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I'll Come Speak

    I write and speak on all sorts of topics: ancient Christian spirituality and the Eastern Orthodox faith, the Jesus Prayer, marriage and family, the pro-life cause, cultural issues, and more. You can contact Cynthia Damaskos of the Orthodox Speakers Bureau if you’d like to bring me to an event. This Calendar will let you know when I’m in your neighborhood.

 

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Friday
Sep042009

Animals Before Birth

What is life like “In the Womb”? Thanks to National Geographic, we can refresh our memories with a beautiful book by that title, as well as a TV miniseries that makes use of the most advanced video technology. A new book and series now examines the prenatal life of our fellow mammals—and it’s weirder than you’d think.

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Friday
Sep042009

All About Steve

You expect certain things from a Sandra Bullock comedy, and if that’s what you’re looking for, “All About Steve” will not disappoint. She’s perky and quirky, slim and lovely, and a very good sport about looking unglamorous (here she survives both a tornado and a fall into an abandoned mine). You’ll be unsurprised to learn that romantic complications arise, followed by a happy ending.  So if you enjoyed “The Proposal” or “Two Weeks Notice,” you’ll surely get a kick out of “All About Steve.”

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Thursday
Aug202009

Motherland

Does this sound like a good idea for a movie? I can’t decide. Take six women who have suffered the loss of a child. Send them together to South Africa, to work with impoverished children. In the security of each other’s company, with a genuine need set before them, their grief is mitigated and healing is begun.

As therapy, it’s a great idea.

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Friday
Jul172009

(500) Days of Summer

Summer Finn, we’re told, is an average woman in many ways—like height and weight, though slightly above average shoe size. (The narrator telling us this, in a wryly amused way, sounds like James Earl Jones, though I can’t find a credit for him.) Yet something about her arrests men’s attention. She gets an average of 18.4 double-takes per day. This is, we are told, “the Summer Effect.”

 

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Friday
Jun192009

$9.99

[Christianity Today Movies; June 19, 2009]

Stars: 2

Rated: R

Cast: Geoffrey Rush (Angel), Anthony LaPaglia (Jim Peck), Joel Edgerton (Ron), Ben Mendelsohn (Lenny Peck), Claudia Karvan (Michelle)

A movie is like a parade: before you see the fullness of its pomp and circumstance, you see forerunners, standard bearers, that serve to herald the procession and hint at what is to come. And before you see a movie, you see and hear things that frame your expectations, so you’ll know what about the movie is of primary importance, and why someone should want to see it. The advance banner may well be the plot, but it could also be the cast, especially if the actors have had recent personal troubles. It might be the famous director, or the scale of its special effects. Rarely, the advance banner of a movie bears the name of a writer.

That’s the case with “$9.99”—the signal thing about this movie, the thing that people in-the-know find exciting, is that it is based on the short stories of Etgar Keret. Born in Israel, Keret is the author of short stories and children’s books, and co-author of graphic novels. I haven’t read his work, but it sounds like it original and imaginative, from its very conception. “Missing Kissinger,” for example, packs 50 very short stories into 250 pages. Keret’s stories are frequently surreal, and whimsical and hopeful rather than bitter. His story “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” for example, concerns a man who kills himself and then looks for love in the afterlife. That one was made into the graphic novel “Pizzeria Kamikaze,” and then into the feature film “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” starring Tom Waits and Will Arnett.

From that you can get a feeling for how highly Keret is regarded. The director of “$9.99,” Tatia Rosenthal, says, “Etgar has been referred to as the voice of our generation in Israel, and the pull I felt toward his work was immense.” She praises his “bittersweet, exacting literary voice and its expression of humanism in a morally ambiguous world…the dry-witted expression of a complex reality through everyday situations, and magical realism.” The film found a producer when one of Keret’s fans, Emile Sherman, sought out the writer while on vacation in Tel Aviv. Sherman praises the script: “touching, funny, sophisticated, humanist.”

Do you really need to know all this about the writer behind “$9.99”? I suspect that’s the case. Those who anticipate liking it because it comes from the pen of Etgar Keret will have a deeper appreciation of the film, I think, than those for whom the name evokes a blank “Who he?”

In its general outline, the story is one you’ve seen before; it utilizes the convention of enclosing a wide range of people within a physical place (a stagecoach in “Stagecoach,” an army camp in “The Dirty Dozen,” a theater in “The Muppets Take Manhattan”) to explore various undying themes. A man loses his girlfriend, due to his immature, party-hearty character; another man acquires a girlfriend, one who has unusual tastes; a sweetly naïve young man hasn’t the heart to work for a repossession company; an older man tries to be polite and helpful toward a grumpy intruder who simply moved in. The characters interact for 78 minutes, and at the end most stories are resolved, and most for the better.

That kind of movie can indeed be charming, but it’s not necessarily an advance on the last movie you saw that was built along these lines. In two ways it is sure to be *different* from the last one you saw. In the first place, it uses a fair degree of magical realism. The man who’s lost his love is consoled by a trio of 2-inch-high drinking buddies (he gives them sips of beer from a medicine dropper; they ride in circles on his record turntable). The acquired girlfriend likes her men “smooth,” and after her accommodating lover shaves his head and his body he seeks yet a further way to show his love. The grumpy intruder is an angel of some sort (he has wings), but is otherwise sarcastic and rude.

I’ll agree that such elements are imaginative, but they don’t startle the way they once could have. Americans developed a taste for the absurd when Monty Python became a hit on public television in the 1970s; Woody Allen’s early movies helped too. Whether you’re striving for humor or whimsy, it’s useful to pull out a startling, even impossible, contrast. But the more random the association, the less it can persuasively craft character or depict authentic character change. Elements that are arbitrary may be delightful, even scintillating, but for that very reason they don’t make solid building blocks for a story.

