Sunday, May 20, 2007

Amazing Grace with Ioan Gruffudd and Albert Finney

Take Your Favorite Non-Believer to This Movie and Bridge a Gap

How do we address issues of morality… of right and wrong… in pluralistic times? It’s no small challenge and few movies dare tread the issue.

Take the instance of William Wilberforce, the wealthy and religious Minister of Parliament and the principle character in the movie Amazing Grace. Wilberforce mounted a decades-long campaign to end the slave trade in the United Kingdom, roughly 1789 until 1807, when the slave trade was effectively ended by a legislative sleight of hand. A month after his death in 1833, all slaves in the British Empire were emancipated by the Slavery Abolition Act.

All noble stuff, and Wilberforce’s remains rest in an honored place in Westminster Abbey as a result. His contributions have also warranted the Wilberforce, a 102-foot Doric column topped by Wilberforce’s statute in Queen’s Gardens in London.

It is not only Wilberforce’s doggedness that earned him his place in the British pantheon, but, let’s be honest, his Christian-guided morality. (FYI: In his day, Wilberforce was considered an evangelical.)

Because we’re talking about slavery here, one of humanity’s most odious sins, it’s easy even in modern pluralistic times for people outside the Christian tradition to see Amazing Grace and be moved. The movie works.

But like all people, Wilberforce was more complicated than the man carved in stone. He wrote in his diary, “God Almighty has set me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners.” By manners he was referring to what he saw as a rising tide of vice and immorality (there’s that word again).

Along with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other religious officials, Wilberforce pressed King George III to issue his Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice in 1787. By 1802 this became the Society for the Suppression of Vice, which fined and/or imprisoned many people, including free speech campaigners and secular reformers like the firebrand Thomas Paine.

Strictly speaking, Amazing Grace is not a bio-pic and so none of this turns up in the movie, but it does illustrate what makes moderns so uncomfortable with Christianity and with evangelical Christians in particular. In 2007 imprisoning people for free speech violations seems pretty retrograde.

What’s the modern world to make of people who not only seek to change the world for the better, but to change the individual for the better?

Here’s how one pop-culture icon is reacting. The 400th episode of The Simpsons tackles the subject of the Parents Television Council… called Online Christian Soldiers… which it decries for, “keeping the world safe from the horror of free expression” after one of the characters cuts loose a four-letter word on television.

And it’s not just pop culture on the attack. Right now Richard Dawkins, the eminent evolutionary biologist, Christopher Hitchens, and other evangelical atheists are laying the wood to Christians and other theists.

I have it on good authority from Catholic scholars…who always know their stuff on this account… that the logical case against God is stronger than the one for Him. In large measure that’s because the answers to the “why is there evil?’ questions are so unsatisfying. [Although to me, the question of 'why there is good?' is much more challenging. Even that old atheist Jean Paul Sartre never could never mount a meaningful response to that question.]

Christians… who still think in terms of right and wrong… and pluralists are talking past each other. But understanding starts with seeing people as they really are, not as you’ve categorized them.

Christians believe in positive change. But not only do they believe it, they work on it. It was Christian’s sense of morality that led to the end not only of chattel slavery, but debtor’s prisons, and child labor.

Even today, for every NGO working to improve life in the Third World, there are five Christian organizations, many of which have been on the ground longer.

Here’s my review of Amazing Grace: If you’re a Christian, go see it to witness your heritage. To non-Christians and pluralists I say, go see Amazing Grace to get a fuller picture of the power of Christianity to spark the good in men’s souls.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Last Mimzy with Timothy Hutton

An Uninspired Trip Down the Rabbit Hole

Hollywood loves a movie that can be easily characterized. So what to make of the hard to classify movie now in dollar theaters, The Last Mimzy?

Is it a family film? A brother-sister sci-fi buddy picture? An homage to Lewis Carroll? An aborted space odyssey? ET but with time-travel? A 90-minute Intel product placement? A reworking of the 1983 Matthew Broderick movie WarGames? An Al Gore eco-tract?

In fact, it’s too much of all those things and not enough of just one or two of them.

The movie stars two young unknowns Chris O’Neil and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn as a brother and sister who discover a curious box in the tidewater on a coastal Washington island near Seattle. Inside the box the children find everyday objects… including a stuffed rabbit named Mimzy… that impart powers to the children which startle their mother (Jolie Richardson) and the boy’s teacher (Rainn Wilson).

