Winner of the Looking Closer review contest!

Many thanks to the writers who entered the most recent Looking Closer review contest!

I’m especially grateful for your patience, as I had to postpone my decision due to a pile-up of competing deadlines, interruptions, and responsibilities.

I enjoyed all of the reviews submitted. And picking a winner was tough. It could have gone several ways.

But of the pieces submitted within the rules and parameters, I was most impressed by Philip Johnston’s review of WALL-E. (And this has nothing to do with the fact that the prize is a WALL-E poster.

First of all: It qualified. I hadn’t reviewed WALL-E by the end of June (and still haven’t turned in a thorough review). It’s a 2008 release. It was fair game.

Secondly, Philip wrote with confidence, detail, creativity, and knowledge of his subject.

He focused on the movie. He avoided spoilers. He didn’t say much about “liking” or “disliking” it, but demonstrated his feelings by focusing on the specifics of WALL-E‘s strengths and weaknesses, making his admiration evident through his attention to detail. He considered the film’s place in the family of Pixar’s other works, and noted technical aspects, storytelling, and meaning.

He made me want to see WALL-E again.

Congratulations, Philip! Email me with your mailing address, and I’ll send you a shiny new WALL-E poster for his work!

Now, before we get to his review, I also want to acknowledge an excellent review of Atonement, composed by Ken Brown.

I was tempted to call the contest a “tie.” But the rules stated that the film had to have been released in 2008, and Atonement was released in Europe, and in New York and L.A., by December 7, 2007, or earlier. This easily qualified it for 2007 film award honors. Now, it’s true that it opened nationwide across the U.S. the first week of January. Since this puts it in that maddening “grey area” regarding what year qualifies as the “release year,” I don’t feel good about simply disqualifying Ken’s entry. It’s an excellent piece of work, and deserves to be applauded as the “runner-up”.

I’ve included both reviews below, and they’ll become part of the permanent Looking Closer archive.

THE WINNER

A review by Philip Johnston

WALL-E

In 1983, a former monk named Godfrey Reggio made a film called Koyaanisqatsi. The title comes from a word in the Hopi language meaning “crazy life” or even better, “life out of balance.” Considered a classic in some circles, the film isn’t a traditional narrative but a tone poem about how modern man has become extremely distanced from the very thing that gives him life and breath. Some would interpret this as the transcendental idea of nature, others would say God. The film was a not-so-subtle call to replace our current state with another way of living; to focus on the simple and the natural instead of complicated consumerism and life-absorbing technological advances. I was reminded of Koyaanisqatsi more than once during WALL-E and did a double-take: was this was really coming out of Disney studios — purveyor of all things luxurious and commercial?

The Earth of WALL-E is strikingly similar to our own … except its covered in trash. Lots of trash. That’s why we have WALL-E, a trash-compacting robot who spends his days picking up scattered articles, sticking them in his belly, and compacting them into square blocks to be stacked high as skyscrapers. Why? Because humans have left their dirty earth and gone to live in the Axiom space center where can be found “everything you need to be happy.” A world of entertainment and leisure awaits in the Axiom … everyone has been gone for 700 years leaving WALL-E all alone, living in his little bunker with a few treasures he’s found among the rubbish: a lightbulb, a spork, a VHS of Hello, Dolly, and most recently a living green plant. His routine trash pickup is interrupted one afternoon with the arrival of a huge spacecraft. With it comes EVE, another robot sent with a secret directive. The two strike up an unlikely friendship until part of EVE’s directive is realized and the two end up in space on their way to the Axiom.

Ahh, space. If Pixar’s realization of a futuristic earth is hearkening and horrifying, then their creation of what lies outside of earth is just the opposite. When WALL-E blasts into space and realizes the vastness beyond earth, we wonder and delight in the beauty with him even though the concept is something we’ve seen so many times before. Watching Pixar paint the universe with animation is like being reintroduced to the concept of outer space. These five minutes spent with WALL-E as he first enters outer space are no doubt the most magical moments of any film this year. The anticipation for what awaits inside the Axiom builds and builds until we finally find out the extent of what the human race has become: overweight, lazy blobs traveling around on floating chairs, being nourished with liquid food … just like babies.

