Recommended. Written and directed by Jim Sheridan with his daughters, this film, part autobiography, is about an Irish immigrant family coming to New York in the 1970s to try to make a living in the land of the free and the home of the brave. It’s a very touching story of family and love and overcoming prejudice. The parents struggle with the loss of their baby boy in an accident. The father has taken it the hardest. He loses his faith in God, and his ability to smile, as well as his heart to act (He’s an actor trying to get work, and keeps losing auditions because of his inability to act “from the heart”). The story chronicles his rediscovery of these vital elements of life through his daughter’s and a fellow neighbor’s zest for life. It was a very spiritual story, though subtle.
Not Really Recommended. An interesting take on the Chaos theory notion that the smallest change in a sequence can result in major ramifications down the road. The example often quoted by Chaos theoreticians: A butterfly flapping its wings can result in a hurricane on the other side of the world. This movie is a strong embodiment of that idea with a corresponding caution about man’s inability to control his destiny. Ashton Kutcher plays Evan, a young man who discovers an ability to travel back in time through reading his journals written throughout his troubled early life. He starts to go back in time in order to right some wrongs and save people he loves, only to result in either worse lives for them or for others around them. A problem I had with it is that the storytellers gave him such a harsh and dysfunctional family and neighborhood that it was hard to believe. A local pedophile child-abuser with a son who becomes a killer and a daughter who is ruined psychologically is technically feasible, but it just all seemed too extreme to relate to, it caused a disconnect in my suspension of disbelief. I liked the multidimensional display of how child abuse destroys people in different ways, no matter what single thing you may try to change. As Evan goes back to change specific events in his friend’s lives, he realizes that there are so many other events that he could not anticipate, and we see those results with each new “universe” he embarks down. It’s a great idea but not a great movie. Secondly, the story was very casual about sexual promiscuity in the lead characters. It is interesting to note that the storytellers had no clue about the fact that the fornication they celebrate in the “good versions” of the characters’ lives, is just as linked, in reality, to dysfunctional values, experiences, and poor choices as every other dysfunction in the movie. In some ways, the most destructive dysfunctions of all are those which are not even considered problematic, the ones that are assumed as good by society, and then cause the turmoil in people’s hearts when they can’t understand why their lives are so broken or empty. As C.S. Lewis said, “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” One strong moral component that I thought was a missed opportunity was that in one of the “many worlds” that Evan “creates,” all his friends are happy and well-adjusted, but HE is a quadrapalegic. He decides to kill himself because he is afraid of going back and messing it all up again. But this is an act of self-pity, not heroism. Okay, that would be a first reaction, but why couldn’t he have come to the conclusion that he must suffer for the sake of other’s happiness, and bear up under life’s trials? That would have been profound. Instead the filmmakers chose to have Evan discover that his mother turns out to be the one who is suffering, which justifies going back one more time to try to save her as well. The Butterfly Effect is a great idea, but not a great movie.
Not Recommended. This is a story about a neurotic control clean freak, played by Ben Stiller who falls for loosey goosey freebird Polly, played by Jennifer Anniston, after his new wife leaves him on the first day of their honeymoon for a scuba diving instructor. This Farrelly Brothers wannabe is loaded with a lot of very interesting quirky characters with a lot of laughs, but never quite measures up to the masters of quirk. Ben is obsessed with hygiene, Polly is so absent-minded, she forgets why she calls Ben in the middle of discussions. Ben’s boss, played with a hearty humor by Alex Baldwin, is a crude yet lovable no-nonsense New Yorker. And Ben’s friend, played hilariously by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a self-obsessed has-been actor. Some funny moments in this pic, but there are some major problems with it. First, the movie is set up as a typical romantic comedy, so the excessive potty humor jars it out of its genre. It’s sortofa confusion between gross out and traditional romance. But that could be simply my personal taste. The major problem with the movie is in the character. Polly, the love interest in Ben’s story, is not ultimately a desirable catch. The storytellers give us no depth or complexity to her character other than one small reference to the fact that her father lived a double life with a second family in another city. But she has no character arc, she learns nothing in the process, she is commitment-phobic and ends commitment phobic, without any personal growth. She has no real special traits that make her sympathetic or desirable. Her dominant trait is her wild risk-taking, which considering the source of it, is not really a virtue, though it is portrayed as such. In short, she is really an uninteresting person and an undesirable partner to pursue, which makes the film unsatisfying.
