Monday, August 31, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Goodbye Solo (2009): Ramin Bahrani's unadorned and disarming film is a beautiful surprise, inviting us to recognize the power of human interaction, no matter how brief. Goodbye Solo follows a brief period of time in the lives of two men who form an unlikely bond through a series of ordinary events.

The film opens with two men in a taxi driving through the autumn evening in North Carolina. The driver, Solo, is a cheerful and talkative Senegalese immigrant. His passenger, William, is an elderly man seemingly with a chip on his shoulder. William asks a favor from Solo: he will pay Solo $1000 right now to drop him off at the windy cliffs of Blowing Rock National Park in 10 days. He will not need a ride back. What begins as a simple business proposition turns into a heartbreaking moral dilemma for Solo. Aloof and dreary-eyed, William's proposition seems like the first step towards ending his own life.

The two actors give some of the most contrasting and remarkable performances of the year. Solo is portrayed by newcomer Souleymane Sy Savane, a young actor from Ivory Coast. The other actor is Red West, a former bodyguard and close friend to Elvis who acted in numerous bit parts in Elvis' films. They're from completely different worlds. So are Solo and William. They don't even seem to be acting as their paths collide in this fateful taxi ride. You can see the extraordinary beauty behind these ordinary lives. Solo lives with his Mexican-American wife and her delightful daughter, Alex. The friendship between Solo and Alex is charming, and his love for her is quite evident. Despite Solo's marital conflicts over his desire to become a flight attendant, he truly loves both his American family and his family back in Senegal. On the other hand, William's life and background are more or less unknown. He seems to prefer to keep it that way. For whatever reason, he's resolved to isolate himself. William is the one who is "solo," choosing to live and die alone with very little in the way of joy or laughter.

The titular phrase is never actually uttered out loud. It never has to. In a strikingly powerful scene between the two men, words can't begin to convey the emotion that is written on their faces. Often a longing look replaces a phrase; a silent stare out a window communicates more than words can describe. Bahrani is a careful cinematographer, seeming to choose his shots carefully, conscious of their impact on the viewer's emotions even when we're not quite sure how it made us feel that way. Foggy drives through the North Carolina woods and late-night excursions on Winston-Salem streets create a poignant atmosphere for this woeful narrative.

Goodbye Solo reminds us of the power of human interaction. No matter how brief the moment lasts, everyone has the capacity to dramatically impact the lives of the people around them. A smile, a question, a helping hand or a hurtful stare can make a significant difference in a person's history. A simple taxi ride changes both of these men's lives forever, not in miraculous ways, but at least in unforgettable ones. I often wonder of the impact I make on people, whether consciously or tacitly. I wonder how a simple phrase I've uttered or a question I've raised or even just the fact that I looked their direction has changed the course of someone's life without me even knowing it.

Yet Goodbye Solo also reminds us that despite our ability to impact those around us, our impact is still limited. We can't make anyone change; we can't save someone who is adamant about not being saved. That doesn't make our efforts any less meaningful to both us and them, but it is a reality worth remembering. Even as I begin the long journey of raising a child, I am reminded that while I will likely have the most impact on his life out of anyone else in this world, I am still completely helpless when it comes to the choices he will make with his life. There is a tension here; we desperately want to save people we care about, to alleviate the pain they're experiencing from a dark past or a poor decision, but they have to allow us to help. Perhaps Goodbye Solo is more than just an unspoken farewell in the film; perhaps it is a timeless sentiment that we were meant to live in community, that isolation can't save us, that relationship is always worth pursuing no matter how painful it can become. As Roger Ebert put it in his review, "wherever you live, when this film opens, it will be the best film in town." I fully agree.

Fireproof (2008): This may be one of the most conflicting reviews for me to write. On the one hand, I want to approve the overall messages found in Fireproof: that good marriages take hard work and effort; that marital love is meant to be a lifelong commitment; that a relationship with Jesus transforms our lives. Those are all wonderful truths worth knowing and pursuing.

