Heaven is for Real: A Matter of Resonance

Finally saw Heaven is for Real on DVD, and was quite pleasantly surprised. As a film person, I approach the viewing of most films with enthusiasm, looking to find something of worth in even the worst films. As a Christian, I usually approach the newest “Christian” film or film dealing with genuine, Bible-believing Christians with some hesitation, even doing a little pre-viewing cringing now and then.

The reason? Most films made by Jesus-loving Christians don’t have the production values we see in mainstream cinema, and sincerity doesn’t equate to art. And the films made by mainstream cinema dealing with genuine Christian believers tend to get most things wrong. and land somewhere between dissonantly off-kilter and downright infuriating.

Heaven is for Real is a happy exception. Its reach most definitely exceeds its grasp, but what it tries for, it gets right most of the time. The triumph of something quite different like The Avengers was in creating a world where all these people (with all their backgrounds and wildly divergent personalities and skills) could co-exist in our world, and we could accept everything we saw on screen. The triumph of Heaven is for Real is creating a world of real Christians struggling with an experience that’s just beyond the comfort zone.

This is more of an achievement than has been noted. If you’re familiar with the book, you might think the child who “went to heaven” while undergoing surgery is the lead. It’s actually the father, Todd Burpo, a pastor played by an excellent Greg Kinnear, who is the central figure and faces the main struggle in the film—processing what his son has been telling him about hearing angels, meeting Jesus, etc. He’s a pastor who has to incorporate what he’s hearing into his belief system and his sermons, all while the media is beginning to show its interest in a boy they might want to exploit and he is determined to protect.

Todd preaches like a real preacher, not a Hollywood version. He’s not boring, or hypocritical, or possessed of a particularly singular preaching style. (Full disclosure: I preach myself, but am not close to the father’s style here). He’s in love with his wife, and it’s more refreshing than one can imagine to see a genuine believer act normal, be in love with his wife, and have a vibrant (if discretely insinuated) sex life. He works hard, struggles financially, and has real friends who equally support him and bust his chops as friends do.

Connor Corum as Colton, the son who nearly dies on the operating table, is a find. He’s not TV-precocious, not smart-mouthed, and never attempts to be adorable (though he is). His stories about heaven are explained as straightforwardly as if he were describing what happened in class that day. The special effects sequences of his experiences go right to the line of believability, and almost cross over into corny. But how does one visualize the ineffable for today’s audience? Happily, the film presents the images as Colton describes and experienced them, and doesn’t ask us to take them all literally, or as what heavenly things really look or sound like.

In addition to creating a real world that embraces this life and the next at the same time, the screenplay handles the issue of what Colton saw rather brilliantly. It’s not Colton’s struggle at all—he knows what he saw, and believes in it. It’s Todd’s struggle of how to contextualize what he believes his son saw; was it real, did it really give insight into what heaven is like, and if so, what does one do with that? If it wasn’t real, how could Colton have known things he could never have known? The reality of heaven, in spite of the title, is not the issue here. The protagonists (and even those slightly stepping temporarily into the antagonist role) all believe in an afterlife. The question is what to do with Colton’s experience and how to interpret it.

Happily, we have some solid support in the acting category. Oscar-nominated Thomas Haden Church and Emmy-winning Margo Martindale bring depth and realism to their roles as friends of the family. Church brings the humor and Martindale the pathos, but both are fully fleshed-out characters that add immeasurably to creating and sustaining the film’s world. Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) has a rather thankless role as the wife who is supportive yet stretched to the brink by all that’s happening to her family. She is fine most of the time, yet a bit strident and edgy at other times.

While the creation of that world is by far the film’s greatest achievement, this is not a great film. The story is at turns jumpy and too slow, and the film’s focus seems to wander from father to son and back again. It’s 10 degrees from Hallmark pretty at times, and some of the camera angles are questionable at best.

But this is the first recent film with current high production values—especially the acting—that has created a world where the central characters are people of faith who are recognizable and real. These are not some saccharine, unreal people that don’t struggle with life, nor are they some mysterious, weird group of otherworldly hate-mongers just this side of American Horror Story. This is the world most Americans live in or at least recognize, and the film makes room for them, their real life, and their real faith. Belief in Jesus, the Bible and the afterlife are part and parcel of the world of the film, and are not held up to suspicion or ridicule.

