The Garden of Allah (1936)

Such a curiosity! The film is visually stunning, stolid, lumpy and howlingly unbelievable. But it’s worth a look for several reasons.

The story is so out of our time as to be worthy of archeological study. A young woman who used to attend a convent school near Paris (Marlene Dietrich—an obvious choice for a young French student, right?) has a major attack of purposelessness and ennui and returns to the school to get some life direction. She’s told to go to the desert, an obviously common recommendation for bored young women.

At the same time, we visit a monastery that produces a fine liqueur, and we jump in right when the monk who carries the secret recipe decides to break his vows and go into the world. He ends up meeting Dietrich’s character, and they….well, you can guess.

The renegade monk is played by Charles Boyer (who at least is French), in full “Come with me to the Casbah” mode, two years before that line became famous in the film trailer for his 1938 film Algiers.

This was in the middle of the low period for Dietrich, and was one of the reasons for her inclusion on the famous “box office poison” list of 1938. Watching her is a hoot. She learned a great deal about lighting from mentor/director Joseph von Sternberg, and her input must have won the day with the cinematographer. Her face is lit up more than any other person or object in the frame, almost comically at times. Her acting isn’t good, nor particularly interesting in any fun or strange way, as it could be in her earlier films. But what a presence she is on film!

Boyer gives the stronger performance. While he is as credible as a monk as Dietrich is as a French convent girl, his scenes (mostly done in long uninterrupted takes) at least demonstrate the level of conflict and pain the man is in.

What’s missing in the film is any sense of believability in the plot, or any real connection between the two leads. Boyer’s character’s pain is internal, and Dietrich’s character is all make-up, fabulous costumes, and “look at me” lighting. It’s a fantastic study of what classic old Hollywood could be, but it doesn’t make for an engaging film.

The strongest reason for seeing it beyond its stars is its look. It was the third film done in three-strip Technicolor, and has been featured in the celebrations of the 100-year anniversary of the technology. For those who think of American Technicolor as loud and brash, this film is worth a close look. It won a special Oscar for its color cinematography. Combining that with the talents of William Cameron Menzies, art direction/production designer extraordinaire, who was listed in the credits, and you have a glorious color film that prefigures both Gone with the Wind and even Lawrence of Arabia. Menzies, of course, won a special Oscar himself three years after this film for his work on Gone with the Wind, and one can see his earlier hand here. (This year was also the year he directed the famous Things to Come, based on the H.G. Wells novel.)

The look is rich and softer than you might think. Like The Red Shoes, this Technicolor wonder shows us what Technicolor could look like, and what color films could do. For those unfamiliar with early three-strip Technicolor, or for anyone who is curious about what could be done with color cinematography, it’s a revelation. In an era of eye-popping CGI, it’s exciting to see what beauty could be achieved with what is now an older color technology. The plot may be thin, but the film is a rich panoply of images.

Note: This is one of the last films directed by Richard Boleslawski, a former actor and acting teacher (and early proponent of what became known as The Method). He had a full history of stage and screen work before dying just two months after this film was released. Just another one of those “we’ll never know” items in Hollywood history.

It was also a David O. Selznick production, and one cannot watch it now without seeing it in the light of Selznick’s production of Gone with the Wind (1939). Production values are top-notch, the look and design are beautiful, and the Oscar-nominated score was by GWTW’s Max Steiner.

One way in which this is an historical relic is the element of faith in the story. (Spoiler alert) Boris (Boyer) decides that he has broken his vow to God and decides to return to the monastery after he and Dietrich’s character get together. Not only does the film essentially agree that this is the right decision to make, Dietrich’s character, while emotionally torn, ultimately agrees with him.

Not only would such an occurrence probably never be seen in one of today’s films, but the very idea of faith would likely be ridiculed or at least lessened relative to human love. Even the Max Steiner song introduced in the film is entitled “No One But God and I Know What is in My Heart”. No irony, no condescension. While the particular religious expression is not one that I share, I can’t help but be impressed by a film that gives narrative weight to the sanctity of vows and the importance of a call from God.

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

If you somehow managed to cross The Fault in Our Stars with Juno, you might get something like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. That’s neither a compliment nor an insult, just something of a description.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (whose title is both somewhat misleading and possibly ungrammatical), which shall henceforth be referred to as Me and Earl, shouldn’t work, as the Young Adult story on which this is based contains characters and situations that shouldn’t quite make the transition onto the screen. Yet due to a confident directorial hand (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon) and a number of fully realized performances, the film emerges as almost real while still containing the point of view of an isolated teenage boy clearly uncomfortable in his own skin.