But when Mimzy begins to talk with the little girl and the objects seem to cause a huge power blackout in the Pacific Northwest, it seems as if the children have opened up Pandora’s Box.

The power failure introduces Michael Duncan Clark as a Homeland Security agent in charge of tracking down the source of the outage, and frankly he’s just awful in this role.

And the director Robert Shaye, best known as the executive producer of the Lord of the Rings movies, has an unsteady hand at the helm.

The script is by Toby Emmerich, who also wrote the Dennis Quaid thriller Frequency, and there are echoes of Frequency in Mimzy. Emmerich is head of production at New Line Cinema, which explains how this odd little film got made.

In Frequency, Emmerich wrote a very strong role for the father (Dennis Quaid). But not this time. Timothy Hutton, a fine actor, plays the father to the kids but there’s so little for him to work with in the script he comes off rather milquetoast.

Mimzy surprised a few critics. But for me it left me feeling glad I didn’t pay full fare.

My wife probably put it best: Mimzy was more often interesting than entertaining.

The Last Mimzy is rated PG for some thematic elements, mild peril and language.

DMR grades The Last Mimzy a B.

The Dollar Movie Review Grading System: The Dollar Movie Review grades on a curve. Movies that make choices to be course or vulgar are downgraded a full to a half grade or more. Likewise, movies that don’t gross out or offend too much can be upgraded as a ‘thanks for trying’ attaboy. Because it was clean, The Last Mimzy was upgraded. Without the upgrade, I would have graded it as a B-.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith

Too Much Information

If you’ve ever baked a beautiful loaf of broad but left out the wee bit of salt the recipe calls for you know what Pursuit of Happyness was like for me. There was something missing in a movie that perfect strangers recommended to me as inspirational and emotionally fulfilling.

The movie is about Chris Gardner a whip-smart, but down-on-his-luck Navy veteran in San Francisco in the early years of the Reagan presidency. Chris has made some boneheaded decisions, including marrying his quarrelsome wife Linda (Thandie Newton). But he wants something better for himself and his son Christopher (played by Smith’s real-life son Jaden).

What was the missing seasoning?

It’s not the acting. Will Smith was deservedly nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award and Jaden’s performance has been widely lauded as well. Supporting actors include Dan Castellaneta, wearing one of William Shatner’s old hairpieces. Dan is better known as the voice of Homer Simpson.

It’s not the direction either. Italian director Gabriele Muccino does just fine. He manages to sympathetically depict the kooks that have tumbled to the left coast while keeping the story focused squarely on Gardner.

The script has real meat in it. Gardner’s plainly a driven man, but he’s not so single-minded or one-dimensional as Ahab going after his whale. Gardner desperately loves his son and wants to give him something more. Gardner’s story is personally affecting; a man trying to better himself under extraordinarily-challenging circumstances.

The problem, I think, is the way the movie was promoted. The climax is missing some punch in part because Gardner was out promoting the release of the softcover edition of his autobiography in October 2006. So I knew back in September 2006, months before the movie came out in December, what happened to Gardner. Gardner’s story was told in Fortune, Reader’s Digest, USA Today, Oprah, 20/20, The View, and dozens of other print and television sources.

In my view, Happyness needed an ending that caught you off guard. I didn’t need to be surprised, but it would have been more forceful without all the advance warning from Gardner's promotional efforts. What's missing from Happyness is a little sensitivity from the promotional staff.

Finally, Happyness has the R-word in it spoken matter-of-factly by Jaden; he’s reading graffiti from a door near his day care. Why oh why does Hollywood feel obliged to do this?

Pursuit of Happyness is rated PG-13 for some language.
DMR grades Pursuit of Happyness a B-.

The Dollar Movie Review Grading System: The Dollar Movie Review grades on a curve. Movies that make choices to be course or vulgar are downgraded a full to a half grade or more. Likewise, movies that don’t gross out or offend too much can be upgraded as a ‘thanks for trying’ attaboy. Pursuit of Happyness was downgraded. Promoted more sensitively and sans the R-word, I would have graded it as a B+.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Happy Feet with Elijah Wood, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and Robin Williams

Dance Your Way to the Theater for This Fun.. er.. Movie

Earlier in my career I remember sitting in a video edit suite editing a video for Merck or someone similarly corporate. We had a series of images… no talking head at all… and we were cutting the video to the beats of a driving soundtrack. And I realized, my golly, I’m editing a music video!

