8 posts categorized "religion"


Gimme that ol' time religion, a new putter

In a perfect cinematic world, a utopia, if you will, a wise, world-weary Robert Duvall on a horse would be quite enough to ignite dramatic sparks.

Utopia, however, is imagined perfection; an unobtainable, if noble, pilgrimage to a non-existent place.

"Seven Days in Utopia," lensed in the real Texas Hill Country hamlet of Utopia (85 miles northwest of San Antonio), features a somewhat real-life world-weary Duvall on a horse.  

Unfortunately, that is not enough to provide inspirational, not to mention entertaining, cinema.

Based on David Cook's book "Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia," the big-screen version is a warm-hearted call to religion with professional golf and the sleepy Texas Hill Country as a backdrop.

It plays like an uneasy mixture of "Tin Cup," which featured Kevin Costner as an imploding golfer on tour, "The Karate Kid" and summer Bible school at the First Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, TX, which I attended in my youth.

Lucas Black, reuniting with Duvall after sharing the screen in "Sling Blade" and "Get Low," portrays troubled golfer Luke Chisholm.

There is no gospel, according to Luke.

Browbeaten by his father into becoming the next young sensation on the pro golf tour no matter what, the Waco native has a meltdown on the course, breaks his putter over his knee and drives off to somewhere, anywhere to heal his deep emotional wounds.

Quite by chance, it would seem, he winds up in Utopia, TX.  Johnny Crawford, not the actor-singer who played "The Rifleman's" son on TV in the late '50s-early '60s, but a beloved town character played by Duvall, takes the young man under his wing.  

Seeing something of himself in Luke, Johnny offers to teach the lost soul in golf spikes the proper way to play golf in a week.  He also tosses in how to get your head right and how to make the Bible a companion and life guide, although the life lessons come semi-stealthly and as an added bonus.

"Seven Days in Utopia" would work better as a G-rated golf ball swatter, Bible-thumper if an experienced director, like Duvall, for instance, took on added duties as director.  Duvall directed himself to a best actor Oscar nomination in 1997 as a Texas preacher in "The Apostle."

First-timer Matt Russell, a visual effects coordinator sliding into the directing chair, appears more concerned with how things look (and there are some gorgeous shots) than how flat and hokey scenes are playing.

Duvall is fine, although uninspired, in a role he could play in his sleep.

Co-star Black, though, acts like he is sleep-walking much of the time.  If Black has another facial expression other than the stone-faced one on display throughout here, I'd love to see it.
Some will call "Seven Days in Utopia" sentimental hokum that means well and speaks from the heart, but -- like the lightning bugs trapped in a jar in a slightly strained life lesson scene -- fails to ignite into memorable cinema.

I, unfortunately, am among those naysayers.

From this aisle seat, this is a difficult stance to take for three reasons.

(1) Duvall has deeply moved me emotionally and intellectually throughout much of my 31-year career as a film critic.  I will never forget Duvall's broken-down country-singer/songwriter Mac Sledge in "Tender Mercies" (1983).  Sledge convinced me when he said, "I don't trust happiness.  I never did, I never will."

(2)  This is a small-budget film obviously made with a lot of love for God, film making and the Texas Hill Country.

(3)  After over three decades offering my opinion on movies to anyone who would listen, read or watch, this is my final review of a debuting film.

(More on that to come soon.)


Hopkins gets exorcism 'Rite'

Possession may be nine-tenths of the law, as the old saying goes, but it's everything in "The Rite."

Anthony Hopkins slings some holy water in an exorcism thriller that ranks as horror only because it's based on real events.

It's interesting that Swedish director Mikael Håfström cast Hopkins in the role of eccentric, legendary priest Father Lucas.

Some would say -- and I would be right there with them -- that Hopkins played hop-scotch with the devil himself as cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs," his Oscar-winning role of 1991.

Hopkins' veteran exorcist character is the axle that drives the wheel in "The Rite."  He's not, however, the leading man.  That would be relative newcomer Colin O'Donoghue, the Irish actor who appeared in "The Tudors" on Showtime.

