Crude comedies and end-of-the-world actioneers dominated the box office this past year. Missing was the spiritual poignancy found in past dramas like Schindler’s List and Dead Man Walking. Absent were guileless comedies such as the 1965’s sight gag festooned The Great Race or the droll, anecdotal-laced standup concert Bill Cosby: Himself. This decade’s redesigning of the comedy genre continues with witless and coarse examples, as in the case of Year One, a film that didn’t visit just the toilet for its humor, but also the sewer. And satires like Thank You For Smoking and Dr. Strangelove were morphed into the likes of The Men Who Stare At Goats, a mindless mess that caused this critic to wonder if it weren’t just the film’s protagonists ingesting LSD. Hollywood’s movie-making strength was revealed through documentaries and animation. With exceptions, most everything else seemed populated by people who made a lot more money than their artistry deserved. Indeed, after Land of the Lost, Will Ferrell owes us all.
Allow your humble movie correspondent to spotlight a few films I believe uplifted the spirit as well as entertained. Before renting them, please read the reviews and the reasons for their ratings (click on the film's title for a link to our reviews). As to Hollywood’s worst of 2009, the industry continued its attack on people of faith, and worse, its irreverence for our Creator. I’ll include the most offending offenders so you can be warned as they make their way onto video store shelves. First…
The Blind Side. (Rated PG-13) It’s not cynical or profane, the leads aren’t dysfunctional, and what’s this, could many of the main characters actually be Christians? The film’s subject, a wealthy white family take in a homeless black youth, is handled with a blend of humor and pathos, giving audiences a funny, sensitive and uplifting night at the cinema. It stars the gifted Sandra Bullock, who, alas, also gave us this year’s worst film, All About Steve.
Earth. (G) Narrated by James Earl Jones, Disney’s nature documentary tells the remarkable story of three animal families and their journeys across this planet we share. Mesmerizing, the visuals alone are breathtaking, as the documentarians approach the wonder of our world with the same magic and majesty found in March of the Penguins, and Winged Migration. With scale and drama the production follows five main topics: the Earth and the Sun, Great Migrations, Adaptation and Habitat, Predators and Prey, and Life Cycles. A picture is worth a thousand words and a thousand pictures are mind-blowing.
Lord Save Us From Your Followers. (PG-13) This documentary by fellow Believer, Dan Merchant, examines the question, “Why is the Gospel of Love dividing America?” The film covers hot button issues with candor, humor and balance. Often when we are strident in our views, we lose sight of the Holy Spirit’s purpose. Follow Christ’s example and answer the questions with an empathy that overrides a desire to win a debate – that’s what the film says to me and why I will watch it several times throughout my life.
More Than A Game. (PG) Five talented young basketball players from Akron, Ohio are featured in this coming of age documentary about friendship and loyalty in the face of great adversity. Led by future NBA superstar LeBron James, the "Fab Five's" improbable nine-year journey leads them from a decrepit inner-city gym to the doorstep of a national high school championship. It’s about facing adversities, it’s about fathers and sons, it’s even about faith. Clean, insightful and entertaining, “More Than A Game” is one of the best sports documentaries I’ve seen.
Julie & Julia. (PG-13) Based on true stories of two women from different times, each discovering their life’s reason through passion, strength of character, and just the right amount of seasoning, the film shows us how and why Julia (Meryl Streep) became perhaps the most famous chef de cuisine of all time, and how her book, The Art of French Cooking, affected the life of a young woman looking for an outlet for her culinary interests. Julie (Amy Adams), begins a blog chronicling her trials and successes in the kitchen.
Like an artist’s appreciation for Picasso or Pollock, Julie found a kindred spirit in Julia Child. Though this may not have been the intent of the filmmakers, I left the theater thinking how the things we say and do can affect others. We can touch another life simply be being ourselves when we place noble intent ahead of our sometimes ignoble heart.
Michael Jackson: This Is It. (PG) I’m more a Sinatra fan, an Elvis fan, a Roy Orbison fan, even a Stevie Nicks fan – but the charisma Michael Jackson displayed on screen was palpable. I kept reminding myself, these were just rehearsals. I was saddened that all those connected with the show would not have their dreams realized. Everyone from the musicians to the dancers was nearly breathless by Michael’s mere presence. To be on stage with him seemed a dream come true for these devoted performers. They must have been devastated knowing that the artist they proclaimed as the King of Pop died only days before their dream was realized. And what a shame the world would not see this sold-out performance.