The “me” of the title is a rather snarky, intelligent and nearly too articulate Greg, played by Thomas Mann. Yes, he’s just a bit too literary and eloquent, but no more than the great studio actors of the 1930’s and ‘40s. But that eloquence draws us into the film and makes us care about him and track with his perspectives in a way that a quieter, cooler character wouldn’t have been able to do. Mann clearly owns this character, and could possibly one of the most talented and promising young actors around.

The “dying girl” is his equal. Rachel, played by Olivia Cooke, is first cousin to Shailene Woodley’s Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, but Me and Earl is a different film and provides another context for a terminally sick (or is she?) young lady. Cooke, another Brit completely nailing an American accent, is the film’s anchor in reality around which Greg and Earl (RJ Cyler) can be funny and quirky without spinning out of orbit. Her performance is real enough to be accepted, yet individual enough to be intriguing as her character makes her way through the various stages of the disease and her relationship with Greg.

Earl is more of a minor character than the title implies, and while played with as much fullness as the actor can muster, is less defined and is a lighter presence than the other two. He’s mostly there as a friend who “gets” Greg and can explain him to Rachel, and as a partner in the making of their modern, low-rent versions of film classics, such as Senior Citizen Kane and Anatomy of a Burger.

As a film person, I’m probably supposed to be drawn in and at the same time either complimented by my “more than most filmgoers” knowledge of film or patronized by all the references that are supposed to get me to buy into the film more. But their crazy cinematic concoctions are more of a cute sideshow and neither shed too much light on the characters nor are delightful enough asides (such as Amélie’s fantasies were) to stand on their own.

One of the challenges of adapting a Young Adult piece of literature is how to handle the adults around you, especially when the world you’re creating is more real than, say, a Hunger Games film. The adults are looked at through the lenses of the young person/s, so they are generally shaded and a little “other.” One can describe them as slightly exaggerated on the page, and it can work as a reflection of the character’s feelings and perspectives. But then when you move to film, you have to cast a real person and direct their performances. The film generally succeeds here, but just barely.

The warm presence and subtle acting style of Connie Britton as Greg’s mother is the most successful example of an adult here. She is not quite this and too much that (and the hair!), but this most naturalistic of actresses makes us believers in what she says and does. Greg’s father, on the other hand, seems more obtuse and more of an abstraction than a real person. He becomes more of a caricature than a real human, even a human whose characterization we know is colored by Greg’s particular teenage perspectives. His strangeness and imprecision are ultimately too much for the film.

Then there is Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mother. If you had no background with Ms. Shannon, you would look at this as a fairly solid naturalistic and believable performance of a suffering mother who drinks too much and has some boundary issues (at least). But it’s a tough challenge for viewers to put aside the persona of a successful comedienne who’s created such a classic array of Saturday Night Live characters and see this character as the slightly bent mother of a seriously ill child. It’s an acting success, but one that is occasionally hard to receive from Mary Katherine Gallagher.

The smarter-than-most-of-us dialogue is not the only thing this indie film has in common with old Hollywood. Some of the scenes are one l-o-n-g shot in a style reminiscent of studio-era, dialogue-heavy films. The framing is nowhere near the same, but there is a joy in visiting characters over a longer period of time without cuts, allowing us to breathe with them, enjoy the pauses, and experience telling body language. The film always feels fresh, but obviously borrows wisely from the past.

Probably the biggest weakness of the film, and one that comes blessedly early (allowing us to forget it over time) is the initial set-up. Yes, we somehow have to get a reluctant, self-loathing, isolating male teen to aggressively push himself into the life of a reluctant sick female classmate. But the awkward way that happens is just on the edge of believability, and it takes a while for the film to recover.

Happily, it does, thanks mainly to the natural performances of its main characters. What this film has going for it—smart dialogue, characters that seem real, and a quirkiness that is self-conscious without ever alienating the audience—make this one of the “small film” joys of the year. It manages to be funny without being silly, different without being smug, and moving without being manipulative. Young filmmakers—watch and learn. Everyone else, watch and enjoy.

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Judgment at Nuremburg and A Man for All Seasons: The Cinema of Conscience

When I teach my students about editing, I make sure to point out that it has a dual power—to both contrast and compare. Classic scenes of violence cut with scenes of a holy rite (The Godfather, Part One) or violence intercut with entertainment (Cabaret) can create ripples of meaning or suggestion.

