PAY IT FORWARD (A-3,
PG-13): Haley Joel Osment, the child actor who saw “dead people” in
The Sixth Sense, guides us into serious business again as Trevor
McKinney, a seventh-grader in Las Vegas who gets an idea for improving
the world’s level of kindness and compassion. Alas, he finds that
doing “hard things that really help people” is a dangerous business.
Trevor’s plan, responding
to a class assignment from a very untypical social studies teacher
(Kevin Spacey), is a sort of benign pyramid scheme. Each person does
a major good deed for three people, who then each “pay it forward”
to three other people, and so on. (Trevor tries to match up the psychologically
and physically scarred teacher with his abused, abandoned, alcoholic
mom, played by Helen Hunt.) It works fine in some cases, with disastrous
results in others.
Although Trevor’s actions
have a positive social impact, this is a secular film: There is zero
religious/moral motivation or context. (This kid’s favorite TV show
is wrestling! His parents are a mess, and his grandma lives on the
street.) From where does Trevor’s idealism come?
Given the crass tone
of so much entertainment, a film about an uplifting idea is cool,
even if it stretches credibility. Most of the good deeds are either
familiar movie ideas or of dubious depth.
The acting by all three
principals helps blur these doubts, especially Hunt’s hard-edged cocktail
waitress (a bit offbeat for her). The script takes time to watch her
relationship with Spacey’s complex character develop and grow. Director
Mimi Leder uses the Vegas backgrounds (normal, natural and glitzy)
with an artful eye. Not an average feel-good movie; tense, tragic,
adult material; satisfactory for mature audiences.
BILLY ELLIOT (A-3, R):
Art films are often morally off the map, too precious, far-out, irrelevant
or all-of-the-above. But that’s absolutely not true of this socko
little British film about an exuberant 11-year-old (Jamie Bell) who
can’t keep himself from dancing.
Problem is, he lives
in a troubled north England mining town amid the 1984 Thatcher-era
closings. And his widowed dad (Gary Lewis) is a desperate striking
miner with a macho personality who prefers that his son learn boxing
rather than ballet. After the shock wears off, though, Dad works hard
(including a tormented bit as a despised strikebreaker) to get Billy
the training he needs to qualify for his big audition at the Royal
This is basically a
preadolescent Rocky story, in which this likably tough, masculine
and truly gifted youngster overcomes poverty, class and gender stereotypes.
Billy also impresses with a generous (but nonsexual) acceptance of
and loyalty to his equally nonconformist (but nondancing) best pal,
who is a quietly budding homosexual.
The most fun parts of
Billy Elliot are surely the dance sequences. Bell cavorts (as
if unleashed by the spirits of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire) through
the winding, cobblestoned town streets, as well as the gym-practice
hall, both solo and with his no-nonsense teacher (played subtly by
the charming, now 50ish Julie Walters of Educating Rita fame).
The audition scene (before the stuffy, emotionless judges) is superbly
British-funny as well as suspenseful.
This debut film by Stephen
Daldry, artistic director of the Royal Court Theater, is about liberating
people from social barriers to achieve their dreams. But its true
glory is in not forgetting the family and friends Billy must leave
behind. A best-film contender, recommended for mature viewers.
LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE
THE LEGEND OF BAGGER
VANCE (A-2, PG-13) belongs to the tradition of movies about the beauty
and mysticism of sports.Oddly, Robert Redford (here, as producer-director)
has been involved in several: Downhill Racer (skiing), The
Natural (baseball), A River Runs Through It (fly-fishing).
In Bagger, golf becomes a metaphor for life.
Much modified from Steven
Pressfield’s novel, the movie reflects the point of view of a hero-worshiping
boy who narrates events as a very old man (Jack Lemmon). It follows
Ran Junuh (Matt Damon), a fictional star-on-the-rise and the pride
of Savannah who is psychologically damaged by combat in World War
I. Without explanation, on his return he abandons the game and Adele
(Charlize Theron), his socialite-fiancée, to brood in the backwoods.
Several miracles underlie
a tale that is basically about overcoming adversity and achieving
redemption. As the local favorite, Junuh is persuaded to enter a promotional
match competition against the then-current legends of the game, Walter
Hagen and Bobby Jones. As he practices, a genial young black man who
calls himself Bagger Vance (Will Smith) emerges from the dark and
volunteers to help and work as his caddie.
The contest, along with
its charm and romance, is the story. Bagger’s help proves to be critical,
but it’s not made of magic tricks. He talks about stuff like finding
one’s “authentic swing,” “the one perfect shot” and “seeing the field.”
