Archive for August, 2012

A Separation (2011)

Starring- Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi, Merila Zare’i, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Babak Karimi, Kimia Hosseini, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh, Sahabanu Zolghadr

Director- Asghar Farhadi

PG-13- mature thematic material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58Onuy5USTc

MODERN COMMENTARY, SEPTEMBER 2015:

I was going through that phase of every emerging adult’s life where you start developing your political identity. Sue me. Despite that, I think this is actually one of my early “good” reviews — one where you can see me thinking about and wrestling with the material, trying to make emotional sense out of it, instead of just falling back on old story and character checklists. As to the movie itself, I am still hopelessly in love with it. Even more so than I was then.

“A Separation” made me think of Ayn Rand.

That’s kind of a weird thing. There isn’t any logical connection between this Iranian film and the central tenets of objectivism. This is not a political movie. It contains political elements, certainly, but only as means to the plot, never ends. They’re simply functions performing a service. And certainly none of them are related to economics.

But at the same time… “A Separation” is stunningly effective at being what almost amounts to a deconstruction of objectivist theory, a thorough conveyance of why it does not work.

And I’m speaking here of objectivism as a moral philosophy. I tend not to want things to be about politics, especially as I’m inundated with everything surrounding the upcoming presidential election. No, this is about a personal lifestyle, the conviction of objectivism that man’s highest morality is the pursuit of self — to never live for the sake of another man, and to never ask another to live for one’s own.

“A Separation” almost certainly isn’t targeting any moral philosophy specifically. It is more likely simply a story constructed around its creators’ views of the world in which they live. It is, above all else, real and human. If there is an agenda in it, it was far from me.

But whether by accident or design, its conclusion seems to be this — that seeking one’s own ends exclusively, and no on else’s, will rarely end well, for oneself or others. It creates a world in which everyone is looking for bigger and bigger sticks and no one is ever quite secure or happy.

Granted, objectivism does not, to my knowledge, allow for the deliberate harm of others in the pursuit of self. It has to function within rules. However, that system only works if people don’t make mistakes, if people don’t occasionally harm others, even if by accident.

“A Separation” is predicated on a pair of acts that cause such harm, one leading into the other.

The first is the titular separation. The film is centered around a newly divorced couple, Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). Simin wants to leave the country and take their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), abroad to give her a better life.

Nader can’t. His father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) has Alzheimer’s disease, and there is no one else to care for him. He can’t leave him.

“Does he even know you are his son?” Simin asks him.

“I know that he is my father,” Nader replies.

The argument over the circumstances leads to a divorce — one that persists even after Termeh declares that she wants to stay with her father. Probably it remains more out of stubbornness than necessity, not that either character would admit it.

With Simin gone, Nader is forced to hire a housekeeper, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), in order to care for his father while he is at work.

What happens next I wouldn’t care to disclose. It happens relatively early on and most likely wouldn’t be considered a spoiler to anyone other than those who prefer to go in with no knowledge whatsoever and therefore certainly aren’t reading this. Nevertheless, it would be far more shocking and dramatic, I think, to allow this particular twist to be experienced afresh.

In the end, what starts as a simple family drama turns into a gripping procedural within the Iranian justice system, as Simin and Termeh are drawn into a conflict between Nader and Razieh, and her hot-tempered husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini), regarding a crime that Nader may or may not have committed.

And the most fundamentally interesting thing about it is this — there is not a single dehumanized or stereotyped or caricatured individual in this bunch. These are five different people living in five different circumstances and possessed of five different sets of motivations and personality types.

The viewer comes to understand each of them intimately. At a certain point, it becomes clear that perhaps no one is completely innocent or completely guilty. It’s also clear that the couples are engaged in a zero-sum game — no matter what the end result, someone is going to walk away permanently damaged.

If only these characters could be bothered to do what the film does for the audience — understand one another. Understand why they fight and what they are fighting for. Understand their pain and their pride.

This is where it ends up being almost an anti-objectivist film. Beyond the initial two actions, the separation and the crime (and both events occur under complex circumstances that completely exonerate no one), every decision made is a perfectly justified one, in the sense of seeking self-interest, largely reasonable and almost exclusively legal. It ought to pass easily on the basis of objectivist morality, and yet, with each stubborn, prideful, self-seeking decision that is made, the characters get mired deeper in a labyrinth of problems and complexity.

The entire film is built like a house of cards of moral dilemmas. At a certain point, it seems as though each scene adds a new one, compounding the situation. Both parties are in tight financial situations — Hojjat likely needs the money, though he wouldn’t admit or ask for it, and Nader would suffer to pay for it. Justice is demanded, but Nader is not convinced of his guilt — and were he to be punished, what would become of his father?

Simin gets dragged in. She encourages Nader to pay because she fears for her daughter’s safety. But she also knows that if Nader pays, there may be guilt on Razieh’s hands. But if Nader doesn’t pay, then justice must be served by the government, and then the situation comes back to his disease-stricken father. Razieh herself is caught between religious convictions and fear of her husband.

No one could possibly escape it with clean hands — unless, of course, pride were to be set aside, and the four were to sit down and discuss things rationally, Nader not assuming innocence and Hojjat not assuming guilt, each staring into their own situations and deciding they must take precedence. It would take only one unselfish act to begin unraveling the web.

This is true even of the divorce. Both parties have an argument, clearly, one focusing on the daughter’s welfare and the other the old man’s. Nader’s problem appears to be in stubbornness, his need to intertwine his stance on the subject and his ego; he won’t bend, because that would betray weakness. Simin’s problem is that she is entirely blind to her own faults; she never proposes an actual solution for the situation with Nader’s father, seemingly content to simply leave him to his own devices.

Even in the crime that is committed… What is done, if indeed it is done, happens in a situation that is justifiable, if not necessarily morally correct. Nader has very good reason to be angry and very good reason to make the moves he does. So does Razieh, if only her religious fear did not compel her to keep silent as to what those reasons are.

A little understanding would shed a little light. Probably a little love as well. Everyone in this film is too quick to take criticism as attack and equally too quick to make it so. It would almost be a point of contention, were it not for the fact that I see this behavior everyday, in friends, in family — occasionally in myself, like it or not. There is a territorialism that we have, and sometimes, it blinds us. We become focused on what is justified rather than what is right. And every character in this film is perfectly justified. Nonetheless, few do what is right — and when they do, it’s far too late.

It’s a staggeringly human film, which uplifts it. “A Separation” could not possibly have worked on any level with poorly written characters; fortunately, it excels in this field almost above all other things. By way of confession — this was my first foreign language film. No lie. There’s a tendency going in to think that there’s going to be this massive cultural hurdle to jump over, that you’re going to see people behaving in ways you don’t understand and for reasons that make no sense to you.

Instead, more than any film I’ve seen this year, “A Separation” is populated by characters who reminded me almost uncannily of people I see around me. The fact that this is an Iranian film affects only minor political and cultural details; the story otherwise could have been told exactly the same way in any country.

The separating couple I’ve already described, and I know many people like them. Their daughter, Termeh, is the heart and soul of the film — a young girl thrust into a situation that’s far beyond her, used as a weapon first between her parents and then between her parents and the couple accosting them. She is manipulated so thoroughly by them, despite their clear and apparent affection for her, that it becomes impossible to predict with whom she will choose to go in the end. It almost doesn’t matter. One certainly cannot envy her situation.

Even the antagonistic couple, if they could truly be called that, come off as remarkably human, the husband a strict, protective, and easily angered man and the wife devoutly religious and conservative to a point that borders on paranoid. Neither of them are bad people; at least, no more so than the characters the story follows.

The story is wrought with real emotion as well. It is very minimalist, doing a lot with a little — a handful of sets, a small cast of characters, tight handheld camerawork, and even no score. I frequently accuse many dramas of being emotionally manipulative; this one doesn’t even stoop to the lowest and most obvious of blows. There are certain things one is trained to expect out of a drama like this, in terms of its story and of its ending. Few of those things happened. “A Separation” is not enslaved to any particular formula. Rather, it is permitted to flow freely and go where it will. It is unpredictable, but only in the sense that we’ve become accustomed to knowing what we’re getting right out of the box. It is a story of real life that has the pacing and flow of real life. It is all spaced out perfectly. When its big emotional crescendos come, the audience is right where the director and cast want them to be. The acting is phenomenal, by the way. It’s a shame I’m unlikely to see any of them again in the near future.

