Thursday, February 26, 2009

Is Slumdog Exploitative?

I think this video puts this issue in perspective very nicely:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

2008 Film Roundup

It has been a while since I have written any substantial movie reviews, so I wanted to contribute my two cents on a few films from 2008 before the award season draws to a close. While the Academy has been panned from all sides for some its nominations and snubs, and while this year’s crop of films worldwide is considered by many to be inferior to last year’s, this was still a year full of its share of great movie moments. Some of my favorites include:

- A man works up the nerve to kill one of his closest friends, but is thwarted when his friend attempts to kill himself, which shocks the man so soundly that he saves his friend’s life (in more ways than one).

- A tugboat does battle with a U-Boat…and wins.

- An arch-villain introduces himself to the world with nothing but a writing utensil and a five word question and leaves us all stunned.

- A woman throws an illegal Pakistani immigrant’s duffel out of her car fearing it may contain a WMD only to discover that her decision causes a life to hang in the balance.

- A man performs acrobatic stunts in the sky above New York City with only a cable to support him.

- A little boy gets his hero’s autograph, no matter the cost.

So it may not have been the best year for movies, but it had its moments. Here are my thoughts on some of the movies that got people talking this year, most of which are up for consideration tonight.

Movies reviewed:


Slumdog Millionaire

Frozen River


Gran Torino



I was excited to see this film because I knew nothing of the Frost and Nixon interviews, and the Nixon situation has always fascinated me, but I was less than impressed by the film’s use of mock talking-head interviews, which gave the film a surreal vibe and reminded me of This is Spinal Tap, the first mockumentary of its kind that treated its fictional characters as interview subjects in a spoof documentary. But unlike Spinal Tap, Frost/Nixon is about real people, and seeing interviews with the actors as if they are the real people was disconcerting. But beyond its effects on the film’s style, the interviews did little to contribute to our understanding of the story. The old adage is “Show, don’t tell,” but this film shows us, tells us and in case we did not get it the first two times, tells us again through these pedantic interviews.

There are other complaints to be made, and others have sunk their critical claws into this film deeper than I will here, but for me the film had its share of moments that made it a worthwhile experience. In my review of Changeling I mentioned how that film served as a persuasive justification for the role of lawyers in our society, and I felt Frost/Nixon was seeking to serve a similar justification for the role of the interviewer and perhaps even the use of television. According to the film, the interview served as the only trial Nixon would get, and Frost became the only investigator who would cross-examine him before the public. The film shows how this setup results in Nixon finally admitting to the reality that he was wrong, and television is vindicated for its ability to make this confession possible.

In a world of obfuscating politicians who dodge questions with sleight of hand rhetoric, talking points and tangential anecdotes, Frost/Nixon argues that television has the power to reveal the truth behind the obfuscations. While I would contend that TV has played a large role in making such obfuscations necessary in the first place, I did gain more respect for the tenacious interviewer who refuses to settle for political Newspeak.

Ironically, the film also gave me a newfound respect for Nixon, because, unlike any politician in recent memory, he actually admitted that he let the American people down. Perhaps that was the most refreshing part of the film, and perhaps it will serve as a reminder to the image-makers and politicians they coach that honesty in certain circumstances is not a sign of weakness, but strength.

Slumdog Millionaire

I recently returned from a short trip to India with 10 hours of video footage to be used in a promotional video for an orphanage just outside of Mumbai, so naturally a film chronicling the rise of an orphan from the slums of Mumbai would resonate with me. Thus it is a bit difficult for me to offer a pure critique of this film because I was vested in the setting and the situation. The film is definitely guilty of some of the same kinds of foibles that characterized another of my favorite films of the year: The Dark Knight. Both films keep throwing new things at you to keep you off-balance so you do not have time to notice that certain elements do not add up.

There are numerous examples of these kinds of manipulations in Slumdog: from flashbacks that provide wrong answers (Surdas did not write the song "Ankhiya Hari Darshan Ki Pyasi") and flashbacks that don’t give answers (because his brother had a revolver does not mean Jamal knows its inventor) to the fact that the second day’s broadcast is seen by Salim and Latika in real time (those shows are taped and re-broadcast) to melodrama of the highest order (the phone call suspense scene) and occasional weak screenwriting that is designed to give us simple answers just to keep the plot moving (in the mob scene, one of the attackers utters, “Get them; they’re Muslims!” as if his fellow attackers are unaware).

