Oh, no. It’s… Looking Closer’s Film Forum!

The soundtrack for this week’s Film Forum is provided by The Arcade Fire’s new abum Neon Bible. How do you get the soundtrack to play while you read the column? Easy. Buy Neon Bible from iTunes and start playing it. The column will be much more exciting to read if you do. Trust me.

DO MOVIE CRITICS MATTER?

Do movie critics matter?

Absolutely not, says Brian Robbins, director of the hit comedy Norbit.

Standing on top of the mountains of cash that Norbit has made at the box office, Robbins expresses his amazement that only 9% of the critics at Rotten Tomates recommend his film to moviegoers. He declares, “The only films that get good reviews are the ones that nobody sees. I just don’t think you can make movies for critics.”

Robbins’ profound statement has huge implications. If quality can be determined by box office success, imagine what this means for the food industry. McDonalds serves billions of customers … so, by Robbins’ philosophy, McDonalds must be the best food in the world. Restaurants that get good reviews don’t draw nearly as many customers as McDonalds, so clearly, nobody should bother preparing fine cuisine.

TIME TO REVISE MY NETFLIX QUEUE

Speaking of movies that nobody sees….

One of my favorite cinephiles, Darren Hughes of Long Pauses, has revised his all-time favorite films list. Whenever I spend time reading Hughes’ perspectives on film, I end up revisingmy list of “must-see” movies.


300

At church on Sunday, I had six different people ask me, “What did you think of 300?”

And on top of that, some parents asked me if the movie would be safe for their kids. “I have some teenage boys who are very excited about it,” one woman said. “And they tell me that it’s worth seeing because it’s about history.”

Well, first of all, parents, note the obvious: 300 is rated R because it contains elaborate displays of graphic bloodshed and sex. So that would give me pause before taking a bunch of teenagers right there. If I was a parent, I’d probably test the movie myself first before allowing my kids to go.

Now, we all know that trailers can be misleading. It may be that 300 is a subtle, nuanced work of art, rich with complex characters, revealing and thoughtful depictions of evil, and inspiring portrayals of virtue. It may be that 300 brings history to life with compelling insight.

All I can do here is pass along what I’m reading in the reviews and hearing from trusted friends who have seen the film and shared their impressions with me. And if they are correct, 300 has as much to do with studying history as Looney Toons has to do with studying wildlife.

But they could be wrong. I’m not going to judge a film I haven’t seen.

While reviewers are divided over whether the film is worth seeing, they almost unanimously agree that the storytelling is shallow and insignificant, and that the film exists primarily to show off dazzling digital effects and thrill audiences with a spectacle of gratuitous violence.

Again, that’s what most trustworthy critics are saying. Those aren’t my words… they’re theirs.

I don’t plan to see the movie. To say it’s “not my cup of tea” would be an understatement. The previews for 300 insulted my intelligence enough … I don’t want to pay ten bucks to be insulted for two full hours. I didn’t like Braveheart — I thought that its many drawn-out scenes dazzling us with violence overpowered any thoughtful consideration of virtue. I staggered out of the theater disspirited and exhausted. Gladiator served up more of the same (although there were moments when the film teased me with some interesting ideas). So I just don’t think that 300 is going to be my cup of… my bucket of blood.

Claiming to give us a movie about “freedom,” filmmakers are oh so glad to serve up hours and hours of gory imagery. Thus, audiences are immersed in entertainment that celebrates the tragic cost of freedom, while they come away with little or no appreciation for what freedom is, or the good that is purchased with such sacrifice. Is 300 one of those films? I can’t say. I can only refer you to some of the responses that have seemed fairly persuasive.

Peter Suderman (ALARM!) says, “The movie is basically Gladiator’s brain-damaged, steroidal, coked-up younger sibling — and not in a good way either. Yes, the digitally painted sets and heavily processed photography look fantastic, but that doesn’t save the movie from ending up as little more than a blunt, witless exercise in dumb-as-rocks juvenile wish-fulfillment. This might have been fun, at least, except for the fact that its biggest sin is that it’s boring. Honestly, how could such glorious depravity be so utterly yawn inducing?”

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, “Most of the film is shot in sepia tones, striking at first, but soon becoming tiresome. Leonidas and his impossibly buffed soldiers facing off against digitalized weapons, strange creatures, and seemingly thousands of enemy troops, though the pervasive battlefield violence is somewhat tempered by the often genuinely artful cinematography.”

Via GreenCine Daily, I found these two perspectives: Matt Singer (IFC News): “[E]ven though 300‘s visual style moves beyond simply looking good into a stylishness and pictorial beauty rarely equaled in genre pictures, its dumbness overwhelms its prettiness. If battle footage can be beautiful, some of it in 300 certainly is, but, oh how stupid everything surrounding it is.” And Nathan Lee (The Village Voice): “Long ago there reigned a clan of Speedo-wearing militaristic psychopaths called the Spartans. … At once homophobic and homoerotic, 300 is finally, and hilariously, just hysterical.”