O'Donoghue portrays Michael Kovak, a U.S. seminary student with, shall we say, issues.  Never intending to become a priest, Michael ran to the church to get away from his undertaker dad (Rutger Hauer), who, if not possessed himself, definitely spiked the wacky meter.

Not-quite-Father Kovak is chosen for Vatican exorcism class in Italy despite his doubting ways.  Once there, while arguing that most "possessed" souls might just be in serious need of some psychiatrist couch time, Michael meets a fetching female journalist ("City of God" co-star Alice Braga) and the aforementioned Father Lucas.

"The Exorcist," of course, is the film by which all serious exorcism films must be judged.  "The Rite" falls short of that film's now-famous showiness.  Looking for pea-soup projectile vomiting and head-spinning?  You're in the wrong place.

Instead, "The Rite" creeps up on you and might just creep you out.  It's based within the actual framework of what the ageless fight between good and evil, God and Beelzebub is all about.

And there's this:  Hopkins can still get it done when he's got a meaty script to dive into.  And he's got one here.

"The Rite" isn't a great exercise in cinematic exorcism.  It is, however, a powerful enough piece of possession-related drama that'll have you gripping the armrest of your seat tighter than usual.


'Eat Pray Love,' rinse, repeat

It would be lovely if all beloved books unfolded on a movie screen as the electronic equivalent of a page-turner, a book we just can't seem to put down.

"Eat Pray Love," the Elizabeth Gilbert personal enlightenment journey morphed into a Julia Roberts starring vehicle, is a movie, though.  And I can certainly put it down.  In fact, I feel it's my duty to do so.

Roberts, a three-time Academy Award nominee and winner for "Erin Brockovich" in 2000, is lovely, of course.  Let's get that out of the way right at the top.  

Liz Gilbert (Roberts) goes through major soul-numbing bust-ups in this inner-peace-seeking travelogue that hops (but takes its time doing it) from New York to Rome, then to Italy and finally to a quaint beach-side condo in Bali, where Javier Bardem's Felipe sulks about his divorce by making mix tapes for his car stereo.

The point is that even when Liz tells her husband Stephen (Billy Crudup) that she wants to untie the matrimonial knot, or when the rebound relationship with an actor (James Franco) has literally driven her from his bed, Roberts' Liz looks more glamorous than most of us do when relationships are splintering onto the rocks and washing up on the shore of heartbreak.

"Eat Pray Love" has so many ways to go as a journey of self-rediscovery.  Unfortunately, it unfolds as a travelogue of rich food and drink not enjoyed so much as endured by a magazine writer in time-out whose ability to love lags way below the emotional poverty level.

I'm a little surprised that Ryan Murphy, who co-adapted Gilbert's memoir with his "Nip/Tuck" collaborator Jennifer Salt, occupies the ever-shifting director's chair.  (They actually shot in New York, Italy, India and Bali, you see.)

Murphy's best known as the co-creator, writer and director of "Glee" and "Nip/Tuck" on TV.  I know him, though, for his offbeat, no-holds-barred big-screen writing-directing debut of "Running with Scissors" in 2006.

Murphy's law appears to be capturing wit and dark comedy and bringing to the screen.  None of that's happening here, with the possible exception of the fine work turned in by always reliable character actor Richard Jenkins as "Richard from Texas."

Jenkins' Texas accent might not exactly be dead on, but his acting sure is.  "Eat Pray Love" wallows in the food and wine of Italy and the big sky majesty of Bali, but it never achieves anything as beautiful to me as Jenkins (an Oscar nominee for "The Visitor" in 2007) picking his teeth with his finger during his tearful confession on the roof of an Ashram in India.

It doesn't matter that "Eat Pray Love" is a movie about a woman and presented from that side of the gender fence.  You don't have to be female to know that despite its genuine star power and acting talent, this movie runs too long, plods along at an snail's pace and turns out to be little more than a romance novel in collision with a travel agent's brochure.


Children of the fright

An epic shrouded in black-and-white photography and mystery, "The White Ribbon" chronicles a pre-World War I German village unraveling at the seams.

