Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Fireproof Review

Overall Grade: C+

In 2006 Sherwood Pictures (Based out of a church in Georgia) released Facing the Giants to surprising success. Fireproof is their follow-up film and it’s got a bigger budget as well as a bigger star in Kirk Cameron. After watching the film, I felt as though it’s a film that ultimately works despite its flaws, of which there are many. Many of the gripes I have about the film do tend to wilt away (although not all of them), in the face of the film’s obvious good-natured intents.

The film follows the marriage problems between Caleb the Fireman (Kirk Cameron) and Hospital PR Rep. Catherine (played inconsistently by a beautiful Erin Bethea). Both Caleb and Catherine receive advice from their family and friends, and must ultimately decide whether or not to go through with a divorce. We mostly see the decision making promise of Caleb as his father asks him to put his divorce on hold for 40 days as he takes the “Love Dare”. The “Love Dare” is a forty-day journey that instructs Caleb to attempt different things to regain the right perspective on his relationship with Catherine. Complicating things for Catherine is a likeable co-worker showering her with the attention she doesn’t get from Caleb. Will the “Love Dare” work? Will Caleb and Catherine remain married?

I think you probably will already guess the answers to that question (hint: look at the title of the film), so I’ll move on to the more important question. Does the film work? There are times when Fireproof falls into the mistake of “telling” instead of “showing” in the film. At the beginning of the film, we are plunged head first into the marital problems between Caleb and Catherine. Although we have established them as likeable people, we never see “good” moments of them together. We don’t see a tangible loss that comes from them being apart. Later in the film, rather than allow Caleb to see how a devotion to Christ and unselfish love worked in his parents marriage, or to witness an unselfish moment in one of his workmate’s marriage, Kendrick just tells us through words of wisdom from Caleb’s father and fellow fireman. What works well as a spoken testimony in church, doesn’t really work well as dramatic storytelling on the screen.

I think the biggest problem with the film is that it wanted to handle “marriage problems” with kiddie gloves. The first problems we see arise between Caleb and Catherine are simple ones; cleaning up the house (the art department didn’t get the memo that the house needed to look unkempt in order to sell that conflict), fixing dinner, paying bills, and what things to save for. Are these the big problems that the looming divorce is stemming from? I am aware that these problems can lead to divorce, but these aren’t marriage specific problems, these are roommate problems.

We hear about possible problems with online pornography, but we never see its true effect on the marriage and Caleb outside of Catherine being upset about it. It’s not surprising that the film really doesn’t deal with the issue openly, the wife herself can barely bring herself to acknowledge it by name, she calls it “looking at junk”. Any scene to show the effects of the addiction would be good. I made up a quick one talking to one of my roommates about the film; show Catherine in bed, Caleb shuts off the computer and crawls into bed. She rubs his shoulders wanting to get more intimate and he just shrugs her off. BAM! Already, we are showing the real consequences and not just talking about it. Why even include such a weighty issue, if they aren’t even going to address it by name?

Despite these faults, the central marriage conflict between Caleb and Catherine is a compelling conflict, and it truly does provide some genuinely emotional moments when they decide to stick it out and not get a divorce. It’s hard not to be moved (and indeed I was moved) by the conclusion of the film, because although the initial conflicts may seem a little shallow (as I pointed out above), the director wisely delays the resolution. There are a few moments I expected the couple to happily re-unite, but Kendrick skillfully makes the couple work harder for it. It’s the best decision in the film, and the audience is really awarded for it. I mentioned earlier that the film was low budget and it unfortunately shows on the screen; odd lighting choices, several master shots when close-ups would do better, inconsistent performances, a couple superfluous scenes (why exactly include the car accident on the train tracks?), and poor editing.

However, the film has plenty of good intentions, good lessons to teach, and a fairly good story to tell; and that is something that the biggest budgets cannot buy. With a little technical refinement, a stronger commitment to showing rather than telling (or preaching in this case), and a willingness to deal with the issues in depth (however deep it goes), Sherwood Pictures will be making the best “Christian” films out there. Well, now that I think about, they already are making the best “Christian” films out there. I look forward to what they attempt next.

