The Pursuit of Happyness
Based on a true story, Will Smith portrays Chris Gardner, a struggling salesman in 1981 who goes to great lengths to secure a prestigious job to support a life for his son, played by Will Smith's real-life son Jaden.
This is a well told story about an intelligent, resourceful husband & father who hits rock bottom thanks to bad luck & a bad sales investment and who struggles against seemingly insurmountable odds to juggle work, fatherhood, and just finding food & shelter for the night. Losing practically everything but his son & the clothes on his back, Chris skips over the low-paying grunt work option and lands a non-paying internship at Dean Witter in the hopes it will lead to a prize job with long-term financial security for his family.
The film occasionally feels too slow, and if you've seen the previews and can predict the ending, there may not be many surprises in store for you. Ultimately, the film relies & flourishes on the excellent performance by Will Smith and the understandably excellent father-son chemistry he has with his on-screen/real-life son.
If some films are guilty of using sappy background music to help manipulate the emotions of the viewer, I'd say this movie might be guilty of not using enough music or at least not the right kind of music. This movie should have been a tear-jerker but didn't quite cross that line, and I don't think it's the fault of Will Smith or the writing.
Based on a children's story (that I've never read or heard myself), Dakota Fanning plays a young girl growing up on a farm in Maine and who befriends a pet pig that she saves from slaughter and names Wilbur. A bit of an outsider among the horse, two cows, two geese, five sheep, and a rat, Wilbur somehow gains the respect and admiration of a spider named Charlotte A Cavatica (voiced by Julia Roberts). Charlotte is able to use a special spider ability to make people fascinated in Wilbur so that he can once again escape the threat of slaughter.
This is well-told story, nicely geared toward kids but also mature enough for adults. The movie has an all-star cast, including Oprah Winfrey & Robert Redford, to voice the animals occupying the barn with Wilbur, but only Julia Roberts (Charlotte), Steve Buschemi (Templeton the Rat), John Cleese (Samuel the Sheep), and Thomas Haden Church (Brooks the Crow) really sound like themselves.
Thanks to some unexpected drowsiness (that is no fault of the movie's), I dozed off during an entire scene involving the rat and the two crows, and I'm still not sure exactly what Beau Bridges (Stargate: SG-1) was doing in the movie (I think he was a doctor or school principal or something like that). Wikipedia & Internet Movie Database both list Sam Shepard as the Narrator, but he sounded so much like Beau Bridges, why didn't they just get Bridges to do the narration too?
The Nativity Story
Portraying the events leading up to the birth of Jesus by the virgin Mary, this movie skillfully depicts a biblical time period, explains Herod's ruthless & paranoid reign, and portrays the kind of suspicion that Mary would have faced being pregnant while still in the first year of arranged marriage (during which a woman is considered the man's wife although they do not live together or consumate the union yet).
Joseph is shown as being suspicious & conflicted at first himself until a dream from an angel gives him the same faith Mary has. Aside from the moment that Jesus is born, the best parts involve the three wise men who are fleshed out with interesting personalities that reflect faith, logic, humor, and awe.
The visuals are sometimes weak, with matte paintings or models being obvious stand-ins for ancients cities, but the important thing here is the story. It could have felt a little more epic or majestic, especially near the end, but this is a thorough & faithful telling of the nativity story that is worth seeing for all who believe (or all who want to).