Now, Voyager – Old Classic Movie with a Disturbing but Largely Ignored Perversity

SHORT TAKE:

Golden Age Hollywood film of a torrid affair between a transformed Ugly Duckling and a married man.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Mid-teens and up, with parental discussion, for morally ambiguous rationalizations, rejection of children, mental illness, frequent smoking, and adulterous behavior, though absolutely nothing but a bit of kissing is shown. Besides which younger kids would be bored spitless.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS!

It is a commonly held misconception that old movies were compasses for morality. This myth is reinforced by the sadly defunct Hays Code and the largely ignored MPAA rating system, not to mention the creation of the Disney empire in the 1920’s, which used to be the Gold standard for family friendly fare. Then there was the preponderance of extremely popular morally upright movies which endorsed and respected religion and marriage, which were released in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s, such as: The Ten Commandments, Bells of St. Mary’s, Parent Trap, Going my Way, Angels with Dirty Faces, Sound of Music and Song of Bernadette.

So it is understandable that audiences seeking entertainment less likely to offend a drunken sailor than the average TV show or random choice at a local theater would look to what are considered old classics – relying on the myth that movies made just before, during and right after World War II would aspire to a higher standard of morality than an early morning staggering Bourbon Street denizen. That old classic movies were — classy.

I hate to be the one to disabuse you of this illusion but…they were often – not.

Don’t get me wrong. I love old classics and I highly recommend them – with cautions. I’ve oft mentioned to our kids that it isn’t so much that movies, by and large, were made BETTER a long time ago than they are today, it’s just that the ones we still watch today were the “cream of the crop”, the ones which would, naturally stand the test of time. There were then, just as there are now, MORE than a fair share of stinkers. But, 50 or even 20 years from now, the ones at the theater today, which continue to attract attention later, are likely to be those of an especially high quality of: acting, plot, cinematography, soundtrack, special effects, or a combination. And they will be remembered when others will have been long forgotten.

BUT this does not mean the movies we now remember from 30, 50 or even going on a solid century ago were unerringly squeaky clean or held to a sterling character of righteous behavior.

One such example is Now, Voyager. The title is gleaned from the poem, “The Untold Want” by Walt Whitman (a man not exactly of pristine rectitude himself). The phrase hearkens to the advice given to Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), the lead character in Now, Voyager by her psychiatrist, (Claude Rains). Charlotte is a drab and emotionally abused spinster, who is sent to go forth and seek adventure and a full life, to “Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”

This is all well and good as she disentangles herself from her bitter, possessive harpy of a mother (Gladys Cooper) to blossom into a self-respecting beautiful woman. But when she decides to occupy herself on a cruise with the affections of a philandering married man, Jerry (Paul Henreid) the movie degenerates into a torrid love affair which spends the majority of the rest of the movie rationalizing why he should refocus his affections on the already reconstructed Charlotte who, by all accounts, suffered previously from the same dowdy, ignored life in which Jerry has abandoned his own wife. In other words, why should he spend his time trying to make a beautiful woman out of his own wife when he can forego all that work and effort by exploiting this vulnerable woman at his fingertips. Of course, the answer, resoundingly given by the movie is —- Why NOT?

So off Jerry goes with Charlotte, wooing then bedding a more than willing Charlotte. Charlotte justifies her dalliance with a man already taken and with a family, in part, by the knowledge that Jerry’s daughter, Tina, is lonely and unwanted by her own mother, Jerry’s wife. There’s definitely something Freudian or dysfunctionally “Elektra”  in Charlotte’s behavior.

Elektra was Oedipus’ daughter, if that gives you a clue. And while this theory is, as Hamlet might say, “more honor’d in the breach,” as it is now universally ridiculed, the Elektra Complex theory was postulated by Carl Jung in 1913 and not yet fully discredited in 1942 when Now, Voyager was released. So there definitely would be a certain armchair psychologist’s nod of understanding, if not approval, by audience members of that time, assuming that Charlotte is taking a certain subtle vengeance on her shrewish and uncaring mother by sleeping with the husband of a woman with a similar personality.

This is not to say it is a badly DONE movie. For its stylized time and manner it is extremely well done. Beautifully tailored costumes, often hand-picked by Bette Davis, herself, for the character of Charlotte; acting which, for that era, was at its height. The extraordinarily and rightly acclaimed Bette Davis and Gladys Cooper won Oscar nominations (back when it meant something), respectively, for best actress, as Charlotte, and  best supporting actress, as Charlotte’s horrible mother.

Bette Davis was one of the Grand Dames of Hollywood. Strong, intelligent, forceful in a largely male dominated industry, she was not at all shy about insisting on her own way of doing things – pressing for changes in everything from script to costuming for the advancement of the film she was in, Davis was a true talent who respected her craft and, like other brilliant later actors such as Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, did not shy from making herself unattractive for her role. Almost six decades of films include: the literature based Of Human Bondage and The Corn is Green, the filming of stageplays like Little Foxes and The Whales of August, the psychological horror Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the expose on the manipulative often meaningless lives of famous actors in All About Eve. From comedy to horror to drawing room romance, there is something for everyone in Ms. Davis’ repertoire of films. And she could convey, with a nod or raised eyebrow, more than many performers today can in five minutes of screen time.

Paul Heinreid, the noble and self-sacrificing Victor from Casablanca, here is at his subtly slimy best, weaseling his way into Charlotte’s fully consenting bed.

Max Steiner won for best music. The black and white filming by Sol Polito makes the most of the gray emotional and moral areas in which the characters live.

And on a personal note it is one of the few movies I’ve seen in which Claude Rains’ character, in this case Dr. Jaquith, Charlotte’s caring psychiatrist, is a completely good guy. His usual fare is the likes of the insane Invisible Man, the evil Earl of Hertford from Prince and the Pauper, the wicked caricature of Prince John in Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the morally murky Capt. Renault from Casablanca – delightful characters all. But seeing him as a squeaky clean white hat was refreshing.

So the quality of the production itself was quite high.

But the most troubling part about this whole movie is the way in which the audience is openly being lead and manipulated into a position of accessory guilt to an adulterous affair. We are meant to sympathize with both Charlotte, who knowingly accepts the advances of a married man, and Jerry, a flat out cad, who flirts and schmoozes his way into a vulnerable woman’s arms, justifying his behavior with possibly one of the oldest pickup lines in history: my wife just doesn’t understand me the way you do. While he doesn’t actually say these words, the sentiment is obvious as he parades out an exceptionally unattractive picture of his wife with his two daughters.

