Defiance

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Have you noticed the color schemes of the art for these recent films I have reviewed here? Brown or blue … the more mature films are dark. 2008 films deal with death, a lot of death.

Defiance is no exception. It is a dark film because it is about the Holocaust. It is filled with light, however, because the story is about people who were willing to sacrifice themselves, their comfort and even their lives if necessary,  so that others might live.

Defiance is at least the fourth Holocause film this year (and the second this month: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Reader, Valkyrie). Like Valkyrie, it is based on a true story.

Daniel Craig (Quantum of Solace), Liev Schreiber (The Painted Veil), and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliott) play the three Bielski brothers, Jewish partisans, who saved 1, 200 Jews (mostly from the Warsaw ghetto) by building a series of hidden villages in the forests of Belarus. A fourth, younger brother died early on. Non-Jews persecuted and pursued them; many non-Jews also helped them as they robbed from farmers to feed the refugees. They also took some revenge; they were not perfect heroes.

Edward Zwick directs; some of his previous accomplishments include films with deeply human themes: Glory and Blood Diamond.

Tuvia (Craig) rallies the refugees in the forest by focusing on human dignity and freedom:

“Every day of freedom is an act of faith; and if we die trying to live then at least we will die like human beings.”

“Our revenge is to live.”

“… to live free as long as we can.”

Defiance is not an easy film; the brothers and other able men and women did what they had to do to live; the brothers were ruthless in their protection of the Jewish people in their care. There is war violence and there are graphic battle scenes in the forest. At one point, a man challenges Tuvia’s leadership and Tuvia shoots him dead. Tuvia also forbids infants, and therefore sexual relations. A secret village with so many people can be discovered by a child’s cry. It is a harrowing when a young woman secretly gives birth not knowing what will happen.

Defiance is a war movie about humanity and hope.  I liked the three lead actors, and the others, very much, artificial accents and all. Excellent cinematography, thanks to digital technology (if this was done on film it really is exceptional.)

Defiance is based on the book “Defiance: the Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec. While the film shows the “take no prisoners” approach of the Bielski brothers (they had no means of caring for or guarding prisoners), the controversies about their participation in at least one atrocity (so far unproved), are not mentioned.

Nevertheless, Defiance  is a worthy contribution to the growing body of films about the Holocaust.

Gran Torino

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Clint Eastwood is a consistently busy actor and filmmaker, one of the best ever. His current directorial effort is a moving portrayal of a mother in search of her son in the historical drama/police thriller The Changeling. It is sure to garner some awards.

Now here comes Gran Torino, in which Eastwood stars and directs. (Is he the best actor-director or director-actor ever? Maybe…)

In this new film Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a grumpy Korean War vet. He is a widower who is alienated from his family and prefers his front porch, beer, dog, guns and his old Gran Torino.

His neighborhood is rapidly changing; a family of Hmong move in next door (Hmong are a southeast Asian ethnic group; the people in Laos helped the US during the Vietnam war as the family explains to Walt).

Some Asian gang members try to get the son, Thao (Bee Vang), to join them. He resists and things get ugly. Walt helps the family during a gang assault and they practically want to adopt him. He resists, just as he resists the efforts of his parish priest, Fr. Janovich (Christopher Carley) to go to confession – his wife’s dying request.

When he catches Thao trying to steal his Gran Torino, Walt begins to train him to be a man though he really wants to ring his neck. As grouchy and racist as he is, Walt begins to change and you can feel his affection and concern for the family next door growing. He cannot resist their love and goodness. And we start to like Walt, too. There is much kindness in this film.

-spoiler alert-

Things heat up. The gang becomes more aggressive, angry at being dissed and humiliated by Walt. When Thao and his sister are gravely assaulted, Walt realizes he can do something. What was a film dotted with vintage Eastwood, becomes deadly serious. All this time the priest has become suspicious that Walt is up to something, something really big with moral implications. Walt’s son and daughter-in-law covet his house and car and badger  him to move into a retirement home. His health isn’t that great.

Walt figures the only way he can save his neighbors is to make sure the gang members are no longer a threat. So he goes to their hangout and stands there, unarmed. When he reaches for a lighter, they think he is drawing a gun and open fire and kill him. They are all arrested and the family next door is safe to live the American dream.

Like Seven Pounds, this is a film about dying so others may live. In Seven Pounds, the Will Smith character Ben Thomas kills himself. In Gran Torino, the Eastwood character deliberately goes to the gang’s house to draw their fire. Is there a difference here?

I did not like Seven Pounds at all. I think what disturbed me most of all is that Ben acted out of so much guilt and he was so misguided. In Gran Torino, it is like being in a Western. How much of my interpretation of the film rests with American mythology? Enough that I can accept suicide by gang so that others may live? Did he choose to do this because he was a patriot, a decent human being, or because he was getting old anyway? Is he a hero, an anti-hero? Was he a guerrilla soldier in a urban war? The cops wouldn’t stick around, even though the priest begged them to, so the shootout happened beyond the limits of civil and religious “law” .

