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Archive for January, 2011


Review: Saved!

(Originally published in Gapers Block on June 11, 2004, I decided to add this to the Deleted Scenes archives because of Moore’s recent film, Tangled. The film is now available on video and On Demand through Amazon, as well as on video through Netflix.)

Directed by Brian Dannelly.
Starring Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Heather Matarazzo, Eva Amurri, Martin Donovan and Mary-Louise Parker.

The unholy suckiness that Christian rock generally traffics in is entirely too easy to make fun of, so it’s refreshing that Saved! takes the high road and allows its soundtrack to be kind of good. Besides some seemingly authentic (but most likely not) Christian rock, it features a few secular songs with the G- or J-words in them, such as Santana’s “Jesus Is Just Alright” and, believe it or not, the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” covered by Mandy Moore and Michael Stipe, who also served as producer. Similarly, the amount of sincerity and respect with which co-writer and director Brian Dannelly treats not only the film’s soundtrack, but also its genre, its characters and its intended audience is also refreshing — so much so that the fact that Saved! is a damned funny movie seems almost like a bonus.

In Saved!, an American Eagle Christian High School student named Mary (Jena Malone) who gets impregnated by her gay boyfriend (Chad Faust) and then proceeds to hide it from her friends and family over the course of the school year. The story occasionally wanders away from Mary and her pregnancy to concentrate on her mother’s flirtation with married-but-separated Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan) and wheelchair-bound Roland’s (Macaulay Culkin) blossoming relationship with the school’s Jewish hellion (Eva Amurri), as well as throw-away bits like Mary and her mother Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker) seeing a TV promo for a cancer movie starring Valerie Bertinelli (as herself) on Lifetime. (Mary-Louise Parker’s “Oh, that looks good” is hilariously sincere.) Somewhere in there, the filmmakers manage to squeeze in Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous), who provides a likeable enough romantic interest as a straight boy (Pastor Skip’s son, naturally) who Mary becomes interested in through the course of the school year, despite the obvious weirdness. The various threads all come together on prom night, of course, because this is still a high school movie after all; that’s how it’s supposed to happen.

Saved! never seriously questions faith itself any more than your typical episode of 7th Heaven, and it’s simply misguided to expect it to — you don’t walk into a Christian bookstore and look for Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. Decidedly more on the level of, say, Mean Girls (minus the PG-13 T&A) than Election as high school satires go, Saved! is a surprisingly intelligent and even occasionally subtle movie that is, in every respect except for its Christian school setting, a by-the-numbers teen comedy: relatively flat characters, derivative plot and all. But I don’t mean that in a bad way; in this case, the flatness of the characters and predictable plot, help in some ways to underscore the film’s general message, which is clearly targeted much more towards believers than non-believers. Saved! is a terrific example of how the use of stereotypical characters and stock plots can be effectively handled (at least when the stereotypes used are at least somewhat rooted in reality, and from my own experiences being a part of a Christian youth group in my early teens, Saved!’s “Jesus freak” characters are definitely not wholly fiction; in fact, I would say the self-righteousness and condescension depicted in Saved! is a little mild compared to the beliefs of most evangelical Christians). The characters’ Christianity is occasionally played for laughs (yes, there is a “missionary position” joke in the movie) but their Christianity itself is never the butt of a joke, even though some specific few of their more misguided beliefs are fair game, most prominently their attitudes towards other religions (“heathens”) and homosexuality (“faggotry”).

The film has been chastized by some critics for making fun of its Christian characters, and by other critics for not making fun of them enough; both of these viewpoints are way off-base, because although hardcore Bible thumpers won’t agree with me, Saved! is, at its heart, a Christian film. What Saved! isn’t, though, is a fundamentalist Christian film. It recognizes, as Brian Dannelly stated in a recent interview with the Seattle Post Intelligencer, that “evangelical conservatives [have] hijacked the term ‘Christian,’” and that there are some fundamental flaws in their ideas of Christ and of Christianity (not to mention the world around them). But despite the movie-butter-induced visions that other reviewers have had that lead them to believe otherwise, Saved! absolutely does not pass judgment on its characters nor does it hold them up for ridicule the way some close-minded believers have said (and some close-minded non-believers would prefer). It only recognizes that they have a little room for improvement. Every character, even the movie’s closest thing to a villain, Hilary Faye, is implicitly forgiven and redeemed at the end, because that’s what Christianity is all about, not cynicism or hate — at its roots, true Christianity, on a personal level, is just about becoming a better person.

Saved! is playing at Pipers Alley, River East 21 and the Century 12/CineArts 6 in Evanston. Incidentally, Michael O’Sullivan’s review of Saved! for the Washington Post is quite possibly the most ridiculous review I’ve read of this film.

Review: The Green Hornet

Directed by Michel Gondry.
Written by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen.
Starring Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz, and Cameron Diaz.

I’ve been defending The Green Hornet‘s potential for a long time. Hell, I was even quoted in a press release for some Hornet toys about how excited I was to see the movie — largely (okay, entirely) because of my faith in Michel Gondry. And now I’ve seen it.

On the up side, my faith in Gondry is left intact, and I don’t feel I need to eat my words: Hornet is, indeed, a fun, funny movie with a fair amount of the Michel Gondry visual insanity. Jay Chou (as Kato) handles himself well enough in the action scenes that I never missed Stephen Chow, and Gondry shoots the fights (and car chases) beautifully: fluidly, coherently, and stylishly.

