Abundant Acreage Available


One look at Tracy’s face reminds us that farm life isn’t an easy life.

(2017) Drama (Gravitas) Amy Ryan, Terry Kinney, Max Gail, Steve Coulter, Francis Guinan. Directed by Angus MacLachlan

It is a fact that America’s heartland isn’t terribly well-served by Hollywood. Often those who live in Middle America, those that grow our food are portrayed as bumpkins, buffoons or obsessive. Those who have religion are ridiculed; even those who don’t are made to look like stubborn coots hanging on to a way of life that is dying. Thus is the state of the family farmer in the second decade of the 21st century.

Jesse (Kinney) and his adopted sister Tracy (Ryan) are burying their father, recently deceased from stomach cancer, in the field where he toiled for fifty years. Primarily a tobacco farmer, he also grew corn and sorghum. Now his children are struggling to figure out what the hell to do next.

That question is set aside when they find three elderly men camping in their fields in a tent. It turns out that the three men – Hans (Gail), Charles (Coulter) and Tom (Guinan) – are brothers and they have a connection to the farm; they lived on it before Tracy was born. It belonged to their father and he sold it to their recently deceased dad – “Missed him by a week,” the pragmatic Tom says disconsolately.

Jesse, a man of faith, found religion when his life was absolutely destroyed by a tragedy. He believes the arrival of the brothers is a sign, an opportunity to right a wrong. Jesse wants to give them the farm, which his father used the brothers’ dad’s misfortune to his own advantage to purchase. The brothers are aging and Tom, who recently suffered a stroke, is in failing health. He also has a habit of saying course sexual remarks to Tracy, who bears them with the grace of a polar bear. Tracy is adamant; this is her farm as much as it is Jesse’s and the two argue incessantly about it.

Charles has become just a little sweet on Tracy which has been noticed by everyone except for maybe Tracy herself. The brothers are interested in buying the land; Tom wants to be buried there when it’s his time to go; the three live in Orlando and they certainly don’t want to be buried there where they feel no connection other than to a ratty old couch. The land – now that’s something else. Even though they haven’t been back in 50 years, it’s still home. It still calls to them.

As I mentioned, the people portrayed here represent a segment of the American public that has been underserved by Hollywood and in many ways, looked down upon by the elites of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. These are the salt of the earth, those that tend the land and put food on our tables. Maybe they have been idealized a little bit here – unlike most family farms these days, Tracy and Jesse don’t seem to have any financial issues in keeping their farm afloat. We also don’t get a sense of the backbreaking work it takes to farm tobacco; most of this film takes place post-harvest during the late autumn and early winter months. The landscape is appropriately stark and yet rich at the same time.

Still, we get a sense of the people. Jesse, despite his rock-solid faith, is still suffering from the tragedy that befell him. He desperately wants to do the right thing and in a way, this is his way of atoning. Kinney doesn’t make Jesse too much of a martyr although he easily could; Jesse is complex and Kinney lets all his layers show.

Still, the performance of the film belongs to Amy Ryan. Tracy is almost crazed with grief in a lot of ways; Jesse wants to bury his father in consecrated ground but Tracy is insistent his ashes be buried where he toiled nearly all his life; the fields of tobacco and corn have been consecrated with his blood, his sweat and his love. Tracy sees that far more clearly than Jesse and Tracy is a bit more strident about it.

She’s not an easy character to like but we can at least relate to her and the longer the movie – which is only an hour and 16 minutes long – goes the more sympathetic she becomes. Tracy is pushing the half century mark and has spent most of her life taking care of her brother and her adopted father and things like marriage and family have passed her by. She doesn’t particularly love the farm but it’s the only home she’s ever known.

Cinematographer Andrew Reed lets us see the beauty in the stark fields, the decrepit farmhouse, the aging barn. We also see that behind the careworn lines on Tracy’s face there is a lovely woman behind them. Reed does as good a job as any cinematographer I’ve seen in making a middle aged woman beautiful without sacrificing her years; Tracy doesn’t look young for her age but she’s still beautiful.

Things move along slowly despite the brief length of the film; some might even opine that this would have made a better short film than a feature and they might have a point. Still, the movie captures a tone and a rhythm that belongs to those who toil on the land and there is a necessary beauty to that. Most Hollywood productions wouldn’t bother. I would have liked to see more of what drew these five people to the land other than the generations that lived and died there but the story being told here is a compelling one and there’s not a false note anywhere in the movie. This isn’t going to get distribution in a lot of areas but if it is playing near you I urge you to seek it out or if not, seek it out when it makes it to VOD. This is one of the best films of the year and you probably won’t see a lot of ink about it even so.

