Monday, February 27, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty Movie Review

I'm honestly not trying to turn this into a movie blog, it's just what I've been thinking about lately.

Erin and I took our almost 4 year old to his first big screen movie last night.  It was wonderful, he had a great time and so did we.  "The Secret World of Arrietty" is the latest from Miyazaki and studio Ghibli, which happens to be the group that puts out Gabe's favorite movies, and some of my favorite animation as well.  Though distributed by Disney in the US, they aren't anything like the typical disney film and are really something people of all ages can enjoy.

"Arrietty" is based on the book "The Borrowers" about tiny people who live in normal people's houses, and "borrow" things they need while trying to avoid detection.  Arrietty, the main character, gets seen by a sick boy, and it causes problems for their family, as well as an internal conflict between her desire for friendship and the safety of her family.

There were a number of things that I really loved about this movie, and it was really worth seeing in the theatre.  From a technical standpoint, the sound was amazing.  They did a great job at amplifying the sound and making it slightly weird, just like it would sound if you were only an inch tall. The art direction was awesome as well, many of the outside scenes looked like the characters were living in an impressionist painting, and it just looked really cool overall.  One small detail I noticed was that when they cried or poured tea, it came out in huge blobs.  It was cool to see that they even thought of surface tension when designing the little people.

There was a lot to like here story-wise.  It had a strong female lead who didn't end up living happily ever after with the man of her dreams.  The characters were really interesting, and it didn't just rely on gimmicks and action to keep you interested.  Not a whole lot happened over the course of the film, but it stayed interesting throughout.  It was just the right pace for our family.  The movie wasn't dumbed down because it was for kids, which is great because it means the whole family can enjoy it. 

There was nothing objectionable for a 3 year old in my opinion, with the added bonus that it didn't impart the typical status quo disney values that most American movies do.I would certainly recommend it.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Christians Gone Wild

The second post of a series on documentaries, the post list can be found here.

People, of course, tend toward learning about things they are interested in.  This seems almost too basic to be worth mentioning.  The same is true of documentaries.  Though we will sometimes watch them based on a recommendation or because it looks well done or is highly acclaimed, usually we will grab them because the subject matter is fascinating to us.

I am quite intrigued by some of the ideas that modern Christianity has been pushing for the past few decades.  There are large swaths of the christian population that are taking their theology to the extreme.  Be it a fascination with the end of the world or a complete segregation from the outside world, their ideas have real consequences for the people caught up in them.

When I am looking for documentaries, I tend to enjoy ones that are relatively objective.  Everybody has an angle, but some try too hard to push that angle.  Most of the movies I mention here try to let the people speak for themselves, they aren't trying to force reality to fit into their mold.  Even when you can tell the filmmaker disagrees with the people, they aren't mocking and they let them have their say.  In the special features for "Fall From Grace" we see the Phelps family watching the movie and loving it, even though it was nowhere near a flattering portrait of them.  It shows the documentarian really cared about presenting his subject fairly.  That isn't always the case, but it's something to look for when watching a documentary.

As mentioned above, "Fall From Grace" is really good.  It's about Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church, of "God Hates Fags" fame.  The filmmaker spent a lot of time with this group, something that I would find really hard to do without losing all faith in humanity.  We get a good look at how they operate, the hardest part was watching the kids spouting off the same stuff as the parents.  I thought it was a fair look at a very charged subject.  Another good movie about religious extremists like this is "Soldiers in the Army of God" about the anti-abortion terrorist group.

Jesus Camp is one of the best movies of its kind.  It provides a very evenhanded look at the indoctrination of children into the ideology of the religious right.  It talks to parents, pastors, and then goes to summer camp to show what the kids are doing there.  I thought it was well balanced, the footage was assembled beautifully, and it was all around a great film, though somewhat disturbing.  Again, I felt it really portrayed the subject fairly, not trying to be sensationalistic.  Some other good ones on some of the aspects of conservative evangelical subculture are "Waiting for Armageddon" about the religious right's focus on Israel as the site for the end of the world, and "Hell House" about a very interesting form of evangelism based around the concept of a haunted house.

