Sunday, July 15, 2007

Website Recommendation: Past The Popcorn

I posted my first pass at a quickie review of ANGEL-A at A&F, and was pleased to find somebody else who'd seen it that I could have a conversation with - and who'd written a real fine review that's helping me rethink my own. (I'm going to steal that line, "Angel-A comes across as a very personal tribute to the redemptive power of supermodels..." WIWT)

Greg's a very good writer, a key contributor to the relatively new (it started fall 2006) faith and film website Past The Popcorn. A bit more from Greg's PTP bio: "Writer in Residence at Puget Sound Christian College in Everett, Washington. The author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (Hollywood Jesus Books, 2004), as well as Tolkien in Perspective: Sifting the Gold from the Glitter (VMI, 2003), Greg has been an editor at for several years, and is a member of the Faith and Film Critics Circle."

Here's some popcorn for you to munch, samples from a handful of PTP reviews that happen to have caught my eye - either because they're Soul Food related, or because the review made me want to see the film. The title of each is a link to the full review: click on it and you're there!

After the Wedding
There's More At Work Than What You Think
Mike Smith (20.04.07)
Our father, who art in Denmark, overwhelming is thy wealth. Thy kingdom comes, thy will is done, on earth… But not so much in heaven. Jørgen is a father; he is a wealthy, smart manipulator who apparently has an eagle eye for detail and an uncommon understanding of human nature. He seems to know everything about everyone, and has them and the world under his control. Except for one thing… mortality. But no one in After the Wedding can possibly imagine what is foremost on Jørgen’s mind. They are too caught up in their own guilt, personal struggles, pain, and lives in general to see his plan for what it is: their best chance at new life and peace.

Amazing Grace
Amazing and Graceful, If Not Perfect
Greg Wright (23.02.07)
As a history lesson, Amazing Grace is beyond admirable. As a tract on the evils of the 18th-century slave trade, it’s a powerful indictment and makes a fine companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s 19th-century slave-trade tale from the opposite side of the Atlantic, Amistad. As a portrait of Wilberforce, it’s an Oscar-bait complex powerhouse. As an example of ensemble acting that might be more memorable than anything else we’ll see this year, we couldn’t ask for more. And still, the whole doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts.

Of Schlubs and Gorgeous Women
Greg Wright (22.06.07)
Angel-A appears to be genuinely interested in seeing people lifted out of their circumstances. While at the film’s beginning André seems to operate on the principle that “the only person who can do anything for you is yourself,” he learns (and the film seems to support the idea) that humanity has not been abandoned: that God really does care, and also has the good sense to recruit angels built like (and played by) supermodels. Ultimately, Besson’s is a moral universe in which one’s actions toward others are a pretty good barometer of how one will treat oneself. Very Golden Rule-ish, in a French and earthy fashion. And this is all commendable, and prettily filmed. The wildly prolific producer/writer/director Besson is no hack.

Away From Her
Love, Drama, and Threat of Alzheimer’s
Jeff Walls (11.05.07)
Sarah Polley’s deliberate story-telling is aided by Away From Her’s brilliant lead performances. Julie Christie, one of the most radiant women ever to shine on the silver screen, has lost none of her glow in her older years. As Fiona, the 66-year-old actress steals the light in all of her scenes as she subtly, gracefully plays a woman whose mind is deteriorating. It’s hard to watch, yet impossible to look away as Christie’s Fiona struggles to remember the simple things, such as the word “wine.” Still, as good as Christie is, it is the performance of Gordon Pinsent that is the heart and soul of this moving picture.

Like a Comfortable Pair of Old Mocassins
Greg Wright (23.02.07)
One of the reasons Becket feels so refreshingly comfortable is that it begs to be talked about in conventional narrative terms. For instance, the “central conflict” is easily identifiable. By today’s standards, though, the pace of the film will seem plodding to most, almost even soporific. The performances will come across as overdone, even hammy. The direction and storytelling will seem positively pedestrian. Still, the two areas where Becket should still work for all audiences, though, are in its dialogue and in its themes. Becket and many of its contemporaries were such fine, fine films.

Beyond the Gates
Staredown with a Tragic Dilemma
Jenn Wright (30.03.07)
As director Michael Caton-Jones presents the terrible history of these appalling events, Beyond the Gates plunges the audience into a palpable abyss of ethical considerations, leaving us with only our ideas and our thoughts and our beliefs to wrestle through. For me, Caton-Jones’ work is the machete that cleaves bone from flesh, separating the sinews into ugly lumps of mere potential strength with no solid support. Ultimately, he presents a painful history, made all the more profound when, at the end, 800,000 people are violently murdered; certain races are saved; and we are left wondering what we would do if we were in Joe’s or Father Christopher’s shoes, and what, if anything, is “right.”

