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We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  –John 1:14

The last part of that verse both inspires and haunts me: full of grace and truth.  So often, I err on one side or the other, either extending grace but ignoring the truth, which makes me an enabler, both of my own sin and that of my friends. Or I am full of truth but lacking in grace, coming down hard like a hammer, squashing those I am trying to challenge and exhort.

But John tells us that the glory of Jesus was that he was full of both grace and truth. I love that it is a both/and, not an either/or statement: Jesus did not perfectly balance grace and truth, he was full of both of them at the same time.  That’s amazing, and beautiful, and glorious. It’s also something we humans (well, this human, anyway) struggle to understand.

Darren Aronofsky’s film, “Noah,” is about that struggle. Now, I imagine you have heard a ton of things about this film already, some of it profound and some of it ludicrous.  And yes, it takes a number of liberties with the story – though very rarely actually contradicting what the Bible says happened.  Mostly, it fills in the gaps in the story in imaginative ways. Aronofsky is Jewish, and the Jewish have a name for this kind of storytelling: “Midrash.”  It’s an ancient and honored tradition. Some people have found the Aronofsky’s imaginings to be upsetting and even offensive, but I didn’t. I took them for what they were: one man’s telling of a story that, if given the chance, each of us would probably tell a little differently. I like Midrash.

The way Aronofsky chooses to tell it puts emphasis on the seeming dichotomy between grace and truth. Noah sees the truth of the situation all too clearly. Mankind is wicked, full of sin, and that sin is destroying everything – himself, other people, and Creation itself. Creator has decided to send a flood to cleanse the Earth, and has chosen Noah and his family to build an ark to house the survivors – every kind of animal, as well as Noah and his family.

But this is where Noah fails to understand God’s plan, and chooses truth over grace. He is both wise and humble enough to recognize that the sin disease that has wrecked everything exists in him and his family as well. This, to me, is a marvelous revelation: Noah does not divide the world into “us” and “them,” or, more precisely, “us that God loves” and “them that God hates.” If Noah’s children bear children, then the flood will fail to solve the problem of sin. And so he comes to believe that he and his family are supposed to be the final family, and that when they die, the Earth will be completely cleansed of humans and their sin.

Let’s pause there for a moment. Perhaps one of the most important ways that Aronofsky diverges from the Biblical record is that he removes God as a character from the story. Note that I did NOT say he removes God from the story. God is very present in the story, but not as a character. God does not talk to Noah the way he does in Genesis. Instead, he speaks through visions and dreams, and perhaps through an inner voice that interprets those visions and dreams. In interviews, Aronofsky has defended that decision by saying that he feels like every time you cast an actor to play God, you demean the infinite, omnipresent Creator of the universe. I agree with and respect that. But it also has another effect, perhaps unintended, that I appreciate: it gives the Noah story a more modern feel, and makes its main character more relatable.

Because haven’t you ever said, to yourself if not out loud, “well, if God would just show up in person and talk to me in an audible voice, like he did to Noah, or Abraham, or Moses, then I would know exactly what to do!” But He doesn’t. For His own reasons, God speaks to us differently these days than He did in the days of Genesis. But for most of us, most of the time, God speaks to us in the same ways he speaks to Aronofsky’s Noah: through dreams and visions, and through an inner voice we can recognize as not our own.

And, like Noah, when we hear God speak, we think we know what we’re supposed to do, and we proceed in faith, with trembling. When Noah first receives the dreams and visions, he does the right thing: he shares them with people he trusts (his wife and grandfather) and they help him to understand what the visions mean, and he listens. But when he starts to go off the deep end, he has stopped listening. He has gone beyond what God has given him to do; he is trying to get ahead of God, to anticipate the Grand plan, though God has only shown him a small piece of it. He becomes so rigidly certain that he know what God is trying to do that, even when he is presented with a miraculous act of God’s provision (a miracle he prayed for, earlier in the film,) he sees it as nothing but a threat that must be eliminated.

Aronofsky’s Noah is a man who creates God in his own image. He has seen the wickedness of mankind, and cannot fathom that God would have any grace for his or his kind. But perhaps because Noah is made in the image of God, he cannot carry out these imagined orders. He believes he has failed God, but what has really happened is that the false image of God he has created comes crashing down. And once again, it’s the people around him — his community — who are able to show him a truer, clearer picture of God – a God full of grace and truth.  Thank God for community.

