REVIEW: Dreamgirls

A sampling of song lyrics from “Dreamgirls”:

We are family
like a giant tree
branching out toward the sky

I’m sorry, but that’s f*cking awful. “We are family, like a giant tree?” Seriously? And keep in mind, this is an in-story song, not part of a performance, which occurs at a pivotal moment with essentially the entire main cast circling one another, somberly intoning these inane, syrupy lyrics like some kind of holy scripture. Oh, and whenever the lyrics get to an “e” sound, everyone takes turns stretching it out in that loud, show-offy throw-my-voice-all-over-the-grid-to-prove-what-amazing-range-I-have fashion.

Eggh, what a frustrating movie…

“Dreamgirls” is one of those based-0n-a-Broadway-classic movies that you’re only supposed to critique in terms of the skill of the adaptation and the visual work. The dialogue, the characters, the lyrics, the MEAT of the thing… you “can’t” criticize that, because the original stage version won a mess of Tonys back in the day, and it’s been pre-enshrined as “great.” Fooey! No, I haven’t seen “Dreamgirls” the play before seeing the movie, but I know melodramatic fluff when I see it and if the play boasts the same trite, hammy dialogue and obvious, cheeseball lyrics then it’s likely not all that good, either.

The story, just so we’re clear, is a roman a clef biopic of “The Supremes” and, by proxy, Diana Ross, Berry Gordy and the Motown musical phenomenon. “The Dreams” are a black female singing trio who get they’re big break when ambitious would-be manager/producer Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx in the Not Berry Gordy role) drafts them as backup singers to flamboyant R&B artist James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy in a sensational, show-stealing James Brown/Marvin Gaye riff) in the early 1960s. Fame soon has them touring as an act unto themselves, the cash-cow of Taylor’s Motown-esque “Rainbow Records” label.

Frustrated by the reality that “black music” can’t become mainstream until it’s appropriated and re-sung by white artists, Taylor masterminds a break into the charts by loosening the “soul” of the music and re-tooling his artists as friendly, non-threatening pop acts. A key part of his master plan is a lineup-change in “The Dreams”: moving “full-figured” soul-belting lead Effie White (Jennifer Hudson, late of the national embarassment known as “American Idol”) to backup and putting slender, fair-featured Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles as Not Diana Ross) into the lead. It works, as everyone gets rich and Deena becomes a megastar, but this and other events soon spiral into blah, blah, blah… …and everyone learns a valuable lesson about being true to yourself.

The movie is predictable, plain and simple, and as a result no amount of musical heart-pouring or directorial flourish can keep it from being a crushingly dull exercise. Even if you don’t know thing one about the history of Motown, you can pretty-much chart the entire story’s progress from the first scene where we see the girls together and Effie complains about wearing a wig because “store-bought hair AIN’T natural!” You know what her arc is, and what the arc of the movie will be, and what everyone will have to learn. Everyone is a broad archetype, a caricature in a larger-than-life Gospel According To Oprah morality play ruminating on it’s First and Second Commandments: Thou Shalt Keepeth It Real! and Thou Shalt GO, Girl!

The movie’s heart is in the right place, and it’s not that these messages aren’t worth repeating.. it’s just so blunt and shallow about it. Being true to yourself is important. Selling out is bad. Power corrupts. Some things are more important than money. Already knew all that? Well, too bad, because the film doesn’t have any depth beyond those fortune cookie nuggets right there. It’s not BAD, in the direct sense, it’s just not much of anything. I didn’t care.

The musical numbers, ironically the most difficult part of adapting a musical to the screen, are a mixed bag. Most of the songs are trite, though earnestly performed, and the ones that don’t occur in the context of a performance or recording session all come off weird and forced: It doesn’t happen enough, so when the characters “in-story” break into song it comes off jarring, silly and yanks one right out of the story. Say what you will about “Phantom of The Opera,” but this is why they sing almost every damn word they say in it, so they won’t have this problem. Jennifer Hudson’s fearsome performance of “I’m Telling You” is, as you’ve heard, a showstopping and potentially starmaking moment… but it’s just that, a moment, an isolated vignette that barely registers as part of a fractured, narratively incohesive film.