This may well be part of the reason that this both “real” and “faith-based” film has made close to $100 million. The world of real people of real Christian faith has resonated with many people, who haven’t been able to relate to the Christians they’ve seen on the screen in the last, say, 50 years. Resonance is an underappreciated factor, both for critics and for audiences. If the subject of a film resonates for whatever reason with critics, it is likely to get better reviews than it might deserve. If they can’t connect with the world of the story—as is definitely the case with most film critics and film such as Heaven is for Real—then the film simply doesn’t seem as “good” as other films.

Dallas Buyers Club, for instance, resonated with many critics because of its subject matter and for its excellent performances. But many people couldn’t find the connection; hence the less-than-stellar box office ($27 million). Gravity resonated with techies (among many others); hence the many (deserved) awards. 12 Years a Slave resonated with those looking for that “great” film of the year, and the great direction, performances, and especially the subject matter, made that wonderful film resonate with those that give out the most important awards.

Resonance has little to do with quality, but when a certain level of cinematic quality has been attained, it makes the difference between a film that one connects with and could recommend and one that doesn’t make that connection and ends up being seen by fewer people. For people who believe in Jesus, or God, or heaven, or the afterlife, Heaven is for Real is resonant, and the missteps and weaknesses are not strong enough to distract that kind of person from what resonates, making the viewing a valuable experience. For the one who doesn’t believe, one can admire the performances and the look of the film, but it can seem foolish and something for the “guns and religion” crowd, using that most condescending and arrogant of recent political quotes.

What a great Rorschach test this film is! For the kind of believer described above, take a look and see a world that you can identify with—one that’s real, painful and faith-filled all at the same time. Consider it a visit to a land you’ll recognize. For the rest, take a look into the best recent filmic presentation of real people that happen to be serious Christians. Consider it an anthropological study.

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In film class in college, we learned the difference between narrative and spectacle. Narrative, of course, was the story. Spectacle was, well, the songs and dances, or the special effects that dazzled, or the great set pieces like fights or cattle drives. Or perhaps, Carmen Miranda just standing there. In any event, the spectacle was the “wow” of the film.

Boyhood, the recent Richard Linklater (Waking Life, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) film chronicling the life of a boy from the age of 7 to 18, has one dazzlingly spectacular element: It follows the boy, his mom and dad, his sister, and other people in the story, over a period of 12 years, and was filmed over the same period. You won’t see the “preteen” version of the lead character, then the older teen version of him. You see the real young actor, Ellar Coltrane, grow right in front of your eyes from a young boy to a young man named Mason. You see his parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, grow (gracefully, to be honest) into middle age. Linklater’s daughter Lorilei plays Mason’s sister, and rounds out the central cast.

The narrative territory isn’t unique to this film, Director Michael Apted’s Up documentary series chronicles a group of young folks at seven-year intervals, and therefore owns its own unique place. But that’s a documentary, and Boyhood is a drama.

Boyhood’s story is rather rudimentary, which works well as a structure for the astounding parade of advancing time. The film’s formal approach is straightforward and basic, though it seems to have moved in a little closer to the characters over time. Linklater may actually have bent over a little too far backwards in streamlining and simplifying the film’s style in the beginning. But there is no feeling of shifting styles over the years, which helps keep the story moving forward and our attention where it belongs.

The various milestones of age are there, but not the typical teen-movie progression of “first-time activities” such as drinking, drugs, sex, etc. This is the story of one young boy and his journey to adulthood. Larger statements can be inferred, but this isn’t a political or social commentary masquerading as a particular person’s story. The interlude with new Christian step-grandparents is a bit awkward and clichéd, with guns and Gospel preaching presented just this side of condescending. But even viewing this segment of the film as a preacher myself, Mason’s look of pain in the church service was genuinely funny and might well have been Coltrane’s finest acting moment in the film.

The two adult actors do fine work throughout, as expected. Their characters have opposite arcs, with Arquette’s mom a harried single mom who keeps making questionable choices in men, and Hawkes’ dad as a ne’er-do-well dragged kicking and screaming into a semblance of responsibility. Lorilei Linklater’s performance is not particularly strong, but not distracting. Some of her attitudinal teen responses, in fact, contribute greatly to the realism of the film.

