Movies or What? Jan. 2007

by Mark Butterworth (Jan. 2007)

The Holiday

Volver

Miss Potter

The Pursuit of Happyness

Charlotte’s Web

Eragon

Apocalypto

The Nativity Story

Pan’s Labyrinth

Children of Men

The Good Shepherd

Rocky Balboa

Blood Diamond

 

These movies should be arranged in some kind of thematic order, perhaps, but December is the last push for Oscar contenders, thus a grab bag of odds and ends, commercial flicks, arty ones get tossed into the last month along with “serious” directors taking a shot at posterity with a stab at major awards at the last minute. Last year it was Spielberg and Munich. This year it is Clint Eastwood. His earlier movie this year, Flags of our Fathers, flopped badly, and so he rushed Letters from Iwo Jima onto a few screens in another bid for grand praise.

I didn’t screen the latter, but I expect it to be no better than its antecedent companion film.

As usual, this is a month of disappointing films. That’s the standard for Hollywood and the world. It’s a feature and not a bug in the system of the entertainment industry. The miracle is that any good movies are ever made given the obstacles to overcome and the likelihood of their having little commercial appeal at the time of release.

Some great and good movies open big and please nearly all - Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, Forrest Gump. Others take time - Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life, King Kong.

Two in the present crop may be fondly recalled in the future. Rocky Balboa is nearly as good as the original Rocky and the two form a fine set piece. You almost wish the others in between them had never been made to sully the purity, simplicity, and innocence of these two films.

Miss Potter is a tad precious, but has qualities that may help it endure.

 

The Holiday

will not endure, though. It is one half of a decent movie if we stick to the Kate Winslet side of romantic heartache which she seeks to mend by escaping England with a visit to Los Angeles in a vacation house swap with Cameron Diaz.

Diaz is also heartbroken over a ruined love affair, too, but she can’t act worth a darn whereas Winslet can, and the two tales run in parallel as each seeks comfort with new men and instant challenges in different countries.

Whereas Kate is thrilled with her temporary LA digs, Cameron is unimpressed with her Surrey cottage and packs up to leave the next day until she’s a bit more impressed with Jude Law playing a love ‘em and leave ‘em man about town.

There is so much character development to account for, exposition to set into place that by the time anything meaningful is about to happen in either story, two hours have passed.

Finally, when all the obstacles to happiness for everyone are resolved, it turns out that they aren’t really resolved at all but merely postponed. The reasons that prevent each pair of new lovers from solidifying their relationships remains up in the air at the end.

This film is very talky, very much a chick flick, long on story and short on plot and comedy. It has a genial and overall pleasant tone, though, and isn’t the worst thing to see. Make it a companion piece to Russell Crowe’s A Good Year if you desire a long tranquilized period of time instead of taking a Valium.

Volver

Volver is a Hitchcockian Spanish film that plays upon our ignorance of that culture. The plot sets up possibilities or confuses us so that we are misled. The ruse the movie plays is innocuous enough and so we don’t complain too much about it when uncovered.

Starring Penelope Cruz as Raimunda, a scrubwoman married to an erstwhile bum, with a young daughter. One night while she is out, the husband tries to molest the daughter and gets fatally stabbed for his trouble.

Raimunda, instead of calling the police and having the matter settled as a mere case of self-defense, cleans up the mess of blood and wraps the body up for disposal. Here is where the McGuffin drives the rest of the movie. The body isn’t easily gotten rid off. There are lies to be told, stories to be invented for the husband’s disappearance, and the problem of the body stored in a restaurant freezer.

In the meantime, Raimundo has the keys to the restaurant of a friend who has it up for sale, and she goes into business for herself after being contracted by a movie crew on location to provide meals.

Then there is the situation of Raimunda’s aunt who has died and the ghost or spirit of her dead mother who had looked after the aunt, coming to live with her sister, Sole.

Cruz, who used to be a wispy, little thing, has grown substantially in the upper body, and Almodó var, the director, takes many fond glances of her cleavage and décolleté. It is impossible to believe that Cruz is a depressed, menial laborer given her beauty and figure, but once she begins operating the restaurant, she is in her element and there is no further problem in following the story.

Volver is engaging, but the denouement depends on melodramatic elements that have come to be predictable and boring: victimization of characters through incest and molestation. Ever since Chinatown, sad, messed up people and children (particularly women and girls) have been explained for by the ruined angel scenario. It’s not that it isn’t true and sad enough in reality for a great many people, but that the device of it in movies and fiction has become ubiquitous.

