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I'll Come Speak

    I write and speak on all sorts of topics: ancient Christian spirituality and the Eastern Orthodox faith, the Jesus Prayer, marriage and family, the pro-life cause, cultural issues, and more. You can contact Cynthia Damaskos of the Orthodox Speakers Bureau if you’d like to bring me to an event. This Calendar will let you know when I’m in your neighborhood.

 

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Entries in Movie Reviews (164)

Friday
Aug152008

Henry Poole is Here

“Henry Poole is Here” is a film that Christian moviegoers will yearn to embrace, if only from sheer gratitude; here, at last, is a depiction of Christian faith that portrays it as something other than the domain of cranks and loonies. And it’s not just theological theory that wins the film’s blessing, but something more substantive, verging on shocking: it proposes that miracles can happen—and supplies an audacious one for our consideration.

That daring premise is set in a simple story. Henry Poole, a thoroughly dejected young man, has bought an empty house in a California suburb, and it’s still mostly empty after he moves in, apart from the accumulating vodka bottles. On one side, he has a cheery neighbor, Esperanza, who keeps interfering with his goal of continual glumness. On the other, there’s a mysterious, elfin 6-year-old girl, Millie, who doesn’t speak but does tote a tape recorder, and her mom, Dawn, who bakes cookies and owns a variety of V-necked outfits.

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Wednesday
Jul232008

Diminished Capacity

There’s virtually nothing harmful in “Diminished Capacity,” a mild comedy about the difficulty of selling a rare baseball card when you’re a picturesque old geezer with a faulty memory. The most appreciative audience will be, in fact, not the one that is interested in geezers, but the one that is interested in baseball; more specifically, interested in baseball fans and their fanaticisms (particularly the incandescence of those devoted to the “Lovable Losers,” the Chicago Cubs).

 

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Friday
Jun272008

WALL-E

[National Review Online, June 27, 2008]

I can just tell that this is going to be one of those reviews where the hardest part is coming up with the first sentence. What’s the main thing to say about WALL-E, the latest offering from that most excellent animation studio, Pixar? That it’s surprisingly, delicately, effectively, poignant? That, for that reason, younger children may not quite get it? That the Wall-E character is genuinely charming, and his originality has not been siphoned off by ET or Short Circuit’s Johnny 5? That the film succeeds in making an ecological statement without being annoying? That, despite all those worthy elements, there’s just something missing—a plot, perhaps?

 

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Friday
May162008

When the Movie Trumps the Book-Top Ten

[National Review Online; May 16, 2008]

Every once in awhile, a movie improves on the book on which it is based. In my bold opinion, Prince Caspian , the second Disney film drawn from C. S. Lewis’s beloved Chronicles of Narnia, is such a movie. Criticism of C. S. Lewis is rightly taboo, but facts are facts: Prince Caspian , the book, is a dud.

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Friday
Apr252008

Baby Mama

[Christianity Today Online, April 25, 2008) 

Summary: In this comedy a single thirty-something organic foods executive can’t sustain a pregnancy, so she hires a ditsy surrogate to carry her baby to term.

Stars: **

Rated PG -13

Genre: Comedy

Released: April 25, 2008 by Broadway Video

Directed by: Michael McCullers

Runtime: 96 min.

Cast: Tina Fey (Kate), Amy Poehler (Angie), Greg Kinnear (Rob), Dax Shepard (Carl), Romany Malco (Oscar)

Baby Mama

By Frederica Mathewes-Green

When Chinese food was first becoming popular in the US, some decades ago, a saying quickly became a cliché: it tastes great, but an hour later you’re hungry all over again.

Some comedies are like that. As long as you’re in the theater, you could be laughing more or less continuously.

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Friday
Mar072008

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

[ChristianityTodayMovies.com; March 7, 2008] 

Stars: 2

Cast: Frances McDormand (Guinevere Pettigrew), Amy Adams (Delysia LaFosse), Ciaran Hinds (Joe), Lee Pace (Michael), Shirley Henderson (Edythe Dubarry)

*** 

Miss Guinevere Pettigrew does have quite a day. It begins on a blustery London morning in 1939, as Miss Pettigrew awakens on a bench in a London train station. She had lost her job as a governess the day before, and no job prospects are in sight. She gets a meal in a soup-line but it is knocked out of her hands; she collides with a stranger, and her suitcase spills across the sidewalk. With nothing left to lose, Miss Pettigrew forms the bold plan of trying to pass herself off as the applicant sent by an employment agency to be social secretary to nightclub singer and social luminary Delysia LaFosse. (The film is based on a 1938 novel which was reissued in England in 2000, making the author, Winifred Watson, a minor celebrity at 94.)