Hard to recommend. This is another movie that has some wonderful character moments, great lines, real humanity to it, even some fine subthemes about compassion and character, but suffers the problem of pragmatic morality, a spiritually heinous deception. It’s a true story about some elderly women in the Women’s Institute in North Yorkshire, England, who take their clothes off in order to raise funds for a hospital in memory of a husband who dies of cancer. Simple as that, the whole story plays extremely well on the irony of women who are otherwise past their prime, and past relevancy in the modern world. But this story brings out their beauty, character and value as each one struggles with overcoming this stigma. According to the deceased man, “the Women of Yorkshire are like the flowers of Yorkshire. Their last stages are more beautiful than their first. — And then they go to seed.” It’s a compelling tale that focuses on two women who struggle with their friendship, newfound fame and truly helping people vs. personal glory. All good themes. What happens is that the women make the calendar, a monthly display of the mature women in their gardens and kitchens in the nude, (not naked!), to raise money to actually do some good, which the organization has a reputation for, but little experience in. The calendar is “tastefully” done without showing privates, and the scenes are also humorous without exploiting. What happens is that it becomes a surprise megahit, going all the way to Hollywood, that ultimately raises half a million pounds for cancer research. So the central premise of this movie is that it is okay to violate public norms of decency if it is for a good cause. In other words, the ends justifies the means. Pragmatic morality. The brilliance of drama is that through humor and universal identification with lovable characters, the average person will see this and figure, “yeah, hey, it wasn’t skanky, and they did it for good, so what the hey?” And that is the diabolical brilliance of pragmatic morality. It addresses the moral tension of two opposing values by pulling the heartstrings in order to divert attention from one of the values. The real evil of pragmatic morality is not understood until one takes it to the logical conclusion: If the ends justify the means, then it is okay to kill poor people to get rid of poverty. “Outrageous!” would be the response of most people. “Why that doesn’t justify killing people!” Ah, but if the ends justify the means, then it does. The second you start putting moral obligation onto the means and judging it, you have just admitted that both means AND ends should be morally judged, so one does not justify the other. And if you apply morality to some means and not to others, then you are being arbitrary or prejudicial, which is the deathknell of your ethic. The bottom line is that both ends and means are accountable to morality, and therefore, one cannot justify public nudity because “it accomplishes some good.” Public nudity is right or wrong whether or not it accomplishes good.
Dramatically recommended, but not morally. This is the sleeper indie film of the year. A real milestone for Sofia Coppola, coming into her own as a writer-director. Great dialogue, great acting, humorous understated moments, and poignant cultural insights about people’s alienation and search for human connection. Just bad morals. The story is about a has-been 50-year old film star and a newly married young woman making a human connection in the midst of great alienation. Bill Murray is the bored celebrity, Bob Harris, boringly married 25 years, who has to do some whiskey commercials for a week or so in Tokyo and Scarlett Johansson is Charlotte, a young woman, married two years to an entertainment photographer who is on assignment in Tokyo as well – and much too busy to spend real time with his beloved. Well, Bob and Charlotte meet in the hotel bar and strike up a friendship based on mutual alienation from the world around them. Everything in this movie very creatively communicates our alienation and our desire yet inability to “translate” or make real human connection with other people. Some of it is very amusing, and all of it is tragically poignant and true. Murray trying to understand the directions of his Japanese commercial director, who speaks for 30 seconds but is translated into a few English words; the differences of East and West culture; and even the tendency toward alienation in marriage. Charlotte’s husband’s world is vain emptiness as we meet one of the actresses he has photographed and her empty-headed shallow lifestyle. Bob is visited by a prostitute who is sent by the Whiskey company, who mistakenly thinks he wants or needs one. She can’t speak English so she plays a role of “being forced upon” all the while not realizing that Bob really doesn’t want to have sex with her. The whole lack of human connection in prostitution or anonymous sex is really spelled out well here. The movie does drag out a couple times with some overlong sequences that tend to bore. For instance, there is a karaoke sequence that is, oh I don’t know, about 5 minutes long or so, and it could have been a mere 30 seconds. Instead they croon on and on, singing their songs, long after the funny point has been made about the shallow false human connection we have with our own entertainment. Bob’s removal from so much of the shallowness and insanity around him is revealed in a great line when he says to Charlotte, “The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less things upset you.”
