Saturday, February 16, 2008

My Take on Best Picture Nominees

Yes, I already wrote about this film a couple of months ago. But at that time, I had only read the book and had not seen the film. I have to credit director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton for doing an excellent job of not only bringing the setting of WWII era to life, but also bringing some very tricky meta-literature issues (the novel was in part about the writing of the novel) to the screen.
There is a particularly spectacular re-creation of the retreat at Dunkirk (or “strategic withdrawal,” which one character wryly states is the Generals’ preferred phrase at the time.) Charles Colson, in a Christianity Today article back in 2001, noted that when the British troops had their backs against the wall on the shores of France, a three word message was sent: “and if not”. Colson wrote:
“The British public instantly recognizes the message—a reference to the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego standing before King Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. “Our God is able to save us … and if not, we will remain faithful to him anyway." The message galvanizes the British people. Thousands cross the English Channel in boats to rescue their army.”
I agree with Colson as he notes that our culture has lost much in losing our common Biblical literacy.
As I mentioned when I wrote about this film before, the central issue of both the book and movie is how one can receive atonement/redemption for one’s mistakes and sins. Both the book and the movie argue that there is no real hope for atonement or justice in the world, and the best we can hope for is solace in the arts. Fortunately, God offers true hope for atonement in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Both Michael Clayton and There Will Be Blood can be seen as explorations of the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:26: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”
The title character of Michael Clayton, played by George Clooney, works for a law company. He is a “fixer”, doing whatever is necessary to get the job done, with little consideration for ethical niceties. When he is asked to cover for another lawyer whose bipolar behavior threatens to embarrass his company, he finds out some unsavory secrets of the clients. Though entertaining, this is my least favorite of the nominated films. The climax of the film uses one of the oldest clich├ęs of TV cop shows. (Spoiler – Beware the monologing villain.)
Whereas the protagonist of Michael Clayton finds a kind of redemption, there is no such hope for Daniel Plainfield, the protagonist of There Will Be Blood. This film has some of the most beautiful and innovative sequences of any film this year. The first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film are virtually silent as we see Plainfield discover oil and try to build his business. But for Plainfield, it isn’t enough that he succeed, “the competition” in him needs to see everyone else fail.
Daniel Day Lewis gives a larger than life performance as Plainfield, an unbeliever who is willing to confess Christ in a church in order to make a land deal. We also see a believer in the film deny Christ for financial gain. I was thinking after the film -- which is worse, someone who calls “Lord, Lord” yet doesn’t believe in Him or someone who denies Christ? Two sides of the same coin, both hopeless paths.
This is one of the most popular and widely written about of the nominated films. The story of an unwed pregnant teen (played by Ellen Page) who decides to give her child up for adoption has led to newspaper editorials about abortion, adoption and gender roles.
Some have found this film to be overly cute and quirky, but I thought it was funny and touching. I especially liked the presentation of Juno’s parents as loving, stable providers of love, support and encouragement. (I guess I appreciated the presentation of the parents especially because all the John Hughes teen comedies I watched in the 80’s had parents that were either clueless, self-obsessed or cruel. It bothered me, and I wasn’t even a parent then.) The father in the film gives a wonderful little speech about unconditional love that would be great premarital counseling (perhaps, however, without the vulgarity).
No Country for Old Men
This is my favorite film nominated but be warned that it is a very violent film. It tells the story of a man who finds a large stash of money at the scene of a crime. He decides to take the money, but finds himself being pursued by a very nasty killer. He is also tracked by a kindly sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones who is increasingly appalled and disturbed by the violence in the world
Brothers Ethan and Joel Coen (writers, directors and editors) did a wonderful job adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Anton Chiguph, the psychopathic killer in the film, often presents his potential victims with a chance through a flip of the coin. He abdicates his own responsibility and tries to blame fate. I came out of the film considering the age old paradox of free will and fate.
The film did leave out one thing from the novel that I greatly missed. In the novel, the sheriff ponders how people always say “I don’t deserve” about bad things. But when he thinks about the day when his future wife first smiled at him, he thinks of that as a grace he didn’t deserve. In a harsh world, the moments of violence and evil make headlines. But we need to remember the good as well, which doesn’t make the papers.

