Archive for August, 2012

The Princess Bride

Year of Release: 1987     Directed by Rob Reiner.  Starring Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Peter Falk, Fred Savage, Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn, and Chris Sarandon.

Since you are reading this review, I would like to say: “Thank you very much.  Very nice of you.  Your vote of confidence is overwhelming.”  So begins a grandfather (Peter Falk) as he reads a book to his sick grandson. (Fred Savage)  Not just any book, mind you.  A book that his father used to read to him, he read to his son, and now he is going to read it to his grandson.  A book about fencing, torture, revenge, poison, escape, miracles, and true love that should keep even the most skeptical audience awake.  And his grandson is quite skeptical about this book, The Princess Bride.

Unfortunately, many movie viewers seem to share the grandson’s  skepticism.  While the film certainly does have a decent number of ardent fans, there is also a large number of equally ardent detractors who focus on the small flaws and write it off as a dumb film for children.  The Princess Bride is not a children’s film; it is a film that viewers of all ages can enjoy, with solid moral messages about true love, excellent performances, great directing, hysterical humor, a very well crafted story arc, and countless quotable lines.

The story concerns Westley, (Cary Elwes) a farm boy who worked for Buttercup, (Robin Wright) doing everything that she wished.  Eventually she realized that he loved her, and was surprised to discover that she loved him in return.

Since Westley had no money, he set out to make his fortune and was murdered by the Dread Pirate Roberts.  Buttercup swore she would never love again when she heard the news.  Several years passed, and Prince Humperdinck (Charles Sarandon) chose Buttercup to be his bride; thus she became the titular princess bride.  He knew that she loved someone else, but he said that she would learn to love him in time.  On the day of their engagement, she is kidnapped by Vizzini, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik. (Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, and Andre the Giant respectively)  Vizzini plans to murder her in order to start a war, a prestigious line of work with a long and glorious tradition, even though Inigo and Fezzik don’t think that is right.  As inconceivable as it may seem, Westley had escaped death from the pirates, and when Buttercup learns this, she knows that he will come for her.

Almost all the protagonists are driven by a form of love.  True love is shown to be unconditional, and the movie portrays all forms of love: affection, friendship, romance, and charity.  Even in the face of death, Westley keeps going in order to save Buttercup.  He understands the sacrificial nature of love, which is first shown when he was a farm boy.  He would always say, “As you wish,” to Buttercup, showing that he was willing to sacrifice himself for her.  Buttercup is willing to risk danger, such as the fire swamp, to be with Westley, and will sacrifice her happiness for his safety.  Inigo Montoya is driven by love for his father and never abandons his search for his father’s murderer.  Director Rob Reiner said that the main theme to this film is a grandfather who visits his grandson to teach him that true love is the most wonderful thing in the world.  The Princess Bride shows that a true sacrificial love will conquer all obstacles, regardless of whether that love is between family, friends, or lovers.

The score by Mark Knopfler utilizes a docile theme played on guitar for true love in all its forms amongst all the characters.  Variations of this theme occur whenever love becomes the focus of a scene, whether that is Westely and Buttercup working on the farm, Inigo Montoya discussing his father, or even Fezzik helping his friends.

There are some small flaws in the screenplay.  Nearly all the characters have omniscient knowledge regarding actions and motives of other characters.  For instance Inigo Montoya somehow knows that Westley loves Buttercup, and that she is engaged to Humperdinck when he had no way of learning that information.  However, the omniscience of all the characters contributes to the whimsical, fairy-tale atmosphere and can easily be overlooked in light of the film’s charm, humor, and other strengths.

The arc of the story is nearly perfect.  The multiple conflicts simultaneously reach their low points as well as climax and resolve together.  Once Westley’s conflict for Buttercup reaches its climax, the film immediately cuts to the climax of Inigo Montoya’s conflict.  An early line of Westley’s foreshadows several developments and setbacks that occur later in the film.

