Movie Reviews by Michael Smith

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Name:Mike Smith
Location:Kent, on the Green, Washington, United States

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Peter O’Toole has had many magnum opuses (opi?). And many a magnum. In Venus, as Maurice, he is simply out of this world. Always one of my favorite actors, he absolutely beams here. Vanessa Redgrave, as Valerie? Ditto for her. In this film, both of these stars shine as they have never shone before. Despite their advancing age and longevity on film and stage, they have lost none of their edge-of-your-seat ability to communicate.
Venus is the story of a young girl and a very old man—actually, two very old men.
Venus is also supposed to be a story of redemption and self-discovery. For Jessie, meeting these old men will be her undoing. Naturally, undoing Jessie is just what the doctor, and civilized society, ordered. She is a stinker, a real handful of resentment and hatred. Of course there is a reason for this; no one has really ever loved her or treated her right without taking advantage of her—until Maurice. His problem, of course, is that he too has ulterior motives for treating Jessie right. He loves her. He imagines she could be his girlfriend, doddering old fool that he is.
Jessie comes to live with her great uncle Ian, who is curmudgeonly, lovable. He thinks that Jessie is coming to help him with his medications and housework. Yes, that happens; but to his great disappointment Jessie can neither cook, clean, nor care. She is too self-absorbed. But so is Ian. Maurice, by contrast, is jocular and semi-famous, and tries to treat Jessie like a lady. So he gets the nod as her main companion. He is enraptured by her and begins to dream that he is still a ladies’ man. Jessie dreams a different dream.
Yes, Venus manages to be about redemption and self-discovery. It is all that, and the message is clear enough. What makes the message a bit foggy, though, is that Jessie’s redemption takes a weird turn.
Early on, Maurice gets Jessie hired as a nude model in his art class. (By the way—this is truly an hilarious scene). She won’t pose for anyone she knows, so Maurice excuses himself from the class. Her modesty is not genuine, but it is modest nonetheless. She feels a little betrayed and pimped; but she gets over it and shyly poses. She is curious why Maurice calls her Venus.
He takes her to a museum and shows her the famous nudes of Venus from the classical period. There, she starts to get it. She finally loses her modesty and proudly poses nude—later, of course, after she has found redemption. I told you it was foggy.
The film makes use of a bit of fast-motion photography that seems a bit of a distraction—not that it is irrelevant; it is just jarring. For the most part, the pace of the film is relaxed and comforting. Yet this short high-speed transition, employed while marking a change in the story and a transformation in Venus/Jessie, is a bit abrupt.
That being said, one of the truly artistic aspects of this movie is its keyhole-style cinematography. Lots of closeups of objects alongside actors’ faces. Lots of shots behind banisters and from unusual locations. Closeups of a coat sleeve, shots in which someone appears to be walking in front of the camera; stuff like that. Despite the old-age pacing of the movie, this photographic style lends a strange counterpoint to the story. Director Roger Michell and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos use the technique to enhance the tension between Jessie and Maurice—especially as these shots are employed mostly when Jessie and Maurice are together. “The screen is our keyhole,” as Pauline Kael once commented, “and we are the voyeurs.”
The sexual tension between Maurice and Jessie doesn’t quite work, though. Jessie, true to her adolescent revolving character, is impish, serious, sensual, flirtatious, and manipulative. She tries to share part of herself with Maurice but is also repulsed by him and ends up frustrating him. I admit that I did not understand any of this. Jessie bribes or rewards Maurice in ways that come across as suggestive and erotic, but out of reach. In short, mean. She at once titillates and denies him. But perhaps that’s an intentional metaphor for this film.
Venus is an arthouse film, filled with dark humor that may or may not play well in Peoria. Despite great characters and one of the best displays of acting by seasoned actors since On Golden Pond, the story is too dark and obscure. It is heavy and irresolute—another case of art being too sophisticated for its own good.
Venus is rated R “for language, some sexual content and brief nudity.” Yup, it should be. There is one overly raunchy scene with attending sound effects. There is nudity. Not a lot, but enough to predictably earn Jodi Whitaker high critical marks for courage and a “break-through” performance as Jessie. Like so many other young actresses have proven before her: she will be remembered for being naked, not for acting. Removing clothes is a sure ticket to further roles. Maybe then we’ll see if she can really act.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Mike attended a press screening of Venus.

