Would you be interested in a movie about an abortionist? Many will likely avoid Mike Leigh's film Vera Drake when they hear about its subject matter. Perhaps they assume the film is merely a propaganda piece for defenders of abortion. If they knew that Christian film critics would come forward celebrating it as "one of the best films of this year," perhaps they would give it a chance.
"Mike Leigh's … outdone himself with Vera Drake," says Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies). "[It's] the best film Leigh has made and one of the best films of this year. Imelda Stanton … turns in the performance of a lifetime. Some films succeed because of an incisive and compelling script, or brilliant performances. Others capture a mood or time so flawlessly that we forget we're watching a movie. Still others give us a new way to look at difficult issues—including those issues on which we already have firm convictions. Vera Drake excels in all of these. It's a seamless vision, executed by a master filmmaker. In a hopelessly polarized debate, [Leigh] allows us all to see real people involved in real situations. It is a film that will keep people on either side of the abortion debates talking. Perhaps they will even talk to one another."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) praises Staunton, the cast, the screenplay, and the director. "Leigh is careful not to make any of the authority figures … villains. As this small, feisty, utterly ordinary woman, Staunton gives an indelible performance. Tremendous as she is … the entire cast is simply superb. As for the abortion theme, the procedure isn't glorified in any way. The director leaves conclusions to the viewer, many of whom are likely to note that there is retribution on every level—personal and public—for Vera's well-intentioned, if misguided, actions."
Based on the reactions of mainstream film critics, it seems that those who skip Vera Drake will miss out on what may well be the year's best performance by an actress: Imelda Staunton is winning raves for her turn as a naïve nurse dedicated to "helping young women" but blind to the damage caused by her endeavors.
The Holy Scriptures encourage us not to go to bed angry. Director Takashi Shimizu's international horror film hit Ju-On goes one step further—it tells us not to take any serious complaint with us to the grave. Ju-On is a ghost story in which those who die in the throes of a deeply rooted anger leave behind a terrible curse that wreaks havoc on the living.
Rather than let an American filmmaker create a mediocre version of his own movie, Shimizu has taken the reins of a remake himself in The Grudge, starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Unfortunately, it looks like the "curse" of American remakes has won another victory. Despite Shimizu's involvement, mainstream critics are bearing a grudge against this inferior version of the film, and religious press critics apparently feel the same way.
Tom Neven (Plugged In) gives a mixed review: "Shimizu has crafted a creepy, ghost- and goblin-filled fright flick that manages to scare the daylights out of you while going relatively light on gore and violence. He understands that our imaginations can conjure far greater horrors than can be shown on a screen, something Alfred Hitchcock was a master at—a lesson that Hollywood at large seems to have forgotten. This raises a question of ethics and morality, though: How far can a storyteller go to stoke our primal fears before it crosses the line into exploitation? Hitchcock had a clear understanding of where that line rests; Shimizu's vision doesn't seem quite as clear."
Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "The Grudge is structured like a series of vignettes in which various characters enter a house, sense something odd, walk down a hall, encounter something spooky, and so on, and the recurrent plot points and camera angles quickly become rather repetitive. What's more, these brief encounters do not allow the viewer to get to know any of the characters all that well, and since they are all doomed in one way or another—they are, in a sense, human props for each sequence's big 'gotcha!' moment—we don't have much incentive to identify with them."
Primer: The year's best sci-fi film?
Name a science fiction film in which the director, the writer, and the star are all the same person. You'd probably have to go back to Woody Allen's 1973 film Sleeper—a caper that was more comedy than sci-fi. (Can you think of another?)
Primer's not a one-man show, but it is the vision of one talented filmmaker—director/writer/star Shane Carruth. And it is a compelling, challenging vision. The film recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Lucas's THX 1138 in that it plunges us into a complicated context without taking the time to help viewers get comfortable. It will undoubtedly be compared to Memento for the way it challenges us to pay attention to connect scenes together. And yet, Carruth's style is surprisingly simple—a simplicity necessary due to Carruth's low budget (he made the film for about $7,000). But he does wonders with these limited resources, and proves to be an inventive cinematographer with 16-millimeter cameras.
The less you know about the story, the better. Half of the fun of Primer is in trying to understand what the central characters are trying to build in their garage laboratory. The other half is in figuring out what's happening once their mysterious machine begins to work. I won't discuss the plot details here. (You won't have to look far to find them if you want them—many film reviewers are saying far too much about the story.) Suffice it to say that it's about the ethical responsibilities we must accept if we are to bring new, more powerful technology into humankind's reach. These characters get their hands on something powerful, and in doing so, their sinful nature comes snarling into the open despite their best intentions.