REASONS TO GO: The people and the ethics of America’s Heartland are nicely captured. This is a movie about the salt of the earth for people who relate to that feeling. The film is very well-written and very brief. Some truly lovely cinematography is here.
REASONS TO STAY: Despite the short length of the film the pace is glacial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, including sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Best Screenplay award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The River
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Rape of Recy Taylor

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Heaven is For Real


A little father and son talk.

A little father and son talk.

(2014) Faith (TriStar) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Marge Martindale, Thomas Haden Church, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Danso Gordon, Rob Moran, Nancy Sorel, Darcy Fehr, Vivian Winther, Pete Hudson, Ursula Clark, Mike Mohrhardt, Bryan Clark, Randy Apostle, Julia Arkos, Candace Smith, Cruise Brown, Amber Lynn Partridge. Directed by Randall Wallace

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of organized religion or of faith-based movies. I have an aversion to being preached to. Not that I have an issue with people having faith or even religion – there are a lot of good things that organized religions do, but there are also some questionable things and I’m talking about all faiths here, not just one in particular. When someone tells me that there is only one way to get to heaven, I smell flim-flammery.

However, faith and religion are different things entirely. While religion tends to codify our faith, faith can exist without religion (but not vice versa). Religion helps those with faith understand just what it is they have faith in. However, when that faith is confronted with something that we can’t really explain, that faith is shaken to the core, severely tested. It all comes down to belief.

Todd Burpo (Kinnear) is a Wesleyan pastor in the small farming community of Imperial, Nebraska. Besides that, he repairs garage door openers, coaches wrestling and the local high school and is a volunteer fireman. If that wasn’t enough to fill up his day, he dotes on his four-year-old son Colton (Corum), his older sister Cassie (Styles) and his wife Sonja (Reilly) who also directs the music group at the church. If there ever was a Norman Rockwell life, Pastor Burpo was living it.

During a softball game, the pastor slides hard into third base and suffers a severe spiral fracture in his right leg, forcing him to the sidelines on all his endeavors for a few weeks. No sooner has he come back to work when he collapses on the altar during his sermon, felled by kidney stones. The medical bills begin to pile up and there isn’t enough money.

Things go from bad to worse. After a family trip to Denver, both Cassie and Colton come down with the flu. Cassie recovers but Colton doesn’t. He starts to get worse. His parents rush him to the hospital (which is a bit of a hike from Imperial) and once there, it is determined that Colton’s appendix had burst. He is rushed into surgery, but the outlook isn’t hopeful.

However, the little boy manages to pull through. Cue big sigh of relief from everyone involved. But then little Colton starts telling his Dad about his experience; how he found himself floating above the operating table and watching the doctors work on him. How he could see his mother calling friends on the phone and asking them to pray for him. How he saw his Dad in the chapel, yelling at God and venting. Todd is at first bemused by this; these types of experiences are not unheard of after all.

But then he tells his father that he actually visited heaven, and goes on to describe it. While he was there, he heard choirs of angels singing to him, giggling when young Colton asked if they could sing “We Will Rock You” by Queen (a Burpo family sing-along favorite). He also sees Jesus, riding on a horse that is all the colors of the rainbow. He sits in Jesus’ lap, and describes him as having blue/green eyes.

Todd passes this off as his son’s vivid imagination coupled with being surrounded with religious imagery all his life. Then Colton starts giving some details about people he meets in Heaven including a sister whom his mother had miscarried; neither Todd nor Sonja had told him anything about that incident. Todd’s faith is shaken to the core. How can he continue to be the effective pastor he has always been when he isn’t sure that his son has really had this experience he is so sure he’s had?

Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and directed such fine movies as The Man in the Iron Mask and Secretariat  makes some smart choices here. He allows viewers to make their own decisions as to whether Colton’s experience was legitimate and if he’d actually been to Heaven. His father believes it, that is for certain. Clearly, it’s not something that can be proven but it must be taken on faith.

That can be difficult. Church and Martindale play friends of the Burpos as well as members of the board of the church who have a difficult time in accepting Colton’s story (and both do bang-up jobs for the record), and worry about the effect that the growing media circus will have on their small town and their church. I found myself wondering why devout Christians would be anything but thrilled at “proof” that heaven is for real. I guess it’s as hard to see your beliefs proven to be true as it is to see them proven to be false.

Kinnear is the glue that holds the film together. He is rock solid, charismatic and crazy likable. We are reminded once again that he is one of those actors who should be an A-lister but for whatever reason has never gotten the role that pushes him over the top. Given the box office success of this film, we may finally get to see that happen.

