Elizabethtown

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) designs footwear for a large company. When his trendy innovative new design causes the company to lose almost a billion dollars in sales, Phil DeVoss (Alec Baldwin), his boss, fires him. His girl friend dumps him and Drew goes to his apartment ready to do away with himself. 

 

As he is about to do the deed, the phone rings. His sister Heather (Judy Greer) is frantic. Their father has died on a visit to his hometown in Elizabethtown, KY where he grew up. Their mother Hollie (Susan Sarandon) wants Drew to go to Elizabethtown and bring their father home to  for cremation. 

 

On the red-eye flight to Louisville Drew is attended to by a chatty flight attendant named Claire (Kirsten Dunst). Drew doesn’t want to talk, but she is irrepressible. She even gives him directions to Elizabethtown  – with her phone number written on the paper as well. 

 

When Drew finally arrives (he misses the exit) he meets relatives who are kindly and extend southern hospitality, but who are also eccentric and a bit odd. They make a fuss over him and he discovers who his father’s family really is. They want to bury his dad in the family plot at the cemetery and a bit of a struggle develops. It is resolved when Hollie and Heather arrive for the memorial service. Meanwhile Drew is staying in town at the hotel and contacts Claire. A romance develops.

 

Elizabethtown was written and directed by Cameron Crowe who also gave us the Academy Award winners Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. Elizabethtown may garner some awards from groups that appreciate wholesomeness no matter how the film is put together, but the movie didn’t work for me. I was talking to a friend from rural Virginia today and she said she and her son loved the movie because all those quirky relatives are their family, but that wasn’t enough for me.

 

The film is like a freight train made up of all kinds of cars hooked haphazardly together bouncing down the tracks from the city to hicksville. This could be a fine premise for a film~ just not this one.

 

Elizabethtown takes on a topic like suicide, but we never really believe Drew is going to do it. Hollie, Susan Sarandon, does a lovely tap dance in memory of her deceased husband, but I couldn’t figure out why. I don’t think the film knew if it was supposed to be a comedy or a drama, or even a good mixture. Bill Banyon, played by Bruce McGill, had done something horrible to Drew’s dad regarding a business deal, but we never find out enough information to balance out the weight the script gives it.

 

Shall I continue?

 

Sure, there are themes of family, forgiveness, growing up, looking at life as a journey, accepting responsibility, and so forth, but the film never engaged me enough to care.

 

Afriend and colleague of mine, Craig Detweiller, has written a Bible study-guide for the film using the lyrics of all the songs on the sound track. You can access it at www.HollywoodJesus.com . This is an ingenious idea, and perhaps by considering the film this way, one can appreciate it more. (But I didn’t even hear the music.)

 

The thing is, Orlando Bloom is prettier than Kirsten Dunst and he has better hair.

 

Corpse Bride, The

Young Victor Van Dort (voice of Johnny Depp) is to marry Victoria Everglot (voice of Emily Watson).  He goes with his stuffy parents Nell and William (voices of Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) to the bride’s house for the wedding rehearsal. Victor is not very keen on getting married, and neither is Victoria but they have a chat at the piano while the parents (the Everglots’ are the voices of Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney) are preparing things and the young people get on quite well. Just when it seems the marriage might go ahead well for them, Victor fumbles his lines during practice and cannot get the marriage vows straight. So the vicar sends him off to the dark forest to practice. While there he stumbles and the ring he is carrying slides onto what seems like a twig. Instead it is the skeleton hand of a mostly decomposed Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter) with a cheerful maggot popping out of one eye socket, who had been buried in her wedding dress. She declares that she and Victor are now married and the fun begins.

 

This rather ingenious animated gothic treat comes from director Tim Burton (and Mike Johnson). Burton is a master story-teller of the fantastic (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish, etc.) and The Corpse Bride, a musical spoof on old fashioned (arranged because of financial circumstances) marriage, played out between the undead and the living. It might also be a tale about how purgatory – and romantic movies for that matter – functions. Everything is resolved, and peace comes to the Corpse Bride when she makes a sacrifice for Victor. She sets him free, and in so doing, frees herself from the bonds of an underworld, a kind of  half-way place for souls who haven’t quite got things right yet.

 

The animation is stylized and clever, the voices full of character, the sound and music complimentary.

 

The Corpse Bride is a fun movie and probably has a lot more going on than I have mentioned here. Looking back at Big Fish, about how a story uses metaphors to stand in for truth, we learn that a story might be true even if it isn’t factual. So, what’s true about The Corpse Bride, do you think? What’s the metaphor? Maybe we all need to be content with what we have when the alternative might be … a corpse…. Happy Halloween!