It’s been hailed not only as the best film of 2011 but as one of the best of the last decade. It is certainly up there, no doubt. I’m not sure I echo the sentiment entirely, though. Even for the year, I think “Take Shelter” might still take top prize from me. This is for a singular reason — “A Separation” does contain, near the end, a plot twist that, while it is implied throughout and could not be accused of coming out of nowhere, in fact actually causing the story to make a bit more sense, still serves the purpose of largely exonerating one of the two combating parties of moral responsibility in the events that occurred. In a plot that is a labyrinth of moral dilemmas, it seemed to me too easy a resolution, like an escape hatch that prevents anyone’s decisions from impacting on them overmuch. If there’s no personal responsibility, there’s no decision to be made, right?

Nevertheless, “A Separation” is fantastic and largely deserving of its accolades. It is to its fortune that it is a film about understanding that comes from a country that needs to give and receive it very badly. It is realistic, human, and highly relatable, emotionally raw and effective. And it is a deeply necessary reminder that if we’re not living for love, then our defenses had better never be down.

And they will be.

 

-Matt T.

Margin Call (2011)

Starring- Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Aasif Mandvi, Ashley Williams, Susan Blackwell

Director- J.C. Chandor

R- language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2DqFRsPrns

MODERN COMMENTARY, OCTOBER 2015:

I won’t lie, 20-year-old Me’s airport lobby joke made 24-year-old Me laugh. I should write a novel about Bland Action Hero F-117A. I’m still not really a money and numbers guy; I’m never going to make my fortune on Wall Street. I guess I understand these things marginally (see what I did there?) better now than I did then, because I’m significantly more engaged with Adult World these days. But this kind of thing is still over my head. I suppose if you’re reviewing a movie you didn’t understand one bit, this is the type of review you ought to write; alternatively, it might be better to just not.

“Margin Call” is probably a brilliant film. I say this because I found it mostly compelling despite the fact that, throughout its entire run-time, never for a single solitary second did I have a single solitary clue what was going on.

Yeah. People are a bit surprised to learn this about me, because I minored in Political Science. As though politics and Wall Street business/finance/tax law/what-have-you are the exact same discipline. And also as though a minor in Political Science at a state school gets you something other than a substantial amount more study of the First Amendment than the average human being.

But, yeah. Money is numbers and technical terms, and numbers and technical terms are THE DEVIL. I am the single most right-brained human being on the planet. Financial stuff is so far above my head that it shuts down entire runways the second I step into the airport lobby.

(That was bad. I’m sorry.)

(But I’m not changing it.)

So. In “Margin Call,” there’s a big, evil corporation that does stuff related to money and numbers and technical terms. They’re in the middle of a big layoff, and Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is one of the victims. On his way out, he hands a flash drive over to young industry newcomer Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), telling him it’s something he was working on and that it’s big.

So, Peter sits down with a computer and does some stuff. Then, his eyes get really wide, and the music gets dramatic. He summons his immediate superiors — Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) and Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) — back to the office.

Apparently, technobabble technobabble mathematical formula something really bad is going to happen. Something involving… Money, numbers, and technical terms. The firm has to decide either to do something bad, do something worse, or do something something something. It’s clear that at least one of the options involves screwing over a lot of innocent people in order to save the bottom line… Or just to save the owners, or whatever. I’m not really sure if any of the options allowed for the survival of the company.

I really understood this movie.

That it is, somehow, still compelling is surely, then, the result of some very black magic. Or perhaps just some very good acting, because there’s a lot of that.

You can tell just from reading the list that this cast is tipped strongly toward the heavyweight side of the spectrum. I almost wonder if making films like this is so professional it comes near being boring. I mean, when you see Stanley Tucci walk onto the set, you don’t start wondering if he’s going to deliver today.

It’s also probably really cliché to say, “Kevin Spacey is the best thing about this movie,” but, well… Kevin Spacey is the best thing about this movie. Not only is his performance extremely strong — the type of acting that conveys overbearing and pervasive anxiety so well that it starts to make you share in it a little bit — it is also centered around the most relatable and understandable character arc.

Spacey is basically playing his character at a time in his life that I think we all reach at one point or another — what does my life mean? What is the purpose of any of this? For him, it takes the specific form of office politics — does the world actually need me? Do I exist only to consume and destroy?

He’s wrestling with keeping the company alive, but he’s also trying to keep himself alive. He ends up being the heart and soul of the film, providing it with very nearly 100% of its most poignant moments.

I also attribute my bizarre enjoyment of this film to the fact that, after far too long a period of time, I think I’ve finally reached the point where I derive far more enjoyment from watching juggernaut actors playing real human beings and acting as hard as they can at each other, delivering lines that are real and layered with genuine emotion and meaningful subtext, than from watching Bland Action Hero F-117A blowing stuff up. For me, this kind of is dumb fun. I mean, it’s not dumb, but it’s way over my head, so I have to treat it that way. I didn’t know what was going on, nor, at a certain point, did I care. The actors and dialogue were awesome, and I was having a good enough time being wrapped up in that. Even the technobabble has its moments. I mean, they just say it with such conviction.

It really is the actors that keep it afloat overall. Even if you, like me, are a colossal idiot, one look from the actors in this movie is enough to convey when something dire has just happened or when someone is midway through a business-related existential crisis. With lesser performers, “Margin Call” would be pretty strictly for the already initiated.

Beyond those basic elements, the film is kind of impossible to criticize, because that would require, well, understanding it. Note that I do not blame the film for this. Movies shouldn’t talk down in order to include more people. Some films aren’t for everyone, and I am totally fine with that.

But picking it apart in depth would require a more detailed understanding of the events surrounding the film. I’d like to say that it makes the mistake films like it most frequently do — focusing on the least interesting characters in the situation, the more likable ones being swept up in circumstances bigger than them, and doing so at the expense of the people making the actual decisions. I’d like to say that “Margin Call” misses its shot at getting inside the head of a person willing to screw over a massive and mostly innocent portion of the population, one defenseless against its machinations, in order to save his or her own bottom line.

But then again… Well, maybe “Margin Call” does that. I find that the most important character information is often contained in what seem like throwaway lines or minor and insignificant turns in the plot. I didn’t understand the decision they had to make, for one thing. Therefore, any scenes focusing specifically on that were lost on me.

It’s entirely possible that “Margin Call” portrays that situation brilliantly. It’s also possible it completely drops the ball and documents events rather than interpreting them. I’m not the review who’s going to give you any clue about that.

Due to a bizarre and borderline impossible combination of strong dialogue, strong direction, and extremely strong acting, “Margin Call” is a compelling watch. But it’s only going to be loved by people who know about this stuff. For people like me, well, I liked it, but I wouldn’t watch it again. If I can’t examine the underlying forces and motivations behind what’s going on, then I can’t very well revisit it either.

For experts on this subject, however, it probably warrants a very strong recommendation. It’s a movie that’s probably great; it just doesn’t happen to be one I care for all that much.

 

-Matt T.

The Hunger Games (2012)

Starring- Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Amandla Stenburg, Dayo Okeniyi, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Jacqueline Emerson

Director- Gary Ross

PG-13- intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FovFG3N_RSU

WARNING—Review addresses major spoilers. However, none of them will be spoilers to those who have read the book.

I attempt to write reviews without becoming insufferably elitist. Lest it occasionally become unclear, allow me to assure you—I am fully aware of the subjectivity of this whole thing. Any art form, really, is what you ultimately take away from it. Our experiences inform so much of it that, at a certain level of detail, it almost becomes impossible to discuss it outside of that framework.

But good night. Does anyone else, whether your field is film, music, literature, or some other medium, ever feel like the vast majority of people have completely lost their ability to interpret creative works within their thematic context?

