Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Perfect Man, The

Jean Hamilton (Heather Locklear) is a 30-something single mom with two daughters: Holly (Hilary Duff) and Zoe (Aria Wallace). They live in Wichita, but when another of Jean’s prospects for a husband ditches her, she packs up the girls and they head for Brooklyn, New York. This is always Jean’s pattern for dealing with disappointment, and Holly is getting tired of it.

 

Once in Brooklyn, an old friend of Jean’s gives her a job in a bakery. Holly begins classes at the local high school, determined not to bother making friends, when she meets Amy (Vanessa Lengies). They become friends right away and Holly confides her mother’s relationship problems to Amy.

 

Amy takes Holly to her uncle Ben’s (Chris Noth) restaurant for some ice cream and gets him to give them some advice on romance and relationships.

 

Soon, one of Jean’s co-workers, Lenny (Mike O’Malley) is attracted to her and asks her out. Lenny is a good soul, but … clumsy. When Jean accepts a date from him, Holly is horrified and begins an email relationship with Jean as a secret admirer named … Ben. A young man named Adam (Ben Feldman) is attracted to Holly and when she asks him to help her perpetrate the scam, he helps her out until things get very complicated.

 

The Perfect Man is not a perfect movie, but it is very wholesome. It’s filled with lessons about growing up, telling the truth, appropriate use of email, friendship, and all the other themes that you might expect from a nice film. No, it doesn’t end the way a romantic formula movie would have you expect, but it just might after the credits end.

 

Miss Duff really needs to take some time off from her fast-moving career and go to drama school. I was at a press junket for Raise Your Voice earlier this year and when she said she had just completed high school, I asked her if she planned on going to college. She replied that she would like to go to university, but didn’t know when. Now is probably a really good time.

 

The Perfect Man has some madcap moments and it is entertaining. I think it might also give some hope to single moms out there, and kids with single parents. Not that the perfect mate or parent will necessarily come along, but that people can learn to grow and accept themselves for the good persons they are first of all. Then they can live in confidence and let go of the anxiety that can keeps them running from the special people they already have in their lives.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Honeymooners, The

As the millennium approaches New York City bus driver Ralph Kramden (Cedric the Entertainer) stops at the end of his day to give a ride to a pretty young woman, Alice (Gabrielle Union). He flirts with her and along the shores of the East River shows her the Y2K kit he invented that is going to make him a millionaire.

 

Six years later, they are married and living in a walk-up apartment where an elevated train goes by every few minutes. Ralph is no longer the jolly bus driver; he is a grumpy dreamer whose plans, carried out with neighbor Ed (Mike Epps), come to naught. Ralph and Alice bicker over everything, especially his get-rich schemes.

 

Alice works as a waitress with Trixie (Regina Hall), Ed’s wife, at a diner. Both women want a home of their own. A real estate development agent (Eric Stolz) meets at the diner with a frequent customer, Mrs. Benvenuti (Anne Pitoniak) one day to talk about selling her home. When Alice overhears the conversation, she convinces Mrs. Benevenuti to sell the home, a duplex, to her and Trixie and their husbands. Both women know they have most of the down payment money in their two savings accounts. Or so they think.

 

The Honeymooners, with its gang of five writers (one uncredited and believe me, I don’t blame him for bailing) is one of the sorriest movies to come out in years. It is so not funny. Too many writers spoil the broth, or they cannot save it.

 

At this matinee showing today, I was the only non-black person there. Two couples were in the theater when I got there. Then six women came in together, loaded up with pop corn and sodas. Twenty minutes after the movie started, they left together. Twenty minutes later, one of the couples departed. I don’t think the other couple was watching the movie anyway. I stayed until the bitter end so that I could write this post-mortem for you.

 

The Honeymooners, is of course, based on the original 1950’s Jackie Gleason/Art Carney  television characters and their long-suffering wives played by Audrie Meadows and Joyce Randolph. If there is a heaven for comedians, Jackie, Art, Audrie and Joyce are in it; if there is a hell for comedians …

 

The filmmakers must have wanted to appeal to fans of the original show, but aside from a few comments (re: the Flintstones – it was supposed to have been based on The Honeymooners – but please don’t tell Fred, Barney, and Wilma), I cannot imagine that they will ever reach this goal. Alice isn't long-suffering, she's a misplaced model. The film didn’t know if it was black or white or even Latino (John Leguizamo plays a sleazy dog trainer and omni-factorem). It tried to speak to each audience’s culture, and as a result, it only spoke to itself. The story is contrived, the acting unconvincing. None of the characters made me care about them. Gabrielle Union posed for the camera as if it was a magazine shoot indicating that the filmmakers were trying to use her beauty to carry the show, you know, like most Hilary Duff movies.