As imminent unease and danger hang heavy over the small village in North Germany, the stark, stoic influence of Ingmar Bergman, the late Swedish filmmaking master, hovers as well.

"The White Ribbon," in German, Italian, Polish and Latin with subtitles, is, unofficially at least, writer-director Michael Haneke's homage to the 1960 horror-mystery "Village of the Damned."  

The children here don't have eyes that glow, as the little demons' eyes did in "Village of the Damned" (and John Carpenter's remake).  These eyes do, however, provide a window to the tormented soul, or perhaps to a vapid place where the soul should be.

This is also not the kind of film that fills in all the blanks for the audience.  The children of the village seem oddly detached as a series of calamities occur.  Someone ties a trip wire in the path of the village doctor, who's on horseback.  The doctor  is horribly injured.  Also, a farmer's wife suffers a grisly death.

And so it goes, with a backdrop of a fire-and-damnation preacher (Burghart Klaussner) who ties his son to the bed at night in a desperate attempt to fend off oncoming puberty.

The schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who fights his own ongoing battle with the increasingly unruly students, is about as close to normalcy as Haneke allows.  After all, Haneke is the filmmaker who made the shocking home invasion horror-thriller "Funny Games" twice; in his native German in 1997, then in English and set in the U.S. in 2007.

Winner of the Palme d'Or (best film) at last year's Cannes Film Festival, "The White Ribbon" is also a Best Foreign Film nominee in the upcoming Academy Awards race.

While Haneke insists that a logical explanation for every bizarre act exists within the film if audience members use their imaginations, casual movie-goers may emerge back out into the theater lobby shaking their heads.

Haneke is extremely adept at setting a mood, however.  Thanks to his eerie, effective use of black-and-white photography, the blank expressions on the children and many of the adults combine with ominous shadows to blur perception.

Unlike in "Funny Games," where most of the violence erupted in plain sight, however, the camera usually arrives at the scene of baffling crimes after the fact.

Just what those facts are depends to some extent on the eyes of the beholder. 


'Hair' grows on you, but lingers too long

Comedian Chris Rock picked the right guy to narrate and make cutting remarks throughout the documentary "Good Hair."

That would be Chris Rock.

It'll come as no surprise that "Good Hair" is a comic-documentary.  What else could it be with rapid-fire comedian Rock out front?

Frankly, I was startled, however, at just how much I learned about the culture of maintaining, straightening and enhancing African-American hair and the sacrifices some women (and girls as young as 3) go for "good hair."

Rock, accenting that lilting speech pattern he's famous for, says he was inspired to do this film by one of his young daughters.  When she was only 5, she asked him, "Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?"

"Hair is a woman's glory," near-legendary poet/autobiographer Maya Angelou tells beaming interviewer Rock, "unless, of course, it starts growing out from between her toes."

"Good Hair" features spotty rich moments like that.  Unfortunately, there's also too much filler. Even when Rock shocks us (or at least me) with the dangers and burning pain of enduring applications of sodium hydroxide "relaxers" (called "creamy crack"), he doesn't just make the point and move on.

Rock and his film-making team (director Jeff Stilson and two writers from his Emmy Award-winning HBO concert specials) have no problem securing notable celebs to speak candidly about the technique, logic, price and torture of attaining straight African-American hair.

In addition to the aforementioned Dr. Angelou, Rev. Al Sharpton waxes on about the time the late James Brown treated him to his first "relaxing" session before a visit to the White House.  Ice-T (TV's "Law & Order:  Special Victims Unit") is especially open and candid in his remarks.  

To his credit, Rock spends time with common folks; hanging out in a Harlem barber shop to get the male side of the story and joking around with a woman who's putting her $1,000 hair weave on layaway.  Everywhere he goes, however, Rock lingers too long.

That and a running time of around two hours suggests that "Good Hair" could use a trim of its own.  Rock travels to a Hindu temple in India to investigate tonsuring, a ceremony where hair is sacrificed for God but often winds up in trendy Beverly Hills hair salons.  He also untangles the fascinating modern, big business state of hair weaves.