The highlights, where they are, are in the acting department. Hudson is a genuine talent and a terrific singer, though she tends to overact here in a manner that (to me) suggests poor direction than poor acting decisions on her part (memo to the filmmakers: We get it. Effie is a Proud Black Woman. WE GET IT. It is overkill to have her delivering every major “big” line swinging her head around like it’s mounted on a spring. That’s caricature, and it doesn’t work.) Foxx is basically doing a Mephistopholean upgrade on his slick huckster bit from the “Booty Call” era, but it works. Danny Glover shines in a small but important role. But for me, the turn to celebrate comes from Eddie Murphy, giving probably his finest performance in a decade or more imbuing “Thunder” Early with great sympathy, energy and power. It’s a fantastic “I’m still here and I still matter!” job from him, and my interest in the story leaves whenever he does, period.

Beyonce’… look, I’m sorry, but this is the final proof: She’s not even a good actress when she’s essentially PLAYING BEYONCE’ KNOWLES. Can we please stick a fork in this doomed attempt to turn her into a movie star, already? She’s pretty, she can sing, can we let that be enough, please?

I tried real hard to find a way to like this, and I just don’t. At best, I can’t completely despise any film that theorizes the invention of Disco as an apocalyptic event, but that’s all. That this is already being talked up as a serious Oscar contender, and even a likely winner, is depressing but not at all surprising: It’s a safe, shallow, utterly un-challenging bluehair-approved showpeice with ham-handed writing and sledgehammer-delivered moralizing.

Oh, well.



Okay, so… busy time of year for me. Really busy. Too busy to do big on-time relevant reviews, and for some at this point there wouldn’t be a point. So, here’s some quick-takes:

It can’t touch the genre-defining original, a classic sadly forgotten as the film that “loaded the bases” for “Halloween,” by this remake at least gets credit for going all-the-way with the ramped-up tastelessness and secular blasphemy promised by the title and premise. Gore, blood and scantily-clad babeage abound, sure; but the film also piles on psychopathic backstories, child-abuse, seedy love-triangle twists, incest and kills that seem to have been thought up by walking through the Holiday department of a Craft Store and asking “how can we kill someone with that? Or that? Or one of those.” Kind of like a glossier, shinier Troma offering.

What a wonderful, modest, sincere little movie. It’d be so easy to turn the true story of a man who, literally, will-powers his way from homelessness to stockbroker wealth all while keeping his young son safe and secure during the hard times into treacly, over-sentimental Oscar bait… but this film avoids the easy route and trusts it’s fate to a mezmerizingly genuine performance by Will Smith, who WILL snag an Academy nomination even without the bait. Happily, the film is entirely self-contained: There’s no messageering, no partisan snidery about class and economics one way or the other, it even entirely sidesteps all issues of race. A treat.

Some movies just happen in the wrong era. “Night at The Musuem” ought to have occured as a Disney vehicle in the early-1960s, and it ought to have been Don Knotts stuck in a magic History Museum who’s exhibits come to life at night. Instead, it’s 2006 and Ben Stiller is the one taking the pratfalls, but it’s cute anyway. Stiller knows enough to hang back, play it cool and let the FX and stuntmen do their work, and what a nice surprise to see Robin Williams opt to underplay it as Teddy Roosevelt. A fairly nifty twist is kept mostly in check, as well, thanks to a canny bit of casting.

I liked it. A nice, slow-burn drama working off beats it’s maker knows like the layout of his own bedroom. Stallone gives Rocky as proper sendoff that’s uplifting, exciting and moving without being treacly, goofy or preachy.

"Bionicle" movie looking awesome!!!

Check it out, folks! Yahoo has the new teaser-trailer for Michael Bay’s megabudget, July 4th opening movie adaptation of the popular Lego toy franchise, “Bionicle,” an action-adventure series following the heroics exploits of spindly, bug-eyed, improbably-skeletal robots. Tyrese Gibson and Shia LeBouf have the “human” lead roles.

WOW! That’s what I call an action-movie teaser! I’m pumped! Nobody but nobody uses the men and machinery United States Armed Forces as props better than Michael Bay, and check out that visual scheme: Magic-hour shooting? Sunset-colored filters?? Dramatic lens flare??? THAT, my friends, is the kind of daring, novel re-invention that makes Bay one of our most innovative, completely unpredictable directorial talents today.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: “The robots look stupid.” And to the non-fan, yeah… they do. But you’ve gotta understand, they’re supposed to look like that! Big and spindly and oddly-proportioned, with zero in the way of remotely-believable physical weight. And yes, they’re even supposed to look like their made of a billion random little peices that you could smash to bits with just a damn baseball bat; I mean, they’re made out of Lego! And didjya notice…

…wait, what?

