Film: “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”

Over the weekend, I watched the second of three summer blockbusters I’ve been looking forward to, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

I don’t have too much to say, not because I didn’t enjoy the movie, but because I can’t say I really understood what was going on. Between Calypso’s heightened importance, the drudgeries of Davy Jones’ servitude, and Jack Sparrow’s dead/not dead state, I ended up throwing the details to the wind and decided to just sit back, soak up the special effects, spirited soundtrack, and marvel at the on-screen wonder that is Orlando Bloom (he’s just so darn pretty!). Though some would disagree, I was really rooting for Bloom and Keira Knightley’s characters to end up together (the hopeless romantic that I am), and so I didn’t find the post-credits scene cheesy at all. As they parted at the beach at the end of his free day, I thought their honeymoon was much too brief – the movie was definitely tipped in favor of action sequences over romance!

So though it was a fun ride, I’d be fine with Pirates ending on this note.

Film: “Spiderman 3”

I went to watch Spiderman 3 at the South Common theatres last night. It was quite a festive atmosphere for the younger set, with an inflatable jump house set up just outside the theatre, comic books and Spiderman-balloon animals offered inside, and even a costumed Spiderman available for photographs in the lobby.

We bypassed the peripheral fun in favor of lining up early to secure good seats. Though I tend to build up unwarranted expectations when waiting is involved, the movie didn’t disappoint. I failed in my attempt to avoid all reviews before the screening, but I do agree with Mack’s opinion that the critics were unnecessarily harsh on the third installment. I didn’t have a problem with what they deemed to be an abundance of villiains, and if anything, my favorite scene in the movie was the eleventh hour partnership between Spiderman and New Goblin (admittedly, I have a soft spot for redemption storylines).

As expected from the Spiderman franchise, there were stunning visual effects, and the requisite Sam Raimi everyman hero humor (but who else thought Parker’s bang-tastic street dance went on a tad long?). As for the new cast additions, Topher Grace did surprisingly well in his turn to the dark side, and James Cromwell’s bit appearance was a waste for someone of his acting caliber. And oh, the crying – the movie might as well have been subtitled S3: Waterworks Edition.

All in all, it was a good night at the cinema. Spiderman 3 definitely deserves its place as the first blockbuster of a sequel-filled summer movie season.

Film: “Jesus Camp”

I watched Jesus Camp over the weekend. I remember Roeper and his guest critic of the week giving the film two thumbs up, but I can’t say I would have done the same.

The movie suffered from a lack of clear storytelling direction – it began with a look at a one-week Bible camp organized by an Evangelical Children’s Preacher, with some interviews with the kids attending the camp. I was expecting the directors to use this event as the main plotline of the movie, with, in typical documentary fashion, several linked peripheral stories told here and there. But this wasn’t the case, as the screen randomly jumped to Mike Papantonio, a radio talk show host commenting on the radical nature of some Evangelicals, and then to a sermon by Ted Haggard in Colorado Springs. Unlike anything by Michael Moore (arguably not the gold standard of documentary makers, but undoubtedly very good at ensuring the audience understands the point he is trying to make), the movie ended without a clear message. Perhaps the directors wanted the audience to judge for themselves, and simply wanted to capture and present a day in the life of these children, but to me, it felt as if the movie didn’t know its own purpose.

Edmonton Film Society: “Marnie”

On Monday night, I attended an Edmonton Film Society screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie with Dickson at the Royal Museum of Alberta (the movie passed through his precious litmus test of quality – the user-voted IMDB rating).

Dickson likes to poke fun at the average age of the audience by calling them the “sea of grey,” but personally, I think part of the fun of EFS events (as opposed to renting the classic films) is watching these movies with this particular generation. There is not a drop of pretentiousness in the room; every reaction is absolutely genuine. As demonstrated during a screening of To Catch a Thief last summer, from the laughs to the gasps to the applause at the end, I sometimes feel that this kind of collective viewing experience is what all theatres should offer. That said, the numbers were low yesterday (likely due to the chilly weather), so the room didn’t quite have the critical mass necessary for the desired aural effect.

The plot of Marnie is described perfectly on the EFS website: “a perverse romance between a beautiful, elegant thief [Tippi Hedren as Marnie] who’s blackmailed into marriage by one of her victims [Sean Connery as Mark Rutland].” Perverse indeed – I took offense with Mark’s machismo as he prayed on Marnie’s vulnerability, even to the point of rape. Connery played cocky well, but even Bond didn’t come off as anything but a controlling, manipulative terror.

Hedren was a great casting choice – not classically beautiful but attractive nonetheless, she had an unsettling aura about her that was perfect for the character. Edith Head’s signature gowns draped beautifully on her as well, though even the everyday clothes were lovely to look at – bold colors, high button collars and trapeze silhouettes.

As for the special effects and the score – they were both decidedly over-the-top. Marnie’s pulsating curtain of red visions became redundant over the course of the movie, reaching near-campy levels. The music was shrill, unnecessarily prominent, and by the end, unnervingly grating (the violins!). Perhaps that was the sound designer’s intent, but it took the focus away from the acting.

The ending was welcome, but probably not for the reason Hitchcock originally intended. Still, it was a fun night out, and beat watching a conventional movie at the local multiplex.

Film: “Because I Said So”

Despite reading several overly negative reviews, I was dying to watch Because I Said So. It seems the combined star power of Diane Keaton and Lauren Graham, coupled with my need to watch a saccharine romantic comedy, were too much to overcome.