“Noah” is a movie about a man struggling to understand how God can be full of both grace and truth. It’s a struggle I can relate to, but one I’d certainly never seen before in the Noah story.  Aronofsky may or not be a believer in God, but I’m glad I watched his film, because through it I caught a glimpse of God’s glory, the glory of the one and only Son, full of grace and truth.

Posted in The Movie Blog.


It’s really a shame that TV screens (even the big ones) are so small, great movies play for such a short time in theaters (getting replaced by garbage) and repertoire IMAX theaters are probably never going to exist. I didn’t get to see “Gravity” on an IMAX screen – the nearest one is 400 miles away from where I live – and I probably never will. That’s disappointing, because this is a movie that screams for a big-ass screen. “You’ll want to find an IMAX screen, 3D, Dolby Atmos sound,” says Alfonso Cuaron, in an interview with Roger Moore. “The visuals and the sound are most immersive in this setting. This is a film that was created for depth and scale. I want audiences floating in space, partaking of the journey with the characters.”


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American Hustle

“American Hustle” begins with one of the best opening scenes in recent memory. Before we see anything else, we see Christian Bale — the guy who played millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne not that long ago — meticulously arranging, pasting, and spraying into place a terribly elaborate and truly hideous comb over. It’s funny, and it tells us volumes about this character. He’s a con man, a master at the art of deception, and a very careful one. Every detail has to be exactly right, “from the feet up” — all the way up to the fake hair.

But he’s gotten himself into a situation where nothing’s right, everything is slapdash, and he’s out of control. It’s only a matter of time before he ends up in prison, or worse. That’s all thanks to Bradley Cooper, an FBI agent who caught on to one of his small time schemes, and is using it as leverage against him and his partner, Amy Adams into larger and ever more dangerous schemes, until they’re looking at taking down powerful politicians, and ending up on the wrong side of the mob. Bale isn’t happy about any of this; he’s a small fish happy in his big pond; he’d rather be scamming gambling addicts than having a sitdown with Robert De Niro.


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My Oscar Picks & Predictions

The Oscar ceremony is this weekend.  Will you be watching?   I might, though frankly, I’d rather spend the time watching a movie. Here are the nominees in each of the big categories, and my predictions and picks.

Best Picture

12 Years A Slave ~ Her ~ The Wolf of Wall Street ~ Dallas Buyers Club ~ American Hustle ~ Gravity ~ Nebraska ~ Philomena ~ Captain Phillips

What Should Win:  There are a lot of really good movies on this list; this won’t be a year, like last year, where a film like “Argo” wins and I’m left thinking, “really, Academy? This is the best you can come up with?”  I’d say 7 of these films are better than “Argo.”  My favorite is “Her.”  It’s both warm and smart, a heartrending, ambitiously intellectual movie.  I’m glad it got nominated; I don’t think it will win.

What Will Win: “12 Years A Slave” is the kind of thing the Academy tends to favor, because a) it’s a period drama and b) it’s about a social issue that we all agree is terrible.  And it’s a powerfully moving film, so I won’t cry at all to see it win.  I think “Dallas Buyers Club” has an outside chance, because again, period and social issue, but frankly I was disappointed with it; it turns out to be an interesting idea for a film that doesn’t quite turn into an interesting film.

Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) ~ Christian Bale (American Hustle) ~ Bruce Dern (Nebraska) ~ Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) ~ Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave) 

Who Should Win: These are all great actors, but not great performances. I don’t love this list; most of these guys are playing caricatures more than characters, and when your outrageously bad toupee or incredibly expensive suit do most of the work for you, there’s not a lot of acting required.  The exception is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who must communicate a great deal (both rage and heartbreak, intelligence and caution) in a role where he simply can’t emote unreservedly.  And he succeeds.  It’s a great performance, and worthy of the award.

Who Will Win: Even though Matthew McConaughey’s performance isn’t terribly nuanced or impressive, his weight loss is impressive, and the Academy loves to reward beautiful people for uglying it up.  Also, McConaughy’s career revival has been the story of the year (and he has made a string of solid movies recently) and an Oscar would be the perfect climax to that story.


Best Actress

Amy Adams (American Hustle) ~ Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) ~ Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) ~ Sandra Bullock (Gravity) ~ Judi Dench (Philomena) 

Who Should Win: Cate Blanchett channels Blanche DuBois impressively in “Blue Jasmine,” and I’d love to see her take home a trophy for that incredibly demanding performance.  I’d also be happy to see Judi Dench get recognized for “Philomena.”  Dench has made a career out of playing cold, hard, intelligent women; it was nice to see her play someone a little warmer and softer.

