50/50(10/9/2011)

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When I first heard about the movie 50/50, a film with Seth Rogen in it that uses comedy to traverse the unpleasantries of terminal illness, I probably had the same thought that most people had: didn’t they already do that in the movie Funny People.  The truth is that the projects aren’t really all that similar.  Funny People was largely the vision of Judd Apatow and was as much about fame as it was about dying: it was an examination of what it means to be a celebrity comedian and an examination of what such a person would be remembered for.  50/50 is the work of a mildly successful comedy writer named Will Reiser who actually faced cancer, survived, and is now using comedy to bring closure to the experience.

Reiser’s alter ego in the film is a twenty seven year old producer for Seattle Public Radio named Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  Adam is at a nice place in his life; he has a good job, a strong friendship with a co-worker named Kyle (Seth Rogen), and a stable relationship with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard).  Most of that is derailed when he’s told that he has a tumor around his spine that is giving him a rare form of cancer called neurofibroma sarcoma schwannoma, an ailment the internet tells him he only has a fifty percent chance of surviving.  Soon he experiences the indignities of chemotherapy, hair loss, and abandonment, but his friendship with Kyle maintains and throughout the movie he finds ways to maintain his cool while facing his own mortality.

50/50 is what you’d call a “dramedy”: it functions as a comedy while also having a deadly serious side.  That is an extremely difficult tightrope for most movies to walk and the fact that Will Reiser’s script is able to hit that format out of the park is a big reason why I admire 50/50 so much.  Most dramedys will more or less play out like a drama except with a few “quirky” moments sprinkled in, or they’ll function like a comedy for most of their running time before suddenly getting really sentimental at their climax.  This film’s comedy/drama division is more like, well… like a fifty-fifty split (yes, pun intended).  I suppose it veers closer to the “drama with funny moments” dichotomy than the reverse, and people expecting a rowdy laugh-fest along the line of other Seth Rogen vehicles might be disappointed, but the film doesn’t skimp on the comedy either and is a lot more funny than the aforementioned film Funny People.

Most of the comedy does come from Seth Rogen, who is playing exactly the kind of crass slacker that audiences have fallen in love with, it’s not a huge stretch for him as an actor but he’s doing what he does well and he’s really at the top of his game here.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is of course the real star here and this is one of the best vehicles he’s had to show off his talents so far.  Gordon-Levitt has long showed in movies like (500) Days of Summer that he can play likable young men and in movies like The Lookout and Brick that he can handle darker material as well, and these two sides intersect nicely here in a movie where he plays a likable young man who must deal with serious pressures in his life.  The film also features some really nice supporting performances by actors ranging from Angelica Huston as Adams smothering mother, Anna Kendrick who plays Adam’s rather young stress therapist, and Phillip Baker Hall who plays an older cancer victim that Adam meets at his chemotherapy sessions.

I had only the mildest of enthusiasm for director Jonathan Levine’s first film, The Wackness, although that probably had more to do with the script that Levine wrote for that film than with his direction.   I wouldn’t exactly call him a master auteur over his work here either, but he does a perfectly competent job making this film and preventing any unnecessary stylistic tricks from getting in the way of Reiser’s script.  The fashionable thing to do these days is to fill these kind of movies about young singles with quirky Wes Anderson “homages” and to wedge in a “hip” indie-rock soundtrack into the film in an attempt to sell a few soundtrack albums on the side.  Levine doesn’t do any of this and instead makes a very dignified film that allows the actors room to display their skills and allow the script to speak for itself.

I’m normally weary of movies that are autobiographical in nature, which can often be self-indulgent stories that are not really worthy of the big screen treatment (Levine’s The Wackness would fall into that category), but this movie is autobiographical in the best sense of the word.  You can tell that Reiser is drawing upon the awkwardness and anxiety he felt throughout his ordeal and it all rings really true.  This is exactly the kind of movie that’s really easy to underappreciate.  It’s not the most complex or sophisticated film you’ll ever see, but it creates characters that are so likable and interesting that it really feels rewarding inn its own straightforward way by the end.  It’s genuinely funny and touching and is one of the best film experiences that I think I’ll have all year.