What struck me was how much Jerry’s wife reminded me of pre-transformation Charlotte – dowdy, over-weight, dressed in an unflattering tent, sour expression. And there’s zero excuse for Jerry not to make the same connection, as Charlotte shares an old family picture in which Charlotte appears in her most unappealing frumpiness. Jerry even asks, in one of the most indelicate, foot-in-mouth comments in movie history, who the old fat woman is. So the comparison can not have been lost on him: that, if Charlotte can make this physical transformation so complete and that with a bit of love from him can blossom emotionally, why can he not aid his own wife in such a transformation – or at least TRY!

The film makers appeared not to have made this connection themselves despite its incredibly blatant obviousness. Jerry could see the swan Charlotte became but refused to see anything but the Ugly Duckling his wife was. I suspect it was because it would have been too much trouble for him to do all that work.

Meanwhile, Charlotte, through a set of happenstances, meets and informally adopts Tina, Jerry’s maternally neglected daughter, transforming Tina from a moody self-loathing adolescent into a happy bubbly child. This is supposed to amend for the diverting of Jerry’s allegiances from his family to herself, his mistress (emotionally, at that point, if not carnally).

In the end, Jerry and Charlotte are to remain physically chaste as Dr. Jaquith’s sole contingent proviso for his endorsement of Charlotte’s retention of Tina. In fact, this will become the string by which Charlotte will hold Jerry emotionally hostage for the rest of his life. To adapt Rhett Butler’s comments to Scarlett about the object of SCARLETT’S infatuation, Ashley Wilkes: [Jerry] can’t be mentally faithful to his wife – and won’t be unfaithful to her technically [aside from that one time in Rio].

As my mother used to say: it takes two to Tango, and I have no doubt that Jerry’s wife was complicit in her own marital undoing. But similarly we are never shown her side of the story either. As Jerry, no doubt, felt unappreciated, Jerry’s wife too would have her own side of the story showing her not to be the sole perpetrator in the murder of their marriage.

I finished the movie noting this was one of the first in a long series of movies intended to assuage the guilty conscience of men who wish to abandon their familial responsibilities in pursuit of a fresh bit of — adventure, the list of which notably includes the most tragic and lamentable Toy Story 4, in which Woody callously walks away from “his” child to chase after Boo Peep’s bustle. SEE REVIEW HERE

Now, Voyager could have utilized the brilliant and deep treasure trove of talent and experience to create a positive and productive tale of the healing of a wounded marriage. Perhaps even through his relationship with Charlotte, learning how to nurture his “hopeless” cause wife into a beautiful woman, as he helped Charlotte, and rekindling his marital relationship with his wife. Instead, though listed among one of the “greats” in cinematic history, this “classic” is just another in a long line of movies without a true moral compass or conscience, justifying the devastation wrought but never seen by a husband and father’s illicit behavior. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE ON RUTH INSTITUTE WEBSITE

 

JOKER – NIHILISTIC PLOT WASTES JOAQUIN PHOENIX’ INCREDIBLE PERFORMANCE

 

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF JOKER REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Joaquin Phoenix’ mesmerizing and brilliant performance as Joker is wasted in the nihilistic plot of this realism grounded, extremely disturbing, origin story.

WHO SHOULD GO:

ABSOLUTELY ADULTS ONLY. This is not Caeser Romero. Heck this isn’t even Heath Ledger. Extreme violence, profane language, discussions of child abuse and neglect, demonstrations of mental illness all make for a showing difficult for most adults to see much less children.

LONG TAKE:

Under tour-de-force in the dictionary you should find a picture of Joaquin Phoenix in costume as Joker/Arthur Fleck from the movie of the same name. His performance in and as Joker should go down in cinematic history as a watershed accomplishment in the creation of an onscreen character.

The story in Joker is of a man’s descent into madness, and for Arthur Fleck, while the trip isn’t very long, it is shown in slow motion.

Todd Phillips, writer/director, takes a stab at what could be described as a documentary about the real story behind Joker, from which all of the cartoons and comic books were based, told in an observational style, as though Jane Goodall had hidden cameras on Arthur Fleck instead of gorillas.

Without giving too much away, Arthur is not born but created, as he suffers mentally, emotionally and physically at the hands of a mental health system which fails him, the people who should have protected him, and a violent uncaring culture which takes advantage of his initial simple view of life.

One of the main characters in Joker is invisible – the soundtrack. The music accompanying Joker is incredible, following Arthur like an unseen ghost, drawing in his madness and breathing it out again for others to hear. Hildur Guonadottir, an Icelandic composer, weaves a web of truly haunting cello music which, at turns, lulls and aggressively pursues the listener, echoing Arthur’s multi-faceted insanity: his depressed, hopeless state of mind, his hallucinatory flights of fancy, as well as his manic episodes of single-minded determination.

The cinematography visualized by Lawrence Sher is masterful.  From the grim hues and motifs of rain and shadow, to the camera work which uses techniques such as the “dolly zoom” aka the “Vertigo Effect” where the camera pulls back and zooms forward at the same time – all work together to allow a bleak and twisted perspective into Arthur’s broken mind.

But, most tragic, all this wealth of creativity and talent is ultimately wasted.

While Joker, as I mentioned, can arguably be considered the origin story from which all the other legends and mythology of the D.C. Joker emerge, especially the cartoons, the comics, and Jack Nicholson’s rendition, the viewing of the movie is a long travail of suffering with very little purpose. In films like Les Misérables, for example, the suffering of Fantine and Jean Val Jean is altruistic and ultimately redemptive, teaching humility and mercy to the characters and vicariously to the audience. In Man of La Mancha, the prostitute, Aldonza, is shown literally and figuratively in the ditch in which she self describes as having been born, in order to illuminate how far Don Quixote’s kindness brings her when she reforms. Even silly fare like disaster movies serve as a mechanism for the characters to show courage and self-sacrifice.

In The Dark Knight, Bruce’s losses mold and inspire him into becoming a self-appointed defender of the weak and innocent. And there are Judeo-Christian motifs in the Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne dies to himself everyday, denying his own comfort and pleasures, instead taking on the sins of others, all the while pitted against the remorseless demonic figure of Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Even farces such as Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which feature the ne’erdowell indulgence of greedy impulses by groups of people succumbing to temptations, serve as lessons in horrible warnings against sinking into the mire of one’s baser instincts. The Mad Mad ensemble put themselves through brutal punishments and ultimately go to jail – all while making us LAUGH.