This is supposed to be the TRANSFORMERS movie!??

Um… oh.


REVIEW: Eragon

Let’s be clear about one thing: The critical drubbing “Eragon,” a studiously average teen-targeted action movie, has taken has (likely) more to do with it’s genre than it’s own merits, or lack there of. The mainstream critical press, by-and-large, has always looked, looks now and will continue to look down it’s collective nose at the fantasy genre. The unprecedented undeniability of excellence in three successive genre-franchises, “Lord of The Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “Narnia,” have made some converts and drawn largely grudging respect from more, but make no mistake: As a composite-being, The Critical Press is still wholeheartedly in agreement with Hugo Dyson’s famously to-the-point “LOTR” critique: “Not another f*cking elf!” They’ve waited patiently for a weaker genre offering to emerge so that they can vent their simmering distaste, and now with “Eragon” the knives are out.

This isn’t to say that “Eragon,” a semi-loose adaptation of a novel primarily famous because author Christopher Paolini was only 17 when he wrote it, ought not be criticized. It should be. It’s not a great film, and in spots it’s downright lackluster. The script is dumbed-down, shallow and frequently lazy. The characters are, for the most part, thinly-sketched, and it resembles other better films FAR too closely. In other words, it has all the same problems as any other average, unspectacular film. It’s just okay. It’s not a keeper. But for me, here’s the bottom line: Between a so-so movie with a dragon and a so-so movie without a dragon, with-a-dragon will win every time. And “Eragon” has a pretty kickass dragon, a statement which summarizes both the strengths and general plot of the movie.

Eragon, for the record, is our main character: A poor boy living on a farm with his uncle who dreams of joining the rebellion against the tyranical overlord oppressing his far-flung fantasy world, soon to realize that he is heir to an ancient but recently-decimated order of supernaturally-powered heroes, in this case magic-using “Dragonriders.” And if that sounds a little familiar, it get’s better: He’ll need the aid of a wise elder teacher (Jeremy Irons) who was also a Dragonrider, who has personal history with the evil overlord (John Malkovich) the great betrayer and destroyer of the Dragonriders. You’ll also find a rebel base, a semi-butch action-heroine princess and a pre-finale side-trip to rescue said damsel from the baddie’s fortress.

So, yes, it’s a little bit like “Star Wars.” Okay, it’s exactly like “Star Wars.” Annoyingly-so, even, though the idealist in me mostly wants to give Paolini and his adapters the benefit of the doubt, and presume that this is more a case of Joseph Campbell being right once again than outright semi-plagiarism. Though it must be said that the shot of Eragon looking longingly up at that sunset makes it really difficult to do so…

The film lives and dies by it’s dragon, Saphira, an (interestingly) female beastie that probably represents the best live-action realization of it’s species since at least “Dragonslayer.” The action scenes featuring Saphira in flight are the highlight of the show, and she gets all the snappiest dialogue (with the voice of Rachel Weisz, no less) via ESP voiceover. The slightly “off” relationship between Eragon and his steed is, in fact, the most interesting thing going on, though the film is either blind-to (or unwilling to explore) how just-this-side-of-creepy it veers with what what is, in the broader strokes, an unusually close relationship between a decidedly young man and what amounts to a more worldly, willful but ultimately-submissive older woman. Or maybe it’s just me being an easy mark for any scenario where in Rachel Weisz continually demands to be ridden…

I don’t know if this story gets any better in the (promised) next-installment, but for now what we have is a so-so, not-bad genre effort. No prizes for originality, but the dragon scenes are fun and Robert Carlyle seems to be enjoying himself as a waaaaay over the top vampire-like evil wizard. Not bad, not great, moving on.


REVIEW: Apocalypto

WARNING: Since the film’s trailers have been telling you almost nothing about the movie, for a change, this review can be considered positively loaded with SPOILERS. You have been warned.