As for the actor that played young Colton, I have to be honest although it doesn’t make me happy to do so – he is stiff and unnatural. I try to give leeway to young actors because it’s not fair to hold them to standards that you would hold an adult to. However, in this case because he’s so integral to the story and to the film, I would be amiss in not at least mentioning that you need to expect that his line readings can sometimes remind you that he is a kid reading words rather than a character saying them. There is a huge difference and it did for me at least take me out of the movie at times.

The movie and the book that it came from has sparked a certain amount of controversy. Some Christian publications have condemned the book for not having a Biblical version of Heaven – some film critics have panned the film for its depiction of billowing clouds, WASP-ish Jesus (although the painting of him that Colton identified as the Jesus he saw in heaven that was painted by a Serbian girl who had a similar experience looked distinctly Semitic to my eyes) and  angelic chorales was too over-the-top. I never realized that Heaven was such a controversial subject.

And of course, atheists and non-believers have been smug and snarky in their contempt for the film. It’s this kind of treatment that adds fuel for the Fox News assertion that there is a war on Christianity, albeit that on Fox News there’s always a war on something. People have the right to believe as they choose; just because you believe in one thing doesn’t make you automatically better than people who believe in another. Belief is not about being superior to everyone else; it’s about how you choose to live your life and what you choose to embrace as fact even if you cannot prove it as such.

Living in the Bible Belt gives me a certain perspective. Certainly most of the audience that is seeing this movie is Christian or leans that way. During many points in the film, there was audible sniffling and I’ll admit to getting misty-eyed myself. I suspect few atheists will go to see this and I can’t see a lot of non-Christians making the effort either. This is certainly aimed at one segment of the movie-going audience but it serves them well, yet for those who are less religious at least it treats the subject with respect and as I said earlier, allows us to reach our own conclusions.

I have my own conclusions and my own beliefs as to what happens after we die. The fact of the matter is, as Kinnear’s character says during the film quoting his grandfather, is that by the time we know for sure what does happen to us it’s too late to tell anybody about it. Maybe Colton actually did visit heaven; maybe it’s something that his mind did to help him cope with a crisis he couldn’t understand. We will never know for certain either way. Whichever explanation you choose to believe you have to take on faith. And that my friends is the crux of that human ability to accept things we cannot prove.

REASONS TO GO: Kinnear is solid. Raises some real questions about faith.

REASONS TO STAY: Gets preachy in places. Corum not the most natural of actors.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some medical situations involving a child as well as some thematic elements which small children may not understand or be disturbed about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly around Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five People You Meet in Heaven

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Love Me

Soul Surfer


Soul Surfer

Helen Hunt doesn't even realize that the wrong husband is next to her.

(2011) True Life Drama (TriStar) AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Carrie Underwood, Kevin Sorbo, Lorraine Nicholson, Jeremy Sumpter, Sonya Balmores Chung, Ross Thomas, Chris Brochu, Craig T. Nelson, Branscombe Richard. Directed by Sean McNamara

 

It is a fact of life that things happen, sometimes terrible things. We want our lives to be sweet and easy but they never are. You can call it God’s will, or bad luck but we are often put into positions where in order to achieve our dreams we must first re-imagine them.

Bethany Hamilton (Robb) lives in paradise. It may be called Hawaii to you and me but she knows as most of those native to those beautiful islands that there are few places on Earth like it. The Pacific swells that rage against the nearby beaches are her heartbeat, and she lives to put board to water and foot to board. She has a talent for surfing and with her blonde hair blue-eyed good girl next door looks, she is already attracting endorsement deals and is a sure bet to turn pro.

When she is attacked by a shark and loses an arm, her plans are put on hold. The media descends on her family and their faith is tested. Dad Tom (Quaid) wants to fix things, while mom Cheri (Hunt) prays for guidance, unable to fathom God’s plan when a spirited good-hearted teen’s dreams are cut short so cruelly.

At first Bethany gives in to depression and despair but gradually realizes as her plight gets more and more coverage, that she is no longer living just for herself and her dreams. Indeed, the dreams of millions of physically challenged people are riding on her as their inspiration to continue and achieve. With that kind of impetus behind her, how could she fail to at least try?

This is of course based on a true story. Hamilton to this day continues to be one of the world’s top surfers and her story is inspirational, not just to those who have physical challenges but to those who don’t as well.

