Monday, January 5, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Doubt (2008): I'm in leadership in a ministry. It's my job, my vocation. Much of my time is spent with volunteers and adolescents, doing my best to guide them spiritually and draw them closer to Jesus. I talk with them, listen to them, take them out to lunch or coffee, pray for them. I love what I do. I love the people I minister with and minister to. I can't imagine doing anything else with my life.

I also love film. It's a hobby--my wife might say an obsession--and I take it quite seriously. I love the stories films tell, the creativity they inspire, the truths they point out. So when a film and my vocation cross paths, as they do with Doubt, my curiosity is piqued. Doubt is set in a Catholic parish in 1964, where a progressive priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and an old-fashioned nun (Meryl Streep) find themselves at odds with each other. A naive young nun (Amy Adams) witnesses some suspicious behavior between the priest and a young black student, causing the fiery Sister Aloysius (Streep) to be on the prowl.

Tight dialogue and powerful performances drive the film, with some of the best acting I've seen this year. Every player--Hoffman, Streep, Adams, and Viola Davis as the boy's mother--is incredible. Davis's brief and only scene with Meryl Streep is emotionally intense; there aren't many actors who can hold their own against Streep in a scene, but she does it wonderfully. With cinematographer Roger Deakins behind the camera, every shot is eye-catching, turning potentially mundane scenes into works of art. With lesser actors and directing, the film could have been entirely conventional and probably quite boring. Sister Aloysius could have been a mere caricature of a nun. But because of the intensity and passion of the performances, the film rises above convention and sits as one of the best movies of 2008.

The themes of spirituality, moral ambiguity, and truth all resonate personally with me, especially in the context of ministry. This films raises a number of questions--doubts, if you will--about trust, grace, and authority. When is it okay to call one's superiors into question? How much evidence is needed to convict someone of wrongdoing? Where is the balance between being just and being judgmental? Even more personally, what if I found myself in a similar position, accused of something horrendous by someone in my ministry? How would I respond? How do I keep myself as above reproach as possible?

This film brings up all these questions and more. It fully lives up to its name, focusing on the concept of doubt while eliciting the same response in the audience. I love that the issues are only partially revealed, talked about in hushed tones and insinuations. There isn't any true clarity to the accusation, only suggestions and hints about sexuality, race, and abuse. If you're looking for an easy-going light-hearted film, this is not it. It will leave you frustrated, questioning the characters and yourself long after the credits roll. I would highly recommend it, as it's one of my favorite films of 2008. I'll conclude with Roger Ebert's words:
"Doubt" has exact and merciless writing, powerful performances and timeless relevance. It causes us to start thinking with the first shot, and we never stop. Think how rare that is in a film.
What a perfect summary to an insightful film.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008): Watching this is like opening a door into the mind of filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. The scene in the Troll Market is one of the most imaginative and fanciful scenes in a film since Han Solo sat down in the cantina in Mos Eisley. The sequel to Hellboy (see my brief review here), the films jumps right into the midst of an ancient mythic story where humans, elves, and trolls once lived in peace together (the context of telling this story is a bit silly, with Hellboy as a little kid). When peace cannot be maintained, an army of magical mechanic soldiers made out of gold is created. But the army proves to be too destructive, so the humans and elves form a truce and the army is hidden away. Fast-forward to today: the prince of the elves wants to revive the army and remove the human problem. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and friends have to stop him.

It's a really bizarre premise for a story: a demon comes to earth during WWII, then is raised by a human scientist in order to fight other monsters or demonic forces. However, both Hellboy films have powerful messages about redemption and identity, especially regarding Hellboy's choice to defend humanity instead of destroy it. There's also a bit of a love story between Hellboy and Liz (Selma Blair), though this film focuses more on action sequences, while the first focused on Hellboy's character.

The film is also visually well-made, with a perfect balance between makeup and CGI. Often films lean too far towards one element: they have too much computer graphics, which can look overly fake at times (think Matrix sequels). Or they overdo the makeup and don't employ CGI, which can look downright silly (think the sparkly skin or the uber-pale faces in Twilight). This film does a great job of employing both, and Doug Jones (Pan's Labyrinth) is phenomenal as multiple characters throughout the film. The biggest critique I have is that there are a few scenes that feel forced (there's a long sequence where Hellboy and Abe Sapien drink beer and sing) and just don't fit in the overall plot. Overall, it's a creative and surprisingly fun film that I'd recommend.

1 comment:

  1. I saw Doubt over the weekend. Loved it. I agree with you for the most part. I think my one disappointment in the movie was the directing. Kind of sloppy IMO, but the acting, screenplay, and cinematography completely make up for it. Which is odd because the guy who wrote the play/script also directed.

    I'll be writing a full review later.