**** out of Four

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DVD Catch-Up: X-Men: First Class(10/15/2011)

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I’ve never been a big believer in the “jump the shark” theory, especially when it comes to movies, because it seems closed mined in its belief that no series can ever step up its game and come back from a failure.  For instance it would have been easy to dismiss the film Star Trek V: The Final Frontier as a “jump the shark” moment that derailed that storied franchise. Under current franchise philosophy the producers would abandon everything that came before and “reboot” the series (something they went ahead and did twenty years after the commercial failure of Star Trek: Nemesis). The thing is, if they had gone ahead and done that we never would have gotten Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, one of the very best of the series.  Given that, I should have known better than to dismiss the film X-Men: First Class simply because I thought that the X-Men franchise had been derailed by a hack named Brett Ratner.  Yet dismiss it I did, and this was partly out of a misunderstanding of what the film was.  I’d assumed that it would be a film about the previously established X-Men like Cyclops and Jean Grey as teenagers, a concept that brought back memories of a horrible cartoon series called X-Men: Evolution which did just that with lame results.

In actuality the film is set long before those characters came on the scene, specifically it’s set in the early 60s and focuses on Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik “Magneto” Lensherr (Michael Fassbender).  Both of these men are in their mid twenties and have lived very different lives: Xavier has been well educated and has lived a life of privilege while Lensherr, who experienced the holocaust, has been dealing with a deep-seeded rage.  Both Xavier and Lensherr are after a man named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant who’s ostensibly working for the Soviet Union but who has his own agenda.  Xavier has been recruited for the task of tracking down Shaw by a CIA agent named Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), while Lensherr is tracking Shaw down because of the role he played in Lensherr’s traumatic childhood.  Eventually Xavier and Lensherr decided to join forces and train a team of young mutants including Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and others.

This is a prequel that exists within the continuity of the overall X-Men series and the movie does a better job connecting up with the original X-Men movies then I thought it would.  That isn’t to say that everything here would connect seamlessly with the original continuity, but it certainly does a better job than X-Men Origins: Wolverine did.  The film also intersects with mid-20th century U.S. history, pondering what would happen if superheroes got involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a technique pioneered by the graphic novel “Watchmen.”  That gives X-Men: Fist Class something that X-Men Origins: Wolverine never even tried to have: ambition and scope.  This is a tremendous improvement over director Matthew Vaughn’s previous work and while he deserves kudos for the movie, I think some credit should also go to producer Bryan Singer.  It is no coincidence that the X-Men films with his name on them have been dramatically superior to the ones he wasn’t involved in.

The film also has an amazing cast which is murderer’s row of exiting upcoming actors.  Michael Fassbender is the clear standout, he turns Magneto into a genuine badass and for the first time I see why people see him as a mainstream star in the making.  I suspect that this will launch his career just as successfully as the original X-Men launched Hugh Jackman’s career.  James McAvoy plays Xavier as a relatively hip young man filled with optimism, which is a very logical precursor to Patrick Stewart’s take on the character in the original trilogy.  The film also sports standout supporting roles by every hip actor from Jenifer Lawrence to January Jones to Oliver Platt.

That said, the size of the cast is a bit of a double edged sword, because this movie can get really crowded at times with something like twenty different distinct speaking roles spread throughout the 132 minute movie.  Not all of these characters are equal either, in particular I found the titular “First Class” to be the film’s weakest element.  This team of teenage mutants came dangerously close to actually resembling that crappy “X-Men: Evolution” cartoon that I was afraid of, with most of this team of young mutants being played by immature CW network rejects.  It doesn’t help that most of the real marquee X-Men had already been used in the previous films, forcing this movie to use a lot of D-list mutants like Riptide, Darwin, and the particularly lame Angel Salvadore whose power involves sprouting dragonfly wings and spitting fireballs.  The film is able to do a surprisingly decent job of using these characters and putting together good action scenes with their powers, but they’re a liability nonetheless.