In Her Shoes

    When gorgeous younger sister Maggie (Cameron Diaz) gets drunk at her 10th high school reunion she calls her sister Rose (Toni Collette) to come and get her. Their dominating step-mother Sydelle (Candace Azzara) refuses to let Maggie stay at the family home again because of her continual self-destructive behavior so Rose takes Maggie to her apartment. But Maggie, who is dyslexic, not only cannot get and keep a job, she refuses to try. She helps herself to Rose’s gorgeous shoe collection, and trashes the place. Rose, an attorney who is less attractive than Maggie, comes home from work one day to find Maggie in bed with Rose’s law partner boy friend. Rose kicks Maggie out.           

      During Maggie’s brief stay at her parents’ home she had gone through all the drawers pilfering cash and came across birthday cards with the cash gifts still in them that her grandmother Ella (Shirley MacLaine)had sent her and Rose over the years. Their rich doormat of a father Michael (Ken Howard) had never wanted the girls to have a relationship with their grandmother after his wife’s death because of Ella’s interfering ways. Neither Maggie nor Rose, it turns out, even knew they had grandparents.

     Instead of going to New York, Maggie takes the train to hoping Grandma is rich.

     Ella is thrilled at first to have Maggie visit but wonders where Rose is. Now a widow, Ella lives alone in a retirement village and helps other residents with their shopping. Maggie struts her stuff in front of the senior citizens, basks in the sun, and refuses to work. Ella really wants Maggie’s “vacation” to be over and when she discovers Maggie going through her drawers looking for money, Ella challenges her. If Maggie will take a job in the rest home facility, Ella will match her pay, penny for penny.

     Ella is the grandmother every child needs in this spin-off of the Cinderella story. Ella challenges Maggie to grow up, and to develop the good character she knows is buried beneath the beautiful face and body. Ella also goes in search for Rose, who needs her grandmother’s loving, magic wand, too. The reason Rose spends so much money on shoes is to make herself feel better, because “shoes always fit.”

     I liked all the characters but Shirley MacLaine shines as Ella. She has a pair of shoes of her own suggesting that every woman needs a fairy grandmother to love her. The supporting retirement center cast made up of Jerry Adler, who as Lewis Feldman has a crush on Ella, and Francine Beers as the wry and kind Mrs. Lefkowitz, are a charming ensemble that embraces both Maggie and Rose. The well-crafted script was written by Susanna Grant (Erin Brockovich) and based on the best-selling book by Jennifer Weiner.

     Even though Maggie’s pre-transformation behavior may make some viewers uncomfortable, stay with it. In Her Shoes is about seeing ourselves and others. It’s about growing-up, empathy, family, mental illness, sibling rivalry, acceptance, romance, mentoring young people, transformation, character, humor, pathos, and lots of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is never a chick flick, never trite but a rare and intelligent woman’s movie worth seeing.

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story

 

 

Among the year’s family films Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story appeals in a particular way to dads and daughters. Dreamer, a gentle horse-opera, (or Seasbiscuit-lite) is a multi-generational story of a family’s struggles, disappointments, and dreams that really do come true.

 

Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) runs hisfather’s now-failed horse farm near Lexington, KY, but works for a wealthy trainer, Palmer (David Morse), to make a living. Ben’s disappointment with life colors his relationship with his wife, Lily, (Elisabeth Shue), daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) and his father, Pop (Kris Kristofferson).

 

Ben uncharacteristically takes Cale to work with him on the morning of a big race. Ben senses that the champion filly, Sonya, (short for the Spanish name Sonãdor meaning “dreamer”) is not well enough to run. He tells Palmer, but he insists that she race as planned. During the race Sonya collapses with a broken leg. The owner wants Ben to put her down then and there but Ben refuses because Cale is present. Ben takes Sonya home as severance pay because Palmer fires him on the spot.

 

Two assistant trainers, Balon (Luis Guzman) and Mandelo (Freddy Rodriguez), a former jockey, join Ben to heal Sonya so that she can breed. Cale loves Sonya and spends as much time as she can with her. However, the vet tells them that Sonya is infertile and their hopes for an eventual winner and prize money are dashed.

 

When Ben announces that he is selling Sonya, Cale decides to ride away with her, taking with them her dreams for her dad’s success and happiness. But Sonya bolts and begins to run incredibly fast to everyone’s amazement. Suddenly the situation changes and Sonya’s value soars. To avoid ownership problems, and to show his growing faith in his daughter, Ben registers Sonya in Cale’s name. He lets her make all the decisions about Sonya’s races, including the famed Breeder’s Cup.

