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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Incpetion *****

There is a long-standing relationship between dreams and change for mankind. Dreaming is portentous in Judeo-Christian culture, Native American culture, ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures, the Aboriginals…the list goes on. Our relationship with dreaming and the search for meaning within our dreams is older than civilization itself.

What if technology could enable us to manipulate dreams? Would even the future then be within our control? This is the question that “Inception” dares to ask. But like all good questions, this question leads to an explosion of other questions not the least of which is - As we can control reality through technology does technology itself have us more and more under its control?

We learned from McCluhan that with every new medium of communication there is change in the possibility of the messages sent; what would happen to dreaming itself if we could control it? Is there a point in which a dream could have no more personal significance then a text message?

Because "Inception" is a movie about dreaming it poses questions tacitly. By being a medium for the depiction of both reality and dreams, the movie itself begs comparison to a shared dream. Because its depiction places dreams and reality on different levels it can depict levels of dreaming, the way we can wake from a dream only to find ourselves still dreaming. But if we can share the dream with other people, how is it not a reality and further perhaps a more preferable one (see Accidental Critic Classic The Purple Rose of Cairo)?

But in reality we are asleep when we dream. And in reality technology makes dreams come true. “Inception” asks as we live the dreams of technology might we be asleep on our feet?

At one point in the movie, our hero (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) draws a diagram to show that what makes dreaming so alluring to a creator is that you can make a reality as fast as its enjoyment. There is no gap between idea, design and production.

For the creator the temptation is to never stop dreaming. It begs the question - In what sense is reality ever preferable? Indeed the end of the movie leaves you wondering (in more ways than one).

But ask yourself - Should you watch a movie where the hero’s job is to manipulate someone’s dreams and thereby their thoughts and perhaps their destiny?

Yes, you should. Moral ambiguity always seems to come with developments in technology. Wake up.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Unthinkable, Legion, and The Book of Eli

In June these three religious movies became available to rent. We watched them separately, but found that it was interesting to think about the three of them together. We should preface this with the fact that (being Christians) we thought about these movies from a Christian perspective.

All of them keep Jesus out of it, even though two of them think biblically. In Unthinkable the government confronts radical Islam but thanks to its secular mindset, it is unable to successfully understand its opponent. Both Legion and The Book of Eli are capable of imagining angels and prophets as the proper subject of movies, provided these holy beings operate as if the son of God did not and will not be present on the earth. The movies are entertaining and worth thinking about, although The Book of Eli is decidedly better.

Legion proposes the preposterous notion that God has changed his mind: In lieu of sending Christ down to bring an end to the age and usher in a far better one, he is sending his angels to destroy mankind. The field general of angels, Michael, thinks God has erred and rebels. He does his darnedest to keep a specific, single, expectant mother alive because her child can supposedly lead mankind back into God's good graces.

We are reminded of Moses' efforts to bargain with God to keep him from destroying all of the Hebrews wandering the desert. Moses argues that keeping the woebegone Hebrews alive and getting them to the promised land is far better public relations than choosing yet another people to be His. God 'relents'. Of course, it is not clear whether God is only zooming Moses when he threatens the eradication of the Hebrews. If that were the case, than the threat of extermination would have been a test to see whether Moses truly loved his thoroughly lost people.

If God is testing Michael in Legion, it is rather a more expensive test in lives than the test of Job. And it would seem that after such a long time God would already know what he had in Michael... But it is a good tale, so long as you forget about Jesus - which does seem to be the basic agenda of this century.

In the Book of Eli the apocalyptic scenario does not seem to be anything out of Revelations either. A man who has no business finding the last remaining copy of the Bible protects it against all odds in a decades long trek across the country teaching people to pray and look out for one another while dispensing God's judgment on evildoers. Take Elijah and set him in a samurai movie and you will have the idea. It is spellbinding and captures the spirit of the old Testament well (particularly with its twist at the end).

Both Legion and The Book of Eli work out the implications of the New Testament. Both Michael and Eli, each in their own way, emulate Christ, which is the task of all Christians. But acting like a Christ in an apocalyptic future is one thing, how about emulating Christ now?

Nobody in Unthinkable is capable of such emulation. The radical Islamist is capable of sacrificing himself for his holy cause (to bring US troops out of the Middle East), but he is also content with the destruction of millions of his former citizens, i.e., Americans. As one would guess, agents of the government are willing to do the 'unthinkable' in order to thwart his plans (but he outwits them in the end).

