“Avatar” Review

If you haven’t seen Avatar, the 3-D effects and what-not make the movie worth seeing in the theater.  A world of floating mountains and crazy biological symbiosis on the world of Pandora are cool to see.

That said, it has been well noted that while James Cameron spent a lot of money making his own planet on the big screen, he probably should have hired a first year college English major to improve upon his script.  Actually, the average high school creative writing contestant could probably better what Cameron put on screen for two hours.  It seemed to me like the only moments in the dialogue where I didn’t feel like bursting into spontaneous, but (often) inappropriately timed laughter were when the characters spoke in Navii.  To be fair, I might have wanted to laugh at those as well, since I’m certain James Cameron could manage to direct his actors to butcher the syntax of a language that he himself made up.

The plot seems familiar the whole time, with every possible fork in the road taking the most obvious, familiar (and lamest) turns.  If you’ve seen any of the following, you will probably not encounter a single surprising moment in the film: Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves, Ferngully, the old Robert DeNiro film “The Mission”, the Jar Jar subplot of Phantom Menace…and that’s just off the top of my head.

What makes me sad isn’t so much the (blatant) political overtones (although G.W. bashing is pretty out-dated now, even for Hollywood), but the fact that with so much effort created to make a 3-D landscape, we end up with the most 1-D characters ever put on screen.  Jake Sully, (dumb, tough guy), people who connect with nature (and do not seem remotely interested in technology at all), big mean C.E.O., big mean soldiers, nice scientists.  The bad guys have on the blackest cowboy hats imaginable, and the good guys just finished bleaching theirs.  You can combine technology with genuine character development (see Spider-Man 2, Iron Man), but Cameron has long refused that road (see Titanic or just remember how badly you wanted little John Connor to be killed by the end of T2…) in favor of special effects.   O well.

That said, Avatar is worth seeing once because of the special effects.  But be warned…Sarah Palin joining Fox News was a bigger plot twist than anything happening on Pandora.


“The Road”- Movie Review

And you thought the past few weeks were a rough winter?

I had the chance back in November to attend a screening of The Road, a new film based on Cormac McCarthy’s (No Country for Old Men) award-winning book of the same title.

The Road is a gritty tale, not for the faint of heart.  Viggo Mortensen (“Aragorn” in Lord of the Rings) once again proves as tough as any movie monsters thrown at him, whether man or myth.  (I’m not sure how much weight he lost for this role, but it’s disturbing–rightfully so.)  He plays the father of a young boy, both of whom are living in a post-apocalyptic world that is bleaker than any nightmare I’ve ever had.  We aren’t told in the film what caused the end of the world (nuclear war seems most likely, based on a few descriptions), but the end came and it was nastier than cafeteria meatloaf.  Planet and animal life is all but non-existent.  What few humans remain are either on the hunt or the run.  Forget dog-eat-dog–this is a man-eat-man world, and the filmmakers do little to spare us along those lines.  Find food or be food, seem the options left.

The father and his son struggle to survive as they attempt to find help (and hope, which they have little of).  This is more than man vs. nature, though.  The father’s sleep is haunted by the world that was–specifically the memory of his wife.  (I don’t want to give away too much here.)  McCarthy’s narrative draws on mythological themes, and one sees that in several of the scenes, including an almost-unrecognizable appearance by Robert Duvall.

The film explores the issues of love (father-son), hope (or lack of), and ultimately faith.  One major idea of the film is its fleshed-out humanism, though it is the bold and honest kind envisioned by someone like Nietzsche, not the cream-puff “there is no God, but let’s love each other anyway and everything will be alright” philosophy so popular.  One scene involves the young boy praying in thanks for food discovered.  Not knowing any better, he simply prays to the people who left it, though the father cannot even bring himself to that. Having an unreasonable hope is one thing; but operating with no hope is an entirely different animal to be confronted with.  McCarthy drives that home.

The Road is the kind of movie that you shouldn’t even think about taking your kids to see.  But it is a movie that perhaps you need to.  The ideas in it will have you thinking for days (I saw it almost two months ago, and I’m still disturbed and perplexed and intrigued.)  It will perhaps inspire you in revolt to anchor your hopes a little deeper and a little surer.  If nothing else, you’ll stock up on more canned goods next trip to the grocery store.

“Invictus” Review

Let me think of a formula for a compelling movie…

Clint Eastwood directing.  Morgan Freeman acting.  A sport where guys hit each other a lot.  Maybe one of the biggest human interest stories in the last 20 years in the person of Nelson Mandela.

Sounds pretty good, I think.  That’s the essence of Invictus, the 2009 edition of (what seems like) Clint Eastwood’s annual film offering just in time for awards season.  The movie is about Nelson Mandela and what he meant for the country of South Africa; like most biography pics in the last 10 years, it chooses to tell the story from the lens of a particular moment (rather than the birth-childhood-adulthood-death versions).  This particular moment is Nelson Mandela’s support of the South African rugby team shortly after his election in 1994 and what it inspired.  The film is a little predictable, but that’s not really fair since a) you can’t completely change history (unless you’re Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt) and b) inspirational movies are always predictable-  (I bet the character overcomes obstacles and succeeds (or dies trying), but that’s not their intention, nor should that be the criteria for judging them.  (If a suspense thriller is predictable, then you’ve got problems!)