Black Snake Moan
Expect the Unexpected
Michael Brunk (02.03.07)
Despite the heavy setup, there are more than a few light moments to be found in Black Snake Moan. With Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Lazarus, you can expect a healthy dose of his unique wit, and more than a little salty language to go along with it. It’s safe to say this movie has its raw moments as well, and that includes a few fairly graphic sexual scenes featuring Christina Ricci’s Rae. She’s a good match on-screen for Jackson, though. Still, if that’s all the movie had to offer, it would be easy to dismiss. Fortunately, wrapped inside is a touching story of redemption.

Conversations with God
Implications of the Metaphysical
Greg Wright (27.10.06)
Director Stephen Simon brings a marvelous visual eye and narrative pace to Conversations with God. Particularly impressive are the visual conceptions of the film’s opening and closing scenes—sequences whose metaphysical implications are sure to pique the ire of those who don’t particularly buy Walsch’s “God is within you all” line of inquiry—as well as the simple, gritty realism of Walsch’s experiences on the street, which reminded me of Martin Bell’s American Heart (1992) and Tim Hunter’s The Saint of Fort Washington (1993). This ain’t Factotum or Barfly land, which is good, because there’s no hint of ironic self-indulgence or sarcastic humor in Walsch’s Conversations.

Evan Almighty
If You Film It, Will They Come?
Greg Wright (22.06.07)
The narrative tension in Evan Almighty, if you haven’t seen the trailer, comes from wondering whether a flood is actually coming; if you’ve seen the trailer, the tension comes from wondering just how, exactly, Evan and his ark will tie in to Congressman Long’s land use bill. Most of the humor in the scenario derives first from Steve Carell’s comedic physicality, which he invests pretty fully in his portrayal of Evan Baxter; then from Baxter’s reluctance to buy in to the whole “voice of God” thing; next from his transformation from Mr. Primp to Mr. Hairy/Robed Prophet; and finally from the Keystone Kops-lite ark-building sequence. Is the humor enough to warrant a recommendation? Probably, for most audiences.

Fay Grim
Grim Fools and Grimmer Fairytales
Greg Wright (25.05.07)
Hal Hartely’s latest film, Fay Grim, picks up where Henry Fool left off ten years ago—that is, I have to assume it does. While I’m a big Hartley fan (or at least a fan of the artily self-conscious dialogue that he writes) I missed Fool. But all the cast members are back, reprising their roles and extending the story while revising both it and Hartley’s own milieu. In the past, one could never really accuse a Hartley film of being over-plotted; but to be perfectly honest, having just completed my review of the latest Pirates movie, the thought of also synopsizing the equally plot- and exposition-heavy Fay Grim has me a little daunted. It’s that dense.

The Fountain
Clear as Mud, But So Was Kubrick
Greg Wright (22.11.06)
Oddly, The Fountain isn’t about the fountain of youth. It’s about the Tree of Life. Melding tales from Mayan culture, biblical accounts, and related religious traditions, Aronofsky envisions an apocalyptic future which unites and fulfills them all. Ultimately, his film analyzes our perceptions of death, and our perceptions of life. I don’t think it gives anything away to note that, when he finally fulfills his quest, Izzi’s conquistador discovers that eternal life looks nothing like what he expected. The same is true with the space traveler’s quest: does it fail, or does it succeed? That all depends on one’s perspective—a perspective that Tommy sorely needs in order to deal with Izzi’s terminal condition.

Hidden Secrets
The Not-So-Hidden Secret: It’s “Christian”...
Greg Wright (27.04.07)
Sometimes low expectations work in a film’s favor. That’s certainly the case with Hidden Secrets, the flagship release of new film production company PureFlix Entertainment—a film I only agreed to review because it technically meets the criteria for films we review at Past the Popcorn: it’s booked for theatrical release (May 30), and it is potentially relevant to our readership. But boy was my schlock-meter calibrated for maximum sensitivity when I popped the screener into my laptop on a flight down to L.A. I was therefore pleasantly surprised by this idealistic, gentle, somewhat cloistered, but genuinely moving little film.