Sometimes seeing two films from the same general time period one after another can be a similarly fascinating experience. Films one may have seen before, and especially films one saw as standalone experiences, can take on a whole new set of resonances when viewed alongside another film with similar themes or concerns. The films of the title feature Oscar-winning male lead performances, and both deal with morality and conscience in ways almost completely foreign to today’s films.

The first film “re-viewed” was one that few remember, though it was nominated for 11 Oscars and won a slew of international awards for picture, director, and acting. It’s 1961’s Judgment at Nuremburg, directed by an “issues” director whose reputation is diminishing by the year—Stanley Kramer, once the torch-bearer for a kind of sincere, socially conscious cinema that is classically 20th-century liberal, and tends to come off as unsubtle and dated today.

The film is agonizingly slow—it’s a procedural, after all, always a challenge in terms of speed and energy. It covers the war crimes trials in an American court in Nuremburg of four German judges after the Second World War. Though listed fifth in the cast, Austrian Maximilian Schell won the Best Actor Oscar over his co-star Spencer Tracy for a vibrant and dynamic performance that hasn’t aged a day.

There are certain elements that one could spend many a word on: Overrated actor Burt Lancaster is miscast in a role that Laurence Olivier turned down, sadly. Richard Widmark chews as much scenery as usual. Montgomery Clift has become more of a curiosity in the film, as it demonstrates the devastating effects of his accident a few years before. But taken by itself, it’s a fine performance and one that won him his final Oscar nomination. Judy Garland brings her usual emotional intensity to a straight dramatic role, and like Clift, performs beautifully (earning her own Oscar nomination) if one can get past the fact that she is Judy Garland. Marlene Dietrich seems to step in from another world and another film generation with a look and style that tends to clash with the more modern cinematic look (oh, Marlene, your insistence on 30’s lighting!) and acting style. And yes, Star Trek and Priceline fans will enjoy a young William Shatner in an important role as well.

But what make this three-hour film still worthwhile aside from its cast is its exploration of what is moral and what isn’t. It’s a highly intellectual film, and the thought process and the development of the finely wrought final legal arguments might be challenging for current audiences generally unchallenged by mainstream American film. But the film’s payoff (spoiler alert) is well earned and powerful in its conclusion: that there are behaviors that are immoral and wrong no matter what the German judges thought themselves. “My country, right or wrong” is shot down completely. There is no respect for the current “this is my truth and you need to respect that” perspective. The judges each had “their own truth” about what they did, and the film refuses to let them get away with it.

One wonders how a modern version of the same trial might be played out today. Yes, the great Jean Renoir said, “Tout le monde a ses raisons” but that was in 1939, and that kind of insight, while powerful, wasn’t cutting it after the war. Reasons, sincerity, heartfelt convictions about national loyalty—these were dealt a death blow in the film.

It’s too bad the film is such a difficult one to trudge through these many years later. Kramer does his best with his moving camera to keep things from visually stagnating, but it’s a slow film at best. But what it does is what few films do: lay out a series of arguments, explore a wide variety of perspectives that were real and often deeply held by the film’s characters, shed light on how they could have come to these perspectives, and then still come down hard on what the film presents as a morality that transcends all those understandable feelings and viewpoints.

Most viewers would likely agree with the film’s final judgment (legally and morally), which is a sign of the film’s intelligence, tightly constructed script, and powerful final conclusions. But I wonder how difficult it would be for today’s viewers to receive a film that, finally, refuses to give place to doubt, immoral loyalty and unthinking submission and comes to such a ringing, definitive conclusion.

Just a few years after Judgment at Nuremburg came another film about conscience, A Man for All Seasons. Nominated for eight Oscars, it won six, including Best Picture, Best Director (Fred Zinneman) and Best Actor for a timeless performance by the great Paul Scofield. While Judgment was a sleek black-and-white film in something of the emerging New York style, A Man for All Seasons is a sumptuous color extravaganza in the classic “big fat film” style of the times.

It may be a film of its time, but is nowhere as dated an experience as Judgment. Scofield is a joy to watch and listen to, and Robert Shaw’s Henry VIII may well be the definitive Henry performance, even if it’s a supporting one.

What’s at stake here is another issue of right and wrong, but the film lands on the side of the place of conscience—here the conscience of Sir Thomas More, who fell on the “wrong” side of the whole King Henry/Anne Boleyn catastrophe and lost his head in the process. (For those unfamiliar with the story, More’s Catholic faith prevented him from siding with King Henry in the king’s attempts to rid himself of his first wife in hopes of marrying and producing a male heir with Anne. Henry felt he needed More’s support, which was never granted.) The film virtually overflows with hypocrites and those who seared their consciences by a little or by much, all in contrast to More.