But there is nothing absolutive in Joker, nor are there any hints of a reckoning to come. And there is no proportionate justice for the wicked, especially not for Arthur, no purpose to anyone’s suffering and no humor. Joker is unrelentingly grim, unendingly dark, and grindingly depressing. In the end, the audience is left only with the familiar figure of a boy standing over the dead bodies of his parents and the dancing of Arthur in his Joker costume amidst the rampaging rioters in a burning Gotham.

Joker does serve as a demonstration in favor of institutionalizing the mentally disturbed as opposed to releasing into the “wild” those incapable of functioning in society.

It also serves as a horrible warning against the efficacy of vigilante justice as Arthur quickly moves from killing in self defense, to murder in order to cover his actions, to vengeance against those he believes have harmed him, to serving as judge, jury and executioner against those he deems as “awful”.

But there is nothing redemptive, or self-sacrificing about Joker’s actions. There is no moral base from which Arthur even attempts to rationalize his behavior. There is nothing to learn from the pain which Arthur endures or inflicts.

Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) is his exhausted single-mother neighbor Sophie, Brett Cullen (Dark Knight Rises) plays Thomas Wayne, Douglas Hodge makes a singular impression as Alfred Pennyworth, one of the only characters in the movie whose focus is not on themselves, as his primary concern is to protect Bruce, and Dante Pereira-Olson plays young Bruce.

Robert De Niro has a small role, as talk show host Murray Franklin. DeNiro’s presence is delicious irony. De Niro has played both a character as equally as unhinged as Arthur in Taxi Driver and as demented a fan who faces off against an idealized talk show host in the lesser known King of Comedy. DeNiro’s resume is incredible, featuring a list of movies with enough quality and variety to have secured the careers of a dozen actors: the casual, criminal violence in the characters of The Godfather II, The Irishman, and Cape Fear, the flawed heroes struggling in the dark worlds of Midnight Run, Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver, the boxer in Raging Bull, the captain of a fantasy ship in the light farce Stardust, the aging lead in the romantic comedy The Intern, the slaver turned priest in The Mission, the grim and frightening Al Capone in The Untouchables, the moving victim of catatonia in Awakenings. De Niro is impossible to pin down. Admittedly, it is a testament to the quality to which the filmmakers were aiming in Joker, that the legendary De Niro, himself a master at his craft, would agree to participate.

Unfortunately, the abundance of talent in Joker does not resolve the ultimate meaninglessness of the plot. The audience, much like Arthur, suffers pointlessly in following Arthur’s moral and mental descent.

While Joaquin Phoenix’ performance is mesmerizing and probably should serve in every acting class as a “how to create a character on screen” and while the director and the music serve, with masterful art, to bring us into Arthur’s state of mind and point of view, the journey ultimately has no end, no goal, and no exit strategy from the depths into which Arthur is thrown or the hole he continues to dig at the bottom of his well.

As of the writing of this article Joker is the highest grossing R-rated movie ever made. And it is disturbing to consider that such a pointlessly violent and unrepentantly dark film should attract so much attention.

If you are a student of acting, Joker is worth enduring for Phoenix’ performance. But for those just seeking entertainment or an extension to the D.C. world of Batman and Joker, give this one a miss and re-watch 2008’s The Dark Knight.

LITTLE WOMEN – GERWIG-STYLE 2019 – BEAUTIFULLY TOLD, DEEPLY FLAWED, NOT FOR CHILDREN

AUDIO OPTION FOR REVIEW OF LITTLE WOMEN – GERWIG STYLE

SHORT TAKE:

Well told but fatally flawed as its ultimate intent is to brutally undercut the original theme of the classic story with a harsh feminist agenda.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults ONLY for its twisted theme revealed at the end of the movie.

LONG TAKE:

This 2019 version of Little Women, by extremely talented director/adaptor Greta Gerwig (Ladybird SEE REVIEW HERE), is the latest of 3 in three years based upon the titular novel. These three latest are only a few of many versions available on celluloid. There are LOTS more, including the 1994 version with none other than Batman’s Christian Bale in the role of Laurie and Stranger Things rehabbed Winona Ryder as Jo – but that would be a review for another time.

SPOILERS – EVEN FOR THOSE FAMILIAR WITH THE STORY

Little Women is based upon the classic children’s novel of the same name, about the Marches, a family of four girls and their mother living in Massachusetts on very moderate funds during the Civil War waiting for the family patriarch chaplain to return from the front lines. Included in the cast are the March’s very wealthy maiden Aunt March, their rich neighbor Mr. Laurence and their pitifully poor neighbors, the Hummels.

This 2019 Little Women tells the tale in period costume. However, the 2018 version told in modern day is far far closer to the book’s original theme and intent. The author of the source material, Louisa Mae Alcott had a very unpleasant childhood of poverty under the hands of a tyrannical and irresponsible penniless spendthrift father. Louisa became the breadwinner of the family in part due to her writing of this classic story, idealistically shaped from her wretched family life. Alcott’s autobiography would have been fascinating. Another retelling of Alcott’s story would have been lovely.

Unfortunately, Ms. Gerwig strove to have her reality and fake it too. We, members of the audience, are lead to believe the woman we see in the beginning of the movie is Jo. In fact, we find out at the end, she is Alcott, who holds in contempt the values of marriage which she is “forced” to insert into her book to get it published. This attitude is not only offensive but a sucker punch to everyone who went to see Little Women or, worse, unwittingly brought an innocent girl to view what should have been a delightful retelling of this classic.

That being said, and before I get to the ugly parts of the movie, the acting was splendid. Everyone did an excellent job. Notable were: Chris Cooper (recently in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood SEE REVIEW HERE) is terrific as Mr. Laurence. Timothee Chalamet (victimized in the pedophile advocating Call me by Your Name SEE REVIEW HERE) is heartbreaking as Laurie.

And Meryl Streep’s Aunt March stole every scene she was in. Streep was the perfect subtle combination of blunt and cynically gruff personality, offering criticism freely and offering no holds barred advice but hiding a genuine affection for her poor relatives about whom she is impatient and condemnatory of what she sees as their poor life choices, but about and for whom she cares deeply.

The cinematography by Yorick Le Saux is gorgeous – evoking the soft feel of two hundred years ago yet inserting bright colors to prevent any feel of drabness.

Alexandre Desplat is no stranger to writing soundtracks for off-the-wall movies, writing for bizarrely fascinating Isle of Dogs (SEE REVIEW HERE), the offensive Shape of Water (SEE REVIEW HERE), the eccentric Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets (SEE REVIEW HERE). And he doesn’t disappoint here, constantly evoking the feel of young women running or dancing, using a variety of instruments to color the moment.

But all of these positives could not offset the serious negatives of this movie.

