Dear Zachary (A Letter to a Son About His Father)

Dear Zachary_

3-5Star

“The honesty and real emotion coming through is unparalleled compared to most documentaries.”

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Mamma Mia!

♫ You can dance... ♫

♫ You can dance / You can jive… ♫

25Star

by Ken B.

There’s a scene in Mamma Mia! that plays out like a pop culture journalist’s fever dream (well, that’s almost every scene in Mamma Mia!, but this one in particular): Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, and thirty or forty nameless extras dancing on a pier, belting out ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”. Benny Andersson has a five second cameo as a piano player on a boat during that sequence. It is indeed something to behold. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen when a handful of world famous actors got together for 108 minutes and told a flimsy story through relentlessly bouncy covers of ABBA songs, this is your chance to see that visualized.

The story is set on a Greek island, where Donna (Streep) has run an old hotel for several years. Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is about to get married to a man named Sky (Dominic Cooper). Sophie wants her father to attend her wedding, but Donna was a single mother, and she doesn’t know who to invite. Instead, after investigating her mother’s diary from years ago, she secretly sends out invitations to three possibilities: banker Harry Bright (Colin Firth), architect Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), and writer Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgård). She hopes to identify her father from the moment she sees him. Of course, it won’t be that easy.

The first thing to be addressed in a musical is the music. Every song, of course, is a cover of a song by ABBA. If you’re familiar with their discography, you know what to expect. The singers range. Meryl Streep is quite good (is there anything she can’t do?), as is Amanda Seyfried, a fact that would be solidified a few years later in Les Misérables. Everyone else falls somewhere along the mid range of tolerability, except Brosnan. A large part of his career has been sealed in the history books as the James Bond of the mid ‘90s and early ‘00s, and to put it nicely, singing won’t be joining those ranks anytime in the near future. Or ever.

It’s clear the primary ideals of Mamma Mia! were not particularly artistic. Its demands were simple: Provide two hours of light entertainment packed with music that will both suit fans of comedies, ABBA, and the popular stage musical it’s based on. It doesn’t particularly care about fleshing out a story, or even a compelling place to put the songs. They seem too deliberate to exist (kind of like those vocabulary assignments you got when you were ten where you had to put all of the words of the week in sentences, and it was always really forced). Because that’s how the placement of the music comes off in Mamma Mia!, it really hurts the overall flow of the film at times.

Still, there’s little ability to deny an overwhelming sense of fun Phyllida Lloyd’s film contains. The scenery is picturesque, the pacing is bouncy, and the cast seems to be genuinely enjoying themselves, regardless of how good (or bad) their singing is. There comes a time when an otherwise totally non-recommendable film can keep its head above water on entertainment value alone, and Mamma Mia! fulfills that quota with impressive ease.

There’s almost no doubt in my mind that the reason Mamma Mia! was released in the same weekend as The Dark Knight in July 2008 was to generate sufficient counter-programming to the bleak and depressing world the middle entry of Nolan’s saga represents. Indeed, while the superhero film reigns far superior in my book, Mamma Mia! has a well formed idea of what its own demographic will want, and does indeed fulfill it for the most part. This is a casually fascinating movie, and quite easy to comprehend. Its target audiences already knows it will like it, and those outside of it know they won’t.

Buy from Amazon: DVD / Blu-ray / Soundtrack

Mamma Mia!

Doubt

Doubt_

3-5Star

by Ken B.

Despite every internal feeling in its favor, she never says the word “molest”. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) will instead repeat time and time again, in growing degrees of feeling, that there is something very wrong about the direction of the interactions between Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the first black child to attend the Catholic school that Sister Aloysius is the principal of. She will also not stop her case, despite the fact that there is no sustainable evidence to support her claims. The young nun and eighth grade teacher Sister James (Amy Adams) is convinced that it’s Father Flynn’s progressive and relaxed nature that concerns the uptight and intimidating Aloysius, but she won’t hear any of this. It is an evolving clash of wills between these three and Donald’s mother (Viola Davis) that makes John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt a compelling and riveting drama.

The events transpire in the Fall of 1964 in New York. Aloysius first begins to wonder if something is being hidden after Flynn gives a sermon on doubt, using references to the societal aftermath of the Kennedy assassination as part of a point in it being as effective as certainty. Wondering what would influence the want to speak on an uncomfortably ubiquitous subject such as doubt, she and Sister James begin to observe Flynn’s activity, and soon, the elder one begins to gather great suspicion between the priest and Donald, while Flynn says and Sister James believes that it is simply to protect the boy as the only black person in the school.