Kenneth Turan (LA Times) says, “At least in the short run, 300 is something to see, but unless you love violence as much as a Spartan, Quentin Tarantino or a video-game-playing teenage boy, you will not be endlessly fascinated.”

Jeff Walls (Past the Popcorn) finds all of this big screen dismemberment and sex “exhilarating.” “Filmed using the same technique as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and the previously released adaptation of Miller’s Sin City, the film’s visuals are hyper-real. It’s a technique that works wonderfully for the film. Had the battle scenes been filmed more realistically, like those in Gladiator or Braveheart, the action itself would have had to be based more in reality, and it would not have been nearly as exhilarating.”

Lawrence Toppman (Charlotte Observer) is similarly impressed. “300 is a huge step forward in visually sophisticated storytelling.” Okay, so it’s visually sophisticated. But shouldn’t we care about what purpose all of this sophistication serves?

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) does not share Toppman’s enthusiasm. “300 spends most of its running time showing is not the origins of freedom, nor the bravery of fighting men, but a ‘grotesque spectacle’ demonstrating how we pursue our basic instincts: survival, sex and a thirst for brutal, bloody entertainment. … Visually compelling but saddled with a flat script, [the movie] is a loud, furious view of early warfare – a shell of a great tale that, for a brief time, covers its weaknesses with striking images. But the bottom falls out early, leading to a punishing sit for those who aren’t interested primarily in seeing the myriad methods of death for ancient warriors.”

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) testifies: “I watched as scores of moviegoers (mostly men) walked to their cars laughing and pounding each other on the back. You’d have thought we’d all just seen Top Gun for the first time. Such is the influence of the latest big-screen Frank Miller adaptation, a hyper-violent, hyper-masculine ode to honor and duty by way of blood, blood and more blood. Did I mention the blood?”

Some are finding political commentary in the film, such as “David Kahane” of The New Republic.

Meanwhile, there’s already some buzz about what Zack Snyder might do to “sucker punch” audiences next time.


The Ultimate Gift

The Ultimate Gift is the latest Christian movie to win a wide release. Once again, mainstream critics and Christian film critics are challenged to give the film a fair review without coming across as propagandists or belief-bashers.

Last time Christianity Today’s film critics made some critical remarks about the flaws in a certain Christian movie, they got in all kinds of trouble. But they’re sticking to their commitment to excellence. And so, here’s Carolyn Arends (CT Movies), with her thoughts on The Ultimate Gift:

The Ultimate Gift … aims to be just the sort of movie Christians pine for. Lovingly crafted to engage the viewer in an exploration of what truly matters in life, to gently invite a contemplation of faith as a source of meaning, and to inspire hope in even the most tragic circumstances, this film has its heart absolutely in the right place. If only it were a bit more entertaining. Like sensible woolen socks in a ribbon-wrapped package, The Ultimate Gift may be good for you, but it’s a little hard to get excited about.”

She has a lot more to say about where it falls short, and where it works.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is more impressed than Arends. “Though it has a made-for-TV movie feel to it, [Gift] avoids excessive sentimentality as it imparts positive messages about gratitude, forgiveness, family and altruism that overcome its uneven script and some average performances…. The film is one of the better titles to be released under the admirable Fox Faith banner, delivering reasonably well on its promise to provide ‘quality, inspirational and spiritual entertainment.'”

Jeff Shannon (The Seattle Times), who was one of the few mainstream critics to applaud The Last Sin Eater, qualifies that rave in his review of The Ultimate Gift: “A month ago, I wrote a lenient review of … The Last Sin Eater, if only because spiritually substantial movies strike me as a welcomed alternative to worthless garbage like Norbit. … The Ultimate Gift is equally praiseworthy for resolving a spiritual crisis with honorable values.”

But then Shannon admits that this Gift is “blandly appealing and timidly reluctant to offend … an average Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie, just ‘Jesus’s enough to make it palatable to non-Christians … comforting, predictable and safe, and impossible to watch without being constantly aware of how it could be improved.”

Shannon says that if the film wanted to offer a powerful Christian message, it should have made the main character’s ordeal “truly threatening and genuinely transformative, but that doesn’t happen in a movie that can’t convincingly challenge the faith it supports.”

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) sums it up: “The Ultimate Gift has a great message which might well be used as an evangelism tool. Those who enjoy Hallmark-style fare will certainly appreciate it. It’s also appropriate for anyone looking to instigate talk about the deeper issues of life.”