Who Will Win: I don’t see a clear frontrunner here; so maybe Blanchett will win.


Best Director

David O. Russell (American Hustle) ~ Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) ~ Alexander Payne (Nebraska) ~ 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen) ~ Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) 

Who Should Win: You can say it was all visual effects, but Alfonso Cauron made the terror and emptiness of space palpable in “Gravity.”  On top of that, he made perhaps the first truly classic 3D movie, where the 3D doesn’t seem like a neat trick, but an integral part of the storytelling.

Who Will Win:  The Academy tends to see this category as a consolation prize for the best film that didn’t win “Best Picture;” if “12 Years A Slave” doesn’t win, Steve McQueen will win here.  If it does, Cuaron has a shot.  Martin Scorsese has an outside shot as well; “The Wolf of Wall Street” is his most impassioned film since “The Departed,” and it’s great to see on of our best making great movies again.


Best Supporting Actor 

Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) ~ Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) ~ Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave) ~ Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) ~ Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) 

Who Should Win: I don’t know how the Academy decided Bradley Cooper was supporting Christian Bale in “American Hustle,” because the movie really belongs to him.  He bring such ferocious insane energy to the role.

Who Will Win:  Jared Leto, probably, because of the makeup.  The Academy loves that stuff.


Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) ~ Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) ~ Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave) ~ Julia Roberts (August Osage County) ~ June Squibb (Nebraska) 

Who Should Win: Surprisingly, this category has more award-worthy performances than “Best Actress.”  Jennifer Lawrence was incredibly crazy; she reveals more acting talent with each film.  Lupita Nyong’o captivated with her anguished performance.  And Julia Roberts, who I used to hate, was better than Meryl Streep, and that’s saying something.  If any of those three win, I’ll be happy.

Who Will Win: I’d guess Lupita Nyong’o, because a) it’s a great performance and b) she’s a newcomer, really the only one in the big categories, and the Academy likes to reward newcomers, and c) she’s an ethnic minority, and the Academy likes to award minorities in supporting roles (see: Morgan Freeman, Benicio del Toro, Javier Bardem, Octavia Spencer, Mo’Nique, Penelope Cruz, Jennifer Hudson.)



Posted in The Movie Blog.


Silly, over-the-top action flicks are so serious these days.  I’d blame Christopher Nolan, who took Batman — the king of camp when George Clooney wore the cowl in ’97 — and made him dark and tortured again, but more importantly, box office platinum again. But Nolan makes good, if humorless, movies; it’s the hacks trying to be like him who are glumming up what ought to be solidly silly action franchises.

And why is everyone so set on sucking all the fun out of Paul Verhoeven’s movies? Verhoeven was sort of the mad jester of action directors in the ’80s and ’90s; his movies were shallow and stupid but also sly and subversive; they were filled with gleefully weird sequences and often deeply savage social commentary; watching a Verhoeven film, you didn’t know if you should laugh, or cry, or just puke.  The first “Kick-Ass” flick had a spark of the Verhoeven spirit; not much else comes close.  But suddenly, all his movies are being revisited. Last year’s humorless remake of “Total Recall” was hardly bearable, then came “Ender’s Game,” which played like an overly serious remake of “Starship Troopers,” and now, a PG-13 “Robocop.”  What’s next?  A dark and gloomy remake of “Showgirls?”  Spare me, please.

To its credit, even though it’s humorless, the new “Robocop” is a lot better than the new “Total Recall.”  The makers have actually taken the time to reimagine the story, instead of just shooting it on darker sets with fewer jokes. As it stands, “Robocop” is a clean, stylish, well-paced science fiction action flick, for about three quarters of its running time.

The storylines are about the same.  In the new one, Michael Keaton (haven’t seen him in a LONG time) is the head of OmniCorp.  He’s had great success selling robotic soldiers (read: drones) to the military, but a limp-wristed liberal senator has passed a bill forbidding his products from being used on American soil.  Meanwhile, Joel Kinnaman is on the trail of a big-time drug dealer who has connection inside the police department when he gets taken out by a car bomb in front of his house.  Keaton sees an opportunity and seizes it; if he can’t sell robots to the police forces of America, he’ll sell half-robots, half-humans.  And thus RoboCop is born.

Gary Oldman does great work as the scientist responsible for developing the human/robot hybrid.  He’s a principled man but also goal-driven; one small step at a time, his principles are compromised by his goals.  While this is first and foremost a big dumb action flick about a robotic assault machine, it also doubles, nicely, as a look at how a principled man comes to do something he swore he’d never do.