Instead of being honest about an eventual “reveal” that the woman we have been watching is not Jo, the character, but Alcott the author, Gerwig has Alcott masquerade as Jo. But in the end Gerwig has “Jo” remain a spinster, complain that she is forced to “sell” her heroine into marriage to sell her book, and insert a “fantasy” scene which portrays an idealized ending to her book in what can only be described as a backhanded, sarcastic middle finger to the audience, as though demonstrating how far Alcott had to condescend to the masses to get her genius in print – that a happy ending with marriage and family is merely a trite and commonplace mechanism with which to make money, not a noble example of what millenia of people have found to be a blessing.

Ms. Gerwig was true to neither the classic nor to what could have been an autobiographical historic drama. Given that so many versions of Little Women have come out recently it would have made sense to go complete bio and tell the story, not of Jo again, but of Louisa Mae Alcott and her sisters. Alcott’s sisters closely mirrored her literary characters. Elizabeth (Beth) did indeed die young. Youngest sister May (anagrammed into Amy) married, not the boy next door, but a businessman violinist. Anna (Meg) married one John, not Brooke, but Pratt who, like Mr. Brooke died unexpectedly young and not that well off.,

Ms. Gerwig placed one foot firmly in the familiar tale and the other in reality just enough to makes smarmy digs at the notion that women “had” to marry to be able to support themselves. Given Alcott’s success, this was obviously not entirely true, and only succeeded in making the March girls hypocritical and tipping Ms. Gerwig’s condescending hand towards the institution of marriage. Shoehorning political correctness into this otherwise lovely tale is unbecoming of this otherwise talented director.

Had she wanted to tell an honest tale of Ms. Alcott’s life story I think that would have been a far more worthy effort than to create a mish mash blend of reality and fiction that satisfied and did no true justice to either tale or genre.

There is much to commend this latest vision. But easy accessibility is not one of its virtues. This is Little Women: intermediate studies level. If you are not completely familiar with the story, you could easily get lost. The movie starts near the end of the story as “Jo” (who later turns out to really be Alcott but going by Jo) is in New York trying to get her stories published. Beth is already dying. Mr. Bhaer’s interest and honest friendship are going mostly unnoticed and unappreciated. The story then jumps back and forth, not only from there to Jo’s early life with her family in flashbacks, but back and forth between the script as written based upon the classic novel and “reality” as Jo changes her story while negotiating with her would be publisher, “shoehorning” in a love story for herself to make the book more marketable, which life event did not really happen. Alcott actually died a spinster.

Even if you ARE familiar with the story it will be very confusing. The characters are not identified right away so who they are gets muddled and is not aided by the frequent flashbacks. It is an interesting though ultimately very flawed perspective. Our family studied it while homeschooling, saw multiple versions over the years and even appeared as a family at a local community theatre production of the stage play. So I know the story well but still had to pay attention to be sure I got the characters right.

There are incongruities which are relatively trivial but VERY distracting. For example, the actresses’ ages chronologically match up to their respective March characters, but they don’t LOOK the right ages. The girl who plays Amy, Florence Pugh, LOOKS and acts the oldest but plays the youngest March. Emma Watson’s Meg (the oldest March girl) looks and acts as young as Amy should be. The actor playing Mr. Bhaer, Louis Garel, is 9 years older that Saiorse Ronan (Jo), but looks Ronan’s (Jo’s) age. He SHOULD look and act about 15 years older than Jo.

Attributed to everyone from Samuel Goldwyn to Humphrey Bogart, referring to people who want to propagandize movies, is the statement: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Whoever said it first, Ms. Gerwig did not get the memo and has decided to create a hit piece on men and marriage in general and the themes of Little Women in particular.

Ms. Gerwig made the men as weak as possible. When Odenkirk’s pathetic Mr. March finally makes his appearance, far from the joyous relief of having their strong male protector back, as he should have been, I had the overwhelming impression that he was just going to be another weak dependent mouth for Marmee to somehow have to find a way to feed. In Bart Johnson’s Mr. March from 2018’s Little Women we see the backbone from which all these Little Women get their strength.

While it is understandable that Alcott would have experienced the Odenkirk version, she WROTE the Johnson version into her book – the man she likely would have wanted to be her father. But Gerwig, again, wants to merge the two to destroy the beautiful story Alcott wrote and simultaneously muddles her opportunity to tell a more true to life biography by awkwardly merging Alcott’s ugly truth with Alcott’s beautiful written literary vision.

Gerwig also made the sisters appear very cold and Machiavelian at times. As the three surviving sisters walk through the recently deceased Aunt March’s spacious home, which she has generously bequeathed to Jo, all Jo says is that she thought Aunt March didn’t like her, to which Amy comments she can dislike Jo and still give her the house.

The sisters never mention how, despite their Aunt’s cold exterior, Aunt March was incredibly philanthropic toward them, took Amy on a trip which secured her marriage to Laurie, invented work for the girls with which Aunt March could give the family money and retain their dignity, paid for Meg’s wedding despite her own misgivings about the wisdom of the marriage, and for all the many other generosities she surely provided her poor brother’s family. None of the things Aunt March did for them were mentioned, only a cool assessment of what she could still do for them now that she was dead.

Even worse, the faith in God upon which the Marches relied in the book was given little and nebulous short shrift lip service in this version.

Miss Gerwig is more intent on propaganda than telling a good story. Along with her obvious distaste for, dismissal of and contempt for men, she doesn’t seem to like America much either.

Mrs. March (Laura Dern) volunteers at the Civil War equivalent of the USO. This was only shown once and then only to provide a vehicle for a propagandistic hit piece as Mrs. March expresses how ashamed she is of her country, despite the fact it is literally bleeding to near death to make amends for its sins. This horrifying comment was not in the book. The only time anyone mentioned being ashamed in the book was of themselves for a fault or NOT being ashamed of hard work.

At one point Amy tells Jo that Jo’s writing about something makes it important, explicitly saying that things do not have inherent importance in and of themselves. This is the acme of hubris on Ms. Gerwig’s part. Apparently Miss Gerwig believes things are not relevant or of any significance unless they come out of the mouth of people like her – the professional writers who believe they can shape the world, not by proof or truth or real life experience, not by faith in God or inherent credibility, or common sense. Gerwig believes that truth comes only from the pen of those, like her, who have a self-assessment of their own importance. This is the essence of Fake News.

