The Tree of Life – A Review

“The nuns taught us that there were two ways in life – the way of nature and the way of grace.  You have to choose which one to follow.”

“The only way to be happy is to love.  Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life is not a movie.  At least not in the conventional sense.  It does not follow a straight narrative.  It does not have a clear protagonist and antagonist.  It does not progress in a linear way from Act I to Act II to Act III with a stirring climax and then a denouement.  It features as much, if not more, voiceover from the characters than dialogue between them.  It is not a movie that you can distill down to one or two sentences to clearly explain it.  What it is, though, is a work of art.  And beautiful work of art.

Most of the movie centers around a family living in a small Texas town in the mid-1950s, a father(Brad Pitt), a mother(Jessica Chastain), and their three boys.  The parents are as much archetypes as actual characters, with the father embodying “nature” while the mother embodies “grace.”  Both outlooks on life are shaping their kids, for better and worse.  We see the childhood lives of these three boys from the perspective of the oldest son with occasional voiceovers from the father and mother as well.  Intercut with all of this are scenes involving the oldest son as an adult (played by Sean Penn), reflecting on these things and more and struggling to find some understanding during a difficult day of remembrance.  And intercut with all of this, are images of nature and the universe around us, going as far back as the creation of the world, to the dinosaurs, to the end of time, even.  That is the movie boiled down to its barest bones.  And yet it does not come close to doing the movie justice.

I knew going into that it was an atypical movie.  One reviewer had described it as “impressionistic” in a review I had read.  A lot of times, I find movies described in similar terms to be more “pretentious” than anything.  Also, when it comes to art, I would say I have a hard times appreciating impressionist painters.  Also, while some people swear by him, I am not the biggest Terrance Malick fan.  I liked The Thin Red Line, but I only saw it once when I was a teenager, and was more caught up in the thought, “This is not as good as Saving Private Ryan” at the time.  I think there might have been a lot in that movie I missed.  But in anticipation of this movie, I also watched Days of Heaven and Badlands, and I thought they were only alright.  Aside from being fascinated that Malick being intensely private and that he took nearly 20 years off from directing in between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, I am ambivalent toward Terrance Malick in general.  This movie, though, captivated me.  To me, it is probably the best movie he has ever made.  It’s like a magnum opus piece, the culmination and pinnacle of someone’s body of work.

On a purely visceral level, the film is amazingly beautiful.  I can only imagine that the Blu-ray of the movie is presentation-level material for showing off how awesome HD can look.  The scenery is lush and vibrant and seems to comes alive for the camera at times.  It is a totally different movie, but if I had to compare the awe I experienced at some of the sights this movie, it would be Avatar and some of the stunning imagery of that movie.  But Malick does not need 3D to wow the eyes.  The CG involving the space/creation sequences are resplendent.  Some of the most beautiful and amazing imagery in movie history reside in this movie, I have no reservations in saying that.  There should be no way that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Cinematography for this movie.

On an emotional level, this film resonated with me.  A lot of the childhood scenes are evocative and probably universal or collective on some level.  It really captures a lot of what would be mundane, everyday life.  The movie feels as much like it is observing as it is telling a story.  Brothers playing, wrestling, fighting.  Bringing a lizard into the house to terrorize their mother.  Swimming together at the local swimming spot.  Being reprimanded at the dinner table.  Hiding from their mother as she’s calling them to come in for the night at dinner.  Climbing and walking over the church pews on a Sunday morning.  And mixed in with all of this, though, are examples of “nature” and “grace” all around them, and the parents trying to do their best to lead them through the world and bring them up right; whether that means telling them to keep their elbows off the table when they eat, or shielding their eyes and leading them away from a man in the background having a seizure.  And the oldest son, through whose eyes we see this world, grapples with feelings he doesn’t understand and questions he doesn’t know how to ask and beginning to grow up in general.

