Category Archives: Movies and TV

Goya’s Ghosts

Last night we watched Goya’s Ghosts, a film directed by Miloš Forman and starring Natalie Portman, Javier Bardeem and Stellan Skarsgård. Nominally centered on the life of Francisco de Goya (have I mentioned how much I like his work and that he could be a distant “cousin” of mine?), it is really more a commentary on Spain in the late 1700s/early 1800s. Goya’s life isn’t really delved into very much, rather the political/social circumstances than inspired much of his work is the main story. Which is good, as that is the only historically accurate part of the story: the French invasion of Spain and the subsequent repulsion of the French by the British. The more personal story, involving Bardeem’s Father Lorenzo, Portman’s Ines, and Skarsgård’s Goya, seems to be based on a collection of events that happened to multiple people (according to an interview of Forman that I had seen online). The personal story is interesting, but, as always, I get frustrated that it is impossible to know what is based on historical fact and what is artistic license. It would be nice if, on the DVD extras, they went into that.

Overall, the movie was very good. I enjoyed it. It is a bit dark, but anyone familiar with Goya’s work should expect nothing less. As a consequence, it is not a very uplifting story. Bardeem’s character, in particular, is an opportunist. His life as a monk in the Catholic Church is destroyed, but he makes himself an even more powerful life afterwards.

I guess that Forman meant to use the movie to comment on current events, especially on the use of torture. There is one scene in which Lorenzo is confronted about the Church’s use of certain “questioning” techniques which is both very powerful and very insightful about the effectiveness of torture. The way that Ines’ father proves his point about how the validity of confessions obtained via torture is very direct and very satisfying on one level, though disturbing on another.

I don’t think this movie will be for everyone. I liked it because of the snapshot of Spanish life during the time that it represents. I also like that Goya, while not the main character, is still featured, and so is his art. I just wish that a good story like this could have been told with a bit more historical veracity.

Reel ’em in

With Lisa being pregnant and stuck at home, we’ve been watching a few more movies than normal (at least for me). Some quick-fire thoughts on what we saw the last week.

The Illusionist: Starring Ed Norton, who I actually really enjoyed in The Fight Club, this is probably my favorite of this batch. It tells the story of a magician, Eisenheim, who has seemingly supernatural powers. And his dealings with the would-be emperor of Austria Leopold and Leopold’s would-be bride Sophia, who happens to be a childhood friend of Eisenheim. The movie is a bit slow in places and Norton’s acting is a bit odd. His voice is monotone for most of the movie, which was a bit offputting, but overall, I really enjoyed the story. And, the twist at the end was unexpected, at least for me. Giamatti does a great job as the inspector who’s torn between his ethics in his job and his loyalty to Leopold. The mood of the movie was, I thought, very good.

The Invasion: Another movie I really enjoyed.  This is an update of the classic “body snatcher” theme movies, with an update in that the alien invaders are more an intelligent virus than a humanoid species.  What I found most interesting was not so much the sci-fi aspect of the movie, but the commentary it made on free will and independence and how those create the human condition, for both good and bad.  With free will, we can create, feel and love, but we can also destroy and hate.  Is a world in which we can’t do either in some ways better than one where we get the bad with the good?  The acting was good, though Kidman felt a little stiff at times.  I like Craig (in my opinion, the best Bond I’ve watched) and I think he did a good job here too.

Ratatouille:  Yet another movie I enjoyed.  The common theme was that I picked movies I thought both Lisa and I would enjoy and that had been reasonably well reviewed.  I thought this one was great.  The animation was excellent, as always from Pixar.  The story was a bit hammy, but was good. The concept of the rat Remy controlling the human Linguini was interesting, but I think it wasn’t grounded in anything real.  Ok, so we’re talking about a rat that cooks.  You’d think I could suspend my disbelief a bit more.  But, there was something about Remy controlling Linguini by pulling his hair I couldn’t buy.  Suggesting movements, that I could go for.  But out-right control?  A little too much.  But, overall, I thought it was a nice story, typical of Pixar.  Maybe a little too sugar-coated.  But, worth the watch.