Ms. Gerwig has also decided on a PC perception of Jo as androgynous. Some on the left have even, fairly, interpreted many of the lines and attitudes Ms. Gerwig injected into Jo’s character as lesbian. Had Miss Gerwig wanted to examine that possibility concerning the author’s lifestyle in a legitimate adult oriented biography, I would have found that appropriate, interesting, and potentially insightful. But to distort Jo, the Jo from the source material this way, in this skewed version of Little Women is propaganda of the most base nature, inappropriately forcing an alternate sexual topic onto a children’s classic character.

So in conclusion, instead of either a faithful adaptation of the classic novel or an honest and what would have been truly fascinating examination of the real Miss Alcott’s life, Miss Gerwig has decided to work a classic children’s tale into a propaganda project of extreme feminism, anti-Americanism, and manifesto for alternate sexual lifestyles.

And for Miss Gerwig to present the story as an inextricable combination of the fact with the fiction with no disclaimer or delineation between the two, demonstrates that she wanted to have her credibility and fake it too.

Watch the far more delightful, faithful and faith FILLED 2018 version of Little Women instead.

IT: CHAPTER TWO – BETTER THAN THE BOOK & MORE THAN I EXPECTED BUT PLEASE DO NOT TAKE CHILDREN

SHORT TAKE:

Surprisingly thoughtful, intricately plotted, well acted and very effective but terrifying finale to the film version of Stephen King’s mammoth-sized book IT.

WHO SHOULD GO:

I would like to make one thing clear: STEPHEN KING STORIES ARE NOT CHILD FRIENDLY!!!

There is a warning at the beginning of the movie which declares flashing lights could trigger epileptic seizures in the photosensitive. But that is the LEAST of the problems. There is also sexually discussed content, a profound amount of gratuitous profanity, some of it blasphemous, a lot of lethal violence and gore with child victims in close up, homicide, patricide, people being burned alive, grotesque deformities, slit throats, an explicit scene of suicide, overt physical and implied sexual abuse, and brief but conspicuous demonstrations of alternative sexuality. The violence and bloodshed would have alarmed the Grimm Brothers, though this is to be expected in any movie about a child-eating monster.

I do not know what the parents in the audience were thinking but there was a group of under-chaperoned young teens in the audience next to me for whom I cringed, given the film’s content as well as the visuals in some of the trailers. An R-rated movie will attract R-rated trailers, which R-rated “coming soon” offerings will not be R-rated “ONLY” for gore. One of the movies previewed at the afternoon showing of IT: C2, which was viewed by these kids, included scantily clad pole dancers! Even more inexplicable was the presence of young children who, predictably, begin to cry almost from the outset. Bringing kids to an R-rated movie of any kind, much less a horror fest, is a face-palming level of stupidity, bordering on child neglect, if not abuse.

Let me repeat KING IS NOT CHILD FRIENDLY. DO NOT TAKE CHILDREN.

FOR MATURE ADULT AGE TEENS AND UP ONLY!!!

LONG TAKE:

I walked into IT: Chapter Two fully expecting not to like it. I can hardly be blame. I didn’t like the book and although the TV version had a – dare I say it – certain charm due to the talents of Tim Curry as Pennywise the sinister, extraterrestrial psycho killer clown, and the recent Part 1, IT, wasn’t bad, I still did not hold out much for Part 2, having read the book.  My youngest, now 21, pointed out an element that had not occurred to me about Part 1 – that instead of a straight up horror story it could be seen as an analogy for overcoming one’s childhood traumas and deepest wounds.

Although I thought this idea had merit I still dreaded what they would do with the second installment. After all it was based upon an excessively long, often deeply disturbing novel which catered to our darkest impulses and often relied heavily on caricature-level biases against small town citizens, authority figures, and parents.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. While it is, by no means, a great movie, it is far better than I thought it would be. IT: Chapter Two is the second half of Stephen King’s elephantine book IT about 7 children, outcasts in different ways, who bond as The Losers’ Club to fight an other worldly monster, and their adult selves who return 27 years later to kill IT. My review of the filmed version of the first half of the book – IT – is HERE and covers the child actor versions of the characters. The kids return in clips and flashbacks.

SPOILERS – BIG, CASUAL SPOILERS – SO BE FORWARNED

The adults include: James McAvoy (whose incredibly varied resume includes: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Split, Atomic Blonde, and the entire X-Men reboot series) is Bill, the stuttering leader of the group. Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game, Interstellar) is Beverly the grown up abused child who marries another abusive man. Bill Hader (who has done a lot of voice over acting) is Richie the comedian who as a child seems physically incapable of keeping his smart aleck bully-antagonizing comments to himself. Isaiah Mufasa is Mike, as a child one of the only black people in Derry and an orphan whose parents burned to death in a tragedy he witnessed, and as an adult is the librarian and self appointed guardian of Derry who stays to watch for the monster’s re-appearance. The significantly sleeker and athletic grown up Ben is played by born-Kiwi (native New Zealander) now Aussie Jay Ryan (who, in a note of incredible irony, before becoming established as an actor, used to perform in local supermarkets entertaining young children as —– a clown). Andy Bean is the adult Stan whose Jewish faith, when a child in Derry, made him the target of abuse by the town bullies. Finally, fatherless, hypochondriacal, mother-dominated Eddie has grown up to be played by James Ransone.

Bill Skarsgård (a worthy addition to the Skarsgard acting family which includes both brother Alexander from Melancholia, Battleship, and Tarzan, as well as his father Stellan from the Marvel movies) reprises his role as Pennywise. One might hate his performance as the psycho clown or be fascinated by his interpretation of King’s murderous mountebank, but no one can deny that Skarsgard puts his all into the character, going full out to invest Pennywise with as much horror as a harlequin can hold.

While Gary Dauberman, the scriptwriter, REALLY needs to learn the meaning of “less is more” (and yes, I know, people who live in glass houses….), he, with director Andy Muschietti, (whose only big credit up to now was another horror movie – Mama), made some VERY VERY good plot choices.

There were a number of circumstances in the source material they decided to leave out. Among the sensible deletions were, among a number of other smaller but improvement tweaks: Tom, Beverly’s abusive husband doesn’t pursue them into Pennywise’s lair in a last minute late third act conflict. They do NOT use a parody-level, laughable, King-invented creation myth of a turtle who vomits up the universe to defeat Pennywise. Derry did not blow up when the monster died, resulting in the group being heroes who save a town leaving hope in their wake instead of monster hunters who leave nothing but destruction behind them. Bill’s wife, Audra, did not show up needing to be saved which would have further padded an already excessively long run time. And they explicitly do NOT again lose their memories of Derry after the monster is vanquished, which retention implies they have learned to conquer their own inner demons as well as the extraterrestrial who externalized those fears. (NOT to mention the extremely wise excision in the first movie of the truly disturbed scene in the book where the boys “tag team” Beverly in a bonding ritual of intimacy.)

