Category Archives: Mark at the Movies

Mark at the Movies: Monsters University


Hey guys! It’s a been out for a while now but I finally managed to see Pixar’s recent flick Monsters University. When I first heard that Pixar was making a prequel to Monsters Incorporated I have to admit I was skeptical. Very skeptical. Ever since Cars 2 came out I’ve been worried that Pixar would start to lose its creative soul, that it would choose favor sequels (which are much less risky in terms of return on investment) over creating the kind of unique films we’ve seen them produce since their inception. Well I’m still worried about that (especially since I’ve heard they’re working on a sequel for Finding Nemo of all things). However if the sequels they produce are at the same level of quality as Monsters University then we’ll be in for a good time anyway. Monsters University is fun, creative, and well crafted.

One of the few benefits of working with a sequel (or prequel) is that the audience has already had time to become acquainted with the characters. Pixar uses this to full advantage, allowing the characters to drive the plot forward and fleshing out their backgrounds and motivations. The plot itself is a pretty straightforward college flick: losers mess up, losers enter big competition, losers learn to work together, losers become winners. However Pixar takes that generic college movie plot and expands on it, and even allows for a few surprises. The ending, in fact, is arguably a subversion of the classic formula and I found it very satisfying. Still even where the plot falls together as predictably as your average crime drama it works because the plot isn’t the main attraction. It’s the characters we came to see, and they certainly deliver.

The visuals were stunning, even by Pixar’s standards. Nobody does CGI like Pixar but they’ve really outdone themselves this time. Their opening short was so realistic that I had trouble believing it wasn’t real. I thought that they’d mixed the reels up and started the wrong movie. The short was so realistic, in fact, that when fantastical things began to happen it skirted the edge of the uncanny valley. Monsters University does not suffer from the same affliction, as the bright and colorful style of the monster world is different enough from our own to prevent creepiness. Still there is one scene involving the human world where again, just for a second, I could swear that it looked like actual footage of the outside. It is an impressive accomplishment that shows Pixar is still committed to pushing the technological and artistic envelope.

Altogether its a good movie and definitely worth a watch if you’re a Pixar fan.

Mark at the Movies: The Soloist


Recently I had the pleasure of watching the 2009 film The Soloist for the second time. The film is an adaptation of a true story, and from what little research I’ve performed it’s fairly accurate. The main character is Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downy Jr.), a journalist working for the LA Times who needs a story idea. As he’s wandering around town he encounters a homeless man playing a two stringed violin. For the heck of it he strikes up a conversation and learns that this man’s name is Nathanial Ayers (played by Jamie Foxx) and that he appears to be somewhat mentally unstable. Ayers talks rapidly, throwing out observations about the world and observations about music laced with sudden non sequiturs and what seems like nonsense. Amid all this jabber Lopez hears that Ayers claims he attended Julliard, the prestigious art conservatory. Lopez, thinking it might make an interesting story if true, does some research and confirms that Ayers was a student at Julliard before dropping out in his second year. He hunts down Ayers, talks to him a while, and then does so more research. Slowly the full story is uncovered. Ayers was a talented cellist, and was dedicated to music and hard practice as a young man. His skill and hard work got him accepted at Julliard, a huge step up for the son of a poor hairdresser. Unfortunately Ayers began to experience symptoms of schizophrenia while attending. The disease led to him dropping out, and eventually to him ending up homeless on the streets of Los Angeles.

At first Ayers is just an interesting story for Lopez. He’s just another of a long list of possible article ideas. “Homeless man, once brilliant musician, now plays a two string violin on the sidewalk.” It’s the kind of story that people are interested in reading. One reader, an old woman who used to play the cello before arthritis took away her ability, donates her instrument to Ayers so that he has a decent instrument to play. Lopez delivers the instrument and continues to interact with Ayers in the hopes of getting more columns out of him. As Lopez enters his world and interacts with other homeless individuals stuck on the streets he find himself slowly caring more about Ayers as a friend than Ayers as a story lead.

