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Column Fri Jul 23 2010
Hey everyone. This is a light week for film releases anyway, but with my travel schedule what it is this week (I'm in San Diego covering Comic-Con), I'm afraid I've missed the week's biggest opening, Salt, starring Angelina Jolie. Because of this trip, I'm missing a couple of next week's films as well. Sorry, no Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore review. We should be mostly back on track the following week.
One other thing going on for the next week beginning today (Friday), the Gene Siskel Film Center is bringing back one of my (and Roger Ebert's) favorite documentaries of the year, director Jennifer Burns' Vincent: A Life in Color. You can read my original review here. But I wanted to let you know that Burns and star Vincent P. Falk will be present for audience discussion at all Friday-Saturday-Sunday screenings and at all 8pm screenings on Monday through Thursday.
Also, at the Friday 8:15 pm screening, people are being encouraged to wear your most colorful suit in tribute to Vincent P. Falk and walk the red carpet. Anyone wearing a suit to that screening pays 2-for-1 on $10 general admission, in-person only at the Film Center box office. The film is truly a genuine treat and a real tribute to one of the city's most enduring characters. And now, let's take a look at what is otherwise a slow week.
Ramona & Beezus
In the course of a given year, I get inundated with a great number of films aimed at the "family" demographic. In other words, these are movies that are meant to appeal to kids, with very little thought given to just how torturous most of these works are to the adults that are frequently accompanying said kids. Once in a great while, the folks that make these movies give a thought or two to the slightly older audience members that are often there begrudgingly; this is most often the case with animated films. But I think it's fair to sat that Ramona and Beezus, the film version of the wildly popular book series from Beverly Cleary, is far better than most of the empty-headed, dumbed-down cinematic junk that kids are fed year-round.
Yes, I fully understand and acknowledge that neither the books nor this movie are aimed at a young-at-heart adult film critic like myself, but at least Ramona and Beezus is dealing with issues in the real world and not turning the two girls at the center of the film into spies or monster hunters or superheroes. Those types of films can be fun from time to time, but they don't really offer up much for children beyond toilet humor and broad comedy. This film addresses more believable daily dramas such as a parent losing a job or a weird child struggling to fit in and do well in school. Newcomer Joey King plays Ramona, an imaginative younger child, who has a lot of ideas about the world, how it runs and how it should work. She's also one of those kids whose misadventures get her in a lot of trouble at school and at home. Her near-perfect big sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) is a bit mean when Ramona screws up, but she's appropriately protective when she needs to be.
There isn't so much a traditional story in Ramona and Beezus as there are slice-of-life moments that make up any family. The girls' parents (Bridget Moynahan and John Corbett) are good people, but not perfect. They don't handle things well when Corbett loses his accounting job, and they don't always believe Ramona when she says she's innocent and actually is. In other words, they're like most families. The movie is still guilty of pandering just a bit, and not surprisingly, things wrap up a little too neatly by film's end. I wasn't a big fan of the romantic subplot involving Ramona's aunt (Ginnifer Goodwin) and her old high school boyfriend (Josh Duhamel), which seemed to exist for no other reason than to extend the running time of the movie.
Directed by Elizabeth Allen, Ramona and Beezus has a similar feel and approach to the adaptation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Neither one is particularly great, but I'd rather endure the shortcomings of these two films than sit through The Last Airbender and any number of other kids' movies in which the adults act like morons and the kids are smarter than Einstein. I was charmed by this movie because it was about people -- slightly idealized people, perhaps, but actual humans nonetheless. I don't want to make this seem like the Second Coming of family films, but I think kids and maybe some adults will see some of their personalities and lives in Ramona and Beezus, and that's a good thing.
I've seen a lot of movies about a lot of subjects, but I have never seen a movie quite like Agora, the award-winning film from director and co-writer Alejandro Amenabar (The Sea Inside). In an attempt to capture something like authenticity and a true story on top of that, this movie centers on Hypatia (Rachel Weisz, looking, you know, gorgeous), a teacher and lauded astronomer who taught the brightest and best in Alexandria, Egypt. Under Roman rule, Alexandria's prize centerpiece is its library, filled with all the world's learnings. But the region is also under a great deal of religious strife and upheaval, as the old Roman gods made way for Jewish beliefs and the rising force of Christianity. Among Hypatia's students and admirers are future rulers of the region, including the snooty Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Hypatia's slave (Max Minghella), who grows to be a part of the Jewish uprising. Both men are very much in love with the teacher, but she doesn't allow either of them too close. Years later, when their positions of power in society have shifted, she does look to them to protect her, with varying results.
But Agora isn't really a love story. It's an epic tale of science and religious intolerance that does not paint either Christians or Jews in a particularly sympathetic light. And I was weirdly pulled into this story when it wasn't relying too much on melodrama and its clumsy love triangle stories. There are a handful of scenes in which Hypatia is essentially figuring out that the universe does not revolve around the earth, and that the planets don't revolve around the sun in a perfect circle. These concepts are so difficult for her to grasp that she almost doesn't. There's another experiment in which she basically discovers gravity, but she never puts a name to it or can explain how it works. That is one phenomenon that she never had time to explore or understand.
When Hypatia's belief in God is challenged, her life is at risk, and the men who once so cared for her have a choice whether to come to her rescue or save their own positions and lives. Agora is at times brutally violent, rife with prejudicial behaviors, and staggeringly beautiful as a visual work. The film drags in quite a few places, but Weisz's soaring performance (in the midst of some, well, more grounded acting) pulls the film up from being a deadly bore and actually makes it something worth watching most of the time. Since I walked into this film blissfully ignorant of the life and accomplishments of Hypatia, I was always curious where her story would take us, and I'd say for the most part it was worth the journey. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.