Archive for December, 2008

The Duchess
Pity the Poor Rich People

The Duchess is a particularly good fit for Keira Knightley because the Duchess of Devonshire was also a bit unfit for her times and lived life large. We meet her when she is still a mere teenager of privilege—and almost before we know it, she is whisked off to a marriage/prison of even greater privilege… and obligation. Like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette a couple of years ago, the early going is very much a fish-out-of-water tale; but where Antoinette turns into an almost feminist celebration of Marie’s triumph over station and patriarchal oppression, The Duchess does not feel at all celebratory… though I dare say it wishes to.

A Talk with Robert Davi
A Slice of Italian-American Life

The Dukes is a rare bird: a film that features people of faith pressed into doing wrong. “You find people like that,” says director Robert Davi. “It’s a combination of their own circumstances and just being lost, in terms of being able to re-enter once something is taken away. I mean, look at what the car industry is going through right now, and the totality of the economy. What if those guys got laid off? And this is not a harsh reality, because most people don’t have that: not one where there’s actually a survival aspect to their lives. They’ve still got things together in some way. But I find it funny that you consider them schlubs. To me, they’re just regular guys.”

Some Hitler for Christmas?

Merry Christmas! How about a movie about an assassination attempt on Adolph Hitler? It is rather odd timing to release this movie on a holiday that is typically reserved for lighter fare (i.e. Marley & Me or Bedtime Stories), but in reality Valkyrie is not as weighty a film as you might expect it to be. The story is a fascinating one. It focuses on what is the last of fifteen known attempts by Germans to kill Adolph Hitler during World War II. It’s also an important story, as it shows the world that not all of Germany bought into the dictator’s so-called ideals.

Little Dogs on the Prairie
A Rollicking Time in the West

Family-oriented programming often trumpets what we tend to call “All-American” or “Judeo-Christian values,” which is code language for “basic morals we can all pretty much endorse, but not religious enough to offend anyone.” Refreshingly, Little Dogs is a little more specifically Christian than that—though the references to Jesus are far less heavy-handed than, say, the Eastern mysticism of The Last Mimzy. But even more congratulations are due for the animation design and the writing. The sheer wit of Parker’s direction and wordplay had me laughing almost nonstop through the story segment of each episode. I’ve seen all but three of the Little Dogs episodes, and everything has been first-rate.

As Dangerous as Certainty?

When it came time to adapt his 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning play Doubt for the big screen, John Patrick Shanley decided to take up the directing reins himself. It’s quite an undertaking for a guy whose only previous directorial effort is the least known and least successful of the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks romantic comedies, 1990’s Joe vs. the Volcano. It’s quite a departure both thematically and stylistically as well. The resulting film is full of some of the best-acted and -written scenes in any movie released this year.

Pregnant in America
The Day the Birth Stood Still

The greatest strength of Pregnant in America, as Steve and Mandy Buonaugurio drive passionately toward delivering their daughter Bella via the most natural means, is demonstrating the way in which Americans tend to take “modern medicine” for granted. Hospitals are businesses and doctors are, in part, businessmen; but given that we are all so consumed by the business of business, we don’t often stop to think that there are some things—such as human relations, and parent-child connections in particular—that are the furthest thing removed from mere financial transactions. When you throw in the vested interests of insurance companies, you’ve got the potential for an inhuman scenario intruding on the most human of activities.

The Sensation of Sight
Well Worth A Peek

I find it curious that, upon reflection, the film feels less Altmanesque than it should. Like Crash—or more recently, Snow AngelsThe Sensation of Sight reaches exceedingly far in bringing disparate storylines together in often improbable ways. Even more so than Gosford Park, the film also is so artily quiet and austere in tone that it often feels like you’d jump if you heard a pin drop somewhere down the street. But somehow the sum of director Aaron J. Wiederspahn’s directorial debut comes off as far more organic than many of its cinematic siblings. And this is because, whatever failings the film might have, it succeeds on a great many levels.

War Child
Lost Boys, or Merely Wandering?

A focus on “us” is the right place to end a conversation about War Child. Like one-time voluntary child soldier Emmanuel Jal, we all have “a responsibility” toward our fellow children of God. And as Jal notes, “people sing a lot before they go to war.” We need to be especially careful when we’re asked to sing any tune that’s not God’s. As one Sudanese policy expert who appears in War Child notes, “counter-terrorism trumps everything” in American global policy right now; and as long as we keep singing that tune, evil will continue to prevail in Darfur. Pray to God that our hearts will change. War Child is a strong step in that direction.

The Dukes
Little Italy Comes to L.A.

Robert Davi has done an excellent job of casting this film, and coaxing excellent performances out of even the smallest of roles. Davi and Chazz Palminteri are first-rate as mismatched but loyal cousins, and familiar faces—including Peter Bogdanovich—fill out the supporting characters. None of it feels like stuntcasting, favor-calling, or blindered cronyism. And the characters are all far, far more important than the caper. Thank God. But please don’t expect too much of this mild heist comedy. It’s not the kind of film that people anticipate. After all, the storyline is as bare as breadsticks, while the subject matter of the film is ultimately as insubstantial as grated Parmesan. But Davi’s tone and technique make it all feel more like the second coming of Stanley Tucci’s Big Night. Like a great dish of veal Parmigiana in an out-of-the-way Bourbon Street eatery, it’s just a very, very nice surprise. Let it sneak up on you.

Horton Hears a Who!
Another Side of the Elephant

When I think more deeply about Horton, I see that it resides in one of those curious neverlands of philosophical sophistication. Just as Jesus’ teachings were so conservative that they can appear offensively liberal to contemporary sensibilities, Seuss’ musings were really so liberal that they now seem conservative. It’s important to remember, after all, that Horton Hears A Who! was written in 1954, and that Seuss considered himself to be “subversive as hell.” It’s not hard to see that what “subversive” meant in 1954 is a lot different than what it means in 2008—as Horton the film would have fit right in with Hollywood entertainment in 1954 while it sticks out like a sore thumb today.

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