Of course the big risk and big success is Coltrane as Mason. It’s impossible to tell what he’s capable of as an adult actor. But he and Linklater have created a completely believable and singular character with life and breath and thought and heart—plus the requisite teen attitude. Coltrane could have been a washout, or have dropped from the filming process sometime over the 12-year creation period. He could have been a male Shirley Temple, talented as a child and not particularly so as he grew. Part of the joy of watching the film is realizing all the many elements that had to fall into place for this film to reach completion (e.g., someone could have died, become caught in a franchise with no escape, or could have just decided they’d had enough).

One performance that should be noted (spoiler alert) is that of Marco Perella (Sin City, A Scanner Darkly), who plays the almost-major character of Professor Bill Welbrock, Arquette’s character’s second husband. Coming off as both genuinely nice and subtly but creepily sketchy at the same time, we see his outer shell begin to crack and finally disintegrate over time. (One wonders as the film goes on if Linklater is making some kind of statement about the ravages of alcohol with this character and one other.) In a film that generally eschews big moments, Perella creates one that makes you almost jump out of your seat, and the realism Linklater has built up during the film gets a big emotional payoff in the scene. His character almost threatens to break out of the world of the film, but instead expands and enriches it.

In stories such as this, beginnings are easy and endings more difficult. There is something of the typical romance structure to the end, but this film isn’t a romance of any kind. We are left with a young, slightly wounded, intelligent young man who we presume will grow up some more and will alternately conquer and struggle with the issues of his upbringing. Perhaps the strongest statement is a quiet one about survival and hope for the future, but the film ends so delicately that no particular statement is made.

Any serious film person should see Boyhood, and anyone else wanting to see a spectacle that doesn’t involve car crashes, aliens, superheroes or the supernatural. This is a spectacular film, where the spectacle is life and growth and time itself. There may not be another film like it in our lifetimes.

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Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy resembles one of those cloth dolls stitched together by someone who has the necessary pieces and a general idea of how to put them together. The result is something fun that fulfills its function, but upon closer examination just barely fits together.

Guardians is a piece of cinema, certainly, but it’s too many other things also to consider as just a film. Most films can carry several identities, but Guardians is so many other things as well that one can almost forget that it be viewed, reviewed and analyzed as a film.

Perhaps its strongest identity at the moment is the product of a massive marketing campaign, and in many ways, it’s a triumph of promotion. It’s a superhero movie, too, which means it’s a merchandise and game universe in and of itself. It’s also a not-quite-wanna-be-first-tier Marvel film, one that seems to aspire to be considered a valid substitute for an Avengers or Iron Man film while simultaneously celebrating its not being in that league. As a kind of also-ran, it’s also a kind of fun “filler” and place-holder while the rest of the universe awaits the next major Marvel offering, assuming its role as a placeholder that we like enough to might want to see every few years interspersed with the serious Marvel movies.

There’s nothing particularly original about the film, its plot or its characters. What’s a bit different is the lightly snarky attitude throughout. The film doesn’t take anything seriously, a fun break from Marvel tradition, which captures moments of snark within a world we are meant to take seriously. Perhaps the film’s greatest success as a film is holding together a tone that combines light and groovin’ music with a lightweight hero and a new cast of characters in the Star Wars tradition of C-3PO and Chewbacca. The film asks us to suspend disbelief to the breaking point, but also asks us if that really matters, and the answer is no. If one is looking for believability, even within the context of a space opera comedy, it won’t be found here. Except for perhaps the most dedicated of Marvel geeks, the holes are more like chasms and any serious investigation of plot sense should be abandoned long before the trailers start playing.

Keeping that delicate balance of tone working is leading man Chris Pratt, long known for being the shlubby, funny second banana. Here he is, slimmed down and ripped like a superhero, but as dry and smart-alecky as ever. His nonchalance may well be the film’s strongest suit. Pratt’s Peter Quill is like a way less intense and much funnier Han Solo—a man with skills, but with a loose and casual demeanor.

Zoe Saldana, who may be typecasting herself as the beautiful but tough action heroine (see the Star Trek films, Colombiana, Avatar, etc.), is a good balance for Quill. She provides the opposite for the requisite “opposites attract” scenario, but the film doesn’t take full advantage of it—perhaps that is going to be reserved for the inevitable sequels.