Friday, October 20, 2006


Flicka tells the story of the independent spirit. Of course, what better prop could there be to illustrate the free and independent spirit than a wild horse?

I have always liked horse movies, but the idea is becoming a little overused. I am beginning to walk away with the nagging thought that what it takes to train a wild horse is a sort of paradox, as getting your horse to become compliant requires the rebellious and undomesticated part of us. Is there a lesson here, or a flaw in the storyline? In any event, in horse movies this phenomena is almost as ubiquitous as villains taking the time to tell everyone their motives while they are about to have the last chance to destroy the heroes.

But predictability is a comfort to many. Horses are a comfort as well. Horses are survivors, horses pull us through. Horses have been considered heroic from early Greek mythology to the present day. As I noted in my review of Dreamer, horses have a spiritual side to them, at least in horse movies—a horse sense if you will. They are piercingly insightful and seem to be protective of the misunderstood and maligned. Flicka draws the domesticated animals to the wilds, and the wild-of-heart humans into trying to tame them. Weird. Predictable, but weird.

In Flicka though, everyone has a horse sense, the sense that their world is changing. The entire cast knows Katy better than her own father, Rob, who, being the only country/western singer in the cast, has no horse sense—at least not about his daughter. Rob wants to sell the ranch to a developer. (He does have some horse sense about the future of horse ranching, though). Flicka is the catalyst that breaks the family’s secret fears open, secrets that are evident but not discussed. The McCloughlin family has some decisions to make. Modern times may have changed the future of the modern rancher, but not the stubbornness. Of the four in the family—Katy and Rob, plus mother Nell and brother Howard—Katy is the only one who wants to carry on with the ranch. Obviously, she has idealistic reasons. She doesn’t think about the future of the endeavor, only the past. Rob and Nell are realistic about the future, as is Howard. But the conflict that develops due to Katy’s hot-headed idealism and Rob’s stubbornness is the stuff of great family movies.

This is indeed a family film. Director Michael Mayer has achieved an accurate portrayal of a solid nuclear family. In using this representative family, writers Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Conner have adequately shown us that even in the best of them there is conflict, that conflict is not unresolvable, and that, despite how much you try to hold onto your kids, most of what causes the conflict is simply a misunderstanding of purpose. We are all designed to do something in this world, but we often self-centeredly look to ourselves as the mold. Interesting point of view coming from a lump of clay, don’t you think?

This idea is resolved and illustrated most powerfully, and in a surprising way. Howard has his own conflict, too, but is a bit too compliant to share it. But at the close of the film he finally gets to fulfill his dream. He packs his gear in the truck and turns for one long satisfying look at his past, while leaning against his future. Pretty good stuff.

Flicka is predictable, sympathetic, and enjoyable. But it is fairly passionless. Most of the emotion is added into the film by an impressive soundtrack, and the Wyoming countryside. The only exception for me was when Katy writes a passionate essay about taming the West, and the wild ponies that dotted the prairies in olden times. Except for this one bit of tingly inspiration, the story is an emotional flat-liner. No highs and lows, just sort of a subdued quality.

Maria Bello has had some great roles in the past, and actually shines in this movie as Nell; but she cannot carry all the weight by herself. This movie is certainly good family entertainment, but not great movie-making. I think Director Michael Mayer pulled some punches.

Despite my negative impressions, I still recommend Flicka to families of all types. The story is good. The even keel of emotion makes this film accessible to all age groups. It is rated PG, and that is probably about right. Life is never completely G-rated. There is no subtle or hidden “deeper meaning” of the type that even some animated features bury in their scripts, so I wouldn’t hesitate to send elementary-aged school children to see Flicka—if for nothing else than the cinematography that showcases Wyoming’s vast beauty. And, it never hurts to observe a healthy family once in a while.