But while the old RoboCop was hardly more than a robot with lips, the new version is much more interested in the process of a man becoming a robot, and asking questions about what it means to be a man, and why that’s important in a field like law enforcement.  Easily the best visual effect in the film isn’t in any of the action sequences; it’s when Oldman pulls away all the robotics, and shows Kinnaman exactly how much of his original body is left.  That scene is horrific and fascinating, Cronenberg-esque, even.  There’s also a gripping scene when RoboCop visits his family, and tries to connect with his son, who looks terribly intimidated by the metal monster that used to be his father.  How do you reconnect after something like this?  Is it even possible?

Though it stars a virtual unknown, “Robocop” loads its secondary roster with ringers that make the movie loads of fun.  Jay Baruchel plays OmniCorp’s PR guy.  Jennifer Ehle, doing her best Meryl-Streep-on-a-bad-day impression, is another of Keaton’s henchman (is she capable of doing anything besides unimpressive Meryl Streep impressions?  I have yet to see it.) Abbie Cornish plays Wife of RoboCop, and gets a great deal more screentime than she did in the original (where she hardly existed.) And Samuel L. Jackson pops up periodically as a Glenn Beck media type, ignoring facts and inconvenient opinions while crusading to get the mecha-cops unbanned.  He even gets to drop an MF-bomb, although it’s bleeped out.  Jackie Earle Hailey has some awesome scenes as RoboCop’s trainer, and adversary (he prefers the fully mechanized versions.) Best of all, Michael K. Williams — Omar from “The Wire” — plays Kinnaman’s partner, though I’ve got to say, that’s a missed opportunity.  This movie would’ve been about a hundred times cooler if the roles had been switched, and Omar could’ve become RoboCop.

The movie was humming along nicely, decidedly exceeding my expectations, until the confused and jumbled third act. Did a different screenwriter take over at the 90-minute mark?  We had a solid, well-paced, somewhat graceful story, in which RoboCop is hunting the drug dealer who ordered the hit on him, all the while tracking down the corrupt cops within the PD that made it all possible.  But then RoboCop catches up with the bad guy way too fast, and so we need a new bad guy, and the plot suddenly gets incredible tangled, bordering on incoherent. The first two-thirds are a solid, entertaining, and even smart action movie; the last third is a complete train wreck.

“RoboCop” seems to want to say something updated and relevant about drone technology and where we’re going as a country, comparable to Verhoeven’s campy but sly commentary on Reagan-era corporate economics. The great thing about satire, and comedy in general, is that you can just skewer things; you point out how stupid and ridiculous they are, but you’re not required to offer a better alternative. This new “RoboCop” adopts a more serious tone, but I can’t really figure out what it’s trying to say.  Drones are bad?  People killing people is preferable to robots killing people?  The point of view is muddled and undeveloped, and that’s a weakness.  But one that’s not really all that hard to overlook.  This new RoboCop lacks the nihilistic glee of the old version, which, in the end, is still the preferable version.  But in spite of its failures and mistakes, it gets a number of things right, or at least close to right.  I’d buy that for a dollar.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

The Act of Killing

“The Act of Killing” is a documentary about the slaughter of hundreds of thousands (some say millions) of “communists” (in reality, anyone who posed any threat at all to the regime taking power was labeled a communist and then killed) in Indonesia in the 1960s. Now I know, that sounds exactly the kind of thing you don’t want to watch after a long day of work, but stick with me for a bit.

The film focuses on two of the  death squad leaders, Anwar (who looks uncannily like Nelson Mandela) and Herman.  They are still considered heroes in Indonesia.  They live comfortably, even luxuriously, though they still think and act like the gangsters they were before their political appointments. In one bizarre scene, Herman goes about collecting his “protection” money from cowed local vendors, and doesn’t attempt to disguise what he’s doing as anything else.  They pay him, because if they don’t, he will hurt them.  That’s how things work in Indonesia, and these guys see no problem with that.  No problem at all.

They’re also film buffs, and when the filmmaker (Joshua Oppenheimer) invites them to recreate their acts of mass murder in familiar film genre styles, they jump at the chance. The results are trippy and bizarre and only vaguely resemble any film I’ve ever seen.

So yeah, these guys are bad, and they’re not sorry, and that’s horrifying for a while, but “The Act of Killing” grows repetitive as we watch scene after scene of them gleefully explaining different killing techniques and making weird, garish, over the top film scenes out of their crimes/achievements.  One guy, for some strange reason, is almost always in drag.  What started out as a compelling film grows tiresome, and then I start to wonder what the point of the film is — if maybe we’re ogling at evil people being evil, because it makes us feel good, because we’re not like them, and we can wonder how anyone can be like them.  There’s a satisfaction in being righteously indignant and comfortably horrified by someone else’s sins.

