Archive for the ‘ Movie Reviews ’ Category

REVIEW: “A Home at the End of the World” (film)

A Home at the End of the World

Directed by Michael Mayer
2004

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge

I’m going to be honest here and say that I really don’t care what anyone else thinks of this movie: I loved it. I’ve read some fairly critical responses to it which more or less take it apart from a cinematic point of view, and for all I know they’re right, it’s a terrible movie. As I said: it really doesn’t matter to me. Something about the story and characters touched me personally, to the point where more objective/technical concerns ceased to be relevant.

From the blurb on the back cover, the film purports to be a story about three people – Bobby, Jonathan and Clare – and their attempt to form a highly unconventional family unit together. What I saw was more of a commentary on the end of an era; the children of the sixties and seventies growing into adults in a world that is much harsher and more dangerous than they were lead to expect – the loneliness that comes from growing up and realising the inherent bleakness of the human condition – the bonds that unite and sustain us, however unconventional they may be. The characters were beautiful, interesting, complicated people, their relationships believable and tender. All of them were lost in different ways, struggling to determine who they were and who they wanted to be. In this sense, they were perfect for each other, but inevitably doomed to disappointment as well.

I found myself extremely attached to all of them and very involved in their story. The parts were very well played by the actors, and although they did falter once or twice, I was never jolted out of the story by poor delivery or unbelievable reactions. Because of this, I was devastated by the ending of the movie: it was not only kind of predictable and vague but also utterly heart-wrenching. A film to open the soul, I think, even if it isn’t perfect – one of my favourites to date.

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REVIEW: “Sometimes in April” (film)

Sometimes in April

Directed by Raoul Peck
2005

CHALLENGE(S): Social Justice Challenge

Since I haven’t been so great at keeping up with the books I’m supposed to read for the Social Justice Challenge, this month I chose to watch a film instead. In retrospect, perhaps this was a mistake. I spent a large amount of the time (over 2 hours) blinking back tears and wondering what the hell is wrong with humanity.

Sometimes in April is the story of two brothers whose lives are torn apart by the Rwanda genocide of 1994. The narrative skips between their life in the present – one on trial for war crimes, the other struggling to move on with his life after the death of his family – and the events that led to their current state. I will tell you right now that those events were horrific. They were not skimped on. This is a movie with bodies piled in the street, with authorities who stand by and do nothing as people die, with no mercy whatever for any of those who played a role in the tragedy or for the viewers who are watching it unfold.

I don’t know that I can necessarily recommend it as far as entertainment goes. It’s incredibly heartbreaking, and who wants to put themselves through that if they don’t have to? But it was well done, well acted, and thoroughly terrifying. If you truly want to know what it was like in Rwanda, or indeed in any similar situation, then this is the film to see.

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REVIEW: “Maurice” (film)

Maurice

Directed by James Ivory
1987

CHALLENGE(S): Read the Movie Challenge

Let me begin this review with a frank and potentially hypocritical remark that summarises my initial reaction to certain parts of the film: HOLY GRATUITOUS NEKKID MEN, BATMAN. No, really. If you thought Brokeback Mountain was pushing boundaries, you have obviously not seen this movie.

This is not, I hasten to add, a prurient response (or at least, not merely), so much as one of complete surprise. It was not something I was expecting, in spite of the M rating (you know they’d have put that there just because the main character was gay, even if there had been no naked men involved whatsoever). To be honest, one tends to forget that men exist below the waist in movies generally, and after I got over my initial double-take I immediately found myself faced with the question of why it should be so surprising. I was under the impression that I had outgrown the prudish part of my nature some time ago, yet here I was, recoiling as if it were so completely shocking that oh my god, men were actually showing their naughty bits on-screen. Had either, or even both of them been a woman I probably wouldn’t even have thought twice about it. But in this case, it was like some kind of invisible line had been crossed and suddenly I was sitting back going, what am I watching?!