Interesting that this is Scarlett’s second movie this year about intimacy without sexuality, the other one being Girl With A Pearl Earring (see my 2003 movie blog). I have to say that for all the clever moments, and all the great writing and acting, etc, this movie is unfortunately a story that celebrates emotional adultery. The very clever and unique thing is that the lead characters never consummate their relationship with sexual intercourse, and so the sexual tension is the essence of the subtext throughout. Of course, this is only a tension because we are brainwashed in our Romanticized humanistic entertainment culture into thinking that a deep connection must lead to sexuality, that the ultimate human contact is the sexual love of another person. Not necessarily true. But unfortunately, this story is a celebration of a human connection that is made in the midst of great loneliness and alienation. The bad thing is that this connection is not shown to be illicit, but redeeming. As the characters share their experience with one another, they find a connection that neither of them have with their spouses. Bob’s marriage of 25 years has degenerated into mere function, raising kids and being a father with an unromantic relationship with his wife. They don’t talk about missing one another, but about what color should he pick for the carpeting in his new home office. At one point, his wife senses he is experiencing the mid-life crisis when he says he wants to eat more healthy and be more healthy (the typical response of a man who has a newly discovered lust, I mean “love”). She asks him, “Should I be worried about you?” He replies, “Only if you want to.” He is so desperate for intimacy, and yet she glosses right over it by pointing out that his kids miss their “Father,” with an emphasis on that word “father,” stressing his moral responsibility. No mention of HER MISSING HIM. She stresses moral obligation over emotion, which is empty. This story is another “follow your heart over do the right thing.” Feelings over morality. Charlotte’s husband is insensitive and a workaholic, which also is a rationalization for her emotional infidelity. After they go through their experiences and fail to sleep together, Bob is on his way to the airport home, never to see Charlotte again. The tension of them wanting to be with each other is at its apex. Bob sees Charlotte walking down the street and stops his car, runs to her and shares an intimate kiss and whisper that we as the audience cannot hear. They then leave each other and there is a sense of satisfaction, of that verbalization of what they were both suppressing the whole story, and not really saying. They make the human connection. One almost has the impression that it gives hope for the future. Deliberately ambiguous to keep some openness, but the connection is definitely made, and it is a connection outside of their marriages, rather than a revelation pointing them back to their marriages. It is adultery of the heart, which Jesus said is just as serious to God as physical adultery. But rather than Charlotte’s and Bob’s experience leading to an appreciation and celebration or redemption of their own marriages, their “connection” turns out to be their little secret with one another that they cherish outside of their marriages. This is the Romantic humanistic selfish worldview, the easy way out. Rather than working hard and fixing your marriage, rather than “do the right thing,” the story suggests “follow your heart” and find connection elsewhere. These kind of movies miss the heart of what real love and intimacy is all about, changing one’s self through interdependency with another. Real love is often painful, because real love is as much about becoming a better person as it is making a human connection. Real intimacy and love reveals one’s selfishness and forces you to change yourself. Lost in Translation is wasted potential. An almost-great movie.
Ambivalent Recommendation. This is an interesting movie based on the real life, below average existence of pessimist Harvey Pekar, a file clerk who became a comic book legend (along with a couple of his coworkers). The movie is done with some very creative self-reflective storytelling. Though the film is a dramatic narrative, there is an occasional cutaway to the real Harvey Pekar in documentary style self-reference, commenting on the movie and interacting with the actors. Harvey even comments on how the actor playing him doesn’t really look like him (he actually does). The premise is the premise of the comicbook, namely that Harvey is inspired by his hum drum existence and pessimistic perspective to make a comic book about “real” life, about the insanity of normalcy, to combat the unrealistic flights of fancy that most people read about in comics (and the movies in this case). His mantra throughout is that people need to face “reality” and stop living in dream worlds. Interesting though that the film is self-aware that it is NOT reality with its documentary anecdotes and the comicbook style cinematography. Harvey gets cancer and we go through this part of his life as well, the “reality” of it being edited down to brief references. And that is the central deceit of “realism.” Whose “reality” is reality? To suggest that one’s own perceptions and interpretations of reality (Harvey’s being pessimistic) are the center of the universe, the “true reality” that others are missing, is perhaps the most ignorant and unreal self-absorbed arrogance. To claim privilege of perception is the prerogative of deity. So realism is actually more akin to original sin: pride. A better story would be for Harvey to grow up and realize that maybe there is a “reality” outside of his perception and negativity. That indeed, HE is the one who is blind to a world of possibilities outside of himself. It’s a fallen world, yes, but it is fallen splendor, a world created by God as “good,” with much pain, but much beauty. Wake up, Harvey. You’re in the Matrix.
