Sunday, December 30, 2007

Movie Report: The Great Debaters

The Great Debaters is a movie that is good for you; like the books recommended by Oprah Winfrey (who is one of the producers of the movie.) Like the books Winfrey recommends, the fact that the movie is good for you does not necessarily mean that it is not also entertaining, but it probably would not be playing at the multiplex near you did it not have the star power of Winfrey and Denzel Washington, the director as well as the lead actor, associated with it.

The movie tells the more or less true story of the debate team at all-black Wiley College in Texas in the 1930s. Washington plays the role of Melvin Tolson, the English professor, who coached the debate team to a record of no losses over a period of 10 years, with very demanding coaching. James Farmer, Jr., who went on to found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and become a leader in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, was a 14-year-old member of the debate team. After beating all the other black colleges in the southwest, Wiley took on The University of Oklahoma City in 1930, in the first interracial debate in the South. An interesting article on the actual history behind the movie can be found in this article in the Marshal (Texas) News-Messenger, found here.

The movie left my Korean-born daughter-in-law, in this country for just six months, asking a lot of questions. "Did they really not allow blacks to attend certain colleges?" "Why wouldn't white colleges debate black colleges?" "Did they lynch blacks?" "Why?" It was hard for her to conceive of the racism that our country took for granted until so recently. The movie was good for giving her a more detailed picture of the great country that she loves so much.

The movie takes a little liberty with the actual facts, concluding with a climactic debate against Harvard College, that was actually against the University of Southern California. It skillfully pulls the heartstrings, and I had a lump in my throat at the end.

Not to damn with faint praise, but I did not leave the theater thinking the movie is groundbreaking, or should be in line for any big awards. It was good for me, which is more than I can say for a lot of movies. For that, I award it four stars.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

It's A Merry Christmas

Everyone is here; gathered around the fire, reading their new books. Son Number One, with The Bride. Son Number Two with The Girlfriend. As I told them when we were feasting tonight on ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad, and chocolate cake: "If I had realized how much it means to parents to have everyone home, I would have made more effort to visit more often." Not that I'm trying to lay any guilt on anyone. My kids have done nothing to feel guilty about, compared to my own sins. (Of omission, not commission, in case anyone is parsing.)

The New York Times had an article in yesterday's paper about how great it is to travel on holidays, like Christmas Day because no one else is traveling and the crews are particularly nice. Don't believe it. SNT and TG were flying from New York to Indianapolis via Chicago on United Airlines. First, the flight from New York was delayed an hour and a half. That was going to make them miss their connecting flight. No big deal, we would just go to Chicago and pick them up, although that's about an hour further than Indianapolis. Then the flight was cancelled. But eventually they were put on another flight and they got here, so I'm not complaining.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Movie Report: Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War has all the ingredients of a good movie. Big stars in Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Big director in Mike Nichols. Big writer in Aaron Sorokin (creator of The West Wing on television. The story is pretty much true. There really is a big-haired socialite in Houston by the name of Joanne King Herring (she even has a website here and she looks a lot like Julia Roberts) who was romantically involved with a playboy Texas congressman named Charlie Wilson, who resembles Tom Hanks. Herring and Wilson really did work with the CIA to covertly supply the mujahadeen of Afghanistan with arms to fight the Russians, back in the 80s.

Any Hollywood executive looking at the ingredients for this movie would reasonably conclude this is a sure fire winner. It may be a sure fire winner; I won't attempt to predict what the public and the Motion Picture Academy will think of it. I was disappointed, however. There were long stretches in which I was looking at my watch, wondering when it was going to be over, this despite the fact that the movie is relatively short, only 90 some minutes long. It felt formulaic; insert sex scene here; violent scene here; p.c. political pontification here; show Julia Roberts in a bikini, that will attract viewers. Putting the right colors on a paint-by-numbers scene does not turn it into a great piece of art.

What the Hollywood suits forgot is what any good cook knows: the right ingredients by themselves don't make a great meal; it all depends on how they're put together.

Having said that, I did like Phillip Seymour Hoffman's performance as a rogue CIA agent. I would not have predicted that he would steal the picture from stars like Hanks and Roberts, but he did, despite his unglamorous appearance.

The movie reminded me a lot of Robert Redford's recent bad political movie about Afghanistan, Lions for Lambs. It, too, had an impeccable pedigree, with Redford, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep involved in it. It, too, bombed because of an over supply of earnestness and an absence of entertainment. The sad thing is that Charlie Wilson's War could have been better; it just wasn't.

I left the theater prepared to give it two stars, the same rating I gave to Lions for Lambs, but after thinking some more about Hoffman's performance I finally upgraded it to three stars, which is average. But this should have been a five star movie.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Movie Report: What Would Jesus Buy?

I left the theater last night after having seen What Would Jesus Buy, not sure whether I had just watched a documentary or a fake documentary. It was that over the top.

It turns out it was a real documentary. There really is a man in New York City, Billy Talen, a cross between Elvis Presley and Jimmy Swaggert, who goes by the name "Reverend Billy," and has a church called "The Church of Stop Shopping." The Church has a website, and (what more proof do you need that it's really a church,) you can even donate money to it.

Fundamentalist Christians might have a little problem with the theology of The Church of Stop Shopping. In a New York Times article in 2000, (might require registration) Rev. Billy is quoted as saying, "We believe in the God that people who do not believe in God believe in. Hallelujah!" Hardly a sermon that will get many amens at your local Southern Baptist or Assemblies of God congregation.

