The Constant Gardener

Posted on August 26, 2005 at 6:29 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language, casual use of graphic expletives
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking and smoking, references to cigarette-related cancer, deaths from pharmaceutical testing
Violence/ Scariness: Brutality, torture, murder, dead bodies including burn victims, references to mental illness, rape and suicide, children killed and kidnapped, pillagers raze town, mature themes including altruism, disregard for life, a stillborn child
Diversity Issues: Extremely brave and strong female, minority and homosexual characters, severe poverty portrayed with depth and respect
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

Director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) turns his Brazilian –cinematic—jujitsu on an emotionally gnarled book by England’s spy king, John LeCarré, with an equatorial glare that dares the audience to keep up with characters bathed in every shade of black, white and gray. A movie this ambitious will win over some audiences, attracted by fine acting and stylized directing, but will lose others in its necessary but lengthy flashbacks and its melancholy. While the end is a bitter pill to swallow, the message of redemption through love sweetens the taste.

Within the first minutes, Tessa (Rachel Wiesz), impassioned young wife of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), is dead. Under the harsh Kenyan sun, mid-level British diplomat Justin must unravel the motive for her murder as well as her reasons for not confiding in him, his guilt for having not protected her, and his horror at having faltered in his faith in her. His search takes him to England, to Berlin, to Sudan, to Kenya’s wilds, via flashbacks and breakdowns, but ultimately it takes him back to Tessa once he can at last understand the events that tore her from him.

Some audiences might groan at the first signs of a pharmaceutical conspiracy being the cause of Tessa’s death –what movie hasn’t had a heartless, profit-minded beast of a company as the two-dimensional baddie of late?—but that catalyst merely serves as a means to an end. It is in the characters, individual conundrums, where the story takes place and Kenya is a scene-stealing diva, as enigmatic as the best of the human actors. Meirelles shoots the story in that grainy, jerky style that favors harshly-lit honesty over romantic niceties. Those looking for another windswept Fiennes-in-Africa love affair of the “English Patient” variety should go elsewhere. The camera lingers instead on crowded shantytowns punctuated by drifts of garbage, on bodies at the morgue, on a crowded market where serpentine lines wait for an AIDS test.

Fiennes as Justin does an excellent job displaying a vast range of emotions through the filter of self-contained understatement, the constant –i.e. loyal—gardener of title. With fine performances by Danny Huston, Hubert Koundé, Richard McCabe, and Bill Nighy, there is no dearth of noteworthy acting on the screen and it is in the small personal skirmishes that the broader conflicts of the film are taking place.

Meirelles is hungry behind the camera, eager to tell the story and happy to turn the lens toward the unusual beauty of Kenya. His enthusiasm, paired with a superb cast, elevates this movie above a typical adventure/romance, but his style –showing the country and the characters warts and all—will leave some audiences longing for a two-dimensional hero to cheer rather than committing to this two-plus hour elegy.

Parents should be aware that this movie is for mature audiences for its themes as well as for its brutality. On-screen characters are killed, chased, beaten, shot and poisoned. There are references to rape, torture, murder, kidnap and theft. There is non-sexual nudity and reference to adultery, sexual favors, AIDS, homosexuality, teenage motherhood. Many scenes depict poverty and related subjects such as thievery, graft, hardship and the perceived low cost of human life. Characters are in peril, whether from rampaging bandits, European thugs, sophisticated business types or their own jealousies. Characters drink and smoke socially. Decisions people make about their personal loyalties, love and passion for justice cause a domino effect, rippling through the lives of those all around.

Families who see this movie should talk about the moral triumphs and failings each character evinces. Which characteristics do you admire? Tessa is the snowball that sets in motion what follows but why must Justin follow the course that he does, especially by the Lake?

Families looking for more of LeCarré’s textured and flawed characters will enjoy Cold War classics “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People”. While easier to find in book form, a search for the BBC miniseries adaptations is well worth the effort as they star one of Britain’s great actors, Alec Guinness, as Smiley, the unassuming mastermind for British counter-espionage.

Many, including “Third Man” author Graham Greene, have called LeCarré’s “The Spy who came in from the Cold” the greatest spy book ever written and some families may wish to watch Richard Burton turn in a superb performance as the title character, a disillusioned double agent, in Martin Ritt’s 1965 adaptation.