Finally, on another level, this movie is deeply spiritual and meditative.  It opens with a verse from the Bible, Job 38:4,7: ““Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth . . .When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”  While it opens with a passage from the book of Job, taken as a whole, the movie plays out like something from Psalms.  Characters cry out to God, questions why things are happening or even questioning if God is even listening, before eventually seeing God in everything that surrounds, and accepting and embracing the divine at work in the world.  The one line that stood out to me as the most spiritual was a voice over of the son saying, “I didn’t know how to name You then.  But I see it was You.  Always You were calling me.”  I’ve seen very few films that moved me spiritually like this movie did.  Even the long origin of the universe sequence, which a friend of mine didn’t like because it was “all about evolution,” was, given in the context of the film, infused with a sense of creative, divine design behind it all.

The Tree of Life is not a movie that I think everyone would like or appreciate.  I know that the reactions to the movie run the full spectrum from loving it to flat-out hating it and everywhere in between.  Count me firmly in the former group.  Movies like this are the reason I love watching movies.  For the rare moment when a movie lives up to your expectations or surpasses them; when it stays with you long after you’ve seen it; when you are moved by what you’ve seen.  The Tree of Life is one of those rare pieces of art that transcends it medium.  It is not just a movie.  It is an experience.



Review of “Drive”

I had heard a lot of buzz surrounding the movie Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling.  Last night after small group and before work, I stopped in at the theater to check it out.  I was not prepared for what I got, but in a good way.

Drive has a simple, straight-forward premise.  A movie stunt driver also moonlights as a wheelman for armed robberies in Los Angeles.  He develops a relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan), a neighbor in his apartment whose husband is in jail, and her son, Benicio.  When the husband is released, he owes some bad men some money, and The Driver agrees to help in order to protect Irene and Benicio.

The first thing you need to really know about this movie is that it is not a typical action movie in the vein of The Fast & the Furious franchise.  It’s much more arthouse stylization, subdued and focused on the characters than the cars.  I have seen two other Refn movies: Bronson and Valhalla Rising.  Both movies have some extreme brutality to them, but Valhalla Rising in particular is the movie that I see a lot of similarities to in terms of the quiet, stoic, brutal killer that Mads Mikkelsen played in Valhalla Rising and the character Gosling plays here.  No name is given, like out of an Eastwood western.  He does not speak a lot of dialogue.  The Driver is a man of few words and quick, decisive action.  You also get the feeling that there is a lot bubbling just beneath the surface of this guy who mostly maintains his cool.  Also, the quiet, simple, protective nature of the man to the boy also calls back to Valhalla Rising for me.

Gosling and Mulligan do a great job of creating chemistry and longing for one another in this movie, with so little actually said between the two of them.  Instead, a lot is expressed in the way they look at one another throughout the movie.  A lot of movies would be lazy and add really bad dialogue to express the love and affection that is blooming between them, but this one doesn’t and is better for it.  There is a really beautiful scene in an elevator that is one of the most memorable of the year for me, both because of the beauty of it and then how quickly the pendulum swings in that scene.

Also, this seems like the movie that will have the one score that will stick out to me more than any other I hear this year.  A lot of the movie is a tribute to previous movies in a similar vein as this from many years ago.  The jacket The Driver wears, the leather driving gloves, the toothpick, all harken back to a previous era, as does the music, which is a great evocative retro-80s synthpop score that really adds another layer to everything you’re watching.  Do yourself a favor and listen to “A Real Hero” “Under Your Spell” and “Nightcall” and tell me you don’t picture yourself driving in some scene that Michael Mann is directing.  I don’t even really like a lot of music from the 80s, especially synth-based stuff, but I was really digging it in this movie.

Drive does a very good job of combining some really great action and, at times, exquisite gore with arthouse tendencies without being too pensive for its own good.  And there are some good, understated acting performances in this movie as well.


Love Wins by Rob Bell – A Review

A few years ago my small group started watching this video series called Nooma.  It was a series designed to foster discussion in a small group setting and ask questions and get people thinking.  Everyone in the group liked them and got a lot out of them.  The series was put out by the Mars Hill Bible Church and their pastor, Rob Bell.  After the video series, we also ended up reading a book of his, Velvet Elvis.  It was nothing really revolutionary or anything, but it was a pretty accessible read and made some good points.  We also watched a lecture DVD he had done called “The Gods Aren’t Angry” which was also pretty good.  On my own, I read his book Jesus Wants To Save Christians which I thought was a good idea for a book, but was actually a little disappointed with it in its execution.  Short of actually attending his church in Michigan, I’ve had pretty significant exposure to Rob Bell, his style, and his substance in the last few years.

