Saturday, September 13, 2003

FLOGGING THE AUDIENCE WITH A MATCHSTICK

There's a lot to like in Matchstick Men, but it is really all in the performances. This film is essentially a star vehicle for Nicholas Cage and company and they certainly deliver, but, in the end, I wanted to stand up and yell at the screen, "Okay, you've all had fun, can we play too?"

The problem with this film is the lack of any delightful pay-off for the audience. We get set-up for a great twist, but then when the twist comes, it just feels dreadful and creepy. The movie then goes on for another fifteen minutes of meandering, trying to convince us that this creepy ending is really the best thing for all...but I didn't like it. It's a sanctimonious Hollywood ending that makes the case that love and being a carpet salesman is better than being rich and clever -- but does anybody REALLY believe that? I guess if I see Nicholas Cage giving away all his money and fame and settling down in a lower middle class domicile with a grocery store check out girl...and that's surely going to happen any day.

I found the dark and disturbing last act of the film to be completely irreconciliable in tone to the first two acts which were funny and humane. I walked away no better than I was when I started, except for the fact that now I'm wondering if my parents are actually really my parents or if maybe they've been conning me all these decades...if that's being better.

If you have nothing else to do, Matchstick Men won't make you sick. It won't make you well though either.
"I write the way I do because and only because I am a Catholic. I feel that if I were not a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason to fell horrified or even to enjoy anything."
Flannery O'Connor

Monday, September 08, 2003

HARDLY A LION, DEFINITELY SECOND-HAND

The new film Secondhand Lions was written and directed by Tim McCanlies (The Iron Giant, Dancer Texas; Pop 101). I liked The Iron Giant, and Dancer was surprisingly good, but this film suffers from the problem of having one (non-genius) person write and direct. There are story problems here that a director would normally have caught in the writer's script -- but when the director IS the writer, there is no one around to say, "Hey, there is no real tension in the whole second act!" and other stuff like that.

The ensemble here is talented enough, however, to almost make us overlook the project's conceptual flaws. Robert Duvall (The Apostle), Michael Caine (The Quiet American) and Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) do the best they can -- although all of them need to fire their people for letting them sign onto this project while it was still three or four drafts away from being shot.

But maybe I've just lost the ability to enjoy a movie like a normal person any more?

When I was leaving the screening, an ebullient woman ahead of me in the parking validation line couldn't wait to share her enjoyment. "What did you think of the film?"

I hesitated. "You mean, really?"

She hesitated. "Well, yeah..."

I sighed. "Okay. There was no conflict in the first act. There should have been a lot more struggle before the main protagonists bonded. The director/writer was in a big rush because of the set-up that the story needed to unfold in one summer, so he ended up rushing the primary relationships and just asking the audience to believe him. Hence, the characters - especially the old men - are completely inconsistent. Then, you have to ask, 'Whose movie is this?' The young boy is presumably the main character, but he is passive through the whole film. HJ Osment is great, but even he got tired of standing around looking freaked out and, so he ended up settling into a posture of staring and pouting. There is no natural climactic conflict in the story, so they had to resort to importing a villain for the last ten pages. Finally, the film suffers from absolute genre-schizophrenia. It morphs from Heidi with a boy to Born Free meets Old Yeller to Aladdin in live-action meets Rocky V. I have no idea how they are going to market this movie."

I suddenly realized the woman was listening to me mouth agape. She mumbled. "I thought it was cute."

And so it was.

Parents, feel safe to take your kids if you get rained in and can't come up with anything else for them to do. For those who don;'t have kids, stay home and read a book.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

SEABISCUIT: A GOOD MOVIE BY A NOSE...

Seabiscuit is a good film - particularly for those peope who say they don't go to the movies anymore because, "it's all garbage." This is a film which - except for two or three profanities - has no garbage. It is good storytelling about a group of beings (three men and a horse) who each need healing and who find it through working together for a common goal. It is very well-produced with beautiful cinematography, solid performances and a well-written script. This is the rare film that I am going to recommend to my parents...enough said?

From a storytelling standpoint my primary quibble is the use of the narrator, and still photos periodically throughout the film. It feels as though the filmmakers think people are too stupid to know about the ravages of the Depression, and so have to keep interrrupting the story to give us a history lesson. I found this particular voice over artist, David McCullough, particularly distracting as it is the same fellow who was the voice of the Civil War series by Ken Burns. I kept expecting a shot of Gettysburg in between all the dustbowl remembrances.

And then, I wish the film had given us more horse time. The storylines belong almost entirely to the three fellas, with the horse losing screen time by a few lengths. I wanted more shots like one finds in Black Beauty and Black Stallion where the horse gets the close-up.

But those are just quibbles. This is a lovely, entertaining film and is a good place to land in the vast sea of cinematic medicroty which has been the summer of 2003.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

IT'S JUST A QUESTION OF WHICH DISTRIBUTOR...