These two films have much in common from the perspective of the morality of life & death issues, but I want to give Gran Torino a pass; it made me feel good. I enjoyed it. Loved the song that Eastwood sings at the end… kind of sad, though, and maybe the lyrics were a little fatalistic from what I recall. (Need to hear it again.)

Both Seven Pounds and Gran Torino beg to become part of an ethics/morality course; they beg to become part of sermons and homilies. If we don’t talk about these films and question them in the public sphere, they blend into popular consciousness and conscience and what is wrong becomes right.

Did Walt do a good thing? And Ben Thomas in Seven Pounds? I believe they thought they were doing good things. But the ends never justifies the means. So, now what? What if they have never realized this in a postmodern world?

It’s one thing to throw oneself in front of a car to push a person out of harm’s way; the intent was not to die but to save the person. Here, both of these characters knew they were going to die.; one deliberately kills himself and the other lets gang members do it. Were they throwing themselves under a bus to save others?

Or were they playing God? Certainly Smith’s Ben Thomas was. It is less clear to me about Walt.

So many questions, so little time.

(I am also intrigued by the Catholic voice through a priest that appears in Eastwood’s films such as Million Dollar Baby. The priests say the right things, but Eastwood walks away. He chooses….)

Revolutionary Road

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Revolutuionary Road is directed by Sam Mendes who also brought us the 1999 multi-Academy Award winning film American Beauty. This new film revisits many of the same themes as American Beauty:   white upper-middle class prosperity and accompanying ennui and the search for meaning in a life as empty as the sweet little house in the suburbs that Frank and April Wheeler, the subjects of the current film, buy.

Revolutionary Road, however, goes back forty years before American Beauty to the pretend pretty life of a couple who set up house in a kind of cultural vacuum. Their parents must have come of age and married during  the depression (although they never appear) and now, in post-World War II America, April and Frank Wheeler (Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio) seem to have only magazines for their role models; they behave, when they are not fighting, as if they are in a 1950’s “wholesome” television show. When the polite facade crumbles, their heartbreaking angst bursts forth in screaming matches. We know their relationship is doomed from the beginning. Seeking a reason to exist, both have affairs.

Kathy Bates is the real estate agent who sells the perfect little house to the perfect couple. At the end, when she is talking (and talking and talking) to her husband about how the Wheeler’s never were the right people for that house. he turns off his hearing aid, staring into nothingness. They are an older couple, but banality has descended on them as well; Bates is in blythe denial and her husband can only hang on by turning her off.

Revolutionary Road is based on a 1961 novel by Richard Yates. I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, and I think Yates, and by extension, Mendes, captured the era well. Revolutionary Road adds insight, I think, into why Woodstock happened, why the peace movement erupted along with the sexual revolution and why hippies jumped off the grid. The 60’s could never have happened without the rejection of the 50’s.

It surprised me that Yates,  in this his first novel, was able to capture the culture and ethos so well, when he was living in those times. It takes extraordinary vision and sensitivity to communicate ones own contemporary life from the inside out …. But then Walker Percy accomplished this as well in his first novel The Moviegoer, published the same year (and won the 1962 National Book Award). That Sam Mendes, decades later, is able to recreate the 50’s life and soul so well attests to his great talent as a filmmaker, creative genius and cultural imagination.

From a faith perspective, the story ignores the influence of religion. Would faith have made any difference to April and Frank? I think even in religious families of the era the search for meaning often questioned the status quo, a status quo that failed to answer the deepest longings of the human heart in a changed world.

What is jarring, yet once again insightful and relevant, is the argument April and Frank have when she becomes pregnant with their third child. She speaks of abortion and her reasons are complex: they reflect existential desperation as well as inconvenience. Be warned, the tragedy of her suburban despair is heartbreaking and difficult to watch.

Principles and beliefs that Americans took for granted needed to be re-explained in meaningful, truthful, and relevant ways, and that “new” generation of young families, could have looked to faith. But they didn’t, at least not the Wheeler’s and their generational band.

Revolutionary Road is a serious, difficult, jarring film without any transcendent American beauty. It is a depressing experience in existential angst. (Where is Woody Allen’s annoying humerous neurosis when you need it?)

Nevertheless, it is worth seeing if only to study the times, to understand where we are today – or perhaps to understand our parents or grandparents and their times.

From a media literacy education perspective, I would examine how the film shows the influence of pretend life of 1950’s American television. It is a very intelligent film; watch the parallel construction throughout, between April and Frank, home and work; family and neighbors; expectations and reality, and “how we should be” vis-vis how we really are.

This is also a film about communication in a marriage – or lack of it. The difference between hearing and listening; why get married? A question the Wheeler’s never really ask themselves. It’s just what you do.

Hope arises from the film simply because the alternative and consequences that April’s character chooses, are unacceptable.

Di Caprio and Winslet are excellent in their roles, but it is not a feel-good story of self-sacrifice. It is about lives examined generations too late.

 

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Valkyrie

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Valkyrie is a tragic film, all the more so because you know how it will end before it even begins. 

Tom Cruise plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg as the leader of the 15th plot to assassinate Hitler during World War II. This particular attempt took place  on July 20, 1944 when the allied invasion of Normandy was underway. 