I was a little surprised back in February when all of a sudden a big storm started to brew about an upcoming book by Rob Bell that was stirring the pot.  At the same time, I wasn’t that surprised, because I knew from his previous material that he had a tendency of sometimes saying intentionally provocative things intended to tweak certain stuffy Christians.  I also knew that sometimes he was a bit too vague and broad for his own good and sometimes he writing lacked focus, asking more questions than he was prepared to answer.  So I was curious to see what all the fuss was about.  A friend of mine on Facebook had posted a link to a blog that was decreeing that Rob Bell was now a Universalist and that he was finally showing his true colors in this new book.  I checked out the link, and, much to my surprise, the internet screed against Bell and his book was simply about the description of the book and not from anything that the blog writer had actually read.  I cautioned my friend to reserve judgment until the book was actually released and read before coming to ay conclusions about it. 

As it turns out, all of this was the tip of the iceberg.  This book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, has becoming the biggest trending topic relating to Christianity since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released back in 2004.  The book, for better or worse, has opened up a huge can of worms in the Christian community concerning Church teaching on heaven and hell.  Pastors have been talking to their congregations about it, directly or indirectly (For what it’s worth, my pastorTravis Bush gave a… “hell” of a sermon on the subject a few weeks ago).  Sadly, I think the discussion itself has overtaken and outpaced the book in some ways and become its own entity.  Needless to say, I was eager to read the book. 

I almost bought it at Borders in South Portland, but it was $22+ in price, and I knew I could get it for less than half of that on Amazon, so I waited a few days before finally getting a chance to dig into it starting April 1st.  I devoured the first two chapters of the book on Friday, read the next two chapters over the course of Saturday and Sunday, and then finished off the remaining four chapters on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning while at work.  It’s a brisk 198 pages.

Going into it, I had my questions and concerns.  And it was also very hard to divorce the book from the controversy and discussion surrounding it and to merely read the book on its own merits.  I found myself getting fairly upset about halfway through the book at one point and then saying, “I’m not judging the book based on its own merits, but on the expectations of the criticisms and controversy around the book.”  So I had to force myself to shut that out. 

I thought the first two chapters were some of the best stuff that I’ve ever read from Rob Bell.  He does a good job of raising interesting questions to get you thinking and pondering things.  The second chapter deals with heaven, and I thought it was terrific.  We always seem to think of heaven as some “away, up there” kind of place, but we also need to keep in mind that Jesus prays for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Bell uses this as a spring-board to say that we need to be working on making heaven on earth now.  He also brings up an interesting point about how the early Christians and Jewish people in Jesus’ time viewed time itself.  They viewed time in terms of a present age and an age to come, which reminded me a bit of how time is viewed in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. 

What Bell rails against most is the mindset of Christians being so heavenly minded that they’re of no earthly good.  If Christians view heaven as some place we will someday escape to, the temptation then is to do nothing of real significance in our world.  Instead, he frame the discussion in terms of renewal and God reconciling the world to himself.  I think this is a mindset that Christians would do well to adopt. 

Framing the discussion, I think, is the biggest difficulty most people will have with this book and it is where the controversy about it stems from.  I think a big part of the issue at its heart is the disconnect in communication.  Words can have significant meaning, and to different people they can also mean slightly different things.  I think this is a barrier that has been the cause of a lot of division in the Church throughout history.  I think it again rears its ugly head here, because I don’t think Bell is saying what a lot of people think he is saying, necessarily. 

In his chapter on hell, he says that hell is a real thing that exists (similar to heaven), both now and in the future.  A lot of people are living in their own personal or communal hells every day.  And some people choose to reject love and goodness and those things that find their source in God.  In essence, what he says is a slightly nuanced/different way of saying that God does not send people to hell, but rather that people choose hell.  This is discussed in his chapter on whether God gets what God wants.  Bell posits the question that if God is all-powerful and is wishing that all would come to repentance, does God get what he wants in reconciling to himself everyone who has ever lived?  Ultimately, he says that is an unanswerable question, but that a better one exists: Do we get what we want?  And to this, his answer is a resounding “yes.”  And it is because of God’s love that we get what we want, even if it is not what he wants for us.  “If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option.”  This is nothing controversial or revolutionary.  But because people have thrown out the “Universalist” label at him, basically a four-letter word in Christianity, people have taken up arms against Bell.