In spite of these weaknesses the film worked for me because it felt imminently Indian. On the plane ride back from India I watched a Bollywood film, and it was just perfectly awful. Even though it was an Indian movie, I did not feel like I was back in India. I did not feel jazzed to go back; the only thing I felt jazzed to do was watch something else. This is not to say all Bollywood films are that bad, but on the whole, the industry gives one a new appreciation for Hollywood.

Boyle, on the other hand, manages to communicate India so succinctly and with such stirring imagery, he had me wanting to hop on a plane and get back there (I actually woke up the following Saturday at 5 just so I could work on the footage from that trip).

Some critics fault the film, saying that Boyle glamorizes the slums and makes even trash heaps look appealing. Unlike them, I think this is one of the things Boyle gets right. Even in my last trip, visiting a gypsy slum in Navi Mumbai, which would make even some of the roughest stateside project seem luxurious by comparison, I witnessed children laughing and playing with the kind of innocent joy that only a child could maintain in such circumstances. Westerners can be so condescending even with our assistance, seeing only the blights and needs of the poorest of the poor, and then jump to the conclusion that the only solution is to end world poverty. But in our rush to save the world we often do not seek the opinions of those we are so intent on saving and even with all our good intentions, only manage to enact change on the most superficial of levels.

This movie gave me that kid’s eye view of slum poverty, and instead of demanding detached sympathy, beckoned me to come and learn from them, not as an idle curiosity, but to get an insider’s perspective on urban poverty. Slumdog may not give us that perspective, but I think it is a start in that direction-to seek out the Jamals and Latikas of the urban landscape and instead of forcing change upon them from the outside, encouraging and enabling them to transform their environments from within.

Again, for me this movie is almost critic-proof. I am sorry I cannot offer anything more substantial because it resonated with me on numerous levels, but I will say that Ramin Bahrani's film Chop Shop, about a boy who eeks out an existence in a harsh slum near Shea Stadium, is a more subtle and realistic take on slum life and serves as a fitting contrast to Slumdog’s fairytale quality.

Frozen River

Up for best original screenplay and best actress (for Melissa Leo) at the Oscars tonight, Frozen River is the type of independent film that still feels indie. Not all the performances are A-list, but Leo’s is very good, and the film succeeds, not only as a result of her fine work, but also for its tone. There is a foreboding feeling about this film that seems to pervade every scene, but the film does not go overboard and allow the tone to delve into the kind of hopeless nihilism that many other films of its ilk might.

Its nomination for Best Screenplay still feels like a bit of a concession to me (perhaps just to win a little more exposure for the film), because aside from certain strong elements, I found it guilty of some weak dialogue and too-insistent grasps at contrived conflict.

The film is still worth the time if you are at all interested in Independent films. It serves as a good reminder that low budgets can still provide adequate venues for good stories and compelling performances. Like Chop Shop, a film I heartily recommend to anyone who has the patience for subtlety, Frozen River subverts the rage-to-riches formula with a story that examines the merits of the notion that one’s dreams are always positive influences. While we all like underdog stories that make us think that dreams can come true (hello Slumdog), both these films remind us that oftentimes the line between dreams and greed is not so easily defined, and some dreams have the capacity not only to distract us from what is really important, but also to ruin our very lives.


You come to Doubt to see the fireworks set off between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep, but you will probably leave remembering Viola Davis’ performance more than anything else. Hoffman plays his part well, and Streep does fine (aside from an overly melodramatic outburst in the film’s climax, which she punctuates with a gesture that would have better suited the original stage play or a silent movie), but, while they play characters that intrigue us with their competing motivations, Davis, in her one substantial scene, inhabits a mother with a simple motivation: her son’s well-being. This one scene is being hailed as one of the most standout performances of the year, but this year’s crop of supporting actress noms is a tight pack, so there is no telling if she will pull ahead.