The film shows how indecision at crucial moments led to its ultimate failure.

Even though we know the ending and watching the film is an intense experience, it is always an inspiration to see stories about people with character and who follow their consciences knowing the consequences if they do not succeed. They knew Hitler and his henchmen were thugs and murderers and were committed to stopping them. They wanted to show the world that not all Germans were like or believed in Hitler. As the men wanted to prevent the needless deaths of their soldiers and liberate the camps, they also hoped to negotiate a settlement with the  advancing  allies knowing the end of the Third Reich was near. 

Excellent cast, direction, and cinematography. This isn’t a film about the stars; it is about heroes in a time of great human need. 

Heroes indeed.

We always need heroes.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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This film is develped from by a short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It tells of a man who is born tiny, but with the body of an 80-year old man. It is the turn of the 19th century in New Orleans. His mother dies and his father is caught in the act of trying to be rid of the monstrous looking child. Benjamin is left in an old people’s home, there he grows up and younger, meets the love of his life (Cate Blanchette) and it is there that he returns to die.

This is a beautifully wrought film; even stunning. There is one scene where the Cate Blanchette character performs a ballet and it took my breath away. And there is a tug boat captain with an accent (Scots?) that defies comprehension.

However, as much as some critics say this is a film about life and love, living and dying, grasping each moment and living it to the full, it was so painfully slow that it lost me after one hour. I lost the anticipation – and expectation – that I would be inspired.

At more than 3 hours, it does not get interesting until the last hour.

The film may well be a meditation on life, but I didn’t find that it drew me to hope in life after death; if anything the film’s ideology is deterministic and based on fate.

Do I sound grumpy about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? Well, I suppose I am. 

Benjamin says: “Life is defined by moments, even the ones we choose to miss.”  I didn’t miss the film’s 166 minutes, but I think I missed the point – and the reasons for all the hype.

Where are the editors, story editors, film editors, all kinds of editors, when you need them? Guys! Get a grip!

David Fincher, an excellent director, even one of my favorites despite his often violent subject matter, has created a masterpiece of sorts. Perhaps I need to see it again.

Yeah, that’ll be the day.

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Post script~

I have just returned from  Christmas Midnight Mass. During the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, I began thinking about Benjamin Button.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.

You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing, as they rejoice before you at the harvest…. (Is 9:1-6)

The second reading was from Paul’s Letter to Titus:

Beloved: The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject worldly and godless ways and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope….” (2:11-14)

The Gospel was according to Luke, recounting the birth of Jesus

“… and there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord shone round about them….” (2:1-14)

It occurred to me that I was hearing God’s Word through some of the greatest and most beautiful poetry ever written, about the greatest story ever written, and that The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button, more than a meditation (which is a very demanding word), is a cinematic poem of life, love, and death to be savored.

As such, it is easier to “accept” the film into my artistic, spiritual universe.

Just a thought….

(It was still too long!)

Bedtime Stories

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A brief comment on this new Adam Sandler movie: the kids at the screening loved it. It was short on affection for tofu but rich in benevolence for children. Yes, flatulance caused much laughter, but so did the guinea pig with really big eyes. He was like the squirrel in the Ice Age films; no one knew why he was there, but that little beast became the funniest character in the franchise.*

Sandler plays Skeeter, a would be hotel manager who is stuck as a lowly maintenance man. He dreams that the hotel owner will keep his promise to Skeeter’s dad that the young man will one day be the manager. Skeeter must care for his niece and nephew for a week while their mom looks for a new job.

This is not a brilliant movie but Sandler doesn’t over-do his goofiness; he is kindness itself for the kids.

On the “bedtime story” meter, it ranks quite low; the fantasy sequences are silly. But the interesting thing is that as Sandler tells his stories, the kids “rewrite them” with what they think are the right endings. I liked the way Sandler interacted with the kids and listened to them as they imagined their stories (that turned true in “real life”).

The little kids in the audience loved it and so did teens even though they didn’t want to admit it. I walked out with two young teeen boys and one of them said, “That movie was really lame.” I asked them, “Then why are you smiling?” And they started laughing.

One thing that disappointed me about the film is its lack of ethnic diversity in the principle actors; Disney usually makes a real effort to represent audiences in its films. Something to talk about….

* I am not suggesting there should be a Bedtime Story franchise … heavens! But there may be a future for that guinea pig!

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The Tale of Despereaux

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The Tale of Despereaux is a feast for catechists, and for those who teach character education.

My time is short right now, so I cannot do it justice, but it is quite sophisticated in terms of themes. It may seem a bit “dark” but traditionally, “fairy tales” are very dark. What Despereaux has going for it is that it deals with grief and its influence on people, what loneliness and misunderstanding can lead people to do, and how love, courage, and kindness can bring us to reconciliation.

I think the film could be at least 15 minutes shorter (even though it is only 90  mins.) but I found it touching, wonderfully animated (yes, those ears made me think of Dumbo! and the ‘soup’, ‘rodents’ reminded me of Ratatouille), and full of heart and humanity.