Monday, December 22, 2008

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Encounters at the End of the World (2008): Science astounds me. On an elementary level, it simply baffles me how anyone gets into the profession. Seriously, who decides one day that they want to study the mating patterns of seals or document magma in a volcano? On a deeper level, the idea of studying and measuring anything that can be studied and measured has been pushed to some incredible limits in recent years. And every time the limit is pushed, creation astounds us with its response.

Werner Herzog's documentary about life on Antarctica conjures up feelings of awe and delight as his camera pans the terrain at the bottom of the globe. For much of the film, Herzog waxes eloquently in typical Herzog fashion, asking philosophical questions and finding deeper meaning in almost everything he sees. But at times, Herzog quiets himself and allows the scenery to speak for itself. Captivating ice sculptures carved by time and chance; bizarre primordial life-forms float in the darkness of a -2 degree celsius ocean; a lone penguin sets off on a personal adventure into the continent's interior. The creation is beautiful, marvelous. Yet we at times can become so enamored with this aspect of creation that we forget the beauty of what God created on the sixth day--humanity. We too are creation, and we are just as captivating. The people living on Antarctica are prodigies with wanderlust, people who gave up a normal life to study, to travel, to experience everything the world has to offer. Every one of them has a story. There is a philosopher who drives a forklift. There is the woman who traveled the continent of Africa in a garbage truck. There is the mechanic who is a descendent of Aztec royalty. There are the biologists who are literally discovering new species even as I type this, who spend their free time playing electric guitar and watching 1950s sci-fi films.

There is a scientist near the end of the documentary who talks about neutrinos. Neutrinos are subatomic particles that scientists can measure but cannot understand. Scientists know neutrinos exist, they can see their effects, they can even track and measure them, but they still cannot even begin to understand how or why they exist. Whether Herzog intended it or not, the theme of the film is clear to me: there is a beautiful design to all of creation, and we are able to know the Creator. We cannot fully understand Him, compartmentalize Him, put Him in a box and study Him. But we know He is there, we see His effects, and we are in awe of what He has done with the place.

The Band's Visit (2008): The best word for this film is "charming." An Egpytian police orchestra finds themselves lost in a small town in Israel, forcing them to spend the evening with the local residents. As the individual band members get to know their Israeli hosts, the humanity in both parties begins to shine. Much of the film is awkward moments between people, including some great awkward conversations. The film is quietly authentic, showing how even brief encounters can be powerful moments of human connection that only leave us changed. Underlying the entire film is the cultural conflict between Arabs and Jews. While never addressed openly in the film, the tension can be felt in the awkward looks between the band and residents. A captivating and charming little film overall; I highly recommend it.

Smart People (2008): Pompous and pretentious, aging professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) skulks around life as if the world owes him something for being brilliant. His daughter (Ellen Page) is quickly following in his footsteps, while his slacker adopted brother (Thomas Haden Church) is just doing his best to skate by through life. These people are lonely, sad, and fully of snark. In fact, their snarkiness and wit are the salvation of this film, lightening the mood of a film that has an overly dreary premise. Page and Church trade off in make sarcastically hilarious comments throughout the film, which work well to distract from Church's disgusting mustache.

The plot ambles along at a steady pace, though it feels like the film isn't really going anywhere for awhile. Mostly, it is scenes of these people making sarcastic comments about each other. Some of these scenes are quite funny, but sarcasm quickly gets tiresome. There is a romance element to the film found in a lovely ER doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student of Wetherhold, but there isn't much chemistry between the two. I was never quite sure what she saw in the arrogant professor, and the film never really gives the audience time to know her character. Overall, it's a witty-yet-sad film about rethinking the important things in life. If you want to see a superior 2008 film about a pretentious professor, rent The Visitor.

Joyeux Noel (2005): On Christmas Eve, 1914, soliders from Germany, Great Britain, and France were in the middle of trench warfare in Belgium. The German military had set up Christmas trees to brighten the morale of the troops. Soldiers sang carols in the trenches on a wintery European night. Then a miracle happened--each side called for an unofficial ceasefire for Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve turned into Christmas day and the truce continued. Soldiers traded cigarettes, showed pictures of their wives and families, ate together, and even played a few games of soccer. This film tells that true story. You can read about it here.

This is one of the most powerful stories of hope and redemption I've ever seen on film, made all that more powerful by the fact that it really happened. This is the power of light piercing through darkness, the beauty of the story of Christmas. I showed a scene from the film to our junior high students this past Sunday as part of our Advent Conspiracy series. It's a wonderfully moving film.

Green Street Hooligans (2005): The world goes crazy for football (soccer). I remember a friend telling me about a German pub he was in while the World Cup was happening a few years ago. It was a madhouse, filled with crazed football fans all cheering on their teams. The story of this film reveals just how crazy people can get for football. 

After being unjustly kicked out of Harvard, Matt (Elijah Wood) heads to England to see his sister to recover. He meets his brother-in-law Pete, the head of a neighborhood football "firm." Firms are basically violent gangs focused on getting drunk, going to football matches, then beating the tar out of other firms after matches. Matt quickly gets sucked into the violent underworld and becomes fast friends with Pete, brawling and getting drunk on a daily basis. This lifestyle is overtly glorified for the first half of the film, promoting violence = life like a British Fight Club. But just as the filmmakers have totally convinced the audience that drunkenly punching strangers in the face is awesome, it takes a sudden turn down a dark alley and never resurfaces. Personally, I was at the point where I was tired of the plot and felt the urge to punch something when it took this turn, offering a much more complex look at the consequences of violence than I expected. The film turned out to be much better than I expected. (Caution: there's a lot of violence and language)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000): Jim Carrey is funny. Period. Even with his silly early work like Ace Ventura and The Mask, Carrey was a comic genius. His hilarity as the Grinch is what drives this entire film. If a lesser actor/comedian had been chosen for the part, a tragedy similar to Mike Myers as The Cat in the Hat would have occurred. But because of Carrey's elastic face, over-the-top antics, and ability to perfectly improvise, this film stays afloat. 

I love both Dr. Seuss and Jim Carrey, so I'm not sure why it took me eight years to finally see this film. But I'm glad I did. The message/theme is directly from Seuss' original one--there's more to Christmas than just buying stuff. It's a message that is particularly poignant in this age of consumerism and economic downturn, causing us to rethink Christmas. I have to admit, there were aspects of the film that felt slow or forced (the overly long background story of the Grinch), but these are compensated by Carrey's performance as the Grinch.

A Life Less Ordinary (1997): From the same director that has made great films like Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire comes this bizarre romantic comedy. Two angels are assigned to make two unlikely people fall in love or be forever doomed to never come back to heaven. The two people are Cameron Diaz as an arrogant rich girl and Ewan McGregor as an insecure down-on-his-luck janitor. A kidnapping follows, and the two angels use violent means to foster love between the two. The moral of the story: love is an irrationally uncontrollable force that angels make us do so they can get back into heaven. They actually say as much in the closing scene. Mind-boggling. I'm seriously surprised that Danny Boyle made this. McGregor's character is cowardly and weak; Diaz's is manipulative and moody. The only redeemable factor are the interesting camera angles Boyle employs. And while it's a minor thing to be critical of, both Cameron and Ewan's hairstyles in the film are atrocious. Not a good film.


  1. I love Green Street Hooligans, if not only because of my love for soccer.

  2. Cam, as Danny Boyle fan, have you or would you ever see A Life Less Ordinary? I'm curious to hear your thoughts on it.