First of all, Morgan Freeman does a great job as Nelson Mandela.  He probably won’t win the Oscar because it’s a sports movie, but that’s life.  It probably would have been hard for anyone to mess up the role.  Mandela’s life itself is the real star of the movie, and that brings me to the second point…

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I went away really wishing this wasn’t a sports movie.  Now I love sports, and I love sports movies, and there’s a reason why I’ve never watched Remember the Titans with my wife present.  But the rugby issue often felt like the usually annoying subplot of 24, where the characters you don’t really care about talk and debate and fill time while Jack Bauer drives across town, eats a sandwich, and goes to the bathroom (cuz when else could he?).  Even the major character of the team, played by Matt Damon, isn’t allowed to develop much.  His dad seems a little racist, and his team is terrible, but what is he like?  Good luck, we don’t really know, except for that he somehow gets his team motivated and has an emotional experience at the island prison where Mandela was kept.  And the characters get more foggy from there.  Without the well-developed auxillary characters, the transformation from apartheid to something better was a little nebulous.  (I think Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino actually made larger racial strides than what we were allowed to see here.)  Also, the fact that it took me most of the movie to figure out the scoring in rugby (thanks for the lack of explaining dialogue there) made following the matches and caring a little more difficult.  And I’m a recovering sports junkie.

I wonder how great this film would have been as a more straight-forward Mandela bio-pic.  Every time his character was on screen, my eyes were glued to the screen.  Fascinating man. It’s never good when you leave a movie thinking of how it could be better.  That’s a signal that something in the movie didn’t sit right, even if you can’t express it.

In all, it’s a good movie and definitely worth seeing.  The issues of forgiveness embodied by Nelson Mandela deserve to be seen and chewed over, especially as followers of Christ.  I left wanting to see more of that part, which may be the intention after all.

“Collision” Movie Review

What happens if you take an outspoken New Atheist from the UK and a pastor from Moscow, Idaho and toss them together for a few days with cameras constantly rolling?  Well, that’s obvious.  You get “Collision”, a new documentary released late last month on DVD and (I have to add the proper kudos) a birthday present from my beautiful wife. (She gets me.)

Atheist Christopher Hitchens and Pastor Douglas Wilson are no strangers to each other via writing and the Interweb.  Several years ago, Christopher Hitchens was doing some writing on new atheism and his main slant in its support–namely that religion is irretrievably evil.  He received some rather intriguing responses from a man in Idaho named Douglas Wilson.  Apparently, the dialogue was so good that the two men were invited to co-author a book entitled Is Christianity Good for the World? However, despite co-authoring a book, the two men had never met in person before the several days of public debates of the same title as the book that this film revolves around.

The film, directed by Darren Doane (this is where I show my film buff skills with a brief synopsis of the previous films he has done…ok, I haven’t seen them), has a quick overall pace, but knows how to settle in for the important moments.  At the end, I was thinking, “I could watch another hour or two of this,” which is good.  Most documentaries start off great and then make you claw your eyes out during the second half of the film as the movie goes preachy on whatever topic.  (Or they add a self-congratulatory biography of how poor Al Gore, the senator’s son, overcame all his obstacles…)  Collision doesn’t do either.

It helps that Hitchens and Wilson are both big personalities.  There’s a scene in the middle where the two of them are quoting their favorite sentences from author P.G. Wodehouse and just laughing until they cried.  They debate each other in such a way that if you saw them at the booth across the restaurant you would want to pull up a chair and listen in.  As Hitchens acknowledges, Wilson’s adherence and claim to actually believe the Bible make the debates work.  Hitchens comments of his boredom with debating the water-downed beliefs in the UK which bend over backwards to not really believe much of anything.  Of course, Hitchens himself is sort of a rock-star personality, as the camera crew often catches fans recognizing him on the street and he makes no attempt to stay humble about such things.

Doanne in his direction does a great job of allowing the debate between the two to advance within the film itself.  Although I am certain that some of the main points were made by each man at their various debate stops, you never get a sense that something has been recycled from earlier in the film.  He also does a great job of giving pretty equal airtime to both men.

I was wondering whether the Reformed theology of Wilson would be a help or a hurt during the debates.  But as most (good) theologians realize, the major problems of either Calvinism, Arminianism, or something-in-between are really problems that theism in general must answer (questions regarding foreknowledge, freedom of will, divine sovereignty, the problem of evil, etc.), so in that regard it doesn’t really change much of the overall argument.

If I could sum up the basic arguments, Hitchens argues that Christianity promotes wickedness, and Wilson responds that atheism can’t have a category called “wickedness” to put Christianity in.  Obviously, these themes are teased out in greater detail by both men, but you’ll have to watch the movie to see them.

Collision is an excellent movie.  For those interested in religious issues, it will be even more fascinating.

(FYI- The movie does not have a rating.  There are two instances of profanity in it for those concerned.)