Monday, March 22, 2004

Movie Review: The Passion
The Passion Of The Christ
Dir: Mel Gibson
Star: Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern
Run Time: 2:06

Note: the following review was first posted at The Transplanted Texan, and has been reproduced here with permission. [Well, duh! -- Ed.]

So I saw The Passion Of The Christ last night. [Tuesday, March 2nd -- Ed.]

Afterwards, I felt rather empty - sucked dry of any further emotional response. My tears were flowing for most of the film, and all that saline just drained everything out of me. I wasn't, however, moved to silence. My friend Nathan and I (with whom I viewed the movie) discussed some of our observations, one of which was the longing for a 'longer' film, including more of the story.

The flashbacks throughout the film succeed, in my view, in making Christ seem more fully human. Sometimes, I think, as Christians - and this is not a new idea - we tend to distance ourselves from Christ's humanity; not necessarily in a conscious, deliberate way, but it happens nonetheless - perhaps as a result of the superficial 'dryness' of the translated Gospel texts. Heretical teaching throughout history has often emphasized one of Christ's natures over the other (his humanity over his deity, or vice versa), and I think believers are all susceptible to that. I know I am, and so it's good for me to see the 'manhood' of Christ emphasized, as a reminder of His being one of us.

Being a Protestant, I obviously have issues with the portrayal of Mary (Christ's mother), but as a 'film critic' (ha!), I applaud the fantastic use Gibson made of her. I may disagree with the director on the theological stance, but the effect she has on us as an audience is undeniable, and provides a 'safe-place' for us to store our emotional response. That is, had we watched the film without the emphasis on Mary's character, we would have been forced to completely empathize with Christ himself - and while that may have been good for our souls, that would not have been good for the film. It's like M. Night Shyamalan has said: if you show a child crying on the screen, you've just exhausted all the audience's emotional reserves; they've got nothing left to give you. In the same way, the audience for The Passion needs a focus on Mary so that they can have some respite from the terrible agony Christ suffers, and make it through the rest of the film.

To me, this represents just how fallen we are. We can't even take the suffering of Christ in a film without needing several breaks. Jesus doesn't get one, but the audience does. We have to have special consideration given to us by the director, or we'll be unable to make it through two hours of a re-enactment. That's just pitiful.

Is it a gory film? Yes. Is it gorier than anything I've seen before? That takes more consideration. Saving Private Ryan - a film to which the Passion has been repeatedly compared - is just as bloody a film in my memory, but only lasts a half hour (with occasional spurts of violence later). The Passion is the first portion of Private Ryan spread into two hours. It, surprisingly, wasn't as violent as I expected. Was it startling? Yes. Was it disturbing? Yes. Did it hurt me to watch? Yes. But did it exceed my expectations, my preparations? No. I don't know what more I was expecting, and anything more would probably have pushed the film over the top, but I was prepared for more that didn't come.

Now, to the charge of anti-Semitism. I've referred before to Dennis Prager's wonderful essay on the issue, and I can only emphasize that I'm viewing this from a Christian point-of-view. To me, I killed Jesus. My sins, my faults, my iniquities and transgressions. I had my hand around those rods that beat His back, the haft of that cat o' nine tails that scourged Him bloody, the rope whips that mercilessly pounded Him as He walked up that road to Golgotha. It was me. I'm siding with Gibson on this one: anti-Semitism on the behalf of a Christian is a sin, and is to be condemned whole-heartedly.

Do I feel this movie will spread anger against Jews? I don't think so, but anti-Semites have used less than this to take up arms before. For me, this turns rapidly into a 'free speech' issue. Should we do as Germany has done, as Canada has done, and bar a film, book, or article that has 'potential' to raise someone's ire against someone else? In the US, the 1st Amendment says no, and I repeat that statement here. To outlaw expression because it might have unintended results flies in the face of freedom. If hateful people use this movie as a banner, then that is a reflection on them, and not of Mel Gibson. To claim otherwise is to tread too close to designating 'hate speech' (which itself is a travesty against freedom). Gibson has made all the necessary disclaimers, all the necessary renunciations, and all the necessary defenses. He's not the one responsible for the actions of others.

Leaving that issue, then, was the movie a good one? It had high production values, was skillfully crafted, and featured fantastic performances. Jim Caviezel as Christ was brilliant; it's easy to see why Hollywood is so willing to accede to his demands (he refused to perform nude scenes in two of his films - High Crimes, and the Count of Monte Cristo): he's a fantastic actor. The direction was sure of itself, and though a few decisions were made that I would not have (too much slow-motion for my tastes), I must give the technical aspects of the film a thumbs up.

