Archives for category: Film Reviews

On a high mountain in the midst of the Atacama Desert, astronomers search the sky for the answers of the universe. Meanwhile, the relatives of missing political prisoners search the desert wastes to discover the fate of their loved ones…

Directed By: Patricio Guzmán

It’s dark when the car pulls into the driveway. I can hear the steady chorus of crickets and the vibrant hum of electric current as I climb out of the vehicle. At that moment, I pause and crane my neck towards the night sky. A scattering of stars twinkles silently in response to my searching gaze. Whatever answer they hold lies far beyond my reach. 

The light I am seeing was not created in the present moment. I am deluding myself thinking that the stars are communicating with me. From a distant time and galaxy that light sprung, just now arriving to tease my mind and soul. I must acknowledge that I am just a passive observer of the past. 

Yet, humans live in the past. We believe that we exist in the present, but the present time is a very fine point. From when the light bounced off an object to when it reached the eye, the present time has already flown by. A point in time like a point in space is an imperceptible creation of the mind. As humans we can only determine the present by measuring the past. Through memory, we establish our place in the present universe.

 The film, Nostalgia for the Light, examines the individuals who devote their lives to understanding the past. In the Atacama Desert of Chile, time seems suspended. The land is dry and the sky is clear. Here, astronomers, archeologists and geologists scan the skies and the surface of the Earth for messages that have survived through the ages.

However, there is another group engaged in this search: the women searching for the remains of the Desaparecidos. During the reign of Pinochet thousands of people were abducted, imprisoned, and killed, never to be heard from again. It is as if they are lost to time and memory. Their relatives sift through the soil of the Atacama piecing together the fragments of bone and clothing that litter the land.

Ironically, the distant past seems clearer than the recent past. Stunning photography captures the stars and planets engaged in the timeless dance of birth, death and rebirth. However, the fate of the innumerable missing prisoners is unknown, their graves remain unmarked even though the perpetrators of this tragedy still walk this Earth. Their memory lives on solely in the hearts of their relatives and descendants.

 Astronomy though offers some freedom from this dreadful reality. Although the telescopes cannot reveal what lies beneath the desert surface, they do provide perspective. We were born from the remains of the stars; the calcium in our bones, in the skeletal fragments scattered through the desert, formed from cosmic explosions. Out of death came life. Though the past and their memory must always be kept close to the heart. 

* * * * *

In 1935, a man dies in a motorcycle accident. Although described as “extraordinary” and ” great” at the funeral, this man remains a mystery as the vigilers struggle to comprehend his legacy. Who was this man, this Lawrence of Arabia? To learn the answer we embark on a journey to the past and the Arabian desert where an Englishman leads an army in a fight for independence…  

Directed By: David Lean
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness 

This film is one of my all-time favorites. Lawrence of Arabia leads the viewer on an adventure, entertaining and thought provoking, that explores the immensity and severity of the desert as well as the mind of a fascinating individual. The titular character, T.E. Lawrence, (Peter O’Toole) is a personality so large that England cannot accommodate him. He needs a larger, grander stage… Arabia.

Lawrence of Arabia depicts a quest for independence. The Arab tribes seek independence from Ottoman as well as from European dominance. However, it is also a quest for identity. Lawrence with his poorly fitted uniform, arrogant personality, and unusual behavior noticeably stands out from the rest of British soldiers. As Lawrence later claims, he is “different.” One gets the sense that not only do the British officers not understand Lawrence, Lawrence doesn’t even understand himself. He only knows that he does not belong to the British people. The inevitable goal of this film is to answer the question, “Who are you?” 

In order to understand Lawrence we need a point of reference. Thus, Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) emerges on the scene in one of cinema’s greatest entrances. The first impression Ali creates is that of an enemy and a rival. With his dark robes and complexion, he sets a dramatic contrast to the Englishman especially when Lawrence later dons the pure white robes. The film compares the civilized and just individual and culture against the primitive and barbaric. Of course, that brings up another question, “Which is which?”