Getting the strongest reviews is Bradley Cooper, unseen but heard as the voice of Rocket, the mouthy raccoon. Not every actor can do decent voice work, but Cooper has a future if that leading man career doesn’t work out. He finds and nails down the crazy raccoon’s character, and keeps the intensity, humor and attitude throughout. Less obvious is the casting of gravel-voiced Vin Diesel as Groot, whose only spoken words are “I am Groot.” Apparently Diesel did the performance capture work as well as providing the vocal variations on the three words of dialogue he was responsible for, but it seems an odd fit to use a major star to so little effect. Some have written that this is Diesel’s best performance since….whatever. The actor and the role make for an easy target, but in truth he doesn’t add anything to the film that any other raspy-voiced actor could provide.

Where the film sometimes falters is in the occasional line delivery. The film often sets up a good comic line, only to see it delivered in a flat tone that fails to take advantage of the setup. The momentum isn’t lost, but the moment fails to “zing” as much as it could. That’s the less than professional “stitching” that prevents this from being the tight film and comic delight it could have been.

In spite of the occasional misstep, just holding a consistently easy, funny, laid-back tone in the midst of chaotic action is a kind of achievement of its own. As 22 Jump Street knew and exploited the fact that it was a sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy knows it’s not a “first-string” film, and invites you to enjoy its more relaxed vibe. Unless you’re a Marvel junkie, you’ll likely forget the film within a week, but it will also likely remain a small joy in the memory banks.

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Jaws Revisited

It only made sense when doing a large extended-family vacation on Cape Cod, after spending an afternoon on the beach, to take another look at Jaws. The first time around, the film got lost in the phenomenon. It’s heralded as the first great summer blockbuster, and it caused too many people to stay away from the ocean, or even from swimming pools.

This time around, with full familiarity of the plot, on a (very) large screen, with no cuts for time or content, and—bliss!—no commercial interruptions, I’m reminded what a good film it is. Spielberg thought of it as a director’s film, and while it will always be much more than that, he was right. It’s the vision of a single person, from its opening shot through the attacks through the family drama to the men-against-shark standoff.

Of course you can find flaws. “Bruce” the mechanical shark isn’t always full of the flexibility and subtlety of movement that you might find in a CG creation. But it’s real, not digitized, and that adds to the authenticity of the film. The scenes of Quint’s fishing boat don’t always cut together well; it’s a tribute to Oscar-winning editor Verna Fields that you barely notice how different the skies are in the background, some days clear, some days cloudy, many days in-between. Continuity errors abound. Even John Williams’ famous score, two notes of which are forever part of our culture, occasionally errs on the side of joyfully exciting and rousing when it should be leaning toward the tense and fearful.

Those small quibbles aside, this is a well-constructed and well-directed film. The forced decision to show the effects and presence of the shark before actually seeing it is one of cinema’s happy accidents (though Spielberg was going to hold back on that from the beginning). Seeing what it can do before seeing it in the flesh builds suspense and activates the imagination. Having Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) look through a book of shark attacks, often reflected in his glasses, is a lesson in how to show instead of tell, especially when we are drawn into the book with him, only to be startled along with him by his wife.

Part of the strength of the film is the genuineness of the family scenes. This is a husband and wife who know each other well and love each other deeply; you can almost feel their connection and history. The dinner scene where a son imitates a deeply distracted father says more about the power of a father’s influence than a dozen documentaries.

Then there is the acting, rarely talked about when Jaws is mentioned. There isn’t a weak performance in the film. Scheider is the model of coiled intensity, and you can see him thinking in character. Robert Shaw as Quint has rightly been hailed for his performance, which probably should have been nominated in the supporting actor category. Of course his soliloquy on his time on the Indianapolis is classic, but his performance is much more than that one monologue. He’s rough and independent, until he doesn’t need to be anymore. He’s focused and humorless, until he lets his guard down and humor out. Lastly, Richard Dreyfuss is just about perfect in his role. His character is smart and is amused as much as Quint by those that don’t get what’s really going on and what it demands, including Quint. Together, these three are a joy to watch, individually and when they need to work together.