From yesterdays Variety:

Interest is heating up for Mel Gibson's controversial Aramaic and Latin-language pic The Passion.

A number of distributors -- Newmarket, Paramount Classics, Sony Classics and Lions Gate, among them -- are talking to Icon Prods.' Bruce Davey and ICM chairman Jeff Berg about a possible North American deal, even though they have yet to see the pic. Gibson's Icon produced the pic, and Berg reps it....Reps for Icon Prods., which produced the pic about the last 12 hours of Christ's life before his crucifixion, said no distribution decisions would be made until after Labor Day.

Ahem. Now, I'm not one to say, "I told you so"....

Saturday, August 23, 2003

...so funny...I thought when we
first went out, we were really
goin' somewhere...but this is it--
we're just goin', huh?

(from Bonnie and Clyde, 1967)

Thursday, August 21, 2003

UNIVERSAL CALL TO...ARTISTRY

The notion that the arts are optional is absurd in the same way that the suggestion that making choices could be optional for human beings. We are constituted as a kind of being that chooses and a kind of being that decorates. Both things set us apart and define us.

The Pope notes in the Letter to Artists that the reason God stopped creating, and, well, permanently rested, was because He had created a kind of being finally that could continue creating in His stead.

“Finally, He created the human being: the noblest fruit of His design, to whom he subjected the visible world as a vast field in which human inventiveness might assert itself.” (Letter to Artists 1999, JPII)

We human beings are supposed to keep recombining the elements in creation: out of chaos...into order...beyond order, into harmony. Creation is the act in which we each find our destiny. I like that. Good Pope.

Then, this...

“All men and women are entrusted first with the task of crafting their own lives; in a certain sense they are to make of their life, a work of art, a masterpiece.” (Letter to Artists 1999, JPII)

I always think of St. Paul’s “new man” in this sense. The "New man" that we put on in the life of grace can be understood as the work of art that we undertake in collaboration with Christ. It's our "baby" with Jesus. Us. The us of destiny, that is; the realization of that image God had of us that was so beautiful that He just had to make it.

If you had to describe your life up till now, would it be a masterpiece?

Would it be a reproduction or an original?

Would it be the kind of thing you would feel safe to expose children to? Is it mostly tragedy or comedy? Is it an ascent (a story of growth?) or a descent (a story of squandering?) or is it without any climax at all?

Emily Dickinson said, "Nature is a haunted house. Art is a house that tries to be haunted." What is it that "haunts" your life as you have made it?
A TALE OF TWO PRIORITIES

Too many people think that the arts are optional. Especially in the Church. Especially in rectories.... sigh.

Story... A couple of years ago I was running the liturgy at my parish somewhere here in L.A. We had one overworked priest and half of our people were "undocumented aliens." Very poor parish. Well, the music was horrible every weekend. The worst of the worst. Most of the time we had no musicians, but then on really bad weekends, a middle-aged couple, Mary and Steve, would show up and and wail very flat and loud, strumming the same three chords on their cursed guitars regardless of the hymn.

The pews were mostly empty. Only a few of us suffering stalwarts would trickle in week after week, staring blankly ahead, victims of the liturgical beauty lobotomy.

So, then, in a moment of crazed desperation, I drove to UCLA one Sunday after Mass and stormed the music school. I found three student musicians and a soprano - all very talented and broke - who were willing to come and play and sing for us every week for forty dollars each.

I took up a collection from some of the other desperate pew martyrs, and unearthed one fairly wealthy old lady who agreed to subsidize the musicians for a year.

So, I went to Father and told him my good news. He was dismissive and petulant.

"I don't want to offend Mary and Steve. They've been volunteering for years."

"Yes, Father," I offered, "but they are awful."

Then, his eyes narrowed.

"This kind of elitism is what Vatican II was supposed to stop. The point now is for everybody to sing, not for just a few." And then a pithy bit, "God judges our hearts not our vocal chords."

Resisting the impulse to scream, "GOOOOOOOD GRIEF!!!!!", I made the point that the addition of trained musicians would cost the parish nothing. He moved from petulant to annoyed.

'Of course it will! Whoever is giving money for the music will certainly give less to the parish. Besides, once we start this, we'll have to find a way to keep it up, won't we? Suppose the donors drop out. Then, what?"

In the end, Father refused to allow the musicians to disrupt the perfect awfulness of our Sunday morning liturgies.... He did, however, ask me who the donors were so that he could hit them up for the parish food bank.

Our dear pastor and persecutor was suffering under the misconception that feeding his people bread was essential, but feeding them beauty was an extra. So sad. Beautiful music would have roused the people out of numb comas and created a powerful climate of prayer. Praying together better would have made us a stronger community. Hearing beautiful music would have made us want to make our lives "works of art" to borrow from JPII, and so we would have been roused to greater generosity, kindness and solicitude. Finally, beautiful music would fill the pews and, [drily] the collection would have gone up.