Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)


Of Gods and Men

Brother Christian is none to happy that the liberalized Vatican guidelines don’t allow him to administer corporal punishment any longer.

(2010) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loic Pichon, Xavier Maly, Jean-Marie Frin, Abdelhafid Metalsi, Sabrina Ouazani, Abdallah Moundy, Olivier Perrier. Directed by Xavier Beauvois

 

Courage isn’t necessarily picking up a gun or a weapon. Sometimes it isn’t even uttering a cross word. Fighting for what you believe in takes a special type of courage, I’ll grant you but refusing to fight for it sometimes takes even more. Sometimes the greatest courage is to allow events to run their course.

In a small village in Algeria (not named in the movie but where the actual incident took place) in 1996, there was a remote Trappist Monastery made up of seven aging French monks. Although the village was completely Islamic, the monks live a serene pastoral life of raising their own crops and honey, praying and singing daily (the soundtrack is actually breathtaking with beautiful Gregorian chants), and dispensing medicine and clothing to the impoverished villages. They are not attempting to convert anyone to Catholicism, they simply do what they can to help and otherwise show their devotion to God through their simple lifestyle and their will to do good for those around them.

But the outside world isn’t necessarily a perfect place and Islamic fundamentalist violence has begun to show its ugly head. A group of Bulgarian construction workers are viciously attacked and murdered, their throats slit. Another woman is murdered for not wearing a veil. The violence is escalating throughout the country and the government is concerned for the well-being of the monks. They offer to relocate them somewhere that is at least temporarily safer.

However, Brother Christian (Wilson), the monk elected leader and spokesman of their little group, feels that their place is in the village where they can continue to do good work. The government offers them protection, volunteering to station military men at the monastery but Brother Christian believes this would be inappropriate. Despite the growing danger, he wants to stay. Not all the monks are on board with this idea, however.

Despite the fact that the monks live in harmony with the villagers and offer care free of charge, despite the high regard in which their neighbors hold them, the inevitable happens and terrorists begin to turn their keen eyes on the monastery. It soon becomes obvious that the monks are in mortal danger, with each one reacting in his own way to the prospect of their own deaths staring them in the face. The monastery’s doctor, the 70-something Brother Luc (Lonsdale) is sanguine but others are less so.

This was France’s official entry into the 2011 Foreign Language Film Oscar sweepstakes and it’s easy to see why. Not only is this beautifully filmed – the composition of the various scenes is as close to paintings as film gets – but it is beautifully acted as well. Lonsdale in particular will grab your attention; he is at turns cantankerous and serene. Wilson, best known as the flamboyant Merovingian in the Matrix trilogy, is a quiet leader who persuades rather than commands. His relationship with the village elders is based on trust and respect, and he knows the Koran as well if not better than the terrorists who quote it.

But this is not about terrorism or even death. It’s about belief and faith, and how powerful those things can be even in the face of pain and death. This is a movie that invites quiet contemplation. Much of the first part of the film depicts the daily life of the monks; it makes the second half so much more powerful because of it. American audiences might have trouble sitting through the first part but I found it to be very evocative. Who wouldn’t love a lifestyle so simple and so fulfilling?

This is a depiction of humanity both at its worst and at its best. You may recoil at the inhumanity and cruelty of men, but you will be uplifted by the courage and nobility of men as well. Catholics have taken their fair share of shots lately. This is a fictionalized version of these events but nevertheless I must confess that this movie made me prouder to be Catholic than I have been in a very long time.

WHY RENT THIS: Heartbreaking and soul-stirring. Marvelous performances all around but particularly by Lonsdale and Wilson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very understated.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images including one scene of devastating violence and also  bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won three Cesars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) in 2011, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Lonsdale.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette in which the actual monastery where these events took place is visited, and also another one in which author John W. Kiser, who wrote a book on the events, discusses the real Tibehirine monks at Merrimack College with Augustine academics.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $42.2M on an unreported production budget; this was undoubtedly a big hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Where Do We Go Now?

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: I’m Still Here

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Winnie the Pooh


Winnie the Pooh

WInnie the Pooh scurries about the Hundred Acre Wood in search of Hunny.

(2011) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Jim Cummings, Craig Ferguson, John Cleese, Tom Kenny, Travis Oakes, Bud Luckey, Jack Boulter, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Wyatt Dean Hall, Huell Howser. Directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall

The thing with classics is that they simply don’t bear remaking or rebooting. They were done correctly the first time out; is there a compelling reason to try to capture lightning in a bottle again?