Recommended. This is a wonderful comedy about a big family that elevates family as more important than career and personal ambition. Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt play the fun-loving parents of twelve kids, who manage to maintain a controlled chaos. When Steve gets the job opportunity of a lifetime, to coach his old alma mater football team, the family moves, against the wishes of the kids, out of their rural life into Evanston Illinois. The tension is magnified when Bonnie has to leave for a couple weeks for a book tour for her surprise hit sale of a book to a major publishing house. Ironically, the book is called Cheaper by the Dozen. So Steve has to watch the kids right in the middle of important new job responsibilities. His job dictates more and more time away, until the home falls apart because he is not there as much as he needs to be. He ultimately chooses his family over career. I must say that big families will love this film, but I gotta say that with all the laughs, about half way through I started thinking that I certainly would not. But I loved it just the same for it’s goodness and wholesome view of life. Lovable realistic kids with problems and issues. But they all draw together in times of need.
Not Recommended. This is a story that showcases the worst that postmodernism has to offer. It’s a story about a son, Will Bloom, played by Billy Crudup, who is trying to establish a relationship with his dying father, Ed Bloom, played by Albert Finney. Turns out the father has been a teller of tall tales his entire life, so much so that the son feels he does not know who his father really is. Everything from his father’s birth, to his courtship and marriage and everything in between is a fanciful magical fantasy story that hides the real life of its hero, Ed. Will complains that Ed is always telling stories, the same ones over and over again, and he doesn’t know who his father really is because he can’t tell the fact from the fiction. We are treated to these fantasies in a playful and light-heartedly signature Tim Burton way: A huge catfish the size of a man (The notion of “big fish” is the cliché notion of fishing tales), a giant, a circus with a werewolf ringleader, a mysterious happy town called Spectre and many other tales fill the story with magical imagery. All the while, Will is angry because he considers his father isn’t being genuine telling lies, isn’t being true to who he was and reveals his own unhappiness with his real life. His father was bored with the real people in his life, and had to live in his fantasy world because of it. Ed yells back that he has been nothing but truly himself his entire life. This struggle goes back and forth the entire film in a rather touching way until the end when Ed dies and finally Will tells his dad the story of his dad’s own death as a magical tale of taking him to the river and dumping him in until he turns into a huge catfish and swims away. And now Will understands his dad somehow and embraces who he was and how his stories were “true” to him. He accepts the fantasy tales and even recounts them to his own son. He says at the end, “A man tells his stories so many times, he becomes his stories. In that way, he becomes immortal.” Because the character arc of the protagonist’s worldview is one from realism to postmodern storytelling, we can only conclude that this theme is not a cautionary warning (that one I could whole-heartedly accept) but a proscriptive ethic (which is morally repugnant). Well, though this belief in story over truth is the “Precious” of history revisionists and other multicultural postmodern Gollums, there couldn’t be anything further from the truth. Yes, we have a tendency to embellish and this is a danger. But we do not become our stories, no matter how convinced people are about lies. A story making a hero out of Hitler does make Hitler a true hero if it is told often enough. The goal should be to find the truth, what really happened, just like Will originally intended. Pity, he gave in and failed as a hero. BTW, This is precisely the claim that has been made against the metanarrative of Christianity for years, namely that Christians just told the stories about Jesus and kept changing them until Jesus “became” this Son of God, God incarnate, immortal. As if we created who he was to fit our needs. This is a fantasy speculation itself that has no factual support. So Bible critics think that if they tell their false stories about the Bible long enough they’ll become immortal too. It’s funny that that which has been used to discredit Christianity in the past is now being held up by postmodernists as legitimate “truth.” Truth is no longer important, just story. It doesn’t matter if the stories (or mythologies) are true, what matters is the meaning it gives our lives. Well, hey if it ain’t true, the meaning is fraudulent. Saying one thing and doing another, we used to call “hypocrisy” Now it’s a virtue? I think not. Look, let’s get this straight, folks. If its okay to tell lies big enough and often enough until we believe them, then Joseph Goebbels was right. And so was Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy and Stalin and Hitler and on and on. Serial killers, child molesters and genocidal megalomaniacs all tell their lies big enough and often enough to believe them, to justify their atrocities, and become immortal, but that does not make it acceptable. It’s true that human nature embellishes and exaggerates, and that’s why this should have been a cautionary tale of how we fail to know one another if we do not know our real choices and experiences. The fact is, at the end of the story, the son was a total failure and never did know his father truly because his father never revealed his true experiences and choices in life. The story rang hollow and empty of human connection because of this. BTW, this does not apply to all fiction, but only to fiction that is portrayed as non-fiction. Big difference. We understand fiction to be parabolic or metaphoric. It is just that simple little annoying absolute dictum of our Creator, “Thou shalt not lie,” that delineates between acceptable fiction and unacceptable fiction dressed up as non-fiction. Let’s keep the facts straight, okay?
For more on postmodern movies see my book, Hollywood Worldviews or my article: Postmodern Movies.