It is rather like the Victorian gothic tales where incest was always hinted at to titillate the readers.

Miss Potter

Miss Potter is lovely little biography of Beatrix Potter, the English author and illustrator of a series of beloved children’s books. A spinster at thirty-six in 1902, her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was published and she went on to a long and lucrative career.

This movie portrays Beatrix as a singular woman of her time, resigned to remaining single. She is also at odds with her parents because of her independent streak, over her love of drawing and painting, and finally in conflict with them after falling in love her publisher, Norman Warne.

René e Zellweger plays Miss Potter and fails to impress in the role since it is clear she is only pretending to have an accent and be English. She is unable to inhabit a foreign character in the way that Meryl Streep has always been able to, but her failure isn’t too deleterious to the movie. She also has a face that gets red and blotchy now in emotional moments, which was a detraction. What was once cute in a young woman, her being round and chubby faced, has become much less endearing with age.

Prior to the start of the movie, I voiced aloud the prediction that the director would get cute and animate Potter’s drawings. I was right. The temptation for a moving picture to make the drawings move was irresistible. The only part that was annoying in that was having Miss Potter carry on in a cloying manner in speaking to her fantasy “friends”.

Ewan McGregor plays well the part of Norman, Potter’s earnest and admiring publisher. His role is dull -- a rather nice, ordinary chap, but he makes himself likeable, eager, and affectionate to just the right degree.

The movie has a few, very sad moments which I will not give away. Although the central moment of grief seemed foreshadowed and expected to me, it may not appear that obvious to others. The blow is severe, and gives the movie a greater depth than it had up to that time.

Miss Potter is sweet with out being saccharine, nicely told, and will be enjoyed for generations to come. It is as charming and irresistible as many have found her tales to be, and although I have never read the books, and have no desire to now, I find myself a fan of the author. The movie is a beautiful testament and memorial to her. One feels richer for having gotten to know Miss Potter.

The Pursuit of Happyness

Will Smith movie has his heart in the right place, tells a story that deserves applause, but sadly falls short of his goal despite all the good will the audience has for it.

Based on the rags to riches story of Chris Gardner who struggled to make a living selling a medical device after having sunk his savings into it, Chris loses his unhappy wife and later becomes homeless with his pre-school son at the same time he has won a spot as an intern stockbroker at Dean Witter. The six month internship doesn’t pay anything.

Chris’ motivation and perseverance is based on his being impressed by a stockbroker in a luxurious sports car. His desire for wealth and status is never explored in the film. Instead, we endure unrelenting hardship, tough luck, terrible breaks, and it seems like Chris is a living example of Murphy’s Law. Everything goes wrong for him at the worst time, yet he manages to persevere. That ought to make us glad, impressed by him, but instead of making his struggle seem more valiant, it wears us out.

This tale of a salesman’s life is as depressing as Arthur Miller’s play, for the most part. The movie puts so much focus onto Chris’ suffering, that we never experience the immense will that drives him. Chris is a good salesman, a good father, and he tries to be a good provider for his family even though his medical product is not as lucrative as he’d expected.

When we see Chris in the intern program, we see a man who hustles doing cold calls (I shudder as I write), making nice, doing happy talk, glad handing, trying to make friends (and doing so), and getting by on a shoeshine and a smile.

Frankly, it reminds us all that we dislike salesmen as much as we hate lawyers. They are always on the make while trying not to appear so. There is a hint of Glengarry Glen Ross in this, too, of boiler room patter and upbeat, unctuous “hi, how in the world are you?” chatter.

Chris is a man who was in the armed forces as a technician. Clearly, he is competent, smart, likeable and yet, where is his family, where are any friends, or a church community that he can rely on when hard times fall? Much of his suffering is voluntary (he chooses a non-paying job as a ladder to greater things) and merely has to survive long enough to finish the task Then he has to hope his performance gets him selected for employment. We don’t suffer with him quite the same if he was a completely innocent victim of hardship or malice.

The fact that he has a small boy in tow doesn’t add the pathos you’d think it would. It has its moments but they are brief.

Nor are we especially thrilled when the tide turns. We want to celebrate Chris’ success more than the film allows us. The payoff put us over the moon.

Through seven eighths of the movie, Chris’ tale is that of the classic Schlemiel joke: Everyday the schlemiel wakes up, butters his toast and drops his toast on the floor. It always falls butter side down to his dismay. One day he drops the toast and for once it falls butter side up. He looks to Heaven and says, “God, all my life my toast has always fallen butter side down. Today it fell butter side up. To what do I owe this great change in fortune?”

