What’s Your Story?

The Unchurched - A True Story (Logo)

Six months ago I announced my newest film project on Facebook. Since then, a number of people have asked me what it’s about. Many of my churchgoing friends assume it’s an effort at recapturing the backsliding Christians in America; the more secular ones believe it’s my well-rehearsed rant against the institution of modern religion. So, which is it?

With tongue firmly in cheek, I have to admit: it’s both. It’s so easy for people to gravitate to the extremes in any socio-moral spectrum, and that’s exactly what has happened with modern American Christianity. You have fundamentals on one side, fighting for conservative politics and traditional church services; on the other, radical free-spirits who buck systemized spiritual organization found amongst liberals and moderates alike. But a community divided cannot stand. A balance needs finding, and I’ll beat it over people’s heads if I have to.

That said, I’m a brand-spanking new filmmaker; the umbilical cord hasn’t even been cut yet. I have no lofty dreams of uniting Christians nationwide under one banner, or even reaching a large audience. But with a camera, a computer, and a vision, I’m willing to see what might happen, on a personal level, if the subject is opened to my family, friends, and peers.

So what’s your story? Where do you stand?

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In America

In America (1)

Sometimes a film touches me on such a personal level that I don’t trust myself to write an objective review. In America is one of precious few that has such an effect. Director Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father) wields the magical art of storytelling with an emotional dexterity that underscores his own personal struggles, reminiscent of the masters in other mediums: Rembrandt painting against the backdrop of poverty, John Milton putting faceless words to an invisible page.

The movie follows a year in the life of two little Irish girls and their parents who are trying to make a new life in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, and forget the tragedies of their past. Ariel, the youngest, immediately falls in love with America and eagerly greets border guards and homeless alike. Together with her older, quieter sister Christy, she carries the burden of holding their small family together with a strength their parents are incapable of providing.

In America (2)

Over time each character realizes that America is no easier than Ireland, and their struggles followed them to their new home. But their hope is renewed with the acquaintance of Mateo, the ‘man who yells’ in the apartment just down the stairs. He reminds them of the beauty in life and the magic that surrounds them. With Ariel’s passion and Christy’s conscience, he brings a new hope to the long-lost heart of their parents, even as the family’s situation goes from bad to worse.

Told through the lens of Christy’s video camera, this is a story of change and acceptance, of determination, and of faith. It evokes God’s mandate to live with the heart of a child, which has a resilience that we seem to lose the older we become.

In America (3)

Though the story captivates me with every viewing, the technical merits of In America speak for themselves. The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award and the actors breathe life into every single scene — an incredible feat, when the lead roles are two real-life sisters (Emma and Sarah Bolger) under the age of 12. As the story goes, the part of Ariel was cast first, and Emma refused to accept it unless her older sister was given the other part.

This is Jim Sheridan’s crowning achievement as a film director, and one of my top 10 favorite films. The next time you look for something to rent, go a little deeper than the standard Hollywood fare and give yourself a reminder of what life is like through a child’s eyes.

My Rating: ★★★★★

(View the Movie Trailer)

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Cloverfield

Photo from Cloverfield

If you haven’t heard about this movie, you will. Produced by J.J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible 3, TV series Lost, and yes, Felicity), Cloverfield takes hand-held filmmaking to a whole new level. Those of you with tendencies towards motion sickness will probably want to skip this film. But the rest of you: read on.

The movie’s your typical doomsday, “let’s destroy New York on camera for the umpteenth time,” special effects blockbuster, right? Wrong. It may have special effects, and NYC certainly gets its ass handed to it (again), but that’s where the similarities end.

The real story lies in the experience of those behind the camera, and since I’m a guy who likes to take photos and video events, it’s freaky how realistic the story comes across. No famous actors, no cheesy sets, just out-and-out insane events happening in front of your very eyes camera lens.

Photo from Cloverfield (2)

The technical achievement alone is incredible — hand-held films are done primarily to give style to extremely low budget films (Hi, Blair Witch Project? We found your cinematographer), because otherwise the audience will notice your crappy costumes, sets, and acting. But Cloverfield is a big-budget venture, and inserting CGI shots into this kind of footage is a massive undertaking.

