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.
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.
Make Of It What You Will
The technical qualities of the film are pretty uneven, ranging from inventive and intriguing to choppy and annoying. But the central performances of Kevin Maggard and Luke Weaver as Eli and his chief tormentor are very appealing. They bring an offbeat and youthful energy to the story that always keeps in involving. Most of the performances in the minor roles, however, are pretty rough. Still, director Benjamin Stark manages to keep a decent rein on the proceedings, and the film feels like it achieves the vast majority of what the production team intended. It’s smart, slightly obtuse in an arty sort of way, and remarkably restrained and mature for an indie thriller.
How Do We Get From Here to Hereafter?
The Presenceis a film that really nails what a good ghost story should do. Yes, it works at a metaphorical level—as Sorvino’s writer gets a chance to work through her “inner demons”—and takes seriously the notion of the metaphysical world. But it also takes that extra step, taking very, very seriously the idea that the metaphysical world has both a bearing on the here and now and, literally, the hereafter. It’s a stirring vision of mercy and redemption. If you’re looking for intelligent, well-crafted, thoughtful filmmaking in the form of a ghost story, invest in The Presence. You won’t regret it, unless you suffer extensively from either clinical or culturally-induced ADD.
Measures Up to Expectations
In an era of reboots, remakes, and reinventions, Disney instead opts here for a simple and low-key approach that merely hews closely to the source material—without a lot of fanfare or folderol. In a faithful adaption of Milne’s original Winnie-the-Pooh, the filmmakers simply tell of Pooh’s endless search for honey, Eeyore’s search for his tail, and a misguided search for Christopher Robin and the dreaded Backson. It’s been over forty years since I’ve read Milne’s books, but this Pooh hits the mark as well as any filmed adaptation. Still… while I nonetheless enjoyed the experience of watching the film, I ended up feeling that I enjoyed the film because I wanted to.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I have, of late, been working through the newly-restored release of the original Star Trek series, available for streaming on Netflix. It’s been nice seeing the original episodes as they were intended to be seen—if in a far crisper presentation than the makeup artists ever envisioned they would be. And imagine my surprise, upon screening William Shatner’s documentary The Captains, in finding that Shatner himself has always been somewhat embarrassed by the whole, um, enterprise. Also imagine my surprise in discovering that the documentary is not only a thoughtful examination of Star Trek’s—and his own—legacy, but a probing and artful inquiry into the very notion of leadership.
This is a simple film that asks big questions like: What would it really mean if God did exist? What does he have to gain from meddling in our lives? Or, better, what do we have to gain? Right off the bat, I was simultaneously intrigued and put off by the audacity and artificiality of the first act. (And the ubiquitous false eyelashes of star Jennifer Love Hewitt, who plays Claire.) But really: when a key character has lines from Shakespeare writ large on his forearm, you’ve got to ask, “If the Bard can do art hokey and overwrought and still do it well, why not allow others the same creative space?” And writer/director Marc Erlbaum comes through in spades, as far as I’m concerned.
A Slice of Two Lives
The notion is that a life examined has far more potential than the usual quiet desperation, and for the last ten years Stevenson has followed a fairly large cadre of kids who are now young adults. Two Brothers is the first feature-length documentary fashioned from the footage gathered over that period. Ten years ago, Sam and Luke Nelson were pretty typical gradeschoolers. Luke was the scrappy little brother, Sam the older—who tended to bully his siblings. Then Stevenson stepped in and started his standard interviewing, plus probing inquiries regarding the relationship between the brothers. And a funny thing started to happen. As Sam and Luke both started seeing the contrast between the way things were and the way they wished things could be, their reality started changing.
I attended a promotional screening of Courageous with my wife and parents. As we were walking into the theater lobby following the screening, my 74-year-old mom gushed, “That was the best movie I’ve ever seen!” When I followed up with a couple of rather surprised questions, she allowed that it was merely the best movie she’d seen in a long, long time. But still: this is the woman who dragged my siblings and me to see Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, Fiddler on the Roof, The Ten Commandments, West Side Story, The Sting, Patton, Tora Tora Tora!, The Sound of Music, and Mary Poppins—even William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. So it’s not like her tastes run to the lowbrow. Take that endorsement as you will.
More Than an Emotional Appeal
The emphasis in the documentary 58: Movie is not on how unfortunate much of the world’s population is, nor on how selfish and decadent much of the West is. While the bulk of the film is spent with a single mother of four in Ethiopia, an Indian family in debt bondage, and on the streets of Nairobi, the appeal is not primarily emotional. It’s rational, based both on a sound analysis of the issues that Jesus stands squarely for in Scripture and hard facts about trends in infant mortality rates and poverty levels. In fact, when the film features Dr. Scott Todd of Compassion International summarizing both the challenge and the potential for success, the film crosses completely out of the realm of the emotional and into the matter-of-fact.
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