Talk about walking smack into your own subliminated prejudices. If there ever was a clearer demonstration of how the gendered gaze in cinema can structure your expectations…

In point of fact, though, I wouldn’t have brought it up except that it struck me as closely related to the main theme of the story itself. As I mentioned in my review of the novel on which it is based, Maurice is very much about the conflict between conventionality and personal liberation, and (perhaps because this is inextricably intertwined) about the gulf between words and actions, both of which I think played a significant part in the director’s choices when it came to creating the film. Most specifically, the story deals implicitly with ideas of masculinity and gender conformity as the titular Maurice grapples with society’s (and his own) disgust at his sexuality and the love that ultimately defines him, until he is forced to embrace exile and transcend that disgust to find happiness. Somewhat similarly, the director seems to have necessarily taken a step outside of the traditional, (heterosexual, white, middle-class, privileged, masculine…?) viewpoint in so much of mainstream cinema in order to shake up the viewer’s expectations and underscore this point.

Of course, James Ivory also directed A Room With a View which, if I recall correctly, had a brief scene in it which also shocked me at the time, so perhaps this is just his particular style of unvarnished, unalloyed filmmaking: in which case, more power to him. On the other hand, there were instances in the first half (during Maurice’s relationship with Clive) that there were opportunities to do this if that was his sole intention, and he chose to refrain. It was because most of the nekkid men scenes came in in the second half (after the split with Clive, and particularly during his relationship with Alec) that I made the connection between the two aspects in the first place.

However. Setting my personal reactions and speculations aside for the moment, I will say that it wasn’t exactly what I’d call a good film. I blame Hugh Grant, although not so much because of his acting (or lack thereof) as by virtue of the fact that he was Hugh Grant, causing me to realise holy crap that’s what Hugh Grant looked like the year I was born, which was followed by the charmingly self-centered holy crap people really did exist before I was born, that is so weird and thus so distracted me to the point where I completely failed to be able to see him as anyone else, let alone the intellectual and weak-natured Clive Durham. His “romance” with Maurice (played by James Wilby) was wooden at best, and downright embarrassing at worst, which made it quite difficult for me to sit through the first half of the story. This unsatisfactory beginning was made up for, however, by the fact that viewing the movie helped me to fully process my thoughts about the novel and come to a place where I felt I actually understood it for the first time. Connections were made. Relationships dawned. I began to realise just how deviously, deliciously subtle good old straight-forward Forster could be.

And that, I think, was the chief delight of this film. It brought the novel to life for me, not least because it quoted virtually every other page. Wilby was perfectly cast, even if Grant was not, and a great deal of the symbolism was included or embellished upon, giving a person who has read the book a number of those in-jokes and moments of “Oh, I know what he’s doing there…” which so greatly flatter the intellect. The direction is perhaps a little too self-conscious and heavy-handed in parts – one might even call it overwrought: it is obvious when he wishes to make a point, for instance, or to impress upon the audience that this particular moment is poignant, and emotional, but the highlights of the novel were handled adequately (and the ending, where Maurice rubs Clive’s nose in the fact that he is over him now, thanks, is perfectly done) and as an adaptation it was not too shoddy – though I would love to see it remade and shiny for a new and perhaps more appreciative audience.

Definitely recommended. But read the book first, and, ahem, beware unexpected!naked!men…

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REVIEW: “The Vintner’s Luck” (film) by Niki Caro

The Vintner’s Luck

Directed by Niki Caro
2009

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

In case it isn’t obvious by now, I should probably mention that The Vintner’s Luck is officially my favourite book ever. As such, I was extremely excited when the movie came out on DVD (having missed it in theatres) and hastened to pick up a copy to watch. I knew beforehand that the author had been disappointed by the adaptation and therefore had very low expectations in spite of my excitement; sadly, they were quite justified.

I will say that the cinematography was beautiful, and the musical score was lovely. Caro really gave you the sense of being in the vineyard, and the story was well grounded in the earthiness of peasant life. Even the acting was well done. For the first, say, third of the film it followed the storyline close enough that I was quite satisfied, but once it started veering off, the movie lost its magic.

What most disappointed me was that Xas was pretty much incidental to the movie storyline, which was all about wine, and women. His relationship with Sobran was relegated to a weird kind of side story, whereas it was supposed to drive the whole plot. Because I adore Xas and found his connection with Sobran to be the most moving part of the book, once I realized that Caro did not intend to address it except obliquely the movie lost a great deal of its charm for me. As for how she handled the ending? Sobran’s death scene was very well done – it was literally like seeing the book come to life – but Xas was totally shortchanged, and that frustrated me.