"Good Hair," winner of a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January, cuts loose with a big finish in Atlanta.

Hair stylist "rock stars" (including Freddie J from Dallas) snip and clip for a $20,000 prize.  It's anti-climatic, though, because by the time the documentary makes it to the bombastic stretch run, you might feel -- as I did -- that you've been there long enough to need a haircut yourself.


Going out on a 'Lemon Tree' limb

What's sometimes missing when a filmmaker takes on the chaos of the divide along the West Bank that induces cold stares between Israelis and Palestinians, is the human element.

What goes on in the minds of neighbors, for instance, when geography has placed them so close together and politics and religion have forged a deep abyss between them.

"Lemon Tree," in Arabic, Hebrew and some English with subtitles, is a genteel drama that nevertheless explores deep churning emotions.  Make no mistake, this touching drama addresses the human element sublimely.

Directed by well-established Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis ("The Syrian Bride," "Temptation"), "Lemon Tree" seems like a simple tale at first.  But it's rooted in a history of conflict that, as one character says, has remained unresolved for thousands of years.

Palestinian Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass), who's been widowed for 10 years, scratches out a living tending the lemon grove her late father planted 50 years earlier.   Salma's property is on the green line border between Israel and the West Bank.  When Israel's new minister of defense and his wife move in just across the fence, Salma tries with all her might to make lemonade out of lemons.

On the surface, this is a one-dimension saga of a determined woman to save her land.  The Israeli Secret Service thinks a sniper could take cover in Salma's trees.  So they commandeer the land and schedule the grove for destruction.

Salma takes her case all the way to Israel's Supreme Court with the help of Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman), a Palestinian lawyer who's robust in the courtroom but as lonely and needy as Salma in private.

"We are both lone wolves," she tells him at one point.

Abbass, who appeared in "The Nativity Story" as well as Riklis' "The Syrian Bride," exudes personal strength, even when she can be seen from a window breaking into sobs at her kitchen sink.  She fights on, though, not unlike Sally Field battling to save her cotton farm in Robert Benton's powerful human drama "Places in the Heart" (1984).

Tel Aviv actress Rona Lipaz-Michael also excels as Mira Navon, the defense minister's wife who forms a silent bond with her long suffering neighbor.

The beauty of "Lemon Tree," written by Riklis and Suha Arraf (who co-wrote "The Syrian Bride" with Riklis), is in how it examines inner-strength even though almost all the key characters are desperately trying to hang onto normalcy.


Sobering 'Stoning' cold facts

Without a doubt one of the most soul-rattling experiences I've ever sat through in a movie theater, "The Stoning of Soraya M." still haunts me several days later.

Journalist Freidoune Sahebjam based his 1994 best seller on an eyewitness account of an absolutely innocent Iranian wife and mother being stoned to death in 1986 because her lying husband wanted to marry a 14-year-old girl.

The movie, directed by Iranian-American Cyrus Nowrasteh and co-written by his wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, is more than the passion play it aspires to be. 
"The Stoning of Soraya M.," in Farsi and English with some subtitles, is a cry for freedom for oppressed women all over the world.

As a passion play, however, this hauntingly compelling saga of ruthless ruling men, mob rule and how both impact an innocent women buried up to her waist and stoned to death rages with a savagery equaled on a movie screen only by Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" (2004).

Ironically, James Caviezel appears in both.  Having suffered on the cross as Jesus in "Passion of the Christ," Caviezel plays journalist Freidoune Sahebjam (the book author) in this one.

Car trouble brings Sahebjam to a cafe in a tiny Iranian village.  He's quickly descended upon by a frantic Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a middle-aged villager.  Obviously uptight, the male town leaders call the woman a "crazy idiot."

Much of "The Stoning of Soraya M." unfolds in flashback.  When Zahra finally gets the journalist's ear, she unveils the horrors of the previous day's events. 
The journalist records the woman's passionate outpouring of outrage right down to the extremely untimely arrival of playful traveling carnival performers in the middle of the village's brutal administering of "moral fury." It's justified, according to unsavory village leaders.  They hide behind a fundamentalist religious system in post-revolutionary Iran.