Of course there is. Here, the essence of the Disney classic Pooh movies is recaptured, from the story that moves along like a lazy summer day to the beautifully drawn but deceptively simple animation. The story isn’t terribly complicated – Pooh is out of honey and goes to find some, leading to a series of misadventures. There is also a subplot of Eeyore’s tail being missing; sharp-eyed viewers will be able to find it but most will not. And no, I’m not giving you any hints.

John Cleese proves to be a wonderful successor to Sebastian Cabot as the movie’s narrator and like the Disney classics, the animators aren’t above reminding you that Pooh originally began life as a book. There is nothing frightening here in the least, even the dreaded Backson, which is the Heffalump of this movie.

I found myself missing the classic character voices, from Paul Winchell as Tigger (Jim Cummings here) to Sterling Holloway as Pooh (Cummings again) to John Fiedler as Piglet (Travis Oates in this version). Your kids, however might not have that issue but be warned that you might wind up comparing the modern cast with the classic one. It’s an occupational hazard for rebooting a classic.

Whether or not Disney continues to create Pooh films will probably depend on the home video sales; quite frankly the movie underperformed in a disappointing summer when put up against the last Harry Potter film and flashier kid fare that was marketed to near distraction. This movie however does at least bring viewers back to a kinder, simpler time and kinder, simpler movies. It’s a quiet alternative to the CGI-heavy pop culture icons that are mostly what we get in animated features these days, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. I heartily recommend this for parents of younger children; it is a nice way to keep them occupied while you take a break from being a parent and get to be a kid again yourself.

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderful nostalgia factor. Lack of stunt voices and simple animation makes this a pleasure for adults.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is a bit too reminiscent of past Pooh classics. Ideal entertainment for kids six and under and their parents who adored the Disney classics; not so much for those who didn’t.

FAMILY VALUES:  Extremely family friendly.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The familiar Winnie the Pooh theme is sung on the soundtrack by actress Zooey Deschanel and musician M. Ward, better known as She and Him. They also contributed the end credits song “So Long.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a wonderful featurette on the history of Pooh from his origins in the A.A. Milne stories to the wonderful Disney classics. There’s a sing-along feature to the movie that you can activate where the lyrics will appear for each song and Christopher Robins balloon helps kids sing the lyrics in time to the movie. There are also a couple of animated shorts (one Pooh-related, the other one which played in the theaters with this movie) and an odd featurette on how to create the perfect Pooh-themed nursery for your new baby – assuming you have one. If not, there are instructions on how to go get one (just kidding).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.2M on a $30M production budget; the movie was unprofitable on its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Emperor’s Club

The Wicker Man (2006)


Wicker Man

"Anything Mel can do I can do better, I can do anything better than Mel..."

(2006) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Beahan, Leelee Sobieski, Frances Conroy, Molly Parker, Diane Delano, Michael Wiseman, Erika-Shaye Gair, Aaron Eckhart. Directed by Neil LaBute.

The 1973 horror-suspense film The Wicker Man, which starred Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee, was an atmospheric piece that depended on creating a mood to creep audiences out. There was little overt gore, but it still remains in the minds of many, a masterpiece of horror that is unsung. Only now that a high-profile remake is being released is it getting the kind of DVD release it deserves. So what of that high-profile remake?

It’s a bit different than the original. Highway patrol officer Edward Malus (Cage) is traumatized by an accident on the highway in which a mother and daughter burn to death and he is unable to rescue them. He is deep in depression, having overcome the physical injuries but still blames himself for the two lives he couldn’t save. 

Out of the blue he gets a letter from an ex-fiancée named Willow (Beahan) who left him and basically broke his heart. Now, she needs his help. Her daughter Rowan (Gair) has disappeared and she is frightened for her safety. She lives on an island in the Puget Sound called Summerisle, a privately-owned communal farm that specializes in honey. There are no regular ferries, so the girl must still be on the island. Despite misgivings by his partner Pete (Wiseman), Malus, being of no forethought – get it? – decides to go find the girl, deep down hoping he can redeem himself for the one he lost.

After basically conning his way onto the island, Malus is met by a chilly reception by the island’s inhabitants, a sort of Amish-like community in homespun dresses. After blustering his way around the island, he finally finds Willow in a common house, where the bartender Beech (Delano) reluctantly gives him a room.

As Malus investigates, things begin to get weirder. First of all, the women seem to be in a dominant position on the island, the men being relegated to menial labor and breeding stock. They never speak – I thought they had been made mute, although da Queen thought they were just too frightened to speak. He is having hallucinatory flashbacks to the accident, and sees visions that are terrifying. Most of the islanders deny the very existence of Rowan, but soon the stodgy Malus begins to find evidence that he is being lied to. A meeting with the Queen Bee of the colony, Sister Summerisle (Burstyn) convinces him that there is a secret that the women of the island are hiding. Still, he is getting no help from Willow whose behavior is becoming increasingly confused and dazed. With no phone service and no connection to the outside world, Malus realizes he is alone in a very dangerous situation.