UP. (PG) This animated treasure begins with two children discovering that they are soulmates and wannabe explorers. Spring ahead, they marry and share a wonderful life. But before they can go off to explore, life gets in the way. As in real life, the couple has their share of troubles. We see their joy at learning they will have a baby, only to lose the child at birth. Later, after a full life, the woman passes on and the old man un-expectantly has another exciting chapter added to his story. Though there are tearful moments, they are adroitly handled, giving the story and characterizations depth and feeling. There’s great wit and heart in this production – that’s the type of film that enriches little ones as well as accompanying loved ones.
Also worth noting: New In Town, The Princess and the Frog, Under the Sea 3D, It Might Get Loud, Star Trek, The Young Victoria. Again, please read the entire review of each of these films on previewonline.org in order to see if they are appropriate for your family’s viewing.
Now, the Bad…
All About Steve. (PG-13) Sandra Bullock plays eccentric crossword puzzle constructor Mary Horowitz who, after one short blind date, falls for handsome cable news cameraman Steve (Bradley Cooper). Like a savant, her character is brilliant in one area, but lacks any social graces in all other areas of life. What’s more, though we are supposed to like her, the supporting characters doing their best to convince us that her eccentricities are cute and charming, we don’t like her. The audience is as uncomfortable as the man she pursues. It is an embarrassing 90-some minutes of bad performances, lame direction and a silly script that leaves us longing for a high school production of Flower Drum Song.
The Invention of Lying. (PG-13) The story is set in an alternate world, where lying has yet to be discovered. Ricky Gervais plays a loser named Mark who suddenly develops the ability to lie and be rewarded for it. To relieve his dying mother’s fears, he tells her of an afterlife, complete with a “Man in the Sky” and your own mansion. By film’s end, Mr. Gervais and his accomplices make the statement that there is no “Man in the Sky,” the implication being that storytellers from long ago sat around the newly invented campfire and created the mythology of God and a life after death. Why is it that seeming non-believing filmmakers are always so sure of their atheism and why is it so important for them to convert others?
Observe and Report. (R) Seth Rogen once again plays a vulnerable bumbler, and once more the crude comedian is determined to push the envelope of bad taste. Hey, you name the envelope and this guy will push it. Here Rogen turns the nerdy underdog genre into a highbred assault on the senses. With 160 uses of the f-word alone, not to mention every other obscenity he can muster, plus insensitive gags about casual drug use and mall shootings, he takes the comedy genre to a new low.
Fired Up. (PG-13) Two high school jocks, dreading football camp, decide to become cheerleaders so they can attend cheerleading camp. Why? Guess. The poster consists mainly of the title, with the initials F U in giant capitals. This sends the signal that we’re in for a bawdy, irreverent, Porky’s-type sex farce. And sure enough, the poster’s not-so-subliminal warning lived down to my expectations. It’s stereotyping is an insult to the young women of the sport of cheerleading, as well as to all sports. It’s humor, though the two male leads have timing, is base, injurious, and overly familiar.
Land of the Lost. (PG-13) Based on the classic television series created by Sid & Marty Krofft, this update of Land of the Lost stars Will Ferrell as has-been scientist Dr. Rick Marshall, suddenly sucked back through time. Way back. Now, Marshall has no weapons, few skills and questionable smarts to survive in an alternate universe full of marauding dinosaurs and fantastic creatures from beyond our world. Having abducted a beloved Saturday morning series from our childhood, Mr. Ferrell and his group of molesters have disfigured the concept of Sid & Marty Krofft with rude, crude and forced sight and verbal gags. Will Ferrell, like those other gurus of grime, Seth Rogan, Ben Stiller and their younger versions, has managed to bedazzle a generation now convinced that all humor stems from bodily functions. Like his comrades in comedy, Ferrell has become a pied piper to a generation convinced that all humor stems from sophomoric scatological concepts.