The film leaves a pretty big opening for further X-Men prequels, and with this team of filmmakers on board I’d welcome more.  Going into the summer this easily looked like the least promising of all the various superhero movies, but it turned out to be the best of them by far.  It’s funny how things work out like that sometimes, and looking back this seems kind of logical; while Thor and Captain America were fixated on playing it safe and establishing brands, this one just focused on putting together a good story and bringing in good actors, throwing in some fine effects scenes didn’t hurt either. It’s easily the best X-Men film since X-Men 2, and probably the best Marvel film since Spider-Man 2.

***1/2 out of Four

Moneyball(10/3/2011)

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On October 6, 2002 I was overjoyed watching my beloved Minnesota Twins win the American League Divisional series game five in a dramatic 5 to 4 victory.  It was a short lived celebration, as the team would eventually lose in the ALCS to the Anaheim Angels, but it still seemed sweet at the time.  Unfortunately that was the last and only time I’ve seen the Twins win a post-season series, because every other time they make it to the playoffs they seem to get matched up in the first round with the goddamn New York Yankees and they lose in an embarrassing rout.  In fact I’ve seen the Twins lose to the Yankees the divisional series four times since 2002, and every time I’ve cursed the Yankees for buying their way into the World Series.  Such is the plight of loving a small market team.  What I never considered was that the team the Twins were playing on that fateful day was another small market team that had struggled with their own Yankees-related demons and that very season they had found a system that could very well have proven to be a boon for small market teams.  That team was the Oakland A’s, and the season that led them to that matchup with the team is chronicled in a new film called Moneyball.

Adapted by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian from the book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball focuses on Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the Oakland A’s General Manager who was facing the daunting task of replacing Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi after losing both to Boston and New York respectively in free agency.  Frustrated with the miniscule pay roll he has to work with, Beane goes to the A’s owner Stephen Schott (played by the evil video game magnate Bobby Kotick) only to be told that the payroll isn’t going up and that he’s simply going to have to make do.  Unsatisfied with this, Beane starts looking for a new direction but finds himself surrounded by scouts and managers who simply can’t think differently.  Finally, on a failed trading visit with the Cleveland Indians, Beane runs into a junior analyst named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who tells him about the theories that we’ve come to call sabremetrics.  Intrigued, Beane hires Brand as his assistant manager and employs sabermetrics in the acquisition of three undervalued players in an experiment he believes could change baseball forever.

For those unfamiliar with sabermetrics, it’s a system that disregards the traditional measures of a player like batting averages and RBIs, and instead looks at less conventional statistics like OBP (on base percentage) while also disregarding the steal as a means of advancing runs.  That’s about as detailed as the movie gets about Beane’s methods and there’s also not a lot of in game footage showing the methods in action.  That’s the thing about this story, it’s all about quietly winning games without a lot of flash, and consequently the on field action isn’t going to be all that dramatic for the most part.  The focus is strictly on what goes on behind the scenes and that isn’t really something that we’ve seen all that often in film and a lot of what’s seen in enlightening.  In particular the film does a great job of showing just how ridiculous some of the criteria used by talent scouts was in the pre-sabermetrics era.  There are stories of scouts overlooking Kevin Youkilis because they thought his batting stance was odd in spite of his statistical success and also of players being skipped over for having ugly girlfriends, and act that supposedly speaks poorly of their confidence.  It’s hard to imagine any other industry making wildly expensive acquisitions based on such biased and irrational reasoning, but such silliness persevered because baseball as an institution is wildly averse to change.

That’s what makes Moneyball so topical; it’s all about the challenges involved in trying to achieve change. In this sense the film could be viewed as a broad allegory for the trials and tribulations of the Obama administration.  Beane has inherited a mess and everyone seems to realize that the team is in need of a new strategy, but when he actually brings new ideas to the table he encounters hostility on all sides and is impeded every step of the way and isn’t supported as well as he should have been by the like minded people around him.  When change finally does come and it doesn’t produce immediate and recognizable results almost everyone around him is ready to throw him under the bus and return to the familiar.  Sound familiar?  The film also needs to deal with the fact that positive change isn’t always immediately recognizable and the people who benefit from influential ideas aren’t always the people who create them and risk their reputations on them.