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, “Movies that deliberately try to deliver a narrowly focused message or moral often fail. Their stories sometimes feel clunky and self-serving. The acting can be sketchy. And they can choose to wield a 10-pound sledge, when they really only need a 2-pound hammer. The Ultimate Gift doesn’t always avoid these pitfalls, but it does manage to choose the right mallet.”

Jeff Walls (Past the Popcorn) writes, “The Ultimate Gift, with it’s in-your-face life lessons and relatively modest production values—not to mention a child dying of leukemia—felt more like an after school special than a theatrical feature film. Nevertheless, I enjoyed every bit of it.”

Jeannette Catsoulis (The New York Times) did not enjoy every bit of it. “Reeking of self-righteousness and moral reprimand, The Ultimate Gift is a hairball of good-for-you filmmaking.”

But Mark Olsen (Los Angeles Times) shows more mercy. “The film’s values are fairly well encoded into the story, such that it feels less like a sermon and more like a film with a good, if somewhat sappy, heart.”

You’ll find more mainstream responses to the film here.

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The Namesake

Mira Nair made a fantastic, memorable, inspiring film called Monsoon Wedding.

Then she made a visually sumptuous but ultimately disappointing adaptation of Vanity Fair (during which I was engaged only by the supporting performance of Romola Garai).

Now, she’s directed The Namesake, and critics are celebrating her again.

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says it “holds your interest right up to its emotionally devastating two-hankie conclusion. … Nair’s uplifting and beautiful film encapsulates all the important elements of our humanity so deftly that watching it almost offers the palpable essence of life itself.”

Mainstream critics are moved by Nair’s “delicate” adaptation. GreenCine Daily has collected links to several thoughtful reviews. In The New Republic, Louis Wittig writes, “The Namesake is an exquisite novel of a movie — uncluttered and emotionally comprehensive, lush with behavioral detail….”


Beyond the Gates

Beyond the Gates revisits the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, an event that many moviegoers did not notice until they saw Terry George’s powerful Hotel Rwanda a few years ago. Michael Caton-Jones’s movie, which was released outside of America last year under the title Shooting Dogs, stars John Hurt as a Catholic priest. Through this character’s eyes, the nightmare is cast in a light that reveals the spiritual conflict in the midst of the bloodshed.

Stephen Holden (New York Times) writes that the film addresses “the question of religious and spiritual faith in the face of genocide. What is true faith, and how much horror does it take to erode it? Can a reasonable person still believe in God amid the slaughter of 800,000 people? Does reason have anything to do with it?”

Nick Schager (Slant) begins his review like this: “Not a definitive cinematic statement on the Rwandan genocide but certainly a far preferable dramatic treatment of the atrocity than Hotel Rwanda, Beyond the Gates tackles its true story … with the type of blunt realism absent from Terry George’s celebrated 2004 Don Cheadle vehicle. Director Michael Caton-Jones shoots with a rough-around-the-edges griminess that brings urgency to his tale….”

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) compares it to Hotel Rwanda and says Beyond the Gates is “a rawer, more pitiless film offering less reassurance and more outrage at the diffidence of the Western world in the face of the Rwandan genocide.” He concludes that it is “most worth seeing for its uncompromising portrait of an episode more representative of the Rwandan genocide than the events depicted in Hotel Rwanda. At the same time, Beyond the Gates offers little insight into the Hutu or Tutsi experience, little depth to match the courage of its convictions.”

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says it “towers above most current films, with even the more worthy ones seeming like fluff in comparison. It’s a gripping film about one of recent history’s most regrettable episodes: the international community’s failure to come to the aid of the thousands of men, women and children who lost their lives during the Rwandan genocide. … Hurt — in real life, a clergyman’s son and monk’s brother — gives a wonderfully committed and believable performance, and Dancy … convincingly conveys the growing horror and disillusionment of his character.”

Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) offers a post-viewing discussion guide for the film.

Mainstream critics are offering a wide variety of responses.

Here’s a piece that ran in The Guardian about co-writer and producer David Belton, and his experience in making the film. And here’s another about some of the trouble that the filmmakers stirred up during production.


The Host

Park Hee-bong (played by Byun Hee-bong) is too old for this @#$%.

He has just enough energy to run a snack bar and take care of his two sons, his daughter, and his granddaughter.

But when a mutant creature, the most dangerous piece of sushi you’ve ever seen, rises from the Han River to wreak Godzilla-scale havoc, Hee-bong must lead his family in a dangerous rescue mission to rescue his daughter.

Sounds like a formulaic monster movie… but it isn’t.

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, “Like all good science fiction The Host is about more than meets the eye: Government smoke-screens. Confronting demons of our own making. What being a family really means. Despite dragging a bit before the final, bittersweet act, The Host‘s ebb and flow of intense chases, lighter moments and pathos is effective … and moving.”