He helps Junuh reach inside himself to find his talent.
The movie, lyrically
and with wit, describes a fabulous, endearingly photographed three
days of Ran Junuh battling the golf equivalents of Babe Ruth and Shoeless
Joe. The father-son symbolism of Field of Dreams is intimated.
Extra gifts include the Ran-Adele love story, the nostalgic detail,
foolishness and innocence of the 1920s period and the intimations
Whether Bagger, with
his gentleness and beatific smile, is wisdom incarnate, the guardian
angel of the links or the Lord himself (“God is happiest,” he says,
“when his children are at play”), he is surely a supernatural figure
who represents the caring goodness of Reality. His advice is the key
to a good life as well as a good game, and (as the final images suggest)
to salvation as well. Grace lingers softly among the fairways and
putting greens. An ultimate movie for golf lovers and something
more; recommended for youth and adults.
ED (NBC, Wednesdays): This offbeat one-hour, no-laugh-track comedy
series out of the David Letterman shop is wry and quirky. It often
gets mentioned in the same sentence with Northern Exposure,
an honor difficult to live up to.
So far, it hasn’t reached the level of Absolutely Wonderful. But
it exudes quiet charm, dodges the innuendo, put-downs and wisecracks
that clutter much of pop comedy.
The characters act (well, almost) like normal people. Moved from
its Sunday slot, it is a family-friendly opener for NBC’s civilized
midweek lineup (The West Wing, Law and Order).
The hero (30ish Tom Cavanagh) is fresh, a throwback to sweet, easy-smiling
Jimmy Stewart types. But his return to his Ohio hometown has a poignant
edge: He’s a lawyer who escaped New York after being crushed by his
wife’s infidelity and losing his drudge job proofreading contracts
when he missed a comma. (The Big Apple is glamorous but can bite back.)
Now he’s bought a bowling alley and practices law as a bonus service
for customers. It’s a strained but whimsical setup.
Basically, Ed is a romance, since the heart of each hour is
his (so far) innocent pursuit of Carol (Julie Bowen). She’s his former
high school crush, now high school teacher and no pushover. The weekly
subplots usually include a homespun legal case (in one episode, defending
the elderly 53-year town clown’s right to wear a mask) and the stuff
cooked up by his friends and odd characters at the Stuckey Bowl.
The show, whose trademark is the gently humorous and unexpected,
appeals mainly because of Ed, a nice guy who loses a lot but cheerfully
perseveres. The Thanksgiving episode was typical. He tries to make
a go of the first holiday apart from his wife. He calls her, gets
an answering machine; the parents he hoped to visit are going to France;
the bowling-alley party falls apart; he can’t shoot the traditional
cannon to end the high school football game. (The practice has been
stopped by a lawsuit.)
But he ends up playing skidball-football with his old pal Frank (as
they did when they were kids) under the empty stadium lights, sliding
and careening in joy on the wet grass. The point: People really do
need people, history and tradition. Funny-sad and a three-point
field goal for this episode.
MUDDLED MALCOLM: If Ed seems cool for early evening family
viewing, the same can’t be said for Fox’s over-praised Malcolm
in the Middle, with its unnerving formula of wiseacre kids, perplexed
poppa and malicious momma. The last episode I watched had the brothers
coping with a gorgeous high school babysitter in ways that tested
the erotic imagination. Parents have to find better choices than the
young-adult-oriented channels offer.
IN THE BEGINNING (NBC miniseries): They still have a long way to go to get the Old Testament together for television. This series was respectful but talky and very stiff in production values (Martin Landau’s Abraham praying
to a night sky full of stars or getting
the message to sacrifice Isaac in a windstorm), as if nothing in terms of power and subtlety had been learned since DeMille. Let’s face it: You have only to enter a religious-goods store to see the gulf between what the public has been educated to want in religious art and the cutting edge of artistic taste.
PLUG FOR VOCATIONS:
Building on a Wall Street Journal piece, Nightline (ABC)
devoted a show to the updated effort by several religious orders (Sisters
of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, Indiana, Sisters of Mercy of New Jersey)
to “market vocations” to young women. (Are nuns making a comeback?)
Their approach includes witty appeals on their Web sites and in print
ads (a Michelangelo parody in which God’s hand is passing on a cellular
phone). The TV treatment, respectful and sympathetic, focused on recruiters
and recruits, as well as a dynamic woman who has been a nun for 78
years. Anchor John Donvan wrapped up by paying tribute to the sisters
who taught him in grade school.