WHEN IS GOOD GREAT?

Posted: August 26, 2013 by mwerntz in Uncategorized

Kevin and I had this conversation a few weeks ago over text, and I’m just now getting around to writing it up. Not much has substantially changed, I don’t think, in that I haven’t seen any truly excellent films since then which would alter my thinking on this. Thanks, The Management.

What is it about a movie that makes it more than simply a technical work of art? What is it about a movie that lodges itself in your soul and mind that only happens for a select few films? This is truly one of the perennial arguments in art, namely, what makes a good piece of art great, and I doubt what I’m going to put forward here will resolve this. But, in terms of a 5 point ranking system–with 1 being a complete dog and 5 being the apex of film-dom—what makes a 5 a 5?

In a nutshell: any film can be a really good film; most films, if they hit all the notes right, can be at least a 4. Directors in the heart of their craft can hit an absolute home run on the technical side of things, with pacing, casting, sound, score, script, editing, acting, and so forth. There’s millions of details that go into the creation of an amazing film, of which having a good story is only one. Case in point: the distance between Casablanca and Johnny Dangerously is the distance between the Earth and the moon, for reasons compounded by the fact that Michael Keaton should never, ever, ever play a gangster–not even in a comedy. If it were simply the fact that the latter didn’t have the right screenwriter, or had Michael Keaton instead of Humphrey Bogart, that’d be fine enough. But then you’d have to explain to me how the recently released Paranoia managed to cast both Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman–two actors I would pay to watch wash dishes–and still get such terrible reviews.

No, acting is not enough. Having all the technical skills is not enough to go from good to great. Johnny Dangerously is a cheap shot, so let me take a little more controversial pick to make my point: Tree of Life. On all technical counts, Tree of Life is a masterpiece–the shot selection, the casting, the script, the cinematography. But when I showed this film to my students, the room broke in half between those who thought it was truly a great film, and those who appreciated the artistry, but could seriously care less. What is it about a film that enables it to simultaneously be recognized as a technical work of genius (a solid, recognizable 4), but yet for some, it breaks into that elusive 5 category?

I can think off-hand of maybe a handful of films that I’ve seen which qualify for this elusive “5” ranking. I’ve seen many “4”s, many really good films; this weekend’s The World’s End was a really good 4–solid script, great casting, funny, and Nick Frost in MMA-style action sequences. But whereas the 4s and 5s both share the same technical credibility (script, shot selection, etc.), the 5, I think, does something inside the viewer which can’t be accounted for by technical perfection. The 5 finds a way to lodge itself in your thinking and your fears and your loves so that you can’t think or fear or love without this film now and forever more being a part of your acting. When I read the Psalms now, I can’t read them without seeing Jessica Chastain weeping or washing clothes. When I consider future job prospects, I think of Brad Pitt’s piano sitting aimlessly in the corner, the witness to hard career choices.

This is what makes even discussing the difference between the good and the great both productive and frustrating: they have so much in common. The good and the great both travel the same lines of excellence, have marked the same seams of technical quality. But at some point, the great finds a way to not simply do something in front of the viewer (the good), but to do something inside of the viewer. And so, in the theater when I first saw Malick’s work, I saw in rapture after the credits rolled while the guy in front of me said “What was that?”

There’s no accounting for why this is. I can’t explain why this movie grabbed hold of me and throttled my imagination and sense of wonder, but did nothing for the row in front of me. The 5, while having some objective merits, is in some ways extremely subjective, in that its observable excellence did something ultimately beyond observation. What we as those who care about film is to listen to those who have encountered a 5 try to put it into words, that perhaps we too may see a 5 when all we saw before was excellence.

We Were Merely Freshmen…

Posted: August 12, 2013 by barberjo in Uncategorized

Believe it or not, we were freshmen once.

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ADMISSION – Accepted or Denied?

Posted: August 11, 2013 by barberjo in Film Reviews, John

Admission

Marketing is stupid.  In the alien world of Hollywood, a movie has to fit into a particular niche, or it gets lost. And if it doesn’t fit any of those niches? If it’s a square peg? Well dang it, we’ll shoehorn it into one style or another. And, of course, when that happens, the movie gets lost.