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Thursday
Feb282008

Bonneville

[ChristianityTodayMovies.com; February 29, 2008] 

[Cast: Jessica Lange (Arvilla), Kathy Bates (Margene), Joan Allen (Carol), Tom Skerritt (Emmett), Christine Baranaski (Francine)]

Oh boy, a movie about a 1966 Bonneville convertible! That’s the car my sisters and I learned to drive on. Ours was silver with a black interior, purchased brand-new off the showroom floor with every possible extra. We called it the Batmobile. It’s in retirement at Louisa’s place now, but I like to think of it as resting up.

I went to see the cinematic “Bonneville” filled with hopeful nostalgia, but, I regret to say, it’s a really crummy movie. Though the car appears in the film, it’s mere eye candy for a story about three middle-aged women (“middle,” that is, if you know lots of 120-year-olds). They’re using the spiffy vehicle to make a road trip from Pocatello, Idaho to Santa Barbara, California. Though road-trip movies have been overdone, it could still have been enjoyable, especially as a comedy retaining down-to-earth, wisecracking Kathy Bates. But “Bonneville” is also burdened with a *serious* plot element, one that feels contrived and manipulative.

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Tuesday
Feb052008

Hannah Montana

[First Things; February 5, 2008] 

Even if you go around with one or several fingers stuffed into each ear, you will not be able to exclude the words “Hannah Montana” from your field of consciousness. No American citizen is permitted to be unfamiliar with the words “Hannah Montana.” What you are permitted is to be uncertain of what the words mean. Unless you made the decision to have a seven-year-old granddaughter about now, without taking sufficient forethought for the consequences.

I’ve resisted learning about the Hannah Montana industry until recently, despite the acquisition of my own seven-year-old granddaughter, herself a Hannah.

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Sunday
Jan272008

The Air I Breathe

I love movies like this. But, sad to say, I didn’t love this movie. I hoped I would, but one clunker after another kept accumulating—a hackneyed character here, a stupid line of dialogue there—until it was sounding like a sneaker in a dryer.

That’s too bad, because this format has been the foundation of some terrific, thought-provoking films. You take a sizeable number of characters, most of whom have never met, and set their stories in motion. As the multiple plots unfold, each character is being drawn closer to the center, where a resolution awaits that, in the best of these films, can be simultaneously unexpected and inevitable. Let’s coin a term and call them “drawstring” movies, a subset of the genre known as “ensemble” films.

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Friday
Dec212007

Walk Hard

[Christianity Today Movies; December 21, 2007] 

This will sound like an odd thing to say about a comedy, but “Walk Hard” is an ambitious movie. It starts with 6-year-old Dewey Cox picking up a guitar in a rural general store and belting out a blues number, and proceeds to show him singing with his polite high school band, then going through an Elvis phase, on into protest songs, Dylanesque songs with incomprehensible lyrics, rock, hard rock, frenzied growling rock, music like the Beatles in their India phase, music like the Beach Boys—oh, you name it, it’s in there. So in addition to telling a hilarious, fast-paced story that hits all the clichés of singer-biography movies (lots of drugs, lots of rehab, lots of wives, plenty of costume changes, hairstyle changes, and the accumulating wrinkles of age), the film must also deliver spot-on music parodies. What’s more, this is music that audience members know very, very well, so it’s not like parodying, say, Puccini. Those watching the film could sing the original models of these songs in their sleep. The performer, too, must be top-notch, and not just a good actor but a singer able to go from Bobby Darrin to Bob Dylan, John Lennon to Johnny Cash, in a heartbeat.