About an overbearing, controlling mother (Keaton) trying to set up her youngest daughter Milly (played by Mandy Moore) with a “life partner,” the movie wasn’t as bad as I had expected. I didn’t mind the cake gags as much as critics seemed to. Also, the women had an intriguing family dynamic, though were suffocating-ly close to one another. Lastly, there were some good lines (e.g. regarding why Keaton’s Daphne never had an orgasm, “Your father said he didn’t have all day, and he worked nights”). Still, the movie had its obvious weaknesses.

Even worse than last weekend’s Sexy Laundry, I wanted Daphne to just SHUT. UP. So shrill and annoying was her character that I wondered if her bout with laryngitis mid-way through was an eleventh-hour script change (but that would be giving the writers a little too much credit). In addition, the lack of character development was jarring. The only details provided were those that helped the romantic arc along (what happened to Lauren Graham’s baby? Did Piper Perabo’s character have a job?). There was, for example, incredible irony in Daphne’s statement that labeled jazz musicians as heartbreakers, as later on in the movie, the audience is led to believe that Daphne’s sudden love is true on the merit that her new beau is a good grandfather. There was also the usual overt visual symbolism to differentiate between Mr. Right and Mr. Wrong. In this case, it involved Milly’s wavy versus stick-straight hair.

On two shallow notes – Mr. Right, played by Gabriel Macht, was very well cast, and had the perfect amount of earnestness needed for the role. Secondly, I loved Keaton’s entire wardrobe – full skirts, wide belts, and the eclectic-but-put-together outfits suited her beautifully (and I now have a strong affinity for polka dots).

While I wouldn’t highly recommend the movie, it is the only cinematic romance available this Valentine’s Day.

Film: “Their Brothers’ Keeper”

Until March, the University of Alberta International Centre will be holding weekly film screenings to increase awareness about global issues that affect the worldwide community, including human trading, conflict, and disease.

Tonight, I went to watch a film entitled Their Brothers’ Keeper: Orphaned by AIDS:

“Filmed over a seven-month period, Their Brothers’ Keepers goes inside Chazanga Compound, a shantytown in Lusaka, Zambia. The crew focuses on two families headed by children, and their ongoing struggle for food, water, schooling and health care. Local community and aid workers offer support but lack any real resources. Throughout the film, excerpts from speeches by Stephen Lewis, UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, fill in the broader social context.”

In Zambia alone, there are an estimated 850,000 orphans. Those children without any remaining adult relatives, or adult relatives nearby, are forced to support themselves. So mature, strong, and brave these young heads of family are that it was easy to forget that they are still children, robbed of the opportunity to play, to laugh, to go to school and to grow up naturally and away from death. The children filmed showed many signs of resilience, most notably, continuing the tradition of storytelling. While the elder sister of one family was away, her brother of eight years made sure his six and three year old siblings didn’t miss their nightly ritual.

Following the screening, a medical practitioner who has worked in Africa, Dr. Stan Houston, led a question and answer session. He noted that the movie was decidedly optimistic, whereas the general tone at which he spoke betrayed his more realistic viewpoint – that tens of millions more people will die before the global community will act aggressively enough to stop the pandemic.

One of the most interesting audience members was a Registered Nurse who had volunteered in Zambia for a number of years, working with an NGO to assist with ARV (Anti-Retroviral) delivery in rural areas. In her experience, while the drugs may be available for distribution, without the infrastructure and support of public health services, the pills would be rendered ineffective.

Something that came out of the discussion that I wasn’t aware of was the effectiveness of male circumcision to decrease HIV infection. In two separate random trials, the transmission rate was 50% less in circumcised men. Though a few pointed out that encouraging condom use would be easier than mass procedures, it’s still a measure worth knowing about.

I was thoroughly engaged, and look forward to similar events in lieu of International Week, that runs next week from January 29-February 2. I encourage you to attend a session or two.

Film: “Black Gold”

After dinner, we watched the documentary Black Gold. From the movie’s website:

“Tadesse Meskela is one man on a mission to save his 74,000 struggling coffee farmers from bankruptcy. As his farmers strive to harvest some of the highest quality coffee beans on the international market, Tadesse travels the world in an attempt to find buyers willing to pay a fair price.”

The film set a global course, from the New York Stock Exchange where international coffee prices are set, to the province of Oromia, Ethiopia, where poverty is pervasive, in part due to the terminally low selling price of coffee, to London where Meskela tries to acquire new purchasers for his collective’s coffee.

I’m not a documentary-junkie, but I did find that there was something missing in the film – it needed a harder edge. Format-wise, there were the expected juxtaposition tactics of extreme destitution against the wealth of developed nations. At the same time, some jump cuts were much too jarring, weakening the effectiveness with the time needed to adjust between locales.

The filmmakers did try to broaden the scope of the problem to include international scapegoats, mentioning an apparently pivotal end of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, as well as a breakdown of WTO talks between the EU and developing nations in 2003, but overall, this section was much too general. I suppose part of the problem was that the film up to this point had followed Meskela, and without a developed figure present at the conferences, it was difficult to continue the narrative they had worked so hard to construct.

There was one panel of text summarizing how the multinationals (Kraft, Sara Lee, et al.) had turned down requests for interviews. I’m not saying that the filmmakers had to stalk industry representatives or stage a protest in front of company headquarters à la Michael Moore, but there had to be further elaboration. Yes, governments and trade organizations are at fault, but so are the corporations.

Near the end of the movie, the camera tracks Meskela as he searches the aisles of a London supermarket for coffee originating in Oromia. He does find a package, and expresses his hope that consumers on the ground level will begin to investigate the source of coffee, and work to advocate against the injustice faced by third world farmers. I think this point should have been communicated further as well, for example, by interviewing consumers about their awareness of the coffee trade as a whole. I was waiting for the explicit condemnation of those who silently comply with unjust treatment.

So, am I now a hypocrite if I continue to partake in coffee without asking the questions that need to be asked?