Alongside the impossibly difficult SFX is the editing which, hands down, puts films like 300 to shame. See, a hand-held camera has free range of motion, where typical motion pictures are shot with the tried-and-true steadycam/tripod/dolly technology that keeps the picture looking nice and steady. You take that away, and getting the right shot becomes a nightmare. Here, the cameraman frames some incredibly touching moments without feeling Hollywood-esque. I must sound crazy, but I’m serious — this IS technical achievement.

Photo from Cloverfield (3)

Okay, enough about the geek side. I really cared about these characters, felt their suspense, suffering, the whole nine yards. The story may appear to be just another in a line of clichés, but give it a chance. I think you’ll be impressed; and this early in the year, that’s a very good sign.

My Rating: ★★★★

(View the Movie Trailer)

24: Season One

I’ve heard people rave about the television series 24 for years, yet something held me back from watching even a single episode since it first aired 4 or 5 years ago. I initially hesitated because, as a film student, I viewed TV like a kind of annoying little brother to the world of feature-length filmmaking. Dramas and miniseries in particular have traditionally had lower production values, forced and/or unnatural screenwriting, and C-List actors either just learning the ropes or on their way out.

Additionally, other shows that my friends seemed to enjoy (Law & Order, NYPD Blue) never really interested me. Outside of the occasional CSI, I had pretty much written TV dramas off altogether. And, once the seasons began airing, I figured 24 was the type of show that you would have to follow consistently to understand.

Those of you who are already fans of 24 can imagine my surprise after watching my first episode a little over 3 weeks ago. I was completely floored by the (constant) quality that the producers and director maintain throughout the screenwriting, acting, and technical direction. Additionally, I’ve always been a fan of Keifer Sutherland, but rarely had I gotten to watch him as the hero (in fact, the only other example that comes to mind is the Three Musketeers). The day following I immediately went out and rented the first season and began to catch up on the 100+ hours I’d previously missed.

Having given the proper due to the filmmakers for their work on 24, I have to say my enthusiasm stems directly out of the storylines themselves. It’s a wonder no (currently-running) series before this had focused on a secret agent, and while the character of Jack Bauer may not be James Bond, he certainly fulfills a number of the traits that make 007 so fun to watch without leaving the realm of believability and realism. Couple that with the ever-present threat of terrorism in the (non-fictional) media today, and you have a thoroughly engaging show.

One additional note: A while back I compared car insurance commercials and wrote, in reference to Allstate’s spokesmen, “[he] exudes confidence, reliability, safety… and you believe it, almost hoping that the actor himself were the agent you’d be dealing with.” Ironically that same spokesman plays the US presidential candidate in the first season of 24, and just as with the insurance commercial I can’t help but believe him to be the perfect Commander in Chief. Some people just exude leadership and evoke confidence, and Allstate certainly took advantage of that.

Batman Begins

Yesterday afternoon, on a whim, I skipped lunch to catch a matinee of Batman Begins. Let me tell you, the movie rocked my socks off, it was so good.

There are so many reasons why this film works, both as a comic book adaptation and as a genuine character drama: strong performances by an A-list cast, engrossing plotlines pulled from the comic itself, and a sense of realism that rivals any superhero film to date. Put simply, this is not Joel Schumacher’s Batman, which is praise enough, but rather a Dark Knight for a post-idealistic world.

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Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Almost an entire month after its theatrical release, I finally got my rear into a showing of Revenge of the Sith. As it was, I ended up alone, late, and entirely overcharged for the experience, a far cry from the opening day celebrations I participated in for the previous two films. By the time the disembodied plot outline began flying into space, my mood was a wonderfully nasty mix of angst and annoyance — and suddenly, I began to relate to Anakin’s descent to the Dark Side. Outside of being 6 foot tall and married to Natalie Portman, he and I could practically be the same person. Well, and I don’t have a prosthetic arm. Or mad lightsaber skillz.

Okay, we’re not really all that similar. But I digress.

The point is that this time around I finally felt an emotional twinge, a familiar nostalgia that grew as the film progressed and peaked with John Williams’ return to Luke and Leia’s musical cues from the original trilogy. Credit is largely due to Ian McDiarmid’s performance as the evil Emperor Palpatine, who (finally) played a much larger role than in any of the previous five films. Hayden Christensen also had a better opportunity to act rather than sulk, though (as I’m sure everyone has already agreed) his romantic moments with Portman are cringe-worthy. And Ewan McGregor finally convinced me that Obi Wan, one day, turns into old Ben Kenobi.