When you get right down to it, Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” is really just one more action/chase movie in which a single man makes mincemeat of an army of foes in order to (alternately) rescue and avenge the deaths of his friends and family, dressed up with subtitles and symbolism so that it may (partially) cross-dress as an experimental arthouse exercise. Imagine that Michael Bay has killed Werner Herzog, fashioned his skin into a suit and charged, shreiking, off into the wilderness and you’ll have a pretty good idea what the result feels like: A schizophrenic hobgoblin of a movie that appears to have bound forth fully-formed from the diseased recesses of a dark and troubled mind, careening back and forth between the dreamlike state of a nightmare and the more familiar realm of rigid, lockstep genre formula as Gibson further refines the “Boy Versus The World” mythology he’s been mining as an actor and director since we first met him as Mad Max all those years ago.

It’s been said for quite some time that most, if not all, testosterone wish-fulfillment actioners function as love-letters to primitivism; their heroes so often successful only after embracing their inner cro-magnon. Recall “Die Hard’s” John McClaine, streaked in blood and stripped of his shoes before he can confront the suit-clad Euro-foes. Recall John Rambo’s retreat to the Forest Primeval to gain the edge of his better-armed pursuers in “First Blood.” Recall that same John Rambo again in the sequel, rising camoflauged from the mud, shorn of clothing down to rags and a bare chest, taking down his enemies with weaponry which represents an entire epoch of pre-industrial human civilization… a bow and arrow.

“Apocalypto,” in a way, represents an absolute boiling-down of this particular aspect of the genre’s subtext; it’s hero need not return to The Forest to recharge his heroic instincts, he’s already there: Jaguar Paw (newcomer Rudy Youngblood) is a young husband and father in an unnamed hunter/gatherer tribe still living a peaceful Stone Age day-to-day existence despite their living (unknown to them) just on the outskirts of the advanced Mayan civilization during what is presumably sometime between the late 16th to 17th Century.

It’s through this fascinating choice of setting that the story is able to continue it’s overall merging of outward-otherworldliness with structural-formality: Amusingly, despite the filmmakers’ gutsy achievement in crafting the first major motion picture set entirely among pre-Columbian Native American peoples in a Native American language, the film still manages to place it’s characters in the same basic formula that Native American stories have been limited to for the last few decades: The clash of a good, Earth-centered, nature-connected tribal group (Jaguar Paw’s people) and the evils of a corrupt, ecology-despoiling “advanced” civilization… the sole (but key) difference this time being that the Big Bad City-Dwellers are the also-native Mayans instead of the usual Europeans.

The Mayans sack the Peaceful Village of the good guys, snatch up Jaguar Paw and anyone left standing (JP has managed to hide his son and very pregnant wife in a rocky crevase, promising to retrieve them) and march them off to the Capitol City as sacrifices. They are, we learn, themselves ravaged by plauge and famine which, the film argues, are larger symptoms of a civilization rotting from within. Gibson dwells on the gory pagentry of the Mayans in a showpeice central scene of heart-ripping, head-hacking temple sacrifice. He lingers on the details of a field of corpses or the gatuitous (but undeniably awesome from a veteran-gorehound stanpoint) effects of stone-age axes, spears and arrows on the human skull with an eye that resembles no other filmmaker so much as Ruggero Deodato, the infamous Italian exploitationeer who’s “Cannibal Holocaust”-era lost-in-the-jungle madness Gibson appears to have absorbed wholesale into his growing repetoire of personal psychosis. (And for those who thought that there was no possibility that even the maker of “The Passion of The Christ” could find a way slip a crucifix into a movie about the ancient Mayans, well… you’ll just have to see.)

By astonishing coincidence (a phrase that can describe more than half of the big scenes in the film, just for the record) JP escapes this fate and beats feet back to the wife and kids with a platoon of Mayan Soldiers on his heels. the film holds so rigidly to formula and often outright-cliche that, were it to crop up to this degree in almost any other context it would be nearly unforgivable: Jaguar Paw’s people are set-upon and ravaged by the Mayans in a scene that mimics almost beat-for-beat it’s analouges in “Conan the Barbarian,” Gibson’s own turn in “The Patriot,” and pretty much every other movie that has used this same opening to this same story before. There’s the Pre-Setup Benign Tool That Later Becomes A Crucial Weapon from “Straw Dogs,” the Hero Clasps Trinket Of Dead Or Endangered Loved One For Strength from “Rambo,” the One Vine Above The Quicksand from, well, from every jungle movie ever made, there’s the Leap Of Fate From The Waterfall from… take your pick, really. But here, perhaps, such adherence to the familiar is important: In a film with no recognizable stars, language or even terrain for the majority of it’s prospective audience, the formula serves as both an anchor and a portal through which said audience can enter and find footing.