That last piece of the book that I think is controversial is what Bell says in his chapter about Jesus being the rock.  Of Jesus being the only way to God Bell says that “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.”  His argument in this chapter is a bit convoluted, as he talks about exclusivity, inclusivness, and then an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivness.  All of that is a bit muddled.  But what I took away from that and other statements throughout the book is that Bells says we need to allow for the mystery of God.  We need to be ok with the idea that we do not know the full plans of God nor the entirety of how he may be at work in the world.  And when it comes to the afterlife, we do know some things, based on what Jesus said and in other passages of the Bible.  But there is a lot about it that we don’t know.  And since no one has been to the future or the “beyond” and come back with hard, empirical evidence we shouldn’t be making hard, fast judgments about the eternal destinations of people.

One smaller things that I loved in the book were comments that he made about objections people have with God.  “So when people say they don’t believe in hell and they don’t like the word ‘sin,’ my first response is to ask, ‘Have you sat and talked to a family who just found out their child has been molested?  Repeatedly?  Over a number of years?  By a relative?’  Some words are strong for a reason.” 

Any criticisms I have with the book have more to do with Bell’s style and only a little to do with his substance.  I find that he is apt to occasionally throw in one or two things that I think are either playful or intended to tweak a hardcore Christians audience.  In listing things off, at one point he mentions in passing “the woman who wrote the book of Hebrews.”  Now, the authorship of the book of Hebrews is unknown.  There is a lot of scholarly work out there as to who the potential author is, and one strand of thought suggests that the author is a woman, and that is why we do not know the author of the book; certain people in the early church suppressed that information.  Honestly, I don’t know whether Rob Bell genuinely believes that or not.  I’m sure he doesn’t think that the authorship of the book is as important as what the book of Hebrews actually says.  But because some people would very vehemently argue against the author being a woman, he throws it in there to tweak them.  Probably innocently, but, like in a few other instances, it’s unnecessarily antagonizing some of his audience. 

One problem I had with the book is that Bell offers up far more questions than he is willing to actually answer.  Now, it’s not a huge problem, because that is his style.  But sometimes it leaves you wanting more and wishing that he would come out with a definite position or answer.  As I said, at one point, I became very frustrated with the book because he said in answer to a question that he himself posed, that it was one we do not need to answer and can be content to leave it and its potential contradictions in tact.  It felt like a cop-out.  He recovered after that to finish the chapter nicely, but in that moment, I felt very perturbed.  Part of the problem with Rob Bell’s writing is that sometimes he is too vague and you would like him to be a little clearer about what he is saying.  However, when it comes to asking more questions than he intends to answer, I also realize that it is his style.  He asks questions in order to get the reader thinking. 

My biggest criticism is that he deals a bit too much in the realm of speculation.  He points out, correctly, that no one has been to the future/heaven and been back to report about it with concrete, tangible evidence.  In the grand scheme of things, there is scant little to go on.  As such, he says (again, correctly), that we shouldn’t make hard, fast judgments about people’s destinies, because ultimately none of us really know.  But if that is the case, he himself should not spend so much time in the book elaborating on what he thinks or hopes might be the case.  At the very least, say “I don’t have any more of an idea than the guy on the corner, but here is what I hope based on what I know of God…”  In his letters, Paul would often say something to the effect, “This is just me talking, not God…”  A simple preface like that would have been more than sufficient.  But instead, he leaves himself open to wrong interpretation of his words.

So, what exactly has happened?  Now that the dust has settled a bit, where do we stand?  And where do we go from here?

I think, ultimately, the intent of the book and the message the book was intended to convey was co-opted by people who then took the course of the discussion off in a way that Bell was not prepared for.  Before the book was even released, people were attacking the book.  They threw out the term “Universalist” and really charged the atmosphere surrounding the book and divided the audience.  I’m pretty sure that most of the people who are critical of the book have not actually read the book and are basing what they are saying upon what they have read and heard from others talking about the book. 