I try not to opine about the “good old days.” However young you think I am, I’m almost certainly younger; that’s been my overwhelming experience in online interactions. I’m not old enough to remember the “good old days,” or if they were even good.

But those of you who are… Was there ever a time when people could leave a movie discussing what it was about? And not just that, but what it meant? What it was trying to say, and how it affected them and was applicable to their lives personally? Did that ever happen?

I say none of this as an indictment of “The Hunger Games.” The oddity of this review is that I’m going to spend a lot of it complaining, and very few of those complaints will be related to the actual film, which is very nearly the most stellar possible adaptation of the book. Seriously, it’s way better than it should have been. Flawed? Well, yes, certainly, and we’ll get there.

But it’s still pretty good. In some small ways, it’s even an improvement upon the book, which I also liked with caveats that I’ll get into later on.

It is, however, an indictment of the large part of the people who have become self-identified fans of the property. In fact, fans of “The Hunger Games” may actually irritate me more than fans of “Twilight” and “Transformers.” Because while “The Hunger Games” is certainly, in my opinion, the far superior work (well, I haven’t actually read or watched “Twilight,” which I suppose counts me among a lucky few), at least fans of the other two aforementioned franchises get what they’re about, you know? It’s rare I’ll hear a “Transformers” diehard defend it as anything other than, “It has explosions, and explosions are fun.” And “Twilight” fans pretty much know it’s calculated romance designed specifically to make them swoon.

Fans of “The Hunger Games,” on the other hand… Honestly. The best context I can provide is my own. I read the novels simply because they’d become pervasive to the point that I felt like I was being left out of a major cultural dialogue that was occurring.

I like Suzanne Collins’ description of the series as a “war story for children.” When I finished the trilogy, I left not with the impression that it intended to provide a societal commentary or to examine the root causes of American reality TV infatuation or blasé attitudes towards violence, particularly in the media. I hear those criticisms, of the film and books alike, and I understand them. But I’ve always viewed the trilogy as being more about providing context, a window into some of the harsher realities of the context of violence. It’s almost devious in this regard, in the way it essentially tricks young adults into reading an “action” series that in truth is designed to show them violence in an up-close, personal, and complex way, causing them to maybe think twice about things.

It’s true that the first two books are a bit neutered in this regard. The film suffers a bit from it as well. But I forgive them every bit for that shortcoming because of how fully realized it was in the trilogy capstone, “Mockingjay,” a novel that disturbed me so profoundly that I had to go for a walk afterwards, and was thinking about it for days to come.

My reaction to it was an unusual one: “Kids should read this.”

I figured that there was no way it couldn’t get through to them, that they would read it and immediately be disabused of any notion that war and violence are glamorous and fun exercises in grand heroics and adventure.

Now that I’ve watched the movie, I’m really not so sure.

To be fair, I already kind of knew but hadn’t seen it in a way that was really in my face or that drove it home. After reading “Mockingjay,” I hit the Internet hoping for some in-depth discussions of its thematic material; what I got was “Team Gale vs. Team Peeta” B.S. I probably should’ve figured it out then.

Unfortunately, I didn’t just watch “The Hunger Games.” I watched it with members of its target audience. I say this not with judgment or condemnation for any particular individual in my life. Rather, I am concerned about the whole prospect on a societal level.

And I should also make it clear—not everyone is super artistic about things like this, and that’s okay. But this goes beyond that. This goes to the point where it almost seems like some people can’t even place it in an emotional context. Here I was, watching the movie every bit as distressed and sad as I was while reading the book. And here all these people are, just having fun, expressing their appreciation of the movie in terms of how “awesome” it is. We both watched the same thing, and I wonder, “What’s the difference here?” Is it a cultural thing, something that shifted between generations? When I was a child, I naturally had no capacity for artistic interpretation; one could make the argument that I still don’t, certainly not to the extent that others do. I have seen discussions of this very film that are far beyond my level. And yet, when I was a child or a young teenager, this movie would’ve disturbed me profoundly. I might not even have been able to watch the whole thing.

(And again—this is not a criticism. The film and the books are supposed to be disturbing. They appear to be about the consequences of violence and therefore couldn’t very well afford not to be.)

Do I even need to illustrate this? Here’s an example. This is taken directly from the TV Tropes Crowing Moment of Awesome page for “The Hunger Games”:

“One of the most simply awesome moments of the film however is when Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) in a rage kills Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman) in revenge after hearing her boasting about her group killing Rue (Amandla Stenburg). He simply grabs her head and slams it against the wall until she stops yelling. The guy’s largely a walking Offscreen Moment of Awesome, but we get to see exactly why everyone respects him.”

Do I really need to point out that the character mentioned here is portrayed by an actress who was fourteen at the time of filming? And that the character is largely assumed to be about the same age?

People are watching that, and instead of being upset, they’re thinking, “Dude, he killed her with his bare hands! That’s awesome!”

It’s not because the scene plays out that way. True enough, Clove is sadistic and murderous. But it’s implied strongly enough, particularly in Cato’s (Alexander Ludwig) final scene, that the only reason she and the others even are that way is due to a lifetime of cultural programming. When Cato dies, his last words make it clear—he’s figured out that killing is the only thing he’s good for, the only way he knows to find worth and love and appreciation and honor. It’s all he can do. His parental programming has left for nothing else.

And yet, we found both of these scenes…awesome. Not unsettling, not disturbing, not saddening, not compelling us toward wanting an end to violence or a start to kinder and more emotionally effective art.

It’s not because these scenes play it for fun. I’ve always taken some level of umbrage with the series for creating “villain” kids to put inside the arena and soften the moral dilemmas. And I still do take some small amount of it.

But at the same time, when “The Hunger Games” is interpreted as a war story for children, the presence of tributes who are violent, warlike, and sadistic actually makes a certain amount of thematic sense. In any given war, we have an enemy, and what they do might indeed be deeply wrong. But it is never because they are simply evil. They have a litany of reasons for what they do—cultural experiences that inform their worldviews, parents and societies who program them, desires that they don’t know how to properly address. In order to respond with true heroism, i.e., with compassion, we have to understand that.

The movie, in a sense, is almost better at this than the book was. Only so much can get conveyed in words. There’s a difference between the way true movie villains die and the way the antagonists go out in this. Real villains either go out stoically, with a last line of defiance, or quickly, with no time allotted for an emotional response. If there is a response, it’s an exaggerated one, the human version of a snake contorting in death throes after being set aflame.

But here… When Clove sees Cato barreling towards her with murder in his eyes, she collapses into the shrieking teenage girl she is, screaming for help and mercy. Cato goes down a blubbering, hurting mess. Another tribute, attacked by mutant wasps, is lingered upon as she writhes and claws at herself, screaming. Her corpse is seen a bloated and disgusting wreck.

And it seems, sometimes, that the majority of people who watched that interpreted it as an action movie—fun, engaging, designed to entertain and distract the brain for a while.

This is not about artistic interpretation. This is about a basic-level understanding of what a given scene is attempting to make you feel. There is very little fault on the film’s part in this matter. Yes, it was clearly neutered a bit to keep the accessible PG-13 rating; the shaking camera and quick cutaways are rather obviously employed to keep the carnage more or less sanitized.

And yet, it’s disturbing, deeply so, because everyone in it, antagonists included, is human and ultimately more victim than aggressor.

Is this simply how desensitized we are now? That we have been so trained on violent imagery within the context of fun that we can no longer interpret it as anything other than that, regardless of how hard the movie tries? There is a place for adventure films, mind you, but they need to be viewed within their own context as well and understood for what we are. And among them, we need to reward the ones that celebrate heroism and defense of the innocent, rather than the catharsis of consequence-free violence in and of itself.

I wonder if that’s the source of the reality TV obsession this movie occasionally criticizes. Granted, I’ve always found this aspect overstated—the theme is certainly there, but I personally find it usually gets sidelined in favor of the war story angle. The entire movie nevertheless reeks of the scene in “Gladiator”: “Are you not entertained?”