Less easy to forgive is the fact that it’s 2nd act is, literally, a ludicrous succession of Deus Ex Machina escapes for Jaguar Paw, as he’s aided in his flight from the Mayans by everything from a solar eclipse to a handily-placed viper to an actual Jaguar… all of these mounting coincidences “excused” earlier by… no, I’m not making this up… a plauge-ridden little girl who appears to the Mayans hissing a symbolist prophecy of impending doom. No, really, that’s actually what happens.

Let it not be said that Gibson doesn’t have an eye for detail: I’m no historian, but the costuming and occutraments of the Mayan bad guys look authentic as hell to me, as does the functionality of their lethally-ingenious weaponry. And the film has great fun (and invites us to join in) showing off the way Jaguar Paw turns his forest surroundings into one big arms cache; lobbing beehive “grenades” at his foes and snatching up a brightly-colored frog to assist him in quickly preparing some poison darts. My personal favorite: A brilliant application of ants in the suturing of a wound. By now, in addition, he’s a well-learned stager of action scenes, giving what is essentially a prolonged foot-chase the kinetic thrills of a high-speed pursuit, and he knows how to turn a rain storm into a mini-armageddon in it’s own right. And while I’ve seen more than enough movie moments where childbirth complicates an already-raging action scene, I doubt I’ve ever seen it quite like this.

Putting aside, as best one is able, all the hangups and obsessions of it’s maker (be they the ones screamed at police officers or the ones evident in the filmmaking) “Apocalypto” is a one-of-a-kind animal, and that in and of itself qualifies it as something you should seek out. It’s as brilliantly-realized a work of mad, hell-bent genius as you’re likely to see this year; an action movie with the energy of a madman… crafted by a onetime action movie-star who just might be one himself. Whether or not continued exposure to the deeper and darker corners of the Mind of Mel will be, in the long term, a learning experience or an ordeal for The Cinema as a whole remains to be seen, but this time… THIS time… it’s yeilded something genuinely worthy of study.


The BEST poster tagline of next year!

If there WAS a competition for such a title, it would already be over. With a hat-tip to AICN ( ) here is the first teaser poster for Disney’s August 07 slated live-action reworking of “Underdog”:

“One Nation… Under Dog.” YES! Perfect, perfect, perfect. Everything you want in a tagline: It’s cute, it’s clever, it’s just dopey and eyeroll-inducing enough to permanently brand it into the brain of anyone who reads it. I’m literally smiling or outright laughing every damn time I read it. And it’s the perfect compliment to the poster itself, both of them deftly capturing the promise of canine-themed ribbing of Superhero Movie bombast. As poster art goes, this thing is gorgeous, so perfectly evocative of the “Spider-Man”/“Superman Returns” key art design schematics that it actually takes the eye a crucial extra moment to realize that it’s an adorable puppy-dog in a cape perched on that familiar-looking gargoyle instead of an angst-ridden costumed-vigilante.

I’ll confess to having been extremely fond of re-runs of the cartoon, one of those gloriously bizzare dialogue-heavy mid-1960s network cartoon quickies, as a young’in, so it’s a little “odd” at first that they’re going the route of a “real” dog turned “super,” though it does seem the only way to capture in live-action the odd concept of the show where Underdog is an anthropomorphic dog in a world of “normal” humans. And it’s undeniable that the little fella IS too cute for words, overall a fitting remedy for the fact that Superman’s dog Krypto will likely never see screentime in a live-action feature. I know it’s unwise to trust that Disney will make something good out of this, but they did just produce one of the best superhero spoofs EVER in “Sky High,” so you never know. Bottom line: A movie that actually delivered on what this poster promises would be friggin’ awesome.

BTW, I agree with AICN’s Merrick: Almost as awesome as that tagline is the prospect that, if this really is the final “hook” line for the movie, the “religious right” will pitch a fit over “mocking a reference to the Almighty.” That’s my kinda icing.