Now, the actual Hamilton family are devout Christians (Bethany often makes personal appearances at churches and for church youth groups) and there was some fear from Hollywood executives early on that a faith-based film might alienate secular audiences and I have to say myself I don’t go to the movies to be preached to. However I was pleasantly surprised – the issues of faith are handled as a natural part of the Hamilton’s lives and I never felt at any point like a message was being pushed on me. If anything, the message is more secular than religious – while Bethany’s faith sustains her and comforts her, it is her desire and will to compete that conquers the mountains that were laid before her. I found that refreshing.

Robb is a sterling actress growing graceful and beautiful as she moves into her teen years. With wonderful performances in Bridge to Terabithia and Race to Witch Mountain, she has a bright future in the business if she chooses to continue along that path. She largely carries this movie, imbuing the real Bethany’s determination and faith into her performance. She’s deserving of the kudos she’s been receiving for the role.

Oscar winner Hunt is a welcome addition to the cast; an actress this good should be around more often. I do hope we see more of her – while she doesn’t have a lot to do, she does have a  couple of scenes that are really effective, elevating the role. The likable Quaid is once again…err, likable. With maybe the best grin in the history of movies, he’s had a soft spot in my critical heart for more years than probably either of us would like to admit. He’s another actor that I wouldn’t mind seeing get more compelling roles.

Now I’ll admit that surfing isn’t really my thing and surfing movies even less so. The mysticism that some of the sport’s faithful attribute to it is something I don’t really tap into. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the draw of the ocean in the same way, nor does it mean I don’t appreciate the athleticism, the sacrifice or the passion that comes with the sport. It just doesn’t always translate well to the screen and while the surfing sequences are solid, they aren’t enough to get me hooked.

The ending is a bit cheesy and in my opinion does the movie a disservice. Creating a rival (Chung) that treated her like dirt was unnecessary, as is the conversion from rival to admirer. The target audience here is obviously kids from about 11-16 and girls in particular. I think that that audience would have been just as inspired by Bethany’s accomplishments without the jealous rival. She wasn’t needed – there were obstacles a ‘plenty for the real surfer girl.

Bethany and her parents get the lion’s share of character development here and the movie suffers for that too. Too many cliché characters spoil this soup, as does the pulling of the rival onto the medal stand. I don’t know if that actually happened but it seemed disingenuous the way it was portrayed here. So to sum up, a solid movie that is inspirational in places and serves it’s teen and pre-teen audience nicely, one which any family mindful of the values being presented onscreen should feel secure in presenting to their kids.

WHY RENT THIS: Great surfing footage. Robb does an impressive job. Displays the family’s faith without becoming preachy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is a bit heavy on the schmaltz. A few cookie-cutter characters added for dramatic value and some factual inconsistencies..

FAMILY VALUES:  The shark attack sequence may be a little too intense for impressionable sorts (although it isn’t especially gory or realistic) and some of the thematic elements might go over the heads of the smaller set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog in the movie is Bethany’s own dog Hana; she makes a cameo appearance herself carrying a large box in the Thailand relief scene and her family can be seen just behind Quaid and Hunt in the church scene and Bethany performed the surf stunts for Robb.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on how Robb learned to surf and, eventually, inhabit the role of Bethany. There are a couple of featurettes on the real Bethany Hamilton, including some actual camcorder footage shot by her brother.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $44.3M on an $18M production budget; the movie had a slightly profitable theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: You Don’t Mess With the Zohan

The Rite


The Rite

Even dilapidated boarding houses are mainly CGI these days.

(2011) Supernatural Horror (New Line) Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga, Ciaran Hinds, Rutger Hauer, Toby Jones, Marta Gastini, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Arianna Veronesi, Andrea Calligari, Chris Marquette, Torrey DeVito, Ben Cheetham, Marija Karan. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom

Ever since The Exorcist Hollywood has periodically unleashed movies in which Roman Catholic priests do battle with demonic possessors, generally of innocent young girls. Some of these movies have been essentially visceral knock-offs meant to test the limits of our squeamishness. Not all of them are like that though.

Michael Kovak (O’Donoghue) is a young man with some heavy baggage in his past. His mother died when he was young and his father (Hauer), the undertaker in a small Midwestern town, is as cold to him as the snow that blankets the town each winter. As he has grown from childhood, he’s become increasingly convinced that there is no God, much to the dismay of his dad. He is also quite convinced that the mortuary business is not for him, to the greater dismay of his dad.

Michael enters the seminary, mainly for the free education but also to test his atheism. While he questions his faith, the Father Superior (Jones) senses something inside Michael, something good and decent and suggests that he attend the Vatican’s exorcism school. Michael is skeptical; he is planning (as he has all along) to opt out of his vows until the Father Superior tells him that the cost of his education will then be placed into a student loan of over $100K which Michael will owe. Reluctantly, Michael flies to Rome.