These cuts indicated a well considered re-evaluation of King’s original book. Dauberman and Muschietti kept what made a good horror story from King’s book IT and replaced the book’s failings with plot and character structures that provided IT with a deeper, layered and even subtle meaning over which King’s far more negative paper prose had steam rollered. Thankfully, and in a rarity, the filmmakers had a bit more sense and gentler hand than did the initiating author.

Dauberman also chose to craft the story around a continuation of the first film’s theme of conquering childhood fears. Each adult, who had formerly been a member of The Losers’ Club, contributes to the defeat of the fear-eating monster by facing and debriding some wound which fundamentally shaped their personalities. Bev once and for all denies her abusive father’s hold over her by embracing Ben’s unconditional genuine love for her. Ben, at one point, is trapped in their childhood underground clubhouse with its walls closing in on him, physicalizing how he was trapped in the fat of his own prepubescent body, but vanquishes this self-killing insecurity by declaring his love for Beverly in acknowledgment that he is not alone and is worthy of loving and being loved. Bill almost drowns in the same sewer water in which his brother Georgie died, then kills a younger self-accusatory version of himself, finally putting his misplaced guilt over his brother’s death behind him. Eddie uncovers Pennywise’s fatal weakness when he throws off his germophobia long enough to successfully wrestle a leperous manifestation of the evil clown.

And so it goes. As each member adds to the pot the Losers get stronger.

To defeat Pennywise they must all reduce him to a killable size. Metaphorically this makes perfect sense. One’s childhood fears can seem to increase proportionately as one gets older, towering over us unchecked and unconfronted to destroy us. But in the light of mature perspective, trauma can be reduced to manageable size from which one can learn, grow, and even benefit. This is a philosophy worth considering and manifests in a monstrously (if you’ll excuse the pun) dramatic way in Pennywise.

There are also a couple of fun cameos – Stephen King, himself, as an opportunistic second-hand shop owner, and Peter Bogdanovich (real life director of Noises Off, Paper Moon, and What’s Up Doc?) playing to type as a film director.

BUT for all of its successes as a horror film – IT is WAY too long – by about a third. Just having to accommodate a large ensemble cast will make for an inherently long story. Accommodating TWO ensemble groups – with present-time adults and childhood dove-tailing flashbacks – is one of the reasons this movie is almost a full 3 hours long. Its padding is mostly due to not trusting the average ticket buyers. Dauberman, et al, needn’t have worried that audience members would RANDOMLY wander into a movie house showing a movie titled IT: Chapter Two. We really did not need all the backtracking, and re-covering old childhood ground with “new” adult eyes to understand what was going on.

In addition, I do not think they understood the difference between pausing long enough for tension to build and holding on to the “punch line” so long you start checking your watch. There are a LOT of jump scares in IT. This movie practically parkours its way through the entire plot on jump scares. And every SINGLE jump scare endures a prolonged preview. For example, Rich and Eddie encounter a cute Pomeranian dog – probably because Rich had jokingly stated a wish that he hoped the monster’s true form would be in this shape. We all know the dog is going to jump scare into a monster-size zombie dog but far too many beats go by as Rich and Eddie comment about how cute it is before this happens. So, yeah, about an hour could have been chopped just by jumping, instead of dragging, their way to the jump scares.

The language is ridiculously and unnecessarily crude, using the “F” word like a baker does flour. Granted all of them subtly reverted back to elements of their childhood during the course of the movie – Bill’s stutter and Eddie’s psychosomatic asthma for examples. Childhood Richie had a marked dependence on profanity as a defense mechanism against his own insecurities, so adult Richie’s profane filled vocabulary should not surprise us, but even so, the repetition became gratuitous.

Benjamin Wallfisch returns to create yet another creepy musical backdrop which functions as a character in its own right. Heavy, and effectively random use of oppressive jarring percussions and wandering dissonant acrobatics on flute and violin provide a disjointed, otherworldly, off balanced and forcefully unsettling soundtrack for most of the movie accompanying Pennywise, which music occasionally, like brief moments of sunshine during a terrible storm, give way to lovely, lyrical, and melancholic passages representing the children and their adult dopplegangers.

IT: C2 is a solid horror movie with an intelligent sub-text but certainly appropriate only for older teens and up given the language, the extreme violence, and multiple scenes of physical, emotional, verbal and implied sexual abuse.

And as I have already mentioned – more horrifying than Pennywise’s presence on screen was the attendance by a number of early teens and even YOUNGER audience members, some of whom were with parents who REALLY should have known better. As if the movie IT: C2 was not inappropriate enough for these children, the previews certainly were, including stories which featured real world violence and pole-dancing strippers. If a movie is “R” rated, as IT is, then authority figures should realize previews are going to be “R” rated as well and often not just for gore and jump scares.

So if you liked Chapter ONE IT then you’ll find IT: Chapter Two very satisfying, with creatively gross monsters and an interesting underlying analogy about learning to heal from childhood trauma.

But PLEASE avoiding traumatizing your own child with this movie and leave the kids at home.

SAM AND ELVIS: EXCELLENT PRO-LIFE INDIE ABOUT A TEEN, HER AUNT AND A STUFFED DOG *

SHORT TAKE:

Well made indie film about the relationship between a foster teen, her eccentric aunt, and a pro-life message.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens and up for some mild cussing but mostly for the conversation and plot topics of family violence and teen sexuality.

LONG TAKE:

Who would have thought you could make a charming (mostly) family friendly comedy about a dead dog, an abused foster child, and her eccentric aunt. Well director Jeffrey Ault manages to do just that in the movie Sam and Elvis. Based on Susan Price Monnot’s play titled Dead Dogs Don’t Fart, with the screenplay written by a collaboration between Monnot and Ault, the story is about a bright but defensive and hostile orphaned foster teenager named Samantha played by Marcela Griebler placed in the care of her Aunt Olina played by Sally Daykin who in turn lives alone with her taxidermied dog Elvis.

This little indie film starts off a bit clunky as Olina expresses her doubts to Elvis, avoids an incessantly ringing phone and eats the random junk food she finds about her cluttered home. However, it finds its footing quickly once the aunt and her ward are brought together and bounce their strong personalities against each other.

The acting demands occasionally become significant but newcomer Griebler holds her own. Rounding out the cast are Pete Penuel as Larry, Olina’s platonic friend and Sara Hood as Rebecca, the well-intentioned and overly sincere but somewhat inept social worker who serves as occasional comic relief.

