Tuesday, September 25, 2007


About nine months ago, my fellow reviewer Particle Man began a review of Fearless with the sentence: "I don't like martial arts movies." He then went on to explain how he could hold this view and yet like the movie Fearless by saying, "Fearless is not a martial arts movie. It’s a movie with martial arts in it."

I'd like to do that one better. Hero is not just a martial arts movie. It's also not just a movie with martial arts. It's a beautiful, timeless, epic tale that just so happens to be a movie and just so happens to contain martial arts. And it's the best martial arts movie I've ever seen.

Epic. I guess that's the best place to begin. There are a number of words you can use to try (and fail) to accurately describe the movie Hero, but I'll try to do my best with the word "epic."

At the risk of sounding like a reluctant high school student writing a term paper, the American Heritage dictionary defines "epic" as "an extended narrative poem in elevated or dignified language, celebrating the feats of a legendary or traditional hero." Perhaps by explaining how the definition of this term fits the movie Hero, I can give you, the reader, a better understanding of the film.

I'll start from the end, with the word that the definition shares with the movie's title: Hero. To look merely at the poster, you'd assume that Jet Li's character is the eponymous hero, and that his martial arts wizardry and derring-do lead to the saving of someone or something. But that only begins to tell the story. In an odd way, every person in this film is a hero. Each makes a decision to give up something very valuable--in several cases, their own life--in pursuit of a loftier goal.

Moving backward from there, the next section of the definition reads "legendary or traditional." The story here isn't traditional to us, but (as I understand it) it is to the Chinese people--it's the origin story of their nation. As such, legend is an appropriate accompanying word. As a legend, the events chronicled in Hero are based upon actual events, but the events have been embellished over the course of time so as to contain and correspond to the values of the people who cherish it.

As far as "celebrating the feats" goes, that's an easy one to see. As one might expect, the movie spends a fair chunk of it's running time displaying Jet Li's nameless character's many feats of physical prowess. Hero, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, employs magic realism to show off the skills of its warriors. As such, characters float through the air, dance along treetops, and even stage an entire fight sequence on the surface of a lake. The fact that the film is working within the framework of a legend allows an audience to suspend their incredulity at these impossible acts.

Working ever backward through our definition, we next come across "elevated or dignified language." Well, the film is in Chinese, but that's not at all what I mean. No, the film's visual language, more than its dialogue, is what is elevated or dignified. The cinematography is absolutely breathtaking--art on the level of any of the great masters--and the filmmakers make very interesting, very purposeful, and very conspicuous decisions regarding color to add to the language of the film.

Finally, we reach the phrase "an extended narrative poem." It's a narrative extended over ninety-nine minutes that is told in a poetic style--both visually and orally. The framework for the narrative is one of a series of unfolding flashbacks, as Nameless wins an audience with the king of the Chinese province of Qin and explains to him how he managed to dispatch three dangerous assassins. Rather than being simply a vehicle for the story, however, the discussion between Nameless and the king is an important element of the plot, and is given extra levels of subtlety and nuance as the king senses that Nameless' stories are not completely on the level.

I'd tell you more, but I'd much rather allow your viewing of this film unfold naturally, unfettered by the clues given away by the careless critic.

In any case, it's not really possible to adequately describe a film like Hero. As a reviewer, the best I can hope to do is evoke it. It's foreign, yet familiar. It's confusing but rewarding. It's specific and universal. But perhaps most importantly, it's a bona-fide work of art.

So what of a rating? Well, directly after finishing the film, the number 11 seemed most appropriate to me. It's an unfamiliar story told in unfamiliar style, and I think the challenges of seeing through the film's caveats caused me to underestimate it. In the twenty-four or so hours since I watched the film, however, its themes and scenes have flitted intermittently through my mind, and each time I'm struck anew by the masterpiece of it all. So I'm upping my rating an unprecedented six points to 17, and it may yet rise from there.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Jesus Camp

Initial Reaction: Oy Vey.

Religion is a word that for many of us either elicits an "old time" feel, one that provides an image of masses packed into ornate buildings going through motions that are required by a belief system, or of charismatic Bible-belters who practically load their guns with scripture-inscribed bullets.

Faith is a word that for most gives us a very different sense than that of religion. Faith is warm and comforting. It's acknowledged as positive and beneficial by religious and non-religious alike. It's there even when many think it shouldn't be, and can be a great hope and encouragement to those trying to make their way through a difficult, unpredictable and unfair world.

Regardless of what my own opinions are of religion and faith, or the statistical truth of my above statements, religion and faith are often seen hand in hand, but occasionally as adversaries. The documentary Jesus Camp deals with a cross-section of evangelical Christians in the United States and, for me, wrestled with these two ideas. It didn't separate the two as I've done here, but for the purpose of this review, I felt it might be helpful. You'll have to excuse me, since it's difficult to objectively review a documentary in the first place, especially without throwing in one's own opinion on the topic.