I think a healthy discussion of heaven and hell is good for the Church.  The Church is strong enough to stand up to any and all scrutiny, and to change if necessary.  How we present these things to the world around us should be at the forefront of our minds and how we go about integrating them into everyday life should be discussed.  Jesus never spoke about hell in order to lead sinners to God.  He preached good news.  The condemnations and the warnings were always for the religious leaders who were making things so difficult for the people. 

We should have a healthy appreciation for the mystery of God and acknowledge the unknown in God that has not been revealed to us.  We should not make hard and fast statements of people’s eternal destinies, because we don’t have all of the facts.  We should be focused on making God’s will real and present in the world today; “heaven on earth.”  We should realize that God’s love allows us to choose to reject it, to reject humanity, and to live a life apart from him. 

We should also make room for nuance and grace in our dealings with fellow believers.  So much of the barriers that come up between Christians is in misunderstanding and miscommunication.  We should bear with one another patiently.  Seek out what the person is really trying to say instead of rushing to judgment or assuming that they are defining things the same way you are. 

Finally, read the book.  If you are a believer, you owe it to yourself to know what you believe and why you believe it.  You should have a firm foundation.  A controversial book is not something to shy away from.  You can judge what it is saying on its own merits.  And you don’t have to accept the whole.  There can be some aspects of it that you disagree with.  But there may also be something valuable that you can take away from it.

Read what other people have to say about it too.  There are some great reviews of varying opinions here, here, here, and here.  Read more about or by Rob Bell.  The book is not a standalone piece; nothing ever really is.  Read the book in context of the bigger picture of what else Rob Bell has written or spoken about.  Test it for yourself.  Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the hard questions.


The King’s Speech vs. The Social Network

    So I saw The King’s Speech last night.  I have now seen 9 of the 10 films nominated for Best Picture.  I am officially declaring that I think The Social Network was the Best Picture of 2010.  The King’s Speech is a very good movie and Colin Firth is totally deserving of his win for Best Actor.  Geoffrey Rush deserved to be nominated.  I could even maybe be persuaded to buy the argument that Tom Hooper should have won Best Director over Fincher (provided you make the argument that The Social Network was as much about Sorkin’s screenplay as it was Fincher’s direction). 
    But while The King’s Speech is a very good movie and I can understand it being nominated, I don’t think it should have won.  Outside of Firth’s and Rush’s characters, most of the others are not very well developed and rather one-note caricatures.  From what I’ve read too, there are some glaring historical inaccuracies and glossing over of events (the King’s strong opinion about Hitler, for the former; the vague looming presence of Hitler on the horizon for the latter). 
    While inaccuracy in and of itself is not necessarily a deal breaker, to read about the actual history and how some of the characters actually interacted seems like it would lend itself to an even better, more fully developed story.  Churchill actually was a staunch supporter of King’s brother before he abdicated.  The King was more divided about Hitler and leaned toward appeasement early on instead of always being fiercely opposed to him.  He gave Neville Chamberlain a huge gesture of approval when Chamberlain returned from negotiating with Hitler. 
    And while the friendship that develops between the two characters is very good, at one point Rush’s character almost becomes Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting.  And there are some contrivances of story that seem to pop up to test the relationship at just the right moments.
    It confirmed what I most feared about the movie; not that it won because it was such a great picture but it won as much because it was Oscar bait as it was a great movie.  It’s the type of story that the Academy has always gobbled up and cherished.  I’m convinced that while Colin Firth’s performance will remain an impressive one that is remembered fondly, I definitely feel like the movie will fade more into the background and join the mosaic of other biopics that have received high acclaim over the years.  Outside of the performance of Firth, there is not much that distinguishes it from others.
    Not so with The Social Network.  The Social Network leaves an impression.  I remember leaving the theater wanting to delete my Facebook account instead of contributing to the success of the jerk that Jesse Eisenberg portrayed onscreen.  And that stayed with me.  Because the degree of difficulty with The Social Network was so much greater and they managed to pull it off and make it a movie that mattered.  I remember reading online that they were making a “Facebook movie” and laughing thinking it was going to be awful, they’re trying to capitalize on the hot trend du jour, and it will be a joke.  Then I was intrigued to find out that David Fincher was directing it.  And that Aaron Sorkin was scripting it.  And then the glowing reviews came out.  The movie managed to make a multi-million dollar lawsuit compelling as well as giving a suitable context to something that is happening in the present.  The King’s Speech had the advantage of years of perspective.  The Social Network had the double-edged sword of having to make a movie based on real-life characters who weren’t giving their input into the movie.  It did not have to worry about appeasing the egos of the people they were portraying on screen.
    Again, I don’t think the King’s Speech is a poor movie.  It is deserving of high praise and critical acclaim and Colin Firth’s performance ranks up there in terms of the best acting jobs of the last 10 years (though Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood is still the best).  I just don’t think it is deserving of the highest praise.  And I think, as an overall film, The Social Network will resonate more as the years pass while The King’s Speech will settle into the Dances With Wolves/Ordinary People/Forrest Gump/Shakespeare in Love category.  But at least it’s not Crash.