Doubt is designed to make you ask questions and perhaps to make you wonder what you would do in this situation, but the film’s primary reason is to create drama-drama that cannot be solved, drama that results in virtually nothing, but pure spectacle. The spectacle is not flashy or glitzy, and though it bears some resemblance to reality, its primary concern is to put characters in a pressure-cooker and witness their reactions.

At the same time, the film does manage to remind us that certainty is a commodity that is both precious and potentially dangerous. There are some situations that beg further investigation and patient inquiry when a rush to judgment seems the only viable solution. Like the situation upon which the drama in Doubt hinges, the film itself poses questions that require rumination. Unfortunately, many of them will be lost in the film's attempt to focus on the fireworks between Streep and Hoffman. It is a shame, too, because with Davis' great performance at the movie's heart, it could have taken us deeper.

Gran Torino

Some critics are going gaga over Eastwood’s performance as Walt Kowalski in this film. Even Adam Kempenaar, from my most trusted film source, the Filmspotting Podcast, cited this as his fifth favorite performance of the year. Suffice it to say that while Eastwood holds this film together I do not think his performance is that good. The film is not without merit, but aside from Eastwood’s, very few of the performances even approach the level of a high school play, bringing to mind a film that did not garner much critical praise this year-the Christian film Fireproof. That film was rife with the performances worthy of bad church skits, but Eastwood’s cast fares no better in a film that has won several awards.

For me, though, it was not just the acting that made this film difficult to watch, but also the script, which may as well have provided superimposed arrows onscreen to point out who is bad and who is good. The writer communicates that Walt's family is composed of self-serving yuppies with the subtlety of a nuclear warhead, and then further insults us with their conversations, which never amount to more than exposition. At other points in the film it is Eastwood's direction that draws undue attention. Walt drops a shot glass in reaction to a violent act with the same setup and dramatic emphasis he used in Changeling (there using a different tool of vice, a cigarette) and the moment works less here, partly because, like most of this film, it feels so staged.

But the reason the film is garnering such praise is Eastwood. His crass wisecracks and liberal use of equal opportunity racial slurs win most people over, especially as his heart begins shining through as the movie progresses. The film is touching in spite of itself, showing how an old man can come to cultural understanding (kudos to the screenwriter for making this development believable), how a child can learn to become a man (a little less successful here), and how the best response to conflict is a third path merging the competing virtues of justice and grace.


While I am not sure that any of the films nominated for best picture should lay claim to the title (I would pick Wall*E over all of them), I think that of the available choices Milk should take the award home tonight. Like the other films it faces, it is not without faults-a generic biopic plot arc, some tired storytelling methods (tape recorder as narrative device)-but it has something the other films on the list do not: a pertinent message.

So we are all on the same page-I am a Christian, and I do believe homosexuality is a sin. Call me a bigot if you want, but that is my belief. That being said, I also think that lusting after another man’s wife is a sin, that gossip is a sin, that drunkenness is a sin, that divorce is a sin (unless in reaction to adultery), and any other number of actions the Bible clearly enumerates as missing God’s mark (most of which I have been guilty of on repeated occasions). Until recently I felt that as Christians we should seek to keep the line of marriage clearly marked lest future generations push it further and further back, but for me, Milk served as a nice epitaph to that notion, which was recently laid to rest for me, in the wake of the passing of Amendment 2 in FL and Prop 8 in California.

In his review in The Matthew's House Project, Ken Morefield put into words my largest complaint with the film, that while Harvey says, “They need to see us as people,” the film does not give us enough personal time with Milk to get to know him as such. Milk’s private life is a catalogue of relational tragedy. The only bright spots in these people’s relational lives seem to be their sexual encounters. And I know that there are plenty of sex-fiend heteros around, too, but typically even movies that feature such characters strive to show that there is something deeper to these characters’ relationships than sex. I never saw such in this film. So, for a film depicting the life of a man who wanted to serve as a bridge between the gay community and the community at large, it does not succeed in giving us people we can fully relate to on a personal level, not just a political or ideological level.

