Mother's Day is tomorrow, and I'm heading out to my parents' place to spend time with my mom and various other members of the family. My mother is pretty amazing; she raised nine children and now loves spending time with her 25 (so far) grandchildren. We'll all be together next weekend for our annual Fam Jam, something the whole family looks forward to. The fact that so many strong-minded, opinionated progeny are still best friends as well as siblings is a testament to her upbringing. We won the Mom lottery and we know it.
I've been watching A Tree Grows In Brooklyn this week, the 1945 film about a year in the life of the Nolans, a poor family living in Brooklyn in the early 1900's. The story is an examination of various characters and their relationships within the family as they deal with the stresses of trying to not only survive, but provide their children with a better life than they have had. One of the most interesting of these relationships is the strained one between Katie Nolan, the mother, and her daughter Francie. Francie adores her charming, irresponsible father who loves his family but doesn't provide for it. She resents her mother, however, who seems hard and unsympathetic as she struggles to pay the bills and plan for the future. This is not a film that presents examples of perfect parents and children, but rather is an examination of flawed characters who love each other yet frequently hurt each other. This isn't a light-hearted movie, but it is a very good one about keeping a family together through good times and bad.
I thought that I'd start occasionally sharing a short clip from a film that I enjoy. To begin with, I'm going to post a scene from one of my very favourite movies: You Can't Take It With You. In this scene, Tony (Jimmy Stewart) meets his fiancee's wacky family for the first time and while he's there an IRS agent also comes to call:
I found the documentary Tim's Vermeer to be really absorbing. Penn and Teller do a good job of putting together the fascinating narrative of their friend Tim Jenison's attempts to prove or disprove the claim that Johannes Vermeer used a camera obscura to produce his paintings. Tim comes off as a likable everyman, though he's obviously extremely wealthy... and a bit obsessive. He's extremely creative, and good at working with his hands: he's got a garage/ workshop full of inventions in various stages of development, and which work with varying degrees of success. He seems like a man who likes to tinker and figure out how things work, and the controversial puzzle about Vermeer's painting methods is his latest enthusiasm.
The part of the documentary which shows Tim painting his father's portrait using a small mirror at an angle is extremely interesting. It certainly goes a long way to convince viewers that the hypothesis about Vermeer's methods is at least possible on a practical level. I was impressed by it, but found myself thinking, "It can't possibly be that easy." Besides it- I should imagine- taking some time to get used to painting from a reflection, there's also the necessity of being able to blend the paint colours and hues competently, which takes some skill and practice. I found myself skeptical that Jenison sat down and produced this picture on his first attempt. It's not that I doubt that he did it, but rather that there weren't a few crumpled canvasses from previous efforts in the trash can. Unless, of course, Tim has had some training in painting, which is certainly possible but I don't recall being mentioned. I just find it unlikely that a raw beginner could sit down and produce a picture that well done in one attempt. The process and its results, however, made me want to try it myself, to see if it actually was that easy. Whether I'll ever get around to it is another question.
Tim's rebuilding Vermeer's studio to scale is an impressive accomplishment, and a testament both to his dedication to this project and to his unlimited funds. I found myself thinking at different times during the film that it was a good thing that Jenison owns a successful tech company, because everything he does obviously requires not only a lot of time and effort, but money as well. Not only does he exactly reproduce the studio and all the decor necessary for the Music Lesson portrait, he travels to England to meet with Philip Steadman, the author of Vermeer's Camera. While there, he also gets to see the real painting The Music Lesson, which is in Queen Elizabeth's private collection at Windsor Castle. It's not as if just anyone could get in to see it; I've done the tour at Windsor, and I assure you that the painting isn't on it.
The part of the film which chronicles Tim's painting of the Vermeer reproduction in my opinion does a better job of showing the time and work involved in the process than the earlier scenes about his father's picture. You get a better sense of time passing; the work is exacting and tedious, and Tim is often tired and sometimes frustrated. This seems a bit more realistic, at least to me. The final result is impressive, and one is forced to conclude that it is certainly a distinct possibility that Vermeer employed a similar method to aid his artistic efforts.