I could share a few of the most memorable mainstream reviews with you, but my word… GreenCine Daily has already done a better job than I could. (Although Anthony Lane’s relentless sense of humor makes his review worthy of special mention.)

Days of Glory

I’ll let Greg Wright tell you about this Days of Glory, since he’s singing the movie’s praises from the rooftops.

“What veteran French director Rachid Bouchareb offers straight up is high-quality visual, aural, and narrative believability,” raves Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn). “It’s arresting…. Where Days of Glory sets itself apart, though—and, my gosh! with what power!—is in its performances. You may never have heard of any of these actors before, but you’ll wish you’d been watching them for years. Each of them has a résumé as long as your arm, and each has the chops, charisma, and screen presence to hold you spellbound.”

He doesn’t stop there. Get this! “If you only drag yourself out to see one foreign-language film every decade, make it this one.”

I think that qualifies as a ‘thumbs way, way, way up.’

Mainstream reviews are available here.

The Tailenders

Doug Cummings (Filmjourney.org), who has become one of the most adventurous explorers in the moviegoing world, has discovered The Tailenders. He writes:

Adele Horne’s examination of Global Recordings Network (GRN), an evangelical Christian organization devoted to spreading the gospel to the “tailenders” of world evangelism — people in the remotest regions of the world — is a provocative and beautifully constructed examination of how messages are carried, translated, and received. It is not a critical exposé of GRN, but a thoughtful montage of cultural, sociological, and economic questions raised by their activities.

Here’s a summary description of the film.

This sounds fascinating. It’s not often that we see a fair and thoughtful consideration of missionary work on film. I’d love to see this shown on a Christian university campus to provoke discussion about what it means to “spread the Gospel.” Or perhaps… to discuss what not to do.

More reviews of recent releases

The Lives of Others: John Podheretz raves and raves about The Lives of Others.

And America quickly decides to remake it. Hmmm. I wonder if it’ll qualify for Best Picture at an upcoming Oscar ceremony, now that Americans are making it.

The Departed: Cineaste has an essay on Gangs of New York and The Departed, and how Scorsese is dealing with race issues in those films.

Amazing Grace: Here’s a site I haven’t linked before: The World Socialist Web Site. Why? Well, it’s all part of my attempt to share all kinds of perspectives on Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace. Here’s what the WSWS says: “The creators of Amazing Grace have performed a service in calling attention to a significant historical period and one of its most worthy representatives. With clean, tight images and deep commitment, the film brings to life a figure who was a friend of US President James Madison and hailed as an inspiration by Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.”

And Mark Steyn is writing about Wilberforce this week… the man, not the movie.

Taste of Cherry: David Lowery on Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. (Caution: He gets a bit spoilerish about the film’s last big surprise.)

Zodiac: Brett McCracken (Relevant) examines his own response to David Fincher’s film, wondering why it troubled him so much, and why crime thrillers are so entertaining. “All of that creepy stuff aside, the thing that most disturbed me in this film was not the Zodiac himself, but what his persona represented as a cultural artifact—for the media, for the investigators, for the everyday citizen.”

Matt Soller Zeitz offers a lengthy, thorough examination at The House Next Door. The discussion and debate that follows is also interesting.

Black Snake Moan: Louis Wittig (National Review) says, “Of course pulp is bad. It turns everything it touches — sex and violence usually — into a tawdry cartoon, colored with sensation and high emotion, devoid of thought or respect. That debasing power works both ways though. It lowers things we ought to elevate. And, in its own campy way, it can also cut things we respect too much back down to size.”

Into Great Silence: Michael Potemra (National Review) says, “I am thrilled to report that it is even better than the advance buzz led me to expect. … It’s hard to capture even mundane truths in images; that’s why the typical nonfiction movie tends to get mired in talkiness. In Gröning’s film, however, the images manage to communicate powerful truths about God, man, and the life of prayer. … See this film. The next time you are having a crisis of purpose, or just feeling beaten down by circumstances, call it to mind: This — or something very much like it—is true.”

ALSO WORTH READING

Doug Cummings (FilmJourney) is delighted by a DVD extra on The Criterion Collection’s new edition of Robert Bresson’s Mouchette:

One of the best DVD extras I’ve seen recently is … Theodor Kotulla’s 30-minute Au hasard Bresson, but maybe that’s because it’s a real documentary (that won a German Lola) and not a “featurette.” It offers a rare glimpse into the production of Mouchette, and the working methods of then-65-years-old Robert Bresson, once one of cinema’s greatest but most reclusive filmmakers, who was often prone (like Hitchcock) to rely on favorite, enigmatic phrases in interviews and insist that his work speak for itself. … Kotulla’s film captures Bresson in creative mid-stride and allows his words and actions to speak for themselves.

Fantastic. As Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar keeps working its way up my list of all-time favorite films, I’ve got to see this.

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