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by James Arnold

The Chances of a Lifetime

ALMOST FAMOUS

ALMOST FAMOUS (A-4, R): Writer-director Cameron Crowe, with two fresh, well-crafted movies already in his credits (Say Anything, Jerry Maguire), revisits his own coming-of-age. His early 1970s career started at age 15 as a rock journalist for Rolling Stone.

The semi-autobiographical tale describes a long cross-country bus-and-plane tour with a fictional “almost famous” band. Billy (endearingly played by fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit) is a naive young fan who observes close-up the hedonistic and ego- and money-driven excesses of the culture. He befriends and has a positive impact on some of the guys and groupies by writing the truth about their lives.

The situation is a dreamlike fantasy for someone who aspires to be a writer and also loves the music. Billy’s challenge is to get close enough to observe but not to lose his integrity. As his famously obsessive rock-critic mentor, Lester Bangs (a standout performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman), advises, “Don’t be friends with rock stars.”

Billy violates the rule, befriending the self-centered but likable lead guitarist (Billy Crudup). He also falls for the exploited, quicksilverish Penny (luminous Kate Hudson).

There are few surprises in the band’s juvenile sex-and-drugs lifestyle, which seems more shabby than glamorous from the enlightened perspective of 30 years later. (It’s sort of like watching a star-struck baseball fan discovering the messy off-the-field, not-so-heroic exploits of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.)

Viewers with moral sensitivities who are not so crazy about rock are likely to sympathize with the perspective of Billy’s conflicted, no-nonsense mom (superb Frances McDormand), the film’s feisty but imperfect moral center. Trying to be wise, she allows her son the chance of a lifetime (by going on the trip) but then bugs him relentlessly, determined also to save his innocence.

Otherwise, Crowe’s best scene provides something of an eternal perspective: Panicked band members confess their sins in a private plane during a severe thunderstorm. Honest but probably too sympathetic observation of reckless times, partly redeemed by final moral outcomes; satisfactory for mature audiences.

REMEMBER THE TITANS

REMEMBER THE TITANS (A-2, PG): Upbeat dramas about racial integration are rare these days. This one is slick and hard to resist. It’s based on a real-life miracle high school football season when blacks and whites united in 1971 to win a Virginia state championship.

Another issue is the increasingly desperate need to win in sports. This used to be a substitute for war but is now nearly equivalent, routinely requiring military discipline and medical units on the sidelines.

Denzel Washington lends his star power to the project as Herman Boone, the intense black coach brought in (over all kinds of white resentment and hostility) when the school (and team) had to be integrated. Those were idealistic and openly racist times.

Boone is a taskmaster tough on both races. Beginning from ground zero (the kids won’t talk or sit next to each other), he bonds the players by running preseason training like a Marine boot camp. The union is fragile and must be preserved in the face of stress from other students and parents.

The movie doesn’t make it seem easy, but winning helps. Washington, both credible and inspiring, delivers some terrific speeches to the kids, including an improbable but impressive one in the fog of dawn at the Gettysburg battlefield.

Director Boaz Yakin gives a unique look to the football scenes: few long shots to show plays develop, mostly close-ups with noisy music and crunching sounds.

The script uses many typical football-movie ingredients wisely, from the displaced nice-guy white coach (Will Patton) and his marvelous football-crazy 10-year-old daughter to the presumably dumb, hulking white lineman who loves black music to the white mothers and girlfriends who must be won over. The unlikely friendship between the alpha black and white players is nicely developed to a climactic scene that earns one large macho handkerchief.

They may joke that producer Jerry Bruckheimer, long famous for overblown junk (Coyote Ugly, Armageddon), is using this film to save his soul. That’s O.K.: It’s never too late to use testosterone wisely. Overall, positive (if not profound) use of sports machismo to serve interracial compassion and partnership; satisfactory for adults and youth.

THE CONTENDER

THE CONTENDER (A-4, R): Hollywood reaches for dramas built on prejudice against minorities (Jews, blacks, gays, disabled people). In this case, the victim is a woman senator, Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). She’s appointed to fill the unfinished term of a deceased vice president and thus become the familiar “heartbeat away” from leading the world’s most powerful nation.