All of that interested me on an intellectual level, but I could have just as easily gotten most of those insights from reading Michael Lewis’ book or maybe seeing a documentary on the subject, unfortunately the film falls short of expectations on a number of fronts.  In particular I feel like the film struggled to find a way to handle the somewhat anticlimactic ending to the A’s season.  As a result we get a rather protracted dénouement in which characters make long and on the nose speeches about what everything we just saw meant while also throwing in a random corny metaphor about a Youtube video.

There are other slow spots in the movie, but this shouldn’t be taken to mean that the film’s screenplay isn’t without many great moments as well.  This is an Aaron Sorkin joint after all, so there are a lot of really strong lines spread throughout the film, though they don’t come quite as fast and furious as they did in The Social Network or in Sorkin’s television work.  That’s partly by design; the characters in this film do not come from the same highly educated east coast world that the characters in Sorkin’s other projects and that is reflected in the relatively reigned in dialogue.  That might also be the result of Bennett Miller’s decision to direct this film in a rather slow paced and somewhat icy fashion that underplays a lot of the traditional sports-movie trappings that this could have fallen into.  The film feels more like a business movie than a baseball movie, a decision that is wholly appropriate but which doesn’t necessarily bring the material to life either.

Most of the film’s cast does a good job with the material, particularly Jonah Hill, who is allowed to really branch out as an actor and deliver a mostly dramatic performance.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman also gives a nice performance as the team’s on field manager, Hoffman could probably play this small role in his sleep but it was still nice to see an actor of that caliber playing the part just the same.  However, I cannot be as kind to Brad Pitt’s performance and might be tempted to call it one of the film’s weakest elements.  Pitt seems to be a bit out of his element trying to portray Beane as a sort of unassuming blue collar figure and it just doesn’t come off very natural and almost feels like a slightly more reigned in version of his performance in the film Inglourious Basterds.  Perhaps it was a bad idea to cast one of the world’s biggest movie stars in a role like this, but I still think that the ultimate responsibility falls on Pitt.  The performance isn’t bad to the point of distraction, and the film does ultimately overcome it, but it is more of a liability than an asset.

Moneyball is a movie that I can recommend but only with a number of caveats.  I feel like my ultimate enjoyment of the film was at least partly sparked by my interest in the subject matter and while I think that that most elements of the film’s production are in place for the making of a solid movie, I don’t think it ever really has that spark that would take it to the next level.  There are too many small problems like Pitt’s performance and the protracted ending that make this feel like a film that isn’t becoming of its pedigree, but there is enough there to make for two interesting hours of cinema, I just feel like it had every opportunity to be more than that.

*** out of four

DVD Catch-Up: Stake Land(10/1/2011)

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Stake Land is a movie that got a pretty good reputation in the horror community after it played to positive reviews in a variety of genre film festivals and it had a marketable premise about vampires (the “in” monster at the moment).  In spite of all that, the film was only ever allowed to play on five screens across the country for two weeks before being dumped and essentially sent straight to DVD.  So how can this be when stuff like Shark Night 3D is given a wide release and a full marketing campaign?  Well, given that I want to see at least one good horror movie this year, I was intrigued enough to check on this even though I’d normally skip this kind of cast off film.

As the film begins, the United States (and probably much of the world) has collapsed in the midst of a takeover by feral vampires.  The film follows two survivors, a young man named Martin (Connor Paolo) and an experienced vampire hunter named Mister (Nick Damici) who has taken him in as a surrogate son.  The two are trying to travel to a sanctuary called new Eden (Canada) where they hope to escape the vampires.  In order to do this they’ll need to travel over many miles of territory that is littered with vampires and other survivors who can be every bit as dangerous as the blood-sucking monsters who come out at night.

