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There’s passion to ‘Nativity Story’ 

'Bobby' ambitious; 'For Your Consideration' lame

A NEW TALE: With Joseph and Mary as real people.
  • A NEW TALE: With Joseph and Mary as real people.

If your image of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child is like all those Italian Renaissance paintings hanging in the Louvre — where Mary looks pure-as-the-driven-snow Caucasian and about mid-30s, all-knowing and motherly, and her baby is picture-perfect with a halo around his head — you’re going to be surprised by the picture provided in “The Nativity Story.”

You should be surprised, and most moviegoers should be pleased with “The Nativity Story,” which tells a story all of us know, but in a way none of us have seen before — nothing this raw. Not this real. Not this full of life.

“The Nativity Story” brings to life the gospel accounts and some historical fact, and some legend, of the birth of Jesus Christ in a way that’s never been tried. Plus, it’s still family friendly in a way that Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was not. Some big-time successful film folks of late — director Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen”) and writer Mike Rich (“Radio,” “Finding Forrester”), to name two — came together on the project, and the result is terrific, whether you’re a believer or just looking for a good story.

The Mary we see (played delicately by Keisha Castle-Hughes, who garnered a best actress Oscar nom for “Whale Rider”), is nothing more than a regular Hebrew teenage girl, a gentle soul with a little teen mischievousness, surrounded by a family who can’t fathom her pregnancy without it having occurred through some sordid dalliance or an assault by a Roman soldier, and given by her family to Joseph as his wife for his help in sustaining their plot. Joseph (Oscar Isaac), a kind-hearted fellow but street-wise, has to overcome much anguish to accept Mary’s predicament, with the fear that she could get stoned by the townfolk at any minute.

The film does what printed word cannot: convey to us the full extent of how hard life was for a Hebrew 2,000 years ago. Who knew when the Roman soldiers might whisk away a daughter of a farmer who wasn’t paying his taxes? Your every bite was ground out of an often-inhospitable earth. Traveling 100 miles by donkey, alone through mostly hot desert, was not your everyday jaunt to see grandma, either. All of this is explicitly laid out before our eyes with wonderful cinematography.

The story is bookended by a gospel account of King Herod (a crazy-scary Ciaran Hinds, who always impresses me) sending his army to kill all the male babies in Bethlehem, an act that most historians have since discounted.

The wise men (Eriq Ebouaney, Nadim Sawalha, Stephan Kalipha) and their choice to travel are a running subplot in the story, and they provide quite a bit of levity for the ride.

It’s a terrific family film at the right time of the year. Don’t miss this.

— Jim Harris

An ambitious ‘Bobby’

“Bobby,” directed by Emilio Estevez, is a series of vignettes artfully woven around one of America’s greatest political tragedies. Set in the Ambassador Hotel on June 4, 1968, this film serves as a day-in-the-life of many of those who were there the day Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed.

With an exceptional and large cast reminiscent of a Robert Altman film, Estevez, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, takes us into the lives of people who would be directly affected by the events that day. Sharon Stone, Ashton Kutcher, Anthony Hopkins, Harry Belafonte, Laurence Fishburne and Freddy Rodriguez anchor this film, but they don’t complete it. That work is left to remaining members of the cast, notably Martin Sheen and Demi Moore, who provide serviceable roles, some stronger than others, and help move this film to its conclusion.

I was pleasantly surprised by Sharon Stone, who plays the hairstylist in the hotel and finds out that her husband (William H. Macy) is having an affair with a switchboard operator (Heather Graham). She is, dare I write, good. Lindsay Lohan is sweet as a girl marrying a boy (Elijah Wood) to keep him from going to war in Vietnam and Kutcher is harmlessly psychedelic as the resident drug dealer. Fishburne and Rodriguez, an African-American and a Mexican, who work in the kitchen, lament the existence of Jim Crow while eagerly anticipating the soon-to-be reality of Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale’s seventh consecutive shutout. As history has demonstrated time and again, men, irrespective of skin color, are together at home in a baseball game.