And that’s about all I can say. Of course I’m leaving things out — you’ll have to see the film to experience director Andrew Stanton’s potent science fiction epic.

Pixar’s creation of outer space is gorgeous, but the other environments created for WALL-E are just as eye-popping. The post-human, trash-covered earth has a muted, hot color palette (think desert) so that when WALL-E finds a small green plant among the rubbish, it stands out more than anything else in sight. The Axiom community is just the opposite with an overabundance of bright colors used to emphasize the pseudo-busyness of the space “culture.” The robots are also rendered to perfection and voiced with some of the most unique and emotive electronic noises you’ve ever heard; its very difficult not to melt at the sound of WALL-E’s voice as he pines for EVE when she’s taken away from him.

Although WALL-E may be the most beautifully realized, poetically rich, and uniquely relevant of all Pixar’s films, there are a few minor hangups in the second half. So many chase scenes and hijinks take place inside the Axiom station that they sometimes become repetitive. Little comedic ideas and references are repeated again and again and instead of feeling Pixar’s usual dry and inspired irony, the scenes sometimes feel like a cut-n-paste job. There’s also an extended reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey (it involves music) that, no matter how appropriate it may seem, feels kind of cheap considering Pixar’s track record of being extremely creative without ripping off anyone else. It hurts to criticize such an entertainingly wonderful film and, heck, even trying to may be a moot point.

There’s been a lot of controversy brewing over WALL-E. Some have said that its an environmentalist message movie that has nothing better to say than “Be Green.” Other’s think the single comedic reference to George W. Bush’s presidency (the head of mega corporation Buy n Large admonishing people to “stay the course”) makes it a piece of liberal propaganda. A few people are even mad about the futuristic human race being portrayed as overgrown, obese “babies.” To smack any of these labels on something as profound as WALL-E would be a grave miscalculation.

Nay, the film couldn’t be less about politics — its about culture death. Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky wrote at length on this subject and once said that “modern mass culture, aimed at the ‘consumer’, the civilization of prosthetics, is crippling people’s souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being.” This statement is the core of WALL-E and to see the all too familiar futuristic earth of the first act juxtaposed against the extreme laziness of the Axiom community is quite alarming for a G-rated film.

But that’s the brilliance of what Pixar does: they consistently take mature themes and weave them into something capable of being appreciated by young and old. WALL-E is certainly no different and with a gentle blow to the head it tells us that the human race may always exist, but we’ll never truly live and be satisfied until we put rampant consumerism behind us and take time to look up in wonder just like WALL-E.

-THE RUNNER-UP

A review by Ken Brown

Atonement

What power do words hold? In a society as careless in its use of language as ours so often is, the answer may not always be clear. From the distortions of the government and media to the “white lies” we all tell, deception pervades our culture from top to bottom.

Atonement, based on a novel by Ian McEwan, offers a firm challenge to this casual attitude, emphasizing the great and tragic power that a lie can hold. Set before and during the Second World War, this drama is well-made and well-acted, especially by Kiera Knightley as Cecilia Tallis, Saoirse Ronan as her young sister Briony, and James McAvoy as Robbie Turner (son of the family gardener).

The cinematography is excellent, including both picturesque views of the Tallis family estate and a devastating four minute shot of the British retreat from Dunkirk. And the Oscar-winning score is just about perfect, particularly its haunting use of the click-clack of a typewriter, underlining the power of words the film explores. But the real interest lies in Atonement’s story of sin and its aftermath.