God answers, “Schlemiel, your luck isn’t any better. You buttered it on the wrong side.” This movie has something of that quality.

William Wordsworth wrote a sad poem about a mother who had lost seven sons to the sea. One critic pointed out that if the poet had described in succession the loss of each son, sheer repetition would have had the reader rolling on the floor in laughter by the time he had gotten to the fourth or fifth unfortunate fellow and his distressed mother hearing the news. The Pursuit of Happyness is unrelenting in its repetition of crushing blows. We don’t laugh, but we are worn down with compassion depletion.

In real life, we may be saddened and distressed by a long series of terrible events to someone we know (who doesn’t deserve it in the least), but in a movie too much of that and even a happy ending can’t save it for us.

Charlotte’s Web

Charlotte’s Web has plenty of movie star voices for the creatures in it. The kids don’t care who they are, I don’t care, and so I’m not going to waste time talking about who’s voice is who.

I never read the book, nor had any interest in it, but for many it is a beloved story, and so I went hoping to discover why that is so. I can see why people remember it fondly, but I never felt emotionally engaged or particularly enchanted.

The story of a spring pig, Wilbur, who hopes to evade being cured winter pork, is assisted by a talking spider, Charlotte, who writes words on her webs to try and impress the farmer so he thinks his pig is better left alive. It is plodding, though.

Walden Media treats the story reverentially, but the human parts are annoying such as Fern played by Dakota Fanning who is imperious, demanding, bossy and disrespectful of her father. Fern, I’m told, is not at all like that in the book where she is obedient, hard working, and well aware of the realities of farm life and what happens to runt pigs of the litter.

My wife, who teaches second grade, doesn’t recommend that her kids read it since the book is quite serious about death -- a terrifying subject to young children.

Charlotte teaches Wilbur that we are born, live, and die and that’s fine because it is the natural way of things, the great cycle. It is said with a tone of soft acceptance and approval with a hint of sadness (or warm understanding).

But to a child (or anyone for that matter), what he hears is that I was born. I’m alive. And then I’m going to die . . . but I don’t want to die! EVER! Why should I have to die? What’s right about that? Screw the cycle of life!

That’s one of the movie’s problems. It doesn’t resolve the dilemma of life and death simply by saying it’s okay, really. It doesn’t leave one with any real hope although it tries to mask that situation by an evasion toward the idea that Wilbur, in himself, is a miracle (more wonderful than staying alive?) and the hatching of all the offspring of Charlotte is her participation in immortality.

Where’s the comfort and solace in that? But the music swells and cloys, the narration is tender and soothing, the final scenes are warm, bucolic and reassuring: Life is sweet even though death is lurking underneath it all. Death is sweet, too, in its own way. You just accept and give in to it like a dying fall, ahhhh.

True enough. There’s no fighting the Grim Reaper when he comes calling, but don’t you think we have better answers than just go with it?

Charlotte’s Web is not unpleasant. The children seemed to like it, the adults didn’t look very bored, and those who love the book probably loved the movie. It was otherwise okay.

Eragon

This movie was based on a book written by a fifteen year old boy, I am told. That didn’t have to seem explicit if the adaptation had been written by competent adults.

This is another dragon movie in the annals of dragon movies that, frankly, sucks. The genre is riddled with contemptible examples. Only two come to mind that have any value, Dragonheart (1996) and Reign of Fire (2002).

Burdened with the bad dialog and weak plot of Star Wars while evincing many sequences of Peter Jackson’s camera work and scene setting for his Lord of the Rings, a farmer boy magically bonds telepathically with a dragon, finds a mentor, does daring deeds, flees from horrible foes, and is transformed from an idiot yokel into a masterful warrior all in the space of what seems like half an hour.

While there are many fine technical wonders in the CGI, and the final battle scene is fairly well done, the movie suffers from it gross immaturity, horrible speaking lines, and truncated character development.

For some reason, Hollywood almost never does fantasy well. Even the aforementioned Lord of the Rings suffers on the one hand from over earnestness which slows the pace with a heavy handed focus on symbols and weighty moments that drag and insist we notice something seemingly important for long periods of time; while on the other hand, Jackson irreverently alters the story and converts a Christian, non-pacifist Tolkien into an anti-war, irreligious New Zealander.

