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Volume 17, Issue 3: Ex Imagibus

Motion Pics: Bring Your Own Class

Reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell and Nathan Wilson

In Theaters (pretty much):

Cinderella Man
directed by Ron Howard
reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell
Freckle-faced director Ron Howard has produced enough cinematic feel-goodery that one should feel justified in approaching Cinderella Man with trepidation. The maudlin "Seabiscuit, but with a boxer" previews didn't help, and the breadline backdrop of the Great Depression promises waves of hungry-kid pathos. But most of the baloney in this movie is the kind you eat; that's all that Jim and Mae Braddock have to feed their children. We first meet the Braddocks in better times. After champion fighter Jim wins the movie's introductory bout, he goes home to the family, despite the availability of lascivious alternatives. He's hot-to-trot for his wife and a doting father to his children; they live in a fine house with lots of nice things on their bedside tables—jewelry, watches, a frame for the wedding picture. Cut to another bedside table a few years later, with the jewels all pawned off, and the picture sitting battered and frameless. It's an elegant and eloquent transition, especially knowing that Howard could have really cranked the blarney in a "we've-lost-everything" scene; instead, he lets the pictures tell the story.

Psychologically, Jim, the washed-up boxer who can barely keep the house lit, the wife warm, and the children fed, has the worst of the Braddocks' lean times. One day, his old manager Joe Gould reappears, looking for a warm body to show up to a match with a contender, waving $250 at the desperate father. Jim wins an against-all-odds victory in the fight, catapulting him back into the roles of champion boxer and solvent breadwinner. Before long he has a shot at the title, held by one Max Baer, who has killed men in the ring. And so the movie's great conflict takes its final shape: Jim, who's "fighting for milk," and Max's more traditional movie-boxer pursuit of pugilistic glory, with all the blonde-and-brunette trimmings. As to the winner —well, this is a Ron Howard movie.
Nevertheless, it's convincing. Russell Crowe remains today's most compelling actor, and the boxing scenes make every punch count—a rare achievement. And, even though Howard works from a script which includes phrases like "champion of my heart," he pulls off an enjoyable, sturdy, altogether manly movie about what a husband and father ought to do for his family. Yes, you may occasionally feel manipulated, but at least you won't feel lied to.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
directed by Tim Burton
reviewed by Nathan Wilson
Tim Burton doesn't always seem well. In fact, he can frequently seem rather unwell. He has been behind several of what I would call dark-eye-makeup-on-men films, and behind the morbid death humor of things like The Nightmare Before Christmas. He tried to appreciate fairy tale in Big Fish but simply ended up struggling with the concepts of true and false (they are rather tricky after all). At the beginning of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory we were all treated to a special trailer for another of his future masterpieces, The Corpse Bride, a touchingly animated (or claymated) story of a man who, fleeing an arranged marriage, accidentally marries a corpse. It looks to be the sort of lovely exploration of zombies and necrophilia that could capture Burton's imagination.

Burton's imagination being what it is, I was a trifle leery of the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Rumor has it that Burton battled with the studio over the role of Willie Wonka. Burton wanted Marilyn Manson. The studio actually wanted to make money, not news, and so Burton's friend Johnny Depp ended up as Willie. Whether that initial defeat drove Burton into his shell, or he was simply sleeping more regularly than normal, this film is Burton at his sanest. Yes Willie Wonka is weird. Yes, he seems more than a trifle effeminate (as did Gene Wilder), but the imagination in the film is generally healthy and Burton even shifts away from the final conflict of the original's (Charlie's failure to obey instruction) and moves towards a disagreement between Charlie and Wonka over the importance of family. Wonka learns to stop hating his father (watching Marilyn Manson have to even pretend to do that would have been the upside of Burton's casting choice), and learns that, though his dad was a wacko-candy-hating dentist, he only oppressed his future chocolateer son out of love and a desire to protect.
Though the humor surrounding Depp's oompa assistants was occasionally tired, they worked in general and their musical numbers were good fun. Overall, the effect was better than I was expecting and preserved many of the strengths of the original.

Batman Begins
directed by Christopher Nolan
reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell
This summer's second movie about how a scary guy in a black mask got that way beats the tar out of the first one (Episode III). Batman Begins director Christopher Nolan, of indie hit Memento fame, understands what the last two Batman movies forgot: we will only consider taking a man dressed as a bat seriously if he comes across as scary. Otherwise, he's nothing more than a prancing, flapping laughingstock, and so is whatever movie you put him in.

