Pride (PG): Marie MacNeill
It’s the mid-1970s, and 10 years after being ousted by his racist competitors at a college swim meet, Jim Ellis finds himself unemployed in Philadelphia. Pride, a heartwarming drama by first-time director Sunu Gonera, is based on the true story of African-American schoolteacher-turned-swim coach Ellis (Terrence Howard).
A bigoted principal, Bink (Tom Arnold) rejects Ellis for a teaching position despite his mathematics degree and his sports accomplishments, and Ellis ends up in charge of preparing an abandoned recreation center for demolition. Instead, he opens the center’s pool and, together with a burnt-out janitor (Bernie Mac), transforms some troubled teens from the streets into competitive swimmers, taking them all the way to the state championships despite racial tensions.
Jim Ellis’s credo for the swimmers is “Pride, Determination and Resilience”—a play on the team’s name, PDR (short for Philadelphia Department of Recreation). These are the characteristics Ellis instills in his swimmers as they fight crass racism, an initially indifferent city councilwoman (a believable performance by Kimberly Elise) and a thug trying to lure the kids into the violent street life around them. These characteristics are the glue that makes the team and holds it together.
Though criticized as another stereotypical sports flick, Pride does not rely on stereotypes and clichés to make its point—the teens are not all hardened street kids, Ellis is not without his own flaws, the city official is a black woman—yet watching these underdogs struggle, one can’t help but wonder anew why a race of people should have to muster so much pride, determination and resilience just to live among their fellow Americans. A particularly non-stereotypical scene in the film shows the black teens living up to their unruly reputation at their first swim meet followed by Ellis confronting them about their own racially superior attitudes against their white, suburbanite competitors.
This less than black-and-white depiction is perfect for Terrence Howard (he is listed among those who invested money in the film), who had his family torn apart by a hateful, racist incident. After being reduced to life in the projects because of a white man’s bigotry, Howard, a light-skinned, mixed-race child with green eyes, dealt with prejudice from his black neighbors. His passion for bringing the ugliness of the issue to light (see also Crash and Hustle and Flow) comes through in this brilliant performance.
Though occasionally slow in pace, Pride is at times passionate, moving and ultimately believable. Today, 35 years later, Jim Ellis still coaches disadvantaged kids at the Marc Foster Rec Center, evidence of his dogged determination to fight social inequity one young person at a time.
Blades of Glory (PG-13): Matt Mungle
Will Ferrell goes for comedic gold in Blades of Glory. After faltering to bronze (at best) in his previous Talladega Nights, the pressure was on to regain his position atop the medal podium. He makes it, but as in this new film, he does not stand there alone. Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) helps make this film the laugh-out-loud comedy that Ferrell fans have grown to expect.
The story is as silly as they come. The two top men’s figure skaters, Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell) and Jimmy MacElroy (Heder), are banned from singles competition. With no other place to turn, they reenter the skating realm as the first ever male pairs skaters in history. That visual alone is enough to carry this film through most scenes. Add to that the distinct difference in the characters and what you have is a foundation for hilarity.
The supporting cast is outstanding, a formula that made Anchorman great. In Blades of Glory you have freaky brother and sister skating partners played by Amy Poehler (SNL) and Will Arnett (Arrested Development) (real-life husband and wife). Poehler is one of the greatest female comic actresses today. She is a master at facial expressions and comic delivery. Arnett is perfect at playing the guy you love to hate. Add to the mix Jenna Fischer (The Office) and Craig T. Nelson, and you give Ferrell breathing room to work his magic without carrying every moment.
I give Blades of Glory 4 out of 5 lifts for this genre. Is it as great a film as 300? Of course not. But for a simple comedy that just wants to make you laugh for 90 minutes, it nails the landing every time.
Danielson: A Family Movie (NR): Will Thompson
Director J.L. Aronson’s documentary Danielson: A Family Movie, which releases on DVD this week, is a rare treat. Greeted with indifference from mainstream Christian music and an air of acceptance by a loyal secular following, the Danielson Famile has weathered over a decade of existence, and what a decade it has been.
The film follows Daniel Smith, the group’s lead singer/songwriter, who created the band as part of his senior thesis project at Rutgers University and signed a record deal with Tooth and Nail Records, Christian music’s premiere alternative label in the late 1990s. The band was initially comprised of all four of Smith’s siblings: two brothers, two sisters and childhood friend Chris Palladino. They gained notoriety through performances at Cornerstone Festival and famed producer Kramer, who worked with names like Low, Daniel Johnston and Urge Overkill.
The Kramer-inspired popularity helped the band get noticed by the general music scene, garnering a loyal fan base of indie rockers and those looking for something outside the mainstream. As much as the film is a look at the arduous intersection of Christianity and pop culture, it’s the story of the Smith family and their collaborators. As each band member approaches adulthood, Smith struggles to keep his artistic vision intact while managing his own family of a wife (also a band member) and daughter. Famile members go to school, get married, become parents and move away. The devotion each one has to the band, its mission and the family is touching in a way that has been genuinely absent in the last half of the 20th century.
One of the many friends/collaborators happens to be Sufjan Stevens. The indie it-boy for 2005 and 2006 got a break from Smith and Co. before recording his now-famous Michigan, Seven Swans and Illinois albums. Stevens joined the band playing drums and percussion as a replacement for brother Andrew before a 2001 performance at the UK festival All Tomorrow’s Parties. According to the film, Smith had an appreciation for Stevens’s music, which led to Stevens recording for Smith’s Sounds Familyre label.
The film is a well-crafted and compelling story of family, art, devotion and faith. Regardless of spiritual bias, audiences won’t help but respond to the earnestness and compassion with which Smith and his various collaborators attack the passion of music. Awkward altar calls and forced Gospel readings are absent. Never is the band’s faith forced or treated as a weapon or tool; it is instead a passion for art, faith, and life that go hand in hand.
Marie MacNeill just returned from Nairobi where she witnessed some of the ugliest consequences of racism—the inconceivable poverty and suffering of those forgotten by the world.
Matt Mungle is a member of the North Texas Film Critics Association (NTFCA) and hosts the syndicated radio show Spin 180. With his wife Cindy, he does a weekly radio feature, The Mungles on Movies.
Will Thompson recently graduated with his B.A. in Communication and a minor in Video Production. He is a freelance writer and videographer, but makes money doing other tasks.