When the most humane of his captors reminds him of freedom, our terrorist, a former special forces man, tells her that freedom is a false god. No one has a response for this. And it is an assertion that should give us pause. It is Islamist to find the advocacy of freedom to be a form of idolatry, a violation of the first commandment. This is not the case for Christians. Jesus, is often asking people who they think he is, and makes it clear that their deciding that he is the son of God is pivotal to their salvation. They have to be free to make such a decision. Indeed, in Christian doctrine our being cast from the Garden insures us of the freedom we demonstrated when we ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

But in the face of radical Islam how should Christians be emulating Christ? By doing the unthinkable or by being willing to ask the pivotal question Christ asked..."And who do you think I am?"

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Manhattan Murder Mystery

First, we have an announcement to make…

The next few movies we write about will be ones that are dear to us and conjure up romance in honor of our Wedding Anniversary which we plan to celebrate all weekend :).

So here’s the first – Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery. Those who know me may be surprised to know that this is really my favorite Woody Allen movie. Or maybe that’s not so surprising – you tell me. While the critics actually liked it, it is not a “critic’s favorite” among Allen’s work, nor was it commercially successful, nor is it the intellectual feast that is The Purple Rose of Cairo (an Accidental Critic Classic). Maybe this is my favorite Woody Allen film simply because it portrays Woody Allen’s best side if not the best of his work.

The movie features Allen’s ultimate love and greatest character, Manhattan. In it we meet a middle-aged Manhattanite couple living in a high rise apartment. Comedy ensues when Carol (played by Diane Keaton) starts to suspect an elderly neighbor of murdering his wife. Carol’s husband (played by Allen) ends up joining in her amateur sleuthing to keep his marriage alive. What follows is really just a light-hearted series of events that swirl around a true mystery in an old fashioned whodunit style. In the end, our Manhattanites find a bit of spontaneity and adventure to rekindle their romance. No gripping dialogue or tortured souls…though the movie does deliver one of my favorite movie lines ever – “I can’t listen to too much Vagner, it makes me want to conquer Poland.”

To me, this movie is simply the height of a good, entertaining movie that somehow manages to make you feel good (even with a murder lurking in the plot). And maybe that was not only Allen’s intent for his audience, but something he was trying to achieve for himself at the time. This movie was released in 1993 at the height of Allen’s divorce from Mia Farrow and the ensuing public drama and legal battle associated with his “child bride” (in fact, Keaton’s role was originally written for Farrow). In a recent interview, Allen talked about how movies for him have always been an escape, an oasis from the “terror of the universe”. This movie certainly offers that as it effortlessly transports you for a couple hours.

One interesting thing to note as you are enjoying this film is that it contains a small shout-out to Orson Wells in a scene where the characters face off in a “hall of mirrors” while an Orson Wells movie plays in the background. Wells’ movies contemplate evil while here Allen seems to be intent on not facing it directly.

Honestly, I don’t think this movie truly rose to the top for me until I watched it again this weekend, snuggled up with my husband (who really introduced me to Woody Allen films). There was a lovely sunset coming in through our big windows and Dr. Dan was lightly chiding me about how he could imagine me suddenly taking us on an amateur investigation (and of course he’s right). I guess I found the charm of the couple on the screen within the couple on the couch in a way that made me deeply smile and appreciate how romantic we have always been. Just a day before, we had celebrated our years of togetherness in a much more grand style with a local, professional photographer coming out to our farm and a romantic dinner. But for me, this moment of quiet reverie on the couch was the real deal, the real celebration of our life together. How he truly knows me (and loves me anyway)…how romantic he is (he has written me a love poem every year that we have been married) and how blessed I am to have a husband who truly cherishes me and has never taken me off of the pedestal he put me on when he asked me to be his wife. Just deeply knowing that I have always been his first choice is something that no amount of money or romantic displays can buy.