The film in many ways seems to follow the formula of a zombie movie rather than a vampire film given its apocalyptic setting, but it’s real inspiration seems to be Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road.”  Like that novel and film, this is about a close relationship between a father and (in this case surrogate) son as they travel through a hostile wasteland trying to survive and both end on similarly bittersweet notes.  The difference is that Stake Land lacks the elegant prose of McCarthy’s novel and the mastery of atmosphere featured in John Hillcoat’s 2009 adaptation of that novel.  What it does have are vampires, mean and seemingly wild vampires that have been brought to life through fairly competent makeup.

There is a relative realism to this zombie apocalypse that I appreciated to some extent.  Take the Nick Damici vampire hunter character for example; most vampire hunters in movies of this caliber are decked out in high tech gadgets and the like, but this guy’s survival techniques are a lot more lo-fi and believable.  The societal collapse material is mostly at least equal to par with these kind of movies as well, with the creation with a KKK meets Jonestown cult called The Brotherhood, which make for an appropriately creepy presence through the film.  The film also seems to have made a pretty small budget do more than it could have.  The film is made up to professional standards and doesn’t seem like the kind of hack work that often goes direct to video.

All that said, I can see why this film did not inspire a ton of confidence from its distributors.  For one, the screenplay incorporates one of the worst voice over narrations that I’ve seen since… well, since Limitless.  The narration by Connor Paolo provides almost nothing that we couldn’t get from watching the film and it’s also delivered rather poorly in a “world weary” monotone.  Combine that with the film’s derivative nature and the fact that it’s production (while good) isn’t really anything we haven’t seen before, and the movie we’re left with maybe wasn’t exactly “ready for prime time.”  Still Stake Land is a mostly passable movie that is worth watching on cable or as a cheap rental, you can do a lot worse in the realm of low budget horror titles anyway.

**1/2 out of Four

 

 

Drive(9/23/2011)

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The Cannes Film Festival was as eventful as ever in 2011, bringing the debut of new films by major filmmakers like Pedro Almodóvar, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and Dardenne brothers.  It also brought us controversy over comments by Lars Von Trier, the debut of populist films like Midnight in Paris and The Artist, and once awards were given out we finally got to see the master filmmaker Terrence Malick win the Palme d’Or for his film The Tree of Life.  Of course none of that was really a surprise; Tree of Life was always going to have passionate admirers and Lars Von Trier was always going to find a way to get into trouble.  What I didn’t expect out of the festival was to see a Hollywood funded crime film with major stars and car chases emerge as a critical favorite.  That is, however, exactly what happened when director Nicolas Winding Refn was given the Best Director award from the Cannes Jury for his film Drive amongst rapturous responses from critics.  Four months later the film has opened on more than 2800 screens across the country to very positive reviews and will now have to fight to win over audiences the way it won over critics and the Cannes jury.

The film follows an unnamed driver (Ryan Gosling) who does Hollywood stuntwork and mechanic work while also moonlighting as a getaway driver for various thugs trying to pull off heists.  He conducts these getaways with the utmost meticulousness, promising his “customers” exactly five minutes to get away from any pursuers, a feat he accomplishes though extremely precise control of his vehicle and elaborate escape routes.  This solitary life of crime seems to work well for him until his friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston) gets him mixed up with a couple of gangsters named Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) who will fund the acquisition of a stock car for the driver to gain a legitimate fortune from.  Meanwhile, the driver has been forming a friendship with a neighbor named Irene (Carey Mulligan) whose husband/baby-daddy Standard (Oscar Isaac) will soon be released from jail only to find himself in debt to the people who protected him behind bars.  The driver decides to help Standard but will soon find this plotline colliding with his own gangland dealings in a dangerous way that will potentially ruin the world he’s built for himself.