As I left the theater I thought, Huh. I just watched a movie and I feel relaxed. Perhaps Flicka was just what I needed after all.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Nearing Grace

Nearing Grace tells the story of what happens to the Nearing family after Mom’s death. Total anarchy and abject dysfunction are not always the effect—but boy does it hurt to lose your mom. The film is dripping with emotion throughout, from the screenplay (with its thoughtful and adult lines) to the exceedingly effective and innovative photo-storytelling technique employed by director Rick Rosenthal.

The story is about suffering in many forms. We fall into the emotional abyss with the boys (Henry and Blair) and father Shep. David Morse as Shep is masterful and overwhelmingly believable. Blair (David Moscow) is over the top but exemplifies the effects of loss. But to get the total effect of this movie, don’t watch the individual characters, good as they are; watch for the depth of emotion as it accumulates through the entire cast.

Artistically speaking, Nearing Grace is delightful. The period-appropriate cinematography reminded me of the old 70s style of filmmaking—indescribable as that is for me. Yet there were flashbacks of home movies throughout the film, and I sensed a conscious effort being made to match the style of these home movies, at least in composition. The camera, for instance, is not always stock-still, and the angles are often slightly askew. The effect certainly “took me back” to my own era.

In one powerful scene, Henry Nearing decides to move into the basement and stay until he finds the meaning of life. He camps on the couch. Behind him are the cast-offs of his past. Heating and ventilation tubes standing against the wall form a formidable picture. The mood created is riveting, with the added effect of time-lapse photography. Both Henry and the room go from looking sullen, to vulnerable, and finally to a figurative composite of Pandora (the world’s ills) and Shiva (the destroyer and restorer). Awesome! Not home movie stuff, but brilliant cinematography and visual storytelling.

When Henry first arrived in the basement, I was shocked by the heating vent tubes which had been haphazardly stored, leaning up against the wall, behind the couch. I thought to myself, “Who saves that crap? Why behind the couch?” I figured it out. Cynthia Morrill (costume designer) and David Geddes (director of photography) needed to create a surreal costume out of the entire room without seeming totally contrived. Awesomer!

Nearing Grace is a lot like high school was for me. It may seem counterintuitive—I am the guy and supposedly can not commit—but I wanted a lasting relationship. I actually was looking for the girl I could spend my life with. You can psychoanalyze me all you want. I loved my mom and we were close. My dad was a great guy and had my respect. The girls I knew and occasionally dated were just like Jordana Brewster’s character, Grace—pretty, looking for fun without commitment. As beautiful as Jordana Brewster and my high school classmates are and were, they’re all of a type. They weren’t all sex maniacs or uncontrolled flirts, but none really wanted a commitment. I think I was in college before I caught on to the game.

I was a contemporary of the class of 1979, so many of the film’s nuances made sense and didn’t seem as funny to me as they did to the 20-somethings in the audience with me. When I was moved, the younger people around me were either squirming or snickering. It is weird to be the cliché in the audience. I wonder if this generation will be as ignorantly sentimental for the 70s as I was for the 50s after seeing American Graffiti?

Yet I don’t know if this would be considered a coming of age movie. More or less, it is a coming-to-grips story—a story of searching. And Henry finds what he needs.

The final scene was a treat for me. Much of my life I have condemned myself for not following my dreams. Other times I wasn’t sure I really had any dreams. But a peace settled into me at this moment, when Henry and his faithful childhood friend, Merna (Ashley Johnson), realize their friendship is more companionship and commitment than either knew. They leave the earth to get above it all. They depart on an adventure as dramatic and exciting as any.

The hardships of life—the challenge of finishing high school amidst the clamor of hormones, lack of sleep, and heightened awareness that everyone is not as they seem—are enough to drive anyone to the basement. It is amazing anyone makes it out alive. But they do. Most do. There is comfort in that. This film was like talking to an old friend. I felt it all, believed it all, had many of the same experiences. Nearing Grace is an emotional and artistic experience. Awesomest!