At the Vatican, Michael continues to question, drawing the attention of Father Xavier (Hinds) who advises Michael to spend some time with a veteran exorcist. Michael is then paired with Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins), an acerbic and quirky priest who lives with a whole lot of cats he despises in a dilapidated old rooming house in Rome.

He’s working on the exorcism of a pregnant teenage girl (Gastini) but the results seem to be less spectacular than in the movies. “What’d you expect,” barks Father Lucas, “Spinning heads? Pea soup? ” That should give you all you need to know about the movie you’re watching.

As the exorcism progresses over a period of weeks, things get a little more strange and chilling. A lovely journalist (Braga) trying to get to the bottom of the Vatican’s involvement with exorcisms befriends Michael and he’s quite inclined to help her get her story. To be honest, Michael believes that this girl – and indeed, most “possessed” by demons – need psychiatric help more than exorcists. But the farther things go along and as unexplainable events occur, it is not Michael’s faith that will be tested but lack thereof.

That really is the difference between this movie and other demonic possession movies with maybe the exception of The Last Exorcism and even in that Cotton Marcus does have religious belief – he’s just not a believer in exorcisms. Here, Michael flat-out doubts the existence of God and the Devil which makes it more interested when confronted with evidence of the latter.

Hafstrom, who helmed the excellent 1408 (one of the better Stephen King adaptations) makes this almost clinical in places but takes the basic conceit of exorcism movies and turns it on its ear. I don’t know how much this was taken from the book this is based on (which I understand only provides a framework for the movie) but it is a bold move nonetheless.

The usually reliable Hopkins is a little over-the-top here. This isn’t a very subtle performance at all, and there are a few Hannibal Lecter mannerisms that are a bit startling. Most of the rest of the performances in the movie are more understated and nuanced; Hopkins stands out and not in a good way. In all honesty however I have to admit I’m not sure if he could have played it any other way.

This was advertised (and continues to be on DVD) as a horror film and in a lot of ways it isn’t, although there are some genuine creep-outs and some good startle scares too. However, most of the time it tends to be more of an examination of faith and the testing of it in a world which has moved more into a Missouri frame of mind – as in show me. We have become more used to a “just the facts” mindset and that’s not always a bad thing.

Faith implies a willingness to set aside fact and proof to take it on faith that something is so. Even science asks us to take some things on faith – for example, that faster than light travel isn’t possible. And, of course, it isn’t – until someone finds a way to make it happen. Science is a world limited to what we know and can prove. Faith is a world that tells us that there are things that not only we don’t understand, that we can’t understand. Art is a bridge between the two, allowing us to imagine things that are possible but also might not be and making them real. M.C. Escher to me comes closer to touching God than anybody.

But faith vs. science ranting aside, the movie may not necessarily be what you’re looking for when you want a good scare. It is a little smarter and a bit more practical but addresses some issues that most horror movies aren’t willing to tackle. It’s a well-made movie and for those interested in bigger questions than “how did they make that girl’s head do that,” it might be a good fit on a stormy night.

WHY RENT THIS: More of a psychological thriller than horror still packs some nice scares.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hopkins chews the scenery and a little bit of him goes a long way here. Otherwise much more clinical than terrifying.

FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of shocking and disturbing images, not to mention the adult thematic matter, some of it sexual. There’s also a bit of supernatural violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The translation of the Hungarian phrase Hauer utters several times in the film regarding his wife is “My love, my flower, my bliss.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the actual Vatican school of exorcism which includes interviews with the authors of the book that inspired the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $96.1M on a $36M production budget; the movie made decent money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Melancholia

Bruce Almighty


Bruce Almighty

Walking on water is no big deal to these guys but STANDING on water, now that's a feat!

(2003) Drama (Universal) Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Aniston, Phillip Baker Hall, Catherine Bell, Lisa Ann Walter, Steve Carell, Nora Dunn, Eddie Jemison, Paul Satterfield, Mark Kiely, Sally Kirkland, Tony Bennett. Directed by Tom Shadyac

Not being the biggest fan of Jim Carrey in the world, I came into this movie fully expecting to, at best, just tolerate my two hours in his company. Then, something funny happened on the way to my expectations; I actually found myself laughing. I was enjoying America’s favorite rubberface.

Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, an on-camera reporter for a Buffalo television channel who dreams of being an anchor, of being respected and admired by the community. He is known for doing the “lighter” news and for being taken less seriously, both by his colleagues and the community. Just when he thinks he’s getting somewhere, a smarmy colleague (Carell) goes behind his back and nabs the anchor job Bruce wanted. When Bruce finds out (in the middle of a live feed from Niagara Falls), he loses it and consequently, gets canned.