Drive has often been described as an action movie, but it’s really more of a crime thriller with noir-ish undercurrents.  The film’s story is pretty typical of the genre; we’ve all seen these movies where the meticulous criminal meets his downfall after he starts to care about a femme not-so-fatale (usually a mother) for whom he steps out of his comfort zone as a last grasp at redemption.  We’ve seen this arc in countless crime films like Léon, Heat, The Killer, and the granddaddy of the trope, Shane.  And no, I don’t think there’s really any kind of subversion or unique subtext at play here, it just kind of feels like a boiler-plate crime movie at least as far as its story is concerned.  On top of that I also found the character of “the driver” to be a rather impenetrable and ultimately uninteresting blank slate.  I think that Winding Refn was trying to model the character after the similarly meticulous criminal played by Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 film Le Samouraï, but rather than coming off world-weary and complex, Ryan this character just sort of comes off blank to me.  This might possibly be because Ryan Gostling (an actor I normally like) may have been a little miscast; he simply doesn’t have the aura of toughness that’s needed to really pull off being a strong silent type.

The rest of the cast does fare a little better and I particularly liked Albert Brooks as the gangster and de facto villain Bernie Rose.  Brooks’ character is a psychotic criminal but Brooks doesn’t play him as the kind of cold villain that you hate and want to see die.  Instead he seems like a generally pleasant middle aged man who only engages in acts of violence reluctantly.  Ron Perlman’s character is a bit closer to a conventional villain, but he has a sympathetic side as well that Pearlman helps bring out even though he does need to deal with some slightly hokey dialogue.  There’s also a good part here for Bryan Cranston, an actor who seems more capable than most T.V. actors of casting aside the image he cultivates after playing characters week in and week out.  Carey Mulligan on the other hand seems to have been sort of wasted on a rather undeveloped role.  Her character is not very well developed and doesn’t really do much throughout the film except look beautiful and act as someone for the driver to idealize and try to protect.

So what sets the film apart if it’s so similar to the many other crime films with similar plots?  Probably Nicolas Winding Refn’s aggressive yet patient style.  Action hungry audiences who go to this film expecting it to be like The Transporter will probably be baffled by the film’s slow pace and minimalistic dialogue.  This is a film that is completely unafraid of allowing the camera to linger on details within the scene and actor’s faces; it shows things that most films would edit around.  It’s also a film that is completely unafraid of silence, with scenes playing out with very minimal amounts of dialogue, in fact there’s a span early in the film where the driver seems to go something like fifteen minutes hardly saying a word.  The cinematography is very slick and clear, certainly up to Hollywood standards of production, and the framing is certainly meticulous.  However I was a little bit weirded out by Cliff Martinez’ synth-score which seemed reminiscent of 80s Tangerine Dream scores mixed with like minded obscure electronica song selections.  Occasionally this combination of music and image would click and make sense but often it just seemed needlessly anachronistic and kind of cheesy.

Another thing that sets the film apart from other crime films is the attention to detail that Winding Refn has applied to the various set pieces, particularly the film’s opening action sequences which has the driver behind the wheel on a job.  This is less of a car chase than it is a cat-and-mouse scene that happens to be played out in vehicles rather than on foot.  This and one other more conventional but still excellent car chase mid-way through the film justify the film’s title, but those expecting this to be an all out car chase movie will be disappointed.  Most of the other set pieces play out on foot, involving guns, knives, and fists.  I hesitate to call these “action scenes” as they’re really more like elaborate murder scenes than the kind of kinetic experiences that bear that label.  These scenes get extremely graphic and brutal and are very reminiscent of the violence seen in David Cronenberg’s recent Viggo Mortenson collaborations, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.  As a hardened horror veteran I admired these sequences for their audacity and craft, but I suspect they will make many audiences rather uncomfortable.

In short, the style and craft that Nicholas Winding Refn has brought to this film is indeed impressive but it not necessarily revelatory.  I appreciated that he gave enough of a damn to bring a fairly unique vision to the table, but I can’t help but wish that he had brought this to some stronger material.  This story is a cliché and it also doesn’t really amount to a whole lot at the end of the day.  Had there been a little more to the story I would have a much easier time recommending this without reservation, but as it is it feels like little more than a trifle to me, it’s a film that’s too slight to really work as an arty independent film and to weird to really be tremendous entertainment.  Given that I’m kind of surprised that it works as well as it does, I did like the film and recommend it for some of the set pieces, but I wouldn’t say it lived up to the hype at all.

