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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 (166)

Friday
Oct132006

Infamous

[National Review Online, October 13, 2006] 

When David Cathcart completed his screenplay about Truman Capote, he phoned Bingham Ray, the head of United Artists, and offered to send it over. Ray responded, “It’s on my desk.” This surprised Cathcart, since he thought the work hadn’t yet left his own desk. Ray insisted, “I’m looking at it right now. ‘Capote’ by Dan…”

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Sunday
Oct012006

Open Season on Beauty

[Dallas Morning News, October 1, 2006] 

 “I didn’t like the part in the restaurant,” Hannah, my 6-year-old granddaughter, said. We were leaving a screening of Sony’s new animated feature, “Open Season,” and I was trying to remember any scene in a restaurant. When she said it was “too messy,” I realized that she meant an early scene where the movie’s lead characters, a suburban bear and a one-antlered deer, run loose in a mini-mart.

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Saturday
Sep302006

The Science of Sleep

[National Review, September 29, 2006]

Early in Michel Gondry’s new film, “The Science of Sleep,” lead character Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) is joyfully recounting a concert he attended with his beloved dad. He’s awed as Duke Ellington comes out on stage, resplendent in a white suit.

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Friday
Sep222006

Flyboys

[National Review Online, September 22, 2006]

War movies are the Dinty Moore Beef Stew of cinema: meat, potatoes, coupla carrots, and no surprises. You got your dashing-but-human cowboy, the center of the story. You got your noble African-American. You got your clean-cut fellow who will at some point go, sweating and trembling, into shock. You got your plump, condescending child of privilege. And you got your enigmatic battle-hardened hero, who appears as if from the shadows, speaks lines that are somehow both cryptic and blunt, and then retreats. In this movie, he has a pet lion, which might push things over the top a bit.

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Friday
Sep222006

All the King's Men

[National Review Online, September 22, 2006] 

In 1946 Robert Penn Warren published a novel, “All the King’s Men,” which took Louisiana governor Huey P. Long as the inspiration for Willie Stark, a strong-minded Southern agrarian politician of the 30’s. Willie’s story is told by his assistant, a more complex and ambivalent man, Jack Burden.

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Thursday
Sep072006

Hollywoodland

[National Review Online, September 7, 2006]

What really happened the night George Reeves died?

Sounds like a pretty promising idea for a movie. George Reeves was the All-American hunk who played Superman on TV in the 1950’s, and many a Baby Boomer’s ideas of courage, nobility, and strength were shaped by that half-hour afternoon show. So it was devastating news when Reeves was found dead of a shot to the head, on a June night in 1959. His death was ruled a suicide.

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Friday
Jul282006

Scoop

[National Review Online, July 28, 2006]

After a run of movies that were so-so or worse, Woody Allen won praise for last year’s “Match Point,” and hopes were raised that he’d again found his footing. Unfortunately, “Scoop” slips. A comedy that is not very funny, a murder mystery that is not very suspenseful, “Scoop” is one more in a series of movieplex disappointments this summer.

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Thursday
Jun082006

Cars

[National Review Online, June 9, 2006]

If anybody can turn out a car-themed movie that’s warm-hearted, funny, and original, the genius crew at Pixar Animation can.

So that’s why I hate to tell that they can’t. Or, at least, they don’t. “Cars” is the first disappointment from a studio that has had one well-deserved hit after another.

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Thursday
May182006

DaVinci Code

[National Review Online, May 18, 2006]

An ordinary man – a professor, say – gets caught in a deadly game of mystery and murder. He’s thrown together with a cool, attractive young woman who may be more than she seems. After many chases and escapes, the two wind up safe in each other’s arms.

Alfred Hitchcock gave us goosebumps with that theme and variations. Ron Howard’s “The DaVinci Code” turns similar material into a big yawn. What happened?

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Sunday
May072006

Art School Confidential

[National Review Online, May 5, 2006]

If they gave an Oscar for best film title, this one would surely swipe the statue. Fortunately, the movie that comes after the opening credits lives up to that promise. Screenwriter Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff have collaborated before, on the 2001 cult favorite “Ghost World.” But this one, in spite of the hat-tip to classic “Confidential” films, is not so much noir as black, as in black comedy. It aims to do for capital-A Art what “Network” did for TV news.