Jumping backwards and forwards in time, even repeating key scenes from different perspectives, the film explores the lifelong impact of one day’s terrible events. In 1935, thirteen year old Briony witnesses a series of incidents involving Cecilia, Robbie and (separately) her cousin Lola Quincy (played by Juno Temple). Misinterpreting these events, and perhaps feeling a bit of childhood spite, she falsely accuses Robbie of an awful crime. Cecelia alone knows the whole story and believes him innocent, but her protestations are overruled by Briony’s impassioned indictment, and he is sent to prison (and eventually, the army), changing all of their lives forever.

The scene then shifts four years ahead and we find Robbie retreating from France with the British Army while Cecilia and Briony are nurses in London. From there, the film effectively exploits its unusual presentation of time and perspective to emphasize the lasting consequences of that day’s events.

Particular focus, of course, falls on Briony’s search for atonement as she — along with the viewer — steadily realizes that not everything is as it first appears. In the process, the film offers brief glimpses of redemption — including a group of soldiers singing of “the still small voice of God” during that shot at Dunkirk — but by and large this story centers on the irreversibility of sin, implicitly asking whether it is even possible to truly atone for one’s own guilt.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film lies in its exploration of the corporate nature of evil. In the midst of the events which lead to Briony’s accusation, the Tallis family hosts a formal dinner during which the misdeeds of several of the guests are hinted at, especially those of Cecilia and Robbie, and an earlier attack by the real criminal. As the story focuses on Briony’s guilt particularly, only she is actually asked “What sins have you committed today?” (she denies any wrongdoing), but these others’ sins provide vital context for Briony’s own. They, in fact, go a long way toward explaining why Briony found her sin so difficult to reverse. For though her lie does indeed carry terrible consequences, it could not have had impact it did apart from these other sins, to which the characters themselves remain largely oblivious.

For instance, Cecilia and Robbie’s own sins that day — immodesty, sexual innuendo and pre-marital sex — while certainly less evil than that which Robbie is eventually accused, were not truly innocent, and established the essential context for Briony’s subsequent misunderstanding and misrepresentation. When the crime does occur then (and it really did, she was only incorrect about the perpetrator), their previous acts lent her accusation credibility. Though Briony was gravely mistaken to accuse Robbie, and worse to falsely insist she was certain, things might have turned out very differently if Cecelia had admitted their own sin. But Cecelia did not, and her silence was as damning as Briony’s lie.

Underlying Briony’s struggle to find atonement, then, is this corporate aspect of evil, as her sins combine with those of Cecilia, Robbie, the actual criminal and many others (enough to drive a World War, in fact), all of which together lead to the tragedy at the heart of the film. What Atonement does best is to show how even such “little” sins — deceit, immodesty, pride — can combine to produce such dire and lasting harm, which we can never truly resolve ourselves. For in the end, it is not just Briony’s lie which proves in need of atonement, but our whole world trapped in a cycle of evil beyond any one person’s control.

Atonement is rated R for “disturbing war images, language and some sexuality.” There is little on-scene violence and no nudity, but a one scene of strong sexuality, some graphic images of the aftermath of war, one very strongly emphasized explicative and other adult themes. All of this is germane to the plot, but the rating is well deserved.

-

HONORABLE MENTION:

A review by Jason Panella

Redbelt
3.5 / 4 stars

You could easily argue that David Mamet has been making the same movie over and over since 1987′s House of Games, his directorial debut. Character names and settings aside, Spartan is Homicide is Heist is The Spanish Prisoner. Almost all of his films, including scriptwriting-only efforts like Ronin and The Edge, are littered with con games and hyper-realistic dialogue that is so over-the-top that it folds back over into the fantastic.

But you could also argue that he doesn’t need to alter his patterns, since the themes he consistently explores — deception, honor, the corrupting influence of greed and power — are as perennially vital as they are age-old.

Redbelt is not only a nice change of scenery for the Mamet theme package, but it’s his first film in years where he seems to unpack it in a fresh way. Inspired by his recent interest in the world of mixed martial arts, Mamet centers the movie on self-defense instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Mike lives in near-poverty with his artist wife Sondra (Alice Braga); the Terrys’ condition can easily be blamed on his refusal to take part in the easy-money world of pay-per-view mixed martial arts. There is honor in training a man to survive, he surmises, not in training a man to excel in rigged ring matches.