Ault uses simple and natural settings and clothes that likely came out of the actors own wardrobes. This is to the plus, as the focus is correctly placed on the relationships involved. The other production values like cinematography, sound and the background music are sterling and perfectly meet the mood of this small gem filmed almost entirely within Olina’s house.

People speak their minds in Sam and Elvis. No polite pussy footing around impolite or bad behavior. No tip toeing around differences of opinion. And in this there is a large plus in the negative.

What I mean by that is – despite circumstances which emerge in the plot, which I won’t divulge but you can easily guess, at no time does anyone consider abortion as an option for anyone. At no time is it suggested that an unborn baby is merely a “fetus” or some other euphemism for unborn child, which circumlocution liberals and pro-death dealers fling around like a shield to disguise the holocaust level murders they champion. A baby is called a baby regardless of whether it is in or out of a womb. And that is a breath of fresh air.

There is a bit of mild cussing sprinkled throughout and the topics of domestic abuse and teen sexuality make Sam and Elvis inappropriate for younger teens. But the powerful message of familial bonds and respect for life shine forward making Sam and Elvis a definitely should-see film.

* AND IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THIS MOVIE PLEASE CHECK OUT UNPLANNED – THE STORY OF ABBY JOHNSON, THE FORMER ABORTION ACTIVIST AND DIRECTOR OF THE PLANNED PARENTHOOD FACILITY IN BRYAN, TEXAS, WHO CONVERTED TO THE PRO-LIFE MOVEMENT IN ONE EPIPHANAL MOMENT.

INSTANT FAMILY – A TALE OF THE TRUE SUPER HEROES

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF INSTANT FAMILY REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Instant Family is the charming, inspirational and humorous story of a DINK (double income no kids) couple who decide to foster three children. The film manages to be smart, brutally honest, funny and even whimsical all at the same time.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Must see! BUT only for older teens and up for language and story content.

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LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS!!

Instant Family COULD have been called Foster Parenting for Dummies. This is no one’s idealized version of a blended family. This is not The Brady Bunch, Three Men and a Baby, Despiccable Me or even……… The Blind Side (and you’ll see why that’s funny when you see the movie). But the movie is honest and very funny, miraculously achieving that delicate balance between comedy and drama which many movies attempt but at which few succeed. The innate parity between laughter and tears, which exists in the human condition but is rarely found in movie scripts, comes naturally to this script because the story was inspired by writer/director Sean Anders and his wife’s real life experiences of adopting. All of the characters, from the kids to the support group members to the social workers, are based on the real people Anders met through the process – normally flawed humans with the usual awkward family dynamics trying to do their best under difficult circumstances..

Instant Family soft pedals nothing as it follows Pete (Mark Wahlberg – Mile 22, Deep Water Horizon and Lone Survivor), and Ellie (Rose Byrne – Moira from the X-Men reboot and Bea from Peter Rabbit, and who, though from Australia, does a spotless American accent) from their naive, romantic visions of fostering a child, through the often hilarious mandatory support group meetings, the spotty support of their doubtful relatives, through the decision making and then to the realities of trying to support, protect, guide and raise three at-risk and traumatised children of different ages.

Sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but it is also laugh-out-loud funny.

The movie occasionally wanders gently into slapstick and slight caricature but only in a way one might, with the humor and affection gleaned from the wisdom of retrospection, remember an experience that did not seem funny at the time but ends up being one of your favorite memories. Instant Family reminds me a lot of last year’s equally brilliant Wonder, about a family coping with a severely handicapped child. There are no bad guys, only the challenge, tackled by adults and children alike, to interact with the people who love you as best you can.

And if you ever wondered, as the PSA querries, that you had to be perfect to foster a child, the characters in Instant Family will disabuse you of that notion pretty quickly.

The support group scenes are especially funny, populated, as they are, by every possible combination of would be foster parents, from: single wanna-be super mom, to idealistic fundamentalist Christians, to an infertile interracial couple, to a gay couple, and to our protagonists – an upwardly mobile self employed couple, who initially think of these children the way they do the houses they renovate for a living. All come with a unique set of priorities and preconceived, often conflicting, sometimes counter-intuitive notions. Some are even portrayed as ridiculous or annoying. But, fundamentally, ALL of them have one thing in common: A core desire to provide a loving stable home for children who have none, and who are often at risk of abuse, addiction and even death at the hands of their biological parents and the environment to which they are subjected.

These foster parents, for all of their differences, flaws, quirks, and even errors in judgment, are the living life rafts on the treacherous and stormy seas of our broken culture, desperately trying to rescue survivors who sometimes don’t even want to be saved. I love movies about: The Avengers, Thor, Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Superman, Wonder Woman, Ant Man, Batman, Justice League and Agents of SHIELD. But these disparate, sometimes awkward, occasionally clueless foster parents are the true super heroes.

The acting is terrific, never succumbing to the easy temptation to sink into saccharine or false empathy, but neither does it avoid showing the warts of the torturous foster process.

Wahlberg and Byrne are excellent and never shy away from any of the very strong emotions of the moment, but don’t dwell on them either. And there is a constant balance of the solemn with the naturally evolving moments of humor that always arise from even the grimmest of circumstances. For example, the social workers, Sharon and Karen, played by Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures and Zootopia) are very funny as odd couple co-workers. Notaro is the prim, proper, white, reserved, rule follower while Spencer is the outspoken, blunt, pragmatic, black counterpart. But they both have a realistic view of their jobs. When Pete asks Sharon and Karen about the foster children’s father the only answer he gets is uncontrolled laughter. This humorously speaks serious volumes without belaboring the tragic point. In another scene, after learning of a significant hitch in their plans, Pete and Ellie come home to discover Ellie’s mother, Jan, being decorated with permanent ink sharpies. There was no malice involved. Children and Jan alike had mistaken them for washables. Jan, performed by Julie Hagerty, whose unforgettable stint in Airplane made her synonymnous with ditzy characters, solemnly offers good and sage advice but, of necessity, while indelibly and distractingly face painted.

The music is a cheerful and delightful sprinkling of songs like Wings’ “Let ’em In,” George Harrison’s “What is Life,” and Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop us Now”. The perky upbeats also help soften the more somber moments. You can get the individual songs streaming on Amazon here.

The children are very natural. Isabela Moner, singer and actress, is Lizzy, the teenager who is simultaneously grateful for the safe haven Pete and Ellie provide for herself and her siblings and understandably resentful of these same people as interlopers to her “real,” incarcerated, drug-addicted mother. Moner has a truly beautiful voice and sings the credit song, “I’ll Stay,” at the end of the movie. Gustavo Quiroz is adorable as Lizzy’s clutzy, well meaning and inept younger brother, Juan. And Julianna Gamiz is the youngest and precocious sister, Lita.