The film is rated R “for drug use, language and sexual content.” Though the nudity makes contextual sense due to the relevant sub-sub-sub-plot, I found it unnecessary. Still and all, this is an adult movie with adult themes.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Jesus Camp

Documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady follow a small group of children to Pastor Becky Fischer’s “Kids on Fire” summer camp where kids are taught a worldview quite different from the one most, and I do mean most, Americans are familiar with.

Every subculture has its own pretense. We all come into this world with a self-centered worldview. We filter everything we see through that self-aggrandizing lens. Fisher’s worldview is a Christian one. She believes that she has a lock on the plans of God. But perhaps hers is not a worldview so much as it is practicum.

The makers of Jesus Camp presume that the “evangelicals” who are their subjects are wrong about their beliefs. Sure, they are ignorant and weird. Mike Papantonio of Air America, a Christian himself, voices the dismay many may feel toward these folks. They are dangerous! A political powerhouse that intends to take over America! This point of view illustrates how one culture can completely misunderstand another.

Becky Fischer, founder of “Kids on Fire,” is a Christian woman who seems to have given her life to helping children understand their place in God’s Kingdom. She has an over-abundance of zeal and an underwhelming amount of theological training. She lives in a very self-absorbed world of exaggerated symbolism, endorsing an ultra-conservative liberation theology that has morphed into a sort of Christianized practical atheism.

Her theology is weak. Her knowledge of God and His plans are limited by her own perspectives, hyper theodicy, and self-interest. She sees something wrong with the world and concludes it must be due to the devil. “God has given us special power in the universe based on our standing in his hierarchy so we can act on his behalf,” she says. It is an excuse to be quixotic and introverted in a flashy way. No, there certainly couldn’t be anything wrong with us!

The consequence of such introspection and sequestered theology is a private lingo meaningful only to the initiated. Yes, God still loves the campers; but they are destined to speak an irrelevant language and be of little impact in God’s real plan.

Both the filmmakers and Papantonio are shocked at the things these people say. The campers consider themselves warriors, commanders of spiritual powers, and so on. This militant language scares both the irreligious and the intellectual Christian. Yet these people are likely harmless. They are merely given to what I call metaphoria—understanding the world through a heightened sense of metaphor. Listening to them reminded me of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Picard and company come across a race of people who speak only in metaphor. The crew of The Enterprise cannot decipher the conversation until they learn the history and mythology of these aliens.

Yes, Fischer and company employ warlike speech, but none of them advocate overthrowing the government. Instead, they spend a lot of time praying for government leaders. The filmmakers try to tie these prayers into some sort of pact with George W. Bush. But they might be shocked to learn how much the Church also prayed for Bill Clinton when he was President. Sincere prayer for government leaders brings about compassion and empathy, not militaristic conquest.

To the extent that Jesus Camp captures the mindset of Fischer and friends, it succeeds. But unfortunately, none of us can see beyond our own noses. Ewing and Grady view these people as enemies, not as aliens whom they do not yet understand. Even “open-mindedness” is tacitly a resitance to the most obvious truths.

And I’m no exception. I also left the film with an attitude that early missionaries often exhibited. “I know the truth, and these people are whacked out. I need to save them. Who but I can do it?” Only, I lack the zeal to do much about that conviction. Is apathy a virtue? But my attitude is the same. I think I know better and therefore can pass judgment on their culture.

But I am uncomfortable with this film’s form of proclamation. Looking down on these people is the result of an arrogant, self-centered worldview that is just as bent on conversion, just as evangelical. And the filmmaker’s second big mistake is lumping this group of fringe Pentecostals into the general population of evangelical Christians.

This film leaves the impression that the ‘campers’ are the norm, or at least a growing storm. But mark my words, these kids will do one of three things. They will either fall away from this unreality of sectarian truth, they will completely rebel, or they will become more reasonable believers.

I do recommend seeing this film, though. If you are a Christian it will make you think about your faith and your witness.

If you are not a Christian, it will probably leave you scratching your head in wonderment. Chances are, you haven’t seen any aliens like these campers before. Grant them the same courtesy you would any others.