Monday, May 5, 2008

Monday Movie Day Reviews: Greek Tragedies and Lessons Learn

In the Valley of Elah (2007): This film garnered another Oscar-nomination for Tommy Lee Jones as a distraught military father investigating the mysterious death of his Iraq-war veteran son. In some ways, the film is quite cliche and unoriginal. Viewing it simply, the film is a detective story with the current Iraq war as a backdrop. The film has some ongoing themes that have been done before in other films--war destroying innocence, the value of human life, etc. The final scene is somewhat disappointing and expected, with a fairly cliche metaphor. But the power of the film lies in its subtle performances. Jones definitely deserves his nomination as a father who shows very little emotion on the outside, but allows glimpses of pain, guilt, anger, and frustration to emerge in his time-worn eyes. Even his breathing patterns communicate emotions throughout the film. Be forewarned, there is some sexual content--Jones has to check out numerous bars and clubs searching for clues to solve the mystery--but it's a fairly good film about the human spirit in the context of war. (7 out of 10)

Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring (1986): This French film is actually two films that form one story. Each film does stand alone on its own, but the real value is in watching the two together. The first is about two farmers who want to purchase a piece of property to grow carnations. The property has a valuable spring that is needed in the dry French countryside. But the property belongs to a newcomer, a city-dweller named Jean. Jean is incredibly optimistic about his new farm, using a manual to predict rain and crops. In order to stop Jean and get the land for themselves, the two farmers block up the spring. Tragedy occurs, and the farmers obtain the land. Ten years pass, and Jean's daughter Manon grows up into a beautiful young woman. One of the farmers falls in love with her, but she has other plans in mind. The film deals with some deep spiritual issues, especially about the existence of God and His role in our lives. The story plays out like a Greek tragedy, with dire consequences for characters who sin. It's a surprisingly good film, though you have to have the time to watch two whole movies to really appreciate it. (Content warning: There is some brief nudity in the second film, even though both movies are rated PG) (7.5 out of 10)

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007): I rented this film based on the reviews from critics, who hailed it as a phenomenal film from director Sidney Lumet (he was 83 when he made the film_. That's the last time I rely only on critics in my movie choices. Bleak, depressing, and void of any hope or decent morality, this film follows two brothers and their downward spiral into violence based on greed. The brothers plan to rob their parents' jewelry story goes horribly wrong, creating a series of tragic events and painful revelations. Yes, the film has some good performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Albert Finney. Yes, the film plays out like a modern-day Greek tragedy (the second tragedy this week). But good performances and solid directing simply don't counterbalance a film's content (language, sexual content, drug use, etc.) or lack of redemption. I have learned my lesson: just because a film can be hailed as "great" doesn't mean that it is wholesome, redemptive, or worthy of my time. This film left a bad taste in my mouth. I'd recommend avoiding it. (3 out of 10)

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