My full review of the film is at Looking Closer.
Mark Moring (Christianity Today Movies) talked to Carruth about the project and discovered that he's a Christian. "I was raised in the church, and for a long while I've been very devoted to my quiet times, where I meditate on the Bible. So everything that I believe is informed by that, including this film. I meet people and I know that what they're doing is hurting people, though the intention isn't there. They found a way to make it work. And so I'm just trying to understand it in a more practical way: How can it be that we've got all these well-intentioned people, and yet at the end of the day there's conflict? I think it's a very complicated problem. I'm just trying to understand how it actually manifests as opposed to whether it's a sinful nature or not."
About the film, he says, "It's about trust, and how that trust is dependent on what's at risk. The main characters who have a conventional relationship at the beginning, but the relationship changes with the introduction of this device and its power. It unravels the relationship. Not that either of them is necessarily a good or a bad person, but because there's too much to trust somebody else with."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is not a big fan of the film. "Despite an intriguing conceit and edgy, no-frills look, the film is weighed down by its indecipherable plot and cryptic techno-babble dialogue which will leave many viewers scratching their heads."
Film Forum will feature more religious press reviews in the coming weeks as they become available. Mainstream critics are divided over the film, but its fans go so far as to call it "the freshest thing the genre has seen since 2001."
Critics barely survive Affleck's Surviving Christmas
Mainstream critics are heaping derision on the head of Ben Affleck for starring in yet another big screen stinker. And indeed, it seems Affleck needs to hire a new agent and start being more selective. But Surviving Christmas has other big stars in it as well—including James Gandolfini (TV's The Sopranos) and Catherine O'Hara (A Mighty Wind)—and the filmmakers behind the project bear much of the responsibility for this family-film fiasco.
Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says, "It's so bad, Santa has decided to replace lumps of coal with Surviving Christmas tickets in the stockings of especially bad children. You can feel the film reaching for a zaniness it never grasps, aspiring to become a Christmas Vacation or What About Bob? Instead, it's a vulgar, uninspired effort destined to be forgotten before Thanksgiving. Affleck is a big part of the problem."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Casting Ben Affleck was just a mistake. This role, which requires a goofy, childlike innocence, doesn't play to his strengths and he simply can't make the character work. Because his character is the focal point around which the movie revolves, there's little hope for it. The story itself fails and all that is left are a few comedic scenes that might be enjoyed on their own merit."
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "When it comes to Surviving Christmas, it was all I could do to survive the 92 minutes run-time before escaping from the theatre. I suggest you do the same, only long before it begins."
Phil Boatwright (CBN) writes, "There are some laughs, but they seem to be guilty pleasures. For example, as Andy Williams sings of the joy of Christmas over the opening titles, we see different people coping badly with the frustrations of the season, including an old lady making frowning gingerbread cookies, and then putting her head in the oven. It's a funny visual because of the shock value, but the reality that the suicide rate is staggering at Christmastime makes it a tasteless attempt. Tasteless attempt; that pretty much sums it up."
Based on the novel by Donald Everett Axinn, Spin is the first film for director James Redford, son of Robert Redford. The movie won the Crystal Heart Award at Indianapolis' Heartland Film Festival in 2003, and only now is it finding its way to big screens in a limited release. Redford clearly shares his father's flair for making quiet, down-to-earth films, although Spin falls far short of the lyricism of A River Runs Through It. But let's not judge the younger Redford by the masterpieces of his father yet. It's his first film.
Spin tells the story of Eddie Haley, an orphan whose parents died in a plane crash. As he grows and tries to find direction for his life, Eddie learns to fly a plane like his father, rebels against the counsel of his uncle and the Mexican couple who raised him, and falls in love with a Mexican-American beauty named Francesca.
Spin is a bit workmanlike, and the story isn't much more complex or challenging than a Disney Sunday night movie. It scratches the surface of important themes like the dangers of prejudice and the ugliness of abuse, but it fails to engage these themes in any fresh or interesting ways. Lead actors Ryan Merriman and Paula Garcé s make an attractive couple, but they're too well-groomed to make the story stick; their clothes always look brand new, their hair is always perfectly styled, and they don't find enough subtlety or personality to make the characters distinct.
