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Volume 19, Issue 1: Ex Imagibus

In Which We Admit to Having (over the course of months) Seen . . .

Reviewed by All Sorts

Apocalypto
directed by Mel Gibson
Reviewed by Douglas Jones
I wanted to like this film, just for Mel's sake, but I found myself not believing even the very first scene. The humor was too modern, too Mel, too forced. This sort of characterization has to be hidden more. I was being forced to like these people. I enjoyed the mod and odd Maya world and could have hung out there more, but then the chase started. And it wouldn't stop. But before the chase was the eclipse. I guess we're supposed to buy the huge eclipse coincidence just because it's so brazen. Brazen sometimes sells coincidences, maybe if the characters joke about it a bit, but I couldn't buy it (then there was that other huge coincidence with the Jaguar timing; coincidences worked [maybe] in Signs because that was the whole theme). Seems like much more could have been done with the eclipse too, especially, if as Gibson stated somewhere, he was poking fun at U.S. war policy. I still don't know why, at the end, the rain going down the hole would be so traumatic for the mom and kids. You'd think they could float right up out of the hole? By then, I was so tired of the chase, I really didn't care that much.

Blood Diamond
directed by Edward Zwick
Reviewed by Douglas Jones
Pretty much Apocalypto in Africa. Father trying to rescue kid, but running toward the nasty-nasty villain. We've seen this story so often that even the quirks didn't work. I believe I've seen Jennifer Connelly act, but the script just forbid it here. I watched this one all alone in a theatre, so at least when I got bored at the climax, I was able to stretch and walk around.

The Departed
directed by Martin Scorsese
Reviewed by Nathan Wilson
Would you rather be a cop or a criminal? When someone's pointing a gun at you, does it really make a difference? This, plus the f-word, constitute the theme of the film. It's called The Departed for a reason. That's a tricky way of saying that everybody dies. Sorry.

Rocky Balboa directed by Sylvester Stallone
Reviewed by Douglas Jones
Okay, pretending that no one has to do penance for making all the other Rockys between this one and the first, I was somehow able to overcome my resentment and slip back into 1976. This film is such a ritual that I'm unable to judge it as a movie by itself. I'm sure I'd hate it, if I'd never seen the first Rocky, but I wasn't able to, as much as I tried. It was forced and corny and unbelievable and great satisfying fun. I couldn't separate myself from the ritual and enjoyed it too much. Oh, well.

Babel
directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Reviewed by Douglas Jones
The previews promised plenty, and it was clearly pulled together as Academy Award bait, but who let this screenplay through with four—count them, four—passive protagonists? I can excuse the amount of protagonists, since that's all the rage these days when you don't have enough interesting things to say about one person, but to give us four passive protagonists is too painful. Maybe this was a film school dare. Maybe as a requirement for multiple protagonists the writer should be required to write a full screenplay for each to see if that character is all that interesting by him or her self. Then you could have permission to do multiple leads.

The Prestige
directed by Christopher Nolan
Reviewed by Douglas Jones
Two more passive protagonists who never do anything to earn our empathy. How did this get green-lighted?

Night at the Museum
directed by Shawn Levy
Reviewed by Douglas Jones
We watched this on New Year's Eve with the whole family. No one was drunk. I laughed out loud several times, and that's all I was looking for. It had all the formula structure, and it was good fun. There's a place for stupid, and this one earned it nicely. I'm also a sucker for monkeys. I think they should be in every movie, even The Godfather. This film has some of the best monkey scenes in a long while. I'd pay just for that. "There's a storm comin' for you!" The cowboy vs. Roman rivalry was also quite fun, especially the kissing-up part.

Stranger Than Fiction
directed by Marc Forster
Reviewed by Ben Merkle
The necessary sordid details: several old men in the shower, including Dustin Hoffman (gross), and some other things I may have missed while whispering with the wife. The story follows Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an IRS agent with a personality to match, who discovers that his life has begun being dictated by the voice of author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), which only he can hear. The casting is great, with the exception of Queen Latifah, whose character only exists so that the reclusive Eiffel will have someone to whom she can voice her motivations for the benefit of denser audience members. Though the film almost aims for highbrow, Will Ferrell is still a good fit for his part. The author/character conceit is never explained, so if you have the kind of mind that demands a logical explanation of how a man could end up living inside a story that is currently being written, then don't bother. This will only frustrate you. But then, so should your current existence.