Apocalypto

I wanted something different from Mel Gibson than buckets of blood. I’m sure many will try to find deep meaning in Mel’s film, but the upshot of it all is rather empty.

Gibson, in fact, suggests the meaning itself when at the start of the movie he quotes Will Durant, "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." Take that as a warning.

The setting of the movie is Meso-America at the time of the Conquistadores who make their appearance at the end. Mayan raiders are attacking Indian villages and carrying off the women to be slaves, and the men to be sacrifices to the gods.

Jaguar Paw is a man with a wife and child who hides his family in a deep pit before he is captured by Mayans. He must find a way to return to them or they will die.

In the meantime, we get a horrific travelogue through Maya-land culminating in the Temple with its graphic scenes of human sacrifice. The settings, costumes, and blood thirsty people are impressive and scary. The cheering for the sacrifice reminded me of the Roman Coliseum and the crowds that took so much pleasure in mutilation, dismemberment and the death of other people.

We don’t have to look far today to be reminded of head cutting jihadis, slaughtering Nazis and death camps, Saddam feeding people into shredding machines, Pol Pot and the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, not to mention the holocaust against unborn children in the tens of millions in the past four decades.

Is Mel simply out to show us the depth of human depravity and evil or is it his rage at God whereby he is trying to rub the Almighty’s nose in His vile Creation which is the cause of such pain. For Mel’s all about The Pain if nothing else.

Jaguar Paw, by fortuitous circumstances, is able to elude sacrifice but is then forced to run a gauntlet to possible freedom. Even then he is hunted day and night in a rerun of 1960’s The Naked Prey which starred Cornel Wilde as a man on safari in Africa given a ten minute lead by tribesmen and then chased for the rest of the film as he tries to escape being killed.

The movie takes a turn near the end as the chasing Mayans begin to get picked off and we start counting down from one little, two little, ten little Indians.

Apocalypto is a disturbing movie, and many are going to celebrate it for that reason just as they have Scorsese’s The Departed, yet the distress is not due to the story, but to the desire on the part of Gibson, et al, to sear something into your heart or soul. What that is, they can’t say. This is where an artist has decided he wants to be God and make you suffer, you fear, and you shrink.

It’s a kind of revenge; taking something that alarms the artist’s soul and inflicting it on others. In this case, its inchoate, a projection of the blind rage that inhabits the man; that inhabits many men whose default position is that of sub-conscious despair and self-loathing.

It’s like the composer who creates nonsense -- disharmonic noise. Who’s he trying to hurt? Well, you, of course. He has it in for you. You disappoint him. You refuse to approve. You refuse to change. You refuse to serve.

I wish all these men and women who hate their fathers would just quit making movies or any art. I’ve had enough of their de Sade-like depredations.

Apocalypto is about a number of things, I suppose, but mostly it is about sadism; the sadism of modern artists who derive their joy from trying to wound and savage other people.

Is the sadism of men in the world accurate? Certainly, but The Last King of Scotland put human evil in a more powerful context. Here, in Apocalypto, the entire universe is malevolent, and any good in it is no more than an animal trying to do the other part of its job apart from reproducing -- surviving.

Life is a grim thing. The sense that people make of it more often than not is based on untested suppositions which fail in the first tornado or last until someone is given Job’s trials. Even a man with every advantage and insulation from disaster knows he must confront death at some point. That alone is enough to induce suffering and despair - the existential dread, the fear and trembling Kierkegaard well expressed.

The transition from animal to man is a crisis of consciousness. Apocalypto is more about animals than men. Yet, life is filled with competition, violence, cruelty, and ignorance. What to do? If you’re Mel Gibson, I guess you make a lot of movies about man the vicious animal.

The Nativity Story

Having seen so many bad religious movies, I tried to avoid this one rather than endure another vain or vapid attempt at glorifying spiritual landmarks in history and those of individuals. I was forced to see this film because loved ones know that I can get them in to see movies for free as my guests, and loved ones wanted to see it.

I’m not disappointed I went although it was touch and go there for awhile. The Nativity Story is of mixed qualities. I don’t like the de-saturated colors of the movie which give it a greenish, metallic tint while on the other hand, the sets, locations, costumes, recreation of rural life are very fine. The music is superb. The opening chorus of O Come O Come Emanuel sets a tone that this film will not offend Christian traditions, but embraces them. The non-English language version of the song, Of The Father’s Love Begotten, is simply exquisite. (It is a piece that also hints of the favorite French Nativity song, Il est ne¢ , which is a treasure.) Various carols are heard elsewhere to great effect.