So, we get the story of how young Bruce Wayne acquired a fear of bats, lost his parents to a mugging, and made his fear fearsome in order to avenge them. He does so by starting a fight in a Chinese prison and getting bailed out by the mono-monikered Ducard, who calls him to a fighting monastic life atop of a Tibetan mountain. Once there, he acquires all sorts of sweet moves, and the vigilante gang wants him to join because of his skills with their giant ninja daggers. When Wayne turns them down, everything blows up, thus setting up Ducard's unsurprising metamorphosis into a super-villain. Wayne returns to his Gotham hometown to begin his criminal-spooking career and helps himself to the unappreciated fruits of Wayne Enterprises' R&D department. Besides the black tights, body armor, and assorted costume gee-whizzery, he gets a hold of the new Batmobile, which, unlike previous models, roars and handles more like a tank than a jet-fuel Cadillac. Armed with this stuff, motivated by a mild love interest with Tom Cruise's main squeeze and a dislike for crime, bad guys, and super-villains, Batman saves the night.
Concerning super-villains and secondary characters, the movie at times gets so caught up in setting up its sequels that it nearly topples under the weight of its top-shelf cast. Nevertheless, the franchise is resurrected, and looks fit to wash away any memory of the neon-goo stuff that sank the last series.

War of the Worlds
directed by Steven Spielberg
reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell
In this movie, Martians invade planet Earth and trample the place. They do this by shooting ice-encrusted Martian pilots into gigantic tripod killing-machines, buried perhaps millions of years ago beneath the ground. In a remarkable show of prescience, the Martians buried each of these machines beneath what would become, over the course of the next million years, a major American city. Furthermore, the Martians anticipated all of our electronic technology and how to disable it. On top of that, they knew that humans would evolve out of whatever was slurping around in the primordial muck, and that humans would fight back with grenades and bombs. Therefore, the tripods have force-fields. So, having perfectly anticipated our every move, the Martians stomp all over us until they catch the common cold and die. Apparently, in their detailed study of planet Earth, they missed the wee beasties and consequently left all the vaccines in the medicine cabinet. That, by the way, is how the movie ends, so no need to go see it or even rent it now. The human plot, what little exists of it, consists of dock-worker Tom Cruise protecting the stock wise-beyond-her-years 10-year-old Dakota Fanning from the astonishingly malevolent Martians. Character development explores the dilemma Tom faces between fleeing and fighting. The Greatest Generation shows up at the end, when Tom gets to Boston to drop the kids off with Grandma and Grandpa. In its favor, the CG effects are far more convincing than in just about any other movie of recent memory, and Spielberg, as sentimental and boring has he has become, still knows what the widescreen is for. All in all, though, what a spirit-crushing two hours. Spielberg's Martians may die of allergies at the end, but then that leaves the human race alone with itself, a nasty, scrambling lot whose only hope is in traditional values that have gone the way of World War II.

Howl's Moving Castle
directed by Hayao Miyazaki
reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell
Hayao Miyazaki, unfairly saddled with the title of "Japanese Walt Disney," boasts what few other animators or story-tellers may lay claim to nowadays: a Tolkienesque belief that the movies he makes describe events that are actually occuring somewhere. His movies come across as fantastic yet strangely plausible; what's more, these two traits both originate in the same place—his unwillingness to explain every last detail and nuance of the world he depicts. Western audiences must come to his movies with a cautious willingness to get sucked in and just accept the way things are.