There are too many great “moments” to count. The series of cuts that bring us into Brody’s worried face is classic, as is the use of a dramatic zoom shot that perfectly captures the sickening dizziness of realizing that another attack has occurred. Then there is the public rebuke of Brody by a victim’s mother, neither milked for dramatic effect nor dismissed by the film. It’s allowed to stand and sink in, both to Brody and to us.

Seeing it in full with no edits reminded me of how violent Quint’s death was in the original uncut version; my guess is that this scene is heavily edited when shown on television. It doesn’t revel in the gore, but it doesn’t shy away from it either.

It’s no wonder Spielberg was disappointed when the film was nominated for Best Picture and he was overlooked in the director category. Yes, it’s the biggest of popcorn movies, and yes, it’s a thriller. But it’s also a supremely crafted, well-acted film. Take a second, uninterrupted look sometime, preferably when you’ve just gone swimming in the ocean.

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Two Films from 1942

Holiday Inn

As part of my general research on musicals, I wanted a complete look at a couple of films of what I’d only seen bits and pieces. Both were released in 1942. Both were packed with star power, and are considered minor classics. That means for most of those folks who like older movies that they are worth a visit, but no rushing is involved.

First was Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire and featuring a score by Irving Berlin, and introducing us to the Oscar-winning “White Christmas.” (No, the 1954 film by that name was the third film to use the song, the second being 1946’s Blue Skies). It also features “Happy Holidays,” which is ubiquitous around Christmas, and the song the filmmakers thought would be the big hit, the mostly forgotten “Be Careful, That’s My Heart.” We also hear some of “’Easter Parade,” which would get its own film a few years later.

(Factoid: Yes, the hotel chain was named after the hotel in the film.)

Except for “White Christmas” and Astaire’s incredible solo “Let’s Say it with Firecrackers,” this is neither Crosby’s or Astaire’s best effort. No Ginger Rogers, of course, so that ineffable connection between Astaire and his greatest partner is missing, as his paired dances here attest. Perhaps the only dance duet of interest is the one where Astaire is supposed to be drunk (which was reflected in reality to the degree that the continual shots he took between takes took effect).

The various romantic connections in the film tend to leave a slightly bad taste in the mouth. Women don’t come off well (is it really that easy to change your romantic attachments that quickly?), and the men deceive, lie and connive. It’s hard to root for any person’s plan or any specific coupling. And then there is “Abraham,” a number you might not see, depending on where you watch this. It’s in blackface, which is anathema to some, but historically interesting to others. (I fall in the latter category.) The only guarantee to seeing the whole film is to rent it or see it on TCM.

For Me and My Gal

The other “old” film I finally saw was Gene Kelly’s first, which paired him with his ideal partner, Judy Garland, who was so instrumental in making sure he played this role. Kelly had become a Broadway star in 1940’s Pal Joey, and it wasn’t a surprise to see him land a lead role right away.

It’s a fascinating film for several reasons. First is the pairing of one of the two great film male dancers ever to dance before a camera, and the greatest musical performer cinema has ever seen. His strong and brilliant dancing was accompanied by a softer tenor voice that was just a bit better than serviceable. Her singing voice was nonpareil, and her dancing was better than most people tend to notice. Together, they both sounded and looked great. Just take a close look and listen to their first number together, the title tune, and see how perfectly the voices match and how connected they already were as dance partners. Though there were efforts to pair them more often, her health and his broken ankle prevented more than two other films done together.

This is also a Busby Berkeley film, but if you didn’t know that going in, you might not guess it while watching. Dramatic scenes are sensitive, and the camera movements are smooth and elegant. No overhead shots of dancers in kaleidoscopic patterns; no big This is clearly not the Warner Brothers Berkeley of the early ‘30s. One scene in particular stands out. World War I has begun, and American has just entered the fray. Kelly’s character is drafted at what he considers the worst moment for his career. He does something to keep him out temporarily. The scene is beautifully shot, and could have been done by Hitchcock in its balance of what we see, what we don’t, and the tense build-up to the final action.

While the singer/dancer relationship between the two leads is impeccable, their romantic connections don’t quite work, especially in the context of America’s recent entrance into World War II. Future California Senator George Murphy plays Garland’s character’s first dance and romantic partner, and he’s such a great guy who so clearly loves her selflessly that we find ourselves rooting for them to get together. But the film tells us that it’s Kelly that she loves and who ultimately should be with her. But he’s a cad, and a seeming unpatriotic one at that, necessitating some significant reshooting to help regain the audience’s sympathy so we can more easily accept the relationship that the film tells us is the one that “should be.”