Nonetheless, Milk does succeed in telling a story that needs to be told. I never knew about Harvey Milk before the buzz about this film hit the mainstream, and after seeing the film, I want everyone to know the circumstances surrounding his death, and the particulars of the rights battle in which he was pitched. In 1978 Harvey Milk fought the passage of Proposition 6, which would force homosexuals out of their jobs as teachers. Milk helped lead the way in voting the proposition down, but today of course we have just witnessed (and some of us have been party to) the passing of legislation that prohibits gay marriage. I have written short summary elsewhere cataloguing
my reasons
for not voting to pass Amendment 2, but I hope to give a better explanation shortly.

In the meantime, I think this movie is one that needs to be seen. It may seem overly political to vote a film in solely on the basis of social agenda, but one must realize that the Academy operates under such a conviction very often. An Inconvenient Truth was not the best documentary from 2006, and Melissa Etheridge’s song for that film was certainly not the best song, but both won because they were deemed important socially. I am not sure that in those cases the Academy was at all justified, because the contenders Gore and Etheridge faced were more deserving. But Milk does not face any films that really need to win in my opinion. I love Slumdog. It was one of my most entertaining film experiences of the year, but it was not my favorite filmgoing experience of the year, so if we are not going to celebrate the best cinema, let us celebrate the cinema that forces us to deal with an issue we have been avoiding for too long: equality under the law.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Required Viewing: Lake of Fire

I tend to respect films that make me cry, and Lake of Fire did just that, but not by manipulating my emotions as a lesser documentary might. I cried because, after a two-and-a-half hour assault of imagery, debate, testimonials, and philosophizing, the film ends with a woman who gets an abortion and cries.

Kaye does not wax Michael Moore and tell us why she is crying, but I believe I know. I think it is because there are a host of people out there preaching at her FROM EVERY CORNER giving her blanket assessments about what is right, what is wrong, what choices are good and what choices are bad. I wanted to jump through the screen and put my arm around her and tell her I’m sorry. Not because I oppose abortion, but because I don’t do enough to prevent its necessity. I wanted to apologize for the ridiculous perversions of my belief system-the bombings of abortion clinics and the assassinations of abortion providers. I wanted to apologize for the adamant pro-lifers who live with their heads in a cloudless sky where abortion is never necessary. I wanted to apologize for the pro-choice advocates who not only think that a woman alone should be shouldered with the burden to choose, but treat such a choice as both an inalienable right in the causes of rape, incest and the woman’s health, and a privilege that can save the woman from discomfort, responsibility and inconvenience. I wanted to apologize that both sides of the issue have fought so hard to reduce her struggle to two simple words when her decision is rife with complexity.

This film is not an agenda documentary; it embodies what the term “documentary” should mean, but has been lost in the current quagmire of films that pass as documentaries: one-sided diatribes that use the image either as a bludgeon to beat the other side into submission or as a salve to comfort fellow ideologues. Critics who watch Lake of Fire typically complain about it being biased, but you know they are wrong because the claims of bias tip to either side of the scale. Some claim it is too conservative, while others claim it is too liberal. But in attempting to peg Kaye down, they only reveal their own bias, and they succumb to the same type of reductionist rhetoric that made this film a necessity. They think that in their paltry review they will be able to do what Kaye could not do in 154 minutes: solve the abortion issue. In doing so, they miss the whole point of this film-this issue is too complex to solve with picket lines and one-liners. It is deeply moral, deeply theological, deeply philosophical, and deeply personal and until we start listening, we are not going to get anywhere, and that goes for everyone, not just those bigoted pro-lifers.

The film has not received much buzz because it is just too hard a sell I suppose, and that is why you must watch it. I am prone to overstatement, but here I go anyway: this is one of the most important documentaries in the last decade, because it refuses to settle for simple answers and trendy naïveté.

At first you will wonder if Kaye is pro-life with his heavy reliance on religious symbolism at the film’s beginning and perhaps even his choice of title, but it all comes together as the movie progresses, and you are forced to deal with arguments that will both madden and impress you. You are treated to the best and worst of both extremes of the debate, but also cogent analysis from those more moderate voices who have given much thought to the issue.

This film is not for the faint of heart. Kaye shows footage from two abortions and presents an expert who gives graphic explanation of back-alley abortions along with a photo of a woman who dies as a result. Both sides will squirm at these images, and we should be forced to do so. See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil is no longer an option with this issue. It is time we took this thing head on.

