Idol Chatter

While I almost always agree with what fellow blogger Tim Hayne has to say–and I appreciate that he seems to be a fellow enthusiast of slightly darker, indie films–I found myself disagreeing with him after watching “Little Miss Sunshine.” While I love stories about quirky, eccentric characters who go on unexpected journeys that result in personal growth, which is what happens to the dysufnuctional Hoover family as they travel to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in their VW bus, “Sunshine’s” road trip took too many exits down some morally questionable detours for me to fully enjoy this comedy.

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some funny lines as well as some laugh-out-loud moments, and the premise itself is prettty clever. But what’s not so clever is having a dirty old man as a grandfather character and an angst-filled teen quote some philosopher we should all believe was profound for saying that, well, nothingness is the meaning of life. I’ve already seen it, thanks, though perhaps not quite with the level of crude enthusiasm found here.

And I realize that the movie is, on one level anyway, slamming the seedy world of kiddie beauty pageants, and I wholeheartedly support making fun of that great American subcluture. But do we actually need to watch a seven-year old girl exploited by doing a strip tease dance in order to appreciate the exploitative nature of these contests? I know I didn’t.

Perhaps the biggest question that this movie raises is a question I have been debating quite a bit lately. How much sin do storytellers need to show us to prove to us that a character is, by the end of the story, redeemed in some way? It’s a question I began reconsidering after the media began arguing about the apalling nature of the “did he or didn’t he rape his ex-wife?” storyline on the FX series “Rescue Me.” “Sunshine” is by no means as morally controversial or as edgy a show as “Rescue Me,” but I feel like the same issue applies to both. I don’t believe it is always necessary to see, hear, and feel every bit of garbage that a character goes through in order to empathize with that person’s plight or celebrate that person’s redemption. Or, put a simpler way, less can be more.

Am I casting too large a cloud of gloom over “Little Miss Sunshine”? Well, it opens in wide release this weekend, so you may just have to decide for yourself.

All Hollywood wants for Christmas is another “Passion”-sized blockbuster, without the Mel-sized controversy. This year’s hopes are placed on a chronology of Christ’s birth and toddlerhood titled “The Nativity Story,” due for December release, and Time Warner’s New Line Cinema has taken care to wrap the flick in just the right ribbons and bows to appeal to everyone and offend no one.

The “Nativity” script is by Mike Rich, both a Christian and a proven Tinseltown insider (his “Finding Forrester” made $53 million in 2000, which he followed with the uplifting and profitable “The Rookie”). Rich’s script was vetted by historians, theologians, and ecumenical experts, allowing New Line to hew to a portrait of Christ’s birth as “history-defining” while scoring the endorsement of Billy Graham’s daughter, Bible scholar Anne Graham Lotz. The top biller in the painstakingly uncontroversial cast is Keisha Castle-Hughes, the child star of “Whale Rider,” who plays Mary, the mother of God.

Indeed, the only hint of edginess attached to the movie is its director, Catherine Hardwicke, whose best known previous film is “Thirteen,” an almost unwatchably grim, if sadly accurate, depiction of teen life in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 21st century. Hardwicke has a defense for the drug use and sex in her breakthrough film, saying “There was something going on that I wanted to blast out for discussion,” and some youth pastors, by a hair, saw the point. Still, if conservative Christians are going to make this movie a success, it’s Hardwicke they’ll have to get past.

It may be better for New Line if they don’t. To judge from the trailer, the movie is a basic sandswept epic full of donkeys, drumbeats, and nonbiblical scenes added for drama. For all his church-basement screenings, it was controversy, not corporate calculation, that made Mel’s movie compelling as a car wreck.

Fox News reports that Disney is looking for other distributors on which to unload scandal-tainted Mel Gibson’s new movie, “Apocalypto,” about the mysterious expiration of the Incan Empire. Fox’s sources point to Lion’s Gate Films, which picked up Kevin Smiths’ “Dogma” and Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” when Disney got cold feet, as the most likely candidate. Today, Lion’s Gate executives denied that they were negotiating for the rights to “Apocalypto,” and wiser heads, if not better sources, were saying that Disney is probably stuck with Mel’s Incan-language epic: Even without Mel’s anti-Semitic outburst, the movie, with no recognizable stars and a R-rating for violence, doesn’t promise the fast bucks of a big opening weekend that would lure an alternative distributor.

Meanwhile, Mel stars in a new trailer, “Signs (of Anti-Semitism),” based on his role in M. Night Shamalyan’s “Signs.” Never has Adam Sandler’s ‘Hanukkah Song’ seemed so scary. See for yourself:

MTV celebrated its 25th anniversary last week, but I couldn’t figure out what they were celebrating. I find myself singing the Dire Straits’ classic lyric, “I want my MTV,” because my MTV–or, at least, good MTV–hasn’t been seen in a long, long time.

Mark Knopfler called the early MTV stars “yo-yo’s,” said “they aint workin’” and that they were earning “money for nothin.’” What he thought was bad then has become downright disgusting since. “My” MTV was mostly mainstream music with hints of alternative and headbanging stuff, played between the greetings of original Veejays Martha Quinn, Mark Hunter, Nina Blackwood, downtown Julie Brown, and the late J.J. Jackson.

At that time, MTV was truly an on-screen version of radio. Its jingles were unique, the sign-ons were original (who can’t remember the Apollo spacecraft, among other frequent images?) and the music at least felt like music. Some videos were hard to understand, like confusing dreams. Others made the song more real. But today, MTV is some kind of variety of gangsta wrap, teen reality shows, and the closest you can come to teen porn on TV without breaking FCC rules. So for me the 25th anniversary was more of a requiem tribute than a celebration.

The only thing I like about the current trend is the emerging popularity of Christian bands (especially those who aren’t called “Christian” bands) on Christian stations, local individual stations, and even MTV’s sister-network, VH-1. “The Zone” is one example, now playing faith-based videos in over 200 local television markets. Medium-market cities are being exposed to what the Bible Belt has had for a long time: lots of faith-based entertainment on several stations. Perhaps someday the big cities will have the same. Strong young balladeers and aspiring musicians with faith-driven lyrics are finding a home outside of MTV’s bias–and I’m glad for it.

I’m not provoked to say “good riddance, MTV,” but I’ll certainly say “R.I.P.” to a fading cultural phenomenon, while clicking past it for more positive–and spiritual– music and videos.