While I certainly hope that we never have the opportunity or need to embark on an amateur murder investigation, I can honestly say that there is no one I would rather sleuth with.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Examined Life

There is a famous moment in history little discussed. In 155BC the Greeks had surrendered to the Romans but Athens did not want to pay tribute to Rome. They asserted that their hundreds year long intellectual tradition benefited civilization to such an extent that their tribute was in effect already paid. To make this point they sent philosophers to Rome whose public exhibitions proved very popular. The philosophers were extraordinary debaters who could make excellent arguments to both sides of a question, so they would take opposing sides and then switch positions. The Elder Cato, a senator of great stature, was appalled at this sophistry and sent them packing. Rome never became famous for philosophy.

To insure in this post-literate age that philosophy never becomes important to America, one only has to watch the documentary “Examined Life “ A more eloquent argument for living life without examination has never been made. The absurdity of the American practice of philosophy is completely on display. After watching this documentary one can thank one’s lucky stars that one is not like those oddly arrogant creatures who comprised completely of uncommon sense imagine their endeavors worthwhile. The phrase dreadfully smart takes on its true meaning after the camera introduces you to these personalities. If only there were time enough to watch this film over and over again searching for the those few moments of silence wherein “Rocky Horror” style one could squeeze in the right interjection to exemplify how truly idiotic these people are.

The sophistry of these practitioners of philosophy is different from those that Cato experienced. These folks are not capable of arguing opposite sides of the same question. For the Romans that was a great wonder. Here you are left to wonder, what did these people suffer to end up like this? My guess would be a complete lack for any sense of the holy.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Angel Heart ****

“Angel Heart” is an Accidental Critic classic and possibly one of the best examples of film noir - certainly the best from the 80’s. Figuring out what is going on in the film is not easy (though once you do, the plot is simple), but more interestingly, the attempt has a way of being personally disturbing.

What material is scarier than the truths we choose to hide from ourselves? The movie explores this material and succeeds in delivering these dark thoughts brilliantly by using supernatural undertones that illuminate our deepest and darkest fears.

Our “hero”, Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), is a gentle private dick. He’s a nice guy. That he repeats the phrase “I’m from Brooklyn” (with just the right accent) as a way of explaining everything about him becomes just another lovable piece of his charm. You immediately develop a kind of liking for Harry Angel and you end up rooting for him - or at least you want him to stay out of trouble. But when he is hired by the mysterious Louis Cyphre (now say it fast, three times), played brilliantly by De Niro, to find “Johnny Favorite” a man who “owes” his client “a debt”, he begins a journey of self-discovery that he has been trying to avoid. We learn that Harry Angel is not who he claims to be, even as he desperately tries to convince himself during a riveting scene where he cries into the mirror “I know who I am! I know who I am!” No, Harry, apparently you do’re not even close.

As the truth unfolds, we see Harry Angel existing between two worlds. The interplay between the truth about him and the reality of the world as he sees it is disconcerting. It is as if his inner life is far more truthful than the actual world in which he operates. He will do anything to hide the truth from himself and yet as the answer begins to reveal itself he finds that the truth has a gravity of its own. He is drawn, with horrifying fascination, to touch the shrouded figures that haunt him with the prospect of the real Harry Angel...

We don’t like to believe that those we like, trust, even love are not who we think they are, and may even be deeply rotten inside. When you think about it, it’s really a terrifying thought. Is it true that you never really know someone? Of course, we know ourselves, but what about self-deception? Don’t we also try to fool ourselves in so many ways? One could argue that in Harry Angel’s case, self-discovery is overrated. The bad choices he made early in life have irrevocably locked him into an existence where the “unexamined life” would have probably been his best bet.

Thankfully for most of us, the truth is not as horrifying as it is for Harry Angel, but it is just as irrevocable. No one can recreate the past, nor can they change the truth – no matter how desperately they try. Think of public figures of the day or anyone who, rather than be honest, attempts instead to twist and diminish the truth into something that allows them to maintain “control”. Of course, ultimately they only succeed in self-degradation, loss of control and loss of the respect of those who see through them.

Our “hero” tries to cheat fate and fails, but in the end he has enough self-respect to get into that descending elevator.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Tiger and the Snow (La Tigre e la neve)

“The Tiger and the Snow” is a romantic comedy that is so beautifully constructed that it feels mythical. Then we watched it again and realized, that’s because it is very much like a myth, the myth of Orpheus.

This Roberto Benigni film was not well received by many reviewers who thought that the hero was too silly, the storyline too ambiguous and other criticisms which all (in our opinion) fail to grasp the spirit of this movie, the same one that runs deeply through many of Benigni’s films – his unassailable love of life and belief in love itself.