I had much the same feeling as I was watching Happy Feet, the Oscar-winning penguin-powered cute-fest finally at dollar theaters. Happy Feet is a 109-minute music video.

Oh there’s spoken dialogue and a sort of quest-for-redemption plotline that links the musical numbers. But the movie frequently bogs down whenever the characters are talking.

Moreover because the sound editors put the soundtrack so far in front of everything else the dialog is frequently hard to hear.

So like any music video the real question is, do you like the music?

Happy Feet has quite a potpourri including: The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Chicago, Rodgers and Hart, Elvis, Earth, Wind and Fire, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Queen, and Xavier Cugat; but the music of Prince and Stevie Wonder figure especially prominently.

The movie concerns one Mumble (Elijah Wood) and emperor penguin and son of Memphis (Hugh Jackman doing Elvis) and Norma Rae (Nicole Kidman doing Marilyn Monroe). Robin Williams performs almost every other voice. In Mumble’s colony, every penguin must find his heartsong and then share it with a mate, but Mumble’s heartsong is a fiercely unpleasant squawk.

His heartsong, as it turns out, is that he can dance like Savion Glover (who performed Mumble’s motion capture dancing). Mumble loves the honeyed-voice Gloria (Brittany Murphy, who can really sing) but the colony, and indeed the whole of the Antarctic is suffering from a chronic lack of fish.

The colony elders blame the song-less Mumble. But Mumble suspects there’s more to it than that and pursues a fleet of factory fishing vessels so as to communicate the colony’s needs to the aliens.

There are several song and dance scenes that are so precious you want to pinch the penguin’s little cheeks. Indeed, it’s said that Prince wasn’t going to allow the use of his song “Kiss,” but was shown an early preview and was so charmed that he wrote an original song for the movie that runs during the credits.

The environmental message is very clear, but director George Miller takes a spoonful of sugar approach that softens the enviro-moralizing.

Special kudos goes to John Powell who composed the soundtrack and made the transitions between the various rock songs so seamless. Many of his arrangements should find their way to the concert hall.

Happy Feet is rated PG for some mild peril and rude humor.

DMR grades Happy Feet a B+.

The Dollar Movie Review Grading System: The Dollar Movie Review grades on a curve. Movies that make choices to be course or vulgar are downgraded a full to a half grade or more. Likewise, movies that don’t gross out or offend too much can be upgraded as a ‘thanks for trying’ attaboy. Happy Feet was upgraded. Otherwise, I would have graded it as a B.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Casino Royale with Daniel Craig

Bond is Back

I had low expectations of Casino Royale, the latest edition of the James Bond franchise while it was in production. I like Pierce Bosnan, even if some of his 007 movies smelled like fish on the second day. And reworking Casino Royale, not exactly the shiniest penny in the Bond bank, seemed to be a profitless enterprise. Like many others, I had no appreciation for Daniel Craig who is, after all, a blond.

Instead, Casino Royale is the best Bond in decades. It’s stripped-bare approach crackles with intensity in all but a few scenes. The opening chase sequence, which takes place almost entirely on foot, is an artistic and athletic feat. The script makes Bond a wit, rather than merely cheeky. And they picked Bond Babes who can act. As it turns out, so too can Craig.

He plays Bond as a newly-minted 00-agent, a ‘blunt instrument’ who has yet to prove his mettle. This Bond isn’t all smoothness and polish. He’s a little rough at the edges and the movie begins with a spectacular and very public failure that threatens to scuttle his career.

The setup involves terrorism and diamonds. Whatever. Those are just the MacGuffins, as Alfred Hitchcock used to call them; a way to get the story started. The usual Bond set pieces are set in motion; the lavish sets, the distant landscapes and the beautiful women. But it’s leaner than usual. More taut. And that’s to the movie’s advantage.

The one place where the movie grows fat is in an extended gambling scene. I’d rather watch someone install drywall than watch people play poker, so for me this scene limps to its conclusion.

There’s also a gruesome torture scene involving Bond stripped naked. It’s this scene that keeps me from offering a better review grade. Your kids definitely should not see it.

Casino Royale is rated PG-13 for intense scenes of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity.

DMR grades Casino Royale a C.

The Dollar Movie Review Grading System: The Dollar Movie Review grades on a curve. Movies that make choices to be course or vulgar are downgraded a full to a half grade or more. Likewise, movies that don’t gross out or offend too much can be upgraded as a ‘thanks for trying’ attaboy. Casino Royale was downgraded because of the torture scene. Minus that I would have graded it as an A-.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Stranger than Fiction with Will Ferrell

Almost True to Life

Some neighbors just buried their tragically-disabled daughter after tending for her hand and foot her entire abbreviated life.