More wasn’t eager to be a martyr, and did his lawyerly best to stay out of the fray, and is portrayed as brilliant enough to talk and reason his way out of trouble for the longest time. But eventually the new order that Henry’s lust, frustration and power grab created could no longer tolerate dissent, and More and his stand of conscience could no longer be allowed to exist.

Of course, what comprises “the other side” in these two films is vastly different. In the first, we have the Third Reich in its vicious, amoral ugliness. The “consciences” of the German judges were declared as understandable in some ways, but evil and wrong nonetheless. The latter film pitted More against a system of power-grabbers, self-servers and a powerful, charismatic leader driven nearly mad by power, uncontrolled sexual desire, and the longing for a son to succeed him.

We can’t track with the skewed consciences of the Germans in Judgment at Nuremburg because there are, the film posits, larger issues of morality that trump the validity of their positions, even though they can rightly plead that they did what they felt was right in their own eyes. One may not quite understand More’s specific points of faith in A Man for All Seasons, but the film presents him as a brilliant paragon of intellectual consistency and virtue. We admire both the logic and the ethics of a man who gives himself no wiggle room in either area, even if it leads him to death as he nevertheless strives in every way he can to survive.

As a former Catholic, I understand where More is coming from theologically, and while I can no longer find myself agreeing with his allegiance to Rome, he is nothing if not a rigorous thinker and a model of living by one’s conscience. The film makes us side with him not only because of the rampant self-serving intrigue swirling darkly about him, and because Henry is so obviously wrong in many ways, but because we admire “a righteous man who swears to his own hurt.”

(Comparing this film to the recent British miniseries Wolf Hall is an exercise for another day, but suffice it to say that it is a superb companion piece ideologically and historically for that more modern take on the whole situation. Wolf Hall focuses on Thomas Cromwell, and demonizes More in the process.)

There are modern films that make us think, of course, even in America. Christopher Nolan is nothing if not a deep thinker, for example. But it seems as if films that come down definitively on issues of conscience and morality, proclaiming a clear right and a clear wrong, are at the moment, artifacts of a previous generation. Few would argue with these films’ conclusions in these areas, of course. And there are films that include a strong perspective on what they perceive as right and wrong as a part of their story. But these two films are ultimately about the whole issue of what is right and what is wrong, and both deal with both the inviolability and, in contrast, the limitations of conscience. As challenging as it may be for young and/or modern viewers to sit through these films, they are both grist for the mill of deep, intellectual conversation and debate.

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Far from the Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd is the newest cinematic incarnation of the Thomas Hardy novel, but it perhaps fits most comfortably somewhere between a top-of-the-line Masterpiece Theatre production and the recent slew of Jane Austen films. That’s not a criticism, but a categorical description. Perhaps more exactly, it’s a first cousin to the 2005 Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley, to which is suffers somewhat by comparison.

Like P&P, it features an intelligent, capable, independent female who doesn’t need a husband, thank you very much. Her name? Bathsheba Everdene, and yes, if that last name sounds familiar, it’s because The Hunger Games deliberately took its lead’s name from her. FMC takes place in a world where women are expected to get married both because they want to and because they need to, and any other action is met with confusion or criticism. It even features the same rakish military character: Mr. Wickham in P&P, and Sergeant Troy in FMC.

Yet the film suffers in the comparison in one significant way. While P&P was a shortened version of a book that had famously been presented in cinematic form in a television miniseries, the 2005 version was lean, mean and of a piece with itself. If you didn’t know the book or the miniseries, the 2005 film created its own world, one that paused for beauty and allowed itself to breathe. Far from the Madding Crowd tries to do the same thing, but feels occasionally rushed, truncated and disjointed. It looks at times, especially in the early sequences, like a visual checklist of events that need to happen to get things moving.

Fortunately for the film, its actors are first-rate, if not always spot-on in their characterizations. Carey Mulligan (An Education) is one of our finest young actresses, and is always a pleasure to watch. The film gives her a better character to play with than Daisy in The Great Gatsby (essentially an impossible role), but as talented as she is, her performance can’t quite cover all the bases her character has to hit. (Spoiler alert: Her character’s decision to go with the man who sweeps her off her feet sexually seems to come from nowhere, but that could be the problem of the screenplay as much as the performance.) But she scores a solid A nonetheless in every other way, and proves again with her work her that she belongs in the circle of top young actresses to watch—not just career-wise, but also for the sheer pleasure of enjoying this talent.