In “The Tiger and the Snow” Benigni creates a hero, Giovanni, who is very much like Benigni himself – a poet. In one scene Giovanni explains to his daughters how he came to be a poet by telling them a story about a bird which landed on his shoulder when he was a young boy. He was amazed by this encounter, but failed to communicate his delight and wonder to his mother because as a child he lacked the right words. From that point forward, he wanted to be someone who could make people feel as he was feeling through the power of his language. As the story proceeds, he also charms a bat and a camel. Orpheus, the greatest mythical poet, also has a special relationship to animals.

As the famous myth goes, Orpheus was willing to go to Hell (or Hades) to bring back his true love, Eurydice, but he lost her when he turns to see if she is following him. What if Orpheus had never looked back? Well then, he gets his life back with the girl.

This is the question (and the answer) of this 2006 film. In the myth, Orpheus braves Hades for Eurydice, but he is fairly certain that he can make it back because of the power of his lyer (his music). In the film, Benigni does the Orpheic myth one better in that Giovanni dives into deep uncertainty and danger to retrieve his true love out of a war-torn Baghdad with nothing but his wits and his love to sustain him. He will pose as a surgeon, drive buses and mopeds through the dessert, face riots, looters, American troops and imprisonment.

Giovanni has an Orpheic counterpart: Fuad the Iraqi poet who goes to the realm of the dead never to return. Their conversation prior to Fuad’s suicide is revealing. Fuad, distraught at the condition of Baghdad, loves the city at least as much as Allah does (he recites a story of how Allah so loved the view of the night sky from the city, that he would often return to earth just to see it). But Fuad lacks faith and believes that there is nothing after death. Giovanni proclaims that he believes that after death he will remember and celebrate life. If Fuad represents anyone, it is the lover who cannot bear the hell he must traverse to save his love.

That Giovanni is a fool may seem to be a contrivance. After all, Benigni needs to make jokes and certainly the character’s foolishness gives his true love, Vitoria, cause to hold him at arms length. His foolishness, however; allows him not only to tread where no one else would go but to keep absolutely focused on the essentials. So many people do not like this film because the single mindedness of Giovanni does not do justice to war-torn Iraq, but this is exactly how Giovanni succeeds where Orpheus fails.

What is Orpheus real power? His music inspires life. When Giovanni lectures on how to write poetry he captivates his students and his colleagues fall in love with him. When he pursues his love, he is hardly aware of what clothes he is wearing (if any) or where he has parked his car. He is a testament to a man who’s cup of life runs over and any who find him entrancing find themselves drinking full of life as well.
All I can say is, we love this film and speaking for myself…it makes me want to kiss my husband.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly *

Well, it’s time for an Accidental Critic pan.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (Le Scaphandre et le papillon) is a French docudrama based on the real life story of Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby suffered a stroke in 1995 that left him completely paralyzed and mute. Well, not completely paralyzed, he was able to author an autobiography which he dictated by blinking his left eye.

When the film was released in 2007 it garnered a good bit of praise. Julian Schnabel was nominated for the 2008 Best Director Oscar (and won the Golden Globe). The film has been described as “poignant”, “an ode to liberation”, a “sensitive exploration”…okay we’ll watch it already.

Hmmm…gotta say, we were not impressed. Should we have found the hero admirable or the women who loved him profound, thoughtful, or sensitive? Perhaps not. They were French, though. The situation is tragic, but is there a tragic hero? Does the hero learn to overcome his privations or does he just dwell in his memories and fantasies? Of course a docudrama doesn’t have to be only as good as the truth of its main characters and yet we couldn’t help but be disappointed by the film. As you are watching you keep waiting, thinking that something important is about to happen, and then it doesn’t.

If this is among the best that French film has to offer, it seems that the French are full of departure. With the deaths of Beaudrillard and Derrida, has the culture suffered its own neurological accident from which recovery is unlikely? Is French cinema, like the former editor of Elle, reduced to the wink?

We recently reviewed an older French film,“Diva” which upon recent viewing seemed a bit naive. But for many reasons it is still the more thoughtful film. At least there are some interesting ideas about beauty and about evil which deserve reflection.

Seen any good French movies lately?