Friends care for their non-ambulatory, non-speaking (but precocious) five-year-old who was severely burned in an accident.

These are the kinds of real-life sacrifices that people make for people they love or care about. And self-sacrifice is the theme of the quirky and original movie Stranger Than Fiction.

The movie concerns Harold Crick (Will Ferrell)… a gray IRS agent living a paper thin slice of life… who begins to hear in his head a narration of his life’s events.

The effect, of course, is very disconcerting for Crick, especially after the narrator (Emma Thompson) says as Harold waits for the bus, “little did he know that this seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.”

Crick goes to see a shrink (the woefully-underused Linda Hunt) who tells him that he’s schizophrenic and recommends a drug regimen.

But what if I really am hearing a narration, he asks, what would you suggest? She tells him to go see a literary specialist (Dustin Hoffman). Together they compile a list of likely authors. With imminent death hanging over him like a cloud, Crick’s life begins to take on some color as he rounds out his life, especially on the romantic front.

If this doesn’t sound like much of a movie, you’re right. Up until the last 10 minutes or so of the movie the depiction of Crick’s life seems so gray and ordinary you wonder if anything the filmmakers can do can possibly pay off.

The answer is yes. The climax is wonderfully moving and affecting. I’m going to own this movie.

Ferrell, believe it or not, brings nuance to the role. And the co-stars, which include Maggie Gyllenhaal (as Crick’s love interest) and Queen Latifah (as Thompson’s long-suffering assistant) are all quite good, Thompson especially so.

My only complaint is philosophical. The fact is, people make extraordinary daily sacrifices for others as a matter of course in the everyday lives. Everyone of us knows people like the ones I described above. Their sacrifice is so common it seems mundane. Crick’s act of sacrifice is spectacular, but momentary. But how would you depict people like my neighbors caring for their disabled child over a lifetime, whose devotion is so complete it seems ‘stranger than fiction’?

It may be impossible to make that movie. But I want desperately to one day see that harder, sadder, more meaningful, real, and joyful movie.

Stranger Than Fiction is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity.

DMR grades Stranger than Fiction as a B.

The Dollar Movie Review Grading System: The Dollar Movie Review grades on a curve. Movies that make choices to be course or vulgar are downgraded a full to a half grade or more. Likewise, movies that don’t gross out or offend too much can be upgraded as a ‘thanks for trying’ attaboy. Stranger Than Fiction was downgraded a full grade because of all the elements that made it PG-13. Minus those elements I would have graded it as an A.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Fountain with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz

An Art-House Movie at a Dollar Price

I heard Jerry Herman, who composed Hello Dolly, say that the best day of his life was when Louis Armstrong agreed to sing the title track. It made a hit of the song and the play.

Likewise for Nick Wechsler, the executive producer of The Fountain, the best day producing the movie had to be when Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz agreed to star in this would-be art-house film. Otherwise this headscratcher of a movie would not have been made by Warner Brothers.

Jackman and Weisz bring not only star power but real acting chops to The Fountain. They play star-crossed lovers in three different timeframes; Spain at the time of a Torquemada-like Grand Inquisitor; in the present day; and another time in space (literally).

The non-linear editing whipsaws between each timeframe so fluidly that I don’t think I ever caught up. Normally you would call this kind of time shifting science fiction. But it reminded me of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffman, too.

Opera or science fiction, I sympathized with the woman who left at the same time I did asking aloud, “Do we get an explanation now?” People smarter than me have taken The Fountain as a romantic poem on themes of mortality. (Like I need to spend any more time thinking about the shortness of life!)

The movie isn’t unwatchable... by any stretch... but I found it unfathomable rather than “deep.” By all means go see it if you like the stars or if you fancy yourself a patron of enigmas. That said, there are some very bloody sequences and the PG-13 rating is well-earned. The Fountain’s not for kids.

The Fountain is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violent action, some sensuality and language.

DMR grades The Fountain a C+.

The Dollar Movie Review Grading System: The Dollar Movie Review grades on a curve. Movies that make choices to be course or vulgar are downgraded a full to a half grade or more. Likewise, movies that don’t gross out or offend too much can be upgraded as a ‘thanks for trying’ attaboy. The Fountain was downgraded a half-grade because it was bloody.