 

This is the moment when Dakota Fanning as the lonely child Cale takes possession of the action; from then on, the horse and the film belong to her.

 

 

Dreamer, written and directed by John Gatins (Gods and Monsters) is faintly based on a true story, but what gives it the feel-good ending we know is coming is the reassurance that people can change, and that even a horse can be a means of grace.

 

Miss Fanning, one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood, proves that she can not only take direction but can act as well. Throughout the first part of Dreamer Fanning portrays Cale, a child oppressed by her father’s melancholy, despite Lily’s efforts to help them bond.  As Sonya’s owner Cale matures before our eyes and demonstrates hope and faith that Sonya will win the famed Breeder’s Cup for her dad. 

 

At first Dreamer seemed to be not only predictable but formulaic. Yet it goes beneath the surface when it addresses racial discrimination, greed, and power relations between management and workers, as well as family, relationships, communication issues, and faith.

 

Above all Dreamer highlights a girl, a daughter, as the family’s healing leader. Sonya is the symbol that embodies thedreams of each member of Cale’s family; the horse drives the action, so to speak. Sonya is injured, like the family. She rises up and runs free, as do Cale and her family. When Ben finally notices Cale, he takes a leap of faith and trusts her so she can and does respond with confidence and courage. Like Because of Winn-Dixie (2005) and Whale Rider (2002), Dreamer offers girls a sturdy role model in a cinematic world where stories about boys’ rites of passage prevail.

 

The cinematography is beautiful and the film is uncomplicated, inspiring family fare. Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story is a great date movie for ‘tween daughters and their dads.

 

A group Bible Study Guide for Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story that I wrote via Fuller Theological Seminary and posted on the Dreamworks/Dreamer web site can be downloaded free of charge from

 

http://www.dreamer.dreamworks.com/familyfun/  or

 

www.pauline.org         or

 

 

www.reelspirituality.com

 

Good Night, and Good Luck

(A partial spoiler)

 

Very simply, Good Night, and Good Luck is the story of a couple of years in the life of American television/radio journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) that the Encarta encyclopedia describes as “one of the first journalists to provide news broadcasting with a sense of integrity and societal responsibility.”

 

The action takes place almost completely within the CBS building in New York beginning in October, 1953 and ending about a year later. Murrow (played exceeding well by David Strathairn), with producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney), and their team (played convincingly by many worthy actors, see www.imdb.org for the cast list) decide to investigate the story of an Air Force reserve officer in Michigan who was dismissed from the military as a security risk. There was some vague link between his father and some communist person or entity. The man was never allowed to face his accusers; in fact the charge was sealed in an envelope and never revealed because of national security. Friendly thought there was an immediate link to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) whose unsubstantiated accusations about people being communists or associated with them in any way, had destroyed many lives, mostly by innuendo – never proof. However, Murrow did not want to link McCarthy directly to this situation, but the link was inevitable as was McCarthy’s reaction.

 

Before the broadcast, Murrow’s team was asked if they had any links, even remote ones that McCarthy could use on them. One man recused himself because his ex-wife had gone to a meeting or belonged to an socialist organization – something he only found out after they divorced.

 

Murrow offered McCarthy equal time, which he took three weeks later. He used the broadcast to attack Murrow, again, with unsubstantiated claims against his loyalty as an American. He never responded to any of the information that Murrow had broadcast during the original program.

 

William Paley, head of CBS, (Frank Langhella) wanted to grant editorial freedom to Murrow’s broadcast, and he did. But in the end, Paley phased Murrow out of CBS. Paley, too, was under pressure because the government was (is) the one who grants the broadcast license in the first place. Plus, he said CBS affiliates wanted entertainment, not Murrow’s kind of reporting. Murrow also caused the sponsor, Alcoa, to abandon the show.

 

The film shows the effect of McCarthy’s scare tactics, as well as the writings of journalists who would not go up against him, when one of Murrow’s producers commits suicide.

 

Less clear is the role that Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson play in the film. It could be that in the frenetic activity of the news studio, it was one thread I couldn’t follow in one screening. (Were they “fellow travelers” who had infiltrated CBS or just breaking the rule that employees could not be married to one another? Or maybe both?)

 

Murrow caused the beginning of the fall of the Red Scare prophet, Sen. Joseph McCarthy who was investigated by the Army for making unsubstantiated accusations. McCarthy was reprimanded by the Senate, but he kept his seat.

 

The events in the film are book-ended by speech Murrow gave in 1958 that took a broad swipe at television, its obsession, and the public’s, with entertainment over news – and the perilous situation this creates.

 

Good Night, and Good Luck deals with the ethics of journalism: was Murrow creating news by his investigative piece, or was his job to just report it? How much, if any, editorializing was ethical?

