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Obama at Notre Dame

After all the anti-abortion protests surrounding supposedly pro-choice Barack Obama’s honorary degree and speech this week, the upshot of President Obama’s commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, is a religious idea: you are thy brother’s keeper. Shoulder the burdens of your fellow citizen, Obama told Notre Dame’s graduates (his wife, Michelle Obama, addressing graduates at the University of California at Merced, said the same thing). Self-sacrifice, the Obama presidency’s essential principle, is the opposite of what made America great. This nation’s greatness lies in its founding principle that each individual has the right to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. The moral premise of individual rights is: selfishness. Telling young college graduates as they embark on a career that they exist for the sake of others (Mrs. Obama’s wicked guilt trip has to be heard to be believed) is explicitly anti-American. It is also inherently religious. Obama’s Judeo-Christian opponents, take note: Barack Obama is one of yours.

Screen Shots: ‘Angels and Demons’

After seeing director Ron Howard’s sharp Frost/Nixon—and his Cinderella Man (a movie for these times)—I admit I had higher expectations for his new picture, Angels and Demons. I have not read the religious mystery novels by Dan Brown, and I do not plan to read them, upon which this sequel to Mr. Howard’s The Da Vinci Code is based.

Both pictures star Tom Hanks as Professor Robert Langdon, who apparently hasn’t learned much since he took on the Pope in tracing Jesus Christ’s ancestry in the first movie, a middling whodunit that made a mint. The plot here is more focused, notched to a time-sensitive conspiracy to destroy the Catholic city-state known as the Vatican. But Angels and Demons sounds more exciting than it is.

Adopting the same agnostic theme that essentially sanctions faith over reason in a Catholic-themed crime thriller, the Sony picture—opposed by the Vatican like the first movie—is another slog.

After the Pope dies, Dr. Langdon, an instantly forgettable female Italian scientist, and various Roman and Vatican policemen race against time to solve the puzzle—never mind why the perpetrator leaves a trail—save the most likely men to become Pope, and stop the supposedly secular villains from blowing up the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Square and everything nearby. The powers that be call upon the professor to help amid shifty, cigarette-smoking cops and cardinals (this is Rome after all, where it seems like everyone smokes). By the time it’s over, the plot has had it every which way—going back and forth between condemning and condoning the Catholic Church, which has denounced and persecuted men of reason for centuries.

The Hanks character is reduced to spotting symbols without providing intelligible context and observing the obvious, such as a statue pointing east as the clue to head east. That he risks his own life without so much as a nickel—let alone access to the Vatican archives to finish his latest work—strains credulity and undermines his status. Without much of a protagonist, despite a thrilling church shootout, an exciting climax and good turns by Stellan Skarsgard, Ewan McGregor, and Pierfranceso Favino, Angels and Demons is in dire need of action and a reason to exist. Watching people, including the prof, preach that faith is a gift amid a string of interesting but unrelated facts—such as the secular origins of Christmas and English as the language of “radicals”—is ultimately neither angelic nor demonic enough to engage the imagination.

Disney’s Train Tour for Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’

Disney is getting the word out about its new, 40-city movie publicity campaign, Disney’s A Christmas Carol train tour, sponsored by Hewlett Packard. It begins in downtown Los Angeles (at our wonderfully Art Deco Union Station) on Memorial Day weekend (May 22). The tour, promoting the studio’s upcoming picture, Disney’s A Christmas Carol, based on Charles Dickens’ classic anti-capitalist Christmas story, will end at New York’s Grand Central Station the weekend of October 30. Disney’s computer-generated movie is directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future) and stars Jim Carrey (Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!) and Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight).

Disney says the tour will include artifacts on loan from the Charles Dickens Museum of London, artwork, costumes and props from the film, demonstrations of the movie’s performance capture technology (used in Mr. Zemeckis’ previous pictures, Beowulf and The Polar Express) and a chance to morph into one of the film’s characters using Hewlett Packard’s TouchSmart PC. Carolers, decorations and surprises will also be featured. America’s government-run passenger rail monopoly, Amtrak, will provide the four-car train’s locomotives and engineers. Dolby Laboratories will be supplying its Dolby® 3D Digital Cinema technology for an on-site mobile theater showing 3D footage from the film. Each stop on the tour welcomes guests of all ages and is free to the public.

Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook—who used to work on Disneyland’s Monorail—said in a company statement: “‘From Los Angeles to New York, and all points in between, guests are going to have a fabulous time discovering things about the making of this extraordinary film, participating in their own festive fantasies, and getting into the holiday spirit all year round.” Other stops include Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis, Indianapolis, Miami, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.