The acting, unfortunately is uneven. Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) can’t act a lick and conveys nothing spiritual, pious, or even ordinary to the audience. It made me miss Olivia Hussy who was luminous in Zeffirelli’s 1977 Jesus of Nazareth. But Ciaran Hinds as Herod gives a powerful depth and convincing portrait of the menace he fears from a new messiah and the menace he himself was to others.

The dialogue which often depends on Biblical quotations never reconciles the stilted verses that Mary or Elizabeth are required to mouth against the more banal chit chat in their otherwise mundane existence. The movie is forced to pad the story with details and incidents which tend to cause the movie to drag even at 102 minutes. Nor do we have any sense of the transcendent until the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The Annunciation to Mary is quite a let down and feels anti-climactic, and Joseph’s transformation, his change of heart, due to a dream never achieves the emotional power it should have of a good man overcoming great misgivings, including anger, confusion and fear, perhaps, toward his betrothed.

The movie tries to get around its weakness of not making God or his angels much of a character in the film by having various people teaching about God to children or reminding themselves that “God was not in the earthquake. God was not in the storm. God was in the small, still voice.” A passage from the Bible about Elijah.

We never get the sense, though, that anyone senses God by the small, still voice; that holiness keeps breaking though into their otherwise banal existences. Or that God is very important in their lives. Nor is the movie successful in making us see how desperately the world needs a messiah, someone to save people from themselves. It tries to do that here and there, but the necessity of it never hits us hard.

The movie is stronger when it relies on the iconography which we are familiar with and small moments of affection as when Mary washes an exhausted Joseph’s feet, or shyly takes his hand when they are talking to another.

The entire Zechariah and Elizabeth element seems unnecessary and not credible. I’d rather more care had been given to getting the Annunciation right and Joseph’s transformation.

The Three Magi are used for comic relief and there is much to complain about with that, but I give the director credit for trying to give life and flesh to the characters. Their subsequent appearance in Bethlehem pays off despite initial silliness, for it is the gift of myrrh which catapults our thoughts to the future of a murdered Christ, and what that will mean.

I tried to watch the movie as a movie and not as a Christian looking for affirmation, but I couldn’t help but be emotionally affected; particularly with the sequence in Bethlehem. The idea of God becoming man, despite the movie’s shortcomings up to then, took hold of me. The swell of the music, the symbolic imagery of light bursting through the clouds, the angel appearing to the shepherds, all these elements had a marvelous effect along with the fore-knowledge that this baby was doomed to die in the most cruel manner.

There is much to complain about in this film, yet, I am satisfied that it will be pleasing to a great number of people, for it has elements which are deeply rewarding despite its numerous failures.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Besides being revolting, Pan’s Labyrinth is a bore. This Mexican film set in Spain in 1944 is, ostensibly, a juxtaposition of a child’s fairy tale opposing a realistic political and military situation.

In the film, the Spanish Civil War is long over (five years) except for a few dead enders who have taken to the hills for continued guerilla activities.

The movie opens with a young girl, Ofelia, traveling with her pregnant mother to be united with her husband, Captain Vidal, a commander of the Nationalist forces in the area hunting down remaining pockets of Republicans. The captain is not Ofelia’s father, though.

The girl is entranced by fairy tales, and invents the only decent one in the movie when she relates a fiction to her unborn brother bidden by her mother to comfort the restless baby in her womb.

Ofelia tells a story of a mountain with a great gift at its top where every night a rose blooms and whoever plucks it achieves the gift of immortality. The mountain, though, is encircled by the rose’s thorns and any prick from one of them results in death, thus no one ever tries to climb the mountain to get the gift because the risk is too great.

This is an apt parable and metaphor for humanity’s general preference for the mundane world as opposed to the spiritual realm of salvation, deep faith, and trust in the divine.

Unfortunately, the lessons of the movie and the gruesome and twisted fairy tale it later enacts are anything half as true, insightful, or engaging.

Ofelia is drawn into a ruin of a stone labyrinth where she meets a faun who tells her she is a princess of the fairy world, but that in order to be restored to her kingdom, she must perform a series of tasks. While she attempts to fulfill the quest her mother grows ill and the Captain is doing brutal things to prove to us that he is really a fascist pig just as Del Toro, the director, wants us to believe.