After railing against the pros for using their reviews as a bully pulpit for their own easy answers, it would be hypocritical for me to do the same, but I will say that this film helped me see through the muddy waters a bit more clearly and made me realize a few things.

As I mentioned earlier, I was struck with the notion that we who are against abortion must do more to prevent abortion than seek its illegalization. I think Christians need to take leadership again in this issue instead of being drug along by a political party who is using abortion as a means to coerce us to vote for them. The type of leadership we must take, however, cannot be the type we have sought in recent years. If we are to be followers of Christ, it will mean that we suffer for others, and holding a sign is not close enough to the kind of suffering Jesus emobodied. There are promising things happening. Locally, we have the House of Grace, crisis pregnancy center, which is designed to truly give girls another option, instead of the one choice abortion advocates seem to think is the only logical possibility. We need more of those safe houses, and less blockades at abortion clinics. We need more men who will treat sex as a privilege that entails responsibility, not an inalienable right devoid of consequences. If all the men who claim to be Christian or pro-lifers actually made a few simple (perhaps not easy) choices themselves before having sex (i.e., don’t, wait, use a condom, buy birth control) to ensure that unintended pregnancies don’t happen, I am quite certain the million or so complex and difficult choices women must make every year would be reduced significantly.

But on the whole, this movie further confirmed that we all really need to listen a lot better than we are, and if you are someone that finds yourself on either end of the abortion spectrum, Lake of Fire would be a great place to start.

Proceed to Closing Thoughts-Sounding Off

Return to Destructive Interference Issue 1

The Watchmen

While my current quote may be a far too cutting indictment on Benjamin Button, I really liked Matty's word picture there. Very well put. I have yet to see the film, so I cannot offer my opinion yet, but I'm planning on posting my thoughts on the Oscar films once I've gotten the last few on the checklist. It will not be totally all-encompassing because I live in Panama City, and many of the films never have come and probably will never come here, but I am going to try to give the most thorough treatment I can.

In the mean time, I thought I'd give my thoughts on the upcoming adaptation of the graphic novel Time magazine named (for better or worse) as one of the top 100 novels of all time.

I have seen the theatrical trailer twice now, and though I was excited the first time, I now have no faith that Snyder has done the source material its due justice. Perhaps the first time I was swayed by the music (I have a soft spot for Muse’s undulating ostinatos), or maybe I was just excited to see imagery from the book translated to the silver screen. But the second time I noticed every flaw, and I have good cause to assume that this film will not work.

Even during the first viewing I was distracted by Rorschach’s voice. Apparently Snyder did not hear all the complaints concerning Bale’s guttural whisper as Batman. Most people were willing to forgive Batman’s grunting delivery because they liked the film, but why in the world did The Watchmen’s filmmakers decide to copycat that element of the Batman franchise? But aside from copycatting the tone of Batman’s voice, what really frustrates me about Rorschach’s wheeze is that it does not match his character at all. (SPOILER WARNING)

In the book Rorschach, when not wearing the mask, looks like Opie-a red-haired spindly thing whose voice probably cracks-but they have to make him sound like a throat-singer in the film. In the book he is a force to be reckoned with, not because he sounds menacing, but because he does things no one else has the stomach for. He’s a sociopath who happens to have a moral compass (of some sort). And though it seems the movie forgets, he is not a superhero. The film shows his mask morphing from ink-blot to ink-blot as if he has some kind of special ability or cool gadgetry. But no, it's just a big sock with an ink-blot on it.(CORRECTION: Actually, I just looked back at the graphic novel, and Rorschach's mask did change its looks like the filmmakers were a bit more perceptive than I gave them credit for...mea culpa ) The Watchmen was not a comic book about superheroes, but vigilantes who wear suits. They had no special powers (except for John). But from the trailer, it is evident that Snyder wants to take the superpowers angle and exploit it.

There is a scene in which Rorschach Jackie Chans a scaffold, and a certain character tosses The Comedian across a room and out the window as if they reside in a world that abides by the gravity laws of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I understand that Snyder is going for style here, but it is the wrong style.

