+ "The Nativity Story": In one of the odder combinations of talent and target audience, "Thirteen" director Catherine Hardwicke helms a Biblical film that stars "Whale Rider"‘s Keisha Castle-Hughes and several actors who are of the correct ethnicity for the time and place of the tale but who are, due to the ironic confluence of history, most familiar to audiences here for playing terrorism-related characters: Shohreh Aghdashloo, "24"‘s Dina Araz; Alexander Siddig, who’s also guested on "24" and who played the prince in "Syriana"; and, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role, Kais Nashif, the hot suicide bomber in "Paradise Now." At the LA Weekly, Scott Foundas writes that:
Hardwickeâ€™s most radical conceit, however, at least for a movie positioned as a red-state holiday perennial â€” there is already a soundtrack album featuring â€œChristian & Country artistsâ€ performing â€œChristmas favorites inspired by the filmâ€ â€” is that most of the major roles are acted by performers of Algerian, Iranian, Israeli and Sudanese descent… In short, their skin is dark, which makes The Nativity Story the first Hollywood religious picture in memory (if not ever) to imply, for most of its running time, that Jesus Christ probably looked more like Jim Brown than Jim Caviezel. Until, that is, the newborn Lord makes his cameo appearance at the end, bearing a decidedly milky complexion.
Otherwise, he finds that "too often, the actors register as little more than set dressing, and despite Hardwickeâ€™s resolve to give us the real Nativity, as weâ€™ve never seen it before, much of the movie smacks of convention." Dana Stevens at Slate thinks that "Hardwicke’s new retelling of the Gospel account of the conception and birth of Jesus, is fatuous, sappy, and dull, but it’s neither sadistic nor bigoted" â€” in short, that it’s no "The Passion of the Christ," the prequel.
Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly notes that everyone in the film speaks with an "Esperanto accent," and sighs that "The movie industry is eager to beckon and serve Christian viewers, yet as long as it thinks of those viewers as another market slice, a demo, it may end up pandering to them with cautious and stultifying reverence. The Nativity Story is a film of tame picture-book sincerity, but that’s not the same thing as devotion. The movie is too tepid to feel, or see, the light."
Stephanie Zacharek at Salon writes that "I was a lot less bored by ‘The Nativity Story’ than I feared I’d be." And A.O. Scott at the New York Times quite likes the film, praising the fact that "[r]ather than trying to reinterpret or modernize a well-known, cherished story, the filmmakers have rendered it with a quiet, unassuming professionalism."
+ "Turistas": The latest attractive-television-stars-dying- violently flick also marks the launch of Fox Atomic, a specialty distribution arm created mainly to put out other films featuring attractive television stars dying violently. David Edelstein at New York writes that
The awful, offal-ridden Turistasâ€”textbook torture-pornâ€”would be too disgusting to discuss were it not for its efficiency at exploiting the fear that haunts our post-Iraq American dreams, and that can be discerned in works as various as the Oscar-bait ensemble drama Babel and the cringe comedy Borat: how our combination of arrogance and ignorance has left us hideously vulnerable in a world that hates our guts.
At the New York Times, Manohla Dargis notes that
Like â€œHostelâ€ (a critique of American arrogance, donâ€™tcha know), which seems the most direct inspiration for â€œTuristas,â€ this film involves first-world tourists who are violently punished for traveling into a third-world (or third-world-like) country. â€œTuristasâ€ plays this political angle more openly than does â€œHostel,â€ since Zamora defends his blood lust by donating â€œgringoâ€ organs to his countryâ€™s poor. Yeah, yeah, yeah, and Jason and Freddy donate regularly to their local blood banks.
Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Chicago Reader sums the film up as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Goes to Brazil," while Nathan Lee at the Village Voice thinks that the goal of the film’s villain, a crazed surgeon who hopes to "exact payback on behalf of third-world misery," is "not an entirely unsympathetic cause," given the dullness of the aforementioned attractive television stars. And Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly calls the film "Hostel without sadism, thrills, or funky severed-limb F/X."
+ "10 Items or Less": Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek writes that Brad Silberling‘s film is "less a full-fledged movie than an extended sketch, a chance for two actors — Morgan Freeman and Paz Vega — to stretch out and loosen up. But the bare-boned simplicity of ’10 Items or Less’ is more a strength than a liability." At the New York Times, A.O. Scott agrees, calling the film "a lovely antidote to the bloated, self-important movies that tend to dominate the season. This is a picture with nothing to prove, and not all that much to say, but its modesty and good humor make it hard to resist." Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Chicago Reader blurbs that the film is "an amiable demonstration of how two charismatic actors and a relaxed writer-director can squeeze an enjoyable movie out of practically nothing."
Others are not so fond. Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly writes that "I don’t know if it’s ickier to assume that writer-director Brad Silberling thinks the culture-clash jokes he pushes in 10 Items or Less are charming because they’re earnest, or because they’re tongue-in-cheek." Kristi Mitsuda at indieWIRE allows that "the director just keeps his project from careening headfirst into fathomable depths of dreck, via a clean style; that is until the final reel when he typically loses all sense of restraint and indulges in the expected cheese-out. You can see it coming from a mile away when Freeman first puts the question to Scarlet–ten items or less, what do you treasure most in life? –but that doesn’t mitigate the sheer soppiness when the latter finally concedes, ‘this.’" And Nathan Lee at the Village Voice snarks that
10 Items or Less goes from oblivious to oblivion when it pulls into the perkiest car wash since Car Wash. Polishing rag in hand and Ritmo Latino bumping on the soundtrack, Freeman frolics in solidarity with a crew of blissed-out immigrants. Muchas gracias, kindly celebrity! Class consciousness is hardly to be expected from the dude who brought Casper to the big screen, and if nothing else, 10 Items or Less is a case study in cluelessness.