The down side is that when Kato’s not gloriously whooping ass, the rest of the film is a thoroughly generic action comedy (albeit a funnier one than most). And there’s just not enough of that Gondry insanity. Most of my favorite shots are still those already seen in the trailers. There’s more cool shit to be seen in the movie, especially in one fantastic sequence late in the film, but I made the mistake of hoping for even more.

The plot of the film is a totally generic hero-versus-drug-crime-lord tale — the kind you’ve seen before a few too many times, and with not enough variations on that theme to be of much interest. The jokes worked into the story are very funny (if you like Rogen’s relatively gentle, self-deprecating style of humor, as I do), but perhaps not enough to redeem the movie on that basis alone. Such a lack of substance would be fine, though, if the style of the film is over the top — but we only got a few glimpses of that here.

Aw yeah, Kato's gonna whoop some ass.

Perhaps we’ll get there next time Gondry gets behind the camera for an action movie — and I certainly hope he does more, ideally with a script he can really sink his crazy teeth into. Hornet tasted like an appetizer. I’m usually good about not letting expectations (or hopes) get the better of me when seeing a movie, but that may have happened in this case: if I gave half stars, I’d say Hornet was a solid 3 1/2 star movie. I felt the same way about Megamind, but rounded up there because it had more up its spandex sleeves than I had expected. Here, Hornet had a bit less.

Since much of the negative hype surrounding this film has been about the 3D conversion, it bears mentioning that the conversion here is surprisingly decent — but it’s also flawed enough to recommend against seeing it in 3D. While the conversion isn’t embarrassingly bad, they had so much time to perfect the conversion (nearly a year!) that if this is the best conversions can get, I’d say it’s time to just stop trying to change live-action movies to 3D. Especially when complex objects overlap other complex objects — such as a tree slowly moving against grass in the background, the conversion produces a noisy, digital halo where the computers have to make up image behind the foreground object to simulate depth. This halo isn’t usually very noticeable — I was definitely looking for such artifacts — but when you do notice it, it can be a little distracting. In faster shots, though, it works much better; the flaws aren’t as easy to spot.

Even at its best, the conversion in Hornet is never as strong as any film shot in 3D — and it can’t hold a candle to the 3D found in CGI animated features like Tangled or How to Train Your Dragon. In those films, the 3D is gorgeous and truly immersive, truly adding to the experience of the films, and it’s almost certainly more effective because it’s exaggerated slightly, as the filmmakers have all the information they could possibly need in order to push objects and scenery as far out towards the viewer as they want: it’s already in the computer. With a conversion, the farther you want to push something out, the more the computer needs to make up, the more obvious that halo is — right when you need it to look its best, it’s at its worst.

The Green Hornet is rated PG-13. Skip the 3D version. See it in 2D, and keep your expectations low.

Review: Tangled

Directed by Byron Howard and Nathan Greno.
Written by Dan Fogelman.
Starring Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy, Ron Perlman, M.C. Gainey, Jeffrey Tambor, and Brad Garrett.

I know, Tangled has been out for a while, but while I thought the trailers looked amusing, I didn’t really expect to see what I think of as the first Disney classic since the three-peat of Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. That statement will chafe fans of The Lion King or Lilo & Stitch (and I absolutely adore Lilo & Stitch); it’s not to say, necessarily, that Tangled is better than all of those films, just that something about those films lacked the fantastical, fairy tale setting that I associate with “classic Disney.” (To further qualify that statement, I’ve skipped several Disney animated features after the disappointing Pocahontas.)

It’s more than just setting, though: Tangled‘s songs are — for the first time since The Little Mermaid and Beauty & the Beast — truly good, not just serviceable. Composer Alan Menken has found a fantastic new collaborator in lyricist Glenn Slater; none of Menken’s Disney efforts since the death of Howard Ashman quite recaptured that same Disney magic like Slater and Menken do in Tangled.

The leads — Mandy Moore’s Rapunzel and Zachary Levi’s Flynn Rider — are endearing and memorable, and yet very much in the classic Disney mold. Moore (who impressed me in both Saved! and Dedication) is utterly irresistible as Rapunzel, played as an infectiously excitable almost-18 year old girl who seems very much like the classic Disney princess… hopped up on Red Bull. If she comes off a bit extreme, it’s only appropriate: where Ariel and Belle were girls confined by their parents or their “small provincial town” their whole lives, Rapunzel grew up in one building for as long as she can remember.

Despite all of this rekindling of the old Disney magic, though, Tangled manages to feel fresh and modern. Perhaps most impressively, it does it earnestly, without that grating snarky attitude of the Shrek movies — that feeling of superiority over its own subject matter — that has come to mean (at least with me) “we know this isn’t really that great, but if we pretend we’re just kidding around and stick in some fart jokes and pop songs, you might fall for it.”

I groaned (while smiling) at a couple of silly jokes, but the film simply never hits a false note. The handful of brief action sequences are tremendously fun, the pacing is fast and smooth, and it tugs at the heartstrings a couple of times — perhaps not so forcefully as either Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon did earlier this year, but with no less skill. Despite its middling performance at the box office, this Rapunzel will soon secure her place in Disney’s princess pantheon — and it will be well-deserved.

See it while you still can, or keep your eye out for the DVD.

I didn't mention it in my review, but the animation is gorgeous, and the 3D is very well-used.

Tangled is rated PG for “brief, mild violence,” apparently. I wouldn’t have guessed it, myself. It’s a totally kid-friendly flick.