The men in her life are played by talented actors who give widely varied characterizations. Going from least to best, the aforementioned Sergeant Troy is played by Tom Sturridge, whose main strength is looking just like you would expect this kind of scoundrel to look. Again, it could be the rushed, jerky screenplay, but his character is a bit over the top, gnawing on scenery as he creates such a selfish reprobate that it makes you question Bathsheba’s sanity in choosing him.

Michael Sheen as the older “rich suitor” who falls in some kind of protective “love” with Bathsheba plays a rather sad but kind middle-aged man who would love to have a lovely young wife that he can take care of and spoil. He clearly respects Bathsheba and respects her in a way, and the dynamics both romantically (he keeps saying he wants to protect her, as if he assumes she needs protecting) and economically (her fiscal future would be guaranteed) are fascinating if not expanded upon. But Sheen breaks out of the genre constraints of his character with a performance that’s always alive, if not occasionally reflective of an underlying sensitivity or stability, depending on the scene. There are moments when he shifts from one emotion to its opposite in quicksilver fashion in an unnerving way. It makes him sympathetic one minute, and worthy of pity or confusion the next. It’s become a controversial performance for good reason.

The real find of the film for English-speaking audience is Matthias Schoenaerts as farmer Gabriel Oaks, the quiet neighbor next store who becomes her first suitor, then her employee, but always her loving friend. Schoenaerts is being hailed as “the Belgian Brando,” and will likely be a star of the first order in English-speaking films. His mastery of the language is near complete; there is hardly a trace of a Continental accent in his performance.

He is also an accomplished actor, able to project strength and kindness in equal measure. But his greatest attributes have to do with his presence. He projects a (pardon the expression) manly strength not seen on the screen since Russell Crowe in Gladiator made us all sit up and take notice. And the camera simply loves him. Perhaps it’s his less-is-more approach to this character, but he nearly steals the film (some would say he does) from Ms. Mulligan, a formidable feat. To say that we’ll see more of him is stating the obvious. He’s already a star; time and more films will allow others to discover that.

It’s not hard for a film to look great these days. But this is a gorgeous film, nipping at the heels of the look of a Malick film. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg of dogme95 fame and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen don’t mimic Malick’s use of nature. But they do show us the beauty of the environment in which our characters live, and make it clear that they are intrinsically connected with the land they work. There are an unusual number of close-ups, which contribute at times to the jerky feel of the story. It’s as if we move from stunning panoramas of classic cinema to the demands of television. I was also beginning to think that there was a rather strong commitment to always putting the central character in the center of the frame when the next shot had the driver of the action just slightly left of center. Again, the comparison with Pride and Prejudice hurts this film. The older film had a cinematic style that leaned toward a strong formalism, but kept the action front and center while contributing a strongly unifying element to the film. In FMC, the film is beautiful, but the simply-yet-bumpy cinematic style unfortunately reflects the weaknesses of the screenplay. This kind of consistency is not always an advantage.

Lastly, there is the plot. The film is obliged to follow the classic book, of course, but it doesn’t make the central character’s poor choices any easier to swallow. While the film may or many not (no spoiler here) have a conventional happy ending, there is a certain level of exasperation in watching an intelligent strong female make a series of stereotypically poor romantic choices. There are moments when a modern audience gets successfully drawn into the world of the characters and their lives, and then runs into a plot point that elicits one word: “Seriously?”

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

The latest installment in the Marvel universe film world is such a box office phenomenon (already at more than $1 billion internationally) that it seems inconsequential or trifling to attempt a real analysis of the thing. Yet on we trudge….

For what it is, AAU manages, sometimes barely, to hold all its disparate parts together. It’s not the surprise the first Avengers film was, and its reach does exceed its grasp. But for the most part, it succeeds in holding together a huge cast of primary characters, a few secondary ones, a cosmic earth-threatening menace, something of a possible love story, and a hefty supply of amusing one-liners and quips.

The first Avengers film was a revelation in that it gave place (if not equal space) to a variety of Marvel characters that seemed as if they would never find a common cinematic place to meet, much less live in and share space and time with one another. But writer/director Joss Whedon does it again, this time with even more characters. While the addition of more characters sometimes makes for a slightly bumpy and disjointed film, Whedon nevertheless succeeds in re-creating a believable world for these wildly different superheroes.

