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Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Nativity Story - "A dull retelling of a well-worn tale." **

Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Ciaran Hinds

The Nativity Story The Nativity Story
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Synopsis: A drama that focuses on the period in Mary and Joseph's life where they journeyed to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus.

Review: This story of the Christ lacks passion


As we all know, religion has been very big in the movies since the surprise success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Some small-budget production from some church group or denomination seemed to come at us at the rate of one-a-week in 2006.

And the year is ending with the first studio entry in the cycle: "The Nativity Story," directed by Catherine Hardwicke ("Thirteen"), written by Mick Rich ("The Rookie") and bankrolled by New Line Cinema (the company that gave us the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy).

Trade paper wags have dubbed it "The Passion of the Christ: The Prequel," but, as it turns out, the film borrows little from that hit, and more closely resembles the kind of docile, big-budget Hollywood Bible epics that followed the success of "The Robe" in the '50s.

The story opens with an action scene: Herod's campaign to wipe out the generation of male babies prophesied to produce a messiah. Then it flashes back a year to tell the story of the early courtship of Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac).

Jewish law forbids the betrothed pair to engage in sex, so when an angel of the Lord appears to Mary in the Annunciation and she turns up pregnant after a visit to her cousin, it causes some problems, and Joseph has to publicly forgive her to keep from being stoned to death.

After that, the movie tells the story of the arduous journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and the birth of Christ, while cross-cutting between the stories of Herod's dirty-dealing and the parallel journey of the three wise men from the East.

The filmmakers have strived to tell their tale, which is part Scripture and part imagined, with the simplicity and sincerity of a Sunday school lesson, and, as far as I can see, it does not veer from tradition in a way that is likely to offend anyone.

The Nativity Story The Nativity Story
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It's a handsome production, nicely shot by Elliot Davis ("Thirteen," "Out of Sight") on Italian and Moroccan locations, with a performance by Castle-Hughes ("Whale Rider") as the Virgin that's so pleasing and minimalist it could have been lifted from a fresco by Giotto.

On the other hand, the filmmakers are playing it so safe that there's no surprise or energy to the production, and it's so eager to avoid any religious hysteria that it just doesn't convey any passion or much conviction.

The movie also makes a big mistake by having everyone in the cast (including the angels) speak English with a tortuous accent -- like it's a second language. It makes the dialogue so hard to understand that I often found myself longing for Gibson's Aramaic and English subtitles.


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Sunday, December 10, 2006


Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Sheen, Arnold Vosloo, Basil Wallace, Kagiso Kuypers, Ntare Mwine

Blood Diamond Blood Diamond
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Synopsis: Set in 1990s Sierra Leone, Blood Diamond is the story of Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), an ex-mercenary from Zimbabwe, and Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a Mende fisherman. Both men are African, but their histories and their circumstances are as different as any can be until their fates become joined in a common quest to recover a rare pink diamond, the kind of stone that can transform a life...or end it.

Solomon, who has been taken from his family and forced to work in the diamond fields, finds the extraordinary gem and hides it at great risk, knowing if he is discovered, he will be killed instantly. But he also knows the diamond could not only provide the means to save his wife and daughters from a life as refugees but also help rescue his son, Dia, from an even worse fate as a child soldier.

Archer, who has made his living trading diamonds for arms, learns of Solomon's hidden stone while in prison for smuggling. He knows a diamond like this is a once-in-a-lifetime find--valuable enough to be his ticket out of Africa and away from the cycle of violence and corruption in which he has been a willing player.

Enter Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), an idealistic American journalist who is in Sierra Leone to uncover the truth behind conflict diamonds, exposing the complicity of diamond industry leaders who have chosen profits over principles. Maddy seeks out Archer as a source for her article, but soon finds it is he who needs her even more.

With Maddy's help, Archer and Solomon embark on a dangerous trek through rebel territory. Archer needs Solomon to find and recover the valuable pink diamond, but Solomon seeks something far more precious...his son.

Review: Set atop the backdrop of civil war in 1990s Sierra Leone, Blood Diamond tells two very different, but equally gripping, stories: the first, an expose on the immoral and deadly conflict diamond trade; the second, a gripping depiction of the use of child soldiers by African guerillas. Sure, at first glance there may seem to be no link between these two tales. But as director Ed Zwick has noted, during this real-world time at this real-world place, one did not exist without the other.

Blood Diamond Blood Diamond

Blood Diamond Blood Diamond
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Helping to maneuver audiences through these two stories are Solomon Vandy (played by Djimon Hounsou) — a Mende fisherman forced by African rebels to work the diamond fields — and Danny Archer (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) — an ex-mercenary-turned-diamond smuggler. Solomon finds the titular gem and hides it away, hoping to use its potential wealth to reunite with his family. Danny discovers this secret and wants in on the diamond's sale. But when Solomon's son is kidnapped and taken in by rebels as a child soldier, the two men become reluctant partners — in exchange for 50-percent of the diamond, Danny grudgingly agrees to help rescue the boy. Throw Maddy Bowen (played by Jennifer Connelly) — an American journalist with political pull who's in Sierra Leone to uncover the truth behind conflict diamonds — into the mix and you have a gripping, action-packed story that's sure to inform and inspire.

Blood Diamond
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Blood Diamond Blood Diamond

Upon screening Blood Diamond, this reviewer was struck with two harsh realities: the first having to do with his understanding of conflict diamonds, or lack thereof. Most people have some sort of passing knowledge as to what a conflict diamond is — the name alone speaks volumes. But perhaps what's not so well known is how deep this illegal trade (stones smuggled out of countries at war, the proceeds of which are used to pay for more weapons) reaches into the lives of everyday people. The average villager in 1990s Sierra Leone lived in constant fear that he/she would be killed or turned into a slave, all to help spread the diamond trade. The average child of 1990s Sierra Leone lived with the thought that he/she could, in the blink of an eye, lose his/her innocence, forced to fight alongside the guerillas as a child soldier. And the average consumer of the so-called "First World" nations to this day lives in complete denial that the diamond he/she is buying could in fact be helping to continue this vicious cycle. Trust me: This film will generate a number of post-viewing conversations and will definitely make you think twice before forking down hundreds of dollars at Zales this holiday season.


*Review by Eric Moro, Movies


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