Into Great Silence
And At Great Length, Too
Greg Wright (30.03.07)
Into Great Silence is indeed a worthy project in documenting monasticism. It takes its time and gives us enough silence to whet the appetite for more—or satisfy us that we’ve had plenty, thanks. It makes no attempt to sugar-coat the experience, clearly depicting the level of self-denial involved. It’s also revelatory in its communication of the role that repetition and structure play not only in monastic life, but in general liturgical faith. Upon reflection, I’m also grateful that the film makes to attempt to either “sell” the audience on monasticism or persuade the audience of the discipline’s merits. Sadly, I grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of anything distinctively Christian about the experience, apart from the sparse liturgy and Scripture.

The Painted Veil
A Fallen View of Redemption
Greg Wright (22.12.06)
The Painted Veil—a project of artistic passion for partners Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, as well as Watts’ prior collaborator, director John Curran—is both maddening and refreshing in its refusal to answer its own questions in the style to which we have become accustomed. There are no pat answers here. The tale of Kitty Fane’s journey toward love, loss, and restoration is both revealing—as the veil of Kitty’s self-absorption is lifted to reveal the truth of life, death, and Walter Fane’s passion—and mystifying. It’s easy to see why Somerset Maugham’s novel has now thrice been adapted to the screen (first in 1934, with Garbo as Kitty, and again in 1957 in the loosely adapted The Seventh Sin).

Pan’s Labyrinth
Great Fantasy, Compelling Hero, Failed Film
Greg Wright (29.12.06)
Young Ivana Baquero is well up to the task of portraying Ofelia, the protagonist of Pan’s Labyrinth, and her performance is another of the film’s strengths. Baquero manages the nuances required for such a complex character, and she never seems overwhelmed either by the special effects, the ghoulishness of her two worlds, or the one-dimensional overacting of her costars. The film also delivers what are probably the best fantasy sequences in recent memory—and that’s saying quite a lot, given the fantasies that have come to the screen in recent years. Specifically, del Toro’s creatures possess the convincing, realistic otherness which was so lacking in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

So Much Artistry, or So Much Decadent Wallow?
Greg Wright (27.12.06)
The first half of Perfume plays like a gritty and literate commentary on the dilemma of an artist. Is it even possible to capture beauty, to limn truth? If so, how do we go about it? Is it better to be blessed with innate talent, or to learn your craft by discipline? Perhaps some combination of the two? Given that Tykwer has said in interviews that film “is a way to … put [time] in a box”—to capture “the beauty of people”—it’s even easy to read the Paris sequence as Tykwer’s meditation on his own chosen artform, his private film fanaticism.

The Reaping
Once More into the Spiritual Breach
Greg Wright (05.04.07)
The Reaping’s strength is its production design—just reminiscent enough of a backlot set to remind us this is a movie, just otherworldly enough to invoke the metaphysical. And it’s all stunning. After a while, though, it becomes difficult to really care much about what’s real and what isn’t—particularly when filmmaking flim-flammery almost constantly reminds that we are, after all, just watching a movie. I’m pretty sure that director Stephen Hopkins more-or-less buys into the idea of supernatural evil; but it seems here that studio-head queasiness has watered down the director’s potion. And most of the audience with whom I saw the film just wasn’t swallowing it.

Rescue Dawn
Herzog At His Best
Greg Wright (13.07.07)
Rescue Dawn is something of an ordeal for the audience—much as Herzog’s other films before it. Think, perhaps, of a Terrence Malick or Carroll Ballard film tied to a bullwhip or a mace. Think of lyric brutality. And then imagine Herzog thinking, rather dispassionately, that any audience which imagines itself as suffering more than his protagonist—or himself, as an artist—is not much worth worrying about. I’d say that the smart money is that you won’t much care for Rescue Dawn. But if you like cinema that demands a great deal of you, that doesn’t let you off the hook with ten-second character development, a half-hour hook, and three dazzling chase sequences, then this film may just be for you.

A Bittersweet, Charming Confection
Jeff Walls (11.05.07)
A humorous, quirky comedy, Waitress is short of great; but it demonstrates some marvelous potential—and director Adrienne Shelly might easily have joined the likes of Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron as one of the premiere female directors if not for her untimely death. Although some major plot points are easily predictable and some editing issues cause the pacing of the film to ebb and flow, for the most part Waitress is a delight, a charming, somewhat whimsical comedy that is uplifting and heartwarming. Adrienne Shelly, high above us, should be proud.

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