The film is darker in tone than its predecessor, à la The Empire Strikes Back. The film assumes that you are aware of the various characters, their powers, their personalities and how and with whom they clash. The story, though, is essentially a repeat: Earth is threatened, Avengers must get over their personal issues and differences, and they must unite (“Together!”) to see victory. As in the first film, the climactic moment is not a final battle, but the creation (or here, re-creation) of a cohesive team. There is even a near-total repeat of the 360-degree camera movement unifying the distinct individuals.

What makes this equal to the first (no worse, but no better) are the variations from the first; some succeed, some don’t. Poor Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) was given short shrift the first time out. This time (spoiler alert), he’s not only given more screen time; he’s given a family and a big country “safe house” with adoring wife and children. It’s certainly more backstory than any of the other heroes get, and if Renner was unhappy with the first outing and his little time in that film, he has been more than repaid in this one.

We also have two new heroes introduced, twins first created in a Mengeles-like experiment for evil purposes, but who (spoiler alert again) eventually join the Avengers toward the end. They are played effectively by indie favorites Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth (sister of the twins) Olsen. I was wondering during the film why I was getting to know Scarlet Witch (Olsen) so much better than her cinematic brother Quicksilver (AT-J), but (spoiler alert!) I found out why by the end of the film.

There is also (another spoiler alert, but you really don’t care) a just barely believable romance that is budding between Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It’s not clear to this viewer how that came about, though both are first-rate actors and bring some real longing and angst into a world generally devoid of such emotion. Its best moment, however, is when it’s played for a laugh, which tends to be highly enjoyable while it undercuts the depth of feeling of the two.

Perhaps the weakest part of the film (not the weakest moment—we’ll get to that) is an apparent attempt to address the issue of human collateral damage. There was some criticism of the first film regarding all the damage caused by the various battles and the huge toll in human life taken by the heroes—particularly the Hulk—while they are trying to save humanity. So here we pause to save a few people—a woman in a car that’s just about to fall off a broken bridge, a young boy who needs rescuing from the detached city (don’t ask). But we don’t know these folks in particular; they are given little to no backstory, and it all comes off as a lame attempt to show that these mighty warriors care about the little people and the individual. Meanwhile, the Hulk goes on his rampages, not all of which have positive aims. We see fewer casualties, but one can guess that we have as much human damage as in the first film—we just don’t see as much.

The worst moment, however, is one that may well be the one that I’ve been talking to my film class about for a few years now. When we get to the subjects of metaphors, allegory and allusion in class, I often talk about the most powerful visual in recent American history—the events of 9/11—and wonder when and how the first major filmmaker will allude visually to that event. Here, there is a tall building that pancakes down to the earth. We’re told it’s empty (so no human casualties) and there are no other specific resonances that reach back to that tragic day. But to anyone who was old enough to see the collapsing towers, it’s disturbing and confusing to say the least. If it’s a reference to 9/11, it’s a failure, on every level.

The plot replaces the evil Loki with Ultron, a creation-gone-wrong from Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). To make this happen, we have to see Tony go back in a dark/stubborn/egotistical state, one that is logical but unpleasant to see. Yes, it creates more internal conflict within the group, but it’s nowhere as engaging and definitely not as amusing as some of the conflicts of the first. We’ve also lost the inestimable Tom Hiddleston, one of the greatest villains in film history and one of the most watchable actors working today. His absence is palpable.

Fortunately, the voice of the CG Ultron is by the dark-and-silky-voiced James Spader, who has a different kind of intelligent snark as Loki. Spader’s style is less engaging and more detached than Hiddleston’s, and Ultron doesn’t quite find his way into the Marvel universe with the same ease as Loki. Ultron is supposed to represent the horrid and dangerous endpoint of the current thinking that since we humans are to blame for every social and environmental ill, the smartest thing to do to save the earth is to remove all the humans. It’s a fascinating thought to play with (and perhaps comment on), and the film could also have explored the idea as a distortion of one of Tony Stark’s bent thought patterns. But the film does nothing with either possibility, and we are simply left with a bad guy bent on destruction. Then the bad guy creates clones, which are more annoying than threatening, for both the movie heroes and the viewers. Too many holes in logic are created by the whole thing (e.g., why couldn’t the Hulk just take out Ultron?), but logic isn’t always in the forefront when it comes to setting up battles.

And as in the first film, those battles just go on too long. Not to Man of Steel lengths, thank God, but too long nonetheless. Yet there are moments of beauty that reminded me of what genius cinematographer Jack Cardiff did in 1948’s The Red Shoes. In that film about ballet, he ingeniously slowed down the film at a few points when the dancer was at the peak of his leap. It’s almost unnoticeable unless you’re looking for it, and its effect is breathtaking. AAU does the same thing in the midst of the battles, and the effect lends depth and beauty to sequences normally full of noise and special effects.