For those who enjoy Meirelles fresh if frenetic pace behind the camera, “City of God” is intensely brutal but lyric in scope. It garnered four Academy Award nominations for his vibrant look at characters growing up in a Brazilian favela, or slum.

Thanks to guest critic AME.

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The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Posted on August 26, 2005 at 5:26 am

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Not the usual bad words but some ugly exorcism-related dialogue
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters drink, including drinking to respond to stress
Violence/ Scariness: Scary, instense peril, graphic disturbing images, subjects of demonic possesion and homicide
Diversity Issues: Different beliefs a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

This muddled mess wants to be three things at once and fails at all of them. It wants to be a horror movie, a courtroom drama, and and inspiring spiritual statement, but each element detracts from the others and the end result is both overheated and cheesy, narratively weak and theologically suspect.

The framework of the story is the criminal trial of a priest. The prosecutor (Campbell Scott) says that Emily Rose died because she had an illness that should have been treated medically, but her family and their priest treated it not as illness but as possession. The defense says that medical treatment had failed and that exorcism was a legitimate approach to Emily Rose’s condition. What is clear is that both attempts to help her were unsuccessful and that the jury will have to decide who — if anyone — is responsible.

Defense attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney)is an agnostic who does not know or care whether Emily Rose was possessed. She takes the case because it means becoming a name partner — as long as she does what the archdiocese, which is paying the bills, directs. They do not want the defendant, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) to take the stand. The church leaders are hoping to downplay the question of the legitimacy of exorcism.

But Father Moore is the client, and telling Emily Rose’s story is what matters to him, much more than the verdict. Erin agrees to give him that opportunity.

We see the story unfold as Erin listens to Moore. Emily (Jennifer Carpenter) was a devout, affectionate girl whose problems began just after she entered college. She saw terrifying visions and was seized by convulsive and paralyzing spasms. The doctor at the school diagnosed her as epileptic. But she discontinued the prescribed medication and turned to her family’s priest for help instead.

Erin worries that it will be impossible to rebut the medical testimony. Father Moore warns her that dark forces are aligned against them. But there seem to be forces on their side as well. Are these coincidences or portents? Erin’s beliefs — and lack of belief — seem to be on trial as well.

There are some sincere and committed performances here, and Shohreh Aghdashloo (of The House of Sand and Fog stands out as an expert witness who suggests that the medical treatment itself may have interefered with the exorcism.

The flashbacks are standard horror movie stuff, disturbing images (a classmate’s eyes turn to pools of splling ink) and boo-surprises. The courtroom scenes are melodramatic, with too many objections by counsel and too many last-minute “but your honor, this evidence/this witness just became available!” moments, plus one development that is, even within the terms of this movie, completely over the top. But what is unforgiveably manipulative is a third-act attempt to justify this mess with an transcendent spiritual connection that fails as a matter of narrative and theology. Viewers may decide that the exorcism they need is to expunge this from their memories.

Parents should know that this is a disturbing film with graphic and grotesque images and jump-out-at-you scary surprises. There is some graphic violence include a shocking car accident. Characters drink, including drinking in response to stress. The theme may be unsettling for some viewers.

Families who see this movie should talk about how we evaluate different perspectives on the same facts — whether Emily’s symptoms are considered medical, psychological, or spiritual. They may want to talk about the way their own faith tradition would approach these issues. Should the priest or the family or Emily have done something differently? They might also want to learn more about exorcism or find out more about the German girl whose story inspired the film.

Families who appreciate this movie will also like The Exorcist (very scary and disturbing).

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Everything Is Illuminated

Posted on August 25, 2005 at 5:18 am

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some crude language, ethnic insults
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Suicide, references to genocide and war
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

If a movie has two guys who could not be more different going on a difficult journey and one of them has a funny accent, a quirky dog, and a grumpy grandfather, you might expect slapstick and confrontations and misunderstandings and maybe some redemption, and you’d be right. But the last thing you might expect is grace, and yet somehow first-time writer-director Liev Shreiber, adapting Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed book, achieves, with breathtaking delicacy and tenderness.