Rev. Billy engages in street theater. The movie documents a road trip he and choir members from his church took to the gates of hell. The Mall of America, in Minneapolis, Wal-Mart and Disney are favorite targets of Rev. Billy's righteous wrath. He is quoted in the Times article as saying, "We are drowning in a sea of identical details. . . . Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist. . . . Times Square has been blown up by 10,000 smiling stuffed animals. . . . Don't shop, children, save your souls!"

Actually, as I understand the Bible, the message of the Church of Stop Shopping is entirely in line with the message of Jesus, who was about as anti-materialist as anyone could be. (I suppose the skeptics among us might say, "But Jesus is not a fair comparison; he didn't have to shop when he could turn five loaves and three fishes into a feast of thousands.") The real heresy is The "Gospel of Prosperity" preached in so many of the mega-churches these days.

Rev. Billy is backed up by a gospel choir who sings anti-shopping songs, and has been known to engage in a little anti-shopping glossolalia. (Try saying "I bought a Honda, but I should have bought a Hyundai" really fast several times if you want to practice your anti-shopping glossolalia.)

But despite my sympathies for Rev. Billy's message, the movie is flawed. It lacks focus or much dramatic interest, until the Church bus gets rammed on the interstate by a semi-truck. What one hears of the choir sounds good, but we are just given snippets of the singing without really letting the choir turn loose. The movie, like the church, is pretty much a one-man show, Rev. Billy, and he can wear you out pretty quickly.

The A.V. Club ranks the movie 14th in its list of the 16 worst films of 2007, a rating harsher than I would give it. (Interestingly, the A.V. Club lists Lions For Lambs as No. 7 on its list of worst films for 2007, a movie which I didn't much like, but to which I still gave three stars, which is an average rating.) I gave the movie three stars, while The Wife gave it only two. I thought it deserved the extra star for daring to be different, particularly in this holiday season. We have enough sappy stuff; it's nice to see something a little more daring, even if it falls short.

The real question, of course, is not what The Wife or I thought of the movie but what Jesus thought of it. I think he would give it five stars, bearing in mind that they really didn't get to watch many movies 2,000 years ago, so they would probably rate any movie highly.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Annual Book and Movie Ratings

In the unlikely event that I have any readers left after a two-month hiatus, I will do my annual book and movie ratings. The books are ones I have read or listened to this year, some of them for the second or third time. The movies are ones I have seen in theaters (watching flickering images on a 19-inch television with tinny speakers is not watching movies.) I have read 52 books, which is my annual goal. I have only seen 34 movies so far this year, partly because I missed the bulk of Ebertfest because duty called me East to see my son play his fiddle at Carnegie Hall.

My ratings are based on five stars, with five being the best possible rating, except an exceptional book or movie will get five plus stars, the highest rating known to humankind. I notice I didn't give any zeros this year, and only one single star, that to a lone really bad movie. I try to read books and see movies that I think I will like, so my sample should be skewed towards the higher ratings, but it was probably just the luck of the draw that I didn't get stuck with any really bad selections. Feel free to argue with me. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no matter how wrong.


Five Plus Stars

Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky

Five Stars

A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines
The Optimist's Daughter, Eudora Weldy
Empire Falls, Richard Russo
The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
Mr. Paradise, Elmore Leonard
The View From Castle Rock, Alice Munro
Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
The Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter
Little Follies, Eric Kraft
On Chesel Beach, Ian McEwen

Four Stars

Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer
Secret Smile, Nicci French
The March, E.L. Doctorow
Liar's Diary, Patry Francis
The Dead Father's Club, Matt Haig
American Theocracy, Philip Roth
Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
Changing Light, Nora Gallagher
The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Kim Edwards
The Known World, Edward P. Jones
A Spot of Bother, Bruce Haddon
Flags of Our Fathers, James Bradley and Ron Powers
American Pastoral, Philip Roth
Moral Disorder, Margaret Atwood
The Echo Maker, Richard Powers
Girls of Riyadh, Rajaa Absanea
The Tin Drum, Gunther Grass
Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
On Saturday The Rabbi Went Hungry, Harry Kimmerman
Scoring From Second, Phillip Deaver
Three Farmers On Their Way To A Dance, Richard Powers
Galatea; 2.2, Richard Powers
Possession, A.S. Byatt
Where Do You Stop?, Eric Kraft
The Maytrees, Annie Dillard
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

Three Stars

My Name Is Red, Orhan Parmuk
Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy
Welcome to the World, Baby Girl, Fannie Flagg
Buddha, Karen Armstrong
Everlasting Flower, Keith Pratt
Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott
At Canaan's Edge, Taylor Branch
Jane and the Wandering Eye, Stephanie Burron
Understanding Richard Powers, Joseph Dewey
Prisoner's Dilemna, Richard Powers
Smart Money, Dave Barry

Two Stars
Finn, Jon Clinch
M is For Malice, Sue Grafton
The Nonviolent Atonement, J. Denny Weaver
Building Peace, Holsopple, Krall & Pittman


Five Stars

Venus, Peter O'Toole
Lives of Others
Sicko, Michael Moore
No End In Sight

Four Stars

Volver, Almodovar
Notes On A Scandal, Judi Dentch
Letters From Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood
Because I Said So, Diane Keaton
The Namesake
Georgia Rules
Knocked Up
Lady Chatterly
Death and the Funeral
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Three Stars

The Painted Veil, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts
Breach, Chris Cooper
Fracture, Anthony Hopkins
The Simpsons
Darjeeling Limited
All The President's Men
Lions or Lambs
This Christmas

Two Stars

Dreamgirls, Beyounce, Eddie Murphy
Music and Lyrics, Hugh Grant
Amazing Grace
Astronaut Farmer, Billy Bob Thornton
La Vie En Rose
Mr. Woodcock, Billy Bob Thornton
Across The Universe

One Star

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