Archive for December, 2007

A Talk With Jay Russell
What Is Life Without Magic?

“One of the things that struck me early on was the symphonic structure of the screenplay,” says Russell. “The story has the same rising and falling, and the repetition of motifs and themes. It’s a very similar structure. I don’t know if that made it easier for me, but it certainly gave me an insight into storytelling. When I set out to make a film, I go through this process where, for me, it’s important to hear the music first. By that, I mean a general sound and style. And sometimes I’ll carry with me to the set certain pieces of music that are inspiring certain images in the story… it gives me a basis for the film, if that makes any sense at all.”


A Talk With David A. R. White
Bringing Movies to Churches

“There are so many things playing into making a Christian faith-based film,” says producer David A. R. White, “because you have an audience, a marketplace, that expects certain things. So you do have to deliver those things. I have so many friends who have taken a stab at Christian, faith-based movies, and they make the movie that they want to, but they’re not making the movie for the audience. But there are extreme limitations on us about what can fit into a church while trying to reach the broadest audience we can. And we try to do that. And so we try to make a movie that tells a story, organically, but at the same time also directs people to a higher understanding of who God is and the purposes He may have for their lives.”


A Talk With Denzel Whitaker
Living With Racism

The young actor Denzel Whitaker has has his own brushes with prejudice, even if he does not let them define his own behavior. “I walked into a store to try on clothes,” he relates, “and the lady didn’t check other people’s clothes [that they were taking into the dressing rooms]. But she went through every single article [of mine] to make sure I had only five pieces, and that there wasn’t anything stuffed in the pockets. I’ve had that happen to me. I’ve had someone follow my mom and me around through the grocery market—right when we moved up—just to make sure we were putting all the items in our basket. And my mom had to turn around—and they ended up having to give us gift cards and roses, because they knew what they were doing was wrong.”


The Great Debaters
Winning Does Not Change Anything

At its most basic (and weakest) level, The Great Debaters adopts all of the conventions of the Victorious Sports genre. We know that the students we’re introduced to in detail will be the ones selected for the debate team, so there’s little drama there. We also know that the team will end up winning the overwhelming majority of its matches, so that aspect is no more interesting than in, say, Pride, Rocky XXIII, or Facing the Giants. What makes the film really worth watching is the forcefulness and dignity with which intellectually and emotionally respectable ideas of moral rightness are presented.


The Water Horse
A Stout-hearted Family Fantasy

Like many other tried and true predecessors, The Water Horse is a critter-liberation story. In the family or children’s genre, the most oft-referenced example, thanks to its title, is Free Willy. It’s a tradition that has become, in fact, more “tired and trying” than “tried and true.” In this case, thankfully, the creature to be freed is not an Orca—it’s the Loch Ness Monster. Better yet, the creature to be freed functions almost as pure metaphor for the freeing of the spirit. Everyone in the film, you see, is held captive by something: fear of death, fear of German U-boats, fear of privation, fear of strangers, fear of judgment—fear of love, and fear of loss. “There’s no monster and no magic,” Anne finally declares. “There’s just this war, and death, and everyone acting insane.”


Persepolis
Color Inside the Lines

The animation never feels like a cartoon, where coyotes survive another anvil in the head. One poignant scene that illustrates the stark contrast is of a protester being shot while his black blood slowly pools out of him, making his very body become nothing but a pair of stark white eyes. No talking squirrels here. Realizing how poetic simple black and white ink drawings can be, it is as if Satrapi, who calls the film’s art “stylized realism” is, on one hand, being gentle with us, knowing that what she observed as a child was too cruel to recreate in live action. Yet on the other hand, by using the animation’s lack of customary frivolity, she hits us square in the chest with an accusing finger saying, “Enough of your bubble gum fantasy worlds, this is my life, this is my country. Am I so different from you?”


Juno
Words in All the Right Places

You may have heard that Juno is a pro-life film about a pregnant teenager. You may also have heard that it is a pro-choice celebration of a young woman’s freedom to determine what happens with her own body. Neither of these viewpoints is particularly correct—and yet both of them are. What the film is really about is one young woman’s desperate need to believe in true love, and her own rocky path in search of that ideal. One thing I can say without ruining the joy of discovering this story: this film isn’t looking to rain on anybody’s parade, least of all Juno’s. The sentiments that come through in Jason Reitman’s film are not bitterness and naïveté, but love and peace.


P.S. I Love You
Just What the Romance Doc Ordered

The cinema has needed a really great love story for some time. P.S. I Love You fulfills a longing for the desire to get away from happily-ever-after and into the exploration of relationships in which real people can see themselves. This film explores the struggle of mixing different ideologies and blending lives, maintaining autonomy while also uniting into one. The complete honesty of the emotions—pathos, laughter, anger, sorrow, love…even hatred at times—is experiential. Gerry and Holly are real people into which creators LaGravenese, Butler, and Swank never insinuate themselves. LaGravenese also thoroughly explores the process of grieving and how attitudes about what is proper and what isn’t differ greatly among people.


Charlie Wilson’s War
How To Garner Superlatives

With Charlie Wilson’s War, though, Nichols does indeed seem to be in top form. His direction here feels like all the best bits of Virginia Woolf, Primary Colors, Catch-22, Day of the Dolphin, and Silkwood all stitched together and updated in a seamless, incisive, and coherently entertaining whole. I really could go on all day about the merits of this film, but I won’t. I’ll simply point out that this is not a perfect film. But wow. What a fun, serious, candid, and educational look at what it means to be a world power—what it means to play with the big boys while swimming with sharks. Anyone want Charlie Wilson’s job? Not me.


Sweeney Todd
A Most Entertaining Musical Bloodbath

I can’t imagine a better match for the material than Tim Burton. It’s no wonder that Sondheim, usually very resistant to the idea of turning his stage musicals into films, relented when he learned of Burton’s vision for the film. Burton’s use of thick, bright red blood, gothic sets and visuals, and the off-beat characterizations of his recurrent leads Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter fit naturally to the dark, gory story of Sweeney Todd. The film is virtually a serial killer thriller set to music. The Singing of the Lambs, if you will. Although the music may not be the most memorable—meaning you are not really whistling the tunes as you skip out of the theater—they do a good job of moving the story along. This is a very well visualized, constructed, and performed adaptation of a truly unique piece of art. Sondheim referred to his production as a “musical thriller” and it succeeds on both scores.


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