The people of the Capitol are vapid, celebrating violence, viewing it as strictly heroic. That one struck a little close to home as I was watching it. More interesting to me was a fact I managed not to notice in the book: that the citizens seem to think the tributes enjoy the honor of being selected to participate in the Hunger Games.

They are distanced from the tributes as human beings. The tributes themselves put on a face and pretend to be something that they are not, so that they will be better able to survive in the arena.

And doesn’t that define a lot of reality TV? It often focuses in on the anger and weakness of its subjects, exploiting them for cheap drama that is then consumed risk- and consequence-free by legions of fans.

It’s interesting how close the two themes end up coming.

And I just wonder what happened. Didn’t people once watch “To Kill a Mockingbird” and understand not only that Tom Robinson’s death was a sad and wasteful affair, but that it was directly pertinent to prominent racial issues at the time? Didn’t they watch “Dr. Strangelove” and understand that it was more than a funny and stupid comedy, instead providing relevant and biting commentary on the pervasive Cold War of the times?

I wasn’t there, but it’s hard to imagine they didn’t. So, why has this changed? Violence in media is a hot-button issue; violence in the name of self or country or interests or whatever is even more so. It’s not as though the reality subtext doesn’t exist or is buried under mounds of numerous more pertinent social and political issues.

And it’s not, again, as though it’s buried within the film either. The film could certainly elevate it to a higher level of prominence, but at the same time, there is an incredibly basic level on which these scenes are clearly intended to be not fun. And yet, a lot of people had fun, and continue to do so. And I seriously do not on any level understand why that is.

I am attempting to say all of this without condescension or self-righteousness. My awareness of the problem does not indicate my complete innocence in it. But there is clearly something going on here, and it worries me.

Perhaps, as usual, I am reading too deeply into the societal implications of things. It is frequently difficult for me to approach stories as a consumer, given that I also write them and understand that my worldview shows up in them. At the same time, I also view art perhaps first and foremost as dialogue, as a way of expressing complex ideas in a more potent and emotionally involving way than simply laying out an argument.

And on that level, I do not understand how the worldview being espoused by “The Hunger Games” has been so profoundly distorted. The response is not encouraging to me. Not everyone approaches things on the same level, but I should think that the imagery in the film and the books ought to be disturbing on some common denominator shared by all human beings, that we ought to be able to read or watch those moments and understand that something is happening here beyond mere entertainment and fun.

Why aren’t we?

I almost kind of admire the so-called “moral guardians” who have protested these books and the film based on them. I think they are misguided in the sense that they don’t appreciate the context in which the scenes they find problematic are placed. They think the property is saying something that it isn’t. In all honesty, “The Hunger Games” ought to be socially constructive. The fact that it hasn’t been is almost entirely our fault.

But at least they’re responding on a human and compassionate level to some of the things presented. They might be wrong about it—in my opinion, dead wrong—but at least their hearts are in the right place.

I don’t know that I can say as much for the most frequent response to those accusations: “It’s just a book/movie! It’s not real! It doesn’t affect me! Lighten up.”

To that, I say, “It never is. Its implications are. It absolutely does. And why would I?”

“So, how is “The Hunger Games” as an adaptation as far as quality?” I’m sure you’re all wondering, all two of you who haven’t completely given up on me at this point.

Well, it’s a pretty solid and faithful adaptation. It’s flawed, yes, and it borrows some of those flaws from the book. But it works extremely well, and it is, as others have said, a far stronger franchise kick-off than, say, “Harry Potter.”

It’s of compelling make. It has the same breathless, anxious, and disturbing tone set forth by the book. Afterwards, I felt the same as I had when I read it: like I needed to go out and run for a while, or at least pace back and forth viciously.

The cast is pretty well perfect throughout. I objected to Jennifer Lawrence taking the lead, Katniss Everdeen, but only because I knew she was perfect for it and didn’t want to see her getting typecast. But in the end, she is still, well, perfect for it. I also can’t say that I’ve ever been quite as impressed by Josh Hutcherson, but then again… Well, has he ever been in a movie that required an emotional range from him before?

Numerous other young actors make quick but memorable impressions as the other tributes in the arena. Veterans like Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, and Elizabeth Banks bring their A-games. Wes Bentley is suitably twisted as the Head Gamemaker, but he has an interesting touch of youthful ambition and passion about him. And Lenny Kravitz, despite my initial bafflement at his selection for the part, is now the only person I think I could ever imagine as Cinna. It’s clear that Gary Ross, or whomever delivered the final word on the matter, has a strong head on his shoulders for casting.

The movie follows the book rather faithfully. In some ways, it improves upon it. This mainly manifests in its ability to take the story away from Katniss’s POV—we see a lot of behind the scenes stuff for the Games, including much of the role Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) takes on (the scene where he witnesses the little boy being given a sword for his birthday is stellar, by the way). There’s also a subplot following Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane that does a great job of dealing with the motives behind the Hunger Games and the ins and outs of the Capitol’s general modus operandi. Crane’s updated death scene is one of the film’s most fantastically executed moments. An added scene conveying a riot in District 11 may be my favorite in the entire film, if only for the emotional resonance and punch that permeates it.

At the same time, the book managed certain things better. The movie is very interested in the “games” part, but not so much the “hunger.” The book had an element of living off the land and surviving alone under harsh circumstances; the movie alludes to it, but mostly figures it’d be boring and skips over it. This can leave the second half of the movie, the arena half, feeling quick and lacking in the same mood the books established—a give-and-take of tedium and shocking brutality. The ending is rather rushed as well. It doesn’t put its characters through quite as much hell—Peeta’s leg injury, for instance, lasts only as long as the film needs it to in order to set up the second Cornucopia scene, and is then dropped as a plot element. He keeps the leg in the end.

Those are nitpicks, however. More problematic is the fact that it does soften itself occasionally. The new dialogue from Cato is great, mind you, and the deaths are every bit as horrifying as they need to be, if occasionally too much out of focus. The extra scenes in the Capitol also help drive the point home.

At the same time, the movie does a poor job of externalizing Katniss’s moral dilemma. One of the book’s most compelling questions was this: “How far would you go to survive? Who would you be willing to kill?”

In the book, she spends time thinking about the Career Tributes on which she drops the hornet’s nest, or the boy she arrows to save Rue. She questions herself regarding those actions. In the movie, this isn’t so clear; those moments are too soon forgotten.

It’s also clear by the end of the book that she’s suffering from some mild PTSD-type symptoms as a result of her ordeal. The rushed nature of the ending here leaves little room to convey this somewhat vital piece of information. The movie handles itself extremely well in moments, rendering them visceral, disturbing, and effective. But when it comes to examining their effects on the characters in the final scenes, it comes up a touch short.

This is true in general, actually. You see it in the relationships between the characters. In any given scene, it’s clear through performance and scripting what dynamic any given two characters share. The opening scene, in particular, stands out, demonstrating the relationship Katniss has with her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) in an incredibly poignant way that really sets the stage for the rest of the film.

But it doesn’t develop these relationships well. Katniss and Cinna, Katniss and Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta… Granted, that last one could’ve gone over better in the book as well. But in any case, it’s clear at the beginning what the dynamics are between these characters, but it’s rarely developed into something emotionally satisfying. The film has a lot of ground to cover, and it occasionally distracts itself.

But as an adaptation, it is incredibly solid. As a film, it is almost great. It does what it needs to, largely without issue—almost entirely without issue, were it not so clearly studio-neutered.

Nevertheless, it rates as a kind of movie we perhaps need. If only, then, we could recognize that need.

-Matt T.

The Three Stooges (2012)

Starring- Sean Hayes, Will Sasso, Chris Diamantopoulos, Jane Lynch, Sofia Vergara, Jennifer Hudson, Craig Bierko, Stephen Collins, Larry David, Kirby Heyborne, Carly Craig, Kate Upton

Directors- Bobby and Peter Farrelly

PG- slapstick action violence, some rude and suggestive humor including language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4IoUo_ZJkY

First off, Kate Upton bikini nun costume.

