“Earth,” the first release from the Disneynature films, lives up to its publicity; this film is 85 minutes of jaw-droppingly beautiful clouds, waterfalls, icebergs, and savannahs; of graceful animals, scary animals, funny animals, and excruciatingly cute baby animals. James Earl Jones delivers a narration that is mild and accessible to children. (A typical line: after a shot of a penguin sliding on his belly, Jones says, “You might not know this, but penguins are one of the few creatures born with a built-in toboggan.”) It reopens the tradition of Disney nature documentaries, as in the “True Life Adventures” films of 1948-1960, and a better family-friendly nature film can’t be found.
[National Review: April 10, 2009]Whoever’s in charge of truth-in-labeling in Washington needs to take a look at the phenomenon called “Hannah Montana”. That’s the name of a fictitious world-famous pop star, who conceals her secret identity in order to live a normal life as fictitious high-schooler Miley Stewart; this way, she has “The Best of Both Worlds” (as Hannah-Miley’s hit song has it). What needs re-classification is the omni-capable 16-year-old, Miley Cyrus, who portrays this double character. She’s frequently described as a singer, a pop star, or a rock star; you can call her an actress, too, since she’s spent the last three years starring in the Disney Channel show named for her character, and now carries her first narrative film (a concert film released last year was a blockbuster). Pop star, actress, ordinary high school student? Certify her for a whole new title: comedienne.
[National Review; December 22, 2008] There is so much to like about this film; it’s visually beguiling, it has some original characters, it’s free of crudity and pop-culture references, and it’s not screamy or exhausting. Why, then, did I find my interest evaporating within an hour of leaving the theater? I have a hunch—but let’s deal with the basics first. Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) is a young mouse, smaller than his buddies, and sporting a pair of immense ears. “He heard more, saw more, and even smelled more,” says narrator Sigourney Weaver, than the other residents of Mouseworld (an appealing old-world town, where a mouse-sized Vermeer would feel right at home).
[National Review Online; December 5, 2008] A movie based on a musician’s life follows a simple pattern: up, followed by down, rinse, repeat. Remember “Ray” (2004) or “Walk the Line” (2005), or the very pointed parody, “Walk Hard” (2007)? The stereotype is that great artists are born with a blessing and a curse: originality and creative daring come with impulsiveness and insatiability. The same traits that produce their art are the ones that will cause them to wreck their families and fall into addiction. (Somehow this pattern doesn’t apply to Johann Sebastian Bach.) Musical biopics lurch from heights to depths with scant room for character, or even plot, development.
[Christianity Today Movies; December 2, 2008] ‘Perhaps Just Out of Our Minds’ Christian filmmaker Buzz McLaughlin tries to find a niche between secular movies and preachy ones—only to find it’s an elusive market. *** In the independent film The Sensation of Sight, Oscar nominee David Strathairn plays an introspective English teacher who feels himself complicit in a tragedy, and then begins selling encyclopedias door-to-door to the locals. But his anxieties begin to consume him as various characters and dreamlike situations increase around him, ultimately pushing him toward an unexpected awakening. It’s sort of a strange synopsis for a “Christian” movie—which it isn’t. The filmmakers behind Sight—which played 19 festivals worldwide, had a limited theatrical release earlier this summer, and is now available on DVD—are Christians, but they didn’t want to make a distinctively Christian movie.
The band called “A.D.D.” has a gig to play the high school prom, but they’re suddenly without a drummer. One applicant shows up at audition with an electronic drum simulator, and he’s grooving happily along when the pianist’s uncle objects. “But lots of bands play drum loops,” says the kid, and the uncle retorts, “Lots of elevators play Celine Dion. That doesn’t make it right.”
“Henry Poole is Here” is a film that Christian moviegoers will yearn to embrace, if only from sheer gratitude; here, at last, is a depiction of Christian faith that portrays it as something other than the domain of cranks and loonies. And it’s not just theological theory that wins the film’s blessing, but something more substantive, verging on shocking: it proposes that miracles can happen—and supplies an audacious one for our consideration. That daring premise is set in a simple story. Henry Poole, a thoroughly dejected young man, has bought an empty house in a California suburb, and it’s still mostly empty after he moves in, apart from the accumulating vodka bottles. On one side, he has a cheery neighbor, Esperanza, who keeps interfering with his goal of continual glumness. On the other, there’s a mysterious, elfin 6-year-old girl, Millie, who doesn’t speak but does tote a tape recorder, and her mom, Dawn, who bakes cookies and owns a variety of V-necked outfits.
There’s virtually nothing harmful in “Diminished Capacity,” a mild comedy about the difficulty of selling a rare baseball card when you’re a picturesque old geezer with a faulty memory. The most appreciative audience will be, in fact, not the one that is interested in geezers, but the one that is interested in baseball; more specifically, interested in baseball fans and their fanaticisms (particularly the incandescence of those devoted to the “Lovable Losers,” the Chicago Cubs).
[National Review Online, June 27, 2008] I can just tell that this is going to be one of those reviews where the hardest part is coming up with the first sentence. What’s the main thing to say about WALL-E, the latest offering from that most excellent animation studio, Pixar? That it’s surprisingly, delicately, effectively, poignant? That, for that reason, younger children may not quite get it? That the Wall-E character is genuinely charming, and his originality has not been siphoned off by ET or Short Circuit’s Johnny 5? That the film succeeds in making an ecological statement without being annoying? That, despite all those worthy elements, there’s just something missing—a plot, perhaps?
[National Review Online; May 16, 2008] Every once in awhile, a movie improves on the book on which it is based. In my bold opinion, Prince Caspian , the second Disney film drawn from C. S. Lewis’s beloved Chronicles of Narnia, is such a movie. Criticism of C. S. Lewis is rightly taboo, but facts are facts: Prince Caspian , the book, is a dud.