For whatever reason, the filmmakers decided to take the Christian vs. Pagan themes of the original movie and change them into a women vs. men scenario. The result is kind of a severe anti-feminist backlash, in which earth mother-worshipping females, who in the real world tend to be nurturing and gentle, become bloodthirsty advocates of human sacrifice. Not only does the psychology make no sense whatsoever, I found the movie to be exceedingly misogynistic. There is only one sympathetic female character in the entire movie – a waitress in the very first scene. I don’t know if that was the intention of the director and the writer, but that’s the impression I got from the movie, and I don’t think I was alone in that feeling.

As if that isn’t bad enough, LaBute – who also wrote the screenplay – is guilty of some poor writing. There are many unnecessary plot contrivances that just leave you with a frustrating feeling of trying to figure out why they bothered to include that thread in the movie. For example, the fate of the pilot who transports Cage to the island is unnecessary except to provide a gross-out moment late in the movie. Once Cage is on the island, the pilot is no longer needed and should have been allowed to remain offscreen. Also, the climactic confrontation between Malus and the colony is drawn out too long and the plot “twist” is easily seen from miles away. Once you know what is coming, the movie takes way too long to get there. 

One thing I was glad to see was that the character of Malus was not some sort of supersleuth. A patrol officer with ambitions towards being a detective, he blusters and stumbles his way through the investigation, preferring the blunt force trauma method of investigating over the finesse method with predictable results. He is not a brilliant man, but an obsessed one with an increasing undercurrent of desperation. Still, I thought that while Cage did a credible job, he was clearly wrong for the role. This is one of the few times I’ve ever gotten a sense from him that he didn’t really have a clear handle on what the character was all about.

While it is very much Cage’s movie, he doesn’t get a lot of help from the supporting cast. Burstyn overacts like she doesn’t get out much anymore so she needs to show off every acting chop she has and Beahan gets so increasingly dazed and confused that by the end of the movie you aren’t taking her character seriously at all. Sobieski is good in her role as a straight-to-the-point kinda sister, but is ultimately wasted. I was reminded, however, of how good she can be in the right role. This one reminded me for some reason of her work in Eyes Wide Shut although I couldn’t tell you why.

Beautifully photographed in British Columbia, there are some nifty sequences (such as the accident at the beginning of the film) but in the end, this is a disappointing movie. I can’t decide if it’s a horror movie that isn’t scary, a suspense movie that has no suspense or a thriller that isn’t thrilling. Any way you slice it this isn’t a very good movie.

WHY RENT IT: Some nice cinematography and one of Cage’s best over-the-top scenes of his over-the-top career.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cage is miscast, most of the supporting cast isn’t of much help and the script is oddly misogynistic.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some intensely disturbing imagery and scenes of violence. There is also a smattering of nasty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In the police station scene early in the movie, there is a missing persons poster with a picture of actor Edward Woodward, who played the lead role in the 1973 original.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is an alternate ending that is far more violent and close-ended than what appeared in the film that is superior in every way to how the original release was ended (at the insistence of the studio according to the commentary).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $38.8M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: Little Miss Sunshine 

The Secret Life of Bees


Queen Latifah points out that life's stings can often hide sweet things.

Queen Latifah points out that life's stings can often hide sweet things.

(Fox Searchlight) Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Bettany, Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds. Directed by Gina Prince-Blythwood

Circumstances can often lead us to feel powerless in a world that seeks to put us down. It takes courage and a strong belief in ones self and the rightness of our path to make it through sometimes.

Lily Owens (Fanning) has had to live with a terrible burden. As a four-year-old, she was the witness to a terrible fight between her father T-Ray (Bettany) and her mother (Hilarie Burton), who had just returned after walking out on the both of them. During the course of the fight, she accidentally shot and killed her mother. Since then, her father has treated her as a burden, more of a possession than a person. When Lily transgresses, he forces her to kneel on powdered grits poured on a concrete floor (try it sometime and see how long you last – Lily was often forced to kneel for hours until her knees were raw and bloody). When he notices her at all, it is for her failings and not for anything that she might accomplish. She is a non-entity, a constant reminder for all he has lost.

Lily’s only real friend is her nanny Rosaleen (Hudson). A snuff-chewing tough gal who dreams of better days when LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act (the movie is set in 1964 South Carolina), she stands up to a trio of racist rednecks when she and Lily walk into town so that Rosaleen can register to vote. For her efforts, she is savagely beaten. The hysterical Lily calls the police who respond by arresting Rosaleen, perhaps for assaulting the lead redneck’s boot with her face. While the movie rarely lets us forget that we are in the pre-Civil Rights Deep South, this is the most vivid rendering of the African American experience of the time and place.