Come on, people, I need the hits.

Now, on to the review:

Perspective.

I raised that particular term in my review of “Journey 2.” It helps keep me sane. It helps me remember, by process of comparison, how much worse some things could have been.

And by all that is holy: “The Three Stooges” could have been—should have been—so, so much worse than it is. This movie, from the very beginning, seemed fated to “Transformers”-level abomination status.

Instead… It’s a movie. That’s really the most apt description. As it turns out, “The Three Stooges” is inoffensive and forgettable in possibly the worst sense, in that criticizing it is nearly impossible. Honestly, you could read a review of any given family movie and come away with a sense of most of what’s wrong—or perhaps more correctly, what’s not right—with it. There’s a difference between active badness and absence of goodness. “The Three Stooges” is more the latter.

Some elements of it set it apart from ordinary family movies. It has a bit more of its own personality, for starters. It’s also somewhat more loving than the norm. But at the same time, it walks through a lot of the same pitfalls as seemingly every other movie of its type.

Do I need to talk about the source material? Probably not. If you were a child born and raised in America, these guys were probably your first foray into live-action comedy.

In the Farrelly Brothers’ adaptation, lovable lugs Moe, Larry, and Curly (Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso) are man-children still living in the Catholic orphanage in which they were raised, causing havoc on an almost daily basis.

When money comes up short and the orphanage is threatened with closure, the three of them march off to the big city to find the answer—and get embroiled in a murder plot.

Can I start with what works about the film? I haven’t seen a good movie in a really long time, so it’d do me good to spend a while pretending this was one.

Okay. As an adaptation, this is a considerably more solid one than the norm. I look at your average adaptations of old kids’ properties—“Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “Scooby Doo,” “The Smurfs,” etc.—and they all seem like they have a certain amount of disdain for their source material. They frequently mock it and subvert the premise, even as they dumb it down still more, failing in every step along the way to recognize the irony. They hate them for being stupid, and yet clearly aren’t capable of making something even that intelligent.

“The Three Stooges” has no qualms about what it is—a stupid, stupid guilty pleasure, much like the original shorts. It’s mainly uninterested in updating or modernizing the Stooges. It rarely mocks them in any way or extent that the original property isn’t also. It might even be a labor of love. It has some respect for the type of comedy the Stooges represented, and it plays all of it pretty straight. For the most part, it’s not tongue-in-cheek or coy, one side of its mouth whispering, “Geez, this all sure is stupid, huh?” and the other whispering, “Hey, it’s ‘The Three Stooges!’ Everybody nostalgic yet?”

Like pretty much any American kid, the Three Stooges were a considerable presence in my childhood. We didn’t have cable growing up, but just about any time we had access to it, that’s what we’d watch. In recent times, I’ve generally ordained not to revisit the property, knowing full well that it’s unlikely to hold up. In any case, my memory of it remains quite detailed.

And in a lot of ways, the Farrelly Brothers have made a movie that recreates it kind of perfectly. The slapstick is largely of the same variety, with the same level of timing and the same dorky, unashamedly juvenile quality. It’s filmed and set up in a lot of the same ways as well, employing the same shots and camera angles, the same excessively dopey sound effects, and even using some of the same physical effects, such as throwing an obvious dummy whenever someone falls off of something.

And have any of the reviews mentioned the three leads? Oh, they have? Huh, I hadn’t noticed. In any case, they could not have found three more perfect choices. Their impressions of the original actors transcend the zone of “impression” and go directly into “the Stooges.”

It’s not all perfectly adapted, mind you. There’s a hint of modernization here and there that gets distracting, in terms of the pop culture references and such. The Stooges have always seemingly existed outside of time. They should be allowed to stay there. The choice to have such an abundant and overpowering score is baffling to me as well. The shorts were largely silent on the musical front. Hearing music while the slapstick wackiness is going on feels extremely off.

It’s also possessed of a few sequences like the baby fight scene in the hospital, bits that are overwhelmingly crude in a sense that I don’t recall the original Stooges ever being.

But the real problem here is not, for the most part, the Stooges. It’s the movie. One thing that no one seems to deny, least of all the people who make these things, is that the Stooges don’t work well at full length. We can handle and even be amused by a couple of schmucks slapping each other for fifteen minutes. An hour and a half? Overkill.

So, usually what happens is the Stooges get transplanted into a more ordinary family or adventure film that doesn’t have much use for them and doesn’t really know how to handle them. And that’s what this is.

Even without getting into much detail, I think you would understand what I mean when I say this: “The Three Stooges” is like someone made a stereotypical, overly sentimental, cloying, manipulative, sugary, and generic family movie and then just stuck some mildly amusing Stooge bits at random intervals throughout.

And the entire movie just kind of circles that drain. The story is boring, worsened by a plethora of side characters who aren’t nearly as amusing as the three leads but who have to be included because the Stooges aren’t great plot advancers. The humor largely dies when Moe, Larry, and Curly aren’t on-screen. There’s a lot of poorly placed cheese, complete with massive over-scoring and emotional manipulation that might be humorous were it not clear…hey, they’re kind of being serious right now. In a movie about the Three Stooges.

And down, down, down it goes.

It could’ve been a lot worse. Seriously, my vocabulary doesn’t at present contain words to describe how bad this could have been. That I laughed at all is a miracle wrought but what must be some seriously dark magic.

And I honestly don’t think it could’ve been better. But, well… That’s kind of the point.

-Matt T.

Mirror Mirror (2012)

Starring- Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, Armie Hammer, Nathan Lane, Jordan Prentice, Mark Povinelli, Joe Gnoffo, Danny Woodburn, Sebastian Saraceno, Martin Klebba, Ronald Lee Clark, Robert Emms

Director- Tarsem Singh

PG- some fantasy action and mild rude humor

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MDqdODIOSQ

Microsoft Word, if you do not stop underlining the second ‘mirror’ in “Mirror Mirror” like it’s not clear I’m doing it on purpose by now, I promise you, I am going to tear you directly off the hard drive and beat you with your own…

Oh. Hello there.

Ahem.

As of this review, I’ve seen more than two times as many bad movies as good ones this year. And you know what?

2012 has still already been a better year for cinema than 2011.

Because while 95% of everything is, for some reason, terrible this year, at least most of it was aspiring to something. Of the movies I’ve seen this year that I disliked, some still had wholly admirable qualities—“The Woman in Black” and “Blue Like Jazz,” for instance. Others at least had a clear end goal and reflected some genuine effort, like “John Carter.” Even “Red Tails” clearly had good intentions, while a lot of the cynical cash grabs, like “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” at least had the decency not to be that bad.

And at least a lot of the really terrible stuff was bad enough to provoke a real reaction from me—“Contraband,” anyone? Yeah, let’s not revisit that. Honestly, only a small handful registered as just dull.

“Mirror Mirror” is pretty much par for the course, perhaps even less so. I didn’t like it, and I have reasons for that beyond simple matters of taste, but there’s certainly an audience for it, even among the movie buff, film critic, and art crowds. Your tolerance for it is probably going to depend on your general feelings about Tarsem Singh. It might be considerably lighter and less pretentious than his past works, but it reflects a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses.

So, what’s the story? Well, it’s Snow White. Do I really need to outline this for you?

All right, so, in this adaptation, Snow White (Lily Collins) is the princess of an (as far as I remember) unnamed kingdom. Her father disappeared in wartime many years ago, leaving her selfish and vapid stepmother (Julia Roberts) as queen.

When Snow finds out that the Queen has been taxing the starving townspeople in order to pay for her lavish parties, she threatens to reveal it, and so the Queen decides to have her killed—all the better to have the wealthy foreign Prince (Armie Hammer) to herself.

The assassination fails, however, and Snow White finds herself stranded in the woods, where she’s taken in by a band of seven bandits—dwarves, in case you somehow didn’t know. There, she becomes a part of the gang and begins training in the skills necessary to take back her kingdom and save the impoverished villagers.

…Okay, actually, you probably did need that outlined.