Del Toro assumes that we automatically agree with his politics and will embrace them and hate Franco’s minions. But we don’t know enough to make that judgment. The rebels seem blood thirsty and unbearably stupid as people fighting in a lost cause who continue killing for the sake of killing. They are neither noble nor virtuous.

I don’t know who this movie was made for. It is dark, creepy, gruesome, violent, bloody, revolting and disgusting in its fairy tale sequences and definitely not for children. In its political story, it is also gratuitously violent, cruel, vicious, and malevolent to no purpose other than to try to paint the Spanish military Nationalist authorities as Nazis.

The Spanish Civil War was of such harshness and cruelty that it is hard to choose sides in retrospect, but there is little doubt that the communists were the worst of the bunch and it would have been much worse for Spain if they had beaten the Nationalists. It’s a bit like Pinochet vs. Castro. Look at Chile today against Cuba and decide where you’d rather live if you had to live under those two dictators. Chile, like Spain, is in much better circumstances than the communist Cuba and what Spain would have been like under Stalinism.

Del Toro thinks otherwise and says, “Pan’s Labyrinth unfurls during the middle of the pro-Franco period, and thus deals with fascism -- its very essence. For me, fascism is a representation of the ultimate horror and it is in this sense, an ideal concept through which to tell a fairy tale aimed at adults. Because fascism is first and foremost a form of perversion of innocence, and thus of childhood.”

Hmm, if fascism is bad, what in the world does he think communism is, the Left that would have ruled Spain instead? Del Toro is naïve, a simpleton, and adds, “Vidal (the Captain) is sent to destroy a group of people and he goes at it without ever even wondering who they are or why they do what they do. Sadly, I believe there are people out there that believe they can kill others ‘for their own good’ and that go to bed peacefully, comforted by their beliefs.”

But the Captain knows exactly why he’s killing communist rebels, and it’s certainly better for the country that murderous dead enders roaming the hills are disposed of. How is that not a good thing?

On the one hand, Del Toro says, “I know for a fact that imagination and hope have kept me alive through the roughest times in my life.” But rather than create a fairy story which is rewarding and satisfying, he makes instead, “This fairy tale world has a grimy edge to it. Even the fairies are meat eaters! I wanted all the creatures to have an air of menace. Fantasy is not an escape for Ofelia but it is a dark refuge.”

Oh, it is dark, indeed. A Pale Man who bites off the heads of flying fairies -- bye bye Tinkerbell, take that!

Fairy tales often have pretty grim consequences where children are placed in jeopardy of their lives such as being enslaved, sacrificed, or eaten, and where babies are stolen, drowned or changed. Pan’s Labyrinth, though, being a movie is not meant to be a cautionary tale to keep children from wandering off into the woods or running away, but twists the idea of innocence itself and turning it into a “dark refuge” rather than a hopeful escape. This movie is entirely hopeless, and shares that in common with the recent Babel, another Mexican drama where life is futile.

All these things might even be forgivable if the movie didn’t take itself so seriously and plod along making its political points with slow dramatic ploys as if every scene with the Captain is a capitalized lesson on how to create a villain. And now the bad guy will show you his pride. Now his insensitivity. Now his sadism. Now his arrogance. Every scene has its own neon sign blinking away on its import. We don’t care about anybody or thing, but just keep wishing it would move on and get it over with.

Children of Men

“Children of Men envisages a world one generation from now that has fallen into anarchy on the heels of an infertility defect in the population. The world’s youngest citizen has just died at 18, and humankind is facing the likelihood of its own extinction.” PR blurb

Starring Clive Owen as Theo, Julianne Moore (briefly) as Julian, and Michael Caine as Jasper, this dystopian futurist movie portrays the world as broken down, chaotic, violent while a semi-mythic group called The Human Project may exist on some island where people are much nicer.

Theo is some sort of reporter (I think) once partnered with Julian and they had a child 18 years before who died in some flu pandemic. Both had been radical political activists in their youth. Jasper is Theo’s hippy dad who lives in the woods and sells dope.

The look of the film is another sad affair of de-saturated colors, set in a grimy, ugly England that appears to have been easily arranged to become urban vile; that is, not far from the present reality. The end of the film takes place on huge set that might have been shot in Bosnia with streets of burned out buses, car, buildings, apartment complexes that shock in their squalor and filth.

Julian is a member of some revolutionary group that wants to lead an Uprising on behalf of mistreated immigrants called “fugees” (I think) who have stumbled onto a fugee girl who is pregnant. Saints be preserved! Humanity is saved!!!