After the film is all said and done, I finally began to understand what George Lucas has been saying all along: the Star Wars saga was meant to be a heightened version of Saturday matinee serials, cheesy dialogue and overblown settings and all. While the prequels accurately reflected that ideal, I think it’s hard for Star Wars fans (like myself) to accept them since the original trilogy far exceeded such low expectations and became cultural icons. Nonetheless, recognizing that helps me to watch the new trilogy and enjoy it, if not as much as the originals, at least enough to feel like a little kid caught up in an exciting adventure once again. And so, here at the end of the story (or is it the beginning?), I’m content.

The Phantom of the Opera

My grievances with Joel Schumacher, the infamous Hollywood director, span almost a decade, from the first time I laid eyes upon his neon-injected Batmobile and anatomically-correct rubber batsuit. His crimes against the masked avenger may never be forgotten, even in the face of new attempts to do so. Strangely enough, redemption for such atrocities lies behind another mask; that of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s equally infamous Phantom of the Opera.

The recent film adaptation of Phantom gains strength from the very weaknesses that plague many of Schumacher’s previous films, such as opulent sets and exorbitant colors. There is indeed a time and place for everything, as the visual gratification that destroyed the Batman legacy gives passion and weight to Lloyd Webber’s rather simplistic, if wonderfully poetic, stage production. The tragic beauty of both music and story could easily be lost in the scrutinizing, detail-driven world of cinema without Schumacher’s flamboyant artistry.

With credit given where it was due, I would rather now focus on the talented leads who carry the show primarily by song. Emmy Rossum was undoubtably an inspired choice, who at 17 had the innocence tempered with musical experience necessary to play such a demanding role. There is (sadly) not much call for talented musicians in film these days, yet you can see how much better a role like this portrays Rossum’s talents than, say, her performance in The Day After Tomorrow.

Even more surprising (personally) was the casting of Gerard Butler as the Phantom. Try renting Timeline or Reign of Fire and picturing his characters as the emotionally-tortured opera ghost; it’s a strange picture, yet also a testament to his skill as an actor (and perhaps the talented hands of his makeup artist). He brings a dangerously ravishing energy to the role that conflicts with the audience’s desire to dislike him, villain that he is. The result is a wonderfully complex creature that keeps the otherwise simplistic characterizations from becoming a distraction.

I fear that Schumacher’s reputation may have cost him award nominations, though I would also say that he did little more than the material deserved. Nonetheless, Phantom is a wonderful achievement that really should be experienced.

Self-Indulgent List of Theatre Etiquette

If you’re thinking about going to see Spider-Man 2, The Terminal, or any of the other summer blockbusters this year, STOP!

Read Dan’s Arrogant and Self-Indulgent List of Theatre Etiquette.

Ok, now you can go watch.

The Hobbits take Hollywood

It took 3 years for the Academy to acknowledge Peter Jackson’s incredible achievement with the Lord of the Rings, but when they did, like always, they did unanimously. Breaking Academy records by winning every single Oscar it was nominated for, The Return of the King dominated the evening. As (my personal favorite) host Billy Crystal declared, “It’s now official. Everyone in New Zealand has been thanked.”

For a director who single-handedly turned NZ into a major industry contender, it’s about time. Kudos, Mr. Jackson.

The Passion of the Christ

It’s hard to say when last Hollywood was rocked with so much controversy as we’re seeing with Mel Gibson’s violent portrayal of the Gospels. Very likely it hasn’t been since Martin Scorsese’s own interpretation of the same story, The Last Temptation of Christ.

I tend to like controversial films, if for nothing else than actually forcing their viewers to think. I loved The Passion however, which shouldn’t be too surprising to most of you.

Unfortunately most people will form their own opinion long before the opening credits (or lack thereof) and, for better or worse, I don’t think that the film will change any of their preconceptions. With that in mind, my only advice is to go in with a mind free of any bias, and just experience the film before judging it. I say experience because it certainly won’t entertain.