The film Tim's Vermeer and also the book Vermeer's Camera suggest a very interesting- and creditable- method which Vermeer could possibly have used to produce his paintings. Inevitably, this leads the viewer to wonder just what this says about Vermeer's art, and more broadly, about what constitutes art. If, indeed, Vermeer employed a camera obscura to capture the images which he painted, does this make him less of an artist?
Certainly Vermeer had to master painting techniques, the fundamentals of the art, but if he wasn't doing the actual drawing himself, and was painting from a reflection, was he a real artist or a merely a competent craftperson? And does it matter? Christopher Wren, the architect who rebuilt a good deal of the city of London following the Great Fire of 1666 was a mathematician and scientist who used these skills to produce many great edifices. Yet I would argue that the buildings he designed- such as St Paul's Cathedral- are just as much works of art as they are works of construction.
I suppose the real question is, what constitutes art? My usual rule of thumb is that if I can do it, it probably isn't art, which is why I have no time for Jackson Pollack's splatters and dribbles. But, even if I could paint a picture using a reflected image, I couldn't do it with anywhere near the skill and beauty seen in Vermeer's work. Was he an artist or an artisan, or both? Whatever you decide, it is inarguable that Johannes Vermeer gifted us with many works of great beauty for which we can be deeply grateful.
I went back to work this morning and didn't think about it being May 4th, until I checked Facebook later on and the first thing I saw was:
Oh, yeah. I then braced myself for the inevitable flood of Star Wars memes and bad puns which inundated my Facebook and Twitter feed. Which was fine, though as I've said before, I'm not the biggest fan of the Star Wars series. What did make me smile was a picture one of my brothers-in -law posted of a couple of my nephews on the fourth a few years ago:
Being on the trampoline added an extra level of challenge to their lightsaber duel. Cutest Jedi knights ever.
Well, my laptop died on Monday; I had been aware for some time that it was on the way out, but had been avoiding dealing with it until forced to do so. I now have a new one and I suppose I'll eventually get used to it, though at the moment I keep hitting wrong keys because they're not spaced the same as on my old keyboard. Sigh. In addition, I had to take a sick day today because my cold has progressed to fever and chills. Also, my co-workers were giving me a wide berth and starting to look at me like I was Typhoid Mary. I'm currently on my couch, wrapped in a quilt and clutching a box of tissues.
Hopefully I'll be up and about again tomorrow, but in the meantime, here's the picture I took as we were about to start the movie on Sunday night. We watched Good-bye Mr. Chips, which was one of the films from the amazing cinematic year of 1939. Robert Donat, who played Mr. Chipping ("Chips") won the best actor Oscar for that year, beating out Clark Gable for Gone With The Wind, Mickey Rooney for Babes In Arms, Laurence Olivier for Wuthering Heights, and James Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. It is a good performance, and I really enjoyed the movie, but I didn't love it the way I love Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Still, it's a great film, alternately wistful, funny, and moving. I'll probably do a more in depth review of it at some point, but for now I'll just say that it is a film worthy of its 1939 release.
On Saturday night I watched the 2013 documentary Tim's Vermeer. It is a film which follows the efforts of a man- Tim Jenison- to reproduce one of the most famous works of Johannes Vermeer, the seventeenth century Dutch painter. Tim Jenison is the founder of a computer company called NewTek. In his spare time, Jenison tinkers with various inventions he's come up with and indulges in an eclectic array of hobbies. One of these is art, specifically the artwork of Vermeer. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was a Dutch painter who was renowned for the almost photo-like quality of his work, particularly his amazing ability to paint light. This can be seen in all of his paintings, including two of his most famous ones- The Girl With A Pearl Earring, and The Geographer:
What seems to have caught Tim Jenison's interest is a 2001 book written by an architect named Philip Steadman called Vermeer's Camera. In it, Steadman argues that Vermeer used a camera obscura to produce images to trace for his paintings. This was not a new idea: the controversial theory has been kicked around for over a hundred years. The difference is that Steadman built an accurate reconstruction of Vermeer's studio and also a camera obscura which, while not proving the artist used this method, proved that he could have done so.