Ocean’s Thirteen:  We just watched this one with Lisa’s parents.  First, the most annoying thing: the sound.  If I turned the volume down so that the music wasn’t over-bearing, I couldn’t hear the voices.  If I turned up the volume so that I could hear the voices, the music just blasted me away.  So, I missed some of the dialog as I turned the volume down too much.  Regarding the story, this one was ok.  Typical of the series, I felt (though I haven’t seen 12).  Nothing overly spectacular.  It felt like it was just going through the motions.  There is never any real tension.  You never really feel that there is any chance the crew won’t be successful in their caper.  The most interesting thing is some of the insights into Vegas gambling.  But, some of it was just over the top, like the drilling machines.  I think the first one pushed the tension much more and just made it feel like what they were doing was a tough job.  This one, not so much.  Definitely, my least favorite of this crop.

Charlie Wilson’s War

Lisa and I just got back from watching Charlie Wilson’s War. For those of you who might not know, it is about the US’s involvement in the Afghan fight against the Soviets (wow, how many people reading this might not have been alive when there was a Soviet Union?). I don’t want to spoil too much, but I highly recommend it. One of the best movies I’ve seen in the past year. It is both funny and very thought provoking. The interaction between Hanks and Seymour Hoffman is outstanding. I think Seymour Hoffman has to be one of the best actors out there. And Roberts does a fine job too.

The main plot is how the US got heavily involved in that fight and how Wilson got money and weapons to the Afghans. But, I think the bigger point of the story is how we had great intentions, but how the results have come back to haunt us. At the end of the film, there is a quote from the real Charlie Wilson about how we did a great job but then didn’t finish the job (he is a bit more direct about how he says this). And, while it isn’t directly stated, it is definitely implied that our lack of follow up is at least one major contributor to our current situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the rise of Islamic extremism. And, that this is a common occurrence in US foreign involvement.

(As an aside, I was never in favor of the Iraq war. But, I also don’t see how we can now cut and run. We will have a much bigger problem in the future if we don’t find some way to create a stable Iraq that is on relatively decent terms with us. And, I think, this is part of the lesson of Charlie Wilson’s War.)

I don’t know quite how historically accurate the facts are, and there are criticisms of some things (see the Wikipedia link at the top). But, I don’t really think it matters. To me, the movie wasn’t about the details of what Wilson or Avrakotos or Herring did. Rather, it is about two things: the personalities of these characters and the bigger picture of the US involvement in the Afghan fight.

I don’t understand how this movie was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Commedy. Sure, there are funny scenes, but I think they serve to lighten the mode, to make the message of the film easier to swallow. You start off thinking this is some fun romp in the life of a congressman. It is only later that you realize the implications of what he has done for the future security of the US and the World.

I think my favorite aspect of the movie was Seymour Hoffman’s acting. I’m naturally drawn to characters that are cynical and cranky (Red was my favorite on That 70’s Show), so maybe this is no surprise. But, I think he did an outstanding job.

Go see this movie. It makes you think about how events and actions, especially those involving superpowers, can’t be viewed in isolation. They all have consequence, intended or otherwise, and the present can only be understood in the context of the past.

The Golden Compass

I’ve been meaning to read Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series for a while.  But, I just haven’t found the time.  I even bought the first book in anticipation of the movie, but didn’t get it read before the movie came out.  Instead of waiting until I got to it, Lisa and I went to see the movie adaptation this past weekend.

First, some comments on the movie itself.  I liked it.  It wasn’t perfect.  My main problem with it was the pacing.  I felt that there was too much action, from the point of view of getting me to care for the characters.  I think I was meant to be much more emotionally involved in the characters than I had the time to do.  For example, the scene when Lyra tells Yorik the bear how much he means to her, well, I didn’t get the feeling that there was any reason for her to feel so strongly for the bear.  I think it is likely that, in the book, the relationship between the two characters is much more developed, but in the movie, it was just too fast paced for that relationship to be developed.  So, I think they intended for me to be more involved with the characters than I was.