The choice to make Satan a character (though he is not to be found in the Gospel accounts) was a good one. This ties back into the accusations of anti-Semitism, and demonstrates to me why the film should not be considered anti-Jew in the least. Every time you see the Jews accosting Christ (or Judas), their faces twist into perverted, demonic features, and Satan is seen walking among them. Some critics have used this to decry Gibson for implying the Jews were 'demons themselves,' but I see it as completely the opposite: Satan was exerting his influence among those people whom were in his grasp. The machinations of Lucifer are just that - his work. Satan twists and perverts God's good creation. Here, he is seen corrupting the hearts of men (who happen to be Jews and Romans) to his ends. It's what he does.

Is it the best movie I've ever seen? I don't think so. Is it good? Yes. Should it be nominated in next year's Oscars? Yes, yes and yes. Will it be? I can't see it happening.

The film is something every Christian should see, just as Saving Private Ryan was a film every beneficiary of the sacrifices of that generation should see. And on top of that, it's a good movie, too.

4 out of 5

[More reviews may be found here.]

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Movie Review: Taking Lives
Taking Lives
Dir: D.J. Caruso
Star: Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Keifer Sutherland
Run Time: 1:42

Let me start off by saying that I really enjoyed Caruso's earlier film work (The Salton Sea), and that I'm a rather big fan of both Hawke and Sutherland. There - full disclosure out of the way, and you can take the following review with that in mind.

I'm really not even sure where to begin. Like my earlier review of Spartan, I can't really touch on plot much, if at all, as it is so convoluted and twisting that to speak more than a few sentences would give away important surprises.

The tension in this film is nearly palpable. I frequently caught myself asking why we were seeing certain scenes, and why the director was lingering in certain areas. The action seemed over, all that was left was for the director to wrap things up, right? Time and time again, Caruso teases us, and we want to scream at the screen: 'Stop filming! It's over already!' - not because we don't like the movie, but because we don't want any further damage to come to the characters. Which is really the triumph of both the director and actors in this film. These characters - though admittedly a bit too stock - make you care about them.

I must applaud Ethan Hawke here, as well. I've generally held him in moderately high esteem as far as his previous acting roles have gone (specifically Dead Poets Society and Gattaca). Here he does something I've never seen him do - and he does it very well.

Praise is also held for Keifer Sutherland, though not exactly for his acting. His choice here (and I won't reveal anything more as too much would be given away), both for taking the role and for putting what he does into it, is excellent. I've been pleasantly surprised by the decisions Sutherland has made about where his career is going and what characters he is going to play. Bravo for his courage.

The thriller archetype is played well by the film, but it has a very different feel from Salton Sea. Both movies are focused on a mystery, and a murder, but Taking Lives is much darker - much more menacing. As always, there were some choices that I would not have made, and some points that could have been shown more subtlely; but overall, the film accomplishes what it sets out to do: partly to involve you in the characters and the story, and partly to make you spill your popcorn all over the aisles. I'm fairly certain the clean-up crews will loathe this film, given the reactions of my surrounding audience members last night.

A couple of minor points nearly ruined this film for me, however. It is based entirely in Canada and primarily in Montreal, both of which are good choices. However - and this is a note to directors worldwide - when you are basing your plot lines in a specific, real-to-life city, it would be good to get aerial footage of that city. Using Quebec City as a substitute for Montreal is off-putting (and yes, for those that have not seen the film, it is obvious that those aerials are not Montreal). Also, the typical 'local cop resents foreign cop' story is overdone, and needs either more background or less cookie-cutter characterization. When Olivier Martinez's Paquette immediately begins to disparage having any 'outside help' on the murders, it just isn't fully believable. More development, please.

The film survives both of those technical foibles and a few plot contrivances to be a moderately good thriller; though I didn't find it as good as Caruso's earlier work.

3 out of 5.

[More reviews may be found here.]

Friday, March 12, 2004

Movie Review: Spartan
Dir: David Mamet
Star: Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, William H. Macy
Run Time: 1:46
Scott: One riot, one ranger - didn't you ever hear that?

[Response]:Did you ever read about King Leonidas of Sparta? When a neighboring city-state asked for aid, he would send one soldier.

Scott: You and I went to different schools.

The above is paraphrased, but I got as close as I could to my memory.

David Mamet strikes again. I can't really talk about the plot of this movie - it is full of twists and turns, and speaking too much of them tends to give things away - so I won't, in order to keep from spoiling things. Instead, I'll focus on my impressions.