Ahh, not quite. For reasons never properly explained, Julian wants the girl to be smuggled to The Human Project, but nefarious elements of her group want to keep the girl and use her as a rallying cry for their Uprising. Theo is forcefully kidnapped and then propositioned by his former lover, Julian, to get transport papers from his cousin. He does that, and while transporting the girl across southern England, they are attacked by bandits or some anonymous mob and Julian is killed.

Theo learns that she was set up by her friends. Boo hoo hoo for him, but he has to rescue himself and, Kee, the pregnant girl, and get her to The Human Project some other way some how.

Think of this film as Soylent Green and The Omega Man combined in its look and feel and various plot elements, but whereas those movies were simple and clear in their premises, this movie is confused and nonsensical.

For instance, Theo suggests to the radical group and Kee after their plans had gone awry, why not just take her to the government?

Idiotic replies are made that somehow the government would reject or harm the girl because she’s a fugee. As if the only pregnant woman in the world bearing its possible salvation is something any English government would sneer at. It makes no sense.

Also, it’s never explained why England has a problem with illegal immigrants and refugees from elsewhere. If no babies are being born, and people are dying naturally, why is there violence and competition? If people want something, they can just take it from the dead -- houses, land, cars, whatever. The world is shrinking and all its conflicts with it, you would think.

And if there’s no hope, why are people wanting to kill so many others in an Uprising and through terrorism? For the dignity of individuals as one ruthless radical shouts? Please. What’s the point of revolution? To create a better world (when it is doomed) or just for the hell of it? The movie never says.

This movie looks as if it cost quite a bit but I can’t see how it hopes to make any of that money back. I can’t imagine anyone going to see it.

The Good Shepherd

Robert De Niro directed this epic yarn of the CIA creation from its roots in the WW2 OSS. Matt Damon stars (or rather, dims) in the movie as Edward Wilson, super prep boy recruited into the OSS, later to be a major figure in the CIA (yet somewhat inept it turns out).

The movie purports to be a Godfather II type to descent into corruption and the loss of one’s soul, but fails to impress on any level. The CIA is incompetent and fails at every caper it tries like the Bay of Pigs, is out maneuvered by USSR counterparts, and the spy game is simply a group of men instilling needless fear in the general public about phantom enemies in order to maintain jobs and money for themselves. Russia was just a Potemkin Village, after all, ready to fall at any moment. Never mind its nuclear weapons, and its subverting of governments around the world and instigating the deaths of 100 million people since Lenin.

The movie begins with a slow, deliberate pace and engages the audience, but the pace never changes, the movie loses its focus a number of times, never really decides what it is about, what it’s story is or for, and drags on and on. Matt Damon has interminable close ups where we see him say nothing in response to people and events. We are supposed to gather that his character’s secretive nature, his hermetically sealed soul and heart are somehow brooding deeply when the only energy we get from Damon is that we imagine he’s on the set wondering what to have for lunch. The poor fellow can’t act, and hasn’t any of the inner dynamics and power that creates a smoldering Bogart, a thoughtful Jimmy Stewart, or a bemused Gable.

Damon is a cipher. A completely unintelligible and uninteresting one. Just in case you didn’t know, the CIA is a fraud, never accomplished anything worthwhile or to the good of country and world, and is filled with venal idiots or ambitious thugs. What nuance we have here.

Rocky Balboa

How nice it can be to visit an old friend and find out he’s got the same heart, good character, wit, wisdom, and desire that he had when you first met him.

Rocky Balboa is a wonderful movie and Sylvester Stallone pulls off this redux as perfectly as it can be done. The only flaw is that Rocky’s opponent in the traditional, climactic fight, a champ named, Mason (don‘t laugh. Well, go ahead and laugh.) “The Line” Dixon, never achieves the kind of status of an Apollo Creed or the menace of a Clubber Lang. Those were worthy foes and when Rocky doesn’t win in the first movie, we know that he succeeded at what he was aiming for -- to go the distance against the best.

I have rarely seen a sequel that has pulled off paying homage to its predecessor without being sickening and treacly. This movie references the first many times in establishing itself yet, does so in a way that’s warm, confident, and reassures us that it intends to be as good. You do worry about that going in, after all.

Adrian, Rocky’s wife, has died and on the anniversary of her death he visits her grave and all the various spots we saw them in the first movie where memorable scenes occurred. Rocky’s son, Robert, is grown up, a white collar guy who’s a bit alienated by his Dad’s fame and achievements.