Monday, October 27, 2008

High School Musical 3 Review

Overall Grade: C

I am not exactly sure how someone like me (a 25 year old male) could review this film and truly give it a fair hearing; I'm not the target demographic this movie aims for (considering I've gone through puberty). For example, when Zac Efron removed his jersey during the film, it wasn't me giggling uncontrollably in the theatre. I thought the first High School Musical was alright and that the second one was mostly a disaster (Efron singing his solo "Bet On It" on the golf course being the lowest point). So why exactly did I even go see this film do you ask?

The initial reason I made the trip to the local AMC was because my friend Julie wanted to see it, and I thought if I was gonna watch it, I should watch it with her (besides, she has to now watch Saw with me). Outside of my film goals (attempting to watch any film that is of any significance; critical, popular, cult, etc.), the High School Musical series does offer a few pleasures. I feel the film is at its best when it presents a catchy pop tune with some great choreography. The series also wears a huge grinning smile in each of the films, and I have to admit, that smile does have its appeal. Its nice to watch a movie that is so gosh darn optimistic. So, having given all that background, how does High School Musical 3 fair?

For the most part, if you enjoyed the first two films, then you will enjoy this one as well. Nearly all the same elements are back in this one, which for many fans should be a comfort. However, for me, it made the film quite a bore. I know picking at the story in High School Musical is like picking at the story in a Jackie Chan film, but can we honestly get some new conflicts? Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) is still trying to decide between Music and Basketball (his shocking conclusion is that he will do BOTH!), Sharpee (sp?) is still trying to take the spotlight and snag Troy (even after two films of comeuppance), Troy's Dad is still an idiot and a terrible actor, and Sharpee's brother is still struggling to get noticed. Alongside these returning conflicts are also nearly the same conflicts for every other minor character in the film. Its as if film three just thought that everyone would essentially forget that the first two films also featured all these storylines as well. At least the filmmakers were smart enough to not bring back the "your not spending time with your friends" storyline in film two, probably the best decision the writing team could have made.

Two new characters are introduced in this film, and they are basically admirers of Troy and Sharpee who will rule East High when this Senior Year is over (Read: Disney making sure that this franchise could continue if they wanted). The characters basically do nothing and effect nothing, making them even more obviously a "securing the franchise" move.

Making the film even harder to watch are the songs and dance numbers, of which there are plenty (all featuring much the same beat). The first film had a few memorable numbers like "Stick to the Status Quo", "Breaking Free", and "We're All In This Together". The second film had a couple good songs, "What Time Is It" and "We Can Work It Out". However, this film really doesn't have one. Alongside several yawn inducing numbers are some truly bad "groaners" (The Boys Are Back being a standout). Top that off with the director's truly annoying habit of filming direct head on POV (point of view) shots with Efron and others staring straight at the audience (ala Jonathan Demme in Silence of the Lambs), and "uncomfortable" would be a good word to sum up my experience.

In the end though, High School Musical 3 retains that golly gee whiz optimism and good nature that make the first two films so attractive, and thats enough to forgive it of a lot of faults...just not all of its faults.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

W Review

Overall Grade: C-

W is film made by folks on the left side of the political spectrum that really only plays to...well...those on the left side of the political spectrum. It reminds me of those comedy movies you make with your friends when you’re young; broadly cynical about its subject matter and full of inside jokes. When you watch it with your parents, only you and your friends are giggling and slapping fives, cause only you get it. The only difference with Stone’s W is that Stone has millions of dollars to work with and W is not just playing in his parent’s living room.

I went into W with about as open a mind as I could muster. I honestly felt like Stone had a chance to give us some insights into what seems to be the most hated man in the world right now. If you’ve been alive and breathing the last 8 years, then you’ve no doubt become versed in all of the criticisms and arguments against George W. from both sides of the aisle (although primarily from the left side), and this was Stone’s chance to allow us to see behind the scenes. What makes this man tick? How has he accomplished what he has accomplished? I regret to report that W has nothing new or noteworthy to add to the discussion of one of the most important figures in history.