His long-suffering girlfriend Grace (Anniston) waits patiently for Bruce to commit, but he is way too absorbed in his own career to notice. And as things begin to go wrong, Bruce looks to God for answers. The answers that come, however, aren’t much to Bruce’s liking, and the newscaster launches into a tirade against the Almighty, blaming Him for all of Bruce’s troubles.

Of course, this being Hollywood, God hears Bruce and God responds with an invitation to visit Him in His office. And God looks uncannily like Morgan Freeman, which is pretty much how I imagined Him too … well, OK, more in a George Burns kind of way, but close enough.

Since Bruce thinks he can do a better job than the Big Guy, God invests Bruce with His powers and invites him to take over the job (which works out, since Bruce is between positions at the time). Now, Bruce happens to be a broadcast journalist, which is to say, completely self-absorbed, so naturally he uses his powers to resurrect his stalled career, utilizing a few “scoops” (conveniently “discovering” the body of Jimmy Hoffa in a police training ground, and “happening” to be around when a meteor hits. And when it comes time to answer prayers, Bruce just grants them … with devastating effect.

Of course, the consequences of these events are more far-reaching than Bruce realizes and things go from bad to worse in the world. And, as Bruce gets everything he wants, he realizes that everything he wants isn’t necessarily what is important to him. And what is really important to him is drifting away.

I like the movie for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s not an over-the-top Jim Carrey-fest, which I feared it would be. If the Ace Ventura movies were your speed, you may be disappointed with how subdued Carrey is here. Aniston is wonderful; at this point in her career she was catching up with Meg Ryan as the queen of romantic comedy, a title which has sadly eluded her since.

This is a movie that is not so much about faith as it is about values. Bruce is unhappy mainly because he confuses his own needs with his value system. The things that he is chasing with nearly obsessive focus are transitory and in the scheme of things, only self-defining at the surface. The deeper, intrinsic things that define us are the things we tend to push aside in favor of career and acclaim. Faith merely helps us see what is already there.

The sight gags and effects are pretty nifty, and there’s a really awesome sequence wherein Bruce sabotages the backstabbing anchor using his powers to – well, make him speak in tongues.

I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. There is a certain sweetness to it, and the leads are well-cast and lovable, and the message is a bit deeper than the average summer comedy. Any movie that can make me cry and laugh in the same two hours is doing something right.

WHY RENT THIS: Carrey is at his most appealing and Aniston shows why she is one of the best comediennes today. Appealing, warm-hearted and doesn’t beat you in the face with a message of faith. Freeman makes an awesome God!

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little more schtick than there needed to be.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the humor is a little crude, and there is a bit of foul language and sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The riot scene was filmed in the Universal backlot set made famous as the town square of Hill Valley. The clock tower can clearly be seen.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are some outtakes and bloopers, but that’s it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $484.6M on an $84M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Contagion

How the Grinch Stole Christmas


How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Jim Carrey makes a point about Taylor Momsen’s hairstyle; it’s a bit too drab.

(2000) Holiday Fantasy (Universal) Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, Bill Irwin, Molly Shannon, Clint Howard, Mindy Sterling, Anthony Hopkins (voice). Directed by Ron Howard

Family movies, particularly those concerning the holidays, have become increasingly marketing-oriented, substituting toys and corporate tie-ins for good storytelling and meaningful lessons. It’s ironic that this live-action remake of a beloved animated classic that espouses the feeling behind Christmas over the commercialism that Christmas has become should be marketed so aggressively – with toys and corporate tie-ins.

Irony aside, most of us who aren’t named Ebeneezer Scrooge know the story of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” A mean-spirited, cold-hearted (that heart being two sizes too small) creature known as the Grinch (Carrey) sits in his mountain lair, dreading the coming of Christmas, a holiday loathed by the green-furred curmudgeon. Taking solace by playing mean-spirited pranks on his Christmas-obsessed neighbors down in Whoville (known as Whos, creatures with off-the-wall haircuts and upwardly mobile noses), the Grinch is eventually goaded into a dastardly scheme. He means to eradicate every vestige of Christmas from Whoville while the unsuspecting Whos slumber amid the splendors of pine and light.

With the reluctant help of his adorable mutt Max, the Grinch devises a Santa suit and a rather unlikely-looking sleigh to carry out his nefarious deed. Of course, we all know how it ends – so there’s no need to discuss that here.