Well, it works. If only for the music numbers, this movie deserves a standing ovation. Much of the credit goes to John C. Reilly, an actor with a rubbery face and the voice of an angel. He played simple, good-hearted men in two of my favorite recent movies, “Magnolia” (1999) and “The Good Girl” (2002), but it was in “Chicago” (2002) that I first heard him sing, and the sweet sadness of his “Mr. Cellophane” placed a heart at the center of that frantic, heartless story. In “Walk Hard,” Reilly has to produce a seemingly-impossible range of vocal styles, and does it well. The material he has to work with is excellent too, as perfect in exemplifying these many genres as the songs of “A Mighty Wind” were to the folk scene. Give the “Walk Hard” soundtrack album to your hippest musical friends this Christmas (the ones hip enough to not mind some double-entendre lyrics) and they’ll be delighted.

The story begins as Cox, now an old man, is backstage with his guitar, awaiting his cue. As he stands with head bowed, leaning against a wall, the nervous stage manager reminds him that he goes on in two minutes. But Cox’s longtime friend and his band’s drummer (an unnamed character, well-played by Tim Meadows) tells him that, before he performs, Dewey has to think about every single moment of his life. This first laugh in the film sets up a pattern: characters enunciating exactly what the film is trying to get across, as if dimmer audience members are in danger of missing it. For example, the next scene shows young Dewey and his brother Nate setting out for a day of fun. Nate keeps saying things like, “It’s a good thing I’m going to live a long, long time!” and “Nope, nothing horrible is going to happen today!” The boys end up dueling with machetes in the barn, and with one swipe Dewey cuts his brother in half at the waist; the unoccupied legs now stand beside to the top part of the torso, which is upright on the ground. Dewey tells Nate he’ll be OK, but Nate says, “I don’t know, Dewey, I’m cut in half pretty bad!” The doctor is unable to save Nate, and Dewey is so traumatized that he loses his sense of smell. “You’ve gone smellblind!” his mom exclaims.

A half-dozen years later, Dewey and his band are performing at the high school talent show, singing a mild number consisting mostly of “Take my hand.” From the first lines, however, the teens dance with abandon, while adults react with horror and rage. “This music is an outrage!” says one, and a preacher waving a floppy bible says, “You know who’s got hands? The devil! And he uses them for holding things!”

I could go on citing funny lines (well, one more: Dewey’s wife complains, “But what about *my* dreams?” and Dewey says, “I already told you, I can’t build you a candy house”)—but in the end, too many funny lines began to feel like a problem. Parody requires that the flaws of a typical music biopic be exaggerated, so the plot moves with absurd speed; good guys and bad guys are starkly distinguished, and idyllic and miserable moments follow each as swiftly as the bumps on a roller coaster track. The characters don’t have time to attain any weight of their own, and the breakneck story has no punch.

It’s only a comedy, of course, but it still could have been better. Compare “Walk Hard” with “Anchorman” (2004), another comedy produced by Judd Apatow. The idiots and egoists who populate the TV-news world of “Anchorman” are hilarious, but they also have their feet on the ground as real, consistent characters, with believable (if ridiculous) motivations. “Walk Hard” gets to feeling more like a spray of birdshot. One joke after another comes at you, not all of them successful, and around about the middle it began to sag. This comedy is less like Apatow’s usual work (off-color comedies with some surprisingly conservative themes, like “40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up”) and more like such parodies as “Scary Movie,” “Epic Movie,” or even the granddaddy of this genre, “Airplane” (1980). A lot of “Walk Hard” is genuinely funny, and the music is truly impressive. But the substructure, the story and characters, are pretty thin.

I brought with me two youngish adult friends, who disagreed; they both thought it was hilarious, and one said it was the most she’d laughed since the first time she watched “Anchorman.” But, she said, next time she’d want to have the fast-forward button handy. Not only is there plenty of crude language, and a more than sufficient quantity of toilet humor (when Dewey gets his sense of smell back, he lingers joyfully over a handful of horse manure), but there is an naked orgy scene in a motel room during which a waist-down view of a man fills a corner of the screen. The filmmakers must have thought this uproarious because the same view recurs a minute later, but viewers over the age of 14 will not find it particularly clever. For some potential viewers, that bit of information will be enough to decide them not to go at all. It’s a shame that a film with so much that is genuinely entertaining, and musically impressive, will alienate viewers with a moment that isn’t even funny. “Walk Hard” could have traveled a lot further if it had avoided the low road.