The Great Gatsby – A Review

I recently re-read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I had read it back in high school and only remembered vaguely what happened in it.  I also remember there being a pretty lousy movie made of it back in the 70s that I saw in school starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.  I had revently read that there was the possiblity of a new movie being made based on the book, this time directed by Baz Lurhmann, which gives me serious trepidation, especially when he talks in interviews about filming it in 3D.  So given all of that, I recently purchased the book off of Amazon in one of those splendid 4-for-3 deals that they have.  I am attempting to read more this year and build up my book collection, and I have many books on my Amazon wishlist.  But back to Gatsby.

For some reason, I fancied F. Scott Fitzgerald my favorite author back in high school.  I’m not sure why.  I think I felt like everyone was supposed to have a “favorite” author of some kind, and so I clamped onto the guy who wrote what was considered one of the great American novels of the 20th century and totally synonymous with a period of American history (the roaring 20s).  In reality, I didn’t read a lot of Ftzgerald or anyone outside of assigned reading for classwork.  But I read Gatsby of my own volition as a sophmore and remember doing a research paper on Fitzgerald centering on Gatsby and several short stories that Fitzgerald wrote.  I seem to remember enjoying his short stories more than Gatsby.  Which isn’t to say that I dislike The Great Gatsby.  It’s a fine work full of beautiful prose.  But it’s not an enjoyable story.  It’s a tragic story.

It’s interesting to read a book that you read when you were half as old as you currently are.  There is a straightforward story in Gatsby, but there is also a lot that Fitzgerld puts into the book that seems to linger just beyond the words on the page.  It makes me wonder if my teenage self was able to fully comprehend the point of the book, especially the closing pages. 

But I do like the way Fitzgerld writes.  The Great Gatsby is not a difficult read.  It comes in at a brisk 180 pages.  But it’s amazing how descriptive Fitzgerld is able to be such a short novel.  I’m sure some authors would need twice that many pages to tell the same story.  But Fitzgerald is highly effcient and effective with his words.  And maybe that was what I appreciated about him and this novel when I frst read it. 

But after a second read, I definitely appreciate the book more for what it is than what I think I imagined it to be when I read it back as a teenager.  The last chapter, in particular the last two or three pages, which sum up the “moral” of the story, are a lot clearer to me than back then, for sure.  The story of Jay Gatsby is a cautionary tale, but also an optimistic tale, and essentially an American tale.  It is about dreams and the American dream and how those can lead to great things, but also lead to dangerous things if unchecked or put on too high a pedestal.  Gatsby achieved the American dream in order to earn the love of Daisy.  It was a sacred thing to him, and as such, extremely fragile and delicate to handle when he tried to capture it once again. 

There’s an air of melancholy to the ending.  A sense that everyone is being driven to pursue or achieve or recapture the promise of something that once was, that “year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…  And one fine morning—-”  The indomitable will of the American spirit, encapsulated by one Jay Gatsby.  Written eloquently by one F. Scott Fitzgerld.