Whatever Works. (PG-13) An eccentric, neurotic New Yorker, played by Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm), meets a young girl from the South, reluctantly allows her to move in, and then falls for her, which leads to the inevitable May/December relationship. Soon after, the young woman’s folks show up: first the super-religious, drunken, neurotic mother, then the super-religious, philandering, neurotic father. Together they stew for 90-some minutes in neuroticism before changing partners.
The trouble with the characters is their dispiriting shallowness. Each wants to escape traditional values, but it’s not clear by film’s end what they’ve gained by switching lifestyles and partners. As for his “Christian” characters, director Woody Allen has them conceptualized like American characters in a BBC sitcom – they just don’t feel like real people. As a Christian sitting there, I couldn’t relate to any of their theological pronouncements because they weren’t coming from conviction. The actors played their roles tongue in cheek, giving off the distinct impression that they enjoyed ridiculing people of faith. Of course, they would say, we’re just ridiculing the phonies. Yeah, try doing that with any other group.
The Ugly Truth. (R) Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler star. She is a TV morning-show producer; he is a hit with a cynical segment that mocks the institute of marriage. They strike a deal in order to help her get a boyfriend and he get more cooperation from her at work. He makes her into a more charming, less controlling woman. But what’s this? Will he and she fall for each other during the process?
This battle of the sexes has a few humorous moments, but mostly it’s just raunchy and familiar. Countless movies of recent cinema past depict men in the same unflattering and misogynistic light. The titles are hard to bring to mind as these films are instantly forgettable, but they usually star Matthew McConaughey, Jason Segel, or Seth Rogen. And while Ms. Heigl belittled Knocked Up (a film in which she costarred and gladly took the money), as being sexist, she repeats herself with countless films that seem to exalt bad behavior.
While sensibilities change and today’s moviegoers resist the history of film, a viewing of the Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn romantic comedy Woman of the Year or the Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell screwball comedy His Girl Friday would remind both filmmakers and filmgoers of the not-so-ugly truth – comedies can be made without crudity and there was a time when wit and timing, not shock value, were the bases of movie humor. I know, I’m being an old fogy bringing up films made in the 1940s during this era when six weeks ago is unhip. But what are my recent choices to use as alternatives? 27 Dresses?
Year One. (R) In this comedy meant to lampoon Old Testament figures, a couple of lazy hunter/gatherers (Jack Black and Michael Cera) set off on a crudity-laced journey through the ancient world. They meet Abraham as he is about to sacrifice Isaac, then, that same day, encounter a quarreling Cain and Able. The next day, the two wanderers discover their ladies fair have been sold as slaves. Our inept heroes want to rescue the cave-girl cuties before they are sacrificed to the gods. In the process, they set the world straight about not worshiping unseen entities. The moral: trust in ourselves, not a deity. Interesting how that seems to be an agenda of a great many in the media – to dissuade us from believing in God. Wonder why that is?
When a reporter asked Year One's director, Harold Ramis, if he thought some of the religious humor might offend, Ramis answered, “I hope so!”
Avatar. (PG-13) Writer/director James Cameron, the self-proclaimed King-of-the-world after his success with Titanic, has bloated his CGI tribute to himself with faintly camouflaged dictums concerning war, the military and the abuse of the environment. While the film’s effects are impressive, the content isn’t. Along with the profanity and excessive video-game-like violence, the film is anti-war, anti-military and anti-human. That’s too anti for me.
Let’s end this with a positive… My favorite film of the year?
UP. It makes you feel emotions, it doesn’t just numb you like most action adventures. The old man, his wife and the little boy have endured life tragedies and still found hope and happiness during life’s journey. Usually impossible situations and illogical premises drive me nuts. But this gem of a parable is filled with symbolism and uses implausible circumstance (like a house propelled by thousands of balloons) to stretch the imagination of both young and old. Disney and Pixar put story first. Then they match that with interesting characters and just-right voice characterizations. And just before completion, they ask themselves, how can we make it even better? Then they do.
Why didn’t Up In The Air or Precious or Nine make my list of good ones? Content. Though paid little attention by most movie reporters, the content (the reason for the rating) has become as formidable as the artistic and technical merits of a film. It can be argued that sometimes the profundity of a film outweighs the profanity. Mostly, it’s hard to make that argument.