But before you watch any of these films, you might want to consider the following content issues:
Atonement is rated R and has vulgar language, sexual situations and violent/gory images.
Michael Clayton is rated R and has vulgar language and violence.
There Will Be Blood is rated R and has two quite violent scenes.
Juno is rated PG and has vulgar language and has sexual language and situations.
No Country for Old Men is rated R and has vulgar language and many violent scenes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Family President's Day Letter

Just thought I'd share the family newsletter with you all (if there is anyone out there):

The Andersons’ Presidents’ Day Letter

It’s that time of year again.

People are always asking, “When is that fabulous Andersons’ Presidents’ Day letter coming out again?” Well, as a matter of fact, it’s coming out near Presidents’ Day!

People also ask, “Are you again going to make comparisons between individual presidents and individual members of the Anderson family?” Of course! It wouldn’t be the Andersons’ Presidents’ Day letter without it!

So with no further ado:
This year, Dean believes he was most like Chester A. Arthur. The similarities are uncanny. Arthur’s middle name is Alan, as is Dean’s. Though Dean’s is spelled with an ‘e’ and an extra ‘l’. Arthur was a champion of civil service reform. Dean is usually civil.
In 1884, the International Meridian Conference was held in Washington at President Arthur's behest; this established the Greenwich Meridian which is still in use today. Dean this year went to a writer’s conference. Arthur wrote a series of children’s books featuring a vole veterinarian. Dean has written a series of children’s books, the latest of which, Attack of the Mutant Fruit and Quest for the Temple of Truth, were released last year, which feature a warthog detective. They both have cool ‘staches.

Mindy finds herself to be most like John Tyler, dubbed “His Accidency” when he became President upon the death of William Henry Harrison. Mindy has, this year, repeatedly found herself, quite by accident, with jobs she never expected to have. Somehow she’s become poultry group leader in Jill’s 4-H club, temporary Sunday School superintendent, honorary member of the Creative Services department as well as (officially) receptionist and mailroom officiant at Jackson Family Enterprises and occasional driver of a minivan. How did this happen? Like Tyler, she may never quite know.

Bret find himself, as he graduates high school, most like President Lex Luthor. Like President Luthor, he would, if possible, place Sgt. Frank Rock in charge of the joint chiefs of staff for his valiant service in WW2, destroying more Nazi tanks with his bare hands or a well placed grenade than several whole divisions. That kind of dedication should be rewarded. He also would use his position of power to obtain alien power suits if available. Bret would like one too. Still, crushing Superman would be a much lower priority for him.

Paige has decided that she is most akin William Jennings Bryant. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Bryant ran for the presidency three times but never won. Likewise, Paige has run for various offices since the 3rd grade, but has never won. Most recently she ran an unsuccessful campaign for her high school’s Publicity Director using such slogans as “Geeks of HHS unite!”. She plans on running again this year, this time as a sophomore. Until then, she is enjoying about learning about people like Bryant in AP World History, and hearing from colleges like Illinois State where Bryant attended.

Jill feels she is much like Martin Van Buren because he was fashionable, and Jill wants to be an apparel designer. He was 5’ 6,” and while Jill is 5ft something and shorter than him, she is now taller than Mindy. She is 13 (at one point Martin Van Buren was 13 too) and in 8th grade. Last year she sat around waiting for something to happen.

So a Happy President’s Day to all! We hope God blesses you greatly in the year to come.


Dean, Mindy, Bret, Paige and Jill

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Documentary Shorts

Don't know if I'll get to see the Oscar nominees for best documentary short, but I did see last's years. Here is what I wrote about them, and if you have any opportunity to see "Two Hands", take that opportunity.