Pastor Becky Fischer ran a camp for children in 2005 called "Kids on Fire." (Ironically, the location of the camp was Devil's Lake in North Dakota.) At first we are introduced to a few of the children that the cameras follow throughout the film: Levi, Rachel, and Tory. We see these kids at home with their families, attending church, and then throughout the duration of the camp. They tell us about their beliefs and experiences, and we get to see them in the midst of prayer, worship and evangelism. In addition to these kids, we also hear from their parents and Pastor Fischer.

As a documentary, Jesus Camp was quite good. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady made it very even-handed, which I immediately noticed. I knew that some people could see it and be horrified, while others I know would love it and praise the efforts of Fischer and her church. I liked the addition of the radio show commentary by Mike Papantonio. This man admits to being a Christian, but he strongly questions the ideas and methods of Becky Fischer and her camp and he issues challenges to our country's religious right. Since most of the documentary is spent listening to the evangelicals promoting things like Kids on Fire, I felt like comments from Papantonio throughout the film were very helpful and a wise move on the part of the filmmakers. Instead of interviewing democrats and the non-religious in the U.S. (who would have basically just said "those fanatics belong in the nut house"), I think it was more effective to listen to another Christian with a differing view.

As a look at the evangelical movement in the United States, Jesus Camp is just a taste of the issue. It focuses on one church hosting one camp in one location in the United States. It mainly followed three children in this camp. But this does not mean Jesus Camp doesn't have a place in raising some issues. The scary part, to me, is when Fischer compares their camp to nations who are indoctrinating their children with Islam and training them with guns and grenades rather than prayer and preaching. She makes the claim that the "Jesus Camp" type of indoctrination is acceptable. Now, whether you're an evangelical Christian, Muslim, or atheist, this is a pertinent question. Throughout Jesus Camp, the children are spouting off phrases like "at 5 I got saved, because I wanted more out of life" and "when I dance, I have to make sure that that's God, because people will notice when I'm just dancing for the flesh." I mean, are these the voices of 9-year-olds talking here? (Personal response: If you ask me, at 5 you wanted more out of life probably because your parents told you there was more to get, but that the only way to get it is to pray this prayer and live this way.)

I appreciate the question it raises, especially for parents. Do you teach your children to believe what you believe? If not, then how do you guide them? If so, then how much differing thought do you allow them to see and hear?

As a side note, you should know that Jesus Camp also includes a visit to the mega-church of former pastor Ted Haggard in Colorado. We get an inside look at one of their services, and also a short interview with him. The interesting thing is that Haggard is one of the few noteworthy evangelicals who withdrew his support of the film after Jesus Camp came out. (No pun intended)

Rating: 15

A very well-rounded, honest look at a specific population in the United States. In my opinion, whether you're religious or not, Jesus Camp is an interesting film that can challenge you in a number of ways. It was an eye-opening experience, especially for a person who has had experiences like those of the children in the film. My conclusions? Personally, I'd rather have the religion of Martin Luther King, Jr. over that of Pastor Becky Fischer. Show me the doubting yet committed faith of Mother Theresa instead of that of Ted Haggard. But you make your own decision, it's a free country.

Favorite Scene: During an emotional high at one of the camp services, children are speaking in tongues and on their knees crying. A little girl (can't be older than 4) carries a tissue box and hands out tissues to the crying children in a very business-like manner. She is overlooked by the other kids and interviewees of Jesus Camp, but in my opinion is the most real person in the movie, as well as the best role model.

Iconic Lines:

A homeschooling mom says, "If you look at creationism, you realize it's the only possible answer to all the questions."

Ted Haggard says to the TV camera, "I think I know what you did last night. If you send me $1,000, I won't tell your wife."

Monday, September 10, 2007

Anna and The King

In the primitive country of Siam, an English schoolteacher has arrived to serve as tutor for the children of the King of Siam. Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster) arrives with the hope that she will be able to move on without her husband in this new country. Through several arguments with King Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat) and his advisors, the two begin to admire each other but refuse to give into their feelings. Also, a concubine of the King is forced to choose between her loyalties to the King and being with the man she loves.
This is the plot of the 1999 film Anna and The King. Some of you may think that this plot seems familiar. Well, it is. This story has been told a few different times, most famously in the musical The King and I starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. Now, most people who know me, and know my love for musicals, would assume that this film is a musical update, if you will, of the 1956 classic. But it's not. This is a straight adaptation of the tale of the love between a king and a woman who considered herself to be “the equal of a king.”
Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat are both great in this movie. Foster is wonderful as Anna, and shows every bit the independence and protective walls that the character calls for. Chow Yun-Fat also is spot on as a king who is dealing with the modernization of his country and how to bring “enlightened” ways to his realm. These are just two of the great performers in this movie. The King’s children are adorable, his concubines beautiful, his advisers old and crotchety, and his generals battle-ready but not exactly trustworthy.
Anna and the King was a great movie. The scenery was beautiful, the score was entrancing, and the acting wonderful. I found myself just lost in the story. Although I also loved the 1956 version, I found it easier to lose myself in what seemed to be a more realistic interpretation of the story. Perhaps it was that no one was stopping to express his or her feelings in song.
Surprisingly, I originally had no intention of seeing this movie, but a friend of mine convinced me to watch it with her and I was hooked. About a week later I bought both the CD so I could listen to enchanting music again and the DVD so I could see it whenever I wanted--and so I could see Chow Yun-Fat whenever I wanted to (He’s hot!). What regal rating would I give a movie that had this kind of effect on me? 16.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Return to Me