The two younger kids act with the normal and very believable open ingenuousness, quick impulsive affection, manipulative behavior, and selfish temper tantrum demands of normal kids. But the writing skillfully runs a thread of abnormality underneath these kids’ otherwise normal veneer. For example, Lita happily plays with Ellie when they first meet until Lita begins play-acting with her doll, calling her doll racial epithets and interacting with the doll  in ways she is obviously imitating from her previous foster parents. It’s nothing sinister but casually cruel. And it gives the audience a taste of what every precarious day can be like for these kids whose parents have abysmally let them down  and are in a system which can sometimes fail them. But again the serious tone is undercut by the humorous way the failed foster couple insist she must have heard it on TV.

A lovely cameo is of Joan Cusack as an elderly, awkward, but concerned neighbor who helps to deflate another scene which could have degenerated into mawkishness but for her delightfully eccentric presence.

The filming style itself is very straightforward, almost like professionally made home movies, as we see quite intimate moments of Ellie and Pete with each other, with their families, and with the foster kids, and the support group sessions.

While there is no sexuality shown on screen, there are sexual topics which come up necessarily and inevitably with the raising of a 15 year old girl from a bleakly broken background who has severe daddy issues. In addition, under stress, there is some humorously interjected but understandable profanity that crops up sprinkled throughout the movie. This, with the serious topic of abandoned and at-risk children, make this movie suitable only for older teens and up. However for that demographic for which is appropriate it is a must-see movie.

I CAN ONLY IMAGINE – BASED ON THE PERSONAL AND POWERFULLY INSPIRATIONAL SONG

 

SHORT TAKE:

I Can Only Imagine is the beautifully told biography, not just of the challenging life of Bart Millard, who was both the product of an abusive father, and the composer of the inspirational song, but a biography of the song, itself. The song "I Can Only Imagine" is unique in the annals of Christian music, crossing Christian music boundaries to become a number one hit in mainstream markets nationally. This song, on which the movie is based, achieved a unique triple platinum status and is the most popular Christian music song in history.

WHO SHOULD SEE THIS MOVIE:

Young teens on up. Caution should be used in bringing children due to the portrayal of Bart Millard’s father, who was an angry, physically abusive man. Though most of the abusive behavior is only talked about there are some disturbing episodes of violence.

LONG TAKE:

Earl Swain was one of my husband’s best friends. He was also one of the kindest, gentlest, most faith filled man I ever met, whose favorite way to start a sentence was: "I'm so thankful that…". Earl gave up his life, repeatedly, during the course of his adulthood in many ways to many people.

Bryan met Earl while working in the emergency room. Originally from New York, then a southern transplant, Earl was a gifted nurse and would work in our home town, Lake Charles, Louisiana long enough to earn sufficient money to set out to nurse and preach the Gospel in countries hostile to Christianity. He would work as a medical missionary in places like Saudi Arabia, where even declaring your Christianity could get you thrown in jail or executed, until he needed to go back to Louisiana to make enough money to return to his missionary work. Earl continued with these acts of corporal and spiritual mercy until he met a lovely widow with three boys. He married the lady and adopted the sons. Then, on April 22, 2003, while out fishing in the Gulf with two of the kids, their cousin and Earl’s father, the boat was swamped by a rogue wave. The cousin was washed away and drowned. His father died of a heart attack as they tried to stay afloat together. Left with only a waterlogged life jacket and a styrofoam ice chest to cling to Earl prayed with the boys, kissed them goodbye and swam away to be sure that he would not be tempted, in his extremity, to latch onto one of the children. Miraculously, the boys were saved by an oil rig crew boat changing shift in the middle of the night as one of the boys held his brother above water and barely clung to consciousness himself.

Earl spent his life offering it to others and his final act of love saved the life of two of his children.

The song "I Can Only Imagine" was released in 2001, but I first heard it as it crossed station genres into the mainstream in 2003. I remember at the time it reminded me of Earl and they played it at his funeral. I can not hear it without thinking of him.

So when I tell you the song is personally important to me, you now can understand why.

The song has a story of its own. Bart Millard, the composer, was inspired to write the song in the wake of his father's death. He sings of imagining what it would be like in Heaven when he first meets Jesus: "…will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall, will I sing HALLELUJAH! Or will I be able to speak at all, I can only imagine…." But it quickly becomes obvious that Bart is envisioning his repentant and recently deceased father’s first encounter with Christ.

The music video of Mercy Me singing "I Can Only Imagine" bears this out as well as person after person is shown during the song with pictures of their longed for lost loved ones.

The movie recounts Bart’s tragic and crushing childhood through to his early adult years under the brutal hand of his physically, emotionally and verbally abusive father after his mother’s abandonment. The first miracle is that Bart's soul came away only bruised and not broken. Bart is the kind of person that never met a stranger and his enthusiasm and optimism infectiously help ingratiate him into a struggling band, then convince a jaded but wryly amused music agent to become their manager.

J. Michael Finley, a pastor’s son in his first film acting role, does a marvelous job of portraying this struggling young man and inspirationally powerhouses his way through the singing. His renditions of everything he sings will raise the hair on the back of your neck. Finley's bubbly personality, physique, humble but outgoing interactions with other people and confident singing prescence reminds me of a combination of Sean Astin and Hugh Jackman.

The supporting cast is full of familiar faces, including Dennis Quaid who is remarkable as the alternately horrifying and touching father. Cloris Leachman has a small role as Bart’s adorable grandmother Memaw. Priscilla Shirer, who we last saw in the Kendrick brothers’ War Room takes on the life changing instrumental (pun intended) role of Mrs. Fincher, the music and theatrical teacher who recognizes Bart’s potential and literally pushes Bart on to stage work. The other members of Mercy Me – Jim, Mike, Nathan & Robby – are played, respectively, by Randy McDowell, Jason Burkey, Mark Furze, & Cole Marcus. And rounding out the troupe is Trace Adkins, the baritone country western singer from Springhill, Louisiana, who plays Brickell, Mercy Me’s initially reluctant agent and ersatz father figure.

So bring your hankies and open your hearts and ears to this wonderful, spiritually cleansing, musical biography about brokenness and God's ability to redeem those who have given up on even themselves. As Earl might have said: I'm so thankful that they have made such a lovely movie out of such a beautiful song. I pray that it continues to inspire for many generations to come.

NOTE: There is no sex or nudity and no bad language and certainly no blasphemy.