But I was most content watching Belafonte and Hopkins talk hotel history and play chess. These men know the history of this grand hotel, its visitors and its secrets. They tell tales of their time there as if it was endless, and perhaps it was. The Ambassador Hotel no longer stands, but Estevez, who filmed on location before its demolition, was smart enough to know that it mattered. And he was smart enough to let these fine actors tell its history. It’s a history that is worth telling and it’s the quality acting that is always worth watching.

— Blake Rutherford

Unexpected Guest

“For Your Consideration,” the latest from Christopher Guest, explores all that is funny and wrong with being an Oscar contender. With the relatively same troupe back from his last outing, “A Mighty Wind,” Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy attempt to convey the absurdities within Oscar campaigns and Hollywood in general. The problem is that they forgot the funny. All we get is wrong.

Catherine O’Hara is the only real bright spot in this ensemble trying desperately to make something happen with a film titled “Home for Purim.” Ricky Gervais, best known from the BBC hit comedy “The Office,” seems right at home with a film where much is improvised. Levy, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey and Jane Lynch are all fine -– as they are always fine in Guest’s mockumentaries. But the story itself falls flat as pressure from the studio forces the director to change the name of the film to “Home for Thanksgiving.” One presumes that this new title was carefully tested by focus groups and determined to be more marketable and thus more Oscar-worthy.

But we don’t know. The “Purim” vs. “Thanksgiving” debate isn’t given any time at all and as a result Guest missed a real comedic opportunity. Imagine the laughs if the tug and pull between the director (Guest), the writers (Michael McKean, Bob Balaban) and the studio chief, Gervais, was scripted by Woody Allen or the Marx Brothers.

But it wasn’t, and all that’s left is Guest’s and Levy’s lame script — and, but for a botox-infused O’Hara stumbling around drunk after the Oscar nominations are announced, a lame film.

— Blake Rutherford

Been here before

One of my weaknesses is the time travel movie. There’s just something about all the problems that arise from jetting back into the past — paradoxes, and all that.

With that, I was itching to see the latest Denzel Washington vehicle “Déjà vu.” It’s not that I expected much of it (though I was patently blown away by the last pairing of Washington and director Tony Scott, “Man on Fire,” the Mexico City-set tale of an ex-CIA agent bent on revenge). It’s just that, from previews, it looked like yet another opportunity to indulge my sweet tooth for time-travel junk food.

On that level, at least, the film didn’t disappoint. Washington plays Doug Carlin, a New Orleans-based ATF agent called in to help investigate after a terrorist blows up a packed ferry on the Mississippi River. Soon after he starts putting the pieces together, he is approached by members of a shadowy team who offer him a cop’s dream: a real-time look at the bombing as it happened. The problem is, the physics of the thing means that they can only look back exactly four days and six hours — no rewinding, pausing or playing back.

Soon, with Carlin slowly falling into something like love with one bombing victim he can interact with only through a video screen (Paula Patton), he begins to doubt their explanation that the system is satellite-based, and discovers the truth: that the government has found a way to bend time — one that might be able to physically send him back to the hours before the bombing and stop it.

As in “Man on Fire,” Scott is willing to tinker with audience expectations here, both visually and in terms of character. This leads to a film that jumps around considerably in space and time. Washington’s Carlin, too, seems to put more depth into the usual good-cop mold.

Overall, however, “Déjà vu” is a film that we’ve all seen before, full of paradox and jump cuts and plot points that only make sense after Carlin has made his death-defying jump into the past, where he can start leaving himself clues to help his future self figure it all out. Though there is some interesting stuff with the idea of forking time (allowing characters to be both alive and dead at the same instant), the film is pretty much more of the same. This one is probably a better choice for a night home with microwave popcorn and a DVD.

— David Koon

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