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Denzel Washington's ‘Debaters' exudes hope; plus: a warm, wet ‘Horse'

Film fans, do not be alarmed: Charlie is out of town for the week, but he shall return! We also happen to know he is in a land barren of palatable movie offerings, a land desicate of modern culture, a land so pure as the driven snow as to be devoid of all cultural ambition unless it involves muttonchop sideburns and time-trampled cowboy hats. Yes, he really did leave town — ha ha. The point is, he'll be darned glad to get back to the mecca that is Humboldt, aswim as it is in all the latest big city confections. And we will welcome him with parades and confetti!

OK, enough stalling: On with this week's shows.

— Heidi Walters

Previews

Two movies open locally on Friday, Jan. 4, and they are as different from each other as the desert and the rain forest. The comedy-drama Juno, directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking), stars Ellen Page (X-Men: The Last Stand) as Juno MacGuff, a diminutive teen with an extremely well-functioning brain except for the silly moment in which she gets herself with child by her best bud, Paulie Bleeker, played by Michael Cera (Superbad). But instead of everyone melting into childish rage and sentiment that turns to flowers, Juno and Paulie set about finding a set of good parents for the kid. What ensues is a megadose of quirk and circumstance, fast quippy dialog and non-sugary cuteness. Juno's screenplay was written by Diablo Cody, the LA writer admired for her "Pussy Ranch" blog and her memoir Candy Girl: A Year in The Life of an Unlikely Stripper, so the film likely will be a hit with the smart-cute, offbeat-hip crowd. Rated PG-13 "for mature thematic material, sexual content and language." 92 m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

Juno's by far the best new offering this week, the veritable antidote to the other movie opening Friday, teenage horror flick One Missed Call, directed by Eric Valette. Yes, it involves cell phones (well, duh). Yes, it involves giggling (but not for long!) coeds. Yes, it features much terrifying suspense and obvious gore and ridiculous, frightfilled, no-way-out, unstoppable-future deliciousness. If that's your sort of thing. Rated PG-13 for "intense violence and terror," "frightening images" and "some sexual material." 87 min. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

Meanwhile, at the library, the "Based on the Book" film series resumes, this time featuring the "Films of Bette Davis."On Tuesday, Jan. 8, NCJ's Arts and Entertainment Editor Bob Doran hosts the first in the series, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942; and actually based on a play), starring Monty Woolley as pompous pundit Sheridan Whiteside and Davis as his assistant. The free movie begins at 6:30 p.m. in the meeting room of the main branch of the Humboldt County Library, 1313 Third St. in Eureka. Info: 269-1905.

— HW

Reviews

THE GREAT DEBATERS.The uber-inspirational film, which opened on Christmas Day, is based on the true story of Professor Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington), a debate team coach at an all-black college in rural Marshall, Texas, in 1935. His team rises to the challenges inherent to the time period and to college life and ultimately competes against the nation's most prestigious university before the season is out.

Washington directs and stars in this film produced by Oprah Winfrey's production company Harpo Films. The cast includes Forest Whitaker (director of Hope Floatsand Waiting to Exhale) as a fellow professor and father of a debate team member, and Whitaker's son, another Denzel, who plays an awkward, young but talented team member. Nate Parker (Pride; Cruel World)and Jurnee Smolett (Gridiron Gang) round out the strong cast as the remaining debate team members.

The underlying theme is succeeding as a black person in the Jim Crow South through educational aspirations. The film reeks of inspiration. Washington's character is an eccentric professor who's not afraid to make his students uncomfortable in the pursuit of excellence (think Stand and Deliver). The debate team and coach work through the extreme challenges of the racist south all the while succeeding scholastically. Professor Tolson provides the necessary motivation with his experience as a black man in academia and with his double life, revealed early on in the film.

We learn that Prof. Tolson not only fights to support his aspiring young students, but he also leads a movement in the town of Marshall to unionize farm workers and sharecroppers. This creates tension in the community and in the debate team as Prof. Tolson faces legal penalties and violence.

True to inspirational form, the debate team rises against the emotional backdrop to become virtually undefeated. They are eventually invited to debate the all-white team from Harvard University. The winner? Let's just say it's uplifting.

The role of the film's characters in history is revealed toward the conclusion, and so it provides an easy to swallow and, yes, inspirational history of black American legends. Certain plot elements ooze canned Hollywood, such as the sexual tension between team members and Tolson's struggle to change the world while maintaining his status as professor and community member, but the movie is as tactful as one would expect considering the director. A glimpse into the lives of everyday people who helped shape our nation, The Great Debaters is a warm-hearted, positive film worth seeing if you can deal with generic story advancing elements. Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, language and brief sexuality. 123 m. At the Broadway.

Emily Hobelmann

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. As soon as director Jay Russell'sfilm began — the camera making a lilting sweep along an enchanting countryside guarded by a castle, dotted with grazing deer, wetted by a tinkling brook, all overlooking the calm water of a snowy mountain-ringed loch, then cutting to inside a pub where an old man (Brian Cox ) is settling into a tall tale for some tourists' benefit — the little girl sitting with her mom in front of me, to the right, stopped bouncing on her seat and settled to gripping the seat in front of her, big eyed. And the little boy, seat-left in front, began peppering his mom with questions. He seemed younger than the girl, so maybe this is an upfront caution to parents: Some kids will be fully engrossed in the film, while others might be a little too young to follow the sequence of good-weird-bad-potentially bad-not so bad after all-good. At one point, the boy asked his mom loudly, "Does he have to go to jail now?" (There is no jail, dear viewers, in Water Horse, nor cops nor robbers, and even the "bad guy" ends up redeeming himself because, after all, he is merely a scaredy-cat fool, not evil.)