But then, just when I was about to check out of this film entirely, something interesting happens. During one of the film scenes, Anwar plays a victim, and it gets under his skin. He starts to understand the pain and anguish his victims must have felt in the final moments of their lives.  (As strange as it seems, he seems honestly never to have considered this before.)  And that understanding grows, until, in a harrowing scene where he returns to one of the sights of his slaughter, he is physically, violently sick while trying to talk about what he has done.  And that’s where “The Act of Killing” ends.

From where I sit, this is nothing less than the mysterious grace of God at work in this man’s life. Social psychologists have been telling us for a long time now that our capacity for empathy and compassion work like muscles – the more you use them, the bigger your capacity gets — but that’s not the way we think about them, and it’s hard to make the paradigm shift.  We talk about people with “big hearts” and people with “no hearts” as if they are born that way, ignoring the fact that a big heart can grow small through lack of use, and a small heart can be redeemed.  God never sees us as “stuck” the way we are — He is always calling us to become more like him, and there is no more compassionate act than the incarnation of His Son.  All of us are either becoming more compassionate, or less, through the decisions we make every day. “The Act of Killing” gives us as powerful a picture of this as I’ve ever seen. Here is a man most of us would consider heartless, perhaps even sub-human, yet through the bizarre stunts of an unorthodox filmmaker, compassion is awakened within him, and he repents.

I really wish “The Act of Killing” didn’t end when it did. The film dwells overly long on these men laughing over the terrible things they’ve done, but cuts out just when things start to get interesting.  I would love to know what happens next in the life of Anwar.  Does he have the courage — and the support – to pursue this repentance that he’s felt?  Will he do anything in his life to seek reconciliation with (or reparation for) the families of his victims?  Are his gangster days really over, or will he retreat back into the comfortable life, and the lies that justify the things that he’s done?

The film also challenges me to examine my own life. This is what I, a middle class American, have in common with an Indonesian gangster guilty of incredible genocide:  God is inviting both of us to grow in empathy and compassion for the people around us. And so those questions about Anwar, which I find so compelling, also apply to my life. How will I respond to God’s invitation?

How will you?

Posted in The Movie Blog.

The Bling Ring

“The Bling Ring” is an odd, funny, somewhat artsy film from Sofia Coppolla based on a fascinating Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales titled “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.”  You can read the article here, (and it’s worth reading,) but I’ll sum it up for you: a group of L.A. teenagers burgled the houses of various celebrities over the course of several months.  Based on information gleaned from celebrity gossip rags (and blogs) as well as Google Maps, they visited the million dollar homes of Lindsey Lohan, Paris Hilton and others while they were at parties or away on film shoots, found the security surprisingly lax (Hilton had a spare key under the welcome mat) and stole their clothes, money, and underwear, which they would then wear to parties and nightclubs.

It’s a fascinating story, not least because it tempts us to make sweeping generalizations about “kids these days.”  And generally, when a story like this gets picked up by a film company, the movie that results is a sort of true crime confessional. It dives deep into the characters and their motivations, because, we the people want to understand how and why people could do things like this.  It’s the “Bonnie and Clyde” sub-genre, and it’s a pretty reliable film formula.

But Sofia Coppola seems aggressively determined to fly in the face of that formula. Almost the entire film is shot from midrange, with very few closeups.  Confessional moments aren’t, really – they’re played for laughs (though I was surprised to find that some of the funniest, most outrageous moments come verbatim from the Vanity Fair article the movie was based on.  Real people said things like “I want to run a huge charity organization.  I want to lead a country, for all I know.”  You can’t write this stuff.)  But I think Coppola is keeping her distance on purpose.  This is a movie about surfaces, appearances, and it would be a bit odd to dig beneath the surface of our characters. Contrary to expectations, “The Bling Ring” isn’t going to explain to us what makes these people tick. They are opaque; that’s the point. Us cornfed flyover Americans don’t understand them.  We can throw easy explanations at them, say things about absent parents and celebrity obsession and substance abuse, but at the end of the day, what we have are a generation (or a culture) of surface-obsessed young people, and it’s really anyone’s guess what — if anything — lies beneath that surface.