This movie also features the most compelling and horrifying depiction of schizophrenia I’ve ever seen. Ayers suffers from auditory hallucinations (in other words, voices in his head). Most depictions of schizophrenia I’ve seen the medium of film feature harsh, rough, demonic voices laughing and mocking the person in question. Others depict the voices as monsters or talking reflections, etc, which is pretty heavy handed and lacks authenticity. When Ayer’s voices arrive they take the form of a calm woman’s voice with excellent pronunciation. The voice is not emotional. It sounds much like a very professional woman announcing evacuation instructions over a PA system. It’s the content that is frightening, as the voice informs Ayers that everyone can hear his thoughts, that he shouldn’t think, that he must be careful, etc. The woman’s voice is loudest but with her comes many other voices, each equally calm, and each saying something different. The effect is powerful. After watching Ayers lose his composure under the onslaught of voices I felt like I could understand his experience. It was very real. I can easily imagine what it would be like to have voices like that in my head, and to be unable to silence them. I did some research, and found that many psychologists were pleased with the film’s depiction of schizophrenia, saying that it was fairly accurate.

As Lopez and Ayers become closer Lopez tries to help Ayers improve his life. He convinces Ayers to play his instrument in a safe place, at a local homeless shelter. David, the shelter’s director, understands the homeless much better than Lopez. Lopez wants to fix Nathanial: he wants to set him up with an apartment, get him on medication, etc. This is understandable, but Nathanial doesn’t want an apartment, and he is extremely resistant to seeing any kind of psychologist. One thing Ayers would like, however, is a friend. Ayers doesn’t see Lopez as a benefactor who can help him, but as another person who he enjoys talking to. This captures the struggle we face when trying to help the homeless. We want to set them up with things; a house, medical care, a job, etc. These are all good, really good things. But if we think of homeless only as people who are defined by their lack of possessions then we are missing the point. The forces that lead a person to the streets are many, varied, and always complicated. They can’t be solved quickly or easily. If you go out to help the homeless don’t be surprised if some of them take offense to you trying to “fix” them.

Yet the opposite stance is also clearly wrong. We can’t just put ourselves at ease by saying “Well the homeless don’t always want the things they lack. It’s just a different lifestyle choice. Throwing money at the problem doesn’t work.” These people do need help, and your money can have a big impact on their quality of life. The problem is that their problems cannot be solved with a little cash and some discipline. If all a homeless person needed was some money and a place to stay, then there would be a lot less homeless on the streets. Go talk to someone who works with the homeless on a day to day basis and they’ll tell you that it’s not so easy.

Later, after Lopez helps calm Ayers down during a stressful moment, Ayers tells Lopez that he loves him. Lopez later confesses to David that “I don’t want him to love me.” He doesn’t want to let Nathanial down. He doesn’t want to be important to Nathanial. He tells David get Ayers on medication. David says Ayers isn’t ready or willing to sit down with a psychiatrist. Lopez wants to force Ayers to. Lopez even considers lying to the authorities in order to Ayers committed to a mental institution so he’ll receive the help he needs. David responds by pointing out that unless Ayers is willing to treat his condition than all Lopez will do is alienate him and ruin their friendship. He tell Lopez that “Nathanial has one thing going for him right now: a friend” Lopez replies “I don’t want to be his only thing.” Later Lopez’s ex wife points out that as long as he’s holding himself back he’s just exploiting Nathanial. He has to decide: is Ayers a friend or a story idea?

At the same time Ayers does have a very serious problem. His schizophrenia can be crippling, and leads to sudden moments of extreme distress and frightening actions. The film does not sugar coat his condition. It’s extremely easy to sympathize with Lopez’s desire to get Ayers help at all costs, and I believe this was intentional. The film is trying to highlight how complex the situation many homeless people, and those who seek to help them, are in.

There is a minor subplot involving the mayor pledging to revitalize skid row and help the homeless, which results in a police crackdown on lawbreakers around the city. This heavy handed response ends up imprisoning and alienating the people that the mayor supposedly wants to help. This is probably one of the low parts of the movie, and I’d say it should have been cut out altogether, except it does lead to an excellent scene of Lopez trying to track Ayers down, worrying that he was beaten and sent to a hospital.