Despite how it more likely than not sounds (and despite rather hilarious claims made by some of the promotional materials), “Mirror Mirror” is not a dark adaptation of the Snow White fairy tale. In fact, it’s lighter and less solemn even than the Disney version of many years ago. This is a movie with more in common with “Shrek” than with Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

And that’s kind of its problem.

There are a lot of little things wrong with “Mirror Mirror.” It’s not anywhere near being a great movie. But it did only very narrowly rate as a dislike for me. And frankly, I think this is the reason why—it’s another subversive, kind-of-spoof fairy tale movie, and in the most obnoxious way imaginable. Without that, who knows? I very well might’ve liked this movie, if only a little.

To borrow the old cliché, “Mirror Mirror” would very much like to have its cake and eat it, too. It wants to be a straightforward, innocent fairy tale with just the right amount of gravitas and adventure.

It also wants to make sure we know its creators realize that fairy tales are silly.

As such, it has all the “Shrek”-like one-liners, complete with modern slang stuffed humorously between the more ponderous and dignified language associated with the genre. In one scene, it’s playing up the lighthearted adventure aspect; in another, it has the Queen talking like a Valley Girl or Armie Hammer acting like a dog. There are only a few big names here (though Armie Hammer and maybe even Lily Collins are both likely to be stars very soon, I think), but many of these actors are still quite talented. Lily Collins is actually kind of likable in a role that otherwise doesn’t require much flexing of her acting muscles. She kind of sells the silliness of it, going just enough over the top without it being overly noticeable. And despite myself, I had fun watching Hammer channel his inner Adam West. But at the same time, it was hard not to be embarrassed for some of these actors, seeing the lengths to which they sporadically have to stoop to get a laugh.

In any case, it takes itself too seriously to work as parody, and it’s too subversive and edgy to work as a straight fairy tale. I’ve seen parody and straightforwardness blended well before in this genre—do I even need to mention “The Princess Bride”? But “Mirror Mirror” frequently seems like it’s making fun of itself.

And it’s kind of a shame, too, because there is something here, buried underneath it all. The moments where it’s being a light-hearted, kid-friendly adventure/fairy tale actually work all right for what they are. The characters aren’t rich or anything, but the actors portraying them are charismatic and likable. They also understand fully the type of movie they’re in—they, for the most part, play it with energy, bombast, and over-the-top heroic charisma. Parts of it approach being enjoyable.

And, of course, no one’s ever particularly doubted that Tarsem Singh has a talent for visuals, regardless of how insufferably ponderous, confusing, and poorly plotted you may think of his work as being. That he loses a lot of that forced weightiness here really makes the movie a lot more watchable. Of course, the visuals in this one are going to vary in effect on the viewer… The costumes, especially, throw every last dash of caution to the wind.

(Also, the Queen’s palace looks very phallic. There, I said it, it’s out there, I wash my hands of it, I’m not taking it back, and you can’t make me. Also, I apologize.)

It can also have a stage-play feel to it, but I almost felt that added something to it. “The Adventures of Robin Hood” has the same feel, and I love it for that, that and its cheesy bravado. “Mirror Mirror” has a touch of the same..

It really comes down to that inability to decide what it is—if it wants to be respected for its intelligence and satire, or if it just wants to be a fun movie for kids. For me, this indecisiveness sank the whole thing—a shame, because there’s something there to be enjoyed.

For others, though, who enjoy Singh’s visuals or perhaps some of the actors involved, or maybe just really like the Snow White tale, may find these elements overpower the flaws.

It’s not overly cynical, it has good intentions, and there’s some imagination there. I didn’t like it and wouldn’t watch it again by choice, but neither will I add it to the ever-growing list of abominations I like to cite all the time to make my points.

So, how about Michael Bay apparently going back on his promise not to direct “Transformers 4”?

 

-Matt T.

Blue Like Jazz (2012)

Starring- Marshall Allman, Claire Holt, Tania Raymonde, Jason Marsden, Eric Lange, Justin Welborn, William McKinney, Matt Godfrey, Jenny Littleton

Director- Steve Taylor

PG-13- mature thematic material, sexuality, drug and alcohol content, and some language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpvMAYkHGas

DISCLAIMER—Any and all references made to Donald Miller in this review are in reference to the character in the film and are not intended as commentary on the actual person unless deliberately specified as such.

My writing is usually pretty freeform and spontaneous when I’m coming up with these reviews. I have an opinion; it’s just a matter of figuring out the why of it and getting it off the ground. Sometimes, depending on the complexity of the film, I’ll mull it over long enough to at least have some basic outline in my head, to make sure there’s some flow. I’ll at least figure out some vague idea of where it’s going.

I have no idea where this review is going to end up.

Even as I sit here, writing this down, I have no idea what’s going to happen in the following paragraphs. I might end up telling my entire life’s story in detail, or alluding to it in vague non-specifics. I might avoid it altogether aside from sideways mentions. I might focus a lot on the quality of “Blue Like Jazz” at the expense of what it’s saying. Probably, though, I’ll focus more on the latter. It would be pretty difficult not to, and also ignoring some of the most important facets of my relation to it.

In short, I’ve lingered a long time in writing this. I’m still hesitant even now, trying to find a way to put my thoughts on paper that doesn’t sound pompous or like I’m putting something into the movie that isn’t there, like I’m usurping someone else’s story and trying to make it my own somehow.

I’ve danced around the point long enough. This is my roundabout way of illustrating the following fact—“Blue Like Jazz” is about something that is very close to me. Or at least, it claims to be.

It’s about a subset of the religious population in America that is simply almost never referenced meaningfully in its films—the religious progressives, the religious agnostics, even people who long for faith but just generally struggle with it. People like me.

I’m not going to lay claim to the notion that this group is some persecuted minority. It’s not. There are too many groups playing that game already. But this is a group that is frequently and sometimes painfully misunderstood. Too stodgy and conservative for the secular crowd, too freethinking and dangerous for the mainstream religious crowd, too indecisive for pretty much everyone. It’s a small niche indeed.

“Blue Like Jazz” sold itself as this culture’s magnum opus. Tragically, it isn’t.

There isn’t a stranger experience than seeing an artwork that seems not only tailor made for you personally, but that seems to represent all that you are. For that reason, there’s no review on the Internet right now that will be simultaneously as objective and unfairly biased as mine.

Objective because I desperately wanted this to be good. In some ways, I needed it to be good. Any film that I approach with a bias that ends up swinging around to the opposite end of that spectrum… That overcame something pretty powerful, in terms of my ability to lie to myself.

And biased because I am simply too close to the situation it presents. It is completely possible that this film is saying something entirely different from what I projected onto it. I realize that. My problem is that it simultaneously, at times, feels so much like what I’ve been through and yet doesn’t seem to understand the situation at all. More on that later.

I haven’t read the book. I probably should. I don’t know much about it because up until recent experiences I’ve had in discussing this film, it didn’t seem like it’d be of much use or interest to me. Now, I’m hearing otherwise.

In any case, I can’t do this review by way of comparison, and I won’t. I don’t know how much of this movie is fictionalized and how much of it is directly adapted from the actual life experiences of its protagonist and co-screenwriter Donald Miller (Marshall Allman). I’m going to try to tread lightly around it for precisely that reason. What feels false and understanding to me may full well feel lived-in and profound to an individual who was certainly and objectively much closer to it than I am.

After all, “The most difficult lie I ever contended with is this: life is a story about me.” — Donald Miller.

“Blue Like Jazz” details Miller’s experiences growing up in a conservative evangelical church in Texas where, after a betrayal on the part of two important Christians in his life, he turned his back on the Christian college he planned to attend and instead went up to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, one of the most secular and liberal colleges in the country. There, his interactions with new friends of different faiths and denominations went on to change his view of the world.

It seemed as though it was marketed, at least in the online circles where I first encountered it, as the magnum opus of progressive, nontraditional Christianity, perhaps stretching even beyond that to cover the confused, indecisive, semi-faithful the world over.

It’s not.