 

One of the unique aspects of this film is that it uses original broadcast tape of McCarthy rather than presenting him as a character. Filming the whole thing in black and white made this possible. I thought it very effective.

 

The issue that was begun 50 years ago, however, remains: is editing, that is, selecting sound bytes and clips that serve the journalist’s purpose, ethical? The filmmakers seem to do the same. Another question is: if they haven’t given us all the exact facts, have they at least given us the truth? From a distance of fifty years we can make a judgment; when it happens daily, it is difficult to tell. Murrow made a point about the need for critical engagement with the news, that is, questioning it – and him, too.

 

The film is directed by George Clooney who with Steven Soderbergh (an executive producer) are creating their own smart – and frenetic – political commentary genre (think K-Street) and leaving it up to the audience to connect the big black dots. As Murrow believed, there is room enough for diverse political discourse in our country all the time. Dissent is not disloyalty, he said more than once. He also commented on the climate of fear, and its exploitation. (Just listen to your local 11:00pm news and how the anchors lead in stories; fear is a hook to keep us listening, often for no reason; advertising often uses fear as well, fear of not having the best car to fear of one’s deodorant failing. Michael Moore also addressed these kind of media generated fears in Bowling for Columbine.)

 

For anyone teaching media literacy, communications, and journalism, Good Night, and Good Luck illustrates how well the government, commercial media, the news, and economics all work together. One might ask how free speech really is. I think this is a film worthy of our attention because it breaks open history and asks us what happened, what really happened, and will it happen again?

 

What have we learned about journalism fifty years on?

 

Truth, it would seem, is the only antidote to fear.

 

From one of Murrow’s speeches (quoted at least in part in the film):

 

“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.

 

“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Good night, and good luck.”  See It Now broadcast, March 9, 1954.

Innocent Voices

 

Innocent Voices

(Voces Innocentes)

A film by Luis Mandoki

 

 

 

Innocent Voices (Voces Inocentes), a new film by Luis Mandoki (Message in a Bottle, When a Man Loves a Woman) opens this week. It tells the story of the Salvadorian Civil War (1978 – 1984) as seen through the eyes of a child. This year Innocent Voices, along with Hotel Rwanda, shared the Stanley Kramer Award from the Producers Guild of America (PGA) for their outstanding contribution to social justice through cinema.

 

Innocent Voices won the Glass Bear Award from the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year as well as a Silver Ariel in Mexico (Ariels are Mexico’s main film industry award.), and Best Film from the Seattle Film Festival.

 

Chava’s Story

 

Chava, played by Carlos Padilla

 

The feet of soldiers march through rain in the jungles of <?El Salvador. It is 1981 and the peasant farmers and Salvadorian Army are fighting over land rights. The farmers have now organized into a guerilla force and civil war has begun.

 

Cuscatazingo is the small town where 11-year old Oscar lives and it lies between the guerilla stronghold and the regular army that is guided by US military advisors. He is known affectionately as Chava (Carlos Padilla). Chava lives with his mother, Kella, (Leonor Varela), a dress-maker, his older sister and younger brother on the outskirts of the town. Their house is barely more than a shack made of tin and wood, but it is home to the little family at the beginning of the war when the father deserted them for the United States. Chava is now the man of the house.

 

                                                  

               Kella, Chava’s mother, played by Leonor Varela

 

With increasing frequency the guerillas and soldiers engage in battle at night, regardless of the people who live all around. The homes are damaged by gunfire and mortar and many of the town’s people are killed.

 

Chava and his sister go to school in the town and one day soldiers come to conscript boys into the regular army who are from 12 – 14 years old. None of the boys wants to turn twelve. Chava runs to the parish priest to tell him what has happened. The padre is shocked by the actions of the soldiers who also kidnap local women and struggles to protect the people. He aids the guerillas and is eventually taken away by the military.

 

One night, Chava’s uncle (Jose Maria Yazpik) sneaks home for a visit. He urges Kella to let Chava come with him to join the guerillas because the soldiers will conscript him otherwise. Kella refuses. Meanwhile, life for the children goes on even with the curfew and the continual threat of gunfire. Chava plays with his school mates and even has a girl friend. He makes friends with a bus driver (Jesus Ocha) who hires him to collect fares. The soldiers come looking for boys more frequently, and the youngsters hide out by laying flat on the roofs so they will not be seen. Things become so bad after one battle that Kella decides to move back to the village where her mother (Ofelia Medina) lives, thinking it will be safer.