This in turn leads to an extremely powerful scene where Lopez is reunited with a healthy and fairly happy Ayers. Things seem great. Ayers has started sleeping in an apartment Lopez has provided, and seems pretty stable. Then Lopez gives Ayers some papers he needs to sign so that Ayers’ sister can become his legal executor. However things become frightening quickly when Ayers reads the papers, which state that he has schizophrenia. Lopez tries to explain it away as legalize, but Nathanial isn’t listening. He becomes convinced that Lopez is trying to put him away. He lashes out at Lopez, hitting him and yelling angrily. He throws Lopez against a wall and then covers Lopez’s mouth with his hand. He holds Lopez down and strikes at him, all while ranting about how he can take care of himself and nobody is going to take him away. As he holds Lopez down on the floor with his foot Ayers threatens to cut him open like a fish if he ever sees him again. Lopez flees the apartment and Nathanial, clearly upset, sits down and talks rapidly to himself. He seems afraid now instead of angry. He begins to cry.

When I saw this movie for the first time I was taken aback at this scene. I thought hard about what I would do in that situation. Would I ever try to reach out to Nathanial again? I decided that I wouldn’t. It was too risky. At the very least I’d hide some kind of knife proof vest under my shirt if I tried to see him again.

Lopez has more faith than that, and puts me to shame. He’s not afraid to see Ayers again. Ayers’ sister flies into LA and Lopez drives her down to the mission to see him. He waits patiently outside for them to finish talking to each other. After a long while Ayers comes out. He is clearly in distress and apologizes for what he did and said. Lopez says it’s no big deal, friends fight. Nathanial responds saying that he couldn’t imagine he’d want to be his friend after this. Lopez holds out his hand, and says he’s honored to be Ayers friend.

At the end of the movie Nathanial is off the streets, but he’s still mentally unbalanced.  Lopez doesn’t know if his friendship has helped Nathanial. But Lopez does say that  Nathanial has helped him.

The aspect I enjoy most about this movie is it’s subtlety. There are many points in which it would be easy to hit the viewer over the head with some heavy handed moral. It would be so easy to paint someone as a villain in this piece. Instead this film chooses to be less narratively satisfying, simultaneously becoming that much more real. The fact that there is no villain to the story drives home the point that the film is trying to make. Namely that the problem of homelessness is not an easy one. There is no pat answer to it. There is no scheming fat cat with a cigar who we can blame for all this. There is no dragon to slay here. Instead there are only people who have been caught up in the whirlpool of life and spit out into the streets. People with mental problems. People who have made terrible choices. People who have been dealt a bad card. And throwing money at the problem won’t help them out of their bad situation. At the same time they do need help. There are no satisfying answers to Ayers’ problems. At the end of the movie he still has some serious issues, issues that may never be fixed. But he also has a friend.

My final verdict: this movie isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely worth a watch.

Hope for the Miserable Ones



I recently had the pleasure of watching the newest movie adaptation of Les Miserables.  It was an excellent film: in fact I’d have to rank it as one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. However I feel that my love for it has more to do with the story that it is based on then the movie itself. I loved the movie because it told the story extremely well; why I love the story is something I’ve been reflecting about lately, as well as exactly why I thought the movie did a superb job of telling it.

I have said before that the question “If God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?” is one of most reasonable questions a man can ask. However, too often in this case we treat suffering as an intellectual concept rather than a very real and terrible reality for people around the world. Les Miserables shows us human suffering in vivid and concrete terms that are hard to brush off or easily forget. The story captures the misery and injustice we find in the world around us and refuses to sugarcoat it.

And yet the story does not stop there. The film is not content to paint misery in hundred foot letters for the mere point of saying (as so many “dark and gritty” movies these days do) “Life sucks and then you die.” Les Miserables forces us to gaze upon the ugliness of suffering, but then it calls us to witness something far more beautiful: the love of God reaching down to touch those who suffer. The story gives us man’s capacity for deceit, cruelty, and indifference yet at the same time shows us our ability to forgive, show compassion, and love one another. I found myself tearing up at three points in the movie: once because I was moved by sadness, but twice because I was moved by love. This movie—this story, rather—hits a soft spot for me. I love to see evil struck down, innocents saved, and love overcoming hate.