Howl's Moving Castle, presently in limited release, is not as fine a movie as Miyazaki's last American offering, 2001's beautiful Spirited Away, but it still displays more imagination and playfulness than anything else currently prowling the American movie theater. Summaries don't come easy; loosely, it concerns one Sofi, a plain, young girl who sews ribbons onto hats at the hatshop. One night, the Witch of the West appears at the shop door and curses her—young Sofi is transformed into a 90-year-old woman. Unrecognizable to her family, she sets out for the wastelands, a rocky place outside of town prowled by the eponymous Moving Castle, a glorious cobble of pots and pans, timbers and smokestacks, bolts and bricks clanking about the land somewhat in the form of a lizard. A turnip-headed scarecrow leads her to it; perhaps Howl, the handsome and intemperate magician of the castle, can lift the curse. Meanwhile, the nation plunges itself into a fiery war over a missing prince; Howl must resist the self-destructive call the King of the land sends out to the wizards and magicians to join the pointless fight. Suffice it to say that Howl and Sofi grow quite fond of each other, and the story moves towards the reversal of more than just Sofi's curse.
Some cautions: Disney distributed Howl's in the U.S., and dubbed English and American voices into the mouths of the characters. One suspects that they also tampered with the dialogue in places, but the cardboard pacifism that rears its head in spots may well be original. Further, the movie suffers from its Eastern origins as far as its storytelling goes, and its comfort with demons and sorcery should arch the eyebrow—this, after all, isn't the Wiccan paganism you can buy at Hot Topic, but the largely unevangelized (but unagressive) Zen variety. Nevertheless, Miyazaki's imagination is well worth the trip, and his ease at creating images at once startling and humorous, unsettling and delightful, ought to be appreciated by good Trinitarian imaginations.

On Video:

Bride and Prejudice: A Bollywood Musical
directed by Gurinder Chadha
reviewed by Nathan Wilson
We've got Hollywood (and aren't we proud) and India's got Bollywood. This time Bollywood got its teeth into Jane Austen. It seems natural enough. When I think of Jane Austen, pretty soon after I find myself thinking about Indian villages, large dance numbers on sound stages and the tension that must exist between Indians that stay in their country, the wealthy Indians of Britain, and those that choose to pull stakes and move on to a better land (California) where they can fully embrace American suburbia.

Of course I knew Jane Austen's version, but despite that advantage, I never quite knew what was going to happen in this one. I laughed an enjoyable but nervous laughter as I discovered Darcy's character banging away on native drums, when the full black choir appeared singing behind Eliza and Darcy while they walked on the beach (two lifeguards joined in), and at Mr. Kholi's Americanisms. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Jane Austen was of course murdered thoroughly, as was common sense, but people in bright clothing sang and danced in ways socially embarrassing to most people on this continent.
In this film Bollywood offers us a large container of pump cheese nachos and a fried elephant ear on the side. Are you willing to go to the county fair? I was surprised that I was and just as surprised that I enjoyed the spectacle. It only took a couple hours and my comfort zone was a little stretchier afterward.

Dear Frankie
directed by Shona Auerbach
reviewed by Nathan Wilson
Well-intentioned deception can be a real kick in the head. Frankie, a young deaf boy, and his mother are always on the move. But dad is still very much in the picture. At least Frankie thinks he is. He faithfully writes letters to his father, allegedly a sailor, who writes him back from ports all around the globe. But that's not what's actually going on. Frankie's mom collects all of his letters and then writes her son back, posing as a loving father and sending him stamps. Frankie even keeps a world map with little flags marking all of his father's travels.

Of course deception gets everyone in trouble eventually. A pillish boy at school notifies Frankie that his father's boat is scheduled for arrival in Frankie's very own coastal town. This boy then bets Frankie that his father won't come to see him, and of course Frankie mentions his bet in a letter to his dad.
Mum panics (she didn't even know that the ship existed) and all the deception comes to a head in our little pathos-soaked story.
The Scottish accents make everything more enjoyable and (for an American) more believably acted. Mum sets out to find a man to play the role of her son's father for a day and the owner of the local Chip Shop helps her out. A man is found, hired, and the final deception begins.
The story spends most of its time building up the sob side of things, the horribly sad situation of the little boy Frankie, deaf, fatherless, and lied to by his mother. A great many predictable things happen in the brief contact that Frankie has with his pretend father, but nothing that really pulls us out of all the deception, that really redeems. The film's problems seem to descend further and further past resolvable, and then, at the end, only a half-hearted attempt is made to pull out of the mess. The answers to the problem are given, but they aren't emotionally convincing or satisfying. Watch it, if you do, for accents that seem more fun than your own.

Finding Neverland
directed by Marc Foster
reviewed by Nathan Wilson
Out for a good while now, this is the vaguely true story of J. M. Barrie's inspiration to write Peter Pan. I avoided the film initially because of what appeared to be an emphasis on Barrie's infidelity. However, I think Barrie's folly was portrayed tastefully, and his genius beautifully. The imagination gospel rings hollow in the face of true sorrow, but the film, on the whole, is surprisingly effective.

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