The entire cast gives great performances.  Cary Elwes and Robin Wright are endearing as the young lovers.  Mandy Patinkin is energetic and compelling as Inigo Montoya, bringing conviction and believability to a role that easily could have been a goofy stereotype.  Peter Falk is perfect as the caring but tough-love grandfather.  Chris Sarandon and Christopher Guest are malevolent and completely embrace their evil actions, which adds to much of the humor.  Finally Billy Crystal and Carol Kane have an hysterical cameo as an eccentric miracle man and his wife.  Reiner reportedly had to leave the set for their scene because he was laughing so hard.

So let me explain.  No, there is too much; let me sum up.  The Princess Bride is a great film with great themes and great craftsmanship that the entire family can enjoy, not just watch together.  There’s a shortage of near perfect films in the world.  It would be a pity to miss this one.

Content Advisory: Mild peril including a couple scenes of torture, some swashbuckling, an instance of profanity and mild crass language.                        MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Dogville

Year of Release: 2004     Directed by Lars von Trier.  Starring Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Patricia Clarkson, Stellan Skarsgård, Lauren Bacall, and John Hurt.

(There may be some spoilers; I need to discuss aspects of the second and third acts of this film.)

Deeply disturbing, graphically sexual and violent, and thoroughly unpleasant are all apt descriptions of Lars von Trier’s Dogville.  However, despite the brutal nature of the content, the film does not merely wish to shock or offend the viewer.  It offers much food for thought and arrives at a somewhat moral conclusion, even if it gnaws at one’s conscience in the process.

Nicole Kidman plays Grace, a helpless young woman running from a group of gangsters.  She arrives in Dogville, a small depression era town of fifteen members located in the Rockies.  Although the town is reluctant to offer her shelter from the gangsters, the local philosopher/writer Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany) persuades the members to give Grace two weeks to prove that she is not a threat and that she can help the town.

Grace insists that she has nothing to offer the town, but Tom thinks differently.  At the end of the two weeks, the townspeople decide to let her stay, not because they pity her or wish to extend hospitality and charity to her, but because they find her useful.  When the police begin inquiring after Grace, the inhabitants maker her more useful.  She helps with the schooling of one family’s children, cleans up at the local shop, and works in the orchard with the farmer.  And as the only young woman in the town tells Grace with relief, Grace has diverted all the men’s attention onto herself, which the young woman finds a welcome relief.

All the men’s attention includes that of a twelve-year-old boy and a blind elderly man.  And all the men take advantage of her in ways ranging from aggressive flirtation to fondling to rape.  The only man who does not sexually assault Grace is Tom.  However, he mistreats her as well.  Tom never cared about Grace as a person.  Her presence suited his philosophical theory that Dogville was unwelcoming to strangers, and he wanted to use her to prove his point, which the characters demonstrate in spades.  When Grace shows Tom errors in his theory, his consequent actions are as deplorable as the rest of the town.

Dogville is too generous a name for the town to describe the townspeople.  I like dogs; it is demeaning to them to compare the actions of the characters to dogs.  Sodomville or Gomorrahville would be a much more fitting name for the town.

I do not think that Dogville’s portrayal of greed and animosity is supposed to be representative of the nature of America, as many critics have claimed.  The montage with the final credits is insulting, but it could just as easily be any other country.  The film’s tagline is “A quiet little town not far from here,” suggesting that the level of brutality displayed by the inhabitants of Dogville is the common nature of all of mankind.  That is much more problematic than any slight anti-Americanism.  At the end of the film, Grace is given two choices: surrender her goodness and kindness to her brutal, mafia boss father; or surrender her goodness and kindness to despair and consequentialist denial as she is repeatedly abused by the townspeople.

There is no third option.  Either one brings an Old-Testament like vengeance to one’s transgressors, or one adopts moral relativism, pretending that sin is no big deal and should be overlooked in favor of any miniscule goodness.  The film explores no option of repentance, forgiveness, or just punishment for crimes.  In Dogville, justice cannot be tempered with mercy, and is therefore not just.  The godlike figure, with the power to enact a final reckoning if he chooses, is a brutal gangster, representing a savage, unmerciful god.