The Watchmen was meant to be the ultimate noir. Dirty and depressing, its pages were rough, and its images as coarse as 12-grit sandpaper. But in its film incarnation Snyder opts for glitz over grit, giving us airbrushed explosions (that he manipulates with that trite fast-slow Matrix time technique as if the umpteen uses in 300 were not enough) and sleek costumes.

Trailers can mislead, true, but I am going out on a limb here to say that this film will not live up to the hype.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Last night I finally got the chance to see Slumdog Millionaire, and I loved it. It’s a popular bandwagon to be jumping on at the moment, but I have had eyes on this film since I first heard about it because:

A – I have a soft spot in my heart for India (We are planning on moving there after all)

B – Though the only Boyle film I’ve seen is 28 Days Later, because I was impressed by that film and because my favorite critics named their podcast after his breakout film Trainspotting, I had every reason to expect that Boyle would both do justice to the setting and the people and would deliver a film that works.

C – I had just returned from Mumbai and the thought of Boyle traipsing through India’s busiest city filming without permits made me feel kind of special, being that I tagged along on a tour of Mumbai while Patrick Jones( the guy in glasses) shot un-permitted B-roll for a promo video for Friendship Centre India, which is forthcoming.

I think I have realized that I would not make the best professional movie critic, because I often let my initial reaction dictate my judgment concerning a film, and numerous times I have realized that upon closer examination, I really did not like certain films as much as I thought I did. Crash, The Dark Knight, and Cloverfield are just a few of the films I liked so much initially that I did not examine them honestly. I still like all three of these films, but my initial fervor has cooled in all three cases, and I feel that were I to write reviews now, I would be able to provide a far more objective analysis.

I am afraid to issue a true review of Slumdog, then, because I had such a great time with this movie, and due to my bias for all things Indian, I think I would probably overstate my case. So, rather than deliver a full-on review, I’ll just hit the high points and make a few observations.

First, I am not sure if the credit should go primarily to Directors Danny Boyle or Loveleen Tandan, to Chris Dickens as Editor, to Anthony Dod Mantle as cinematographer, or (as is most likely the case) a combination of all four, but this movie features some phenomenal musical sequences. The cricket game that evolves into a chase scene at the film’s beginning put me there. At one point in the chase, Boyle gives us three rapid-fire overhead shots depicting the kids being chased by the policeman, each widening a bit more than the previous. It’s the type of duh-duh-duhnnn rhythm we’ve seen a billion times, but Boyle and co. use it in the middle of the chase when the kids hit a thirty or so square-foot clearing in the middle of the crowded slum, and each shot gives us a better idea of what the term “wall-to-wall” really means. The final shot in this impressive setup (I am at a loss as to how he pulled this angle off) is wide enough to see myriad tiny shacks crammed up against each other so closely that their varicolored roofs overlap, and the only people visible are our heroes and their pursuer. While this final shot works as a breathtaking visual reprieve from the clamorous chase, it also could function as a perfect snapshot to symbolize this film, which happens to be about the vastness of the world’s fastest growing nation and one boy’s improbable hope that arrests our attention.

My second observation is more trivial than anything, but it really caught me off-guard. At one point, late in the narrative, when our hero Jamal begins working at a call-center, the shot used to establish a certain building as Jamal’s workplace features a few men in uniform walking past the camera. I have not found any web buzz confirming this, but I am almost positive one of the men looks right at the camera, performs a shooing motion and says, “No cameras!” It is difficult to tell for sure due to the man’s thick accent and the quickness of the event, but it struck me because if he did say that, I just can’t help but wonder why Boyle would include this shot in the film. I knew he did some guerrilla film making, but judging from the intense planning of other setups (as above) I’m sure he had some other nice building he could have used for the call center. Or did he include this on purpose, and if so, why?

You must understand going into this movie that the filmmakers have gone out of their way to keep you off-balance. There are a number of manipulative moments and contrivances that really don’t work, but because the movie moves so fast you probably will not even notice them. This is why a truly honest criticism of the movie would require what the movie barely allows you to do: cross your arms and furrow your brows.