Iranian actress Aghdashloo ("The Nativity Story"), who drew an Oscar nomination along with Ben Kingsley in "House of Sand and Fog" in 2003, excels as Zahra, a woman who, on this day at least, blows smoke in the face of tradition and danger.

Mozhan Marnò, a Los Angeles-based actress who appeared in "Traitor" with Don Cheadle, mesmerizes as Soraya.  Most of the time, she downplays a fate that begins with husband-inflicted bruises on her chest and ends with a fate no human should endure (but many do, even to this day).

Other movies of mob savagery come to mind, of course.  Demi Moore starred as a married woman who couldn't resist her attraction to a 17th century reverend in "The Scarlett Letter" (1995). 

The screenwriters here thought of "The Ox-Bow Incident," the 1943 lynch mob Western starring Henry Fonda.

The difference, of course, is that the horrid events of "The Stoning of Soraya M." are real and vividly depicted on screen.


Cardinal sins, take 2

You might not expect the follow-up to "The Da Vinci Code" to feature more red herrings than a Vatican City fish market.

It does, though, and that's just one element that makes "Angels & Demons" spill across the screen as a religious-themed dramatic thriller hellbent on packing  a rich entertainment quotient.

Tom Hanks returns as Harvard professor Robert Langdon, the symbologist who cracked "The Da Vinci Code" in 2006.  The follow-up adventure, once again based on a Dan Brown bestseller, takes Langdon not to Paris, his starting point last time, but to Rome and Vatican City itself. 
The Catholic Church refused to allow director Ron Howard (also back from the original) from actually shooting in the pope's hometown.  No worries, the magic of Hollywood (and other Italian locations) work out quite well.

Another stealth religious sect is threatening everything that's holy once again.  A secret brotherhood of ancient scientists known as the Illuminati has snatched a batch of highly volatile anti-matter from a lab in Sweden.  They want to make the church suffer in the worst possible way, even if it means committing deadly cardinal sins once an hour at various sacred locations.  The perp's plan is to build up to a grand grisly finale.

That explosive finale, as you might have guessed, involves the stolen anti-matter.  When Langdon arrives in Vatican City he's given access to the church archives he's been trying to get into for years.  He's also given the help of Vittoria Vetra (portrayed by Ayelet Zurer), the lovely scientist who knows what matters most about anti-matter.

This script, co-written by mainstream wonder David Koepp ("Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull") and "Da Vinci Code" scribe Akiva Goldsman, turns out to be a dandy mix of symbolic coding and dramatic-thriller adventure.  I'm guessing these two very different screenwriters didn't always see eye-to-eye adapting Brown's novel.  The end result, however, pays off for the audience.

Howard, an Oscar winner ("A Beautiful Mind") nominated again earlier this year for "Frost/Nixon," continues to get better as a film crafter.  He's handicapped a little by a screenplay that hangs around too long at over two hours.  Still, he keeps things moving, and the red herrings (deceiving clues) tossed out in the final reel help to keep things interesting.

Of course it doesn't hurt that Howard has Hanks, one of the finest actors of his generation, tooling around at breakneck speed as smart-guy Langdon.  Hanks didn't win back-to-back best actor Academy Awards in 1994-95 ("Philadelphia," "Forrest Gump") for nothing. 
Heck, the guy even made me believe he was stuck -- or should I say "lost" --on a deserted island for four years with only a volleyball for company.  For the record, this is the first time Hanks has ever reprised a character.

And he has a much better haircut in the sequel, which strangely also helps.

Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi in the most recent "Star Wars" trilogy) has a meaty supporting role as the pope's camerlengo, or secretary, and Stellan Skarsgard ("Mamma Mia!") turns in his usual solid performance as commander of the Swiss Guard.

There's no time in this plot's frantic pace for romance, although Hanks and Zurer, the Israeli actress who played Eric Bana's wife in "Munich," work well enough together.

The sequel fights its own demons at times.  It lingers just a little too long on screen and it has all the symbol exposition to get through. 

Compared to the original, though ... Hey, does anybody know the symbol for robust entertainment?