 

At the end of the film Ralph tells Alice that he’s made some mistakes (this movie) and made some bad choices (this movie). This was the funniest line of all. The only one. I groaned in appreciation that the film was over.

 

Maybe now The Honeymooners will rest in peace.

 

(I usually try to say somethinggood about a movie out of respect for all the hard work and creativity that goes into it. And I never call a film “stupid” or a “waste of time” because someone just might get something good from it, even if I don’t like it. But I do not apologize for this review. It is what it is, just as is The Honeymooners.)

Friday, June 10, 2005

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

John (Brad Pitt) and Jane (Angelina Jolie) Smith are at their first marriage therapy session. After five or six years of marriage they realize they are having difficulty but are unable or unwilling to articulate their problems to the therapist. He asks them to describe how they first met and they revisit their chance meeting in a bar in Bogota’, Colombia after an important man had been assassinated. They are immediately attracted to one another and soon John proposes to Jane.

 

John and Jane are well off and live in suburbia. They are competitive and professionally cool with one another. They each have a secret life but are unaware of what one another’s fa├žade is hiding. They are both highly trained assassins. Jane runs a high-tech all female company and John seems to be an engineer who works for Eddie (Vince Vaughn) who still lives at home with his mom.

 

One day Jane gets an assignment to kill a prisoner being transported across the desert. She sets it up from a shack and waits for the transport. John gets the same assignment and crosses the desert in a dune buggy. With one thing and another, both Jane and John get in each other’s way, the shack gets blown up and they finally realize that they are both hired assassins. What’s worse, they are then assigned to kill each other because their bosses discover they are married and perhaps cannot be trusted.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a pretty funny movie. Like a high voltage, high-tech, pyromania version of an old Hepburn-Tracy flick. It would be a mistake to see the film only as an ultra-violent, seductive spy thriller. It is this, of course. However, the film is a highly structured, close look at a marriage in trouble, and the fireworks, destruction, and new start make up the metaphor. Eddie is more than what he seems and the "you live with your mom" schtick is a running gag throughout.

 

John and Jane do not communicate; in order for them to “work through” their issues they have to make the journey through the lies to the truth and trust. When they finally join together against a common enemy (for a shoot-out, blow ‘em up in a home and garden store) they start communicating with sign language. 

 

Although the violence is comic, it will be intense for some viewers – especially when John and Jane go at it mano a mano.

 

Both Jolie and Pitt are eminently watch-able and yes, they make a good on-screen couple. This writer does not wish to delve into off-screen commentary.

 

Well-directed by Doug Liman (Bourne Identity; Bourne Supremacy) and more than competently written by newcomer Simon Kinberg, I thought the movie entertaining. So did the morning Friday (June 10) audience.

 

As a media educator, however, I always find the trivialization of weaponry and violence troublesome. To mature viewers, it’s perhaps okay, but for younger viewers who may not understand the irony, the double entendres, or the metaphor, and who may live in violent domestic situations, movies like this are problematic. It's somewhat the same issue that I have with boxing and boxing movies; boxing is violent no matter how one approaches it - even Cinderella Man, that is based on a true story. What differentiates a boxing movie, and legitimizes it from a fun-violent movie is that boxing is a sport. But for me, the line between the two is very blurry.

 

Overall, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, despite its sophistication (and as entertaining as it is; I did enjoy it! ) is another film that contributes to a culture where gun and physical violence between married people and nations is just another day at home and the office.

Friday, June 3, 2005

Madagascar

Four animal friends perform for visitors daily at the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan: Alex the Lion (voices of Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Christ Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith). Alex turns ten years old, which is mid-life for this lion, and he starts getting metaphysical about the meaning of his life in captivity. Alex longs for the wild. Alex discovers that four penguins are trying to dig their way out of the zoo to return to the Antarctic and he escapes with them.