REVIEW: Blood Diamond

Let us now consider the Paradox of Edward Zwick. Zwick is a moderately-prolific filmmaker of great talent, who specializes in grandly-mounted sagas which also function as “issue” films. He is, demonstrably, so determined that the audience recieve the messages he aims to impart that he is willing to build expensive mass-appeal action/dramas around them. The paradox is as follows: Zwick’s films are too often concerned TOO much with making the message as accesible to his primarily Western/European audience; to the extent that despite often being based in fascinating stories of African-American (“Glory,”) Japanese (“The Last Samurai,”) or African (“Blood Diamond”) history, they twist and contort themselves into a gangly mess in order to spotlight a white/western hero.

“Blood Diamond,” ostensibly an action thriller set amid the world of Seirra Leone “conflict diamond” (diamonds mined and sold to the West in order to finance guerrilla terrorist groups) smuggling in the 1990s, thusly becomes Zwick’s latest well-intentioned exploration of a theme which can easily be summarized by paraphrasing Homer Simpson’s thoughts on alcohol: “White people: The cause of AND solution to all of life’s problems.”

The ever-commanding Djimon Honsou technically drives the plot as a poor African fisherman shanghaied into mining the titular diamonds by a savage gang of terrorists. When he finds stone of incredible size and worth, he hides it and runs away, aiming to use his find as leverage to reunite his war-displaced family (including a son who has been brainwashed into the guerrilla’s squad of “child soldiers.”) But the film focuses it’s “hero arc” and lead story on Leonardo DiCaprio as a South African mercenary turned diamond smuggler who offers to “help” Honsou, seeing a 50/50 split of the diamond as his ticket out of war-torn Africa. So determined is the film that DiCaprio remain at it’s narrative focus that it provides him a love interest: Jennifer Connelly as, yes, a Crusading Journalist who (say it with me now) Is Looking For THE STORY To Make America Care.

So, yes, once again we have the troublesome case of a film which is technically superb and even rousing as an above-average action peice; but is so determined to Make. People. CARE. that it undermines it’s own overall effect by embracing unnecessary familiarity and rigidly formulaic story beats. So, yes, just looking at what the film wants you to feel and the lineup of characters delivers an instant roadmap of every single thing that will happen. You know who will live, who will die, and what will transpire along the way. You’ll know the precise plans and fates of our two villians, (one white, one black) and everything else that will occur over the course of the feature.

None of that, of course, is meant to suggest that “Blood Diamond” isn’t a good film, it is. It’s just not the GREAT one it could have been if it had put the focus where it belongs (on Honsou’s character) and not been so committed to such a tired Issue Movie formula. There’s great stuff in there, the highlights being the chilling scenes of the terrorist indoctrination used to create the Child Soldiers and Honsou’s overdo chance at getting to do something at the arrival of the third act. The pace is tight, considering it’s a fairly lengthy story, and Zwick remains a criminally underrated director of action.

One of these days, Zwick WILL top “Glory” and make the Movie of His Career, and it’ll be the day he redisovers the desire to make the audience care as much about the MOVIE in equal proportion to the desire to make them care about the issue.


PS3 Commercials…

My, by I’m sick of Sony’s weirdo “Look! We watched a Naya Deren movie once!” PS3 commercials, and not just because they remind me of the similarly head-scratching 3DO ads from way back.

So I did something about it. Enjoy!

REVIEW: The Nativity Story

NOTE: Look, we all know it’s not possible, fair or honest to talk about this movie without at least a mention of “The Passion,” so I’ll get that detail out of the way first.

When “The Passion of The Christ” was breaking boxoffice records, there emerged two competing “explanations” for why a pornographically-violent Aramaic-language film was earning so much money. The first theory, trumpted by the film’s fans and supporters, was that the massive B.O. take was evidence of a long-unslaked thirst for Christian entertainment from the American moviegoing public. The alternate theory, concluded by the film’s detractors (myself included) was that the film was making most of it’s money not based on it’s actual “value” as a film but because of the “movement” behind it: That it’s “fans” were buying tickets and talking it up not because of the film itself but because “supporting” it was touted in certain powerful circles as a method of “striking back” against, well… Democrats, “Liberals,” Jews, Homosexuals and everyone else the power-brokers of the Fundies are convinced “run” the entertainment industry. (It will come as no surprise that “maybe it’s a little of BOTH” was not generally considered a viable compromise by either side.)