Pride & Prejudice (& Zombies) – Reviewed

For quite a while now I have been interested in reading a bunch of books that, for one reason or another, I missed out on when I was back in school.  I’ve found it much more enjoyable to read now that I am able to do it as leisure instead of an assignment; it’s more fun to read something you want to read than something you have to read.

A while ago I borrowed Pride & Prejudice as well as Pride & Prejudice & Zombies from my friend, Sarah P.  For quite some time I had wanted to read P&P&Z, and had even considered buying it more than a few times on Amazon.  And as far back as I could remember, I had never really had any interest in reading P&P, mainly because English literature from that period is not a favorite of mine.  In general, literature from the 18th and 19th centuries is not my cup of tea, though a lot of that can be blamed on having to read Dickens’ Great Expectations in 9th grade and being driven nuts by how Dickens would seemingly take 5 pages to describe things.  I found him too verbose.

However, I actually did see the 2005 film version of the book, staring Keira Knightley, and i had read reports that a movie was in the works for the zombified version, so I decided to read them both.  And I thought I would appreciate the zombified version even more if I read it concurrently with the original, chapter for chapter, in order to see what was altered and changed.  I expected to enjoy the zombified version.  What I did not expect was how much I would enjoy the original novel as well.  It didn’t hurt that I was able to picture Keira Knightley in my head as Elizabeth for the entire book.

I didn’t realize that there was as much humor in P&P as there is.  The father is entertaining, especially his constant little jabs he takes at his absurd wife (who is so ridiculous as to be nearly insufferable).  The younger sisters were equally pathetic creatures.  And the banter that goes on between characters was also quite good.  And, honestly, it is a very impressive romance that is developed over the course of the book, and also quite an intricate story overall.

The zombified version was equally entertaining, though in different ways.  I loved the substitution of sword fights with ninjas in place of piano playing at gatherings.  It is amazing how well the natural beats of the original story actually lends itself to the addition of the living dead to the story.  Instead of it just being better to keep Jane at Netherfield because she is sick, it is also advisable because of how treacherous it is to travel with roaming herds of undead.  The walk around the grounds of Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley estate takes on added significance.  Even Charlotte agreeing to marry Mr. Collins is seen in a new light.  The author did a very good job of adding his own bit of flair to the already solid story. 

If you are a fan of Jane Austen, do yourself a favor and give P&P&Z a try.  You will appreciate it.  I appreciate the zombie version for what it is, but also because it gave me a chance to approach a very good piece of literature that I probably would not have otherwise enjoyed.  I can ‘t say that I am inclined to read anything else by Jane Austen, but I can definitely say that I did enjoy this book.  It far exceeded my expectations.


Review: Quantum of Solace

This was not the first post I was expecting myself to write after getting back from a weekend in Las Vegas, but this is the easier and shorter of the two entries I wanted to do, and since I’m still a bit overtired and drained from a weekend in Sin City, I decided that it would make more sense to hold off on the Vegas recap.

So Quantum of Solace is the 2nd James Bond movie in the franchise “reboot” that began with Casino Royale.  It is also the second Bond movie starring Daniel Craig as 007.  Casino Royale was a noticeable departure from the typical Bond films of recent memory as it abandoned a lot of the camp and gadgetry for a no nonsense espionage story, obviously influenced somewhat by the success of the Bourne franchise.  And it was a huge success.  Not only did it establish Daniel Craig as a legitimate James Bond, but it also set the stage for a new Spectre-like criminal syndicate for Bond to deal with.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of things in this follow-up that makes Quantum a flawed and slightly disappointing film. 

The story picks up almost immediately where the story of Casino Royale ends.  Bond is transporting Mr. White for questioning and weaving through traffic in a high speed car chase.  From here the story leads into an investigation about the organization that Mr. White works for, a betrayal inside MI6, and Bond’s quest for vengeance for the death of Vesper Lynd, his love interest in Casino Royale.  The journey leads him to the trail of an environmentalist who is orchestrating some political upheaval in Bolivia. 