And this is where it gets hard. This is where I feel the need to say what the film seems like to me without insinuating that that’s what it is. I am, as previously stated, extremely biased on this one, more so than ever. I don’t want to make declarative statements about the intentions and beliefs of Donald Miller and Steve Taylor. Miller I know little about; I’ve been learning little bits and pieces over the course of the last few days. Taylor I’ve known about for longer, as I was following with interest the production of this film. Both seem like good people, kind, admirable and generally well spoken.

The thing is… In my opinion, progressive religious movements, with special emphasis on what we’d call liberal or progressive Christianity, have been hijacked by a movement that is not necessarily either of those things. It’s been taken over in recent times by people who are departing not because of objections to long-held beliefs or doctrinal issues or logical quandaries inherent in the faith, but because they just don’t like the church anymore.

When it comes down to their actual beliefs… Well, if you got them to speak clearly and distinctly long enough to lay them out, you’d find they’re still, in practice, more or less conservative evangelicals.

There are generally two types of groups that fall under this category—people who leave the church and join progressive Christianity because they believe conservative evangelicalism no longer practices what it preaches; and people who join up because progressive Christianity allows you to be cool and “relevant” and whatnot.

The latter group is not worth speaking of. I care for them as people, mind you, but their movement is useless at best and destructive at worst. They are not interested in doctrine or practice. They are interested in being cool and not being asked to step all that far out of their comfort zones. That is a practice that needs to be discouraged rather than centered in a movement that otherwise means quite well. “Blue Like Jazz” functions at least in part as an indictment of this group, and rightfully so.

The former group, on the other hand, I like and respect quite a lot. Their motives are good, and to some extent, I agree with them. I think there is an element of modern Christianity—religion in general, really—that is loveless, close-minded, loud, and ignorant. It’s so wrapped up in rules and regulations that it forgets to meet people where they are and love them. It’s entirely biblical, and if you ask me, it makes good sense, too. I simply think that members of this first group are applying to themselves a label that is not necessarily descriptive of what they are.

They are leaving no because of personal struggles with doctrine but because they believe they are not living up to that doctrine. They’re leaving so that they can practice it in a way that is fuller, more intelligent, more effective, and more ultimately Christ-like. Again, I respect these people. Without saying for certain, I somewhat suspect based on this film that Steve Taylor and Donald Miller are both this type of person.

However, if what you believe is ultimately, distilled to its basic elements, a more fully realized version of conservative evangelicalism… Isn’t that still what it is? This isn’t about whether you vote Republican or Democrat; that has no bearing on any of it. It’s about what you believe. And ultimately, it is not beliefs that separate this group from most of conservative Christianity—it’s practice. So, I don’t think it’s accurate to lump them in with progressive Christians, true liberal theologians, and people who teeter along the line of agnosticism. Their wrestling with faith is of an entirely different caliber.

It’s not that I object to being considered among Donald Miller and Steve Taylor. I welcome that, with regards to what we share in common. I welcome that with most people, honestly, at the very least those committed to love and bettering the world.

The problem it presents is not association. It’s that calling those people “progressive Christians” tends to lead to further misunderstanding of those who are part of the movement not merely because of practice—though that’s often part of it—but because of true doctrinal issues they have. They fight a constant internal battle that is extremely, fundamentally difficult, occasionally bordering on impossible, to solve.

And that’s the issue. I think “Blue Like Jazz” tries to speak for these people. And it tries to do so intelligently and with regard to their humanity. And yet, it seems to understand only a fraction of their overall experience.

You see, in “Blue Like Jazz”… I was never under the impression that Donald Miller the character’s internal struggle was one regarding concerns of logic and reason. There really is no debate of facts that seems to go on, aside from throwaway lines and scenes. His character arc seems more directed towards the idea of him becoming that cool and relevant Christian—here meaning he doesn’t have to work really hard or sacrifice much of anything—and then realizing what a waste of his life and everyone else’s that is.

But at the same time… It also attempts to engage the debate that true progressives and agnostics undergo. And it just comes up far short in this regard.

The film has respect for its atheist, agnostic, and otherwise struggling characters, mind you. That’s one of its most admirable aspects. It has respect for their past experiences, and it doesn’t contain a single big conversion moment where the staunch unbeliever is suddenly down on his knees for no apparent reason.

At the same time… It seems unable to concoct reasons why someone wouldn’t believe in God. Don disbelieves (or at least gives the appearance of it) as part of his rebellion against the hypocrites in his life who damaged him. Aside from him, there are two other atheistic voices in the film: Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), the first friend Don makes on campus; and a hard-partying senior who simply goes by The Pope (Justin Welborn).

Lauryn’s reasons for disbelief are never adequately explored, beyond the standard if there’s a God, then why is there evil in the world? argument. It’s also possibly because she is a lesbian, a fact of which I am aware because the film makes sure to remind us repeatedly in almost every single scene she’s in.

The Pope ought to have been more interesting. He almost raises good arguments, but he’s almost too passionate an ideologue, playing for most of the film as the stereotypical religion hater who’s not content merely to disbelieve, instead seeking to purge it. He has good reasons for this; we learn them later on. He’s been hurt by religion in a powerful way.

But that’s kind of the problem with this movie. It inserts itself into the logical debate about the existence of God, but it has not one single prominent character who disbelieves for logical reasons. There isn’t a single person who really wrestles with doctrine or biblical teachings. Not one of them raises the idea of contradictions in science, archaeology, and other disciplines. It pays only the slightest lip service to the mental conflict that progressive and agnostic believers endure on a daily basis, trying with everything that’s in them to hold onto the faith that is so fundamentally important to them while reconciling it to the observable world around them. Everyone in the movie who doesn’t believe in God—or at least tries not to—does so because they have been hurt by Christians.

And let me set the record straight—that’s fine. Some people do disbelieve for precisely that reason. At one point, Don observes that sometimes the mind is changed by seeing someone else love something so profoundly. For those people who have been hurt by the religious, disbelief can seem natural.

But it doesn’t speak for everyone. And it doesn’t speak for a lot of people standing on the fringes of progressivism, trying not to lapse into atheism but not particularly sure how to do so when so little of what they’ve been taught makes sense to them based on what they’ve seen and on what they know to be true.

“Blue Like Jazz” does entertain a bit of debate, true. But it’s not compelling enough to really shine a light into the experience of true doubt. In truth, the only real debate we see occurs at a bookstore between two authors, one atheist and one Christian. The only real issue it raises is, “How do we perceive beauty without God?” The film, admirably, allows the atheist a chance to respond without making him look flustered and stupid, but it still plays the whole thing with an air of, “Oh, silly, you can’t science emotions!

It doesn’t really contribute meaningfully to the dialogue. It tries, and it portends to, but I don’t get the impression it ever experiences any potent doubt. It has the best of intentions, but its intimate looks at atheists seem more like someone speculating about what goes on in their heads rather than genuinely understanding them.

That doesn’t mean the film is negative overall. I think it could certainly have been more, thematically speaking, but the things it says are admirable practices, make no mistake about that. It is clearly interested in religion that loves and helps and changes and reaches out, religion that, as Madeleine L’Engle so eloquently put it, “shows them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

I don’t object to “Blue Like Jazz” attempting to put forth this worldview. But its complete lack of interest in doctrinal issues, in struggles with some of Christianity and religion in general’s less pleasant elements, in drawing lines between the reality we observe and the teachings of the holy books is troubling and precludes it from meaningful dialogue.

It is not interested in comfortable hands. It begs effort—real change, wrought by genuine hearts. But it seems all right with a comfortable mind. And so would I be, if I had one, if I could turn the one I have into one. Many others find themselves in the same boat, and yet, despite ostensibly representing leftward-leaning religious culture, “Blue Like Jazz” has very little to say to them.

What it does say, in large part, is honorable. Live well, with love and in kindness. Judge no one—understand them instead. It bumbles in parts, particularly on the understanding issue, but it paints no one, Christian, atheist, or otherwise in particularly broad heroic or villainous strokes. That alone carries it head and shoulders above the rest of the entries in the dubious genre of “Christian movies.”