Some would argue that (as far as the story goes) it is unnecessary to bring God into the equation. They would say that Jean Valjean is a good man and that his good actions do not need to be explained by some higher power. There is merit to this; all the same the movie would have been incomplete without God.  If all there was to the story were the events that we can see with our eyes, if this world is all there is, then Les Miserables is nothing more than a farcical tragedy. Everywhere we see good and innocent people brought to ruin, despair, and death by the cruelty and conniving of evil men and the indifference of the respectable. When things start to go right sudden events bring catastrophe. Many die seemingly for nothing, having accomplished little by their sacrifice and changed less. Meanwhile evil men and women live to prey on the weak another day which gives us a profound sense of injustice. Les Miserables would be a sad tale indeed if this world was all there was. But Valjean has a better hope. At the end of his life he tells God he is ready to come home; to be released from the shackles and miseries of this world. His cry is not one of a fatalist but rather of one who is ready to leave this shadowy world in order to enter into the true one. He has carried his share of suffering and now it is time to be relieved of his burdens. It is time to come home.

And man does this movie deliver! Fantine, who despaired for living and died a penniless prostitute, appears to Valjean. No longer is she the sad, dirty, and pitiful thing we saw before. Now she is beautiful, clean, and full of joy. Her story did not end in that dark hospital nine years ago. Valjean’s will not end either. He dies and his daughter weeps for him, but Valjean does not weep for himself. Fontaine leads him on and there we see the other side of death. The loving priest who changed his life is here to welcome him; and outside the convent walls Valjean finds the brave men and women (and children!) who died bloodily in the streets during the revolution. These souls who we last saw suffering and dying for their ideals are now proud and grinning. Though in the world’s eyes their deaths accomplished nothing in God’s eyes they have accomplished everything. They fought valiantly and died for the good of others. Though others weep for them they do not weep for themselves. They are triumphant!

Les Miserables is ultimately a story of good’s triumph over evil, and it is a story framed in a way that we do not usually expect from a book or movie. The story stays true to what we see in life; the good die, often horribly and unjustly, while the evil live on and profit from their cruelty. This is not what we expect from a story of good triumphing over evil; in the same way that the disciples never expected Jesus to die on a cross. And yet that act of suffering and death became the ultimate victory over suffering and death everywhere. Whether a story has a happy ending depends on when you choose to stop reading. Often we close the book too early. We think that death is the final chapter. If it is then life is a tragedy. As a Christian I know that death is not the end. We cannot see how our own (or anyone else’s) story ends from this side of eternity; we are still in the middle of the book.

Mark at the Movies: The Dark Knight Rises

I had the pleasure of watching The Dark Knight Rises on Monday, and I thought I might try my hand at reviewing it here on the blog. As you know I started this blog in order to become a better writer, and I think writing a movie review would be a good experience. A friend of mine once had the idea that we should start reviewing movies together, and though that never went anywhere we did have a couple of cool ideas on how we would do it. One that I’ll be utilizing here is a dual rating system: I’ll be rating the movies between one and ten based on Artistry and Entertainment. Artistry judges how well the movie is put together, whether it tries anything new and interesting, what emotions it inspires, and just how it holds up to examination as a unique work of art. Entertainment judges how much fun the movie is to watch, how exciting it is, how funny it is, and whether you feel satisfied with the experience as a whole. Those two measures will be in agreement less often than you might think. I think Schindler’s List is an incredible achievement of artistry, a masterpiece of cinema that touches on deep and important subjects; but if I just want a flick to watch on a Saturday night I’m probably going to pick something more like Pirates of the Caribbean. With that in mind at the end of the review I’ll score the movie in each category. Also, because I’m a nice guy, I’m going to avoid spoilers as much as I can.

The Dark Knight Rises is the final Batman movie that Christopher Nolan will be involved with. If there is another Batman movie in the future (and there probably will be; he is Batman, after all) it will almost certainly be a reboot of the series with a new Batman, a new Gotham, and a new take on the Batman mythos. Because of this Nolan has had a lot of freedom to end this movie however he wants to. He doesn’t have to leave room for a sequel, and this is his only opportunity to tie up any loose ends in the trilogy. It also gives him the unique opportunity to finish a superhero’s character arc. In comics (and in most superhero movie franchises) the writers cannot actually end the principal character’s story. If Peter Parker decides to quit being Spiderman then you can rest assured that he’ll change his mind within the week and go back to web slinging. If Superman dies (and he did, back in the nineties) then you know that they’ll find a way to bring him back to life. The reason for this is that comics (and movie franchises) rely on a continuous story and the longer that story runs the more valuable the characters become. Marvel is never going to say “Alright, that’s it, no more Spiderman, his story is finished” because that would be financially unsound; Spiderman is worth a lot of money and it doesn’t make sense for a comic book company to stop making comics about its most popular characters. This means that Nolan has a very unique opportunity here; he gets to tell us how the story of Batman ends. This movie promises us closure. I don’t think it is revealing too much to let you know that we get it. One way or another, Bruce Wayne’s story will end by the time the credits roll.

