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Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) tells us that as a child she spent more time wet than dry. She is the daughter of competitive surfers, home-schooled so that nothing would interfere with her training or her opportunity to go out into the water when the waves were good. And then one morning, when she was 13, a shark bit off her arm up to the shoulder. Determined that nothing could stop her from doing what she loved, she was back on her board a month later.

Two powerful forces kept her going, Bethany’s passion for surfing and her faith in God. This movie does a better job with the first than the second. The surfing scenes both before and after her injury are gorgeously portrayed, taking us inside the waves so that you will almost feel the spray on your face as the surfers rip around the swells. Writer-director Sean McNamara and the talented surfers on screen convey not just the experience of harnessing the power of the ocean but the thrilling rush of it as well. But he does not bring the same energy to the faith-based part of the film, which feels flat and more dutiful than heartfelt, like a youth group curriculum pulled off the Internet.

One problem is Carrie Underwood, a lovely performer who just does not have the acting skill she needs for Sarah Hill, the youth counselor who guides Bethany both before and after the attack. Perhaps because the film-makers are trying to please both faith and secular audiences, the faith-based elements of the story are thin and vague, reduced to a parable about not being able to see the big picture when you are too close and a trip to a very tidy settlement area in Thailand after the tsunami. The mention of Jeremiah 29:11 is not as significant as her doctor’s reassurance that “the things you are going to have to learn to do differently is extensive but the things you won’t be able to do is small.”

The real turning point is the scene where Bethany receives a prosthetic arm that does not give her the functionality she expected. That is a far greater blow than the original injury because it is only then that she must acknowledge that her loss is permanent. It is only then that she is able to have an honest re-evaluation of her faith, her priorities, and her options. In another sober moment, Bethany’s father (Dennis Quaid) silently matches the bite mark on Bethany’s surfboard with the enormous jaws of a captured shark, confirming that this was the beast that attacked his daughter.

Robb conveys Bethany’s resilience and athleticism. McNamara has a good sense for the rhythms of teen girl friendships (I still think that Bratz is underrated) and the scenes with Bethany and her friends capture the warmth and excitement of young girls on the brink of mastery of skills and the beginning of independence.  But like its main character, it really comes alive when it catches the waves.

Russell Brand takes over the title role in this unnecessary remake of the better-remembered-than-re-watched 1981 film starring Dudley Moore and the Oscar-winning Sir John Gielgud. It’s harder to find a perpetually substance-abusing hedonist funny these days than it was back in the Reagan Administration era.  There have just been too many boy-men comedies and too many episodes of “Celebrity Intervention” since then to give this idea the freshness it had 30 years ago. Compare the advertising taglines for the films.  Circa 1981: Not everyone who drinks is a poet, some of us drink because we’re not.  Circa 2011: No Work. All Play.  Crisper, perhaps, but dumbed down and not too ambitious or intriguing.

Brand, who can do quite well when he essentially plays himself, his offhand delivery contrasting nicely with the outrageousness of the comments, is a comedian, not an actor, and he seems lost just when his character most needs to demonstrate the depth to persuade us that two fine women see something worth loving in him. When Brand shows up in the opening credits as not just star but co-producer, it becomes drearily obvious that this movie was the result of nothing more than a “let’s find a vehicle for Russell” meeting.  There is no sense at any point that anyone connected with the film had any special inspiration about either remaking or updating the original.  We hear a few notes from the original film’s Oscar- and Grammy-winning song (“When you get caught between the moon and New York Ciiiity….”), but just a few flickers of what made the Moore version so appealing.

As in the first film, Arthur is a fabulously wealthy man who tries to amuse himself by over-spending or over-indulging in alcohol and women or preferably both at once.   His loyal nanny (Dame Helen Mirren replacing Gielgud as the butler) is the only one who is close to him and the only one who cares about him.  His mother is a tycoon who would hold him in disdain if she thought he was worth the effort.  The girl he slept with the night before tucked his watch into her purse.  The cops get a bit annoyed when he floors it in his Batmobile.  And somehow showering money and gifts on random strangers does not win him friends, either.

Arthur’s mother gives him an ultimatum.  Either he marries the rapaciously ambitious Susan (Jennifer Garner, having a lot of fun but not quite managing to squelch her innate niceness) or he is cut off from the fortune and must find some other way to support himself.  Even though he has just met a girl named Naomi who might make him happy (indie darling Greta Gerwig in her first big-budget leading role), he agrees.  The dilemma gets amped up as Arthur becomes more attached to Naomi and when he meets Susan’s father, played by Nick Nolte in a tasteless role as a nouveau riche bully who casually plucks out the nails Arthur accidentally shot into him and forces Arthur to put his tongue in a buzz saw.  And then Arthur, who has always been taken care of, has to care for someone else when his nanny becomes, as she would say, ill.

“I like earning something,” Naomi tells Arthur, “And I know you don’t know what that feels like.  It is great.”  I like movies that earn the respect and affection of their audience with diligence, sincerity, and imagination.  The people behind this movie do not know what that feels like, and that doesn’t feel great.

Happy Poetry Month!
The wonderful “pÕÎ-trÉ” blog has a terrific selection of poems about movies. And there have been great movies about poets like “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” (about the courtship of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning), An Angel at My Table (about Janet Frame) and the documentaries about Rumi, Billy Collins, and Charles Bukowski. And the movie Deliverance was based on a novel by the poet James Dickey.
Many movies take their titles from poems, like A Raisin in the Sun, which comes from a poem by Langston Hughes and Invictus.
Characters in movies often recite poetry. Movies are written by writers, after all, and writers love words. In “Awakenings,” “The Panther” by Rilke illustrates the isolation and bleakness of a patient’s inner life:

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

One of the most memorable scenes in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” is the heart-breaking funeral service with W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

I’ll be posting an interview with Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) about his new movie on product placement soon. Here’s the talk he gave at TED about making a movie about product placement that was entirely funded by product placement. This is why the official name of the film is “POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Story Ever Sold.” And yes, onstage naming rights for this talk were sponsored too. Watch to find out from who and how much.