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Alex Stroup, editor
Tuesday, December 23, 2003
by Alex Stroup, editor

Calendar Girls

British Golden Girls bare their assets for a good cause

Alex's Rating: 8 out of 10

I just can't get enough of various British people almost getting naked on screen. Seeing blue-collar thirty-somethings do it in The Full Monty was a lot of fun. Seeing a couple of rural geezers do it in Waking Ned Divine was even better. Frankly, I'm open-mined enough to think seeing it from a bunch of women on the border between middle-age and elderly might have a laugh or two in it somewhere.

© 2003 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. All rights reserved.

Though the disclaimer at the end tells us that any similarities between the film's characters and real people are coincidental, Calendar Girls is based on one of those human interest news stories that sweeps the world every once in a while.

In the movie's version of events, Annie Clarke's (Julie Walters) husband has died of leukemia and her free-spirited and disorganized best friend, Chris (Helen Mirren), has the bold idea of putting together a nude calendar to raise money for the local hospital. As a tribute to the dear departed.

Both women are members of the local branch of the Women's Institute, a national organization dedicated to the education and empowerment of women. Normally this takes the guise of listening to presentations on broccoli or carpets, so it pretty much goes without saying that doing a nude calendar goes against the grain.

Fortunately, Helen and Annie line up most of the months before word gets to Marie, their rigid local W.I. chairwoman (Geraldine James) and things get more difficult.

While Calendar Girls has a few emotional scenes, it is definitely a comedy. When it comes to filling a comedy with older actors, it is common to infantilize the characters. It is funny (well, potentially funny) to take a child in a movie and make him act like an adult. There is humor in that because the character has faculties that someone that age should not possess. Similarly, it is common in movies to take an elderly character and give her adult faculties and then simply expect that to be funny. “It's funny,”the movie shouts, "because old people are supposed to be child-like; isn't it cute when they act normal?"

And it isn't, it is insulting. That was my concern heading into the theater; that I'd be presented with a series of old-person caricatures. The grandpa still chasing the ladies after all these years. The grandma who swears like a sailor. And so on.

Fortunately, that isn't the case. With 11 women in the calendar, you can't expect that each will be a well-rounded character (in fact, only six of them get more than incidental screen time), but they are all presented as normal women above 50. In fact, the only one who even begins to descend into a stock character is Chris, the main character.

Chris is a free-wheeler. Running a business, but not being very organized. Having problems with her son, but really addressing them. You get the feeling she is always doing things a little bit late (with a teenage son, she would have waited until her early 40s to have him) and a little bit wrong. In fact, when the branch leader learns of the calendar, she tries to dissuade anybody from participating by saying, “Doesn't this sound like another one of Chris's great ideas?”

The saving grace, though, is that while Chris acts younger than she is, this is never presented in itself as a source of humor. She's funny because she has a biting sense of humor and gets herself into some awkward situations. It is refreshing to have everybody, from the actors to the characters to the audience, be treated with some respect.

The movie starts with a brisk pace and quickly hits a stride, hitting its beats solidly and never lingering too long to stretch a joke. Unfortunately, it is a pace that is only carried to that middle of the film and then things begin to slow down and become a more dramatic. All of the laugh-out-loud moments happen in this first part, as does the one real tear-jerker.

The drama in the second half never really connects, and the characters seem to care so little that you have to wonder why you should. It is necessary, of course, that the characters learn something from their adventures beyond how to hide the naughty bits behind breakfast pastries, but by the time the women are heading off to America you really wish they'd spent more time on the calendar-making and less on the lesson-learning.

Though the movie earns its PG-13 rating with a brief flash of Helen Mirren's breasts, and a certain amount of almost-viewed breasts elsewhere, there is nothing in the movie that racy or meant to be titilating.

And really, the fact that they all have British accents means it must be the height of culture.

The Young Black Stallion

New equine movie comes to IMAX

Alex's Rating: 3 out of 10

First, let's get the important part of this out of the way.

This movie is only 45 minutes long!

There. If that is all you take away from this review, my purpose has been served and you'll be saved the shock awaiting the guests at the screening I attended. While it doesn't seem necessary to do so for most movies, promotional screenings always have a large group of people who show up very early to guarantee they get a good seat. Let's just say that not everybody was pleased to learn that they'd waited in line for more than twice the running length of the movie.

Now, 45 minute to an hour is about standard for movies made in the IMAX format, but how many people regularly attend IMAX films? In an era when all the big blockbusters are being converted over from 35mm and being shown full-length on IMAX screens (gone are the days when the platter size significantly limited the length of such movies), you can understand people being even more confused.

So The Young Black Stallion is going to have to pack some wallop to make it worth the $9 and up that most people will have to pay at their local multiplex. And this is an attempt at pure entertainment, not edutainment. Meaning that it isn't simply enough to show a shark (or horse, in this case) on screen really big.

Unfortunately, what you have here is little more than a TV show. In fact, it should be expected that The Young Black Stallion will quickly be making an appearance on Wonderful World of Disney or the Disney Channel. Actually, that isn't a bad idea. Paired with one of the old True-Life Adventure shows, that could be an entertaining couple of hours on the couch.

© 2003 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. All rights reserved.

But IMAX isn't your couch, and all this movie offers is a very straightforward story of a young girl uniting with a horse and then winning a race to help out the family.

Set in 1940s North Africa, the mood is set with the opening scene in which we are presented with a wild horse out in the desert, about to give birth. Of course, the mood set is pure terror as I fear that I'm about to watch the birth of a horse, 70-feet tall. That would be a little too True-Life for my tastes.

Fortunately the messy details happen off screen and the black stallion is born, and his mother is captured. Then we cut to the protagonist of the story (no, this movie is not really about the stallion), young Neera (Biana Tamini) who is suddenly on her own in the desert when her caravan home is attacked.

The danger of being lost in the desert seems significantly underplayed as she hooks up with the horse, tames him with her innocent charm, and they then go several days without food while she walks home. Back home, she finds that her family, led by Uncle Ben Ishak (Richard Romanus), has lost its prized herd of thoroughbred horses during the war and is now struggling to get by.

And, fortunately, there is a way for Neera and the black stallion to get the family on its feet again, but I don't want to destroy the subtle surprise in store for audiences.

There isn't any surprise, of course. The description above probably overstates the complexity of the plot and the acting ability of those involved.

But at least it's pretty, right? This is, after all, IMAX in the great Sahara desert. Even this is underplayed, though, with few of the sweeping artistic shots you'd expect. If the makers of The Young Black Stallion couldn't find them on their own, they could have at least cribbed from Lawrence of Arabia which is a veritable guidebook on filming the desert beautifully.

There are a few wonderful shots (especially an aerial taken of a horse race through a winding canyon), but nothing that really needs IMAX to be appreciated. In the end, The Young Black Stallion is too short to be a good movie, and too small to be good IMAX.


Calendar Girls is a Touchstone Pictures release

Limited theatrical release: December 19, 2003.
Wide theatrical release January 1, 2004

Directed by Nigel Cole

Screenplay by Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi

Starring Helen Mirren, Julia Walters, Penelope Wilton, Ciarán Hinds

Rated PG-13

Running Time: 108 minutes


The Young Black Stallion is a Walt Disney Pictures release

Wide theatrical release: December 25, 2003

Directed by Simon Wincer

Screenplay by Jeanne Rosenberg, based on the novel by Walter and Steven Farley

Starring Biana Tamini, Patrick Elyas, and Richard Romanus

Rated G

Running Time: 45 minutes



Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted “information junkie,” Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.

Click here to contact Alex.


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