At the same time, it pains me to say that “Blue Like Jazz” is still pretty much a Christian movie—a more complicated, even-handed, and honest one, to be certain, but not particularly better made.

The characters are stronger than the norm, but the character arcs are not always believable. Don starts out as a nice guy, but turns radically unlikable, surly, and mean the moment he tries to break away from religion. His conversion back is based not on reason and intelligence but on inspiration drawn from a Christian girl he meets, Penny (Claire Holt). Why it moves him, I couldn’t say. The movie doesn’t illustrate it all that well.

The acting is a mixed bag, falling mostly under the category of “serviceable, but not particularly involving.” Marshall Allman and Justin Welborn emerge the most unscathed, Welborn being hilarious in some scenes and actually kind of subtle and moving in others, and Allman exuding a certain anti-charm that fits in well with the snarky dramatic anti-heroes of today.

Most damning, however, is the film’s visual approach, which is basically nonexistent. I say again—I normally don’t care about a film’s visuals, because my eyes are not really wired to notice such things. When I do, it’s because they’re either really good or really bad. These are really bad. The cinematography and editing are competent in the sense that they become completely banal, displaying only the occasional flash of ingenuity here and there and otherwise becoming insufferably predictable and leaving the film dry.

And on the whole… Perhaps it’s just me, but in far too many respects, “Blue Like Jazz” appears to be aiming for “The Social Network” lite. From the visuals to the dialogue to the characters to (especially) the score, it in every way reminded me of a lesser version of that film. Perhaps it was intentional, and perhaps it was not; nevertheless, it was there, and noticeably so.

I don’t say any of this happily. Honestly, I never do, but more so in this case. I want a lot of movies to be good in a year. This one I needed to be good, because it represents a part of me, as well as a culture that I have been and sometimes am a part of, one I understand very well that is quite dear to me. It’s also very widely misunderstood. It’s possibly hoping for too much, but a film like this could’ve changed that.

And it might, a little. For people whose yearly cinematic diet is comprised largely of “Fireproof” and “Courageous,” I actually to some extent recommend this film. You’re likely to enjoy it more than I did, and it could possibly make for some intriguing food for thought.

But it’s only a small part of the picture—and it’s not always a well-painted picture at that.

-Matt T.

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012)

Starring- Dwayne Johnson, Michael Caine, Josh Hutcherson, Luis Guzman, Vanessa Hudgens, Kristin Davis

Director- Brad Peyton

PG- some adventure action, and brief mild language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFW_UVu8sVQ

Because Netflix didn’t get anything else this week, that’s why.

But let’s back up and place this in some sort of context. When I consider how bad “Journey 2” could and very well should have been, in addition to how much effort I expected was likely to have been put into it, well… By comparison to that, what we actually got could be considered some kind of mercy. It’s not awful. It’s only even bad by a slim margin. Mediocre, more like, and largely inoffensive. You could do a lot worse.

At the same time… Well, you could do a lot better, too.

“Journey 2” is a kind-of sequel to 2008’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” which…was a hit, apparently. I kind of forgot it existed.

Sean (Josh Hutcherson), from the first movie, has now grown up into a teenager so stereotypically angsty that 90s skateboarding movies are saying, “Dude, tone it down.” His experiences in the previous film have turned him into a…discovering mythical locations from classic literature nut? Is there a name for these people? The movie calls them Verneians.

His grandfather (Michael Caine) shares a similar obsession. When Sean receives a coded message—one vaguely alluding to the Mysterious Island referenced in one of Jules Verne’s novels—he’s convinced it’s from the old man and is determined to follow it to its source.

Perceiving it as some bizarre kind of bonding exercise, his well-meaning new step-dad Hank (Dwayne Johnson) decides to tag along. Recruiting a pilot (Luis Guzman), who exists to be the token funny Hispanic guy, and his attractive daughter Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens), who exists to be a strong, rich, and independent character (just kidding; you know what she’s here for*), they head off into the sea to find the Mysterious Island.

I did see the first movie. I also can’t remember much of anything from it beyond leaving with the impression that it got basically decent reviews because the entire thing was full of vaguely impressive 3-D gimmickry. It’s a bit amazing that in four short years, we’ve gone from viewing 3-D as novel and cool enough to smooth over a bland plot, to now despising it even in good movies.

“Journey 2” is less of a transparent 3-D vehicle, but it still employs it in gimmicky enough ways to make me wonder if it realizes what decade it is. I mean, tell me the pec-berry scene was in the movie for any reason other than the following two: because Dwayne Johnson could do it, and because when berries bounce off a dude’s pecs and fly directly into an audience’s 3-D glasses, amusement occurs, apparently.

And even the actors seem to think they’re in some 3-D ride at Disney World, delivering every line with a sense of, “Woah! Look, the mountain is erupting! We’d better run! We’re running now!” and then emoting and gesticulating as hard as they can.

Beyond that, it suffers from a laundry list of the same problems that I seem to recall afflicted the first one. Its approach to humor and wit is largely that of a third-grader who saw a Joss Whedon movie for the first time and decided he liked what he heard. Snarky one-liners really only work if we perceive the person saying them as being cool and intelligent. In this movie, it’s more like the scene in “Anchorman” where Steve Carell accuses someone of shopping for their clothes at the toilet store.

Characters are handled mainly in the sense of perfunctory archetypes. Development doesn’t so much form as happen—Dwayne Johnson’s character, for instance, overcomes the hurdle of “looking for fictional islands is insane, step-son” in exactly no time at all. He doesn’t get along with the kid’s grandfather particularly well either, for reasons that are kind of implied but only resolved by…them suddenly not being a problem anymore.

On top of that… This may be another one of those things where maybe it’s always been the case, and I’ve only just now noticed as my critical faculties have developed, but… Johnson is not the charming presence in this film that I’ve come to expect him to be. He seems distant, uncaring, like his mind is on other things. I can’t say I blame him all that much. Michael Caine seems to be having some fun, but then again, like “Jaws: The Revenge” before it, this is probably building him a great house.

I can’t exactly call it smart filmmaking, either. For having such a simplistic plot, it sure does manage to rack up an enormous amount of holes. Once the characters find the island, their first instinct is to wait for a radio signal so they can call for help, even though they know full well that the only way to reach the island is by flying directly into a hurricane and having your vehicle completely destroyed. Entire armies could come to save them, but how would they be intending to get out?

Plus, when flooding becomes a threat, they go into apocalypse mode and declare that finding Captain Nemo’s sub is the only way to survive. And while it’s clearly the best way, why it never occurs to them in moments of desperation to simply build a raft is beyond me.

Probably the biggest one is the island itself, though. Every so many years, the island sinks beneath the ocean before resurfacing. That’s all well and good, but I have a question… How does the island have animals completely unique to itself, as well as a fully functioning ecosystem? Where did it come from? How did it get there? How did it survive? Where does it go when the island sinks? It’s not an island of amphibians—in fact, we only see one creature in the entire movie that is not completely bound to land. So, how is any of this even remotely possible?

But I digress. It’s not a movie that invites thought, and in a lot of ways, that’s actually why it’s not completely unwatchable. It eventually does hit that exact right zone of stupidity to make your brain quit caring, accept it, and just go along for the ride. It doesn’t take itself particularly seriously, a rare thing among stupid blockbusters, and I appreciate that.

It’s also dripping with a boyish, gee-whiz sense of adventure, imagination, and wonder. Heavily diluted by generic plotting and indistinct, unmemorable characters, but still enough present to stave off complete awfulness.

And if “staves off complete awfulness” is enough to buy you a ticket, well… I guess “Journey 2” is for you. For the rest of us… Well, it’ll keep the kids babysat, I suppose.

-Matt T.

* It’s actually kind of hilarious. The movie’s PG, so it can’t even ogle her properly. Seriously, the first shot of her in the movie goes directly to her chest, but does so briefly and in this shaky-cam way to make it look like an accident or something, like the cameraman fell asleep for a second. Later, it also sends her scurrying down a knee-high tunnel, so that she’s able to lean forward over the camera while another one follows her behind… You know, for perspective reasons.