The fact that Rises is the last in the Nolan trilogy has caused many speculators on the internet to theorize that Batman is going to die. These rumors are helped by the fact that the movie’s principal villain is Bane. If you’ve never heard of Bane before that’s alright; he’s a pretty unimportant Batman villain, all things considered. Bane is really only famous for doing one thing in the comics; breaking Batman’s back. Batman almost dies because of it. So why would Nolan choose a b-list batman villain for his final film instead of someone more iconic like the Penguin, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, etc.? For a lot of people the answer is obvious: Bane is there because he’s going to break Batman’s back, and considering that it’s the last movie in the series it seems all the more likely that he’s going to kill him this time around. I’m not going to reveal whether any of those rumors are correct, or what actually happens in the film. I just think it’s important information to have before watching it. I believe I’m justified in saying so because the entire movie appears to be built around this question: “Is Batman going to die?” I wouldn’t find it hard to believe that Nolan intended for those rumors to spread because the effect on the movie as a whole is an excellent one. The fact that there is a very real possibility of Batman dying this time makes everything seem more exiting and suspenseful. We all knew that they wouldn’t dare kill Batman in Batman Begins or The Dark Knight; The fact that there are no guarantees this time around adds weight to the entire film.

Whether Bane was chosen just to cause this kind of audience reaction is something only Nolan knows. What I do know that many people, myself included, were disappointed to hear that Bain would be the main baddie. When the first trailers came out and I saw Bane stomping around in a parka with a very proper (almost British) accent I wasn’t sure what to think. The entire effect was a little silly. So if you were also worried about Bane as a villain let me reassure you: he works. He works very well. I have no idea how he stacks up with the comic book version of Bane, but this Bane is a villain that is enjoyable to watch and interesting to follow. He’s mysterious, charismatic, and frightening in power. He’s not the kind of villain who walks around pacing while yelling at minions, or the kind who’s (delightfully) over the top like the Joker. Instead he is the picture of a reserved, patient, and inspiring leader. You can tell a lot about a villain by the company he keeps; Ra’s al ghul‘s League of Shadows was made of disciplined and ruthless ninjas, reflecting his own disciplined, honorable, and unyielding personality. The Joker’s thugs consisted of nutjobs, psychopaths, and anarchists because his own fractured and eclectic personality attracted them like moths. Bane’s goons are simple men in rough and practical clothing with submachine guns and beard stubble, yet they act with a strange sense of pride, respect, and complete self-sacrifice to the cause. This reflects Bane himself, whose calm, patience, and total devotion to his mission belie his muscle-bound and thuggish appearance.

This review is too long already, so I’ll get down to the nitty gritty: The Dark Knight Rises is a great movie. It delivers on the promise of closure for Bruce Wayne, it has an excellent villain, and the plot (though arguably containing a little too many twists and turns) works well. When I left the theatre I was thoroughly satisfied. Nolan has created an excellent finale to his trilogy, and I have no real complaints. It’s not a perfect movie, but no movie is.

On the Artistic level I’d have to give the movie 7 out of 10. It finished Bruce Wayne’s character arc well, it’s well written, and the visuals are stunning. It’s not an artistic masterpiece, but for a blockbuster it’s far above par.

On the Entertainment level I’d have to give it 9 out of 10. The fights are exciting, the special effect excellent, there are never any boring moments, and the conclusion is satisfying. My only complaint is that the move does go a little long, so it won’t be a movie that will be easy to just casually watch when you have a couple hours free.

So that’s my take on The Dark Knight Rises. If you liked the first two movies at all, then this is one you cannot miss.