Writing: Mamet, as usual, is brilliant with his dialogue. Some writers will insult the intelligence of the audience, and slow things down so that they can 'keep up' with what is going on; Mamet does the opposite - he demands intelligence from the audience. Rather than go step by step through the action of the movie and teach you all the 'spy slang' that is tossed around, he just plunges you headfirst into the middle of things. He creates characters that are complete - they know who they are, they know what they have to do, and they know exactly how to do what they have to do. They don't take time out to explain what they're doing, and the audience is forced to either sink or swim.

You aren't an embedded reporter following on the heels of Val Kilmer, dogging him with ignorance and demanding lengthy definitions of terms; rather, you are a fellow operative (if a green one), and you pick up the slang as you go. It's not told to you, it's shown. [Write that down kids, it's rule number one of narrative writing. -- Ed.]

To briefly mention the plot, it is just as intricate and woven as I expected, so Mamet kept up his usual touch there; however (and I won't go into it), if you know me at all, by the end of the film you'll know why I was disappointed. I wasn't surprised, but I was disappointed. C'mon, David, you're better than that.

Acting: Val Kilmer was in top form. I don't know that I've seen him better - he was completely believable as an ex-Army Ranger/Secret Serviceman/Covert Operative. Just as the writer fully formed the character, Kilmer fully embodied the character. You care about him, but you don't know him. It's a strange effect. You begin to worry about his well-being, but nothing he does can surprise you, because you don't know him well enough to develop preconceptions.

Direction: this felt like a Mamet film, and by that I mean rather static. There's not a lot of warmth in his direction, but it wouldn't fit this story anyway. The camera is very subdued - so much so that when big movements are made, you realize it. However, as a result of the stillness of the angles, the suddenness of the action on the screen is nearly doubled, and things happen so quickly that they tend to leave you breathless.

Overall: this was not Mamet's best film, but it was definitely a good one. Writing choices were made that I wish had not been, but that's neither here nor there. The film works, and Val Kilmer absolutely shines. William H. Macy, though not on screen a lot, is also a highlight - he takes on the role he's given, and makes it believable. Well done to all involved: 3.5 out of 5.

[More reviews may be found here.]

Album Review: Head On Straight
Head on Straight
Released: September, 2002
Produced by: Bob Rock

I've been listening to this CD since I picked it up two weeks ago, and I have to say - this is good stuff. From the opening heavy-distortion of 'Rose' to the smooth, mournful 'Let Me Go,' Tonic rarely hits a sour note; and they tackle a few new styles on the way.

1. Rose
The opening cut starts this CD with a jolt of energy that it doesn't drop until the end. The trademark melodies that Tonic is so good at crafting are definitely evident here, layered over their slightly-restrained power rock - the effect is a song that you can bob your head to.
2. Take Me As I Am
The group doesn't waste any time sustaining the rough and tumble feeling of Rose, and they plunge into the second track with heavy, pounding guitar riffs; only to back away, and let the lyrics and melody take over. The contrast between choruses and verses is quite attractive to the ear, and that juxtaposition gives off hints of a passion behind this music.
3. Count On Me
Tonic starts off with pick lines and blends into more of that power guitar before relaxing again into a softer song. The chorus, while heavier than the verses, is much further relaxed than the previous two tracks. This pledge of solidarity has just enough feeling in it to grab you, all the while slowing things down so that they can slide easily into the next track.
4. Do You Know
Quite possibly my favorite song on the album, Do You Know is a combination of everything that makes Tonic good. The driving questions in the lyrics are reinforced by the driving drumline, and the bass here mirrors the rhythms of the words. By placing the lyric just off the front end of the beat, the song feels like it's surging through, like it can't get to the answer fast enough. Fortunately, the guitar anchors things, and stretches the song - this is one of those tunes that you wish was even longer than it is.
5. Head On Straight
The title track settles into the album's groove, but feels a little like their first mis-step. The mixing of the chorus wants to be powerful again, but the volume never quite reaches that level. Lead Emerson Hart's vocal work keeps this one from falling, and overall it's a satisfying tune - but it feels like it could have been more.
6. Liar
This is the first 'deviant' cut on the album, and just about pounds your head off. The sound is almost like Filter-like in its intensity, and it wants to blast itself through the groove the band has been setting up through the whole CD. It almost succeeds, and while I applaud the choice to try something new, it feels a bit out of place here. Well done, but perhaps in the wrong location on the album.
7. On Your Feet Again
Just to throw you off your seat, this next track is so subdued it's almost sleep-able. Another attempt at mixing things up here seems jarring, but the end result is a song that I don't remember after I've heard it.
8. Come Rest Your Head
This cut nearly moves into a style my brothers affectionately dub 'donkey-rock.' The twang of the chords and picking laid over the growling distortion gives a definite pseudo-southern feel, but it isn't tonaly deep enough to be classified as the 'real thing' just yet.
9. Ring Around Her Finger
This quite ballad-esque tune is the bookend to the last three songs, and it sets up a distinct contrast between songs in which Tonic experiments and songs with which they are comfortable. The emotion of Hart's voice here, and (again) the driving rhythm through the pre-chorus and chorus raise this cut back to the level of the first four on the CD.
10. Believe Me
This feels like it's straight out of Pop Radio Top 40 - which is not necessarily a bad thing. It happens to be another genre in which Tonic excells, and they almost pull this one off. The problem lies in the climax of the song: they just don't quite bring everything together as well as they could. This results in a let down everytime I hear the chorus - I expect things to 'explode,' and they decide to tone things down. The bridge is well done, but it's not enough to rescue the tune.
11. Irish
Finally, an experiment that completely works! This Irish jig is just about pitch-perfect, and is exactly what we need to hear after the last stretch of not-quite songs. The rhythm stays solid throughout, but gives the illusion of building, and building, and building, and when we reach the end, things are left to the roaring climax, unrestrained.
12. Let Me Go
Toning things down for the last track, Tonic succeeds where they slipped in Believe Me. The movement of this track fits perfectly with the tone they take at the resolution, creating a slow ballad that works, and works to perfection.
Overall - this album is a great entry into Tonic's repertoire. While there are a few mis-steps, the first four tracks coupled with the last two elevate this CD to the level of their debut Lemon Parade.