 

Marty, Melman, Gloria think Alex is only going to Connecticut by train rather than with the penguins, and indeed they find him at Grand Central Station. There New York’s finest, a tough old lady and a cowardly animal control person subdue and capture the animals. People protest their captivity, and soon all the animals are crated and shipped via an uncomfortable 21st century version of Noah’s Arc to their countries of origin (shipping doesn’t seem to have improved over the centuries.)

 

Events transpire that the four African animals fall off the ship, and the penguins take over and head south for their cold climate. Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria are washed ashore on the large island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean and have to deal with the local animal population, headed by the lemurs; the Central Park animals keep seeking out people who can straighten things out, but the only human available is the skeleton of a deceased pilot. So much for humans.

 

Madagascar, produced by Dreamworks, is a beautifully rendered top-of-the-line animated film for the pre-K through primary grade set. The little kids in the audience (2-3 per every adult from what I could see) laughed with glee at the antics of the animal characters. The adults, me included, only chuckled here and there when we caught one of the New York references – which, truth be told, were many but not all that funny.

 

Only two writers are listed at www.imdb.org but I think there were four named on the credits. Too many writers usually spoil the broth and, whether there were two or four for this film, I think they did spoil what could have been a classic.

 

There is no real story, and whenever the “action” and dialogue got close to establishing links between humans and the animal kingdom (like animal rights perhaps, or taking animals from their natural habitat and trying to return them, or as anthropomorphic tales traditionally do, create analogies with human events and behavior), the "narrative" went somewhere else. The writing tried to be clever and engage adult viewers by approximating swear words, for example. I did think that Sugar Honey Ice Tea was a pretty good attempt, as was "hoover Dam" but ha ha and then what?

 

The two main themes of Madagascar were for me friendship among humans by analogy and kindness to animals. And if children can come to a better understanding of these ideas through the film, then what more could we want? 

 

It’s difficult for an adult to judge films for the very young because the pace is slow and the filmmakers know what techniques work to get their attention, engage their imaginations and entertain them. The parents and caregivers are a bonus captive audience. But if the little ones like it, go for it.

 

Sometimes a movie is just a movie.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The

Four 16-year old girls, Tibby (Amber Tamlyn, Joan of Arcadia) , Lena (Alexis Bledel, The Gilmore Girls), Carmen (America Ferrera, Real Women Have Curves) and Bridget (Blake Lively), have been friends from birth – or rather before birth when their mothers all took the same workout class. As they get ready to go their separate ways for the summer, they happen into a used clothing store. Carmen sees a pair of old jeans folded on a table, and tells the self-conscious Lena to try them on. Eventually all the girls try them on and they fit each one – even the curvy Carmen.

 

That evening they have a little ritual and decide that each of them will keep the magical jeans for a week then send them on to the next girl as a way for them to stay connected over the summer months. They make-up ten rules about the jeans, including not washing them.

 

Lena, an artist, goes to a beautiful Greek island to stay with her grandparents. There she meets Kostas (Michael Rady) while wearing the special jeans and discovers that there is a feud going on between the two families. Lena is very shy.

 

Bridget, a star soccer player, goes to Baja California for soccer camp. Her mother has just died, and her father does not really know what to do with her. She pursues the college-age coach, Eric, (Mike Vogel), which is against the rules. Bridget is lost and lonely.

 

Carmen, who is smart, cheerful, and affectionate, heads to South Carolina to spend the summer with her dad (Bradley Whitford) who is divorced from her mother (Rachel Ticotin). She discovers immediately that he is going to remarry a woman (Nancy Travis) with two teenaged children. Carmen has anger issues with her father that come to a head as the wedding draws near.

 

Only Tibby stays home to work at a local superstore. She is a wanna be filmmaker and her first documentary is going to be about losers. On the first day she comes across 12-year old Bailey (Jenna Boyd) who has passed out in an aisle. When she gets out of the hospital, Bailey shows up at Tibby’s house with the jeans because she says they were delivered to her house by mistake. Bailey becomes Tibby's self-appointed assistant. As Bailey points out with insight beyond her years, Tibby is probably the biggest loser of all the people she is interviewing.