After several unfortunate encounters that poise his family on the brink of bankruptcy, Mike steps into a bar fight to protect actor Chet Frank (Tim Allen). As thanks for Mike’s intervention, Chet not only lends a hand to the Terrys financially, but also offers to make Mike co-producer for his current film project. But Chet’s help isn’t as simple as it seems, and Mike’s world quickly crumbles around him.

Unlike some of Mamet’s more recent films, the deception and treachery don’t feel forced or mechanical. Mike is dropped into a pretty hopeless situation, and it’s difficult to watch him fight — both literally and figuratively — to the top. It helps that the cast does well with the material; Ejiofor’s calm portrayal of Mike hints at an intensity ready to burst through, and family comedy guy Allen handles Chet’s glad-handed sleaziness with comfort. Mamet’s stock supporting cast, who appear in most of his films, are also noteworthy — Ricky Jay and Joe Mantegna in particular tear through their small parts with aplomb.

Redbelt is more homage to Akira Kurosawa’s dramatic work than action flick, a fact the director has backed up in interviews. That leaves plenty of time for the characters to interact, and Mamet’s dialogue — usually what divides viewers into fans or haters — is more loose and natural than ever. It helps lend a slow-burning intensity to the story and drops most of the live theater hang-ups that have haunted Mamet since he made the shift from playwright to filmmaker.

A few missteps mar the overall product. Several plot developments are either tucked away without resolution, or awkwardly lurch into play. The ending may also be too much for audiences to swallow, considering all that’s happened before it.

But for me, the ending worked perfectly. For any other director — or any other film — it would’ve been heavy-handed or idealistic. Instead of a rushed closure, though, Redbelt‘s slightly goofy wrap-up feels like a quiet moral triumph by the time the credits roll. Redbelt is — more than anything else — about an honorable man’s struggle to stay true to his beliefs and ideals in the midst of insurmountable odds, and the film stays fresh throughout.

-

A review by Travis A. Johnson

The Happening

When you’re a filmmaker who can create a taut, character driven ghost story and still manage to pull the rug out from under the audience, you’ve scored a hit. When you follow up with a film about comic book mythos, and still manage to spin a hypnotic tale, you’ve earned devotion. When you tell a story about an alien invasion and manage to capture Hitchcockian suspense, we’ll follow you anywhere. You can photograph cardboard and we’ll show up to watch. When you turn in something like The Happening, at best we’ll scratch our heads, and at worst, ask for our money back.

On a clear day in Central Park, the wind whispers across the grass and everyone freezes in place. They start talking gibberish. They begin to walk backward. Soon, they’re stabbing themselves with hair picks and leaping off tall buildings, all players in an escalating, mindless terror.

Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) learns of the devastating phenomenon as he wraps up his Pennsylvania high school science class. School is canceled. The phenomenon spreads, and all the larger cities across New England begin to empty. Moore meets up with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), his friend Julian (John Leguizamo), and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) to hop a train out of town and join the exodus.

As their train zips across rural Pennsylvania, news of the terror widens. Half-heard phone conversations and anguished cries clue us to the growing chaos. When the train stops, Moore learns that the phenomenon has already reached the miles that lay ahead. Suddenly, there’s nowhere to run.

While that might read like an exciting yarn, several threads of the unfolding story distract more than they rivet.

One of the more obvious problems with the film, and they are myriad, is the rating. Trade reports told that upon reception of M. Night Shyamalan’s script for The Happening (then called The Green Effect), 20th Century Fox suggested it might work better as an R rated thriller. The R rating generally signals caution among family oriented types, but it does not always hint toward the kind of hyper-violent gore of, say, the Saw films. Some of Hitchcock’s greatest work later earned an R rating. The trick, as Hitch saw it, was to make the audience believe they could see more than what was actually there.