The flaws with the film are not in the acting.  Almost everyone is top notch.  Daniel Craig brings a brutality to the character that no one before him could even come close to.  And he exudes the charm and confidence that define 007.  Also, the recklessness that he brought to the character translates well into this movie as people seem to die collatorally from the actions and decisions of 007.  As one character says, everyting Bond touches seems to “wither and die.”  Judi Dench is back as M and she does her usually solid job, acting as an odd mother-like figure to Bond, constantly critical, trying to reign him in, but fiercely protective of her agent to the people to whom she is accountable.  Giancarlo Giannini returns as Mathis, Jeffrey Wright is back as Felix, and Gemma Arterton and Olga Kurylenko are the Bond girls.  The villain is played by French actor Mathieu Amalric, who does the best with the role he has, though he is a pretty forgettable in the list of Bond villains. 

The problems with the movie are on the production end.  The film is the first action movie for director Marc Forster, whose previous films include Stranger Than Fiction, Finding Neverland, and Monster’s Ball.  While a decent resume, not exactly one that screams out action.  Indeed, there is plenty of action, as in any Bond film, but Forster seems to have been too heavily influenced by the popularity of the Bourne series, more specifically, The Bourne Supremacy.  The fight sequences are shot way too tightly and the action is too frenetic to be able to fully comprehend who exactly is landing punches and what is unfolding on screen.  This is a problem that has reared its ugly head in more and more films, from the Bourne series to Batman Begins to Transformers.  Closely shot, shaky cam techniques have been substituted for wide angle fights where you can actually see what is going on in a fight or a car chase.  The directors may feel that the frenetic pace and flurry of it all make it seems more realistic, as a real life fight or car chase may be a whirling dervish of fists, but cinematically speaking, it looks choppy and disorienting.  To say that the editing of the fights and car chases and other action sequences leaves something to be desired is an understatment.  But it’s understandable considering it’s Forster’s first shot at a movie like this. 

What is not understandable is the lack of a really compelling story that really furthers the Bond plot in any significant way.  There is some explaining of why Vesper did what she did in the previous film, and the unknown criminal syndicate is exposed a bit more, but beyond that, not much is furthered for Bond himself.  In fact, a lot of the story revolves around plot devices that have been used in other Bond movies or other spy movies.  Once again, Bond must go rogue to get the job done.  And even though M fights him tooth and nail in what he is doing, especially since all of his targets end up dead and unavailable for interrogation, she ends up turning on a dime to help him out for no apparent reason, basically because the script calls for it.  There is too much that is contrived and obvious here.  And so it’s no surprise that Paul Haggis(he of Crash infamy) was heavily involved in the writing of the script.  And at a brisk 106 minutes, and with the end result being a pretty lean storyline, it’s pretty clear that the script was rushed into production because of the writer’s strike.  In fact, I’m sure this is one of the many unintended casualties of the writer’s strike last year.  How many films were rushed into production because of that looming stike we may never know, but I think it’s pretty fair to say that this is one of them. 

Still, there are some good qualities to the film.  Not surprisingly, with a director like Forster and the other movies on his resume, the character interection is one of the strong points of the movie.  There are a few genuinely tender moments between some of the characters. Also, Kurylenko’s Camille is a surprisingly strong Bond girl, also driven by revenge.  The best scene in the movie is set at the opera where Bond interacts with some of the folks from the criminal organization that he is pursuing and Greene is a part of.  And there’s a great homage to Goldfinger.

The Bond movies are largely paint by number affairs.  You have a certain framework that each film follows.  There is Bond, the main villain, a henchman or two, and a few ladies either in peril or somehow intertwined with Bond’s overall objective.  There are fist fights, and a chase either in a car, plane, boat, or on skis, or a motorcycle.  These are the Bond conventions.  On the few rare moments, with the right directors, crew, and cast, a Bond film can rise above its conventions are stand on its own as a pretty good movie, not just a Bond movie.  While Casino Royale was able to do this, Quantum of Solace falls a bit short of that ideal.  In fact, it feels like a lackluster addition to the Bourne franchise instead of the Bond franchise.  They could have easily called this movie Quantum of Bourne instead.  Still, with the actors involved, and the story marked out by these two films, there are plenty of reasons for optimism in the future of fans of 007. 

Grade: C+