This movie goes back to the grimy, dirty, eastern city and Rocky’s roots with the same music and cinematography. Many familiar things are reprised but updated: the training montage to the classic Rocky Theme, the run up the steps of the museum where we see a much older and slower Rocky. Even his two little pet turtles, Cuff and Link, make an appearance in the opening scene but they are grown up and bigger now.

The movie is filled with wonderful details and some very amusing quips and remarks. We find Paulie, the brother-in-law, painting on canvas weird cows in an empty meat warehouse. It’s totally unexpected yet somehow not too surprising considering that Paulie always was a kind of a freak. Then we have Mike Tyson make a cameo appearance at ringside of the fight in Las Vegas. A perfect little scene.

Rocky decides he has some more fighting left in him after he watches an ESPN bit where they did a computer match between the young Rocky Balboa and the new champ, Mason Dixon. It inspires Rocky to want to climb in the ring again.

This is not so far fetched considering how well George Foreman was able to do in his comeback, which certainly formed the genesis of this movie coming to fruition.

There is a marvelous scene where Rocky has passed all the tests of the Boxing Commission yet they won’t give him a license. He makes a half articulate, but heartfelt speech that had me thinking, this is like John Wayne. Stallone reaches the kind of stature and authority that Wayne was able to in his later years.

A later monologue delivered to his son is even more moving and powerful in its assertions about character, perseverance, and desire.

Boxing movies have always been easy metaphors about life in general, and this film is no different, milking that analogy for all its worth, but that’s part of what makes these films lovable. The metaphor is simple and it works.

This is a movie that’s funny, corny, full of heart, rousing, and nostalgic. A fitting bookend to the series, and a fine sequel to the first.

Blood Diamond

Another tedious and preachy Hollywood movie where limousine liberals feel good about exploiting violence for the sake of a buck and a dumb political sermon while singing We Are the World.

Set in Sierra Leone in 1999, Leo DiCaprio plays a Rhodesian/South African diamond smuggler, one time soldier, Danny Archer, who comes across Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) who has escaped from rebel forces that had him digging for diamonds after the revolutionaries had attacked his village (just like in Apocalypto but with modern weapons).

Solomon managed to find a 100 carot pink diamond which he was able to bury before escaping.

People are in much jeopardy in many threads in this overlong tale. Solomon’s son has been pressed into the rebel forces as a child soldier. Danny has a ruthless Colonel he works for who wants the diamond as well as a rebel commander, while Solomon wants to find his family and son, and Danny wants to get rich quick, while Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) is a journalist who wants a story about conflict diamonds so that she can put a stop to all the wars and troubles that plague Africa.

And just so you know, all of it is America’s fault because we buy three fourths of the world’s diamonds and want them cheap.

The story briefly mentions that Van de Kamp (substituting for De Beers in this film) has a monopoly on diamonds and buys diamonds expressly for the purpose of keeping them off the market to keep prices higher.

Hollywood glitterati who drench themselves in diamonds every Oscar show are hardly the people who should be scolding middle class Americans who want diamonds for wedding rings. Sheesh. The nerve of some people!

Then we have so much killing. We are inured by the end of this movie when we have long ceased to care about the capricious death dealing. It’s funny how a movie that wants to make you experience the horror of violence simply bores you with it by the end.

None of the characters in Blood Diamond engage our concern. We should identify with Solomon Vandy, but he, like everyone, is sketched quickly in such broad, clichéd strokes that we don’t care who lives or dies by the end.

DiCaprio’s character is supposed to be a bit of Rick in Casablanca, but it doesn’t work at all, and Jennifer Connelly as a kind of Ilsa is useless. There’s no chemistry between them, not a whiff of interesting dialogue, no desire to see them together. All the exposition to develop their characters and attraction is weak and strained.

The funny thing is that the diamond everyone is after isn’t that valuable. A mere 4 million dollars or so from Van de Kamp (I keep wanting to say beans). That’s chicken feed to the mercenary Colonel and the rebel commander if they are really corrupt and know their business.

Four million bucks is a lot to you and me, but this MacGuffin which drives the movie hardly seems worth it, and life is treated so cheaply that lives being at stake don’t matter after awhile either, thus the film never creates any energy of concern, nor rises to Aristotles’ fear and pity essential to drama.

DiCaprio’s performance is quite good overall but he‘s still a nancy boy at heart and fails to sell us on his being a tough cynic with a soft heart. Hounsou is merely histrionic, and Connelly’s acting is nondescript and never registers.

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