Spielberg employed similar tricks in Jaws, as did Ridley Scott in the original Alien. Shyamalan himself has used the technique in the past. The Happening ignores any such sensibilities, and does so to its detriment as Night seeks to find ever more creative and bloody ways for people to kill themselves. Thus, the tension he created in the first minutes wears thin upon endless repetition. The rating does compliment one shocking moment at the close of the second act, and Night manages, if briefly, to develop frenetic terror as the psychological aspects of the strange phenomenon unfold among the rural populace.

The cause of the phenomenon receives an airy exposition from a source best described as underwhelming. Dialog stumbles and trips over the narrative—a surprising aspect given the cast, as well as Night’s reputation for directing his on-screen talent. Wahlberg, Leguizamo and Deschanel have all proven their ability to read lines from a page without them sounding like lines from a page, yet nearly every line in the film receives treatment somewhere just above the level of a high school drama rehearsal. The misplaced cadences and pinched monotonous whines sound bizarre against such tragic and deadly events, so bizarre you’d have a hard time convincing me that it wasn’t deliberate.

Which brings up the real enigma: Shyamalan has proven his ability in the past. His talent is out of the question, and fan rants that admonish his capability as a storyteller remain nothing more than just rants. In the past, Shyamalan has presented himself as a director who asserts creative control over every aspect of a film, which would cause one to wonder why this film looks so uncanny.

A handful of moments in The Happening evoke the Shyamalan we pay to see. As he did in Signs, Night keeps the scope of his disaster intimate, focusing on fewer characters rather than, as Roger Ebert notes, blowing us away with impressive crowd shots of mass panic. Once more, collaboration with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto delivers some stunning, and sometimes haunting, photography. A few moments among the cast stick out as something to enjoy, particularly Leguizamo’s character Julian.

As Julian sets out to rescue his wife, caught somewhere in the middle of the event, he hands his daughter over to Elliot and Alma. Alma—somewhat suspect in her character, given that she recently shared dessert with a friend in an act of quiet infidelity—has earned Julian’s distrust. “Don’t take my daughter’s hand unless you mean it,” he utters. It’s a sharp hook that connects Julian to the audience. More tragic is that it’s a singular moment of meaning among many that only inspire guffaws.

There’s a genuine thriller here, tucked somewhere underneath the hammy lines and clichés. As a “message movie,” it knows little of subtext. Yet, the implications of Night’s apocalyptic myth remain somewhat stirring—that dreaded sense of sudden, inexplicable end. It’s just too bad that it received such a stiff treatment, riddled with logic errors.

Perhaps the awkward nature of the film was deliberate if Night wanted to capture the discomfited mutterings of despair we’d most likely espouse under duress. Not everyone can muster the strength to be a hero in the midst of disaster. Much of the time, our panic resembles the wails of frustrated children. I just wish I knew for sure that he was gunning for that target.

Tapping the profound beneath the fantastic requires characters round enough to explore those deep recesses of self, find what lives there, and confront it if necessary. Shyamalan has explored these notions before with characters up to the task. It seems as though this time, he gives us characters whose fiber isn’t as true. The experience is truly bizarre.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Travis

    Thanks for the honorable mention, Jeffrey, and a big congratulations to Phil, Ken and Jason!

    As for missing out on a WALL*E poster, my wife thanks you. She’s already banished my Indiana Jones poster to the garage. ;-)

    Thanks again!

  • http://phillipjohnston.wordpress.com Phillip

    Congratulations to all the runners up — there are some great thoughts here.

    Thanks again, Jeffrey!

  • http://c-orthodoxy.blogspot.com/ Ken Brown

    Wow, I’m honored! I’m glad you chose Philip’s review as the winner though–it was excellent (and I don’t know what I would have done with a WALL*E poster anyway).

    Thanks and God bless!

  • http://cinexcellence.com Joseph Demme

    Congrats to the winners. :)

  • clrussell

    Congratulations to Philip, Ken, Jason and Travis. Very well done. :-)


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