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  • Issue of
  • Dec 24-30, 2008
  • Vol. 29, No. 11

News & Views

Arts & Culture

  • The Scene
  • Doubt

    John Patrick Shanley’s big-screen adaptation of his award-winning play Doubt kicks things off, and while he probably should have handed directing duties over to someone with subtler touch, the movie boasts enough fiery theatrics and lip-smacking scenery-chewing to satisfy adult audiences. Set in Brooklyn in 1964, the metaphorical fisticuffs fly as tyrannical Catholic school principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) becomes convinced that jovially progressive priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has sexually abused a 12-year-old altar boy. The ensuing confrontations become a theatrical landscape where moral relativism is pitted against religious certainty, patriarchy is challenged and Vatican I goes mano a mano with Vatican II.
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  • The Scene
  • Seven Pounds

    Smith embodies an inquisitive IRS agent named Ben Thomas, but something seems wrong right away. He rattles off the numbers quite easily to the people he cheerily approaches to announce that they’re being audited, but seems more interested in discussing their medical conditions and determining whether or not they’re “good.” Even though Smith employs his trademark charm to woo the hesitant, there’s a palpable hostility to Ben’s concentrated attention, a rage waiting to be unleashed when he’s disappointed or betrayed. First-time screenwriter Grant Nieporte structures Seven Pounds like a mystery, but fails to deliver the most important requirement of the genre: a satisfying denouement. With so many quasi-spiritual profundities grafted onto this simple story, it could be argued that Nieporte’s aiming for that great transcendent moment when sloppy plotting is forgiven in a rush of divine understanding. Despite the best efforts of Smith, who wears his suffering like a hair shirt, close to his scarred body and shattered heart, that moment never comes.
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  • The Scene
  • Marley & Me

    John Grogan (Owen Wilson) and wife Jenny (Jennifer Aniston) are so bland, their challenges so commonplace, that they need the anarchy of the Labrador retriever who will not be tamed (or shamed) to shake them out of their comfort zone. But in adapting the Detroit-born Grogan’s best-selling 2005 memoir, screenwriters Scott Frank (a great interpreter of Elmore Leonard’s novels) and Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) keep this exuberant dog on a very tight leash. The newly married Grogans flee Michigan like snowbirds, steering their clunky Toyota Tercel towards warmer weather and journalism jobs (Jenny at The Palm Beach Post, John at The South Florida Sun-Sentinel). As in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Frankel’s strength is portraying new hires finding their footing, and he has fun with this ambitious young couple, who casually bring a rambunctious puppy into their frenzied lives, not realizing the impact he’ll have on them.
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  • The Scene
  • The Tale of Despereaux

    A ship rat named Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) accidentally causes the death of the Queen of Dor when he falls into her soup. The king, heartbroken, outlaws the annual Soup Festival, banishes all rodents, and causes the country to fall into despair. Enter Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), an unnaturally brave little mouse with ginormous ears who sets out to rescue Dor’s Princess Pea (Emma Watson) from the clutches of a nefarious rat king (Frank Langella). His journey dovetails with the double-dealing actions of Roscuro and a homely chambermaid (Tracey Ullman), who has been abandoned by her father. Oh, and there’s also a subplot involving the kingdom’s chief soup chef and a ghost that uses fruits and veggies to give him physical form. Sound like fun? Too bad directors Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen don’t know how to inject their film with any urgency or excitement and screenwriters Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi don’t know who the hell’s story they’re trying to tell.
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  • The Scene
  • Bedtime Stories

    In this kid-oriented picture, Skeeter Bronson (Adam Sandler) is an overlooked good guy ala The Wedding Singer (1998), albeit one who never outgrew his childish impulses, much to the chagrin of his tightly wound sister, Wendy (Courtney Cox). The principal of an elementary school scheduled for closure, Wendy heads out of state for job interviews, leaving her two kids in the care of one responsible adult — her teacher friend Jill (Keri Russell) — as well as her brother. The strictly raised, well-behaved Patrick (Jonathan Morgan Heit) and Bobbi (Laura Ann Kesling) seem alien to Skeeter, but in the Disney movie tradition of wise children educating immature, self-centered adults, they’ll make him a better man.
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  • The Scene
  • The Reader

    The story, set in 1958, concerns Michael Berg (David Kross), a 15-year-old German who falls in love and begins an affair with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) a sexy but sullen thirtysomething trolley attendant. Naïve and inexperienced, Michael rides a rollercoaster of elation and torment as Hanna repeatedly beds him then emotionally withdraws. Only when the teen begins to read to her does Hanna’s icy heart seem to melt. Then abruptly as it began, their relationship ends when Hanna suddenly moves away. Flash forward to Michael’s law school years. On a class visit to the courts, he is shocked to discover that his former lover is on trial for war crimes. Caught between love and guilt, he struggles to reconcile his feelings, the results of which we see in modern-day vignettes that feature Ralph Fiennes as the tormented adult-version of Michael. In the film’s final scene, an Auschwitz survivor (played by Lena Olin) beautifully and eloquently argues that, “Nothing came out of the camps. They weren’t therapy. If you want catharsis go to the theater.” Strange then that screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry go to such great pains to reduce this historically awful event to an act of banal evil.
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  • The Scene
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

    Born an old man, Benjamin Button’s (Brad Pitt) mother tragically dies in childhood. Horrified, his father, a wealthy button-manufacturer, abandons him on the steps of a New Orleans nursing home. Here Benjamin is discovered by a loving black employee (Taraji P. Henson) who decides to raise him among the elderly residents. With his arthritic joints and cataract-clouded eyes, the boy feels right at home. But as each year passes, Benjamin grows younger, and eventually he sets off to see the world as a 60-year-old teenager. Meandering from one encounter to the next, he experiences the elation and disappointment of first love as well as the tragedy of war. In time, however, Benjamin longs to return home to his family, and seek out the love of his life, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), a headstrong ballet dancer not ready to be romanced by someone who seems twice her age. Though various circumstances stand in their way, the two finally come together, knowing, of course, that their love’s impossible. As Daisy grows older, Benjamin grows younger. Their time as a couple is doomed to be fleeting and tragic. The entire tale unfolds as Daisy’s daughter reads Benjamin’s diary to her dying mother, with Hurricane Katrina beating against the hospital room windows. While the all elements seem to be in place, Benjamin’s an interior character, which works against actor Brad Pitt’s strengths. Harnessing some incredibly fine special effects and composing one arresting visual after another, director David Fincher provides enough provocative instances to carry us past the movie’s obvious flaws. Furthermore, the supporting cast, particularly the women, are all topnotch, filling the screen with humanity and grace. In the end, Benjamin Button is like a flawed poem; it doesn’t really add up to a successful or provocative whole. But his backward journey through life and loss has enough deeply felt moments of beauty that it sticks with you days
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