Disgusted that her father refused to stand up for Rosaleen and tired of his abuse, Lily decides to run away with her. She cleverly breaks her friend out of the hospital jail ward, which Rosaleen goes along with – only to discover that Lily really doesn’t have a plan beyond that. Actually, Lily is headed for Tiburon, South Carolina. She found a picture of a black Virgin Mary with the name of the town amongst her mother’s effects and decides to head over there to find out more about her mother. T-Ray had told her, in a fit of cruelty that her mother had come back the day of the fatal argument not to fetch her daughter but to pick up her things.

Walking and hitch hiking, the two eventually make it to Tiburon. At a local restaurant, Lily spies bottles of honey with the same label as the picture in her mother’s things. Turns out that the honey is made locally, “best in South Carolina” the proprietor of the diner crows. He directs the two to a large pink house on the edge of town. It is inhabited by August Boatwright (Latifah), a strong, big-hearted woman and her sisters June (Keys), who is very bright but cold, and May (Okanedo), who feels things so keenly that she is liable to burst into tears at the slightest provocation.

Worried that she’ll be returned home if she tells the Boatwright sisters the truth (and certainly June seems disposed to doing that anyway), she feeds them a line that she is in transit to visit her grandmother who has been hospitalized. They don’t have enough money for a train ticket to Virginia, and no local hotel will take a black woman. Over June’s objections and to May’s delight (she is immediately taken by Rosaleen), August allows the two to stay in her honey house, the separate building where the honey is made. In return, Rosaleen and Lily will work off their expenses.

Lily, already fascinated by bees, is in absolute heaven with the Boatwrights. She takes to the work…well, like a bee to honey. In return, August and her sisters teach her something about strength, character and love. When Lily brings the outside world into the special environment engineered by the Boatwrights, it threatens to tear everything apart for all of the women. They will need each other to get through the tribulations – and tragedy – that await them, and Lily will learn something about herself and who she truly is.

Based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, the film version could easily have sunk to a maudlin Lifetime movie-of-the-week level. Instead, the strong cast (including, surprisingly, Keys, best-known as a singer) elevates the material from treacle to comfort food. There are some questions that aren’t really answered here – for example, why would a town that refuses to let their African-American residents sit on the main floor of the movie theater or serve them in the diner allow a black woman to own a business on a substantial plot of land close to the town? It was rare enough for a woman to own her own business in 1964, let alone a black woman in South Carolina.

Latifah is becoming the kind of actress who fills up a screen with her personality. The warmth radiates from August on the screen and fills the viewer with it. She’s almost a fairy godmother in many ways, untouched by failing or foible. She must endure tragedy, however and her grief is palpable when it occurs, but she takes a character with almost no flaws and makes her human.

Okonedo is also a marvelous actress and her child-like May whose surface joy often ripples with the pain of having a beloved twin sister die. I’m not sure I can put a finger on it, but I noticed that whenever May was on-screen my focus tended to shift to her. Keys is also marvelous – in many ways, her portrayal of the cold, emotionless June was the most layered here. Bettany takes the most thankless role and brings some humanity to it, making the cruel and abusive T-Ray at least understandable. Fanning is transitioning from child actress to young actress; time will tell if she is successful but judging from her work here success is possible.

The beautiful cinematography brings to light an idyllic South, full of the golden light of late summer. This is a place of fantasy, of cool ponds to dip one’s feet and bees buzzing around in the twilight. It is a place that is comforting, one we pull around ourselves like a warm blanket and feel safe. That feeling of warm, safe security is what stands out about the movie. The Pink House is not only a place you’d like to visit, you’ll almost certainly want to stay a spell.

I know that the movie is a bit manipulative and I don’t care. I don’t mind being manipulated when it’s being done this skillfully. I also know that the movie is a bit unrealistic, but then again it’s a movie, not a documentary. You know things are going to end up well – in a place like the Pink House, they can’t help but do. Call it cliché if you want to, but for my part, I found the characters of The Secret Life of Bees fascinating and I wanted to spend as much time with them as I could. As far as I’m concerned, that makes for a successful movie.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie engenders a feeling of warm, safe security that the fine performances of the lead actresses are largely responsible for. Nice cinematography contributes to the idyllic atmosphere, and you wind up longing to spend more time in this world.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not the most realistic depiction of the Civil Rights-era South, although there are a couple of moments that are genuinely frightening.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and language but largely suitable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Novel author Sue Monk Kidd based the character of Rosaleen on her own nanny, who was also fond of chewing snuff.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with the author on the movie’s Pink House set, and an extended director’s cut in addition to the theatrical release.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Earth