“Reel Short Lives”
I certainly understand how The Blood of Yingzhou District won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. Would you want your colleges or friends or parents or spouse or children to know that you voted against AIDS orphans? From a technical standpoint, I firmly believe this was not the best film of the four nominated in terms of story telling and technique. Strictly in film making terms it was just a step above your average infomercial for the Christian Children’s Fund – without the Christian part. But I sure am glad that someone did go to the effort to see that this story was told.
Of course, compared to Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest, not many people have seen this little film or the other films nominated for best doc short. It takes a little effort to see these films. But with the resources the Internet and our libraries provide, you can see these films. And I hope, after you hear a little more about them, you’ll make that effort.
Back to The Blood of Yingzhou District. This is the story of children in the tiny remote village of Anhui in southeast China. The village is poor, and to supplement family incomes, many adults used to sell blood. Apparently, the medical hygiene is wretched, for quite a number of donors contract AIDS through the transaction. The parents leave behind children whose only heritage is their parent’s disease.
The film introduces us to a young boy, perhaps four years old, by the name of Gao Jun orphaned and afflicted with AIDS. He is also afflicted with great anger. He strikes out against the animals that often provide his only company. His extended family does not want to take him in, because they are afraid of being ostracized in a community that fears AIDS might be spread through casual contact. So the boy goes from one foster home to another.
We also meet Nan-Nan, an AIDS orphan who at least has a teenage sister to care for her. But her sister wants to be married and keeps quiet about here sister’s illness in fear that exposure may destroy the opportunity to be married. We also meet the Huang siblings who discuss their rejection in school.
I am thankful that film makers Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon made this 40 minute film to bring these tragic events to light, and one hopes that children in such situations will receive the attention, care and concern they need. But the film itself lacks the narrative focus and creativity of presentation found in Recycling Life, a story of workers and residents in the Guatemala City dump.
One of the great things about this film (as opposed to the AIDS orphan film), is that the people of the film are not portrayed only as victims. We see the hard work, initiative and creativity of people who find a way to make a living for themselves and their families in horrendous conditions.
As Edward James Olmos narrates this film, produced by Leslie Iwerks and Mike Glad, he doesn’t shy away from discussing the great dangers posed by bulldozers, hazardous fumes and falling mounds of trash. The film chronicles a great methane fire that forced the government to make reforms in the condition of the dump. But we also see a woman who goes from a collector of trash to becoming a trash buyer. This woman is a natural entrepreneur who would succeed in any environment.
We also are shown those who took the initiative to care for the residents of the dump by building a day care center and school by the dump. This film is a fuller testament of life than Blood because we don’t just see those who suffer, but we also see more fully those who attempt to alleviate the suffering.
That would include the film makers who use a marvelous blend of still photos, music and graphics to tell the story of the community of the Guatemala City Dump.
(This film holds even more interest for our congregation with our ministry to dump workers in Mexico.)
I was less impressed with Rehearsing a Dream, produced by Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon, a film about high school students who attend a week at a fine arts retreat. The kids selected for this program are the best from around the country in visual arts, music, writing, dance, film making and drama. (We see much more of the students involved in music, dance and drama, but little of the painters, nothing of the writers and most strange, nothing at all of the film makers.)
The kids are, of course, thrilled to be with other students of like interests and passions. The emotions the students experience will certainly strike a chord with those of us who went on special Christian retreats or even sports camps when we felt that finally we were completely in our own element with kindred hearts.
But sadly, the film makers never give a sense of perspective to the student’s emotional elation. One student says, “I want to pursue a career in the arts so I can always be challenged to learn and grow. I don’t want to just be an accountant or teacher.” Perhaps a kid at Accountant’s Camp would express similar feelings about those who want to pursue a life in the arts. (Frankly, I thought many of these students in the long run would benefit more in their life perspective if they spent the week instead in the dumps of Guatemala City.)
Yes, the arts are wonderful, but those who are called to a life in the arts are not necessarily more special or fulfilled than those who pursue a life in plumbing. I wouldn’t expect the students at the conference to have that kind of perspective, but the film makers should. They should realize there is more to life than performance.
The makers of Two Hands, the final film that was nominated as the Best Short Documentary, do realize there is more to life than performance. That lesson is presented through the life of concert pianist Leon Fleisher, a man who learned through hardship. I thought this film was not only the best documentary short, but also one of the best films of any kind made last year.
Nathaniel Kahn and Susan Rose Behr interview Leon Fleisher, whose mother raised him to be either a great concert pianist or the first Jewish President of the United States. He did not take the political route, but instead rose to fame and fortune performing under the great conductor George Szell.
But his life took a dramatic turn after a minor injury to his right hand moving lawn furniture forty years ago. He expected his hand to heal quickly, but instead his hand cramped, the fingers continued to fold in, and he soon realized that the career he built his life around is gone.
For years he pursued every avenue to heal his hand, from hypnosis to EST. But when he eventually resigned himself to his fate, he found other avenues to pursue his love of music. He learned to conduct. He learned to teach. He even found other ways to continue to play the piano.
This film has the advantage of a powerful personality and story in the person of Fleisher. But it has a universal appeal and message as the man reflects whether he would rather have avoided the suffering resulting from the loss of his playing hand. He finds looking back that he gained more than he lost.
As to whether Fleisher ever learned source of his mysterious malady or a cure for the same -- you’ll just have to see the film for yourself. It is worth the effort to seek it out.
(None of the shorts are rated. All have some strong language.)