ADMISSION got stuck into the Romantic Comedy black hole, and it was a terrible mistake. Is it romantic? Yes. Is it funny? Yes. But it’s nothing like the stuff that the Hollywood Romantic Comedy machine machine churns out on a regular basis. It’s so, so, so much more than that.

This film centers on Tina Fey’s character Portia, an admissions counselor at Princeton. It’s her job to judge teenagers based on their resume and GPA and to determine if they’re worthy of the coveted “Accepted” check mark. “What’s the secret to getting in?” she asks. “There is no secret.” But that’s not quite true, and as the movie progresses we learn exactly what the secret is – the secret is passion. Being passionate about something is the mark of a successful applicant, and Portia learns that it’s also exactly what’s missing from her life. She’s in a boring long-term relationship with a boring guy. And, worst of all, she’s convinced herself that her life is perfect.

She meets Paul Rudd’s character, John (great name), who is all passion. He’s out of control passionate and she has no idea what to do with him. But for Portia, he’s problematic for another reason. He gives her a piece of information that shakes her the the core. And instantly, that perfect life is gone.

I don’t want to give too much plot information here. because for me, discovering these plot elements was beautiful. Not knowing from the trailers that all of these things were going to happen was great.

But here’s the thing that separates ADMISSION from the typical rom-com kinda film. This movie is about grown-ups that have to make grown-up decisions, some of which blow up in their faces. These characters do dumb things, but they do them for all the right reasons. So often in this kind of movie, characters do stupid things that real people would never do. But in ADMISSION, their cringe-worthy moments feel like things we’ve all done a million times.

I’ve got to say something about the performances as well. Tina Fey is excellent, of course… so much so that it really feels like she’s playing herself. She’s not Liz Lemon here. Her character is not a fish out of water – she’s a fish in completely comfortable water, and that’s the problem. Paul Rudd is so comfortable in this role that I found myself wondering if anyone else could have played it. It couldn’t be more in his wheelhouse. It’s perfect for him, but he’s never on autopilot. Also, Lily Tomlin and Wallace Shawn, two comedy vets, play it fairly dramatic and are great. Special kudos to Nat Wolff, who plays an auto-didactical genius  and holds his own with these giants.

Is ADMISSION perfect? No, not even close. If anything, it could be a little gutsier. It tends to try to straddle the rom-com/indie fence a little too much for me. It seems to be trying to appeal to the DATE NIGHT core audience as well as the AWAY WE GO crowd, and its identity is a little tough to nail down. That being said, I loved it. I found myself respecting the characters, which is a rare thing. At the end, Janna was crying, I was smiling, and we both loved it.

ADMISSION is about character, self-examination, motherhood, sacrifice, and messiness. It’s a film where adults have to confront being adults, and they have to figure out what that means in their own context.

ADMISSION gets four Ugandan orphans out of five. Watch it.

WHEN TO SAY WHEN: ON NOT FINISHING BOOKS

Posted: July 31, 2013 by mwerntz in Book Reviews, Myles

Over text message this weekend, I confessed that–in the face of staggering commendations–I just wasn’t getting into John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars . And so, I quit reading it.
I have no idea how it ends, but I can guess with reasonable certainty (no spoilers here).

It’s nobody’s fault here, and certainly not the author. As far as the characters went, I found them really charming, and as far as YA literature that deals with heavy material like death and dying, it was well done. And it’s not the fault of the other Hands: I trust their literary sensibilities and their artistic tastes. And it’s not my fault: I’ve slogged my way through more unreadable books than I can count, so I can genuinely say that I don’t like to quit a book. So: why quit the book? Why not plow through the last 130 pages and see where the rabbit hole goes? Why doom myself to the fate of the characters of the book and not know what happens to characters who speak well and whose lives are somewhat interesting? DID THE MOTHER MARRY A CON ARTIST????? THE QUESTIONS!!!!!

