention spans who want the shallowest treatment possible of the subject matter. That's too bad, because with a little more tender loving care, this could have been a great movie rather than a good one.

Some popular culture and even academic retellings of WW II work to humanize, or even exculpate, Germans. "Monuments Men" does not. At first I thought that Sam would be the good German character – the noble "true" German who hated the Nazis from the get-go, resisted them, and was now helping the allies defeat them. But Sam turns out to be Jewish. "Monuments Men" uses the word "German" were a more German-friendly film would be careful to use the word "Nazi," thus emphasizing that not all Germans were guilty, but merely an ideology.

"Monuments Men" is unusual among recent American films in that it unapologetically and enthusiastically celebrates Western Civilization and the Christian heritage as something that utopians – in this case Nazis – tried to destroy, and that good people – among them Americans – heroically and courageously died to preserve. This is a really remarkable message. I wonder if left-wing Clooney embraced it because he saw "Monuments Men" as being about Art, not about Western Civ or the Judeo-Christian heritage. The two artworks focused on the most – the Ghent altarpiece and the Michelangelo Madonna are both overtly Christian.

3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
It Can Be Feminist to Depict a Witch as a Witch, 18 January 2014

"Savings Mr. Banks" is worth seeing for Emma Thompson's peerless performance as "Mary Poppins" author PL Travers. That Thompson was not nominated for a best actor Academy Award is a crime. Thompson's performance is one of the most compelling and convincing performances I've ever seen.

Thompson plays PL Travers as a witch, and I'm using the nice version of the word. You know what word I really mean. Thompson's Travers is thoroughly believable. This isn't a cartoon villainess. This isn't Cruella DaVille or Maleficent. This is a woman you could imagine having as a boss or a neighbor. You'd do everything you could to avoid her. She doesn't learn any lesson. She doesn't reveal that we are all warm and fuzzy if you just get close enough.

Some have criticized "Saving Mr. Banks" for this reason. They say that it's sexist to depict a successful woman author as being a witch. Baloney. It would be sexist to depict her as warm and cuddly. Women can be unpleasant. I know plenty of women like Travers. It isn't liberated to insist that all women are nice. Plenty of women are not nice at all.

I found Thompson's depiction of Travers to be so powerful that the rest of the film didn't measure up, for me. Part of the film takes place in 1961. Travers is in Hollywood, working with Disney studios on their film adaptation of her book "Mary Poppins." Part of the film is a series of flashbacks to Travers' childhood in Australia. In the flashbacks, Colin Farrell plays Travers' alcoholic father. The flashbacks didn't work for me. They had the feel of an afterschool special. Everyone was so good looking, especially Colin Farrell, even while suffering the health effects of alcoholism. Annie Rose Buckley, who plays the author as a child, is cherubically beautiful. The scenes depicting the alcoholic father disappointing and humiliating his daughter, and breaking her heart, did not affect me at all. They felt paint-by-numbers – oh, this is the predictable scene where the little girl realizes her father is a loser.

The 1961 scenes in Hollywood worked much better. Paul Giamatti is amazing in the small part of Travers' limo driver. He brings a wallop of humanity and poignancy to his role that really swept me off my feet. The two develop a real rapport, and they could have taken up much more of the film. Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak are also brilliant as Robert and Richard Sherman, who wrote the songs for Mary Poppins. In one scene, Travers objects to Robert Sherman's walking with a cane. The film doesn't mention this; I wish it had. Sherman was only 19 or 20 years old when he participated in the liberation of Dachau. He was shot during the war. That's why he walked with a cane.

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney didn't really work for me. Walt Disney was a totemic figure from my childhood. I remember him, in his TV appearances, as rather godlike – avuncular and yet distant, impenetrable. While watching Emma Thompson as PL Travers, I got the sense that I was watching something like the real PL Travers – a real, complex, human being. While watching Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, I got the sense that I was watching Tom Hanks play a sanitized version of Walt Disney. "Saving Mr. Banks" was very brave in its depiction of Travers, but very vanilla in its depiction of Walt. Giamatti as the fictional limo driver had more depth and complexity.

The movie is most valuable as a character piece. It tries to say some big things about how people live through sorrow, like Travers' childhood, and survive that sorrow by creating art about it, like "Mary Poppins." That big idea really didn't wash for me. I know it's possibly true, but that message just didn't grab me, so the movie was not a ten, but it's certainly worth viewing for Thompson's performance, for her interplay with Giamatti and the Sherman brothers as played by Schwartzman and Novak.

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