*** out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: Of Gods and Men(9/23/2011)

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Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men is a movie that I’ve had trepidations about seeing and trying to review since it debuted at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.  The reason for this was that the film seemed to be a celebration of Christian courage in the face of Muslim aggression, a concept that seemed to very potentially right wing and offensive to my atheistic liberal elite worldview.  Of course dismissing something because it conflicts with your political outlook is a rather immature and closed minded way of operating, but the fact remains that watching something that will potentially make your blood boil is not my idea of a good time.  Consequentially I skipped the movie when it came out in theaters and found myself placing the disc onto my Netflix queue only to take it off and then put it back on again.  Finally I bit the bullet and had the movie delivered… only to have it sit on my coffee table unwatched for another month or so.  Finally my sense of duty (and of wanting to finally return the disc to Netflix) urged me to finally watch the film and make up my own mind.

The film is based on the true story of a group of French Monks living in a monastery in Algeria during the mid 90s.  Focusing specifically on the group’s leader Christian (Lambert Wilson) and Luc (Michael Lonsdale) who is in charge of the monastery’s clinic.  The monks seem to have a good relationship with the leadership of the village they are set up near but they find themselves increasingly threatened by the civil war that’s going on across Algeria between the nation’s government and Islamic rebels.  The Algerian government offers the monks military protection, but the monks refuse, believing that allowing the military of a potentially corrupt government was contrary to their mission.  This leaves them open to attack by the rebels, who have been targeting westerners.  In spite of this the monks vote to remain where they are, fully aware that this could lead to their untimely deaths.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if I reveal that the film does indeed end with the monks being rounded up and killed.  I say that this isn’t a spoiler because the real events are quite well known in the film’s native France.  Saying that these monks die isn’t any more of a spoiler than it is to say that Timothy Treadwell and Christopher McCandless die at the end of Grizzly Man and Into the Wild respectively or that Aron Ralston survives his ordeal in 127 Hours.  Of course it’s interesting that the first films I think to compare Of Gods and Men to are movies about wilderness adventures gone wrong, but perhaps that comparison is apt.  After all this is a movie about people entering a hostile territory where they don’t belong for vague reasons only to be predictably killed for it.

This is where my anti-religious biases kick in; while many people would see what the monks did as a heroic act of courage, I see it as an act of arrogant hubris.  The monks claim that they’re protecting the village that they’re located near, but we’re given very little explanation of what good they’re doing these villagers aside from operating a clinic with one medical doctor.  It is to Xavier Beauvois’ credit that I can look at the evidence in his film and come to this conclusion that is contrary to what others might see in it, but I still wish he’d addressed these issues a bit more directly.  There’s maybe one stray line in the film addressing the legacy of colonialism that this monastery could be seen to represent, but otherwise Beauvois seems to stick surprisingly close to the official line of courage in the face of danger.

The content of the film itself actually feels like a fairly faithful reenactment of the facts of the monk’s last year.  The monastery and the rituals employed therein seem very accurate and the monks themselves seem like smart but believably flawed people.  The acting is quite good, especially that of Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale but I would have liked more time to get to know some of the ensemble in more detail and get a better sense of their conflicting views.  The technical side of the film is very down to earth and matter of fact.  The cinematography is slick and attractive but it doesn’t call attention to itself and neither do the camera movements.

I expected to have a stronger reaction to this movie either positively or negatively, but the reaction I had to it ended up being rather muted.  I enjoyed the film on its basic story level; it is after all a well made movie with a beginning, middle, and end.  However, I expected to be a lot more engaged with the issues than I was.  Pretty much everything I got out of the film seemed like my own reaction to the true story rather than anything that Xavier Beauvois did to enlighten things, and as such the movie was kind of a disappointment.

*** out of Four