Writer-director Rod Lurie (West Point-educated, Los Angeles movie critic) wants to show misogyny at work in the confirmation hearings. They’re led by a sinister Midwestern congressman (Gary Oldman). He raises issues that, presumably, would never be used against a male (chiefly a college sorority sexual escapade, but also the circumstances of her marriage, the possibility of pregnancy-in-office, her pro-choice views on abortion).

These tactics are likened to “sexual McCarthyism.” Hanson’s primary virtue is that she refuses on principle to respond to questions about her personal life or to fight back in the usual way (by slinging mud at the chairman). We’re not sure until the very end, however, whether she’s stonewalling ŕ la St. Thomas More or tactically covering up a lot of guilt.

Allen (Oscar-nominated for her role as Pat Nixon in Nixon) has depth and dignity. The movie is fine as long as it’s got fairness and equal rights as the main issue. But Lurie doesn’t so much win our sympathy for Hanson as assume it. We really don’t know much about her or whether she’d make a good veep or prez. She seems smart but doesn’t have to show it.

Hanson’s comments about religion make her a Joan of Arc for atheists, and she is forced to represent too many diverse causes.

In fact, nobody of either gender is likely to avoid sexual questions (by opponents or media) for some time to come. In its favor, The Contender heats up the brain cells, presents a ton of ideas many will be challenged by, and also adds some melodrama to politics. Jeff Bridges has a wonderful time as the calculating, folksy, food-loving president trying to make Hanson’s appointment a surprising twist to his last days in office. A political suspense likely to steam you, one way or another; O.K. for adults.

REQUIEM

REQUIEM for Father Ellwood E. “Bud” Kieser, the movie-savvy Paulist, former TV producer (the Insight drama series) and filmmaker (Romero, Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story) who died September 16 at 71. Father Kieser achieved a dream among his generation of Catholics. He didn’t just criticize and complain but went out and made good movies about bright, progressive and holy people.

Kieser’s high quality was a testament to his talent and hard labor in the ups and downs of the showbiz badlands. This good priest who loved movies and respected their power earned his place of honor in the work-in-progress that is American Catholic culture.

DEADLINE

DEADLINE (NBC, Mondays) catches some nostalgia for the glory days of big-city print journalism. It’s built around a colorful maverick columnist named Wallace Benton (Oliver Platt) and his competitive almost-ex-wife (Hope Davis). They work for The Ledger, a clone of today’s New York Post. It’s credible, with just enough make-believe to avoid the drudgery of much daily journalism.

You don’t want to be an estranged spouse in real life, but the relationship works well for central figures in drama. They’re almost-in-love and almost-not, somewhat single (in secular terms) but still sharing a past and possibilities of reconciliation. Benton also teaches grad students, opening the door to fresh faces, idealism and ethical quandaries.

Creator-producer is Dick Wolf, who has developed the similarly constructed (always starts with a crime, then the institution reacts) Law & Order into a gritty, usually reliable torn-from-the-headlines franchise. The stories always remind you of something you read recently, and the cast is very deep. (Bebe Neuwirth, Tom Conti, Lili Taylor are regulars around the newsroom.)

But mostly it’s the dialogue, snappy and sassy with little chunks of truth in it like diamonds, usually putting down the wicked and arrogant. (An early episode featured a scam of the newly rich, who were victimized because they couldn’t tell good art from bad. Now that is a national disease.)

Deadline follows many of the same types of crimes as L&O, but it allows a different, outside law-enforcement perspective. Cast and writers clearly intend to have fun. An early Ledger headline, after the arrest of a pianist suspected of murder, read, “SLAYER PIANO!” Adult drama worth surviving.

SHORT TAKES

SHORT TAKES: A major poll says Americans believe television by far has the most negative impact on children of any entertainment medium. Yet TV is (theoretically) subject to the most parental control and (properly used) still the greatest educational tool ever at their disposal.

I spent a career teaching TV criticism but don’t know where the critics are coming from lately. A panel on Charlie Rose reviewing the new season seemed to think “good” equals pushing-the-envelope (always a dubious criterion), and picked Mafia epic Sopranos over The West Wing, which may be the best-written drama in TV history.

Thank goodness: No more focus groups displaying their well-developed ignorance on the networks until the next election. Only horse-race coverage justifies the silliness of listening to the least informed and least interested.


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