And another note of caution: Despite the title, Water Horsehas nothing to do with horses. However, it does star an utterly engaging, burping, gurgling baby dinosaur-like creature who grows up way too fast into a skyscraper-sized adolescent and does, in fact, behave like a wild horse (with flippers) who loves its "mother" (the cute Angus MacMorrow, played by Alex Etel) even though it occasionally lashes out with its snapping-turtle jaws.

Based on the book, "The Water Horse," by Dick King-Smith, with the screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs, Water Horse is about a boy in WWII Scotland who lives beside a giant freshwater loch. He is terribly afraid of water, and also very lonely and sad: He wanders the rocks beside the loch, alone, when he isn't inside his dad's workshed ticking off the days on a calendar that are left until his dad, Charlie (Craig Hall), is supposed to return from duty. Charlie, who appears in memory scenes, is the idealized cheery, tall-and-handsome pop exhorting his tiny son to be strong. His mother, Anne (the expressive Emily Watson), despairs that her son has become closed-off and unable to have fun.

Well, one day, that all changes when Angus finds a barnacled egg-shaped rock big as his head down along the shore. He brings it home, stashes it in the workshed, and when next he opens the door it's as if the shed is now haunted by a tiny gremlin. But it's just the fresh-hatched baby sea monster — which will grow and grow and grow, fed on slops and kept, briefly, in a garbage can, and then the bathtub, and then the loch, into the mythical (or is it?) long-necked water creature we all call the Loch Ness Monster but Angus calls Crusoe.

In the midst of this weirdness, a troop of British soldiers takes over the MacMorrow's home. The pompous captain seems like a baddy. Then along comes the lone, mysterious Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin), who becomes Angus' ally. Soon, the boy's sister, Kirstie (Priyanka Xi) is in on the secret. But what ensues is not mere near-disasters and frolics, but a sensitive probing into the heart of a boy who misses his dad and doesn't fit in with the other kids, and who also must, because of the circumstances of war, grow up almost as fast as his fantastical new friend Crusoe. It is a hopeful movie, tinged with sadness and peppered with jubilation (the wild ride on Crusoe's back through the loch — ah, this is the life!). This is a very real story, tall tales and mythical creatures notwithstanding, and made especially wondrous by Oliver Stapleton's gorgeous cinematography. Rated PG. 105 m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

— HW

Continuing

ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM.Title says it all. Rated R. 94 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS.Based on the 1950s cartoon series about chipmunks Alvin, Simon and Theodore, who sing in three-part harmony. Rated PG. 91 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

AMERICAN GANGSTER.True, juggernaut success story of cult crime hero from the streets of 1970s Harlem. Rated R. 157 m. At The Movies.

AUGUST RUSH.A street musician in New York orphaned by circumstance, August Rush uses his talents to find the parents from whom he was separated at birth. Rated PG. 113 m. At The Movies.

BEE MOVIE.A bee, disillusioned with the prospect of never-ending honey collection, breaks bee rules and talks to a human. Rated PG. 91 m. At The Movies.

BEOWULF.The mighty warrior Beowulf slays the demon Grendel and incurs the wrath of its monstrous yet seductive mother, in a conflict that transforms king into legend. Rated PG-13. 114 m. At The Movies.

CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR.Charlie Wilson, a bachelor/playboy Texas congressman living it up in the 1980s, fights an uphill battle to support Afghan rebels battling Russians. Rated R. 102 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

ENCHANTED.A fairytale princess changes her views on life and love after being thrust into present-day New York City by an evil queen. Rated PG. 108 m. At The Movies.

GOLDEN COMPASS.A young girl's epic quest set in a world where people's souls manifest themselves as animals, talking bears fight wars and Gyptians and witches coexist. Rated PG-13. 113 m. At the Broadway.

HITMAN.Agent 47, a professional assassin, gets caught up in a political takeover and is pursued across Eastern Europe by Interpol and the Russian Military. Rated R. 100 m. At The Movies.

I AM LEGEND.Robert Neville, a brilliant scientist, is the one man left alive after a terrible, manmade virus sweeps New York City, but he is not alone. Rated PG-13. 114 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek, Fortuna and the Minor.

MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM.Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a strange, fantastic and magical toy store where everything comes to life. Rated G. 94 m. At The Movies.

NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS.A man, Ben, follows an international chain of clues to prove his great-grandfather's innocence when a page from the diary of John Wilkes Booth surfaces implicating Ben's ancestor in Abraham Lincoln's death. Rated PG. 124 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek, the Minor and Fortuna.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.Coen Brothers' adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy touches on themes as varied as the Bible and this morning's headlines. Rated R. 123 m. At the Broadway and the Minor.

P.S. I LOVE YOU.A beautiful, smart woman loses the love of her life and then clings to his letters he wrote to help guide her through both her grief and her new future. Rated PG-13. At the Broadway.

STEPHEN KING'S THE MIST.A small town comes under attack by creatures prowling in a thick, unnatural mist said to be originating from a nearby, top-secret military base. Rated R. 127 m. At The Movies.

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY.The tale of larger-than-life musician and songwriter Dewey Cox's crazy life is an up-and-down again story of marriages, famous friends and drug addictions. Rated R. 96 m. At the Broadway.

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Heidi Walters

Bio:
Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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