But, the story was very cool; I really enjoyed the world Pullman created.  And the effects were done well.  I didn’t like the flying witches in that their flight didn’t fit in quite as well as some of the other special effects.  And when Lyra is riding on Yorik:  I don’t think CGI guys have that kind of thing down yet.  Animating one character being thrown about by another must be very hard (Legolas on the back of the troll was the worst CGI in The Fellowship of the Ring).  Despite thse short comings, though, I enjoyed it.

Then, there is the whole controversy about the anti-religiousness of the movie.  I understand that the anti-Church tone of the book was toned down for the movie, and I think that it is not too overpowering in the movie.  As Lisa pointed out, the movie feels less anti-religion and more anti-authority, anti-totalitarianist, anti-fascist.  The point of the movie, and I would assume, the book, is that people must think for themselves.  The Magesterium (which, I read somewhere, is what the educational wing of the Catholic Church is actually called) is a totalitarian organization, telling people how to live, how to behave, how to think.  Lyra represents those who would think for themselves.

In this light, I really don’t understand all the protests.  I guess people feel threatened by what they perceive to be an attack on their religion.  However, I have to be honest:  if this movie causes someone to doubt their faith, to question their beliefs, I can’t believe they were very strong in the first place.  If parents are afraid that this movie and the books will corrupt their children, will send them an anti-religion message, then the years of brainwashing they have already experienced just didn’t sink in enough.  If years of hearing the same message from their church, pastors and priests, and parents is overthrown so easily, then maybe the message wasn’t so strongly accepted in the first place.

I think the message of the movie is exactly the kind of thing every child should hear.  They should think for themselves.  If, after watching the movie, kids think about their beliefs and why they hold them, and even if they come out of the experience with even more conviction for their beliefs, that is a good thing.  Kids should be encouraged to think for themselves, to question everything around them, to discover the world on their own.  And if a movie like The Golden Compass can contribute to such behavior, then there should be more such movies.

Michael Clayton

Last weekend, we saw Michael Clayton.  I’ve heard that there has been a clamor for “adult-oriented” films, and by that I don’t mean XXX.  Rather, films that are geared toward a thinking adult audience, with more than just explosions (not that I dislike explosions).  Michael Clayton was supposed to be a film that appealed to such people, though it has not done as well as hoped at the box office.

I have to say I really enjoyed the film.  I would say that the plot is secondary here, that the characters are the real drivers.  The plot is pretty simple, and pretty “ripped-from-the-headlines”: a big, bad company is destroying some mid-western families. The story is about the lawyers who represent that company.  There are two sets of lawyers, it seems, one directly with the company and a set with the firm the company hires.  Michael Clayton, played by George Clooney, is one of the second.  It is about him and his best friend, and trying to understand what his best friend is going through.

As I said, the plot isn’t necessarily novel or overly dramatic.  It has a few twists and turns that keep it from being too predictable.  But the real essence of the film, to me, is in the characters.  All of the characters are brought to life by some great acting.  Even the bad guys, lead by the lawyer for the company, are made real.  You get the sense that she isn’t necessarily an evil person as just someone trying to get ahead who is way over her head.

Michael Clayton himself is brought to life via his interactions with the people around him: his lawyer colleagues, his family, the guy shutting down his bar.  You can tell Clayton is a guy just trying to get through life, doing the best he can, but sometimes sacrificing his principles to keep afloat.  Because of his situation, at the end, you aren’t quite sure which route he is going to go with the information he has.

Overall, again, a film I’d recommend.  Especially for someone who wants a good drama but doesn’t necessarily want all of the bombs and fights typical of summer fare.