 

As the warfare becomes more intense and as more young boys are stolen from their homes to become soldiers, Chava makes a decision to join the guerillas. What happens then, and how Chava and his family survive, gives an astonishing and poignant look into the traumatic effect of war on children and the recruitment of child soldiers that continues to this day throughout the world.

 

                               

 

 

A Child’s Perspective

 

In 1989 actor Raul Julia played the role of Archbishop Oscar Romero in the enduring film by Hollywood priest, Father Bub Kieser. In Romero we see the story of the Salvadorian civil war through the process of human and spiritual awareness that the Archbishop experiences. When Archbishop Romero finally takes the side of the people, the US-backed military had him killed. 75,000 people died during the civil war in El Salvador, more than 8,000 are still missing and one million people were exiled.

 

Innocent Voices is a film about another Oscar but the same war. Innocent Voices, however, changes the perspective of the audience. All of a sudden we can stoop down to the level of a child and experience what it meant to try to survive when instability, violence and the threat of being kidnapped by your government and forced into becoming a soldier-killer became normal. When Chava turns twelve, his mother only puts eleven candles on the cake. Chava is devastated because he realizes that even in his own family he cannot grow up because it is not safe. Twelve is the age when the military comes to take boys away. It is a decisive moment in the film.

 

Innocent Voices is the true story of actor-screenwriter Oscar Torres who now lives and works in Los Angeles. Director and co-producer screenwriter Luis Mandoki brings it to the screen with the kind of intimate cinematography that makes us feel part of Chava’s experience, up close and personal. While Carlos Padilla is appealing and authentic as the scrappy Chava, I think the film belongs to Leonor Varella who plays his mother, Kella. Hollywood rarely gives us strong women who are able to fulfill their true nature on film, but here Varella excels as mother, provider, nurturer, protector. Varella’s performance is Oscar worthy and the heart of Innocent Voices.

 

Children and War

 

Amnesty International’s Artists for Amnesty www.amnestyusa.org/artistsforamnesty.com) sponsored the Hollywoodpress screening for Innocent Voices on December 13. When questioned about how he reconciles the irony that the very country supporting the civil war in <El Salvador is the one that welcomed him, writer Oscar Torres said that it is a complex and difficult issue, but one that he resolves by thinking in terms of gratitude. Six years after the events in the film, his entire family was reunited in the United States.

 

The plight of child soldiers (under the age of 18) continues in the world today, with more than 300,000 currently fighting in 40 countries. Innocent Voices tells but one story

 

When I spoke with director Luis Mandoki after the screening, he said that the message of hope that he offers people of faith in Innocent Voices is that “evenin the worst of circumstances we always have a choice. And even when all seems dark, we have to remember that there is light if we but open our eyes to see.

 

Innocent Voices, like Hotel Rwanda, The Constant Gardener, and Lord of War, is a brilliantly intense film with the strength to engage audiences. Its story must evoke a humane response from our very souls by the story it tells. 

 

                      

 

 

 

Nine Lives

Nine Lives – winner of the 2005 Locarno International Film Festival’s Golden Leopard Award

Directed and written by Rodrigo Garcia/ USA

A mother cleans the floors of the Los Angeles County jail hoping for an early release and the warden is sympathetic. At all costs she wants to visit with her daughter, but the prison guards are mean and uncaring.

A troubled young woman bearing a gun visits her younger sister with the intention of confronting their father for something he has done to her in the past.

A divorced wife goes to the funeral of the woman who became her husband’s second wife and must confront her love for him.

A mother and her handicapped husband do not speak to each other but communicate only through their daughter, while the mother has an affair with another man.

Four more vignettes are told about nine women (all together) whose lives touch each other’s, sometimes knowingly and sometimes not, until a woman makes a yearly visit to the cemetary with her young daughter – or so we think.

I just read as essay by Garcia (the son of Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez) in FLM Magazine (The Voice of Independent Film published by Landmark Theatres, www.movienet.com) where he explains, “Hidden behind these women I can explore the stuff that scares me: relationships we cannot escape; the dependence on loved ones; the caretaking of loved ones; the expectations of loved ones; the loss of loved ones. Can we share our innermost self with a loved one? And if we can’t – what’s left for us?” 

Nine Lives is a very good film that explores life from a woman’s point of view in a credible way. The film held my attention throughout, and has a cast of A-list actors. I liked its multiculturalism and ability to create drama instantly in every vignette. The film reminded me in some ways of Crash by Paul Haggis, but only slightly.

Independent films are often such treasures, like Nine Lives.

I wrote about this film briefly in August as part of my report from the Locarno Film Festival. When the prizes from the independent juries were awarded I was able to meet Garcia; he was very affable – surprised I think to meet another American at the festival. I hope the film does well.