Everybody has their guilty pleasures, and mine’s probably among the guiltiest of them all: romantic comedies. Every so often, I let go of my high-and-mighty ways when it comes to film, and I forget about all the grandiose notions I have about what a movie should be and how it should be done. At the same time, I let my sentimentality, optimism and romanticism get the better of me, for just a little while. It was in one of these moments that I watched Return to Me, and I’m glad those moments come up from time to time, because if they didn’t, I probably would have let slip by a movie that I wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise.

Return to Me is a pretty simple movie without all the bells and whistles of big blockbusters, but instead has all the trimmings and trappings of rom-coms. I can hear WLC groaning even as I type this, but it was actually a pretty fun and likable movie, one that didn’t fall into the normal pitfalls rom-coms can fall into. WLC and DW are working on a theory that romantic comedies are responsible for this country’s astronomical divorce rate, for a variety of reasons. I agree with their reasoning for the most part, but Return to Me is unique among its stock. It doesn’t have any of the malignant tendencies that Serendipity, Forces of Nature, or Sleepless in Seattle have in spades, being that if you are unhappy at all in your relationship, it’s because you’re with the wrong person, and you should be with your “true love”. In Return to Me, the main character actually gets to be with his true love twice.

Bob Rueland (David Duchovny) is a mild-mannered and happy architect, with a lovely wife named Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) who works with gorillas at the local zoo, teaching one of them sign language. The night of a banquet where they announce the building of a new wing of the zoo, there is a car accident, and Elizabeth is tragically killed, and Bob is devastated. At the same exact time, Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver) is close to death and eagerly awaiting a new heart, and finds the godsend she needs in Elizabeth’s death. One year later, Grace is working as a waitress at the Italian/Irish restaurant run by her grandfather (the hilarious Carroll O’Connor), and is self-conscious about the ten-inch scar down the center of her chest. Meanwhile, Bob is being prodded by his friend Charlie (David Alan Grier) to start dating again, but is reluctant, as the specter of Elizabeth is not completely gone. Through a series of coincidences, Grace and Bob meet each other, like each other, and indeed start dating each other. The conflict enters from the fact that Bob feels as though he’s betraying Elizabeth’s memory, and Grace is nervous about telling him she’s had a heart transplant, wearing scarves and high-necked sweaters to hide her scar.

Things get very interesting when the characters learn that when Elizabeth died, her heart was transplanted into Grace’s body, saving her life. The fact that Grace ended up with Bob, and Bob found the last living piece of his wife in Grace, says very intriguing things about love and destiny, and also about our inability as humans to derail fate or God’s plan or whatever. In addition, it suggests that the heart contains a piece of the true self (as, presumably, does any organ), and even if it’s put into another body, the self will remain. This has special resonance with me, because I am a transplant survivor. As such, I already knew that a small piece of my donor lived inside of me, and Return to Me confirmed it.

The movie itself is a little over-done, and will no doubt induce the girly-girls to reach for the tissue box, and make manly-men gag on their pork rinds. But writer/director/supporting cast member Bonnie Hunt appears to know her way around a good romantic comedy, despite that this is her first film. I call this a good romantic comedy because it contains none of what I consider to be the two biggest killers of rom-coms: the protagonist ditching their fiancĂ© to be with their “true love,” and the central couple lying to each other for no reason. Return to Me deftly avoids those pit traps.

The rest of the movie is okay, but what makes it worth it is the ridiculously endearing supporting cast, especially the four Italian/Irish old men discussing the singing and acting chops of the Rat Pack. But in general, Return to Me is just a harmless, inoffensive and safe movie that will not push you in any way, though it may make you see love in a slightly different light. It really connects with me, as does the character of Grace, because of the transplant thing. But it wasn’t an earth-shaking movie for me, even having that connection, so I imagine it won’t be for you.

Iconic Lines:
“Pray in Rome; God can hear you better.”
“Elizabeth and I were married by the time we were twenty, and we'd been going out since we were fifteen, so this may sound a bit juvenile, but... can I hold your hand?”
“All the times I prayed that Gracie would have a second chance at life, I always knew that if God blessed us, the heart she got would have to be from a very special person, if it were going to be at home in Grace. When she met you, her heart beat truly for the first time. Perhaps it was meant to be with you always.”

22 Rating: 6

Particle Man