It’s nice to see Disney doing something original and nostalgic, which, unlike its dreadful Disneyland and theme park campaigns, seems properly themed and integrated. It is a smart move to feature the original novel as a part of the exhibit, which Disney doesn’t do often enough (the studio’s 1996 animated adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame comes to mind). The Christmas Carol campaign seems to embrace the author’s voice.

Doing Dickens has its drawbacks. While A Christmas Carol is well-known and popular, it is also terribly dark and gloomy and I wonder whether that will play across America through November. Will cash-strapped audiences pay to see another heavy-handed attack on capitalism at a time when capitalism is being all but destroyed by government intervention? A lot depends on Jim Carrey, an often vulgar actor who can come across as unhinged, and how the multimillionaire actor plays Scrooge. Is Scrooge depicted as evil because he makes money and because he doesn’t sacrifice himself for others—or as merely missing out on the milk of human kindness? Disney describes A Christmas Carol as a “thrill ride” which captures the essence of the Dickens tale in 3D. It opens in theaters nationwide on November 6.

As for the train tour, I wonder if waiting in line to see a special effects showcase is worth a Saturday. People may walk in thrilled by the anticipation of experiencing the train only to be disappointed by what’s inside, especially if it’s merely another glorified video game or a perceptual assault of 3D toilet humor, in which case people may not be keen to see Disney’s A Christmas Carol by fall. The movie’s emotional pull must come through. Of course, it could be a terrific event for an anti-profit movie that makes piles of money.

New ‘Star Trek’ Movie is Bland, Not Bold

As a reset for Paramount’s popular series, the new Star Trek movie, opening this weekend and directed by J.J. Abrams, is disappointing. The original NBC television series was an intelligently written program which put highly individualized characters into often philosophically driven plots and this effort doesn’t come close to measuring up. That said, at least Star Trek has a coherent plot, which is rare. There are no major missteps.

The plot is formulaic, characters are too broad, and the conflict is the stuff of cable reruns. Playing in IMAX theaters (where I saw it), Star Trek contains the requisite action and plot progression but it doesn’t have what it takes for a franchise reboot.

Previous movies are mixed, but the TV series kept things simple, with the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise as the focal point, her international crew poised for action in a clear hierarchy and conflict resolution as the primary plot purpose. Here, we get twin tracks of expository set-up—Kirk and Spock—and it takes too long, wanders too wide, and emphasizes personalities instead of developing dramatic tension. The Enterprise is an egalitarian gathering place where the crew stands around trying to rule by consensus.

Kirk is a playboy, Spock is tortured and everyone sounds like they’re reading from a script. The character Uhura is expanded at the expense of Bones. Sulu, Chekov and Scott are all there (Sulu fares best) and Bruce Greenwood is added as Kirk’s mentor. Some scenes, such as an elevator scene with Spock, are well done, but soon it’s back to the banal. Overbearing music, jerky camera shots, and a Jurassic Park rip-off burden the heavy load and it is hard to get excited about an evil Romulan—who, it is implied, has a point—on the warpath. Finally, Star Trek urges us to abandon reason and act on faith, a bad message you can get from any TV preacher or member of Congress (and, with both advocating religious statism, it’s hard to tell them apart). Many readers are going to see it anyway, but the new Star Trek, while not a bust, is, as I suspected, as blurry as its poster.

Epics Coming to DVD: ‘Benjamin Button’, ‘We the Living’

Paramount releases last year’s best picture, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, on a special, two-disc DVD tomorrow. Though I have not reviewed the DVD (I reviewed the 2008 movie here), the product, which includes printed material, looks promising and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in this beautifully evocative movie again.

The slip-cased Criterion Collection package is presented in widescreen with the following features: a documentary called The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button; director David Fincher’s introduction; scoring, special effects and visual effects bonus bits and an audio commentary by Fincher. It’s also being released on a single disc DVD and on Blu-Ray. I plan to add DVD notes to my original review.

Another three-hour epic, We the Living, which was recut from an Italian pirate film released in fascist Italy and Europe as two separate pictures in 1942, is finally coming to DVD sometime this summer, according to reliable sources. This memorable movie version of Ayn Rand’s first novel (1936) premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 1986 and was released theatrically in 1988. I’ll have more to report about this exciting news—watch for my exclusive articles about We the Living—for this outstanding motion picture. If you haven’t read the exceptionally haunting novel, a new paperback edition is due out soon (first reported here).