It’s second nature to see the character most prominent within a work as a protagonist, but it’s hard to find the necessary sympathy for Aloysius. Often, especially with students, she appears to be little more than a nasty, bitter authoritarian, not showing substantial ranges of very obvious emotion until the film’s final moments. This difficulty in understanding the character is done thanks to brilliant work from the always brilliant Meryl Streep. Amy Adams portrays Sister James with the assumed sense of the character’s sudden realization of those around her, taking a back seat to initial naivety, both professionally and personally.  As the questioned priest, Philip Seymour Hoffman is masterful – a climactic scene with him and Streep is both compelling and terrifying as actors disappear and characters reign. The charisma and life that Hoffman gives Father Flynn now additionally serves as even more proof of a life concluded far too soon.

However, one performance that must not be overlooked is Viola Davis’, who rightfully earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance (as did Streep, Hoffman, and Amy Adams). Despite a minimal amount of screen time (less than twenty minutes), Davis fills her character with conflicted emotions – her want to find justice perhaps overlaid a rocky personal life, and the need for her son to graduate from the eighth grade at the school in June in order to get into a good high school. She has two major scenes, and in the second, an introduction of a deeply questionable viewpoint regarding the issues at hand casts even more doubt over the events. Doubt, indeed, is a fitting title for this story, as it manifests itself over every facet of this 104 minute film.

Doubt takes place in late autumn, with cold rain and wind summarizing the weather. The film’s aesthetic reflects this, with Roger Deakins’ stunning but understated cinematography focusing on a dull and dim greyish format, with often the most colorful thing being Father Flynn’s robes during services. As is fitting, there is also an absence of bombastic music, instead leaving most music in the movie to be highlighted by church organ music, which provides a chilling close as the film fades out.

Based on the play of the same name and written (both for the stage and the screen) by its director, John Patrick Shanley, Doubt leaves you without answering any questions definitively. This is one of those rare instances where such a choice is more wise than foolish. By leaving the door open for further speculation and discussion, Doubt reveals itself as a powerful allegory for tolerance, will, and morality. It arrives, presents, and departs, providing an open door for interpretation and the ideas to be collected.

Buy from Amazon: DVD / Blu-ray

Doubt

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas — Review

BoyStripedPajamas

2Star

by Ken B.

From most angles, I couldn’t find anything wrong with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The acting is well above average (despite the fact we have German characters with British accents), the production design brilliant, and the music, while sometimes over-done, is alright. So you’re probably wondering why I’ve given it just two stars. The answer is the ending, or perhaps its whole setup. This movie, as you’ve heard, is set during the Holocaust, and that’s a very sensitive subject, due to the fact that millions of people today are influenced by it whether through religion, family history, or directly. The final moments of this film, designed to be shocking and heartbreaking, are just that, but almost artificially so. And the fact that this is a Holocaust movie with an artificial, sellout-ish ending creates an uncomfortable, offensive, trivializing sensation.

The events leading up to this are as such: Bruno (ASA BUTTERFIELD) is the son of a SS worker (DAVID THEWLIS). At the start of the film, he lives in Berlin during World War II, has a lot of friends, and is generally content. However, his father is reassigned, so Bruno, with his family (also a mother and an older sister) moves to the countryside. It’s a big house and there’s a large fence out back, with rows of buildings behind it. One day, Bruno, who sees people wandering both in around the buildings and serving in the house “farmers”, is out by the fence and sees a boy Shmuel (JACK SCANLON). Shmuel is wearing striped clothes which Bruno equates to pajamas, and they form a friendship which no one really knows about, and that’s good, because no one who really knew who Shmuel was would approve of it.

Apparently, this movie is based off a book. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know if it’s as misguided as its adaptation. The factual errors run abound – Shmuel is maybe 8 or 9, and if I remember correctly, very few younger children would survive very long in concentration camps – they couldn’t be the laborers that were required. A popular refrain among defenders of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is that, well, movies don’t have to be absolutely true to life. While I agree with this sentiment on one hand, we’re talking about the Holocaust here. This was a very real disaster, and to be treated with a flagrant disregard for the facts is simply not an okay thing to do. This, indeed, comes off as movie of the most insensitive kind – using a dark period in recent history as a cheap ploy for tears.

But although this movie may be insensitive, it certainly is not insincere. There is a great amount of emotion being poured into it – from the details of the screenplay, written by director Mark Herman to the main performances from Butterfield and Scanlon, it’s obvious that everyone was very much dedicated to what they were doing. It was incredibly disappointing to see how it didn’t pay off.

I desperately wanted to recommend The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but it just isn’t something you want to subject yourself to. It’s a beautiful film artistically, but leaves you feeling terrible – and not in the way that it was intended.

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