Another problem is that the behavior of the town inhabitants is so repulsive that any viewer drawn into the film will be rooting for their demise in a very un-Christian manner.  When the gangsters return with their machine guns at the film’s end, the first thought to cross one’s mind is: finally, these brutes are going to be held accountable for their crimes.  The only problem is that this sort of reckoning is as sadistic as the townspeople’s actions.  To be fair, this sort of brutal reckoning is depicted to be horrible and as repulsive as the abuse Grace suffered, but accepting abuse or returning it in equal are disturbing alternatives.  What happened to Grace’s earlier wish to leave the town and the gangsters behind?

It is no coincidence that Kidman’s character is named Grace.  Throughout the film she does personify grace to a grievously sinful world.  It is tragic when she is forced by dramatic necessity to abandon that grace, and the film does not deny this tragedy.  What the film does do is say that this tragic loss of grace is inevitable.

Von Trier structured the film nearly perfectly.  The set design is a black stage with minimalistic sets and lighting.  White chalk lines serve as borders and most of the props, which the viewer has to imagine as if he were watching a stage production.  This design also creates closeness among all the characters and their actions.  Sin and its consequences affects everyone; when one character commits an offense it remains visible to the viewer even if the camera is focused on another area of the set.  Therefore, the consequences are dramatically justified, even if they are not morally justified.  Those consequences are poetic in nature, and skillfully foreshadowed.  Despite the artistic excellence and very accurate representation of sin, the pervasive hopelessness will make all except the most discerning viewers wish to avoid Dogville.

Content Advisory: Many explicit depictions of rape, one with nudity; shocking, brutal violence; and a hope deprived worldview.                         MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with extreme discernment.

Personal Recommendation: C

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The New World

Year of Release: 2005     Directed by Terrence Malick.  Starring Colin Farell, Q’Orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer, and Christian Bale.

The New World is Terrence Malick’s poetic and meditative telling of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 and the subsequent fictionalized love story between Pocahontas and John Smith, and later John Rolfe.

In Malick’s film, John Smith (Colin Farell) is not a brazen expedition leader, but a reclusive and thoughtful individual.  Smith is portrayed as an outcast from the beginning.  He is first seen in the ship’s stockade and supposed to be hanged upon landing for mutinous remarks.  The captain (Christopher Plummer) has a change of heart and, after pardoning Smith, selects him to meet with the leader of the Native Americans to discuss trading for provisions.  The mission fits Smith’s character; the outcast is cast out into the wilderness to risk his life after near execution.  While living among the naturals, as the British call them, Smith begins to feel more at home as he learns the ways of this new land.  But once he settles into the lifestyle and begins romancing the chief’s daughter Pocahontas, (Q’Orianka Kilcher) Smith feels just as awkward about his new situation as he did about his previous one.  Smith’s reclusiveness and desire for adventure stay with him throughout the film.  Towards the end of the film, one character asks Smith if he ever found what he treasures, and he responds, “I may have passed it.”

Kilcher is incredible as Pocahontas.  She gives an understated performance that captures the character’s vulnerability and strength, her insecurity and resolution.  The understated performance also captures Pocahontas’ wonder and fear as she discovers English culture.  While she does suffer heartbreak, loss, and mistreatment, she also discovers joy and compassion.  Her two suitors represent two aspects of the new world Pocahontas discovers.  While one of them brings suffering, the other brings redemption.

There are two new worlds in this film, and Malick skillfully balances their portrayal and revelation.  The first half of the film concerns Smith’s discovery of America and the customs of the natives as he falls in love with Pocahontas.  The second half of the film depicts Pocahontas as she discovers English customs and culture.  During this time, she leaves her love for Smith in her old world, and embraces John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and the new world that he introduces to her.  The first thing that Smith saw in the village was the homes of the Native Americans.  Pocahontas first admires the architecture of the British when she goes to England.  When Smith first arrived at her village, Pocahontas saved his life through a surprise appearance and gesture of kindness.  He was released from his bonds and could be free among her people as a result.  At the end of the film Smith repays the debt through a surprise appearance to Pocahontas, which releases her from old bonds, allowing her to find happiness in his world.  Both Pocahontas and Smith have extensive voiceovers, letting the viewer learn their innermost thoughts as they discover their new worlds.

Despite marvelous discoveries, the most important thing in either world is connections and relationships.  For all the beauty and potential of America, Smith is most preoccupied with Pocahontas.  Rolfe is equally smitten when meets her, and he does not care in which world they live as long as they are together.  Pocahontas tries to foster community between her people and the settlers, and fears for the safety of both groups.

There are no stereotypes in the film.  All the characters that Malick created have believable emotions and actions.  There are no overtly malicious villains like Radcliffe in the dreadful Disney Pocahontas.  Antagonistic characters are driven by human emotions such as fear or destitution.  The Native Americans are rightfully concerned about the presence of the English.  Both groups are capable of tremendous violence but also kindness.  Christian Bale’s Rolfe is one of the most respectful portrayals of an onscreen Christian.  Even though he has all the markings of a stereotypical villain who ruins the romance between the crossed lovers, Rolfe is compassionate and caring.  He brings hope, light, and love to Pocahontas, even to the point that he risks losing her by allowing her to leave.

The only major flaw with the film is that Malick takes too much for granted regarding the viewer’s knowledge of American history.   Pocahontas and John Rolfe are never actually named; it is assumed the viewer will automatically know who they are.  Other historical names are quickly tossed around as the characters build the Jamestown settlement, but the viewer is not given enough time to determine who is who.  It does not really matter, because the focus of the story is on Smith, Pocahontas, and Rolfe.  But the historical dabbling seems slightly out of place without a little more connection to the rest of the film.

On the other hand, no director whom I can think of captures the beauty of nature better than Malick.  If one stopped his films at any point, the picture on screen would make a breathtaking photo that could be framed on its own.  Malick’s cinematography creates a mesmerizing, relaxing, and engaging atmosphere that transports the viewer through the world of the film.  This world contains fish swimming through the water, a sunset across a lake, sunlight pouring through the branches of a forest, a rippling brook, the swirling first snowflakes of Winter, new buds forming as Spring arrives, well-kept English gardens, and the royal courts.  All of these elements are portrayed with such care and appreciation for their natural beauty that the viewer almost feels as if he is there basking in the glory of nature.

The use of Wagner adds greatly to the film; Malick selected some of the best possible excerpts.  The main theme is from the opening of Das Rheingold, a simple melody and harmony played by the horns and strings.  It has a motionless, yet awestruck quality that grows in dynamic and in range as the settlers appreciate more of the new world.  James Horner contributes to the score with Smith’s theme, a melancholic melody for solo piano that captures his reserved nature.  It is also out of place in comparison to the rest of the score as Smith feels out of place among the Englishmen and among the natives.

The New World is more than a fictionalized retelling of an historic event.  It poetically captures the beauty of both American and England in 1607, bringing the viewer into the new worlds and allowing him to discover them along with the characters, while watching a poignantly filmed romance as if he is discovering another beautiful new world.

Content Advisory: Some brief but intense combative violence and fleeting shots of naturalistic partial nudity.                     MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A

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Hope Springs

Year of Release: 2012     Directed by David Frankel.  Starring Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, and Steve Carell.

The best thing about Hope Springs is Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep, who both give stellar performances.  The veteran actors play Arnold and Kay, a couple married for thirty-one years, who have lost nearly all the romance from their relationship.  They sleep in separate bedrooms, which they are reluctant to share with one another.  Nor do they communicate their thoughts, emotions, or concerns.  When Arnold kisses Kay goodbye before leaving for work, it is clear that that action has become a thoughtless routine.

The opening scene shows Kay attempting to make herself sexy so Arnold will sleep with her.  When he expresses clear discomfort at the idea, she goes to bed disheartened.  The next day is their thirty-first anniversary.  The only thing they did to celebrate is have their two children over for dinner and buy a new cable television subscription.  Kay decides that she wants to return their marriage to the way it was, supposedly full of passion with the two of them constantly growing in their love.

She discovers a marriage counselor, Bernie, (Steve Carell) who lives in Maine and offers intensive week-long therapy sessions to troubled couples.  Arnold is less than enthusiastic about the prospect when Kay informs him of her plans to meet with this counselor.  However, he ultimately decides to accompany her.

The meetings with Bernie are predictably awkward and painful for both Kay and Arnold.  Streep and Jones are very convincing in their roles, making the therapy sessions very believable and discomforting for the audience as well.  Carell adds to the realism of the scenes through his empathetic listening and quiet seriousness, and it was enjoyable to watch him play a serious role.  As Bernie grills them about their sex life, the movie does not wish to titillate the audience or score cheap laughs.  As discomforting as these scenes are, the movie treats the subject with much respect and portrays the disarray of Kay and Arnold’s marriage as tragic.

However, there are some very crass moments, especially when the movie attempts to make fun of the awkward sexual tensions as Kay and Arnold attempt to reinvigorate their sex life outside of the counseling sessions.  While the scenes during the therapy are presented respectfully, almost all sexually themed scenes outside of Bernie’s officer are depicted as humorous when they are really just as tragic.

The acceptance of any forms of sexual gratification within marriage is highly problematic.  The procreative aspect of sex is never discussed, and even the unifying aspect is downplayed as subservient to the pleasure of the couple.  An attempt of Kay’s at sexually pleasing Arnold does end in failure and makes matters worse; however, the failure is due to Kay acting artificial rather than being herself.  There is a subtle acknowledgement that sex is supposed to be a representation of both spouses completely giving themselves to one another, and it should last throughout all of marriage.  But that suggestion is undermined by the clear indication that non-traditional methods of sex are perfectly acceptable.

One element that I did appreciate is that the broken marriage is clearly depicted to be the fault of both Kay and Arnold.  Neither one is more to blame than the other.  Over the years, Arnold has slipped into apathy regarding his marriage, but so has Kay, even though she claims that it is Arnold’s indifference that has damaged the marriage and she wants to save it.  When Kay first declares she wants marriage counseling, she announces to Arnold one day before the counseling session begins that she has booked them a reservation.  At the sessions, when she tries to blame Arnold, Bernie often points out her own shortcomings.  Arnold also has failed in his marital duties as well.  He often belittles and criticizes his wife, which the film depicts as cruel and painful for Kay.

In the end, Hope Springs does acknowledge that for a successful marriage both spouses must make sacrifices for one another, communicate with one another, and grow continually in their love, never accepting a passive, routine relationship.  This can happen in small ways, such as watching TV together or expressing one’s concerns or wishes.  While far from perfect, the positive, albeit secular, portrayal of marriage along with solid performances makes Hope Springs a chick flick with some redeeming content, but that will probably not outweigh the more problematic aspects except for the most discerning viewers.

Content Advisory: Much frank sexual dialogue, several depiction of sexuality, acceptance of deviant sexual acts, and occasional profanity.                      MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: D+

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From Here to Eternity

Year of Release: 1953     Directed by Fred Zinnemann.  Starring Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Philip Ober, and Ernest Borgnine.

All three of Fred Zinnemann’s most famous movies contain protagonists who have one characteristic in common.  They all take pains to cultivate a well-formed conscience, and then follow that conscience regardless of how inconvenient it becomes.  My favorite film, Zinnemann’s 1966 A Man for All Seasons, tells the story of Thomas More who follows his conscience over his king.  In High Noon, Gary Cooper’s Will Kane does what he knows is right despite opposition from all of his friends and neighbors.  And in From Here to Eternity, young Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) faces similar opposition when he insists on following his conscience.