Jonathan (the main character has the name of the novel’s author), played by Elijah Wood, is a very quiet young man who is fixated on holding on to the past. Literally. He takes and preserves and labels everything he can hold on to, covering a wall with his artifacts and treasures as though he was a police detective trying to solve a complicated murder case. Or someone trying to assemble an intricate jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box as a guide. Jonathan wears suit and tie and his eyes seem to disappear behind big round glasses. He is a vegetarian.

Jonathan has arranged for a guide for a trip to Ukraine with Heritage Tours, specializing in helping American Jews find their roots. But Heritage Tours is just Alex (Eugene Hutz), his father, his grandfather, and their dog. And Alex has no expertise or interest in the Jewish heritage or any other history of Ukraine or indeed in Ukraine at all. His family has contempt for the rich Americans who try to understand themselves better by coming to Ukraine, but they are happy to profit from what they see as something between folly and insanity.

Alex is interested only in the future, and the only culture he cares about is American. He dresses like a rapper and goes clubbing. But he’s a little out of date, explaining that “I dig Negroes, particularly Michael Jackson.” He has never heard of vegetarians and, when it is explained to him, he still can’t quite grasp it.

The driver is the grandfather, who insists that he cannot see, and brings along a “seeing-eye” dog named “Sammy Davis Junior Junior.” Alex is translator and guide.

One of Jonathan’s cherished artifacts is an insect preserved in amber, and that image resonates with much of that unfolds. Jonathan, the quiet, buttoned-down young man who looks like his tie stays pulled tightly around his neck even when he sleeps and showers, who documents and labels and researches as a way of feeling in control, wants to find the woman who, according to family lore, protected his late grandfather from the Nazis. But that history, that story, that memory, even the town where it happened all seem to have evaporated. The town is not on any map and no one they meet has heard of it. Is Jonathan, so dedicated to the kinds of facts he can pin to his wall, chasing a myth?

The four travelers (including SD Jr. Jr.) meet a woman who is even more devoted to historical artifacts than Jonathan. She is, herself, all but preserved in amber, the reponsitory of a heavy history. The stories she tells transform the way Jonathan, Alex, and the grandfather see their own history and the way they see themselves. Characters learn to embrace history and to let it go to move on into the future.

Shreiber is a distinguished actor in material ranging from Shakespeare to the Scream series and he understands how to get and convey sensitive and complex performances from his performers. Wood (best known for the Lord of the Rings trilogy) shows us that underneath the shy and proper exterior, Jonathan is a person of depth and humor. And newcomer (and Ukrainian-born) Eugene Hutz shows us that underneath the bravado and bizarre malapropisms, Alex has some hope and some principles. Theirs is a journey well worth taking.

Parents should know that this movie has references to (mostly offscreen) violence, including Holocaust-related genocide. A young man is punched by his father and grandfather. (Spoiler alert) A character commits suicide. Characters drink and smoke and use some crude language, including sexual references and ethnic insults. A strength of the movie is its exploration of the way relationships can transcend cultural differences and the importance of understanding our differences and similarities.

Families who see this movie should talk about how Jonathan and Alex were alike and how they were different. Why was Jonathan so interested in the past and Alex so uninterested? How does that relate to Jonathan’s being so reserved and Alex’s being so outgoing? How were the two grandfathers alike in the way they treated the past?

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, Shoah, The Diary of Anne Frank, Paperclips, and The Nasty Girl. They should also visit The United States Holocaust Museum, especially the collection of personal histories.

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The Cave

Posted on August 24, 2005 at 7:03 pm

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and violence, characters killed, grisly images, scary surprises
Diversity Issues: Strong and loyal diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

This movie unfolds as though the scenes were assembled in random order. At least I think that’s what it looks like; it is hard to say because it was so dark and murky looking.

It appears to be some sort of story about a cave. These hotshot cave divers are called in to do some exploring. Just after they set up camp out of communication range with the surface, their route back to the top is closed off and one of their group is killed. If they stay where they are, no rescue team will reach them before their supplies run out. So they have to see if they can find another way out. But between our intrepid explorers and the exit lie some very nasty and icky creatures, some microscopic, and some very large.