 

This authentically lovely film, written by Delia Ephron (You’ve Got Mail) and Elizabeth Chandler (What a Girl Wants) and based on the novel of the same title by Ann Brashares, is engaging from the very first moment. The editing style cuts back and forth between the four girls as it follows the traveling pants across the world throughout the summer. The sequences are linear and just right, not too long or too brief, nor convoluted. I got the story and stayed with it because I cared what happened to this society of girls who would grow to be women over the summer. Director Ken Kwapis comes from teen TV so he knows what he is about.

 

The film is about friendship, faith (watch the visual motifs too), family, coming of age, life, death, the meaning of life, loss and grief, first love, mistakes and learning from them, reconciliation and so much more. I cannot say more without giving away what makes this film special and worth your time and effort to go and see it. The humor and pathos are gentle and real.

 

The young women all play their parts well and evenly. I liked the interaction between Amber Tamblyn and Jenna Boyd very much.

 

What do the pants symbolize and what is its funtion?I think the pants work as a sign of faith and grace,to be put on and worn (not unlike the new garment at baptism) as a sign of belief and new life; to be grace that can be accepted, shared, ignored or even rejected. The pants are also a sign of the process of maturing rather than fully acquired maturity itself (are we ever really completely there? As one of my sisters says, life is school; we are always learning.) The summer journeys the girls take are times of discovery, unity and community. Going back to the grace metaphor, wherever the girls are, the pants find them.

 

Who is The Sisterhood for? Girls and their moms, sure, but parents, women of all ages, and even nuns. Should guys see this movie? We have had male coming-of-age movies presented as the universal standard of all human experience for 100 years +. So, yes, guys ought to see The Sisterhood because it would give them insight and a new perspective.

 

If you stay through the credits you’ll note that Denise Di Novi is one of the producers of the film. Check out her resume’ at www.imdb.org and take note of the type of film and television projects she has been a part of. They might not all have been critically acclaimed but I like most of them because of Di Novi's consistent ability to be involved in projects that tell stories that matter.

 

If anyone calls this a “chick flick”, give them a penance. Sisterhood is a fine example of what a good movie madeby (many) women can say about the lives, struggles, hopes, and loves of women as an example of the universal human experience.

 

This film also takes a chance by showing us different cultures, personalities, and female body shapes. Sisterhood is the antithesis of the Charlie’s Angels franchise because it is about the wholeness of young women, not just looks and special effects. I loved The Sisterhood.

 

PS This film artfully suggests many difficult issues rather than parade them “in your face” – and if there was any language, I don’t remember. Goodness and grace stays with you... The girls live in Maryland but you only find that out "by the way".

 

See it.

 

Thursday, June 2, 2005

Cinderella Man

Faith and Film Study Guide for Cinderella Man now available: http://www.daughtersofstpaul.com/mediastudies/reviews/CinderellaManGuide.pdf

 

 

It is 1928 and the promising prizefighter Jimmy Braddock (Russell Crowe), the “Bulldog of Bergen” has just won a big fight. His boxing manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) pays him generously and Jimmy goes home to Bergen CountyNew Jersey, to his loving wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) and young family. 

 

                                                                     

 

 

In 1929 the stock market crashes and at the same time Jimmy begins losing fights. Many think he is washed up, that he won’t really ever be a great boxer. As America’s economic depression deepens, Jimmy struggles to get work at the docks.

Joe arranges for Jimmy to fight in a preliminary match for which he will be paid $50.00, win or lose. He loses badly, and the boxing promoter refuses to pay him and revokes his license to box. When Jimmy gets home he discovers that Mae has sent the children away to different relatives to be cared for. He is so angry that he finally admits he needs help and goes on the dole in order to bring the children home.

The depression had turned life grim for millions who live in clapboard shacks in parks, streets and alleys called “Hoovervilles”(named for President Herbert Hoover whose administration from 1929 to 1933 ushered in the Great Depression.) When Jimmy’s friend Mike (Paddy Considine)  goes missing, Jimmy searches for him in such a place.

In 1934 Joe Gould arranges for Jimmy to fight Corn Griffin and unexpectedly wins - mostly because of the hook he developed while working at the docks with a broken hand. Over the next few months, Jimmy wins fight after fight until he is set to meet the world champion, Max Baer (Craig Bierko) in the ring for the world heavyweight title. Jimmy begins to symbolize hope for those who are down on their luck, out of work, and homeless. Baer has no respect for his smaller, older opponent.                                    