The other really different element is that the film uses clay animation to tell the story. Little figures made of modeling clay were set in place, photographed, moved only a tiny bit, photographed again, until your brain hurts just to think about it. It’s an admirable effort, though of course movement can never be entirely smooth, and subtly shifting facial expressions are more approximate than a human actor could have achieved. Does this add to the movie? Well, it makes it more curious an artifact, and you have to salute the exhausting effort required. But as to whether “$9.99” might have been just as good, or better, filmed the usual way is an open question.

The title is the price of a book acquired by the reluctant repo man; he responded to an ad reading, “Have you ever wondered ‘What’s the meaning of life?’…The answer to this vexing question is now within your reach! You’ll find it in this small yet amazing booklet…yours for a mere $9.99.” Throughout the film Dave attempts to share with other characters the amazing things he is learning—“People think life has only one meaning, but actually there are six!”—but no one wants to listen.

I’ll admit that what intrigued me about the film was a desire to learn what the filmmakers think the meaning of life is. Like the magical realism, like the meticulous clay figures, this turns out to be one more element of a movie that dances and alludes without coming right down to anything, and invites us to believe that dancing and alluding is sufficient in itself. What is the meaning of “$9.99”? You may think there’s only one meaning, but—once you look past the glow of admiration surrounding the writer—it could be less.

 

Talk About It [3-5 Questions]

1. The angel says that he wanted to see his wife in heaven, but after he killed himself he was turned into an angel instead. Is there still a common misunderstanding that people become angels after death? How would you talk about this with someone who finds the idea comforting?

2. Zack sets his piggy bank free, and it appears we are supposed to find that a sweet conclusion to this strand of the story. But what is likely to happen to that coin-filled piggy bank? Do you think the filmmakers intend us to foresee that subsequent part of the story, or to pretend we don’t?

3. Why does the policeman refuse to accept Mr. Cruller’s confession? What do you make of his statement, “I’m sure that God forgives you”?

 

The Family Corner: Although this film is animated, it is not for children. A suicide splashes blood over a passerby, twice. Two characters are shown nude and while having sex. “$9.99” has an R rating.

 

Friday
May292009

Up

I knew Up was one of those rare first-rate movies when I found myself really yearning to see it for a second time. Actually, that wouldn’t have been so unusual, except that I was still sitting in the theater and had only gotten through 20 minutes of seeing it for the first time. It’s that good.

And that in itself isn’t so unusual, considering that this is a film from Pixar Studios, whose previous films (Wall-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story) have been not only excellent, but also original. Leave it to the other animation studios to crank out films where bland themes (like “Follow Your Dreams”) provide vehicles for pop-culture references and gross-out jokes. In recent years, Pixar gave us a robot cleaning up an abandoned planet Earth, a rat who wants to be a French chef, superheroes chafing under forced retirement, and the courageous monsters who must inhabit children’s closets. Imagination still exists, in some quarters.

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Thursday
May142009

O'Horten

How odd is Odd?  When we meet Odd Horten, he is driving the Oslo-Bergen express train through a blue-white snowy landscape. (This opening-credits sequence is gorgeous:  each dive into a tunnel, each returning plunge through a circle of searing white, is a cinematic marvel.) But a young railroad employee catching a ride up front with Odd finds that it’s very hard to draw him into conversation. Questions and comments get monosyllabic replies, if any. Why is that?

 

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Friday
May012009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

[National Review Online: May, 1, 2009]

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a fanboy. So why did I get such a kick out of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”? Because the title character is an interesting guy, with a complicated history and complicated feelings. Because the plot has some good twists, not all of which are straightened out before final credits roll. Because the story totes us around to an abundance of intriguing locations and sets, from a Nigerian diamond-processing floor to a Las Vegas boxing ring to an alley in the French Quarter to a nuclear reactor. (My favorite was the trailer of a melancholy carnival worker, stuffed with vintage toys and wind-up gadgets, and a hundred bare bulbs dangling from the ceiling.) It’s got people, places, and stuff worth looking at, and that gives any movie a good head start.

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Friday
Apr242009

Earth

“Earth,” the first release from the Disneynature films, lives up to its publicity; this film is 85 minutes of jaw-droppingly beautiful clouds, waterfalls, icebergs, and savannahs; of graceful animals, scary animals, funny animals, and excruciatingly cute baby animals. James Earl Jones delivers a narration that is mild and accessible to children. (A typical line: after a shot of a penguin sliding on his belly, Jones says, “You might not know this, but penguins are one of the few creatures born with a built-in toboggan.”) It reopens the tradition of Disney nature documentaries, as in the “True Life Adventures” films of 1948-1960, and a better family-friendly nature film can’t be found.

 

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Friday
Apr102009

Hannah Montana: The Movie

[National Review: April 10, 2009]

Whoever’s in charge of truth-in-labeling in Washington needs to take a look at the phenomenon called “Hannah Montana”. That’s the name of a fictitious world-famous pop star, who conceals her secret identity in order to live a normal life as fictitious high-schooler Miley Stewart; this way, she has “The Best of Both Worlds” (as Hannah-Miley’s hit song has it). What needs re-classification is the omni-capable 16-year-old, Miley Cyrus, who portrays this double character. She’s frequently described as a singer, a pop star, or a rock star; you can call her an actress, too, since she’s spent the last three years starring in the Disney Channel show named for her character, and now carries her first narrative film (a concert film released last year was a blockbuster). Pop star, actress, ordinary high school student? Certify her for a whole new title: comedienne.

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