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Seven Days in Utopia
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.


Snowmen
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.


West Side Story
Still Clicks

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.


Christmas With a Capital C
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.


The Greening of Whitney Brown
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.


The Human Resources Manager
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.


3
Uh, Wow

Tykwer may have conned audiences, critics, and possibly even himself into believing that his new film 3 is merely a sophisticated black comedy about relationships. I hope that’s not really the case—because if it is, Tykwer and audiences will have expended a whole lot of energy on a scenario that is likely to work for only a very, very small percentage of the population. The reason that Simon and Hanna can make their mutual relationship with Adam, the target of their affections, work is that all three of them are terribly self-absorbed. Will a threesome work any better for any of them than twosomes did? My guess is that Tykwer is pretty sly about what he’s really saying with the film, using sexual politics as a metaphor for the geopolitical.


The Elephant in the Living Room Revisited
Ohio Yesterday... Your Culdesac Next?

If you care at all about animals and law enforcement—if last week’s news about the dozens of exotic animals slaughtered in Harrison’s backyard interested you at all—you need to see The Elephant in the Living Room. NPR asked Harrison last week for his thoughts on the Ohio tragedy. “No police officer in the United States of America has a dart rifle in their cruiser,” Harrison observed, referring to animal tranquilizers. “The sun was going down, Scott, at that period of time. They had to make a decision. Do we allow them to run free through our neighborhood here in Zanesville, or do we stop them now? And they had to choose to make the decision to stop the animals.”


Water for Elephants
Don’t Look Too Deep

The first two-thirds of the film, while not exactly brilliant, are engaging and beautiful as journeyman director Francis Lawrence presents the most appealing depiction of a circus since Something Wicked This Way Comes. The cinematography is simply brilliant, and Lawrence deftly captures the magic of what circuses have come to represent in our culture. Oddly, the story and film both completely dodge what we know today about the underbelly of circuses. Sure, August is a schmuck; but think of how this particular schmuck would have taken advantage of midgets, minorities, or David Lynch’s Elephant Man. Lawrence’s vision of circus life, August aside, is awfully shiny. I still could have forgiven that if the story hadn’t thrown all plausibility to the wind in the third act.


The Lamp
Surprisingly, It Works

The Lamp has a lot going against it. First is a vague title that really doesn’t clue us into what the film is about. Second, the storyline includes not just one but two examples of what my colleague Maurice Broaddus refers to as “The Magic Negro”—mystical black folks who are required by a script to step in and save white folks. Finally, is there any doubt what will happen with the storyline involving Josh? Naw. But there’s a lot going for this film, too, which captivated me in spite of its shortcomings. Best, Trost’s script—in all the ways that really matter—doesn’t really go where you expect it to. Let’s just say you’ve never seen a genie story resolved the way that this one is.


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