Devil's Playground is a fascinating look at a particular aspect of Amish culture.  When their children are old enough that they are to choose their own way in life, the Amish basically just let them out into the world with almost no supervision.  It creates an interesting dynamic because the kids are so sheltered, so they just go crazy.  This movie follows some of the kids as they deal drugs, party, and try to decide if they want to live the rest of their lives as Amish or not.

That's a pretty good start if you are interested in the crazier side of Christianity.  Check some of them out sometime.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Errol Morris

The first of a series on documentaries, the post list can be found here.

Errol Morris is my favorite documentary filmmaker (sorry Werner!) and one of my favorite filmmakers in general.  His movies are beautifully crafted, he knows how to unfold a story, and he gets his viewpoint across through the footage he uses without overtly interfering.  I have enjoyed everything I have seen by him, I really believe his films are a cut above most of what you see out there.

Gates of Heaven was Morris' first feature, and it's amazingly good.  Roger Ebert called it one of the ten best films of all time.  As with all his work that I have seen, it's dead-pan but incredibly tender.  He has a way of bringing out people's idiosyncrasies without turning them into a mockery.  We meet some very interesting individuals, and they just talk, telling us about life, and their dead pets.  The film centers around two pet cemeteries, one that was a failure, and one that was a resounding success.  That's the subject matter, but really it is about the people.  It's a hilarious, absurd, touching look at life, loneliness, and how we cope with death.

His style focuses entirely on the people he is documenting.  It's like we are looking them in the face, having a personal conversation.  The characters are the lens through which the story develops.  They show us objects, give tours, and tell us about their lives.  It is through these conversations that the "plot" develops.

Tabloid is his latest film and you can see his style even more developed here.  It tells a crazy story of an event that happened in the 70's regarding a beauty queen who flew to England, kidnapped a mormon, and tied him to a bed for days on end.  Once again the story is told through the people involved, both the woman who did it and other people who were involved in helping her, or covering her story in the tabloids.

We see the story unfold from many points of view, but something doesn't add up.  Each individual has a completely different perception of what happened, how it came about, and who the bad guys were.  This tension stands throughout the film.  It adds a layer on top of an already bizarre story.  This serves to call into question the whole idea of objective documentation.  In allowing each person to tell their story, Morris causes us the discomfort of never really knowing what happened.  There is a big question mark there that gives a peek behind the curtain.

I could talk about all of his movies, however each one I have seen is excellent, so I would recommend any of them.  Vernon, Florida, The Thin Blue Line, and Mr. Death are all available on watch instantly if you do the Netflix thing.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Documentaries - a Series

A few weeks ago I tried to make a post about my favorite documentaries.  People ask for recommendations, and it would be nice to have a place to point them, because I can't always give people a good recommendation on the spot, especially since many people are looking for different things in a documentary.

Unfortunately, it spiralled out of control quite quickly.  I couldn't even narrow it down to 20 or so, and so instead I just got a Pinterest account and started a documentary board.  When I think of good ones I have seen, I just put them on there so I can remember for the future or when somebody asks.

Instead of just listing my favorites, I figure maybe I can do a few highlight posts for people who are interested in documentaries beyond your typical TLC fare or Michael Moore propaganda.  I will organize it into some categories to look at the diversity of the genre, though I will of course only be able to cover a small portion of what I would recommend, if you have unlimited time to watch.

Here's a preliminary breakdown, I will fill it in with links as the posts go up.

1.  Errol Morris - My favorite documentarian, he deserves his own category

2.  Christians Gone Wild - Movies about fundamentalism, cults, or extremism within the Christian Tradition

3.  Art Subjects - Movies centered in some way around the art world

4.  Crazy Characters - Fascinating portraits of individuals

5.  Competition - Sports, Games, and Contests

6.  Hard Times - Movies about people in tough situations

Hopefully that will give people an idea of some movies worth seeing, based on what they may be interested in.  Maybe it will demonstrate what I love about the format, and why I think it deserves more recognition that it has previously received.  Some movies I love will be left out because they don't really fit into the above format.  Oh well.  There's plenty of good stuff in here to get somebody interested, so I figure that's enough.