Don’t get me wrong – Caro did kind of flirt with the idea that he and Sobran had a more intimate relationship. But it was just that; a (somewhat confusing) flirtation, rather than the epic love story that featured in the book. More disturbingly – to me, at any rate – Caro repeatedly has Xas as the aggressor and Sobran rejecting him. Not only was it not the case in the novel, but in emphasizing Sobran’s resistance to Xas Caro ruins the theological point Knox was trying to make, and she also features a scene which is unsettlingly close to rape, albeit of the entirely non-graphic kind. While I loved seeing Xas fly in that scene, it kind of creeped me out a bit, and I can definitely see why Knox was so upset with Caro’s particular interpretation.

I appreciate that Vintner’s Luck really isn’t the sort of book that would translate easily to another medium. A lot of its power is in the language, which is obviously up for interpretation, and it doesn’t have what you’d call an action-oriented plotline. Still, my strongest feeling throughout the movie was “You didn’t get it at all!”. At times it left me questioning whether the reason she changed the storyline as she did was to avoid the flak that would come from showing an angel in a homosexual relationship, and I found the plot she did choose to include rather confusing because the original motivations were missing. I also felt a strong sense that it was not a female-friendly film, odd as that sounds. The women in it were either crazy jealous (Celeste – although she was crazy in the book as well) or cold and hard (the Baroness, who was completely kick ass in the novel). There were also a great many  shots of naked women and sex scenes that, while they weren’t crude exactly, made me feel rather as if I was perhaps not in the film’s target audience, if you know what I mean. It was very much as if she were doing her best to make it into a heteronormative romance, when the entire point of the novel was the fluidity of love.

Overall, I’d say it is a film that can best be understood and enjoyed by those who have not read the book. For me, the plot made a certain kind of linear sense but the driving force behind it was different, and thus it seemed to strike all the wrong notes, like music played on a faulty instrument. Taken as a film rather than an adaptation, it was quite good, though that angelic storyline should have been dropped altogether as I don’t think it added much (anything?) to the plot. As an adaptation, it was not what I had hoped. I am not the nit-picky sort who requires all details to be identical to the book, but I felt Caro robbed the story of its main backbone when she decided to reduce Xas to a peripheral role. I did enjoy it for the lush sensuality of the setting and the music, and the cast was well chosen. There were a number of scenes I felt particularly well done, but aside from that I have to say I was not impressed. She has captured the lyrical beauty of the text, perhaps, but not its essence. A real shame.

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REVIEW: “The Painted Veil” by W. Somerset Maugham

The Painted Veil

W. Somerset Maugham
Heron Books, London 1967

CHALLENGE(S): To Be Read Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge

Finished 31 Jan 2010

This one has been on my “To Be Read” list for quite a while, hence its inclusion in the TBR Challenge. I also happen to own a copy of the recent movie adaptation, which I watched directly afterwards (although, of course, I’d already seen it twice). Actually, the movie came out around the time of my birthday, and I wanted to see it but was eventually coerced into seeing something else instead. I knew from the moment that I saw the movie poster (the same as the book cover shown on the left) that this was going to be a story I’d enjoy, and I was right.

Essentially, Painted Veil is the story of Kitty and Walter Fane. Having married the besotted Walter in an attempt to escape her overbearing mother, Kitty feels trapped and unhappy with her lot in life. It seems inevitable, then, that when handsome and charming (and married!) Charles Townsend comes into the picture, Kitty is easily swept off her feet into a scandalous extra-marital affair. As the book begins, Walter has just discovered her infidelity. To get revenge, he volunteers to go and act as a physician in a cholera-stricken village and insists that Kitty either secure Townsend’s promise to marry her or accompany him into the heart of the epidemic. Kitty is horrified to find that Charles has no intention of divorcing his wife for her, and is forced to travel with her estranged husband into a foreign and terrifying world.

The most interesting aspect of this story for me was Kitty’s development as a character. To begin with, she’s spoiled, selfish and lacking in compassion. She doesn’t see why she shouldn’t get exactly what she wants, and doesn’t mind using other people to do it. By the end of the novel, she has grown a great deal as a person; she hasn’t exactly reformed, but she’s aware of what she’s doing and is making an active effort to be considerate and compassionate to others. This is more clearly emphasized in the movie ending, which differs from the book insofar as it has (spoilers!) Kitty and Walter actually falling in love and, when she returns to Hong Kong after Walter’s death of cholera, Kitty ignores Townsend completely when she meets him again. The novel is less clear cut about it – Walter still dies, but while Kitty comes to respect him and regard him as a worthy object of affection, she does not in fact love him, and she quickly falls back under Townsend’s spell when she returns (albeit to her own self-disgust). Her transition from shallow socialite to a more well-rounded, compassionate human being is shown in the way she reacts to her mother’s death and her plans to make a new life with her widowed father back in England.