This conflict begins as soon as Prewitt is reassigned to a new military base after requesting transfer.  The leader of that base, Captain Holmes, (Philip Ober) wants Prewitt, who is a renowned boxer, to fight on his boxing team so his regiment can win the annual tournament this year.  However, Prewitt has quit boxing ever since a horrible accident occurred in a fight a year ago.  In hopes of breaking Prewitt’s resolve, Holmes has his subordinate officers make Prewitt’s life a living hell.

The viewer will quickly realize that the anguish over the boxing tournament is futile.  The military base is located in Hawaii; the year is 1941; and the tournament is schedule for December 15th.  It is a foregone conclusion that the tournament will not be held.

Other endeavors are more meaningful, but they are also acted upon without any sense of urgency, and therefore they do not attain fruition.  The looming threat of war does not register with the soldiers or with any of the civilians.  The characters are enjoying cavalier lives in Hawaii, picking petty but nasty fights over boxing or other disagreements, chasing after women, and spending much of their leisure time intoxicated.

The foreknowledge of the viewer helps him to appreciate the looming destruction, which makes most of the characters’ choices seem trivial.  Or, if a character has made a good decision, procrastination undermines it.  From Here to Eternity asks the viewer to consider what is most important in life.  And how does one determine what is most important in life?  By following a well-formed conscience.

Not only does From Here to Eternity present a characters who follows a well-formed consciences, it also shows characters who follow poorly-formed consciences.  Prewitt has two convictions, both of which he tries to follow resolutely.  He will not box, and he will remain loyal to the army.  However, like most men, Prewitt does have a breaking point.  His greatest trouble occurs when he disregards his conscience to follow his conflicted emotions.  Prewitt’s good friend Private Maggio (Frank Sinatra) is hotheaded enough to believe that he truly is standing up for some noble cause when he accosts the sadistic stockade sergeant (Ernest Borgnine) and when he abandons his guard duty.  These actions accomplish nothing and cause more tragedy than Maggio imagined.

Simultaneously with Prewitt’s struggles, Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster), the second-in-command at the military base, is struggling with his own problems.  He has fallen deeply in love with the neglected wife (Deborah Kerr) of his superior, Captain Holmes.  Warden is sick of assisting Holmes in Holmes’ ruthless behavior.  However, Warden does not wish to be disobedient to his commanding officer, nor does he wish to abandon his position and his duties to the army.  Warden’s actual decision is kept hidden with suspense until the final crisis hits.

When the final crisis hits, all the characters are caught unprepared.  The disaster raises the question of what is most important in life, suggesting that one should reflect on the choices he would make if he knew of an imminent crisis.  The disaster also forces consequences upon the characters for their actions and choices.

Every character is held accountable for his or her choices.  A character who wants a “normal” life squanders the one chance she has for happiness.  Another character’s desire for prestige is his undoing.  Maggio’s impulsiveness leads to much trouble for him and others.  When Prewitt ignores his principles, he endangers himself.

Zinnemann structured the film incredibly.  Early scenes cleverly foreshadow later ones.  When Warden first enters Holmes’ office, a picture of Holmes’ wife stands on the opposite side of the room, balancing the shot with Warden.  As Warden makes important plans for the next day, the camera slowly pans across the room to catch the date of December 6th on a calendar.  Zinnemann skillfully draws terrific performances from the entire cast.  All the actors convincingly portray heartbreak, passion, and resolution.  Their interactions are engaging and believable.

From Here to Eternity won a well-deserved eight Oscars in 1954, and it remains as timeless and as well-crafted today as it was then.

Content Advisory: Scenes of fighting including boxing and a knife-fight, a sympathetic portrayal of adultery, and much drinking.                              Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A

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