The film's supporting cast redeems the experience—veterans Stanley Tucci and Ruben Blades turn in understated and winning performances as Uncle Frank and his ranch foreman Ernesto. The picturesque Arizona backdrop, and the storyteller's passion for celebrating the rewards of a close-knit family, sweeten the deal.
My full review is at Looking Closer.
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "a small, intimate picture that, while it deals with mature themes and issues, keeps itself well within a PG-rated, family-friendly environment. What is particularly nice is that no one in the film is a villain. The pressures on Eddie come primarily from within himself as he searches for the clues to who he really is and what he really wants to do with his life."
"Spin endures some storytelling turbulence, making the ride a bit bumpy at times, but its moral horizon is steady," says Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily). "Merriman and Garces are evenly matched as actors, and they look good together on camera. Their relationship is believable. Less impressive, though, is the conveyance of motivation for some of the other characters. One can feel the translation from novel to script, as the impetus for some of the action seems missing."
Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says, "Redford explained to me that he sees this movie as a 'celebration of family.' But while it is a film about family, it is not what he would term a 'family film.'" He concludes, "Some of the events are predictable and some moments a bit overly dramatized, but there is honest work being done here. If you're looking for decent entertainment, give Spin a whirl."
David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) raves, "The bottom line in the film is: Do not allow the horrible events in life to 'stop you.' Life must keep moving forward. This powerful film celebrates the power of family and its ability to help us face life's difficulties. It is about how new life can arise from the ashes of devastation."
Due to the film's limited release, only a few mainstream critics have yet reviewed the film, but most responses have included measured praise.
Billy Crudup stars with Claire Danes, but who's the Stage Beauty?
In Shakespeare in Love, Gwyneth Paltrow charmed audiences by playing an actress who broke a primary rule of 17th-century theatre—women were forbidden to act in a play, and men had to play women's roles.
Now, director Richard Eyre's Stage Beauty picks up the same theme. Billy Crudup (Almost Famous) plays Edward, an actor who is especially talented in playing beautiful women. When Charles II decides to let women take the stage, Edward's career falls apart, and his stage dresser Marie (Clare Danes) becomes an actress herself. Crudup and Danes are joined by an impressive supporting cast that includes Tom Wilkinson (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Ben Chaplin (The Truth About Cats and Dogs) and Hugh Bonneville (Iris).
"The story is told in a rip-roaring, lusty ambience, appropriate to the period," says Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service). "Though the film dabbles in sexual confusion, it ends with an affirmation of heterosexual sex. [The two central characters] lose some of their period authenticity by the end, though, when suddenly they seem like two very contemporary kids sorting out their problems. The dramatized—and anachronistic—transformation of acting styles from artificial to naturalistic doesn't quite ring true, though admittedly it makes for good drama."
Mainstream critics are taking sides, but few are passionate.
More reviews of recent releases
Thé rèse: Paula Murphy (Godspy) says the film, "though earnest and pious and crafted with great care, perhaps even great love, [is] not so much a movie as a plodding, poorly-scripted catechism of dreadful 'on-the-nose' dialogue. Moreover … I couldn't help but wish that the time, attention, and money that had obviously been spent on getting the furniture right had been otherwise invested on professional actors."
But Murphy concludes that the biggest flaw runs deeper: "Thé rèse is a very pretty movie. The problem … is this: Thé rèse Martin's brief nineteenth century bourgeois life contains little of what one might call 'cinematic' value. Therefore, any film about her could be about only one thing: Thé rèse's interior life. Her huge, monstrously huge, interior life. An interior life that was many things, but not pretty."
The Motorcycle Diaries: Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "At the very beginning and the very end of the film, Che tells us that his story is not about heroic feats. I disagree. Regardless of who and what he ultimately became, the Che Guevara that we see in The Motorcycle Diaries is a model of mercy and servanthood. And I, for one, cannot think of a more heroic pair of traits."
Luther: Although Luther had its big screen release last year in the United States, Canadians are just now getting a chance to see the film. Peter T. Chattaway reviews the film for CanadianChristianity.com. He calls the film "an unbalanced portrait of Luther that is at once both sympathetic and triumphalistic. Luther and the movement he founded were full of … contradictions, but the new film passes them by in favour of a broader message of tolerance, tailored for our ecumenical times. Tellingly, many evangelicals have endorsed this film simply because it presents a basic gospel message. But the man through whom that message was preached is still waiting to be fleshed out."
Next week: In Ray, Jamie Foxx (Collateral) plays Ray Charles and earns the year's biggest Oscar buzz. Plus: Saw and Undertow.
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