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Arts & Culture

Post Holiday Round-Up: Lumps of Coal

Amazingly the film spends hardly any time on Marley as a puppy (you'd think they'd want to milk these adorable months of a dog's life), and focuses mainly on the adult dog eating everything in sight. We don't really see (except in one scene after a family tragedy) how the dog manages to endear himself to the family. Only at the end, in a schmaltzy, tear-jerking finale does John reveal how important the dog was to the family. I wanted more puppy love!

Directed by David Frankel, the film is neither a good pet film (in the Old Yeller-My Dog Skip tradition) nor a good family/relationship film. We get too much of the Grogan's marital problems to make this a doggie film, and too much of the dog to make it a real family drama. I would prefer more of the dog since the humans in this film are either bland or whiny. But in the end I felt cheated. I was lured by the cute puppy on the poster and never got enough of the dog or even felt like I got to know him. Beverly Hills Chihuahua offers more canine charm than this.

Companion viewing: A Boy and His Dog, Old Yeller, Cujo


Keanu invades Earth in The Day the Earth Stood Still (20th Century Fox)

Another lump of coal from the holiday flood of releases is The Day the Earth Stood Still (opened December 12 and still in theaters). This is a completely unnecessary remake of a 50s sci-fi classic. When John Carpenter went about remaking the 50s sci-fi classic The Thing , he did so with both a version for how to re-imagine it and a knowledge of how to use state of the art effects to enhance his vision. Scott Derrickson, on the other, has no clue what he wants to do with his remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still , except that he wants to blow more things up. The original 1951 film cast Michael Rennie as a Christ-like and almost too human extraterrestrial who arrived on earth with his giant robot Gort to give humans an ultimatum: the humans must learn to live in peace or be destroyed because they pose too great a threat to the rest of the universe. In the remake, Keanu Reeves takes on the Rennie role but is neither Christ-like nor human. His performance would have been better suited to playing Gort the robot. The irony is that lurking somewhere in this remake was actually the germ of a good idea. Instead of an alien coming to destroy a potential enemy - a pre-emptive strike of sorts - he is coming like Noah with an ark to save all the animals (and nature) from humans who are abusing the planet. Now Keanu might have actually been able to pull off a kind of new age Noah and the film might have been able to distinguish itself by giving the story a new spin. But any hopes of innovation or new ideas are quickly lost. In the end, The Day the Earth Stood has no clue what made the first film work so well and no idea how to revamp the story to give it a new spin or contemporary flavor. What a waste of studio money and my time. Where the original film was thoughtful and provocative, the remake is merely loud and hollow.

Companion viewing: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing From Another World (1951), The Thing (1982)


Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman spar in the film adaptation of Doubt (Miramax)

Not quite a lump of coal but a disappointment is John Patrick Stanley's film adaptation of his own stage play Doubt (opened December 12 and still in theaters, and available for view on stage at the San Diego Rep). The Pulitzer Prize-winning play - set in a Catholic Church and school in the Bronx in 1964 -- made waves when it arrived amidst all the Catholic Church scandals. The timing now makes it less sensational and also allows the work to be a broader exploration of both the Church and questions of faith, guilt, and doubt.

The film is not badly made like the previous two I mentioned; yet it fails to ignite on the screen. The performances, while technically good, feel somehow by the book with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman dutifully strutting their actorly talents, and Streep displaying her proclivity for accents. Yet there is something about the film that remains aloof and distance. Stanley tries to open it up and experiments with odd angles to introduce a sense of doubt in the viewers, yet the interplay between the two leads never develops with the same intensity that helped make the adaptation of the play Frost/Nixon come to life on screen. Viola Davis shines for a brief moment as the mother of an African American boy but that's the only spark of freshness and life in the film.

But the film does make a serious and sometimes pointed attempt to examine issues of faith, guilt, justice, hypocrisy, change, and, of course doubt within the Catholic Church. But with all the talent involved I was just hoping it would have been more riveting and the interplay sharper.

Companion viewing: Frost/Nixon, Deliver Us From Evil, A Nun's Story

Hugh Jackman in Australia (20th Century Fox)

And finally there's the lavishly adorned lump of coal Baz Luhrmann dropped off early this holiday season, Australia (opened November 26 and still in theaters). Australia can be viewed as a kind of guilty pleasure. It's big and bloated and over the top. And Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman look smashing in the outback. Yet the film never goes as over the top as Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge , and so it never feels completely like it belongs to Luhrmann. Despite it's excesses, it feels like Luhrmann restrained himself in a misguided attempt to make it more mainstream. But the film's big glossy exterior doesn't mesh well with its attempts at political correctness in dealing with aboriginal injustices. But Jackman's totally gratuitous and hilarious bathing scene - which is surely what nabbed him his sexiest man alive title - is a nice tease but the film's unwieldy length is a detriment.

Companion viewing: Hawaii, Moulin Rouge, Giant