Director Ron Howard goes deeper into the background story of the Grinch, exploring the reasons behind his hate affair with the Yuletide, and adds numerous subplots, turning tiny Cindy Lou Who (Momsen) into a central character, whose non-judgmental belief in the goodness of the Grinch proves to be the linchpin the story revolves around. Writer Jeffrey Price adds a love interest (Baranski), a pompous mayor (Tambor) and Cindy Lou’s simple but eventually steadfast dad (Irwin).

The onscreen Whoville appears just as the late Theodore Geisel drew it, only in greater detail. Methinks the film’s designers spent a lot of time examining Seuss Landing at Universal’s Islands of Adventure; the set bears a striking resemblance to the theme park. Much like Never-Never Land in “Hook,” Whoville and the Mount Crumpit Grinch Cave become pivotal to the movie’s success, becoming places that are real and that we want to visit. Whoville may not be the star of the show, but it’s certainly an important cast member.

In one of his most physically demanding roles, Carrey brings the Grinch to life and though he can’t resist the over-the-top mugging that keeps me from being a big fan of his work, I am nonetheless impressed with his commitment to the character. Young Momsen makes a charming Cindy Lou Who, and though it probably wasn’t a wise idea to let her sing, she at least is off-key with heart. Boris Karloff is no longer with us to narrate, but Hopkins is the best person for filling those shoes that we have today, Christopher Lee notwithstanding.

This is a family movie that is actually for the whole family. Young ‘uns will appreciate the simple story, the physical comedy and the wonderful eye candy. Adults (most of us who grew up with Dr. Seuss or reading it to someone who did) will find comfort in the nostalgia that is evoked, and delight in seeing Whoville brought to life.

Add “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to the list of timeless holiday classics that we’ll want to revisit again and again through the years. It’s a marvelous treat for the entire family or share with a date, or even just experience by yourself. Da Queen gave this one sentimental hankie, and for once, I think she underrated it.

WHY RENT THIS: The dazzling Whoville set brings Dr. Seuss to life. Certainly there are moments in the movie when the Christmas spirit really shows through.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Carrey has a tendency to overdo it at times.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is a little crude but otherwise this is a holiday classic fit for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Whoville set was built behind the Psycho house on the Universal lot in California. Sometimes during breaks in filming, Carrey would run out of the house while wearing a dress and brandishing a knife, startling the tourists taking the Backlot Tram Tour but nobody ever recognized him.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video of Faith Hill’s performance of “Where Are You Christmas” (the song Momsen sings, sorta, in the film) and some interesting featurettes on translating Dr. Seuss’ world to the screen as well as the instructions that went to the extras on how to be Whos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $345.1M on a $123M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill concludes with the review of a Holiday Classic and a special Christmas story.

The Book of Eli


The Book of Eli

Tell them Eli's coming and Heaven's coming with him.

(Warner Brothers) Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Michael Gambon, Frances de la Tour, Malcolm McDowell, Tom Waits, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Chris Browning, Lora Martinez-Cunningham. Directed by the Hughes Brothers

There are those who say that faith and religion are to blame for all the world’s troubles. There are also those who say that the world would be a savage place without them.

The world as we know it has come to an end. War has ripped a hole in the ozone, allowing the sun’s radiation to cook the Earth. It is the apocalypse, and as we all know from watching films set in the post-Apocalyptic era, the Earth turns into the Old West.

Down the dusty pock-marked roads that are all that is left of the Interstates comes a walker, a middle-aged man – something that is rare in this world where both the good and the bad die young – carrying a satchel and armed to the teeth, as would be prudent in a time where law and civilization have broken down. Darwin’s law has become the only law that is enforced.

The man is Eli (Washington) and he carries with him something very valuable. Not just the trinkets he’s been able to pick up, mostly from corpses and the already-stripped houses that remain standing, but something worth dying for…maybe even worth killing for. It is the King James Bible, and it may be the last one left. After the war had decimated the planet, many of those who remained on it blamed religion for the war and Bible-burning became the new national pastime.

Eli is a man to be reckoned with, lightning quick and merciless with knives, as a group of scavenging hijackers who mean to rob him and eat him find out. He is also merciful and compassionate with the weak, as the woman (Martinez-Cunningham) who was used as bait also discovers.

Eli comes to a small town which looks uncannily like Tombstone, Arizona, mostly to get supplies and to recharge a battery charger. While he’s waiting for the Engineer (Waits) who runs the general store to charge the battery, he goes across the street to the Orpheum bar to fill his canteen. Some rough and tumble sorts led by Martz (Jones) try to mess with him and wind up writhing on the floor or dead. The leader of the town, Carnegie (Oldman) is impressed and is anxious for Eli to join his group of enforcers. Eli is unwilling; he has business to the West to which Carnegie responds “There’s nothing west of here.” Carnegie isn’t the sort to take no for an answer so he has Eli sleep on it, whether he wants to or not.