4 out of 5.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

David Mamet
I have to confess - the primary reason I'm going to see Spartan tomorrow is because it is written by the incredible David Mamet.

Mamet started as a playwright, and quite a playwright, at that - he won the Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross, as well as other film and theatrical prizes. On the stage, he came under fire for a lot of his work, as his early life was focused on being 'edgy' and pushing the envelope as far as he could. This, typically for the time, meant lots and lots of sex, among other things.

I'm not sure what changed, really - or even if I've seen enough of his plays to say that anything has changed - but he's moved from pushing the visual envelope to stretching the verbal one. And I'm glad he has. His screenwriting has produced some of my favorite films:

The Spanish Prisoner, in which I learned that Steve Martin really could act;
Glengarry Glen Ross, the film adaptation of the play that is almost universally quoted (even if the speakers don't realize it);
Ronin, written under a pseudonym and quite possibly the best 'heist' film I've seen;
The Untouchables;
Wag The Dog;
Hoffa; and so many more.

Mamet's gift is dialogue. His stories are intricately plotted and crafted, true - and I love a tight story - but where Mamet shines is in his conversations:
Sam: Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt. That's the first thing they teach you.

Vincent: Who taught you?

Sam: I don't remember. That's the second thing they teach you.

Malone: You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I'm saying is, what are you prepared to do?

Eliot Ness: Anything and everything in my power.

Malone: And THEN what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way because they're not gonna give up the fight until one of you is dead.

Ness: How do you do it then?

Malone: You wanna know how you do it? Here's how, they pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way, and that's how you get Capone! Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?

Ness: I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal and I will do so.

Malone: Well the Lord hates a coward. Do you know what a blood oath is Mr. Ness?

Ness: Yes.

Malone: Good, cause you just took one.

--The Untouchables
Jimmy Dell: Always do business as if the person you're doing business with is trying to screw you, because he probably is. And if he's not, you can be pleasantly surprised.

--The Spanish Prisoner
Coffee Cart Man: Hey buddy. You forgot your change.

Joe Moore: [Takes the change] Makes the world go round.

Bobby Blane: What's that?

Moore: Gold.

Blane: Some people say love.

Moore: Well, they're right, too. It is love. Love of gold.

Between Mamet and Elmore Leonard, I figure I've got two of the best 'dialoguers' in the business - who better to build my own work from?

So yeah, I'm rather excited to see Spartan - and while my main attraction is to Mamet's writing, William H. Macy and Val Kilmer are no acting fluff, either. Early reviews look promising.

I'll have my own review up sometime Saturday, most likely.

Inaugural Post
As long as I'm wandering down the path toward exhibitionism (ugh), I figured I might as well chronicle what I'm seeing, reading, and hearing. This kind of subject matter wouldn't exactly fit over at my other blog - that's more in the realm of the socio-political. But here - here I've got an explicit mandate to write down my thoughts on the entertainment industry and its products.

Who am I that you should take my reviews and thoughts seriously? Well, no one, really. Just a guy with an aesthetic taste, and an opinion. Hey, it works for everyone else - and you never know. Someday I might be somebody.