But once Coppola’s intentions are clear, it’s worth asking whether they’re actually good intentions, aesthetically.  There’s definitely a certain logic in a surface-obsessed director like Coppola making a film about surface-obsessed criminals, and I can respect the idea that you can’t actually get to know real people by watching a fictional film about them. But all this really amounts to is seeing “The Bling Ring” as a negation; it’s a protest against true crime confessionals, in the form of a movie that’s supposed to function as a piece of entertainment. But without something positive to replace what it’s clearing out of the way, “The Bling Ring” feels kind of empty, and even (inadvertently) invites us to fill in its absence with our own conjecture. I’m confident that Coppola is not trying to say anything at all about “kids these days,” and yet, when the credits roll, it’s tempting to say something along those lines anyway.  And so, in that way, “The Bling Ring” itself is like its protagonists (if you can call them that) : it’s all surface, inscrutable, mysterious, and ultimately unsatisfying.


Other random thoughts: 

  • There’s a great sequence of a robbery filmed from several hundred yards away – we watch everything through the giant glass windows that substitute for walls in this reality TV star’s house.
  • I don’t like the “Unsolved Mysteries” structure, and I wish movies would abandon it — or find a way to make it fresh.  I don’t need dramatic scenes intercut with interviews of the characters, explaining what they are thinking or doing.  It feels cheap and lazy, almost as lazy as voiceover, the characters straight out telling us things the director couldn’t figure out how to show us in the scene.  It just makes it worse when the things they’re telling us aren’t that important, or are things we could have figured out from the dramatic scenes.
  • Israel Broussard is an odd casting choice for our main character.  I would expect someone more classically good-looking, or at least someone better groomed.  With his shaggy mop of hair and ever-present hoodies, he looks more like the outcast, creative and sensitive center of movies like “The Way, Way Back” or “Bandslam” than a fashion-obsessed club hopper.  I have a hard time believing that girls like these – pretty, popular, rich girls – would give him the time of day.  Ever.
  •  There are a lot of things I found hard to believe in “The Bling Ring,” and it turns out most of them are actually straight from the true story.  As far as I can tell – and I’ve scoured Google looking for an explanation – a number of celebrities do not have home alarm systems — or maybe they don’t set them when they leave their million dollar houses chock full of designer clothes and top of the line everything. Paris Hilton really did leave a key under the mat.  The Bling Ring was eventually caught thanks in part to security camera footage, but apparently nobody’s checking the cameras very often, because they robbed several of these places six or seven times.

Posted in The Movie Blog.


Johnnie To knows that he’s not making great art here, and he’s okay with that. There is honor in well-crafted disposable entertainment.  Stylish trash.

“Vengeance” makes a half-hearted attempt at being art.  The main character, played by French pop star Johnny something or other, is a former assassin with a bullet lodged in his brain.  The doctors have told him that this will someday, inevitably, cause memory loss, but it hasn’t happened yet.  He lives in constant expectation, snapping Polaroids of things he it would be important to remember.  One of the chief things he must remember is that his daughter’s family was brutally assaulted by hit men; his grandchildren and son-in-law are dead, and his daughter lies in the ICU, whispering “avenge me,” which he promises to do.

But he loses his memory right in the middle of seeking vengeance.  And this is where Johnnie To could choose to be artsy.  Is revenge satisfying for a man who can’t remember that he’s been wronged? If he no longer carries around the pain and rage that was a result of his family’s assault, what’s going to motivate him to keep pursuing the elusive killer? Is there some way his soul will carry the scar of injustice done, even if his mind can’t recall the injustice? Christopher Nolan’s great film “Memento” wrestles with these same questions in compelling fashion, but Johnnie To just kind of shrugs at them – there is one very brief, very shallow conversation about the subject, and then it’s back to work.

But that’s okay, because while there are plenty of films dedicated to exploring the dark side of quests for revenge, there are only a handful of film with action scenes as graceful, stylish, and fun to watch as the ones in this film.  There are lots of gunfights here, and not a single one that is unimaginative.  The centerpiece takes place at a landfill; the good guys roll bales of garbage at the bad guys, hiding behind them as they shoot.  Debris floats through the air, and I kid you not, it looks just as graceful as the doves in a John Woo movie. Johnnie To has taken trash, and made it stylish.  It’s quite a feat.  I’m impressed.