Carnegie sends his girlfriend in, blind Claudia (Beals) with food and drink. He then sends in Claudia’s daughter Solara (Kunis) to tempt him with baser charms. Eli turns her down but she begs him to allow her to stay the night and give Carnegie the illusion that she had done as he asked; if he does not, she tells him, her mother will pay the price for her failure. Eli relents and allows her to stay.

The next morning Solara inadvertently lets slip that Eli is carrying with him a book. Carnegie goes ballistic – this is the very book he has been sending bands of illiterate marauders out to retrieve. With it he can control the remaining populace and act as a kind of post-Apocalyptic messiah. He has to have this book! He and his right hand man Redridge (Stevenson) go running into Eli’s cell, only to find him gone. He hasn’t gone far and after a brutal gun battle in which Carnegie gets hit in the leg, Eli escapes with Solara chasing after him, eager to get away from her existence in the town.

The enraged Carnegie takes nearly all his enforcers in what vehicles remain and head out after him. Eli believes he is on a divine mission to take the Bible to safety, but with such a man on his tail can Eli reach safety even with heavenly assistance?

While much about the movie is basic Post-Apocalypse 101 from the Old West-style towns, the rusting cars abandoned on highways that have collapsed, the desert-like environment to the abundance of trenchcoats and shotguns, the concept is unique. It is not your usual action-adventure type of film that is usual for this genre (although there is plenty of both); it is also meant to be an examination of faith and belief.

Kudos for screenwriter Gary Whitta and the Hughes Brothers for trying something a little daring. It is not an easy sale sometimes for secular Hollywood to take on themes of morality and faith, but they do so here. I’m sure the presence of Denzel Washington in the project had more than a little to do with the studio taking a chance on it.

Washington is perhaps the most movie star-like actor out there today. He has the kind of screen presence and charisma that gives him appeal not only to African-American audiences who revere him, but also to white audiences who respect him, female audiences who adore him and male audiences who want to be like him. He carries films in the same way that Clint Eastwood once did. In fact, this is the most Eastwood-like of Washington’s performances ever, as he plays essentially a man with no name and of few words who comes into a town, kicks ass and fights injustice. It’s the kind of role few have tackled since Eastwood hung up his gunbelt.

Kunis has been getting a lot of high-profile roles lately, and she has a great deal of potential, but in many ways this was the wrong part for her. She seems far more adept at light comedies and romantic roles than in action movies. However, I was pleased to see Jennifer Beals do so well in this movie; after Flashdance she never really regained the kind of attention that movie brought her, but she is a talented performer as she shows undeniably here. Ray Stevenson, who was last seen playing the comic book character the Punisher is also very strong as Carnegie’s lackey.

Gary Oldman plays villains with a great deal of panache and you get the feeling that he has more fun with them than he does with characters like Sirius Black from the Harry Potter movies. He is certainly playing a demagogue – when we first meet Carnegie he’s reading a biography of Mussolini – but he’s not completely unsympathetic.

I have to mention that there is a bit of a twist ending here, one I didn’t see coming which is somewhat unusual these days, and it elevates the movie in my opinion. However, it also must be said that because the filmmakers are showing a world in which the sunlight is much brighter, the whole movie has a washed out, colorless look that is at times distracting. I know it’s probably a realistic look and I understand what the filmmakers were going for, but just the same it did wear a little bit on me personally. Just sayin’.

I’m not going to say this is a pleasant little film because there’s a good deal of brutality in it, but I found it to be a pleasant surprise. It was much better than most of the critics I’ve read and heard from made it out to be. Denzel is a fine actor and an engaging screen presence and while I hesitate to say he can do no wrong, he has for sure not done wrong here.

REASONS TO GO: A very nice twist at the end. Washington does his best Clint Eastwood and is surprisingly good at it. Oldman is always an engaging actor.

REASONS TO STAY: The film has a bit of a washed-out feeling that lacks color, which I found to be a bit distracting after awhile. Once you’ve seen one post-apocalyptic landscape, you’ve seen them all.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a great deal of brutality and some rough language. There’s also a suggestion of rape. Definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: On the wall of the room in which Eli is kept prisoner at the Orpheum is a poster for A Boy and His Dog, another post-apocalyptic movie.

HOME OR THEATER: It’s a bit washed-out from a cinematography standpoint, so a smaller screen might lose some detail. See it in a theater just to be on the safe side.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Darwin Awards