 

Jimmy Braddock made history on the night of June 13, 1935, when he boxed Baer for all fifteen rounds and then won by unanimous decision at the Madison Square Garden Bowl. That night the famous American writer and journalist, Damon Runyon, called James J. Braddock the “Cinderella Man” because of his fairy-tale return to success as a boxer. 

As I left the theater after seeing Cinderella Man, I said to myself: If the Academy Awards were held tomorrow, this film would sweep all the major categories. It is extremely well-acted in a fine, understated way. The texture of the film creates the historical period so we feel the poverty, the despair as well as excitement and hope.

Director Ron Howard has done it again. Along with Akiva Goldman, co-writing with Cliff Hollingsworth, they are proving themselves masters of the biopic.

 

On the subject of boxing itself, I would like to quote two of my friends, one a film critic, the other a director, whom I queried in view of writing about Cinderella Man. Personally, I don’t like boxing, and I struggle with the morality of the sport. Be that as it may, here iswhat my friends had to say:

 

James M. Wall is the senior contributing editor for Christian Century magazine and a critic and teacher of film and religion:

 

“One way to approach films about boxing is to consider that in films like Raging Bull and Cinderella Man, the directors employ boxing as a stage for the story pretty much the way Patton and Mash employed war.  The boxing is the metaphor, albeit a rather graphic metaphor, of struggle and growth. Then, of course, there is the use of boxing, as the Rocky series, to present a rather superficial story of the good guy beating the bad guy.

”As a critic, I judge the boxing metaphor in terms of how it is used, to exploit the so-called sport or to explore struggle and growth, and in some cases, redemption, and sacrifice.  I do not like the sport of boxing any more than I like the reality of war; but both brutal exchanges have their codes of conduct and their styles which, in their context, can be admired. Jim Braddock, whom Crowe portrays in the Cinderella Man, was a hero of mine when I was a very young child.  (I was seven when Braddock fought Max Baer.)  But it was radio, not television, which reported the fights to me then, so I was spared the brutality of the actual boxing experience.

”Joe Louis was also a hero to me.  Both Braddock and Louis were men who overcame limited backgrounds to achieve something of significance in the field of endeavor they chose.  Scorcese managed to give us more graphic boxing material through which to relate his vision of growth in Raging Bull by the use of slow motion and background music which suggested something of the style of the sport, and in a strange sort of way, the "beauty" of the encounters.

”It all comes down not to the subject matter but to the manner in which the subject matter is employed by the film maker.  It is not what the film is about, but what it is, that counts.”

 

Charles Robert Carner is  a director (Judas, Vanishing Point):

:

“My brother was a boxer.  Those who like it love it.  Those who don't, it can't be explained to them.  They call boxing ‘The Sweet Science’ because at its best it is not about who is physically stronger - it's about who is smarter, and has the greater heart.  There is nothing else in life like facing a man in single combat and defeating him. At the risk of sounding like the Neanderthal throwback, it is what makes us men.  Girls don't understand.  Men must have physical courage.  They must be able to defend their wives and children from predators.  Boxing provides a ritualized form of that test of manhood in a way that nothing else really does.”

 

I also interviewed a female boxer named Suswella Roberts. She is young woman from Los Angeles in her 20’s. She began boxing at the age of seven to soothe the pain of her father’s early death. She boxed until high school when her mother told her she had to think about her future. She was a premed student in college and obtained a B.S. in Mathematics. But the idea of boxing came back to her and she is now a professionally ranked welterweight. Suswella thinks that boxing is “a metaphor for the Christian life and spirituality.”

Suswella does not believe that boxing is about violence but about strategy, science, and calculation. Her motto is, “Stop them and win, not hurt them.” She prays that God will use her as his tool: “Give me the strength to win, the discipline to run and train, to be celibate and to give me the courage to engage in the struggle.” Suswella also believes that as a celebrity now she has a responsibility to children, to be a good example for them because children are the future.

 

Whatever your take on boxing, Cinderella Man, while conventional cinematic story-telling, is a wonderfully crafted film and well worth seeing. The way it evokes reflection on what it means to be a man and a woman who struggle to survive together with their children makes it true art.

 

Later today hopefully, when the site is ready, I will post a link later for a Study Guide I wrote on the film for REEL SPIRITUALITY (Fuller Theological Seminary) on Cinderella Man.