Stone delivers the leftist view of Bush; his life, his values, and his administration. W is an over simplified, caricatured view of Bush and the last 8 years of his administration. Except as a small catalogue of Bush moments seen through a liberal prism, I don’t really understand what true insights into the man or his administration that this film presents us with. Stone had ample time to flesh out a more detailed vision of the strengths and weaknesses of Bush, as well as some perspective on his failures and achievements, but only managed a very simplified and unsatisfactory argument. Let me summarize Stone’s insight into Bush for you… (Lets see how many worn out attacks on Bush are in this summary)
George W. Bush is basically a good old country boy (#1) with very low intelligence (#2), small ambition (#3), and given to drunkenness (#4). The only reason he got into politics is because he failed at every other endeavor in his lifetime (#5) (mostly because he couldn’t take more breaks or drink on the job) and has a child-like “Daddy” complex where he must prove to his father his worth (#6). The governorship and white house were only won because he was able to memorize what Karl Rove told him (#7). His religious views are fairly sincere, but really are misguided (#8) and they lead him to do foolhardy things (#9). This is the great insight the film has to offer. There is only one problem; it doesn’t do a good enough job of explaining the reality of George W. and the last 8 years.

George W. won the governorship of Texas twice, and it was against a very popular incumbent. He won the Republican Presidential Primary in 2000, as well as winning two elections in 2000 (against the VP of a popular president) and 2004 (garnering more votes in 2004 than in 2000). For better or worse, he was able to pass landmark education, tax, Medicare, and homeland security legislation, through a very divided and contentious Congress. For better or worse, he was able to get authorization (which the resolution really was for) from the Congress for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as continue to gain funding for them. These are not bumbling achievements, and the George W. that Stone portrays is not capable of what I just mentioned when you view him in the extremely negative and caricatured light that Stone does.
None of Stone’s answers are sufficient to explain the reality; not the fact that Bush Sr. was President before him, not the fact that George W. was just able to memorize better answers from Rove, and not the fact that George had a certain southern charm with people. Stone is simply incapable of truly trying to understand how this man could’ve accomplished these feats outside of his dogmatic presuppositions that Bush is a deluded bumbling moron with a bit of charm, that so happened to be blessed with the Bush name, and the politics of Karl Rove.

Stone’s inability to produce a fully rounded person extends to the members of his administration as well, as they all seen as nothing but caricatures. Condi Rice probably gets the shortest end of the stick as she really comes off as a Bush lap dog with ZERO ability to think on her own (I was half expecting her to just say “Yes Massa!” at any time). Dick Cheney is “nothing but” an in the dark schemer looking for American Empire. Rumsfield is a buffoon who is convinced everything could be done on the cheap. Powell is seen as the only levelheaded character in the administration that is in opposition with almost every turn the administration takes. The problem is that it’s a one-sided view of Powell as well; it doesn’t explain why he was willing to serve Bush (not to mention Reagan and Bush Sr.), why he made the vehement case against Iraq in the UN, as well as a number of other issues Powell side with the administration with. In fact, one could almost mistake Powell for Obama, the way that he was portrayed. The caricatures are unfortunate because the film, despite all the flaws above, is still interesting and engaging. The camerawork is great, and although I disagreed with the tone the music set, it was expertly weaved into particular scenes to make the point that Stone is arguing.

In the end, the film is little more than a film that speaks to the choir (much like An American Carol), and misses out on providing anything of substance for those who don’t like characters skewed to one dimension. There is not a single thing W does that hasn’t been parroted by the left for the last 8 years, and its Stone’s inability to conceive of Bush outside that view that undermines the entire movie. Sitting in the theatre, I half expected Stone’s parents to walk in the room with a bowl of popcorn and a glass of water. They’d sit down and smile because it was their son’s film, even though the film’s reality only really exists in the mind of Stone and his friends.