Grade: A-

Posted in The Movie Blog.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Now that we’re two-thirds of the way through it, “The Hobbit” trilogy is forming up to be Middle Earth-lite.  It’s an entertaining series of movies for any and all who thought “Lord of the Rings” was far too serious and grim. Though it occasionally takes stabs at being “epic,” these Hobbit movies are far more interested in just having fun in an imaginary world. Granted, they’re just as violent and bloody as the Rings movies, but even the violence is played for cheers and laughs.  With that in mind, I’m going to run through “The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug” with an eye for its goofiness and fun-loving spirit.

Bereft of their ponies at the end of the last movie, Bilbo and company take refuge in the barn — or maybe the home? — of a bear who turns into the vaguely Native American-seeming Beorn (“once my people were many… we were here long before the intruders from the North took our land.”) He doesn’t like dwarves, but he really hates orcs, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so he equips the company with what they need and sends them on their way.

At the edge of a dark and dangerous forest, Gandalf suddenly decides he has more important things to do, and leaves Bilbo and co. to fend for themselves with hardly a word of explanation.  My theory is that he just really, really hates spiders, because that’s the next trap they fall into– big hairy nasty eight-legged freaks that cast sleepy spells around them and wrap them in spider webs.

All except Bilbo, who has climbed up a tree to get some fresh air, so naturally is well positioned to save his friends, which he does, with the help of his magic Ring. But in the process of fighting the arachnids, the dwarves are rescued/captured by wood elves, who are sort of the Michigan Militia of elves, running around the woods heavily armed and not giving a damn what happens in the wide world beyond the trees.  Legolas is one of them, and he looks exactly the same as in “Lord of the Rings,” because, of course, elves don’t age, and neither does Orlando Bloom.  He moves like Bruce Lee with a bow and arrow, and seems to need no more reason to kill orcs than I need to swat fruit flies in my kitchen: they’re there, they’re annoying and they’re kind of gross.

Legolas has a thing for Tauriel, a she-ninja elf, but her eye is caught by Fili, easily the best (and most elvish) looking of the dwarves.  Of course Bilbo managed to slip the grasp of the elves, and is once again able to free the dwarves for their captors. Bilbo loads the dwarves in barrels and sends them racing down the river and over waterfalls, all the while fighting elves and orcs from inside the barrels, like some secret bonus level in Donkey Kong. It’s the best, most exciting and fun-loving sequence in the film, and also the one with the most gruesome, hideous and hilarious orc kills.  That’s the great thing about a film whose bad guys are hideously ugly and stupid incarnations of evil; you can kill them six ways to Sunday and laugh about it without the slightest bit of squeamishness.

Meanwhile, up North Gandalf meets up with Radagast for about two seconds, then deliberately walks into a trap and ends up in a cage. Because the movie wasn’t quite long enough.  We do get to meet Sauron, but this part is confusing; is he the eye from the Lord of the Rings, or is the pupil of that eye strangely man-shaped?  Is Sauron the pupil of the eye?  Does it matter?  Why is this scene in the movie?

After the barrel fight, Bilbo and the dwarves head toward a singularly unpleasant town built right into an icy lake. It’s like Venice, with canals instead of streets, but in North Dakota.  Everyone there is miserable, as you’d expect. They manage to gain the support of the sleazy town Master, who possesses possibly the worst comb over ever seen on the big screen.  So they head for the dragon’s lair.

Where Bilbo, who manages to find the way in after Thorin and Balin and all the other dwarves have given up and headed back down the mountain, once again saves them.  And then once they’re inside, the dwarves have the gall to tell Bilbo “this is what we brought you for” and send him down alone to face the dragon and find the magical jewel they are looking for. So after he saved them from the spiders, then the elves, then found the one and only secret way in to the dragon’s lair, they basically offer him up as dragon bait.  Nice guys, these dwarves.

Smaug the dragon is fantastic.  At times it seems like Peter Jackson and Co. skimped on the CGI in this film; there are several scenes among the orcs that look like they were made for a video game. But when it comes to Smaug, the CGI team is at their best.  He is fantastically huge, and moves with real weight and power.  He also, surprisingly, has a personality, and suffice it to say that Smaug is pretty smug. He loves taunting Bilbo when he should probably be eating him, and can’t pass up a chance to boast about his own majesty and power.  The scenes – which make up the final half hour or so of the film – are really thrilling.