Lastly, the film works hard at staying earthbound, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the constant stream of quick one-liners and comic remarks among the various superheroes. Most come out of character, most are genuinely funny, and they all prevent the film from flying out of earth’s gravitational pull. This is clearly Whedon’s goal throughout, and perhaps the film’s greatest triumph is keeping the characters, plot lines, and pieces of the Marvel universe in some kind of orbit. The occasional scene comes out of nowhere (except perhaps the Marvel books) and they aren’t well integrated in the film as a whole [e.g., Thor (Chris Hemsworth) flailing about shirtless in some confusing substance]. But for the most part, Whedon has managed to hold together an unwieldy collection of conflicts and characters into something of a relatively cohesive whole. For a behemoth, American, moneymaking, nerd-world machine, that’s quite the feat. Will there be a hat-trick?

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Woman in Gold

Woman in Gold, starring the legendary Helen Mirren, is a great story and a so-so film. It’s based on the true account of a famous Austrian painting seized illegally and immorally by the Nazis from its rightful owner, and the attempts of the last living relative, Maria Altmann, to get it back.

It takes the opposite tack from Last year’s dreadful The Monuments Men (, which lamely tells the story of a group of men organized to do the retrieving of many of these stolen works of art. That film took the birds’-eye view of the problem and one of its solutions; this one tells one person’s story and focuses on one painting in particular. It’s a better film, but not by much.

The structure of the film involves many a flashback to Maria’s (Mirren) youth, her relationship with her aunt (the subject of the famous painting), her marriage and her eventual escape from the Nazis. The present has her working to get the painting back from Austria, for which it has become “the country’s Mona Lisa,” as one character says. To help make this happen, she enlists the aid of a young lawyer and family man played by Ryan Reynolds in a nearly painful way.

Mirren is a giant in British cinema, for television as much as for her films. In the U.S., it was probably her Oscar-winning work in The Queen that made her the most noticed. While she is an actress first rather than a personality taking on this role and that, her recent performances haven’t been the best fits for her. Last year’s Hundred-Foot Journey had her put on a French accent, and she gave her best to every scene she was in (, but she is as French as Whoopi Goldberg, and while her work was admirable, it wasn’t completely believable.

She has almost the same problem here, but the accent is a slightly better fit and again she digs in as deeply as she can. She is playing a German Jew, and what we see is a great British actress doing a winning impersonation. But even with all that talent put to work, the star still outshines the character.

What doesn’t help is the couple playing the younger Maria (Tatiana Maslany) and her husband (Max Irons, son of acting greats Jeremy Irons and Sinéad Cusack). We see their life in Vienna, their wedding, their early years together, and their thrilling escape from Vienna to a safe life in the U.S. Unfortunately for Mirren, her younger self and her husband are far more believable, and to press the point further, far more interesting than the older Maria. While the attempts to sue the Austrian government is not an unexciting journey, the rising anti-Semitism, the young couple’s love, and the painful and suspenseful escape are far more engaging than the main story.

The film also steps on its own toes by having the young couple successfully escape, which we know must have happened, and then completely dropping all mention of the husband, who has come off as caring and likable. In researching this after seeing the film, I was sure they must have divorced or he died an early death. In actuality, they had four children and remained married until his death in 1994. Why this is buried is distracting and odd.

A fascinating real-world confluence of various artistic streams is found in the person of E. Randol Schoenberg, grandson of Austrian musical composer Arnold Schoenberg. There are two problems there, one small and one insurmountable. The small problem is that the film tries to connect Randol to his famous ancestor and his work, as well as the composer’s role as an Austrian. There’s a concert of Schoenberg music, and a few tears, but it doesn’t work, and it becomes little ado about nothing.

What is the film’s biggest goof is the casting of Ryan Reynolds as Randol Schoenberg. The film is a BBC Films Productions, in part, and it’s a rogue’s gallery of solid British and European actors: “I remember that guy from ‘Foyle’s War,’ and hey, wasn’t he in Run, Lola, Run?” Casting Reynolds, one of America’s best romantic comedy actors, was an obvious choice from a marketing point of view. But it nearly undoes the film.