But it’s awful hard to work up any interest in seeing the characters escape the cave or the creatures because they’re interchangeable and boring (except for the always-charismatic Morris Chestnut who seems to have wandered in from another and much better movie). And it’s awful hard to work up any interest in the progress they make because it’s just too darn hard to follow. They go up, they go down, they go here, they go there, they go into the water, they get out of the water. I could never figure out what they were doing or trying to do. It’s not easy working up much interest in the creatures, either. They look like props from a middle school musical production of Alien. The film has a couple of good scares for the spooky stories around a campfire crowd but it takes a long, murky, time getting there. Believe me, the shadows on the wall in Plato’s cave were more fun to watch than this movie.

Parents should know that this is a very scary movie with intense peril, jump-out-at-you surprises, disgusting monsters, and graphic injuries and deaths. Characters use brief strong language. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of diverse characters and women as capable, strong, brave, and loyal.

Families who see this movie should talk about how the group assessed and responded to the problems they faced. How did they decide who should make the decisions? Why did Jack and Katherine respond differently to the same situation?

Families who enjoy this movie might like to learn more about caves and even try a little cave diving. The Movila Caves in Romania, an inspiration for this film, have a complex micro-ecosystem with many unique species not found anywhere else on earth. Families might also enjoy Fantastic Voyage, and (for mature audiences) Open Water and Alien.

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Undiscovered

Posted on August 23, 2005 at 2:29 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Scenes in a bar, drug reference, but main characters do not smoke or drink
Violence/ Scariness: Brief scuffles, emotional scenes
Diversity Issues: All major characters white
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

It starts promisingly. Just as he is leaving New York for Los Angeles, aspiring musician Luke (Steven Strait) sees a beautiful girl on the subway. As her train is about to pull away, she tells him he has dropped his glove. Instead of taking it, he tosses her the other one, so she will have the pair.

A couple of years later, the girl (Pell James as Briar) is a successful model. She decides to move to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. She has some good repartee with her agent/surrogate mother (Carrie Fisher). But once she goes west, the script begins to sound like it was written by little girls playing Barbies.

Briar makes a friend named Clea (Ashlee Simpson) in acting class and it turns out that Clea’s buddy is none other than glove boy Luke, now performing with his friends in a little bar. So, she and Clea cook up an idea to give Luke some buzz by having his picture taken with a Brazilian model/party girl (Shannyn Sossamon) and planting items in blogs and chat rooms. You see, if we put words like “blogs” and “chatrooms” into the movie, it will seem all hip and happening, right? Nope. That strategy is even lamer than the idea of getting Luke a recording contract by getting an actor to pretend to be from another label. Where do they get this stuff, “Brady Bunch” reruns?

Even more artificial than that is finding some obstacle to drag out Briar’s realization that she and Luke are meant for each other for the duration of the movie. The leads are sincere and appealing and around the corners of the story are glimmers of something interesting — a skateboarding dog, Luke’s brother Euen (the terrific Kip Pardue), and Fisher’s character and her relationship to Briar and to a record industry legend. They linger tantalizingly just out of sight as we suffer through dialogue like, “Luke has integrity — he wants to make it on his own terms!” and “I can forgive you. I just can’t forget how you treated me.”

The storyline keeps getting more preposterous as it goes along until an absurd deus ex machina finale with that least welcome of cliches, the mad dash to the airport along with that most unforgiveable of tricks, the instant reply montage of all the gooey moments we just saw. And are you kidding me with those names! Luke Falcon and Brier Tucket? Garrett Schweck? Wick Treadway? It’s like some demented conflation of bodice-ripper novels and Bratz dolls. Strait and James show some on-screen chemistry and Ashlee Simpson seems more comfortable on screen than expected. Fisher Stevens (as an egotistical recording label executive) is weak and Sossamon is so over the top that I thought her character was two different people. Some things stay undiscovered for a reason.

Parents should know that the film has brief stong language, some sexual references and situations (including groupies), skimpy clothes, some drinking, cigarettes in an ashtry, and a reference to drug use. There is a brief scuffle and there are some emotional confrontations. A strength of the movie is that the main characters do not drink, smoke, or use drugs and take physical involvement very seriously.

Families who see this movie should talk about the comment that “You look for fame, you lose your soul; you look for passion, you find it.” Why was it hard for Briar to admit to her feelings for Luke?

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Singles (some mature material).

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