Back Issues

Volume 17, Issue 4: Ex Imagibus

Movie Smatterings

Reviewed by Douglas Jones, Nathan Wilson, Brendan O'Donnell, Ben Merkle

Corpse Bride
directed by Tim Burton
reviewed by Douglas Jones
Director Tim Burton often aims to teach audiences to be nonjudgmental about especially pale outsiders: "When people are open and not judgemental I just find that really beautiful and great and somewhat rare." Remember the morality lessons from Scissorhands? PeeWee Herman? Beetlejuice? Big Fish? Chocolate Factory? Ed Wood? This time Burton wants us to be nonjudgmental and embrace a decaying bride. It turns out that the protagonist groom accidentally places a ring on grave girl, and she intends to keep him. Christian reviewers have already praised Corpse Bride as a "poignant meditation on the daunting weightiness of the vows of marriage." In fact, we find out in the third act that the main dilemma of the film— choosing the living or dead bride—has been fake all along, since vows don't hold past death—giving us that deflated frustration of an oh-it's-only-a-dream story. The tension was already gone, though. Also as per cliché, the nasty black-and-white Christians above ground lack the life of the full-color dead in hades, a dichotomy Burton almost always has working. Remember suburbia in Scissorhands? His nonjudgmentalism is always limited. Enough morality tales.

The Constant Gardener
directed by Fernando Meirelles
reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell
The Constant Gardener presents the reviewer (me) with a dilemma. On one hand, it epitomizes the genre of the fashionable liberal social-issue movie, and so invites dismissal and scorn. On the other hand, its fashionable social issue is the human tragedy in Africa, which cannot be so flippantly waved off. Furthermore, it comes from the hand of Fernando Meirelles, a Brazilian with a brilliant and bracing style who, unlike so many po-mo Tarantino wannabes, gets involved and passionate about his subject matter. For what it's worth, this movie provokes you to think beyond its two hours, even if it gives you precious little to agree with.

The story follows Justin, a buttoned-up relief agency bureaucrat, as he investigates his wife Tessa's death. Tessa, Justin's impassioned, firebrand counterpart on the more radical end of the "save Africa" campaign, was murdered alongside another relief doctor—with whom she was suspected of trysting—in the Kenyan desert. Justin's investigation brings him into conflict with the big pharmaceutical company which has been testing experimental drugs on "expendable" African AIDS patients, a scheme which Tessa had been working to expose.
Meirelles shoots a vivid movie; working with oversaturated, grainy film stocks that make for constantly startling and surprising scenes, he presents a crowded, intense Africa full of color, filth, life, and rough edges. Europe, on the other hand, comes across as sleek, modernist, dead, and grey—and the contrast between them illustrates the broad antithesis the movie wants us to buy: that of the ruthless capitalist West and the burgeoning, oppressed Third World. A more particular antithesis is that of Justin's bureaucratic approach to charity and Tessa's on-the-ground variety. For all its caterwauling about the imperialist West, the modern liberal set remains as paternalistic as ever—the light that will drive away colonialism's shadow is even more Western involvement. Yet, for all its muddledness, Gardener's lone Christian character, a doctor named Lorbeer doing medical work in the bush, gets something right: "This whole machine is driven by guilt." The line skewers much of what else goes on in the movie, which gives us the spectacle of an apostate Western culture's high-minded attempt to be the savior of the Third World.

directed by Sam Mendes
reviewed by Ben Merkle
Jarhead gives an authentic portrayal of life in the enlisted ranks of the Marine Corps while waiting in the sand for Operation Desert Shield to transform into Desert Storm. Anthony Swafford is trained as a Marine sniper and then deployed to the Gulf to wait for his chance to finally engage the enemy. Tensions mount as the months waiting in the sand drag on. Men masturbate. A lot. I'm not kidding. They make jokes about fornication. They make jokes about having sex with one another. They spend a lot of time naked. The war starts, but the planes kill all the Iraqis before the snipers ever get a chance. The war ends without them ever firing a shot. And by the time they get home, most of them have been dumped by their girlfriends and wives.

The film is dead on in portraying the reality of life in the enlisted Marine Corps, which should certainly give pause to young Christian men who think that enlisting will somehow help them grow in virtue. However, it's the sort of film that gives authenticity a bad name. It is accurate, in a sense. Marines don't like to use more than three words in a row without dropping the F-bomb, are obsessed with fornication, and are prone to frequent lapses of sanity (sometimes alcohol-induced and sometimes not). But Jarhead stops there and thinks that it has told the entirety of the story.
Sin and death become the only reality and all thoughts of redemption are portrayed as vanities. Swafford clings to a picture of his girlfriend for solace, yet in reality she is already cheating on him with Jody, the mythological man who steals every Marine's girl as soon as he ships out. This sort of authenticity is an over-the-top lie, because it refuses to see the bigger story of redemption. The real tragedy of the film will be the idiotic Christian kids from the middle-class suburbs who watch the film and praise it for its "reality."

directed by Danny Boyle
reviewed by Nathan Wilson
Every director in Hollywood is a legend according to someone. Danny Boyle has given his artistic guidance to movies generally appreciated (by some) like Trainspotting, but then he has also been involved in some real failures (like The Beach). In this film/morality play, there are moments of towering genius, and of course whole sequences in which the narrative becomes unhinged and moves for no good reason at all. No worries however. Incoherent narrative will always be called narrative sophistication by some critics.

The Brits are going from pounds to euros and two motherless brothers learn the nature of humanity, struggle over goodness, and one discovers Miracle.
The setting is wonderfully magical, and yet suburban. Our youngest and most central protagonist (Damian) has his own cardboard hermitage and regularly sees and interacts with saints. All brilliant.
Then a sack of money (pounds, legal tender for only a few days) falls out of the sky and lands on Damian's hermitage, and he and his brother begin their struggle over what to do with the temporary wealth. We have all the normal dilemmas but with some more interesting permutations. Eventually, every option is pursued. It is spent, exchanged, given to Mormons, glued to a wall, and finally burned. But the money isn't the story. Damian is the story, Damian and his own aspiring sainthood. His culmination as a character comes when (after a visit from his junior-saint mother) he performs a miracle equivalent to that of Christ with the loaves and the fishes (as unfortunately described to him by St. Peter). The film is a highly enjoyable watch if you aren't too concerned with continuity and you can duck before the moral of the story hits you in the forehead.

directed by Cameron Crowe
reviewed by Doug Jones
This film garnered third place in my personal all-time-worst movies list (still ahead of it are Vanishing Point [1971] and Be Cool [2005]). Elizabethtown has no legit dramatic question to drive us forward, and often I begged myself to leave the theatre, but the film was such a car crash I couldn't take my eyes off it. Basically, it has the feel of someone's blog made into a film, including—I kid not—a ten-minute phone call between leads seemingly just out of junior high arguing about who the societal "they" and "them" are. Like many blogs, the film feels so personal and trivial and undramatic at places, you feel like you're intruding into someone's dresser. I think it's a bad sign when I find myself longing for the leads to get into a big accident.

Back to top
Back to Table of Contents

Copyright © 2012 Credenda/Agenda. All rights reserved.