“Desolation of Smaug” ends on a cliffhanger – as all good middle films in a trilogy should – with Bilbo uttering “What have we done?” as the screen fades to black.  Watching the film was a goofy, giddy good time, not unlike a barrel ride down the river. Don’t take it too seriously, don’t compare it to the book (always a bad idea) and it’s a lot of fun.  I enjoyed it a lot more than the first film, and it’s got me looking forward to the finale.  That’s progress.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Out of the Furnace

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Until you spend half your life just covering up

You know how “Born in the U.S.A.” is constantly misunderstood?  It’s a song about a disillusioned Vietnam vet who can’t find a job and ends up in prison, but it has such a singable, apparently patriotic chorus that even the Reagan reelection campaign in the ’80s used it to stir up patriotic fervor?  “Out of the Furnace” is a lot like that song. When I describe the plot to you, you’re going to think it’s a different move than what it really is.  But here goes anyway:

Christian Bale is a steel meel worker, like his father before him, somewhere in Pennsylvania.  His little brother, Casey Affleck, would rather die than work in the mills, and joined the military at an early age.  After four tours – two at least were stop-losses – he comes back from Iraq angry and scarred by the things he’s seen. He tries to channel that anger into bare-knuckle fighting, but keeps getting himself in trouble because he won’t take a fall when he’s supposed to.  He ends up crossing a psychotic Woody Harrelson, who puts a bullet in his brain and buries him in the woods.  The local PD is some mixture of apathetic and helpless when it comes to Harrelson, so it’s then up to Christian Bale to seek vengeance for his brother’s death.

That sounds pretty thrilling, doesn’t it?  The thing is, director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) works really hard to suck all of the thrill right out of “Furnace.”  This is not an action film.  This is not a myth of redemptive violence, or a chance for moviegoers to get a vicarious thrill out of watching a guy take justice into his own hands and kill all the people who have done him wrong. This is not that kind of movie.

Which is not to say it’s a bad film, not by a long shot.  “Out of the Furnace” is moody, atmospheric, brooding – one might even say slow. And Bale’s quest for vengeance doesn’t even get started until the final half hour of the film.  Cooper uses the rest of the film to set up this familiar movie trope as nothing more or less than the final, violent act of a man who has lost everything he loves, lost all hope, and doesn’t care whether he lives or dies anymore.  Yeah, this is that kind of movie.

Bale, in an excellent, subdued performance, plays a guy who really just wants to be a good, solid American, but is betrayed at every turn by everything he believes in. He believes there’s honor in an honest day’s work, but his dad is dying from sickness he contracted from a lifetime in the steel mills.  He believes in his country, but his little brother comes back from Iraq terrible damaged and with no good options for what to do next.  I’m not sure if he believes in God, Fate, or what, but whatever it is seems to have it out for him as well: after having a drink at a bar, he gets in a car accident on the way home, killing a kid, and goes to prison for it.  (The way it’s filmed, it sure looked to me like the accident wasn’t his fault and would’ve happened even if he’d been sober, but those are the breaks, I guess.) Oh, he also believes in the love of a good woman, but while he’s in prison, his good woman (Zoe Saldana) won’t visit him, and by the time he gets out, she’s carrying the police chief’s baby in her belly.  Frankly, if one more bad thing happened to this guy, this would stop being a moody drama and become a black comedy.

In light of all that, Bale’s decision to find the guy responsible for his brother’s death, is not heroic, it’s tragic. It’s the act of a man who has stopped believing in the American dream – that if he keeps his nose clean and his head down, is patient and persistent, good things will come his way and everything will work out in the end. He knows he’ll go to prison for it, but there’s no longer any reason to stay out of prison. The final moments of “Out of the Furnace” chronicle the final, forever defeat of a good man.

Christian Bale is great — isn’t he always great? And it’s fascinating to see him play a blue collar character so different than the one he played in “The Fighter.” But as good as he is, he’s upstaged in almost every scene by the quiet rage of Casey Affleck. The younger Affleck is a better actor than his brother, and it’s a crime we don’t see more of him on the big screen. And Woody Harrelson is genuinely terrifying. But really, this film belongs to the folks behind the camera. You’ve got to give the second unit a lot of credit; it’s filled with beautifully grungy establishing shots of the kind of world this characters live in — from smalltown steel mills to rundown Appalachian farmhouses.  (In fact, beautiful is the wrong word – this images are dirty and ugly, but on purpose and with intent.)  And this is a movie that’s deeply interested in this setting . I haven’t seen a place so powerfully evoked in film since “Gone Baby Gone”‘s depiction of Boston.

“Out of the Furnace” isn’t going to be for everybody, and the trailer’s kind of deceptive, so I can imagine some rather disgruntled moviegoers emerging from the theater after this one.  But taken for what it is, it’s a fine, admirable film, with lots going for it, and one I’m glad I took the time to see.



Posted in The Movie Blog.