The plot juxtaposes the dark life-is-pain author, Kay Eiffel, with world-peace-through-my-baked-goods love interest, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who play the two main influences in Crick's life. Though fiddling with the author/character relationship, the ultimate question of the film is really whether Eiffel or Pascal's worldview will triumph. Will the story be a comedy or a tragedy? Since Pascal's world wins (oops, did I just ruin the story? sorry) the film is likely to be dismissed as sentimental. But it would have been a lie if Eiffel's world had won, so the conflict smells like a false dichotomy.
The script can't answer the problem of evil, but it doesn't lie about it either. There is still pain and death throughout, coexisting with Pascal's bakery full of goodness. I enjoyed the parallel. A death and resurrection move is attempted, but it doesn't quite work because the worldview of the film can't explain how it isn't just sentimentalism. A Christian worldview could bring coherence to the script that it lacks on its own.
Thus, I confess, I liked the film.

Marie Antoinette
directed by Sofia Coppola
Reviewed by Douglas Jones
I had planned on hating this film since it was directed toward teens and seemed to be trying too hard to be artsy. But I was pretty surprised. Sofia Coppola is known for arguing by images and plenty of silence, and she delivered again here, even better. Someday we'll probably see her do a completely silent, image-only film, and she'll be able to pull it off. If you like car chases and dialogue, this one isn't for you, but if you enjoy huge understatement and body language, this is fascinating. The characterization is just right.

The Good Shepherd
directed by Robert DeNiro
Reviewed by Douglas Jones
For several reasons, people under thirty-five tend to hate this movie. I'm still trying to figure out the age dynamic thing. Some wanted it to be the Bourne Identity, perhaps, and others gave up quickly because the characterization wasn't as forced as Apocalypto. I'd heard plenty of complaints before seeing this, but I found myself fascinated through every minute. The screenplay is very tight; there's not a unneeded scene, and it's very good at providing "evidence" for its thesis back and forthin a very Robert McKee manner that leaves characterization open all the way through. Scenes of sexual infidelity and fornication make up key and negative turning points throughout, but none of it was for show. The whole thing had a Shakespearean texture, and it had some of the best villains of the year. Every potential villain turned out to have strong, positive traits, unlike most of the films reviewed here. Doing good villains is hard, but this film's villains were wonderfully effective. But only see it if you're old enough to appreciate the character pressures.

Pan's Labyrinth
directed by Guillermo del Toro
Reviewed by Nathan Wilson
España, 1944 (subtitle: Spain, 1944). So begins El Laberinto del Fauno, a heart-warming tale about a young girl's death. Or, a young girl's journey to her underworld kingdom by means of death. However you want to look at it.

First, the concessions: the film was well-executed. Score, make-up, cinematographic excellence, etc.—give these people statuettes, gift baskets, and appropriate what-have-you. I was engaged from the first unnecessary subtitle to the last golden throne room apparently conceived by Peter Jackson. But the story left me needing a piece of gum. For my soul.
What girl, living in an isolated army outpost with her ailing pregnant mother and sadistic fascist stepfather (who hunts communist rebels in the woods and tortures them in the barn), is not going to dabble in escapism? In this oppressive context, surrounded by bloodshed, pain, and brutaliy, Ofelia, our young protagonist, wanders into the ancient labyrinth behind the house (led by a large insect fairy) and down into its caverned center. Here, she meets el fauno, and is told that she is a reincarnated princess from the underworld and that she will be asked to complete three tasks before she can return to her kingdom below.
The external conflict is effective and tragic—well filmed and well written—but Ofelia's escape is sour. We are not supposed to immediately know whether or not the magic is real or in her imagination, if she has an actual opportunity for escape or if she has simply gone mad. In all but one instance, everything magical is confined to her own perception.
But assuming that the magic is real, we are given absolutely no reason to believe that it is not as fundamentally evil as her fascist stepfather. Why are we (or Ofelia) trusting a large, clicking insect fairy, or the word of a gruesome faun deep in a forest labyrinth beneath a midnight moon? Why would a young girl (versed in fairy tales) so quickly desire to be taken into the underworld? When has it ever been good?
Perhaps that is the only message—Hell is better than the Spanish Civil War.


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