On the other hand, I can't applaud Fireproof without serious reservations. The film suffers from a heavy-handed script, amateurish acting, and a severe lack of nuance. If the medium is the message, then I believe that this is a sadly lacking medium for communicating the richness of the Gospel message.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Fireproof addresses the all-too-relevant issue of a broken marriage and one man's efforts to keep it alive. In the first ten minutes, we're quickly introduced to the struggling marriage of a fireman (Kirk Cameron) and his wife in their first fiery argument that leads to divorce papers. After receiving a journal from his father entitled "The Love Dare," the fireman endures a forty-day journey of winning back his wife's love.

Subtle or nuanced, Fireproof ain't. The first scene with the wife is a brief conversation in a hospital that introduces all of her family's struggles and a doctor's apparent attraction to her. In case we missed the doctor's flirtation, the nurses remind us, "if I didn't know any better, I'd say the doctor has a thing for Cat." Perhaps this is meant to speed up the process of empathizing with the characters but it comes off feeling forced. Much of the film's dialogue are heavy-handed metaphors for marriage: "Marriage isn't fireproof; sometimes you get burned." Or, "you never leave your partner behind, especially in a fire." The actors--mostly volunteers from the church producing the film--can't seem to communicate without sounding like they're reading lines from a script.

The overtly Christian message also comes across as a bit forced. A spiritual conversation between the fireman and his father includes lines like, "I'm a good enough person to get to heaven, aren't I?" Cameron's character cries out, "How am I supposed to show love to somebody over and over and over who constantly rejects me?" as the camera slowly pans to his father leaning on a large wooden cross. "That's a good question," he responds with a knowing smile. And cue conversion. It makes evangelism seem a bit too simple and formulaic, failing to communicate both the messiness of building Christ-like relationships and the profound joy when someone chooses to follow Jesus.

There are comedic elements scattered throughout the film that are clunky and unnecessary. A hot sauce drinking contest is mildly amusing, but adds nothing to the plot or character development. A surprisingly long scene devoted to one of the firemen dancing in a bathroom mirror is simply pointless. A repeated gag with an elderly neighbor elicits a few chuckles, but the joke is expected by the second time around. Remove the unnecessary scenes that don't move the story along--including the decent action scenes involving the firemen--and you've turned a 2 hour film into a 90 minute one.

Sure, there are instances that pleasantly surprise and touch the heart. This is one of the only films I've seen that addresses pornography's negative effects on a marriage (though the filmmakers seem uncomfortable directly using the word "porn," as it's never explicitly mentioned). While the film's first half is mostly forgettable, the second act has some genuinely moving moments that involve forgiveness and grace between the husband and wife. I also appreciate that the conversion to Christianity isn't the climax of the film, but rather the turning point and the motivation for the hard work to keep the marriage alive. This reveals that choosing to follow Jesus doesn't mean life automatically becomes easier; it just makes sense of all the hardships we go through and gives us hope in the midst of them.

The argument will be made, "But this is a film made by a church. We can't expect the quality of a Hollywood production. And we should support our fellow believers." I agree, this may be the best full-length film to come from a church, though I'd argue that the Nooma films contain far better spiritual insight and production quality. At the heart of it, this is really a church stage production put on film. The dialogue, the characters, even the direction and editing all resemble a church play in structure. This isn't necessarily bad, but one should know what to expect before seeing the film.

Overall, Fireproof is a mixed bag for me. I strongly debated not even posting this review, lest I sound too harsh. I have no doubt that God has used it to better people's marriages. I know that local churches I greatly respect have used it as a ministry tool. According to their website, all proceeds from the film will go to creating an 80-acre park in the filmmakers' local community. And it clearly communicates that Jesus transforms peoples' lives. I applaud all of these things. My only frustration is that we as the church are capable of beautiful and creative works of art that can inspire and transform, that our medium can match the richness of the best message ever communicated. We are better than this.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with you about fireproof. I watched that movie and couldn't help but laugh for 90% of the movie because of how bad the acting and dialogue is. I lost it during their first "big fight". But I do feel like that movie had some great messages to preach through all the terrible acting/dialogue. I too thought the struggle with pornography sequences really captured what it does to a marriage and I thought the scene where he destroys his computer and tells her that he loves her more was very powerful.