Reynolds is a solid comic actor and world-class line reader ( What he isn’t, apparently, is a solid straight dramatic actor. In Woman in Gold, he places his serious lines in the same verbal rhythms as his best comedy work, and they fall neither comfortably nor convincingly in those cadences. Beyond that, Reynolds simply doesn’t locate and lock down on this essentially serious character. The actor’s glibness pops out here and there, against the tenor of the scene, and Reynold’s natural charm often comes to the fore at the most importune times. He moves into tears and being overwrought a few times, but none of them resonate. It’s a major miscasting, and almost torpedos the film.

Piling on to the damage of the miscasting is Katie Holmes as Randol’s wife. She nearly floats off the screen, making little to no impression. Part of the stress of the whole situation is supposed to be Randol’s commitment/obsession with the case and its impact on his family. Between the two actors here, those issues seem to evaporate as quickly as they are approached.

What makes this all worthwhile is the strength of the artistic, family, historical, and nationalistic story behind the painting. Rooted in the horrors of Nazism, the pain of broken families, the pursuit of justice, and the feisty charm of an old woman wanting her family’s artifacts back where they belong, the story alone makes the film worth seeing. Like Big Eyes, this is a flawed film on a fascinating topic. Also like Big Eyes, this “interesting” film is just good enough to prevent the possible really good film on the subject from ever being filmed.

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Do You Believe?

Do You Believe? is uneven, bumpy, and at times simply unbelievable. It’s also the best Hollywood-style “Christian” movie of its type. The acting, while uneven, is a huge step above the norm. Its cinematography, too, is by far the best seen in these kinds of films, and there are two moments that the equal of the best films of the year.

Those “moments” include a pan that may well provoke an audible shocked gasp from the audience (spoilers preclude me saying anything more). But what horror or mystery films often fail to do well is done deftly and successfully here in a moment that is meant to be surprising and tense, and is. The other “moment” is actually an entire sequence. All I’ll say here is that involves a series of car crashes that is believable and horrible at the same time. There is a melodramatic thread that takes the sequence into something of a “been there/done that” side story, but the beginning of the sequence is a model of direction—within or outside of the context of “Christian films”.

Artistically, the film is a Christian version of Best Picture winner Crash. It fits neatly into the category of hyperlink cinema, best demonstrated in the films 21 Grams, Babel, Traffic, and even reaching back to Robert Altman’s Nashville. If Do You Believe? can be faulted for a high degree of “coincidence” with character and situation, so should these others.

The film is the latest and best example of what we might call traditional evangelical American cinema, and perhaps one of the strongest reasons for its success is the presence of A- and B-list starts. Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino and Lord of the Rings and “Rudy” star Sean Astin may be the most famous—and perhaps most talented—but the film presents the film return of Cybill Shepherd (The Last Picture Show) and television’s “Six Million Dollar Man,” Lee Majors. Ex-football star Brian Bosworth has a major role, and acquits himself fairly well. The young and talented Makenzie Moss threatens to steal the film with her combination of cuteness and realism. And virtual unknown Liam Matthews probably holds the film together most strongly with a character that is real and immoveable. It’s the film’s most solid performance, and needs to be.

The script tries to do way too much, and throws in nearly everything but the kitchen sink. But the film’s structure is a big step forward, and the dialogue is more realistic and intelligent—and realistically spoken—than in any other film of its type.

As a Christian film, and with me now writing this sentence as a Christian, I can say that the film is aimed at the believer, giving us what we want to hear and see, and encouraging us in the process. It’s also aimed at the unbeliever that is being drawn into Christianity. Lastly, for the nonbeliever, it’s one of the clearest demonstrations of what Christians believe that I’ve seen on the screen. As corny as some of the scenes and situations might be and sound, this is what we Christians really believe—from the forgiveness to the (spoiler alert) miracle (so well set-up and yet still not well connected to the rest of the film) to the reality of what it means to carry one’s cross on a daily basis to the increasing resistance we feel from our culture (lawsuit).

From a film artistry point of view, one’s reaction is dependent to a great extent on the spiritual beliefs of the viewer. If one connects to the religious reality up on the screen, as a drummer or other musician might connect with Whiplash, then this is a fairly well done film that can be quite moving, with excellent cinematography, and some solid acting. If one is opposed to Christian faith, its faults will loom larger, and the uneven acting and the script’s weaknesses will be off-putting, and even the various conflicts may be hard to relate to.

For my Christian brothers and sisters, let me say this is the best of the bunch so far, and makes me hopeful for the future of this branch of film. For my non-Christian friends, come and view this as an anthropological study, and you’ll gain some insight into what your crazy Christian friends really believe.

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