But, honestly, that’s okay by me. So often film snobs who enshrine classic movies are so blinded by their (our-I’ve been guilty) desire to be considered connoisseurs of film that we tend to overlook glaring problems with the classics because we’ve been told they are classics. Have you watched a Hitchcock film recently? Cross your arms and furrow your brows-you’ll be surprised how much you can nitpick on. The same is true of all the old greats-Hawks, Ford, Wilder. They were great movies, yes, but they weren’t perfect. Even so, they inspired generations of visionary directors to further expand cinema’s influence and artistry. These aspiring filmmakers sprung from our shores to those of France, Japan and even India.

In India’s case, one man who was inspired by the likes of Hawks and Ford was Satyajit Ray. He crafted subtle tales about Indian life that would never achieve the universal acclaim of a film like Slumdog Millionaire, but I believe Slumdog, like the great Westerns and noirs of classic American cinema, may have what it takes to help inspire a whole new generation of Satyajit Rays to take Indian film beyond where it is now, and that in itself, may be worth the price of production.

Monday, March 19, 2007

More Than a Period Piece

Amazing Grace is one of those movies that, if you’re not careful, can sneak past without much notice or protest. Most people I’ve talked to haven’t even heard of the movie. It is truly unfortunate because I found this film to be quite the diamond in the rough.

Perhaps it is the title that scares even would-be supporters of the film to steer clear. Even though Christianity is supposedly a commercial hotspot right now after The Passion of the Christ, any time “Christian” movies (films that are produced by companies spawned out of the Christian subculture) actually find their way to theaters or the rental store, they are avoided like the plague by the bulk of the populace, because, well, let’s be honest, these movies just plain suck. I’m thinking of Left Behind, Omega Code, Hangman’s Curse and the like. Thankfully this film is not in that vein.

The title is derived from the famous hymn of course, but what you may not have realized is that this hymn was written by a former slave trader-turned pastor named John Newton, who also had a profound impact on a man named William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was the man who for years fought against the institution of slavery in the British parliament and was instrumental in its abolition long before America would follow suit. The film focuses on Wilberforce, the abolitionist, so like 2005’s Capote, is less a biography, than the chronicle of one aspect of a man’s life. It is an engrossing aspect, and the story is well written, directed and acted.

There are a couple of dinger moments. One exchange goes something to the effect of: “So you’re saying you found God?” And all us Christians respond in unison with Wilberforce, “I think He found me.” This kind of thing can be forgiven, though, because elsewhere, the writer, Steven Knight, crafts some really witty repartee, and is often downright profound.

Ioan Gruffudd gives an earnest and believable performance as Wilberforce, and Steven Knight, has infused this portrait of the man with nobility and at the same time frailty, ensuring that we not only root for him, but also identify with him. The supporting cast is peopled by the likes of Michael Gambon, Ciaran Hinds, and Albert Finney (character actors you will recognize, but probably won’t be able to place); all of whom turn in outstanding performances. Albert Finney is absolutely wonderful as Wilberforce’s mentor pastor John Newton.

Some have complained that there is not enough of the horror and atrocity of slavery actually depicted onscreen, and that perhaps the subject has been Disney-fied beyond recognition. But this movie is not seeking to be Amistad or Schindler's List, and to impose that expectation on the film is unfair. Again, the film centers on William Wilberforce the abolitionist, and in spite of its lack of visual aids, it recreates his own abhorrence for slavery very well.

One critic claimed that Wilberforce is not worthy of real heroism because he’s rich and retreats to his well-established estate when not fighting slavery. The writer must have forgotten that Wilberforce leaves his doors open to peasants who overrun his house in one scene. This is not the socially conscious hypocritical celebrity activist of the present, who villifies the president and then returns home to his mansion that dwarfs the president's and does nothing about the problem. This is a man whose rhetoric was not separated from his lifestyle, but whose whole life rang with cohesion.

This movie challenged me, and I think all Christians should watch it to remind us that while we are in this world, we need to be advocates of the truly downtrodden, because even with all our study of the Word, we often leave behind those numerous commands to care for the poor in favor other, more esoteric or advantageous propositions. I hope non-Christians watch the movie as well, to see that there have been great men of God who, though frail and weak like the rest of us, did more than just talk about love or prepare for eternity, but actually helped make this world a better place.

**** out of ****