The story begins with 6th-grade bully-bait Jerome Platz drawing a fantasy sketch of scatological revenge on the big kids who just beat him up. On career day he dresses in a beret and Frenchie striped shirt, and explains that he is impersonating Picasso, the greatest artist ever. “Six Years Later” we find high school senior Jerome (Max Minghella) looking over the college brochure for Strathmore, an arts institute. His main interest is still drawing, and he especially admires the photo of a blonde artist’s model.

As Jerome gazes at the idyllic photo of Strathmore’s main building, it dissolves to reality – the same building, but in a noisy, dirty corner of New York, with an abandoned sofa on the sidewalk next to a burned-out car. Students are crowding onto campus, past a “Welcome Freshmen!” sign, and as the opening titles roll a rousing Sousa-style march strikes up.

Since this is a movie about art, take a moment to think about the artistic choices in that opening sequence. It’s pretty inviting. It’s readily comprehensible. It’s blessedly free from self-conscious artiness, and doesn’t do that haughty-edgy thing. All this quickly contrasts with the art made by the characters in this film. Jerome’s roommate Vince is making a movie that is a cavalcade of angst-cliché (a girl twirling in the deep end of an empty swimming pool, a girl being doused with black paint). The hotshot in Jerome’s freshman class refuses to do assignments because he is “questioning the whole concept” (the professor says, “I’ll buy that”). He’s lauded for bringing in a scrap of cardboard adorned with a squirt of Silly String. Another student is praised for an image of a car that looks like a 13-year-old’s doodle (“It’s like he’s managed to unlearn everything they teach you in art school!” another student gushes).

Yet Jerome’s thoughtful, accurate portraits are regarded with contempt. His professor, Sandy (John Malkovich), is not much help. Sandy’s specialty is exceedingly simple paintings of triangles. (“How long have you been doing triangles?” Jerome asks politely. “A long time,” Sandy says with quiet pride. “I was one of the first.”)

What role models does he have, anyway? When the school’s most successful alumnus (Adam Scott) appears at an assembly, he’s unbearably smug and rude. A student asks, “Why are you such a [jerk]?,” and he grandly replies, “Because that is my true nature. I have found the freedom to express my true nature. And what is more beautiful than truth and freedom?” At this the audience erupts in cheers.

So one theme is a critique of the absurd state of Art, and Jerome’s attempts to discover whether he can make art that the powers-that-be approve. Of course, he meets and falls in love with the brochure’s blonde model, Audrey (Sophia Myles), then seems to lose her to another student. There’s a murder mystery afoot as well: the Strathmore Strangler is picking off victims on campus. However, police efforts to protect students are not merely thankless, but are greeted with angry protest. An artwork reads, “We are living in a police state!” When an arrest is made, a student snarls, “Have a nice death, pig.”

Angelica Huston appears in a small but appealing role as a professor; Steve Buscemi is unbilled, but takes on a noisier role as Broadway Bob, owner of a gallery-café and a self-appointed kingmaker. Jim Broadbent is powerful as another alumnus, a brooding artist in drunken decline, who presents Jerome with another way that an artist’s life can turn out. He “postpones suicide in the hopes that some pestilence will appear and the entire human species will be wiped out.” All these threads come together in a conclusion that gives a pointy jab to the self-regarding, self-validating Art establishment.

Which is, you might think, usually a conservative rather than a liberal theme. That would be true as well of the depiction of the students who call the police “pigs,” who don’t realize that being protected from a killer is not the same thing as living in a police state, as stupid and selfish. Yet these ideas are contained in a film that includes both male and female nudity, and an abundance of 4-letter words (almost to the self-mocking “Big Lebowski” extent). There was a similar odd mix of conservative ideas and very raw material in last year’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” (A friend told me, “If it wasn’t for the nudity and obscenity, it could have been made by Focus on the Family.”)

Not everything works great in “Art School Confidential.” Actress Sophia Myles is only 5 years older than Max Minghella, but here she seems 30 and he seems 17. The romance between them is less than palpable; she treats him fondly, like he’s her kid brother. The suspense that should gather around the Strathmore Strangler doesn’t. But as a wondering, skeptical, sharply observed portrait of Art School and Art Life, it’s terrific.