Watching Garland at this point in her career is catching her at a transitional moment. Just 19, she is not playing a teenager here, as she was two years later in Meet Me in St. Louis. Her character is older, and she pulls it off. She is clearly a performing professional who’s been at it for a long time, which works completely. She is also a rousing singer when she needs to be, and a sensitive torch singer at other times. She’s not quite the dramatic actress she’d become later, but it’s fun to watch her rise to each challenge the film presents her.

Historically, most people remember this as Kelly’s first film. It should also be remembered as an “of its time” war film (that ended with a call to buy war bonds), and especially, as the first of the greatest singer/dancer duo in film history.

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Jersey Boys

What a fascinating, enjoyable mess of a film! The saving grace of the film, of course, is that glorious music (“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man”), with a nearly irresistible hook of the classic rags-to-riches-and-off-to-who-knows-where story, in this case, the tale of the Four Seasons. Converting a jukebox musical into a hit on Broadway was challenging enough, but successful. Taking that musical and putting it on screen has proven a rather awkward fit.

For those who love the music and are curious about the story, that’s enough to see it. For many of the rest of us, it’s also a Clint Eastwood film, reason enough to be curious. While it may seem an uneasy fit to have the director of Unforgiven, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby direct a musical, remember that the Western-star-turned-director is a music lover, a film score composer on a number of his films, and director of 1988’s Bird, on the life of jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker.

Yet loving music doesn’t a musical director make, and that’s part of the problem. Eastwood has clearly proven himself far more than a director of Westerns, but his oeuvre is deeply serious: think Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, Changeling, J. Edgar, Hereafter, Blood Work, and his newest work currently in post-production, American Sniper. Nary a hit song among them! Eastwood’s best work is characterized by an even, tense, almost fatalistic disposition, with an energy closer to No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh than the exuberance of a musical star.

The music of Jersey Boys is consistently uplifting in every meaning of the word, but it’s always fighting a slightly dark, artificially heightened world here. In most musicals, the central conceit of a world where music arises from almost nowhere is echoed by a deliberately affected world of large emotions, bright colors and décor, and an acting style that allows the move from “reality” to musical expression. That is flipped on its head here: the music (since it’s all performance and stays in the world of the film) isn’t allowed to break as free as it wants or needs to. It’s part of a rather downbeat story that even at its most successful peaks is fraught with argument, competition and tension. The world of the film, on the other hand, is more synthetic than the music. The not-quite-real world of the 1950s, the clichéd Italian-American sets, food and unending parade of b0dda-boom, bodda-bing talk—it’s hermetically sealed, cutting off a sense of real life, and draining the tale of a good percentage of the kick that comes with knowing this really happened.

Part of the problem is Eastwood’s tendency to recreate the recent past in amber. In Changeling, J. Edgar, and now this film, Eastwood takes known eras and moves them in the direction of Louis XIV’s court. It’s not so stylized at to be completely break off our conception of the time period, but it recreates it in a facsimile that we can’t really relate to. We observe the world far more than we’re drawn into it.

The look doesn’t help. Cinematographer Tom Stern is expert at creating a cool, reserved palette (every film named in the third paragraph was photographed by Stern). Jersey Boys has a yellow-brown cast, but it’s a grey-yellow-brown, not warm like a sepia-colored period piece. The occasional costume change brings some visual relief, but the joy of the music tends to clash with the look of the film.

Perhaps most disappointing is the lack of a key ingredient in a musical with this kind of score: it’s called pizzazz. There is a moment or two (especially in the creation of the title of “Big Girls Don’t Cry”) that lifts, but they ultimately only provide contrast to the rather weighty tone and feel of the rest of the film.

John Lloyd Young, winner of the Tony Award for the stage version, has nearly the same voice as Frankie Valli, though it’s a little less sweet. He’s fine as an actor, but unusually inexpressive for a performer, even in the most dramatic scenes. Young does manage to pull off the younger scenes (though if he can be seen as sixteen, I’m still 39), where an unwrinkled face and some teenage hutzpah work in his favor. But the more mature scenes seem to lose their fire. The film is stolen by Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, an overly confident and oftentimes loathsome creature who got things going with the group that eventually became the Four Seasons. It’s also a great platform for Christopher Walken to “go Mafia” successfully as an influential mob leader.