The short answer is two-fold. First, I didn’t connect with the characters. Yes, the dialogue was well-written, and yes, I felt empathy for the characters, but I genuinely didn’t care about them. It didn’t help that I was reading East of Eden at the same time, and couldn’t stop thinking about the unwritten fates of so many of Steinbeck’s masterpiece. For the record, I’m glad that sequels to books are not the norm–some characters deserve the gift of fading out beyond the reader’s gaze. But the characters in Fault in Our Stars, for me, were like watching a movie that I was marginally invested in, but could go one way or another with when it’s bedtime.

Secondly–and more broadly–I don’t feel guilt anymore about not finishing a book or a movie. There was a time in my life not so long ago that I hated not finishing a work, that not knowing the ending was like a open mosquito bite, burning away at my attention. But then, it dawned on me that the world is full of books and brimming with movies, books that I want to read more than once and movies that I know I’ll love. And it’s okay to spend time with those more than ones I don’t. As a scholar, I’ll submit myself to work that I don’t particularly think useful for the sake of being fair to an argument; it’s my job and, I think, the mark of charity–to be willing to listen to something that you disagree with and see it through under most circumstances. But when it comes to art, I’m okay with stopping halfway.

Does this mean that I think art is somehow worth being uncharitable to, that art doesn’t get the same pass as scholarly material? In a sense, yes, and I can’t yet defend that. But all I know is that while I may think Oliver O’Donovan’s The Ways of Judgment isn’t a good argument (but one I need to read), Rainn Wilson’s The Super was’t particularly good and I shut it off after fifteen minutes. And I’m okay with it, but can’t yet say why.

What are the books/movies you quit? Do you regret them?

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I am a good evangelical boy. I believe in the inspiration, authority, infallibility, and innerancy of Scripture. I believe in a God who is eternal and exists in three persons. I believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin and came to redeem his chosen ones. I believe in four out of five TULIP points. I believe in the Oxford comma.

And yet, sometimes I think that Hollywood believes more (or maybe better) than I do.

I had a fascinating conversation with someone after I saw THE CONJURING. I was talking to someone at work about the film and she told me that she heard a Christian radio caller say that Christians shouldn’t see movies like this because they somehow pierce our defenses and can let the darkness in. Notwithstanding the sketchy theology, this seems like a bunch of hooey to me. Why is it that we, as Bible-believing Christians, can say we believe in the existence of Satan and demons, but eschew any kind of pop-culture reference to them?

When I was a teenager, we all loved Frank Peretti’s books – This Present Darkness, piercing the Darkness, etc. We thought, “There’s this whole other world out there! Battles being fought… Angels and demons… It’s amazing!” So why is it that I’m ok with believing Peretti, but not James Wan?

Is THE CONJURING a great film? No. Is it very good? I think so. But beyond all of that, what I’m really interested in is why Christians refuse to support films like this – films which contain more biblical truth than twenty FIREPROOFs. 

Again, the theology is a little rough. My demonology prof would crack up at some of it. But, this is a movie that uses the word “demon” to talk about what’s going on. It’s a movie that talks at length about the role of the church in this issue. It’s a movie that gives as biblical of a depiction of demons as I have ever seen. And (SPOILER ALERT) God wins.

What say ye, hands? Should Christians be on board with demon movies?

 

“Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires!
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.”  –MacBeth

I’m very late to the party with this, I know, but bear with me anyway.  While I’ve been listening to Mumford & Sons for a while, I haven’t really listened to them until recently.  Not with the same passionate, slightly obsessive vigor with which I treat Kings of Leon.  And that means going in search of the lyrics, reading and learning and memorizing them the way one does poetry.

It was the song, “Roll Away Your Stone” that took me to the internet to search for its words.  Every time I listened to it, my attention would hone in on “Stars, hide your fires.”  I knew it was Shakespeare, but I couldn’t remember which until I was reading a book and saw it quoted from MACBETH.  Excited that Mumford & Sons would quote that infamous, dark and grisly play, I searched for the rest of the words around it, hoping to see what message they were trying to convey.

