When Special Features Detract
Even though Joffe overreached himself here, and made it nearly impossible to patch together a coherent cut of the film, what Joffe was aiming for was so much more worthwhile than films like Avatar, The Dark Knight, or Inglourious Basterds—to name just a few. And while those films are ultimately far more finely crafted (and, uh, successful) than Dragons, ultimately empty, self-referential, pseudo-profound popcorn flicks like those don’t hold a candle in my book to less successful films that are about ideas that really matter. Joffe tells this story in a way that just might—just might, mind you—radicalize your faith just a little. So I’ll still recommend the film… but also recommend you skip the deleted scenes!
Ordinary Package, Excellent Film
I was dead right that it would be difficult even for hard-nosed, jaded reviewers to pan this film. The critics’ score at Rotten Tomatoes stands at 83% fresh… two points higher than the audience score of 81% fresh, a rarity. Not bad for a film that amounts, at a certain level, to an animal version of an illness-of-the-week TV movie. The story succeeds, however, in part because the dolphin Winter actually exists, actually did lose her tail to a crab trap, actually did survive, actually does inspire disabled children and vets in her home at a Clearwater aquarium, and even stars in her own biopic. It also succeeds because Smith and company craft a sensitive, believable, and affecting fiction of childhood loss regained around Winter’s truly tall tale.
Well Worth Writing About
Like most contemporary filmmakers schooled in the Steven Spielberg Formula for Succcess, The Help director Taylor Tate knows that “show them, don’t tell them” can be distilled down into efficient single shots that convey as much as a page or two of dialog. So, for instance, when we are first introduced to Aibileen at the Leefolt’s place, Tate sneaks in a shot of the “L-shaped scratch on the dining room table.” But it’s not just a plot point for later reference; it’s also, as Aibileen slides a serving dish over the scar, symbolic of the hurts that are covered up and glossed over in the Leefolt household… and in Jackson, and the South, and America. If you’ve been waiting to see The Help, wait no further.
Never Mind the Title
Apparently, it’s been hard getting the word out about this film, which is, as near as I can tell, a marginally fictionalized account of young Dax Locke’s ill-fated battle with Leukemia. By the time Dax is two years old, x-rays show he’s got a tumor in his brain. Tests quickly diagnose Leukemia, and his parents’ lives are naturally derailed. The made-for-TV movie doesn’t follow Dax, though—it follows Dax’s mom and dad, who must come to grips with the “ultimate bad news” that Matthew West sings about in the title song. Cameron and Neilson are very appealing as the female leads here, and Dax’s story is certainly worth hearing about. But really… this has precious little to do with Christmas. The connection is incidental at best.
Predictable, But Surprisingly Good
This is an oddly pleasing film about an aspiring pro golfer who loses his stroke in a gory and public meltdown… then finds his game again in quasi-Karate Kid style after his car breaks down in a tiny Texas town. With a golf course. After the titular week, Johnny brings Luke to a decision point: will he continue to define himself by the expectations of others, or will he answer a higher calling? Compositions are sumptuous, lighting is divine, the settings feel both right as rain and otherworldly, and he coaxes first-rate performances from an A-list. But the real bright spot of the film for me, as much as I normally cringe at closing narrations, is the way that first-time director Russell chooses to wind up his links-based parable about life.
Infectious Oddball Humor
Right up front, the narrator announces that he’s a dead kid. Merry Christmas! In short, Billy’s a bullied gradeschooler who is double-damned because he’s also being treated for cancer—and, well, kids will be kids: all they know is that Billy’s bald, sick, and dying… and they don’t want to, uh, be caught dead in his company. But this is really a winter film for the small-town boy in all of us, one that would be great to watch anytime between Halloween and, say, Valentine’s Day. It’s offbeat, too, but not in an over-the-top sense. I’m not guaranteeing you’ll like it—but it’s pretty real, it’s pretty funny, and it definitely doesn’t go where you expect it to. In my book, that’s cinematic success.
What I have always loved about the filming of West Side Story is the way in which the camera captures the choreography. Most musicals frame a shot, and then keep the choreography in view of the camera; in other words, the dancing is staged for the camera. What happens in most of West Side Story, however (that community dance as a notable exception), is that the choreography is staged not for the camera but for the space available in the streets and sets—and the camera is positioned in such a way that the heart of the choreography, and not all of it, is captured. In other words, the camera is not the primary focus: choreography that makes sense for the story is.
Great Characters, Good Heart
Dan Reed, the embattled mayor of a small Alaska town, finds his leadership questioned as another Christmas approaches, when who should come back to town but his old high school nemesis Mitch Bright? And what could be worse than finding out that ol’ Mitch is now an atheist activist angling for Dan’s job as mayor… using the constitutionality of town-sponsored Christmas celebrations as a wedge with voters? For personal reasons alone, Dan would love to knock Mitch’s teeth out, and the added religious and political challenges grate heavily on Dan’s already strained nerves. The story itself—which, I must say, very very responsibly deals with the politics (and faith) of the season—is exceedingly well rendered; but the characters really bring it to life.
Light and Enjoyable Family Fare
Director Peter Odiorne keeps the pacing brisk and deftly light as Whitney’s world comes crashing down with the economy. She and her parents fall quickly out of Philadelphia’s 1% back to whence they came. Whitney must make her way in a new school (with some oddly snooty would-be friends there, too) as Mom and Dad try to whip the old farm into shape and make a new start. Whitney’s new BFF (Best Furry Friend) becomes Bob, a horse who seems to have an odd free rein in the county. Mom and Dad get some help from… well, you’ll probably guess who. Sammi Hanratty’s downhome appeal works both in the context of a high-society prep middle school… and out in the country.
Darkly Subtle Humor
The film is set during precisely the season and year that I also made a visit to the same part of Romania. I saw the same post-Soviet cultural confusion and malaise that gripped the country, the same ironic desperation in the eyes of dirt-poor and shell-shocked citizens who had little and expected less. And there was a certain dark humor to it all. Yes, bribes were still in—but nobody really felt like much was at stake. Things just got slower if you resisted, that’s all. Clerks at four-star hotels the quality of a Motel 6 could just shrug off the inconsistency; after all, where else were you going to find hot and cold running water, and your own private WC? It’s gallows humor of a sort.
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