I have to confess that I liked the movie ending better; so much more emotionally satisfying to see Kitty resist Charles at the last! However, the book has its merits as well, so I think that both can be appreciated on their own terms.

I was intrigued most especially by the discussion of religion that was intermingled with the narrative. Kitty’s lack of faith was explored without judgment, and I enjoyed some of Maugham’s pontifications on philosophy and life after death. I did find some of the author’s assumptions about women and the treatment of the Chinese a little bit offensive – acceptable as a representation of attitudes in their time, perhaps, but a trifle irritating nevertheless. “Wounded vanity can make a woman more vindictive than a lioness robbed of her cubs” indeed!

Nonetheless, these small faults aside The Painted Veil is a charming read and a book which I will undoubtedly return to several times with great enjoyment, and the movie is really quite beautiful; the cinematography alone makes it worth a watch. A true classic!

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REVIEW: “Religulous” (film) with Bill Maher

Religulous

Directed by Larry Charles, starring Bill Maher
2008

CHALLENGE(S): Social Justice Challenge

In the absence of any clear direction re: this challenge, I thought I’d watch Religulous as part of my Activist participation this month. I remember when this came out in America a lot of the atheist online communities that I frequent were really excited about it. I also remember that much of that excitement turned to disappointment once they actually saw the film, and quite apart from Religious Freedom month, I was eager to see for myself whether it lived up to the hype.

I have to say, I wasn’t all that impressed. My father watched it before I did and said it was hilarious, but I didn’t really get the humour. Basically, Bill Maher tours the world poking his nose into religious sites and asking people various questions, apparently in an attempt to press home two points about religion. The first point is that people believe all sorts of really weird stuff. He spoke to a man who believes he’s the second coming of Christ; he visited the Creation Museum. He even used That Video (briefly, thankfully) of Kirk Cameron and NZ’s very own Ray Comfort discussing bananas. If you don’t know which video I’m talking about, look it up on YouTube. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll laugh.

Unfortunately, Maher fails to try to understand why people believe the things they do; in fact, he’s more about mocking them for believing in anything. Throughout the film he came across as smug and arrogant which made it pretty difficult to watch with anything other than a pained grimace on my face.

I’m hardly averse to pointing out the flaws of religion. I do it all the time. However, there’s a difference between mocking religion and mocking religious people which I don’t really think Maher understands. There were several times through the film where I really felt he was sniggering behind their backs, which made me annoyed on their behalf. In particular, I remember one instance when he was talking to a group of truckers who worshipped in a small church by the road, saying, “You’re smart people, how can you believe in angels etc.?” when it was quite clear he was thinking “You guys are idiots.”

The second point of the film was that religion is dangerous and needs to be curtailed before it causes mankind to destroy the world. I agree that having government officials who think that nuclear war is not a bad thing and who are living more for the afterlife than for this world is not a good idea; I wholeheartedly believe that religion should keep the hell away from politics and that when people start blowing each other up in the name of their god(s) they lose the right to call theirs a religion of peace. In fact, I agreed with a lot of Maher’s points. But the attitude, once again, had me grinding my teeth. Was it really necessary to be so very condescending? Really? It was frustratingly lacking in objectivity and any real coherent argument; instead it seemed to be trying to convince through shock tactics and/or emotional appeals. Oh, and music. Lots of music. I have to say, I now have “Walk Like an Egyptian” stuck in my head, which I don’t altogether appreciate…

Ultimately, I think this film was aimed mostly at preaching to the choir. It didn’t provide me with any arguments that I hadn’t already heard before, nor did it make a serious attempt to convince or educate – it was mostly inviting me to chuckle at the stupid Christians and the crazy Muslims and the weirdo Jews, while feeling smugly superior because I don’t believe in any of the same bizarre things. I felt that the underlying message was that Religious People are Stupid and/or Crazy, which was something I objected to. I also didn’t appreciate the crudeness of the humour at points and the attitude towards women that seemed to undercut the film. Honestly, all it really did for me was convince me that Maher is kind of a jerk. Hm. Not the effect he was going for, I think.

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