In many ways the film is structured like a Western. A great hero fights for justice against the forces of evil, and Lawrence fully envisions himself to be that shining hero. Arrogance and ego are Lawrence’s dominant personality traits. For good or for evil, he is a man who believes his own hype. With each victory his ego inflates further and further to impossible proportions. In Lawrence’s mind the attention from the media and the respect of the Arabs becomes worship and his power grows into that of a god. Lawrence almost seems to defy the gods at times. Of course Lawrence is only a mortal man, vulnerable and weak, and he is later forced to confront that fact.

Still the legend of the man, awesome and enigmatic, endures. In many ways the Lawrence of legend is an incarnation of the desert itself, friend and foe mysterious and majestic, savage and merciful, contradictory and powerful. To take Lawrence away from the desert is to diminish the myth. To capture all that on screen seems unimaginable but it was done. The direction, cinematography, and score are without doubt incredible. I doubt there will ever again be a comparable production in my lifetime. Every scene is firmly rooted in both reality and fantasy. The setting sun, the echoing stone valleys, the city bounded by the desert and the sea, and a massive ship among the dunes are some of the beautiful and surreal images presented to the audience.

Among all this, the real Lawrence no longer appears so all-powerful and immortal. The Lawrence of reality is a complex and deeply flawed individual but still draws our attention, respect, and sympathy. We cannot help but try to understand him and look for the truth behind the veneer of glory. 

 * * * * *

A small band of rebels attempt to destroy a battle station with the power to destroy entire planets. Constructed by the galactic empire, this “Death Star” heralds the end of the rebellion and the triumph of evil over good. Luke Skywalker, a Jedi apprentice and wielder of the mysterious Force, stands as the galaxy’s last hope…

Directed By: George Lucas

Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness

Every child and adult knows that a fairy tale must begin with the phrase, “Once upon a time in a faraway land…” Though when that line is spoken, it should be with a glimmer in the eye and awareness in the heart; because the events that take place in that faraway land are a lot closer than the words acknowledge.

A fairy tale is often dismissed as a story only for children. They are not meant for adults. How mistaken that belief is! For a fairy tale captures the essence of the human heart, what we admire, what we fear, and what we dream. Fairy tales are formulaic, that’s true, but the formula is there to remind us of the cycle of life. What has come before must come again, just in a different guise.   

Star Wars is a fairy tale. It is an old story set in a mythical future; hence the opening line, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” This introduction, fashioned after the classic fairy tale line, tells the audience what to expect. Through Star Wars the audience will experience the fundamental human story of heroism and growing up.

A New Hope is set in a fantastical yet familiar world. The planets, aliens, and starships seem strange at first glance, yet we come to recognize them: the boring but safe home, the menacing enemy fortress, a world without limits. Yes, we know these places and the characters too: the Hero, the Princess, the Mentor, the Scoundrel, the Sidekicks, and the Villain. Perhaps that is why the first in the Star Wars series produces such a warm emotion upon viewing. It is like greeting an old friend.

The characters though are not boring cardboard cutouts. The actors lend their own unique personality to the archetypes they play. Mark Hamill for example conveys Luke Skywalker’s personality very well. His naivety, his frustration, his vulnerability, and his desire to be and do something with his life are immediately clear. Alec Guinness excellently lends his experience to the production as Obi-Wan Kenobi. And the relationship between Princess Leia played by Carrie Fischer and Han Solo by Harrison Ford is unforgettable. Then of course there is Darth Vader…

However, the characters are not the only entertaining aspect of Star Wars. The action and special effects even compared to modern productions are stellar. The tension felt during the firefights set to the rousing score is visceral. When Han Solo charges headlong to take on the enemy stormtroopers we almost feel like jumping out of our seats to help him. On this front Star Wars owes much to prior WWII films like The Dambusters. (In fact, some scenes are replicated frame for frame.) These WWII films are the heroic tales of the previous generation and a legacy that Star Wars proudly carries on.

Over all, the original Star Wars is pure cinematic fun. 