Jenison reads this book and becomes obsessed with proving to himself that Vermeer could have actually painted pictures in this manner. Documented on film by his friend, Penn Jillette, he begins an investigative journey which will span several years. His first effort involves setting up a mirror at a 45 degree angle and using it to paint a portrait of his father from an inverted photograph of him. The experiment is successful:
Jenison next determines to try to reproduce Vermeer's The Music Lesson by using a camera obscura. To do this, he builds an exact replica of Vermeer's studio to scale. Inside the studio, he builds a dark room which will be the camera obscura. It turns out that there is enough room to build one of the size needed to sit in and see the reflected image of the room.
Tim then decorates the room to look exactly like The Music Lesson and gets to work on his painting. It takes a long time, naturally, and he refines his method as he goes along. For example, he finds that using a concave mirror- which were used in telescopes in Vermeer's time- is more effective and switches to one. He also travels to Britain to consult with Philip Steadman, the author of Vermeer's Camera and gets to see the real painting while he's there. In the end, Tim Jenison's efforts result in a very respectable reproduction of The Music Lesson and this seems further evidence that Vermeer could have- and perhaps probably did- use a method similar to this when he was painting. Ultimately, it is left to the viewer to decide if they think Vermeer used a camera obscura, and what, if anything, this says about his artwork if he did.
Tim's Vermeer on the left; the real McCoy on the right.
Well. The game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Washington Capitals was last night. It was do or die for Toronto, as they were trailing in the series 3-2. They played hard but unfortunately lost in overtime, so they're out of the playoffs. This of course shouldn't come as a great surprise to hockey fans, as the Leafs are notorious for losing- the last time they won the cup was 1967. They were, however, doing a lot better than usual this year (they actually made the playoffs) so we had hopes that they would make it through at least to the next round. But it was not to be, and this morning Leaf fans are feeling a bit like Charlie Brown:
Of course, Leaf fans are also eternally loyal and disillusionment will soon give way to hope for next season, so I guess we're more like Linus and the Great Pumpkin:
While I like watching hockey, there aren't a lot of sports movies that I enjoy watching, mostly because they almost all have the same plot. There are, however, a few that I can think of which I like, although the reasons I enjoy them have little to do with the sports involved. One is Chariots Of Fire, based on the true story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams at the 1924 Olympic games. Another is Remember The Titans, which is also based on the true story about a high school football team in Virginia during integration in 1971. The only other one I can think of that I really enjoy is Breaking Away, the 1979 film about Dave, a recent high school graduate who is obsessed with cycling and talks his three friends into competing in a race they can't possibly win... or can they?
As I stated in Part II of my review of Return Of The Jedi, I think the middle section of the film is extremely weak. This is, of course, the part of the movie which takes place almost exclusively on Endor. Happily, the third act improves quite a bit, at least the parts which take place off of the moon. Unfortunately, the Endor stuff goes from from bad to worse, or more accurately, from ridiculous to ludicrous. Let's start out on a positive note, with what went right in this part of the film.
The scenes in the film that follow Lando and the rebel fleet are effective, even if I don't think much of their strategy- maybe they should have had some sort of pre-arranged signal from the strike team to know the shields were down, for example. Or not down, as the case may be. Nevertheless, these scenes provide tension and a sense of urgency to the plot.
The interactions between Luke and the Emperor and Darth Vader work pretty well. Palpatine is suitably repulsive and gleefully evil as he goads Luke towards the dark side. We also see Vader begin to have some conflicted feelings about what's going on... murdering enemies and underlings is one thing, but killing his own son seems to be a bridge too far. The duel between Luke and Vader has a sense of coming full circle. There are three major lightsaber duels in the trilogy: the first is between Vader and Ben Kenobi in A New Hope, during which the younger upstart beats the master. In a sense, in the duel in Return Of The Jedi, this scenario is repeated. This fight is also a reversal of what happened during the duel in The Empire Strikes Back: in that one, Luke was outclassed from start to finish by his father. But now the situation has changed, and it is Vader who is struggling to hold his own against Luke.
The scene where Luke cuts off Vader's hand and then looks at his own artificial one is a bit obvious, but it still works. Luke realizes that, in trying to destroy what he hates, he is becoming what he hates. He has the same choice to make that long ago Anakin Skywalker had, and he makes the decision to step away from the abyss (unlike the Emperor, literally or figuratively).
Now for what doesn't work: everything on Endor. In Part II, I discussed a number of reasons why I dislike the Ewok plot line, but it gets even worse in this final section of the film. It's beyond ridiculous that these ursine primitives armed with rocks and sticks defeat trained troops with advanced weaponry and vehicles. Not only is this completely unbelievable, it makes the rebels look like a bunch of incompetent weaklings. On Hoth the rebels, in possession of a fortified base, armed vehicles, and all the latest technology couldn't hold off the Imperial troops and had to beat a hasty retreat. Yet teddy bears with stone-tipped spears succeed where all our heroes failed. I hope the profits made on the sale of Ewok toys made completely beclowning the plot worth it.
O.K., so this isn't exactly a criticism of the film, but I've never really liked the Darth Vader death scene. I get that it's trying to show that, under the mask, Vader is human-old and scarred. But the initial thought I had upon viewing Return Of The Jedi for the first time was, "He looks like the big head of the Wizard of Oz." That thought occurs to me each time I see this scene. Silly, I know, but there it is.
I also don't really like the ending of the movie, and have a few questions about the ghost jedi scene. Apparently Vader's deathbed conversion qualified him for entrance back into the club, but why do Yoda and Ben look like they did when they died, but Anakin got new clothes and got his hair back. What's with that? It's even worse in the revamped version, where he also becomes a couple decades younger. And are the ghosts of all the Jedi he murdered hanging around? Because that could get awkward.
The final scene is, frankly, completely cheesy. Everyone's running about hugging each other while the Ewoks sing and dance. It's pretty dreadful, and it was completely unnecessary. The screenwriter wanted Luke, after burning his father's body, to walk off into the darkness, future uncertain. George Lucas, however vetoed this as being too dark, which could lessen toy sales. Hence the dance party in the Ewok village. Again, I hope it was worth it. So those are my thoughts on Return Of The Jedi. It's an okay film: it has plenty of action and does a pretty good job of drawing the Star Wars trilogy to a close. But the plot line which takes place on Endor drags the movie down, killing the drama and making the main characters appear incompetent to the point of abject stupidity. Also, the Ewoks taking down the Imperial troops with sticks and stones is ridiculous. Science fiction doesn't have to be completely realistic, but it should make some sort of logical sense.
Luke allows himself to be captured by Imperial troops, who take him to see Vader. He tells him that he has accepted that Vader was once Anakin Skywalker and urges his father to return to his former self. Luke says that he can feel the good still in Vader. Apparently Vader isn't feeling it though, because he takes Luke to the Death Star to meet the Emperor.
Once aboard the Death Star, Luke meets Emperor Palpatine, the skull-faced leader of the Empire and practitioner of the dark side of the Force. He's obviously counting on Luke being a chip off the old block, who can be goaded into losing his temper and giving in to the dark side.
He has the perfect weapon to use against Luke when the rebel fleet arrives to attack the Death Star and the shields are still up. Huh. It's almost like the team down on the moon shouldn't have been bumbling around, wasting time instead of sabotaging the shield generator. The Emperor gleefully informs Luke that he allowed the plans for the Death Star to be stolen in order to lure the rebels out in the open where they could be destroyed.
The rebel ships engage in fighting the Imperial ships while waiting for the shields to come down. Then, to everyone's shock, the supposedly unfinished death star powers up its laser cannon and blows up a rebel destroyer. The station is fully operational! Admiral Akbar wants to call off the attack, but Lando convinces him to hang on and give Han and the others more time to get the shields down. Meanwhile on the Death Star, the emperor sneers at the pitiful rebellion, telling Luke that it will be stamped out and all his friends killed. Luke is visibly infuriated and the emperor encourages him to give in to his hate and embrace the dark side. Eventually he breaks, grabs his lightsaber, and takes a swing at the emperor, but his attack is parried by Vader.
Down on Endor, the strike team has actually managed to find its way to the shield generator. A surprise to no one by this point, they haven't developed a plan beforehand for the not-unlikely possibility that it would be guarded and are now crouched in the bushes trying to figure out what to do. The Ewoks take it upon themselves to attack the stormtroopers and draw them away so that Han and his team can work on getting the shields down.
Thus begins the battle of Endor between a rag tag tribe of stone age teddy bears and a large force of the feared Imperial stormtroopers who are clad in armour, carrying blasters, and using vehicles armed with laser cannons. Of course, the Ewoks win, because, um... never mind, they just do. Don't ask questions.
Back at the generator, our tough rebel heroes haven't fared as well; they've managed to get themselves captured by the stormtroopers. Fortunately, they are rescued by Chewbacca and his Ewok bros and go back to trying to get the shields down. Leia has been wounded in the fighting, but is O.K., and they manage to get into the generator and load it up with explosives, blowing it up and bringing down the shields on the Death Star.
Of course, all of this has taken time and the rebel fleet has been struggling to stay alive as they wait for the shields to come down and suffering grievous losses. On the Death Star, Luke has regained control of his emotions and backed off, refusing to fight his father. Unfortunately, Vader uses the Force to reach into Luke's mind and discovers the fact that Leia is Luke's twin sister. Gloating, he suggests that, if Luke can't be turned, perhaps she can. Luke snaps and rushes to attack Vader: they fight for a while, but Luke is obviously besting his father and eventually knocks him down, cutting off his mechanical hand.
Luke looks at his father's severed hand, and then looks at his own mechanical one, realizing that he is becoming just like Vader. He steps back, shuts off his light saber, and tells the Emperor that he has lost; Luke is a Jedi, like his father before him.
The Emperor doesn't take disappointment very well and hits Luke with finger-lightening. Luke, writhing on the floor, calls out to his father, who has managed to haul himself upright again, for help. At first Vader doesn't react, but as the torture continues, he seizes the Emperor from behind. Wracked by Palpatine's out-of-control lightening, Vader manages to carry his master to a conveniently placed bottomless pit and tosses him in. The emperor falls to his death, spewing lightening all the way. Once he's gone, Vader collapses.
By this time, the strike team has finally managed to get the shields down and the remaining rebel ships attack the Death Star, led by Lando in the Millennium Falcon. They hit the station's equivalent of a glass jaw and it starts to be rocked by explosions. On board, Luke is trying to carry his fatally injured father to an escape pod. Collapsing under his weight, Luke stops to rest and Vader tells him to take his mask off. Luke does and, dying, Vader gasps out that Luke was right about him. Once he's gone, Luke continues to an escape pod. And then the Death Star blows up.
Down on the moon, there are wild cheers as they witness the destruction of the battle station. Han tells Leia that he's sure Luke got off of the Death Star before it exploded. Leia says she knows he did: she can feel it. She also- finally- tells Han that Luke is her brother, ending his inexplicable jealousy.
Unsurprisingly, Luke has made it off the Death Star, and with his father's body, too. He builds a pyre and cremates Darth Vader. He then goes to the Ewok village where there's a party going on. Before he joins in, Luke looks out into the dark and sees three ghostly figures: Ben Kenobi, Yoda, and his father.
Leia draws Luke into the celebration; everyone hugs, the Ewoks dance and chant, and... that's how the trilogy ends.
I found the premise behind the 2016 film Risen to be an extremely interesting one. Essentially, it's the story of Jesus' death and resurrection, seen through the eyes of an outsider and nonbeliever. Of course, this isn't the first time that this has been done: The Robe, for example, is the story of the Roman soldier who gambled for- and won- Jesus' robe. Risen, however, plays out like a detective story; it's the investigation held by the Roman authorities to attempt to find the missing body of Jesus which they naturally assume has been stolen. Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, the tribune in charge of the investigation. Opinion has been divided on his portrayal of this character, but I think it's fine and, especially in the first half of the film, skillfully done. Clavius has been a soldier for 25 years, engaged in putting down one rebellion after another for the Empire.
His weariness is obvious; he carries out his orders conscientiously but without enthusiasm or even much conviction. He prays to his gods in the same way: perfunctorily, without much expectation or hope. The crucifixion is just one more duty to be seen to, or so Clavius assumes, until it proves to be something much more complicated. As I said, Fiennes' tired and stoic performance works very well throughout the first half of the film; it is less successful through the last part, for reasons I'll discuss a little further on.
Framing the resurrection story inside a criminal investigation is a novel approach and one I found I liked. Clavius conducts the investigation methodically and with the same professionalism- if not enthusiasm- that he brings to the rest of his career. There's a problem though: the more witnesses he interviews, the more he finds that the evidence doesn't match up with the official narrative. For example, he discovers that the soldiers who were guarding the tomb have been paid by the Jewish authorities to testify that they were drunk at the time, rather than say what they actually saw.
Breathing down his neck is Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Judaea, who wants the body found, and quickly, before the situation becomes a major political problem. One criticism I have of the film is its portrayal of Pilate: he's kind of one-dimensional, always angrily demanding that Clavius find Jesus' body and bring those responsible for its theft to justice. I would have liked to see his character more conflicted; we know from the Biblical account that Pilate was reluctant to order Jesus' execution because he considered Him to be innocent. Caught, however, between the expectations of Rome and the tensions with the Jewish religious and political leaders, he did what was politically expedient rather than personally palatable. I would have liked to see this reflected more in Pilate's character. This is a bit of a nit-pick, though.
My major problem with Risen is that, once Clavius discovers that **2000 year old spoiler** Jesus is alive, the film has nowhere to go. Clavius immediately abandons his old life and goes with the disciples, trying to escape Jerusalem and make it to Galilee to meet up with Jesus. It is in this part of the film that I understand the criticism of Fiennes' portrayal of Clavius as stiff and unemotional. But I think that this is more a problem with the script than with Fiennes' acting; the character is left with nothing to do. He goes from actively investigating the events surrounding Jesus' death to being a passive observer to most of what happens next. Jesus' ministry is over, so Clavius can't learn from Him, and there isn't much time for character development of any kind as the movie sort of devolves into an extended chase scene. There isn't even much tension or suspense in this chase, since anyone with even a smattering of Biblical knowledge is aware that the disciples were all at the ascension.
I think the film would have been more successful if, perhaps, Clavius had returned to his regiment and slowly realized that the old way of life with which he was already discontent has become unbearable. Have him seek out Christians to learn from and interact with, dealing with all the complications and conflicts which this would necessarily involve. Instead, all we get from him is wonderment that Jesus is alive. Well, yes... of course he's amazed, but where does he go, emotionally and intellectually, from there? We never find out, which is why the ending is unsatisfying.
I hesitate to define this next point as a flaw in the film, since it's more of a personal thing, but I don't particularly like the portrayal of Jesus and His disciples; they're a bit too hippy-dippy for my taste. As I said though, that may just be me... I haven't yet seen a depiction of Jesus on screen that I actually like. The exception to this is the Jesus in Ben Hur, for the simple fact that it's more of a non-portrayal: we never see His face or hear His voice. I genuinely find this to be much more effective. Oh, and the ascension scene in Risen is really badly done; the scene is given no weight or significance, despite the fact that in the film this is what the disciples have been struggling to make it to, and it's where they were to receive the Great Commission. Oddly, it's reduced to about 30 seconds of bad CGI. In conclusion, I would say that the first part of Risen which follows Clavius as he investigates the disappearance of Jesus' body is an interesting and involving story. I just think that it is let down by the second part of the film, which doesn't really go anywhere.