Monday, August 31, 2009

Something special

Okay, after a week of snipes and jabs on my blog, how about we end the week (in a matter of speaking) on a positive note?

We were supposed to go to the drive-in last night. It was something we had been looking forward to for weeks, as we've had a great time the other two times we've gone, even when the movies themselves were not great.

But it's a long drive and a late night, so there were a number of factors that conspired to put the kibosh on it. For one, I've been sick all week, and I was still hacking up enough phlegm that I thought it would interfere with the unfettered enjoyment I hope to get from a drive-in double feature. Secondly, my car was actually in the shop yesterday, as a check engine light resulted in a seemingly inevitable $500+ in repairs, God knows whether they were really necessary. And then there was the little problem of a disappointing slate of films at the theater. The most appealing combo we could find would have been Robert Rodriguez' garish-looking kids film Shorts, and G.I. Joe. I actually want to see G.I. Joe, but I could not get over the idea that Shorts looks like it will be terrible.

So we'll try again next weekend, or maybe two weeks after that. Or maybe next year.

I told my wife I still wanted to do something special last night, so a second plan formed. We'd do the good old "pay for the first, sneak in to the second" double feature at a local multiplex. We even had the films chosen, and they timed up perfectly to have almost no gap in between -- The Goods at 5:25, Julie & Julia at 7:10. But when we got within an hour of showtime, my wife revealed she didn't really want to see either. I realized I was kind of forcing it myself, so that plan dropped off the table.

Still looking for that elusive "something special" -- and apparently unable to conceive of anything special that didn't involve movies -- we even momentarily discussed seeing whatever was playing at the local Landmark theater that has several "couch theaters," where you sit comfortably, two to a couch. Unfortunately, "whatever was playing" didn't seem worth the $14 per ticket.

Well, I ended up getting something special after all. It came in the form of a movie I picked up at the library without knowing anything about it.

The movie was called Henry Poole Is Here. It's the fourth feature from director Mark Pellington, who has made two other films I find interesting: Arlington Road and The Mothman Prophecies.

Henry Poole Is Here was only on my radar at all because I composed a list of films I wanted to review from the available inventory at the library branch nearest my office. I sometimes come up with "hit lists" this way -- see what they have, request it, then know I can pick it up easily when the approval comes through. I saw Luke Wilson, Radha Mitchell, Cheryl Hines and George Lopez on the cover, decided these were all people I liked, and added it to the list.

But I didn't hold any specific hope for it, just as I don't hold specific hope for Norbit, Crossover, Catch and Release, Daddy Day Camp, or several other films I requested to review using this method. In fact, I wasn't even sure whether it had a theatrical release. (It did, briefly, last August). Therefore, I had planned to watch it while I was waiting for my car at the Volkswagen dealer. Instead, I watched Ted Kennedy's memorial service (rest in peace) and wrote yesterday's blog post.

Well, fate was favorable to me. For films I like, I want to see them on a regular screen rather than that of a portable DVD player. And Henry Poole Is Here is a movie I like.

A lot.

A real lot.

In fact, I like this movie so much, I told my wife that I didn't know if I'd seen a movie this good "in years." As I was watching it, I felt a rush of revelatory joy equivalent to seeing Donnie Darko for the first time.

Now, before you take me at my word and push Henry Poole Is Here to the top of your Netflix queue -- but I do thank you for having such faith in my recommendations -- I must tell you that there's a controversial element to this film that I believe was a primary factor in it getting a mere 37% on Rotten Tomatoes and an only slightly better 44% on Metactritic.

Namely, this is a movie about the miraculous appearance of the face of Christ in a water stain on a stucco wall of an Orange County ranch house.

If that sends up immediate warning flares, don't let it. Just because a movie does not take a cynical view of Christianity does not mean it's not worth your time.

When you've got a movie about the face of Christ appearing in an everyday object, you've got two ways you can go with it: 1) Make it a broad satire and mercilessly ridicule those who believe, or 2) Treat it with respect and see where the story takes you.

I'm glad to say Henry Poole Is Here did the latter, and the science vs. faith issues that come to the fore are not only engrossing, but genuinely moving. As I've told you before, I'm an atheist. But there's a difference between being an atheist and being closed-minded, and I never want to be the latter. If a movie with religious overtones is made cleanly, tightly, and with terrific writing, acting and directing -- never mind the dynamite soundtrack -- it still has the power to rock my world.

And rock my world Henry Poole Is Here did.

I don't want to discuss the film too much more -- there are a bevy of wonderful surprises to discover in it -- but I do want to offer one more word for those of you who are skeptical. While this film is about religion, it is not preachy. And it is not a Christian film. It's fully in the mainstream, and it smartly keeps things ambiguous enough to satisfy the non-believers.

When it was time to go to sleep last night, my mind was racing, composing the first few sentences of my review in my head. The more I got down, the more I risked losing if I closed my eyes. Plus, it was still too damn hot to go to sleep. So I got up, hauled my laptop outside to where it was cool, and wrote the damn thing.

In about nine minutes.

In other words, plenty fast for the 18-minute life of my laptop battery.

To give you an idea how unusual this is, I typically struggle with what to say about movies I really like. The enormity of the responsibility of giving a good film the perfect endorsement usually weighs on me. It takes me at least 20 minutes to bang out the first draft of a movie I totally hate -- and such films are always easier to write about.

I did tweak the review today when I got up, but its core structure was the same that flew out of me in a flurry of inspired fertility the night before. I also watched the movie again this morning, to make sure, before I went off all half-cocked recommending this movie to everyone and his grandmother, that it held up. In the cold light of day -- well, that's just a figure of speech during our current heat wave -- I did realize that the movie may be merely excellent, not quite in the rarified air of "great." I'll recommend it to people, but probably not to their grandmothers.

And the thing is, you are free to disagree with me. That's fine. Maybe I'm reading this movie wrong. Maybe I'm being manipulated by some kind of pernicious Christian agenda, which is all the more pernicious for its ability to win over skeptics.

But I don't care. It doesn't change the fact that as I was watching, I felt transported. I felt filled to the brim with superlatives. I commented regularly and insistently that this film was blowing my mind. And isn't that the reason we watch movies in the first place, to get into that head space? To feel that sitting through all the dreck was worth it, for these rare moments of transcendence?

And so it is, to extend the religious metaphor, that Henry Poole Is Here has achieved the holy trinity on my blog. At the time of this writing, it's the first to be at the tops of my lists of Most Recently Seen, Most Recently Revisited, and Most Recently Reviewed movies -- all at the same time.

Something special?

I'll say.


lesli said...

GREAT review! I really enjoyed this film and am encouraging anyone who missed it to check out the recently released family version. It was such a great story about a real life guy who was struggling with his faith and accepting it. This is something that I've been struggling with myself for the past couple of years. It was such an encouragement to see this played out. And it's really cool that I've found a site, Right now it looks like they are giving away 10 copies of the movie for free. If you haven't seen the movie yet, or even if you have, you could always give it to a friend, but it's definitely worth checking out! GREAT film for a FAMILY movie night!

moviesandsongs365 said...

Despite the poor reviews out there, your review and breathingmovies convinced me, and I likewise loved it ( :

I've added it to my new A-Z of film recommendations.