It was on one of those lyric sites that I found others’ comments; their theories on the meaning and it was there that I found the Christian message woven into the words.  Roll away your stone could be in regards to moving aside the stone that blocked the body of Christ within the cave from which he resurrected.  Then of course there was all of this soul and grace talk and I had a very STEPBROTHERS-type WHAT?! moment.  In talking to friends, it was agreed that much of their music is based in faith.  After I sat there wearing a frown and staring at my computer screen like it had turned green and started oozing pus, I wondered why that should change the feel of the song for me.  Why does knowing a song is “Christian Rock” or sung by a “Christian” singer devalue it in my little atheist mind?  But it does.  Inexplicably.  There are sites I stay away from that have the infamous numbers colon numbers following some italicized text, songs that will peak my interest until I see the capitalized H in He and books that I will flat out not go near, especially if Kirk Cameron has anything to do with them (I don’t think I’m alone in that one, thought.)  And I wonder if I’m missing out by limiting myself this way.

There was a time when this wasn’t so.  In my youth, when I was going through my questioning phase where I asked, “What if?” though it always preceded, “Eh, still don’t buy it” (I sort of started out agnostic, dabbled in belief and then went full-blown atheist) one of my favorite books was the Darkness series by Frank E. Peretti.  I LOVED these books of angels versus demons, light battling dark and the sacrifice of Christ painting it all in his blood.  It never bothered me then, so why does it now?  A few years back a wonderful book series by Robert Liparulo was recommended to me, but it came with the warning, “It gets a little Jesusy, though.”  I enjoyed the books, but it did taint my opinion when the Christian message started to bleed through like Sharpie on rice paper.

As an atheist, I’ve somehow surrounded myself with Christians.  My best friends all proclaim their love of Jesus and it doesn’t affect my opinion of them, so why should it my interests in music and books?  Why limit myself because I don’t believe in the message.  I still read mythology and fairy tales and to me, it’s no different.  I don’t really know the answer.  I guess I’ll just leave it to my friends and Mumford & Sons to change my mind, one song at a time.

Why Disney Still Works

Posted: July 19, 2013 by kmriad in The Girl, Uncategorized

I had an interesting childhood.  Instead of being a child of the early 80s, it seemed as though I grew up in some sort of PleasantvilleLeave It to Beaver throwback time with a rather traditional Italian Catholic father who lorded over what affected and influenced his daughter like the all-encompassing eye of Big Brother.  That included what was and was not allowed on our old cabinet-embedded tube T.V.  Cartoons and musicals were allowed; everything else was not.

But then as I entered my third and fourth year, mastering the human language way too early according to my mother, my parents realized that some of the musicals I watched might not be appropriate.  I would sing “Sodomy” from HAIR not knowing at all what the words meant, but thinking that pretty blonde boy had a nice voice.

What’s Pederasty?

But it was after I walked around in my little pigtails, perfectly annunciating, “Keep your filthy paws off my silky draw’s” that my parents had to then censor the musicals.  All that was left was Disney.

The chicks will what??

 

This engrained in my heart a special place for all things Disney.  I watched The Dumbo Show and Disney music videos while I  swallowed down my Cream of Wheat before school every morning.  Disney’s movies ran on repeat.  I grew up thinking one day I would be like one of those Disney princesses, singing through a magical forest of friendly little woodland creatures and flittering blue birds.

I confess all of this because us Hands were discussing writing about movies we love that everyone hates and that made me think of T.V.’s shows of the same.  Yes, I am a thirty-six year old woman who loves to watch Disney’s Austin & Ally, but here’s why.  This is why Disney has always worked for me: I love that each episode wraps up so easily at the end.  There’s no Lost-esque mystery and wonder at the end.  It’s wholesome and, yes, cheesy, but ultimately it’s a break from the realities that replace our castles and Prince Charmings.  It’s an escape from the dreary world in the most extreme way possible with fun music and dance numbers, outrageous escapades and zany misadventures, complete with requisite Canadian comedian actor (just ignore them after they grow up and leave the Magical Kingdom to “twerk” all over You Tube.)

No songs about Sodomy here!

There’s not much depth and that’s great.  That’s what T.V. is sometimes supposed to be–entertainment; good old-fashion, unapologetic entertainment with a poppy song and a happily ever after.