Implicit in either theory is that the “proving” would have to wait until the NEXT wide-release Hollywood film with a devoutly Christian religious theme: If said film is a similar juggernaut, then there just might be something to the notion of “middle America” crying out for big-budget Bible movies; if it’s not, well… then the theory that “Passion” was a phenomenon of marketing and politics, not filmmaking and spirituality, gains significantly more credence.

Fair or not, the first major Hollywood “Christian Film” post-“Passion” is Catherine Hardwicke’s “The Nativity Story,” and it has now opened in wide-release in the middle of the Christmas season… at 4th place. So, yeah… even taking into consideration a probable uptick in sales as the holiday approaches… it looks like “Passion’ was a manufactured, politically-motivated exception” has the edge among the theories. Sigh. I hate being right sometimes, and this would be one of those times. Because “The Nativity Story” is a genuinely good, worthy film, and while it’s all well and good to have this “see? The emperor is NAKED!” moment over “Triumph of The Mel,” it’s kind of sad that this film has to take the “hit” to bring it about.

“Nativity” concerns itself will the conception and birth of Christ, with the main arc of the story focused on Mary (“Whale Rider’s” Keisha Castle Hughes,) here pictured in terms of (likely) historical accuracy as a teenaged girl coming of age in Nazareth; an impoverished rural community straining under the harsh rule of both Ceasar Augustus and Herod, the cunning but paranoid King of Jerusalem. Herod is deeply protective of his lavish lifestyle, the upkeep of which requires that he keep order on behalf of his Roman colonial superiors. The greatest threat to that order, in his eyes, is the mounting belief that the ancient Hebrew prophecy of the birth of a Messianic “New King” is soon at hand.

Soon after finding herself betrothed to the older (but good-hearted) Joseph, Mary gets a head’s-up from the Angel Gabriel that she is to give Virgin Birth to said Messiah. This turns her into something of a local pariah among her devout village, but faith (and loyal support from her new Husband) helps them endure… until they recieve a greater test of being forced on a long journey to Bethlehem to register for census; a ploy of Herod’s which coincides with the journey of three Magi (“Wise Men”) who are following an astrological sign which they believe will lead them to the Messiah.

The film succeeds mightily both in being a solid, focused character drama while at the same managing a visual and structural synthesis of the general understandings and conceptions about the story. In plainer terms, the film perfectly captures the essential events, compositions and beats from the “everybody knows” version of the story while affording the characters room to become deeper than the porceline figures on Grandma’s shelf this time of year.

Specifically, it gives greater nuance to Joseph, rendering him as a man compelled to do the right thing even when unsure or not able to understand what he’s found himself involved in: In one terrific touch, the event of Gabriel reassuring Joseph of Mary’s fidelity in a dream is presented as the angel interupting a nightmare in which Joseph imagines himself as part of a mob gathered to stone Mary for adultery; while a clever earlier scene affords the ubiquitous donkey an origin of it’s own.

Also getting more dramatic attention than usual are Mary’s elder cousin Elisabeth (Shoreh Agdashloo, late of “24” and “House of Sand and Fog,”) and her husband Zachariah, portrayed as an older couple from whom Mary recieves basic lessons in the ways of parenthood. The oft-omitted subplot of Zachariah’s temporary muting even makes an appearance, as no servicable Bible retelling can exist without at least one sequence of The Almighty being inexplicably “jerky.”

The film finds a working visual balance between the traditional “nativity scene” renderings and the now-current go-to look of big-budget “ancient” and/or mystical films (it’s best to just accept that “Lord of The Rings” is now the Rosetta Stone of such films for the forseeable future.) Special mention needs to be made of the score, which sublty blends the classical music and hymns generally associated with the story; listen close, you’ll find the strains of “Emmanuel” and “O Holy Night” drifting in right where they ought to.

This is a terrific little movie, a well-made mini-epic superior in every way to “Passion” or most other recent religious films, period. It’s bound to have more ressonance, of course, to Christians or others more immediately invested in the material, but for what it’s worth it’s a fine film and towards the end stirred some of my long-dormant memories of seeing/hearing this stuff told back when I was much younger and it all seemed much more involving; which I assure you is no small feat.