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Cultural MVPs

Given that I picked up this review opportunity in a rather eleventh-hour fashion, I did not know was that Thurgood is essentially a filmed take on a tour-de-force one-man stage show written by George Stevens Jr. Rather than a standard biopic, we are here presented with the faux reminiscences of an aged Marshall as he “returns” to alma mater Howard University for a lecture to a “friendly audience.” As Marshall warms up to his topic—his personal involvement in turning the tide against American apartheid—he casts off his cracking voice, shuffling gait, and cane, rejuvenated by Fishburne’s energetic portrayal of a modern man of justifiably mythic proportions.

Higher Ground Redux
A “Manifesto to God”

The frustration in Corrine’s life culminates when she leaves a characteristically stilted “house church” meeting. Those in attendance talk to each other in muted catch-phrases and euphemistically-couched expressions of spiritual denial. Outside in the car, Corrine cries out to God in an honest fashion that should rend your soul—and when she asks God to reveal Himself to her, who should appear but her husband? He is so alienated from her at this point, and their love for each so dead, that all he can coldly suggest is that she no longer bother coming to the meetings since her “heart isn’t in it.” Oh, but her heart is so much in it! And that’s the problem in Higher Ground.

Courageous Redux
More Than More of the Same

In the Christian niche market, “more of the same” from directors and producers generally results in an audience (and pastoral) response that looks more like “Well, I think I’ll take a pass this time.” That’s because, for the most part, the product in question is substandard in one or more ways and has been marketed in a bait-and-switch fashion that packages cut-rate entertainment as the next great evangelistic tool. Think of the Left Behind series (now on the verge of being rebooted… whoo-hoo!), The Nativity Story, or even Rocky Balboa. Yup. There are only so many times you can sell the same pig. Well, Courageous bucks that trend entirely.

There Be Dragons Redux
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!

Dolphin Tale Redux
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.

The Help Redux
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.

The Heart of Christmas
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.

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.

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.

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