Deciding in what voice to present a story is often a challenge: first-person, second, third, or something else. Here we have all the members of the group directly address the camera as they tell certain parts of the story. That may have worked well on stage when you have a live audience, but breaking the fourth wall is a dicey choice. We get used to it as viewers, but part of me wanted the scriptwriter and director to find another way of showing me what they wanted me to know and feel rather than telling me.

Then there’s the credit sequence at the end. I flashed back to Slumdog Millionaire, and the comparison wasn’t in the newer film’s favor. Not quite sure what was advanced by doing that.

When all is said and done, however, one’s enjoyment of the film will likely be predicated upon one’s enjoyment of the music. With the smallest apologies to those who’ve seen the film and paid close attention, it’s the film’s ace in the hole.

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The Monuments Men

I hesitated to write about this film, but have recently noticed that it is at the top of the rental charts. If a number of people are going to see it, a review seems necessary.

The Monuments Men is a rather poorly made film based on what seemed a surefire story idea—the work of a motley crew of men commissioned by President Roosevelt during World War Two to search for art masterpieces stolen by the Nazis and return them to their rightful owners. The story itself is the strongest and most enjoyable aspect of the film, and if that’s enough for a viewer, then the film should get by on those merits.

Unhappily, that strong story element is almost undone by the film itself. The ragtag group of men—a staple of every other Western, espionage and search film—is comprised of some of the most famous actors currently working: George Clooney (working as co-screenwriter and director as well), Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin (recent Oscar-winner for The Artist), Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett. And believe it or not, that’s one of the biggest problems, or rather, the direction of these fine actors is one of the biggest problems.

Most of them seem to be in their own, separate film. Clooney is back to his shaken-head acting style of the ‘90s, with nary a hint of the skill he demonstrated in Syriana or The Descendants. It’s the most half-hearted, limp performance we’ve seen from him in years; he’s phoning it in. Damon is ever the hardworking professional, but his story arc pulls him into a side story, and he has little chance to raise the film with his interaction with the other men. Bonneville gives the stiff-upper-lip try that the disciplined British are known for, but has little connection with the others. Murray is pretty much always in his own film.

Blanchett is part of that same story line as Damon, and seems in yet another film entirely. She plays an introverted Parisian curator who is forced against her will to work with the Nazis in their nefarious schemes. She, unlike the men (except for Damon) plays her role nearly as deeply and darkly as Streep in August: Osage County, without the drama and profanity. Blanchett, still obviously a beautiful woman (see Blue Jasmine for the most recent proof), is at the center of a “take off her glasses and OMG she’s beautiful!” moment that fails to capture her beauty and only captures the character’s desperate loneliness. In another film, it would be a quietly touching moment. It’s fine work, and is lost and out of place in the film.

That’s not her fault. The film can’t make up its mind whether it’s The Guns of Navarone or Ocean’s Fourteen. The tone varies wildly from 1940’s deadly serious to modern deadly serious to a jaunty all-star adventure where the actors are clearly have more fun than the audience. The shifts from real to silly are jarring and wrenching, and keep us guessing what the film is trying to be. Is it Stalag 17 or Hogan’s Heroes? Perhaps it’s trying for both, but that doesn’t work. When the work by a tertiary character such as Dimitri Leonidas’ Sam Epstein is a breath of fresh air just by being normal, straightforward and believable, you know the film can’t make up its mind.

The script is the other part of the problem. Its exposition is so embarrassingly for the audience that it’s uncomfortable, with Clooney ‘splaining things to the president that no one would in their right mind would condescend to tell the ruler of the free world at that time, complete with maps of Europe that help instruct FDR [that is, us] where France and Germany are. The script decides that we need two specific works of art to represent the cache of the missing pieces, and follows them awkwardly through to their eventual discovery. It’s dramatically satisfying to see if they can retrieve those specific pieces, but we lose the scope of the triumph in the process.

The truly sorry thing about The Monuments Men isn’t the jumble of a cinematic experience that it is. That’s painful enough. It’s that now the great film that could have been made on this subject will likely never be created.

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