* * * * *

King Edward of England rules Scotland with an iron fist. The Scots find themselves at the mercy of their cruel and ruthless occupiers. A brave commoner, William Wallace, takes up the fight for freedom. To do so he must unite the quarreling Scottish clans against the powerful English army.  

Directed by: Mel Gibson,
Starring: Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan, Angus MacFadyen, Sophie Marceau

Braveheart is a ludicrous movie. It abounds in clichés and fully embraces every absurdity. Still, I found that I really enjoyed the movie. Braveheart falls under the genre of historical fiction. Of course, the fiction is emphasized over the history. This movie tells of a living man transformed into legend. It is appropriate that the storyline heavily resembles ancient myths. Braveheart aspires to be Epic with a capital E.

Throughout the film we are asked, “What makes a good and a bad leader?” At the one end stands William Wallace played by Mel Gibson, who fights for idealism and the commoner. At the other end stands King Edward called “Longshanks” by his enemies. This king exemplifies cruel and selfish leadership. Finally, Robert the Bruce, a Scottish noble, straddles the middle line wavering between the practical and the idealistic course.   

Remember. Braveheart emphasizes the mythical aspect of the tale. Many of the characters are unfortunately very black and white. They represent ideas more than people. This is not necessarily bad; but you might find yourself disappointed if you are looking for deeply developed personalities.

The weakest part of the movie for me was actually the insufferably long exposition. After Wallace loses his childhood and innocence following the deaths of his father and brother, the film dwells on an Epic Romance and the Horrible Atrocities the Scots suffer at the hands of the English. (Yes, the capitalization is intentional.) The themes in this hour are broadcast so overtly that the scenes become emotionally inert and even cartoonish. They are expressed more effectively in the later, subtler moments of the film.  

Eventually, the film arrive at the first major battle scene. Finally, the actual story can begin. The battle sequences are a real treat to watch. Nicely choreographed, filmed and edited, these scenes get your heart pumping and your palms sweating. There are even moments of humor inserted to lighten up the tension. I amused myself recounting all the different ways the characters said, “Kiss my Arse.” There is also blood and violence but I actually didn’t find it that bad. Or perhaps I’m just desensitized… In the end, Braveheart is one of the finest depictions of medieval warfare.

The storyline is not complex. In essence, a freedom fighter confronts an evil emperor and inspires his people. However, cliché is not always evil. Even knowing the likely plot twists I sat through the whole film smiling, laughing, and cringing. I’ll probably watch it again.

* * * *

– Directed by the Joel & Ethan Coen
– Starring George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson

The opening credits state that the film was based on The Odyssey. I don’t believe the directors actually read the poem. At most they read the summary on the back jacket, and I’m giving them a lot of credit on that point. I say this because with the exception of a few isolated episodes, the movie has nothing whatsoever to do with Homer’s work.

The reason The Odyssey is so compelling is because Homer creates a desperate need for Odysseus’ return. Without showing us the danger that Penelope and Telemachus are in much of the story’s urgency is drained. Sure, Odysseus flirts with danger and disaster but he also flirts with beautiful, seductive goddesses and women along the way. Without a driving goal, the journey just becomes a collection of interesting events but certainly not a cohesive narrative. Just another road trip…

This is where O Brother, Where Art Thou? makes its fatal mistake. The only goal expressed by Everett McGill, Odysseus’ southern counterpart, at the beginning is a vague search for buried treasure. This is not enough to sustain the film. During this journey our protagonists are involved in a lot of unrelated, bizarre events. At the end though the viewers are left unsatisfied. We are left wondering what was the point. I liked several individual scenes but didn’t see how they contributed to the plot or to character development.

However, this may just be a product of my own preferences. I like tight, well-constructed narratives. Too much meandering and a lack of direction or theme tend to put me off. The actors do fill their parts well. I think George Clooney was born for the role of an Odysseus-like character. If spending time with interesting characters is something you like, then this movie may be for you. But it just isn’t for me.

 

* *

%d bloggers like this: