A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD – MATTHEW 22: 39

SHORT TAKE:

Matthew 22: 39

WHO SHOULD GO:

EVERYONE!

LONG TAKE:

Jesus, in Matthew 22:39, when asked what the Greatest Commandment was, replied that it was to love God with your whole mind, soul and strength then added that the Second was like the first: To love your neighbor as yourself. And I can think of few men whose lives have better served as a template for following these instructions than Mr. Fred Rogers.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, contrary to what you might think, is not about the life of Fred McFeeley (yes that’s his real middle name) Rogers. If you want to learn more about Mr. Rogers’ biography you can watch the wonderful documentary on him Won’t You be My Neighbor? (READ MY REVIEW OF THAT HERE)

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is less about the life of the man than the effect his life had on others. Mr. Rogers began his show to teach children appropriate and healthy ways to deal with feelings – especially negative feelings: hurt, envy, anger, betrayal, loss. When children do not learn to deal with their dark parts they become adults who do not deal well with them either. And while the show successfully managed that in a way no other show even tried, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about so much more.

The writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, and director Marielle Heller (sister to composer Nate mentioned below) of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood made some bold choices I had not expected. The movie starts as though you were watching the old children’s show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood – with the spritely theme song, models of moving trolleys (and a plot appropriate addition of a flying toy plane), filmed in the period slightly fuzzy television low definition we grew up with, followed by Mr. Rogers’ appearance to sing his song, change from his jacket to a sweater and explain what the day’s show is to be about. In this case, he uses a picture board, opening little hand-made doors to remind us of a few of the show’s regulars: Lady Aberlin, King Friday the 13th, etc. He then reveals an uncharacteristically ugly photo of a bewildered and injured man who Mr. Rogers refers to as his friend Lloyd (Matthew Rhys).

As the movie segues into a more conventional format, we soon find out that Lloyd Voger (Matthew Rhys who is actually Welsh doing a fabulously authentic American accent) is an  ambush journalist who has been assigned a “fluff” piece on Mr. Rogers by his concerned boss Ellen (Christine Lahti – a former Blacklist frequent guest star) who believes Lloyd has alienated a few too many people and that this will soften his image. Suffice it to say Lloyd has issues with this assignment, himself, the world and life in general.

Although there is no real Lloyd, he is a composite and representative of the children of all ages who were aided by the gentle ministry of Mr. Rogers. The story was inspired by the existence of an anecdotal article about Fred Rogers written by Tom Junod for Esquire magazine in November 1998 called “Can You Say…Hero?”

The show within the movie even includes Mr. Rogers’ break of the fourth wall as he gazes directly and kindly at the camera in a stare both penetrating and non-threatening, the way your grandfather might encourage you to be completely honest with him about some problem you were having. Mr. Rogers used this technique to let children know that he was interested in each of them. And this wasn’t just a gimmick. When he met someone face to face he genuinely gave them his full and undivided attention in a way few people will or can. Hanks recreates this beautifully, making the audience members feel included in a personal comforting way.

The acting is Oscar worthy (at least measured against a time when the Oscars meant something). Tom Hanks (whose astonishing filmography ranges from the goofy adorable Big to the mesmerizing Bridge of Spies, iconic Forrest Gump AND the voice of Woody from the Toy Story franchise) has the look, nuance and gestures of Mr. Rogers spot on – every hesitation, the warm genuine smile, the playful shoe toss, the kind but perceptively intense gaze, the ingenuous attitude which masks the sharp analytical mind searching for a way to help that you don’t even realize you need.

Rhys gives a heartbreaking performance as an emotionally crippled man whose arc propels the narrative of the story.

Susan Kelechi Watson (another Blacklist alumna) is lovely as Lloyd’s supportive wife, Andrea.

Chris Cooper (whose resume includes everything from The Tempest to the Muppets and the Bourne franchise) does a solid job as Lloyd’s father, Jerry, with whom Lloyd has a complex and strained relationship.

The cinematography is extremely effective telling a subtext of the story by itself. The cameras employed for the scenes which recreate the shooting of the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood show are the same kind of cameras originally used for the real thing. The studio they filmed those Mr. Rogers Neighborhood recreated scenes were the original ones used in Philadelphia for the real show. This creates a nostalgic feel to those segments of the movie, especially as shots of Lloyd during cuts to him even in the same scenes, use a digital camera. This provide a notable visual contrast between the two men and the way they perceive the world: Mr. Rogers – through the gentle softer lens of a children’s show, versus Lloyd’s harsher view of the world and the people around him. It is this kind of thoughtful subtlety which makes A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood so deeply effecting as both a story and parable.

The music is both soundtrack (by Nate Heller – Can You Ever Forgive Me?) woven about the Mr. Rogers’ theme music and an eclectic collection of lovely songs which you would likely have come across as you cruised the radio dial from the 1970’s to 1990’s: “Northern Sky” by Nick Drake, “Road to Find Out” by Cat Stevens, “Down by the Bay” by Raffi, “The Promise” by Tracy Chapman – chosen either for the meaning behind the lyrics or for the sheer joy of the innocence of the song.

Not to give away too much but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not only about a man named Lloyd. It is about the reclamation of a soul and for anyone with leftover negative feelings from childhood with which they struggle – so, everyone. And the beauty of this Neighborhood is the solution which this lovely man demonstrated daily to the world.

So go see this gentle movie about the healing powers of a genuinely kind and loving man who performed miracles by simply taking Jesus’ instruction to treat everyone as their neighbor to heart and lived it every day of his life.

LIST OF SCARIEST HALLOWEEN FILMS TO WATCH

SHORT TAKE:

A list, gleaned with the help of some of my friends and family, of filmed entertainments to help heap on the horror at Halloween.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Depends on the entertainment and the kid in question, but pretty much everything on this list is for a minimum of mid-teens and up, except for the two I mention at the bottom for the younger set, but EVEN THEN, as always, parents, use discretion – see them first AND WITH your child.

LONG TAKE:

This year I decided to do an informal survey – VERY informal – of my husband, children and a few friends, for what they thought were the scariest movies at the time they saw them. Didn’t matter whether they still thought them scary now or not – just that they remembered the film as being the scariest thing they had ever seen at the time. I asked each to pick two.

Below find the runners up in alphabetical order followed by my personal recommendations at the end.

So – as Richard Dawson used to say during Family Feud: Survey SAYS!!

Alien – this one not only happens to be at the top of the alphabetical list but was chosen by the most people. This 1979 hit is the FIRST in what has since become a major franchise – the spaceship Nostromo, which turned into a haunted house/people trapped in a slasher movie – the original with chest-burst John Hurt and the first time we ever saw the multi-serried teeth, accordian-jawed , acid blood, armored killer. I was so scared during the scene when Harry Dean Stanton gets a “close encounter” with the full grown version that I remember thinking – “This is no longer fun. I am so scared it is painful.” I couldn’t face even the thought of it until Aliens came out 7 years later.

Annabelle – a demon doll, in search of  souls to possess, stalks an innocent unsuspecting family. There are few things more frightening than dolls, created to provide gentle entertainment and comfort to children, portrayed as vessels of demonic evil.

The Blair Witch Project – gotta tell you, this “founder” of the “found footage” movies scared the living daylights out of me. I remember telling my husband as we watched it at home on a TV screen: “Honey, the lights are on, and you’re in the room, and I KNOW this is only a movie but this thing is scaring me spitless!” (Probably the fact I’m afraid of camping at night to begin with contributed mightily to my reaction.) I had to actually look up the actors and assure myself they were cast in movies after this one before I was convinced it was just a hoax.

The Blob – (the original, not the extremely bad 1988 remake) while very dated, is a 1958 classic which still holds up in the gut-wrenching suspense category, in no small part due to the acting talents of Steve McQueen in one of his very first films, and a very simple concept simply, and VERY effectively, expressed. A small — well, blob — lands on Earth via meteorite in a small town. When examined by an unwary but curious passer-by he is slowly and painfully absorbed, but not before the poor Ground Zero victim gets to a doctor who is more quickly overpowered by the now far larger mass. Mindless, voracious, completely silent, and able to creep through screen doors, window cracks, up trees, into gutters, it takes very little special effects to get you picking up your feet and jumping at the slightest touch from something that brushes against you in the dark.

Cloverfield – saw this one in the middle of the night, in a hotel room, after a long drive. Where most monster- disaster movies are shown from the view of the heroes who will eventually overcome the beasts, Cloverfield is seen from the point of view of poor schmucks who, like Rosencrantz and Gildenstern in Hamlet, do not know what is going on or why, but end up suffering the consequences of the catastrophe going on around them. Also the first “found footage” movie since The Blair Witch Project and the first “found footage” sci fi.

The Conjuring – another evil spirit terrorizing a family, this time the manifestation is of a woman named Bathsheba, who committed suicide as part of a Satanic cult ritual. Loosely connected to the above mentioned movie Annabelle, as the demonologists sought for help are the same who fought the demon doll.

The Grudge – a curse in the form of an entity, born of someone who dies in the grip of rage or extreme sorrow, which , by its nature, is repeated in a terrible endless cycle of inescapable grisly deaths.

Hostage – deals with the scariest monster of all – a human. The only one on the list which has no supernatural terrors or science fiction horrors and is therefore the most deeply disturbing, for the simple reason that people like the psychotic kidnapper Mars actually exist.

Jurassic World – dinosaurs escape their confines at a theme park. Imagine, (to loosely paraphrase Ian Malcolm, Jeff Goldblum’s character from the first Jurassic movie), if the critters at a Disney zoo got out to snack on the tourists.

KrampusDrag me to Hell meets Gremlins set during Christmas.

Morgus’ assistant Eric’s signature laugh: Here’s a blast from the past. A local New Orleans TV show featuring a campy mad scientist host for late night horror and B science fiction movies aired on and off from 1959 through 2006 under various monikers, each title having the name “Morgus” somewhere in it. Each half hour Morgus episode was split into roughly 5 minute bits shown with the commercial breaks. During these episodes Morgus tries some crazy experiment – shrinking people, making them invisible, home made nuclear bombs, mind control – which predictably went horribly wrong. By the end of the show Morgus and his mute assistant Chopsley were always unavailable – arrested, running away, blown up, turned to dust, whatever. This left his other assistant Eric – a disembodied skull attached electrically to the top of a TV screen – to bid the audience farewell after the credits rolled on the feature film. The eyeless skull would sign off in closeup every week in an echoy cadaverous voice: “Tune in next week when Morgus the Magnificent takes us into the realm of science. Good night. Pleasant dreams,” then would let go with an ominous evil cackle —- which I never heard because I would cover my ears and run out of the room. Something about that laugh and it wishing me “Pleasant dreams” got to me every time. I mean, I was all of maybe 5 or 6 when I first heard it. I can handle it NOW — really, honest, it’s on Youtube and I don’t run out the room any more – altogether. Maybe just keep my distance a bit, turn down the sound…..For anyone interested in this ultraspoof you can find entire episodes on Youtube HERE.

The Stand – Stephen King’s opus as a mini-series about the end of the world — twice – once by a genetically engineered virus with a 999/1000 kill ratio which leaves the world littered with mountainous piles of dead and decaying bodies, then again when the Devil’s own son sets up a totalitarian regime in Las Vegas to come after the survivors’ souls. While I admit the book was far better, the video was not a bad rendition. When tackling a 1,472  page novel (in its uncut form) and given the limitations of the material allowed on TV in 1994, even 361 minutes was not nearly enough time to do the best work of Stephen King justice. Nonetheless, the very concept will give you significant nightmares. It does not hurt that Gary Sinise and Ed Harris lend their talents to this abridged effort.

The Ring – grisly frightening movie about a cursed DVD which sends a ghoul to crawl right out of the screen to kill you. Talk about too much TV being BAD for you!!

Signs – Joaquin Phoenix and Mel Gibson as brothers trying to defend their children/nephew/niece in a science fiction horror movie about a family trapped on a farm house in the middle of a corn field in a War of the Worlds-type scenario . If you can ignore some of the preposterous plot points, it’s a fun way to get the pants scared off of you. Blends humor and suspense in equal measures and one of Shyamalan’s better works.

MY TOP RECOMMENDATIONS

TO TERRIFY OLDER TEENS AND UP:

Aliens – the sequel to Alien, only this time it’s space marines facing down an entire swarm of Alien critters made from a harvest of unwary human colonists. This well written script expands on the “haunted house” theme in the first venture to provide a thoughtful commentary on two extreme faces of motherhood as Ripley and the Queen Mother of all Aliens face off to defend their own in a show down which will grab you with visceral ferocity.

A Quiet Place – this movie will disturb your dreams forever. The most thoughtful, well written and well acted terrifying movie I have ever seen. Humanity is stalked by critters, from where we know not, faster than a cheetah, which will rip you to literal shreds if they hear you make the slightest sound. We follow a family, one of the lone surviving groups, who have learned the art of silence through their use of sign language with their deaf daughter. The brilliance is not just in the execution (if you’ll excuse the grisly pun) but in the layers of meaning in the story which can be seen as a strictly horror flick, as an analogy for the terrors of raising children in a dangerous world (SEE MY REVIEW HERE) or even, as Bishop Barron noted in his review HERE, a modern myth representing the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

FOR THE OLDER CROWD WHO LIKE TO ALTERNATE LAUGHS WITH THEIR SCREAMS:

Shaun of the Dead – Simon Pegg’s parody-homage to zombie movies. Funny for adults, but – word of advice – don’t show it to your kids thinking they will find it as funny as you will. (Kind of why it made the list for some of our now grown surveyors – but that’s OK – that’s what therapy funds are for – oops.)

Zombieland – Parts 1 and 2 which (once Part 2 leaves the theater and gets on DVD) could be shown back to back as one movie. (SEE MY REVIEW HERE) A grotesquely funny flick, which turns the genre on its ear with an ersatz family of survivors in a post-zombie apocalypse, who approach killing the brain hungry undead with the joie de vivre of extreme sports enthusiasts.

FOR KIDS OF ALL AGES:

The Wizard of Oz – the flying monkeys will get you every time. Classic story with a timeless message of a girl who gets what she wants, to run away from her troubles, only to find out that “There’s no place like home.”

Disney’s delightful animated Legend of Sleepy Hollow – (not to be confused with the very weird feature length live action with Johnny Depp) based upon the Washington Irving short story of a gangly school teacher who moves to a new town which hosts a frightening legend in the form of a headless horseman.

So there we have it – from winged monkeys and dinosaurs to demons and a garden variety psychopath, these are movies which scare me and mine and some of our friends, in some cases have done for decades.

So – Tune in again when I will take you to the realm of movie mavin-ness. Good night…Pleasant dreams. Muhohahahahahahaha.

OVERCOMER – KENDRICK BROTHERS WIN THE RACE AGAIN

SHORT TAKE:

Another beautiful, faith-based, entertaining and inspiring movie from the Kendrick brothers, this one about cross-country running as an analogy for the search for faith as various members of a community deal with an unexpected economic catastrophe.

WHO SHOULD GO:

EVERYONE – though young children might become restless without talking animals or flying spaceships.

LONG TAKE:

The Kendrick brothers have a gift for making profound theological points using the most ordinary of human experiences. Much like the way an itinerant preacher some 2000 years ago Who taught using parables about those things with which his flock was most familiar: sheep, olive trees, pearls and wedding feasts, wine skins and goats, oil lamps and fishing, the Kendricks have followed the example of Jesus in more ways than one.

Their first offering to a spiritually starving world was 2003’s Flywheel, which humorously tackled a modern rendition of Zacharias, who Biblically was an unethical tax collector. Flywheel re-envisioned Zacharias as Jay Austin, an unscrupulous used car salesman. Written and directed by Alex Kendrick, then Pastor of Media at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, Kendrick also portrayed the very flawed Austin.

Intended originally as a cinematic lesson only for their congregation, the indie movie, with its homemade dolly and camera crane, volunteer actors, cars borrowed for 20 minutes, scenes shot in operating businesses, was a very DIY project. (And for any aspiring filmmakers you could learn a lot from their Making of Flywheel Youtube you can see HERE.) But the message and the skill of the storytellers overflowed far beyond their technical weaknesses and it instantly took off, becoming a cinematic sensation amongst the Christian community in such a big way that their profits paid for their next film, Facing the Giants.

Facing the Giants was about Grant Taylor, a failed football coach who, like Gideon in the Book of Judges, faced overwhelming odds. Gideon, self-described as the most insignificant in the poorest house of Manasseh, is put in charge of the Israelite troops to defeat the massive Midianite army. Both men, Taylor and Gideon, find their wins, as the newly Christ-committed Taylor tells his team, by following the instructions to: “…do the best you can and leave the rest to God,” as well as reminding them: “If we win, we praise Him. And if we lose, we praise Him. Either way we honor Him with our actions and our attitudes.”

Similarly Fireproof dealt with marital crises, Courageous (my personal favorite) with fatherhood, and The War Room with the power of personal pray on one’s family.

All the Sherwood films were written and directed by the Kendrick brothers, have won awards, broken box office records even amongst secular audiences, garnered critical acclaim, spun off books written by the Kendrick brothers which have made the New York Times Best Sellers’ lists, and made enough money to allow the brothers to start their own film company, Kendrick Brother Productions.

And now comes Overcomer, whose titular theme develops from various characters’ struggles, which emerge from lack of faith and who become inextricably intertwined with each other in their journey to find meaning and purpose in their lives.

The acting is excellent and professional standard – no cringy moments that occasionally plague the Christian based movies.

The Kendricks do what many Christian film makers can not manage – while they are as open about their message as Thornton Wilder, they never forget that for a film to be successful, in whatever genre, it must entertain. They remember that honey is a far better attractant than vinegar and always have a moving, engaging, often funny, always inspiring, and occasionally heart wrenching story to tell.

The central character is Hannah Scott, (played by newcomer Aryn Wright-Thompson), an aspiring cross country runner who must overcome both physical and familial challenges.

Like Kenneth Branagh, the Kendricks smartly use many of the same acting troupe from previous cinematic enterprises (including a dozen cast and crew whose last name is Kendrick) as well as new faces. Alex Kendrick (All the Sherwood films as well as other Christian based movies) again leads, this time as John Harrison, the coach and lynchpin of the several sub-plots in Overcomer. Shari Rigby (October Baby) plays his wife, Amy. Priscilla Shirer (War Room and I Can Only Imagine – see my previous review HERE) is the school principal and another point of intersection for the interwoven subplots.

The Kendricks choose their new faces wisely and carefully. Cameron Arnett plays Thomas Hill in a compelling performance, all the more impressive as it is done without making eye contact or moving from a bed. Arnett’s real life is an example of inspiration as well. A true moral hero, he renounced a rising career and lost everything when he refused to appear nude, even refusing the studio’s offer of a body double compromise. Like a modern day Eleazar, the God fearing and upright faith-filled elderly Jew in Maccabees who chose death rather than even pretending to do what he was forbidden in the sight of God, Arnett feared he might lead others to emulate him even if the nude was not him. Arnett thought his acting career over until he found the faith based film industry, or rather, it found him.

As in other Kendricks’ movies, there are really no “bad guys” per se, the struggles come from their own inner demons and flaws, rather than outer space aliens or megalomaniacal super villains, making the stories the Kendricks spin all the more immediately relatable to us mere mortals.

The Kendricks know how to make good use of their resources. Flywheel’s budget in 2003 was an astonishingly tiny $20,000. (And no, I didn’t miss a zero.) Their $5 million budget for Overcomer, is almost the total of the budgets of all the previous movies put together and every penny shows in their ever rising benchmark of excellent production quality. The cinematography startles with the opening drone uncut shot beginning far over head, focusing on a city, then a building, flying through a high gym window down to the floor of a court during the last few minutes of a championship basketball game. This production group has come a long way from camera dollies cobbled together from rollers and an auto “creeper” on glued together PVC pipe.

The music is inspiring and mostly made of songs from Christian artists like, among others: Casting Crowns, Mandisa and Paul Mills.

And it is with profound relief I can assure you of the family friendly nature of  this, as well as all their other films. The only caution I would give for ANY of the Kendrick movies is the intensity of the inherent nature of the subjects they tackle: marital infidelity, sudden death, unemployment and the confrontation of many other kinds of evil which emerge from our human sinfulness. But no violence is gratuitous, language will never treat blasphemy casually, or plots ever condone any form of licentious behavior. The main characters are as normally flawed as the audience who attends but are also as fundamentally decent and kind, just people trying to tend to their loved ones the best way they know how, but whose search for fulfillment will open a path to God.

So go see Overcomer. Of the film offerings available Overcomer comes in way ahead of the pack. Bring your kids, your pastor, your grandmother, your priest, your first date, your spouse, your best friend, or your drinking buddy. Like any good sermon, there’s something there which will reach everyone who listens.

LION KING 2019 TAKES ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE ON THE THRONE

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF LION KING 2019 TAKES ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE ON THE THRONE

SHORT TAKE:

Put this in the column of WELL done, and astonishingly realistic, live action remakes of a classic Disney animated movie.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone – though, for a kid movie, the subjects of fratricide, murderous hyenas, and fights to the death might (and did in the showing I went to) upset the younger kids. That’s going to have to be a parental call on a kid by kid basis. There were certainly scenes in this one which were even harder to watch than in the animated movie because of the VERY life-like CGI.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS BUT ONLY FOR THOSE 3 OR 4 PEOPLE IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM OVER 10 WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE ORIGINAL ANIMATED VERSION

Chalk another one up for The Mouse. Before I launch into my review, I’ll say it right now, the CGI IS ASTONISHING. It’s actually just a teensy bit frightening how authentically film makers can now manufacture real life. The animals seem very very life-like.

Aside from allowing the animals to speak, the director, Jon Favreau has had the animators keep the facial and body movement as close as possible to the authentic musculature of real animals, including, of course, their limitations. Real animals don’t smile. Real animals can’t manipulate things which require an opposable digit — unless they have an opposable digit. Real animals don’t dance or pull hula skirts out of thin air. Favreau’s team respects these natural and inherent limitations, bringing an added reality to the characters which was different from the animated version. Audiences generally allow an extra layer of suspension of disbelief not usually afforded a live action and Favreau’s team obviously kept that in mind – creatively working within those limits, making the almost athletically energetic vocals of the human actors all that more important to achieve. And achieve those goals they do.

Despite the early reviews which did not have a lot of love for the (then) upcoming 2019 Lion King, this one deserved all the (literal) applause it got during the credits. I’ll admit to some trepidation, as while Aladdin was well done, Dumbo was an overblown flop. And as Lion King is one of their most enduring and intelligently created stories, I had some reservations. But from the opening scenes I was enchanted.

The entire original animated story is there, as this live action tracks about 90% of the original animated version scene for scene and image for image, notable from the opening sequence as the animals gather to welcome the newly born Prince Simba. The only notable differences throughout the 2019 version were that some of the quips were missing and some of the more ridiculous slapstick was excised. For example, and in keeping with the aforementioned recognition of the natural limitations of real animals: Zazu was not left under a pile of rhinoceroses as cubs Simba and Nala escape his watchful eye, and Timon did not don a hula skirt as a distraction for the hyenas just before the climactic battle. (Do I know the original well? With 6 kids, I have probably seen this movie over a dozen times, so yes.)

Only one scene, in my analysis, suffered slightly from lack of (if you’ll excuse the pun) impact in a diversion from the original. When Rafiki counsels Simba to return to his pride, in the original animated version Rafiki whacks Simba on the head with his club to make the point that: Yes, some history is painful, but once endured, it is then in the past and must be overcome in order to move forward. I can think of some stupid PC reasons why they did not include this part of Rafiki’s argument, but maybe they had a legit plot consideration. In any event this scene is not used in Rafiki’s counsel to Simba in the 2019 version.

Along with why this scene and some of the more memorable quotes were not included, another thing the film makers do not explain is their casting choices. Of the main cast: James Earl Jones who majestically voiced Mufasa, Matthew Broderick who played Simba, Madge Sinclair who voiced Sarabi, Robert Guillame who charmingly gave life to Rafiki, Jeremy Irons who chillingly voiced Scar, Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, who stole every scene they were in as the comic duo of Timon and Pumbaa, Cheech Marin and Whoopi Goldberg who lent their comic talents to the hyenas, and Rowen Atkinson whose brilliant dry wit was conveyed into Zazu, Jones was the only actor asked back.

There was some ink spilled in the media effusing about how Jones links the movie back to the traditional version and I, personally, was delighted to have him revisit the voice of Mufasa. He has all the timbre of the majestic leader plus his age adds a wonderful, almost foreboding to his character. But I could find very little info on why they did not call the entire cast back. Aside from the tragic death of Guillame, taken by cancer in 2017, and Madge Sinclair who passed away from leukemia not long after The Lion King came out, all of the performers are not only still alive but still active and have ongoing projects. And, aside from the child actor voices from whom replacement by JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph is understandable, as they now will obviously sound too old for those roles, when acting the adult characters, the ages are irrelevant since they are all doing vocal performances.

The only info I could get on the casting issue was in an interview with Jeremy Irons. When asked why he did not reprise his role as Scar in the new version all he could say was: They didn’t ask me. He then, graciously and diplomatically went on to praise the choice of Chiwetel Ejiofor .

There is NOTHING wrong with the performances in the movie, and had they been the first ones I heard doing these roles I could have been quite content. BUT having heard Broderick, Atkinson, Irons, etc in their respective roles, it was a constant distraction to actively miss the original cast, especially when Jones’ terrific performance was a continuous reminder that the others were not there.

But don’t let my complaints dissuade you from the movie. Despite the differences, I thought this a very well done version. I am merely expressing an, admitted, bias for the details about the one our kids grew up with. I understand some of the changes omitting the more obvious cartoonish slapstick but while I do not understand some of the other choices, can accept them as not being in this version’s vision.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (2012, Dr. Strange and Children of Men) takes on Scar. Donald Glover (The Martian, Solo and Spider-Man : Homecoming) takes over for Simba. John Oliver voices Zazu. Alfre Woodard (Star Trek: First Contact, Captain America: Civil War) speaks for Sarabi. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner carry Pumbaa and Timon on their respective vocal backs, for which director Favreau wisely arranged for extended improv sessions, much like what was allowed for Lane and Sabella by directors Rogers Allers, and Rob Minkoff for the original, some of which lines were added to the final script.

The Lion King, is heavily influenced by the story of Hamlet. For those not familiar with that theatrical acme, Hamlet is a young prince who must overcome his own insecurities, immaturity and indecisiveness when faced with the prospect of leading his people, after his uncle secretly kills his father, making it appear to be an accident, and marries his mother. (Plug here: BEST Hamlet ever – and ONLY one, to date filmed in its entirety – best of my knowledge – is Branagh’s which you can buy or rent from Amazon – HERE.)

A couple of decisions brings the newer version closer to the 500 year old play. As an example, the original Lion King defined Uncle Scar as grasping only for the crown. This 2019 interpretation hits a bit closer to the Shakespearean home, referring to a past wherein  Scar fought to take Sarabi as his queen and lost to Mufasa. But, unlike Hamlet’s mother, Sarabi has a bit more sense and turns Scar down. This interaction adds more texture to the plot and depth to the character of Scar.

Jon Favreau takes on the daunting task of bringing to life a new version of a beloved classic. Favreau is a very gifted and talented film maker. Favreau is responsible as a director for Iron Man 1 and 2, Jungle Book live action 1 and (the future) 2, an Orville episode, Cowboys and Aliens, Chef, and Zathura: A Space Adventure. He was producer for, among others, Avengers: Endgame and Infinity War. And his long list of acting credits include: creating the adorable sidekick to Iron Man, Happy Hogan, whose character arc has matured with the Avengers movies, as well as playing the titular character in the movie he both wrote and directed in Chef.

As a short digression, and in a lovely taste of poetic symmetry, Favreau, as Happy Hogan, plays his own kind of Rafiki to Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Far From Home, counseling the young “Prince” to assume the mantle left for him by his de facto father, Stark, just the way Rafiki counsels Simba in Lion King.

Hans Zimmer returns to refresh the soundtrack he composed for the original Lion King. There are also a couple of additional songs, one of which is performed by Beyonce (who voices Nala) called “Spirit”. While the Shakesperean influence in Lion King, as I have already explained,  is obvious, this 2019 versions also draws from the Biblical story of Moses, who went into exile, crossing the desert to spend years away, only to be called back to bring his people out of bondage. Similarly, Simba crosses the desert that separates his kingdom from the idyllic forest into which he is adopted, until, like Moses, upon his coming to maturity, is called to overcome his own fears and doubts and return – again back across the very Biblically symbolic desert – to free his people from the slavery of Scar and his hyenas. Emphasizing this connection is lyrics from Beyonce’s “Spirit” which includes the line: “So go into that far off land, and be one with the Great I Am, I Am….” The reference to God, the Great I Am, is unmistakably reverent to the Book of Genesis. This was an added depth to the story I hadn’t anticipated but admire about this new version very much.

So go see the new Lion King. But to be fair to this lovely outing, see it with the fresh eyes that Jon Favreau and company have given it.

 

LIKE ARROWS: THE ART OF PARENTING – 50 YEARS OF REAL ROMANCE

SHORT TAKE:

Another family-endorsing, Christian-centered, Kendrick Brothers movie – this time following 50 years of one couple's epic parenting journey.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone and everyone.

LONG TAKE:

Since 2003 Stephen and Alex Kendrick have focused their careers on making intelligent, funny, engaging, spiritually uplifting, eccumenically Christian themed movies which have jumped the chasm between "religious" movies and mainstream cinema to become an integral part of our popular culture.

Their first, Flywheel, was a modern day Zacharias story about a used car salesman, originally intended only as a learning tool for the Kendrick Brothers' congregation at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. Flywheel's astonishing success funded the next Kendrick movie, Facing the Giants in 2006, about a high school coach challenged with crises of family, career, and faith. Facing the Giants has the Death Crawl scene, five of the most inspirational minutes on sports "celluloid" I have ever watched. Fireproof in 2008, starring former child star Kirk Cameron, was next, about a fireman trying to rebuild his almost shattered marriage. Courageous, in 2011, is their masterpiece, about four policeman and a civilian friend who confront their shortcomings as fathers. 2015 saw War Room about a marriage shuddering under the weight of deceit. This year the Kendricks bring usLike Arrows: The Art of Parenting.

As overtly Christian themed and occasionally, what mainstream audiences consider, "preachy" movies, these often fall through the cracks of the average movie goers attention. That is a shame because these movies are funnier, warmer, savvier, more clever, more insightful, and will leave you feeling far more satisfied than most of the movies that get a lot of popular "love".

Movies like Titanic and The Notebook get a lot of publicity and huge budgets but they are shallow views of relationships which never get beyond the infatuation stage, rarely include children, and never deal with dirty diapers, resolving petty spousal fights, money issues or any of the other million challenges which face couples on a daily basis. Like Arrows presents a more realistic view of a marriage with far more depth, examining a relationship that endures in true heroic fashion with love, and describes a romance that perseveres for 50 years DESPITE dealing with family estrangements, money problems, career strains, and ……..catastrophically dirty diapers.

In Like Arrows, Charlie (Alan Powell) and Alice (Micah Hanson) are a cute young dating couple. A terrified Alice surprises Charlie with the news that she is unexpectedly pregnant. Charlie "mans up" and the rest of the movie follows them through five decades of marriage and parenting four children. For most of the movie Powell and Hanson are aged. But in the later scenes the elderly couple is portrayed by Garry Nation and Elizabeth Becka. I met Mr. Nation at a Christian Film Festival in connection with his starring role in Polycarp.  He is as gracious and patient off screen as his character is on.

Charlie and Alice’s family will seem very familiar. They are ordinary people who work hard and strive to do their best. But ultimately they discover their best is woefully insufficient to raise morally strong and family connected children without God at the center of their lives.

Again Charlie "mans up," takes responsibility for the family direction and leads them to a more spiritually fulfilling way of life, including spending more quantity (not just a little "quality") time with their kids, at church and in prayer.

The acting is good, the writing natural, often funny and occasionally even profound – Charlie’s best friend Kenneth (Joseph Callender) offers a disillusioned and tired Charlie advice on parenting: "The days are long but the years are short."

The title, Like Arrows, comes from Psalm 127: "Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children…." They are, as Mr. Kendrick explains, the messages parents send into the future. And, as the movie demonstrates, parents have an unshirkable, irreplaceable responsibility to be sure those arrows are strong and well guided enough to get to their intended destination and that resilience and confidence can best be crafted by working with the Hands of God.

Like Arrows is also the launching point for the new website 

which offers free seminars, sessions and classes on parenting. I’ve checked the website out and while it is a little awkward to maneuver through it is worth the effort. Video sessions are about 6 minutes long and could be done on a daily basis. Registration and access are FREE.

A lot of advice they give would have been considered common sense in previous generations but given the family-hostile culture in which we find ourselves today, the concepts of self and child discipline, lifetime committed marriages, spousal faithfulness, church attendance, prayer, and supervision of one’s child can be innovative life saving ideas to younger couples.

So endorse and encourage these family affirming films by going to see them. Check out Like Arrows where and when available or get it on DVD. Show your kids – likely future parents themselves, inform other young couples with this movie, show friends. Enjoy a 50 year love story with far more substance to it than popular infatuation stories which talk a good game and are fluffy fun to watch but are really only the cotton candy filler that substitutes for the true meat and potatoes commitment demonstrated in movies such as Like Arrows.

GODSPELL – EVANGELICAL FLASH MOB ON STAGE AT LAKE CHARLES LITTLE THEATRE!!

SHORT TAKE:

Lake Charles Little Theatre closes out this season with Godspell, the musical of vignettes from the New Testament, which is performed like a theatrical troupe flash mob.

WHO SHOULD GO:

EVERYONE!!!

LONG TAKE:

Have you ever seen a flash mob? They’re all over Youtube. A bunch of people, appearing to be from all walks of life, converge on a public area: an airport lobby, a playground, a mall – and someone starts to play an instrument or sing a song or dance. Then, one by one, others in their group, camoflaged as passersby, join in with voice or a flute or guitar or in tap shoes and before you know it, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people singing the "Ode to Joy" or Christmas Carols or tap dancing their hearts out, or like in the faux flash mob with actors from  The Greatest Showman, act out medleys from a Broadway show.

I am always pleased and delighted to watch these coordinated groups who, of a single mind, have the nerve and verve to perform for total strangers. And judging by the smiles, the photographs, and the applause from the suddenly blessed impromptu audience, I am not alone.

While I have never seen one in person, I would travel a considerable distance to be either a participant or an audience member, but by the very nature of the "show," most beneficiaries of these live exhibitions do not know about them ahead of time.

Musicals, like La La Land, have employed this concept since…well, since the advent of the musical. Random strangers all suddenly are inspired to break into song and  hoof coordinated complex dance routines. It's a wonderfully infectious and entertaining trope.

Now, imagine you are minding your own business at an empty baseball field – throwing a ball with your son, having a picnic, walking the family dog.  Suddenly a group of Catechism teachers from various eccumenical branches,  dressed for all walks of life, happen to converge and, inspired, cobble together a series of seemingly impromptu mini-plays, acting out stories and parables from the New Testament – from Jesus' baptism by St. John the Baptist through to Jesus' death. This is Godspell as the actors at Lake Charles Little Theatre truly personify the admonition from Matthew 18:20 that: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Godspell, literally from the Anglo-Saxon meaning "Good Story," refers, obviously, to the Gospel or Good News of the New Testament. The show is written as though the characters arrive together by chance unprepared and without anything but the clothes they wear, whatever happens to be lying around on the baseball field, a fervour for the Lord, and a desire to preach and teach the Gospel, enacting "on-the-spot" demonstrations of lessons from the Bible.

The show begins with the chant: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord," and features songs you will find very familiar from your high school years, if you are over forty, and might have heard your parents play or on an elevator somewhere, if you are younger. But THIS is the way you SHOULD hear these songs – live and on stage, sung by people, some of whom I know personally, who are of great faith and mean every word they sing and say.

Unlike the play Jesus Christ Superstar or movies like The Passion, where individual actors step into roles and assume the mantle of that character for the duration of the story, in Godspell the actors are NOT supposed to BE that person, but are only vehicles for the communication of the Gospel message. Ordinary people going about their daily business are inspired to teach the Word. Therefore, there is no disrespect intended when Apostles are dressed in running shorts, or for ballet practice, or in a leather jacket or lab coat, because that is how they are supposed to have showed up for this "come as you are" exercise in missionary work. The actors, thereby, communicate an additional underlying message, that EVERYONE – young, old, whatever gender, whatever your gifts, are all called to evangelize. That when the moment calls to speak up for your faith, you are not to let formality stand in the way, but just jump right in and strike while you have a receptive audience. 

And there is no "gender agenda," but only a "necessity of convenience agenda" when a group of ladies ham it up with fake beards as Pharisees or a young lady responds as Peter – there are simply not enough men in the available cast. (MORAL TO THIS PART OF THE STORY – You guys in Lake Charles – MAN UP AND AUDITION!!!)

Clay Hebert, a staple in both local independent films and community, high school and college theater for over three decades, speaks on behalf of Jesus in an Astros shirt. Unsurprisingly, he has the command of both the stage and the Gospel message. I've known Clay since he had hair and have always been impressed by him as a brilliant example of the RIVER of talent that flows through our city. Kirsten Bush, Heather Partin, Zoe LeBeau and Joseph Comeaux are very familiar figures on our Lake Charles stages. And the rest of the performers shine as well: Clay Corley, Rebecca Harris, Virginia-Kate Jessen, Theresa Hay Needham, Taylor Novak-Tyler, Liz Rentrop Trahan, and Jaylin Williams all round out a cast which embodies a wide variety of roles: from the fallen woman Jesus saves from stoning, to the wealthy merchant who will not live to enjoy their earthly treaures, to the rich man who ignores Lazarus; from Caiaphas, to a temptress Devil, to the ungrateful servant, and those healed by Jesus. All the stories these delightful actors tell will be well known and beloved to even a casual student of the Bible. It is a joy to see these stories play out and hear the  beautiful singing. These very familiar songs, which can grow stale over time with indifferent repetition, come alive with the energy of immediate re-enactment that this talented troupe brings to the stage.

Greg Stratton, with a resume longer than my arm, gifted actor and director, corrals all this enthusiasm into the Godspell that we enjoyed, masterfully inspiring his cast, bringing out the best of their vocal and acting talents, making the challenge of directing so many performers constantly on stage look effortless. I have had the privilege of watching Greg direct up close and his creativity, love for the theatre and respect for his performers comes through clearly. Greg has an enormous repertorie, wearing the hats on and off the stage in comedies and dramas alike.  

A theatrical master magician who, like Prospero in The Tempest, is able to make his audience weep or laugh, Greg manages to do both in this funny, joyful, and emotional modern re-presentation of Bible stories.

So go see Godspell at Lake Charles Little Theatre as soon as you can – the run is only through April 29th – and be uplifted as only a live retelling of the Bible can be where two or more are gathered in His name.

AND I APOLOGIZE FOR THE PAUCITY OF PHOTOS FROM THE SHOW – MY ACCESS TO PICTURES WAS VERY LIMITED. IF ANYONE FROM THE CAST WOULD LIKE TO CONTRIBUTE PHOTOS FROM THE PRODUCTION PLEASE SEND THEM TO MY E-MAIL AT: KBARRILLEA@SUDDENLINK.NET AND I WOULD BE DELIGHTED TO ADD THEM TO THIS BLOG IF AT ALL POSSIBLE.

GET YOUR TICKETS AT THE WEBSITE BELOW:

 

PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST

SHORT TAKE:

Moving and informative portrayals of Saints Paul and Luke in the last days before St. Paul's execution.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Everyone…eventually! But be advised that mid to younger teens should be taken with parental discretion because of the examples of Roman brutality and persecution against the Christians.

LONG TAKE:

Saint Dominic once declined an offer to go with his fellow monks for an outing in order to pray the rosary. Upon his friends' return, Dominic was still meditating. When they asked how much longer he could possibly be praying one rosary he replied he had not gotten past the Our Father. Upon exclaiming their surprise that he would spend so much time on one prayer he corrected them, explaining, that – no I have not gotten past being overwhelmed by the first two words – "Our Father".

Paul, Apostle of Christ is like that. The Bible is a vast library of stories, historical anecdotes, poetry, parables, love songs, love stories and wisdom. Each line contains an infinity of grace and one can spend lifetimes contemplating even the smallest part. Paul, Apostle of Christ invites the audience to join in just a few of the final days of St. Paul (James Faulkner – lifelong Angelican who started out as an in-demand chorister and soloist at the Royal College of Church Music at Addington Palace and who has graced the big and small screens in everything from Zulu Dawn to Game of Thrones and the voice of Severus Snape for video games) as he is visited by his disciple, St Luke (James Caviezel – devout Catholic and talented actor as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, Frequency, and The Count of Monte Cristo) .

St. Luke is so determined to glean even the tiniest bit more wisdom from his mentor in Christ, that he is willing to sneak INTO Mamertine Prison – a Roman dungeon, uninvited, to get it. This is Rome, in the days of the Emperor Nero, when Christians were thrown to wild animals in the Circus and burned alive to light the streets of Rome. This is the period after which Nero accused the Christians of burning down half of the city and persecutions were so rampant that even the soldiers questioned (very quietly) the public relations wisdom of the extremes to which their Emperor was expressing his hatred of Christians.

A small band of Christians live quietly on the outskirts of the city, living on the knife's-edge of discovery, reluctant to abandon Rome to the darkness into which it has plunged. Luke travels back and forth between the two worlds – the Christian community and the dungeon of St. Paul – the conduit of faith and hope each recipient of which sustains each other. He brings encouragement to St. Paul in his sufferings, assuring him that the Christian teachings will be passed on as The Acts of the Apostles even as St. Paul faces death. The Christian community bears witness to the sufferings of fellow Christians as well as nurturing, copying, and transporting the wisdom of St. Paul in the papyrus transcribed writings which will one day be known as letters from St. Paul to Galatians, Corinthians, Romans, Phillipians and Thessalonians, among others.

No doubt, some dramatic license has been given to this story – there is no definitive evidence, for example, of how St. Paul died but it is accepted Christian tradition based on history and logic that he was beheaded. But the essence of who St. Paul was and his impact and influence on the Jews, Gentiles and even Romans at the time is portrayed by director Andrew Hyatt with dignity and love of the subject matter.

For example, a subplot involving St. Luke's healing of the Roman prison commander's daughter using his natural gifts, (St. Luke is  one of the patron saints of doctors), may or may not have happened but the incident as portrayed in the movie is a beautifully dramatic vehicle to demonstrate the charity of the followers of Christ, as well as the influence that the Christian exercise of love had on even their jailers. It is also a clever construct for dialogue between St. Paul as representative of Christ and Mauritius as a representative of the Roman Empire, and how, utimately, the Roman Empire's future generations would eventually turn, in its sickness, to Christianity, for healing, not just of its body but its soul.

Paul's agony of regret for his former life as a fellow sinner, as Saul the persecuting Pharisee, (Yorgos Karamihos – Theo from Durrells in Corfu), is also reviewed in both Paul's tormented dreams and in the ecstacy of grace which he understands God so generously bestows on all of mankind.

Paul, Apostle of Christ is an inspiring moment in the vast storehouse that is the brilliant breathing lighthouse of Christianity in this darkened world; a glance at the Judeo-Christian theology and mankind's relationship with the Trinity of God, His Divine Son, and the Holy Spirit. And time spent contemplating this profound example of God as Our Father of forgiveness and mercy is more than worth our time.

MOTHER! – YET ANOTHER CINEMATIC CASUALTY OF POORLY UNDERSTOOD THEOLOGY

Aron  SHORT TAKE: Brutally violent and deeply disturbing metaphor for poorly understood Judeo-Christian theology.

LONG TAKE: Having seen Darren Aronofsky’s unusual and creative but theologically sound Noah, I had hopes that the rumors Mother! was a Biblical metaphor would play out and that the grosteque brutality I had also heard tell about would be justified.

I was disappointed…and more than a little shocked. Rex Reed savaged it as the worst movie of the century, calling it a "delusional freak show…of pretentious twaddle." I wouldn’t go that far, but even reading two synopses in advance I found it hard to watch.

There have been a lot of movies which allege to "interpret" the Bible but which mishandle, mangle and demonstrate a lack of understanding of the Bible in general and Judeo-Christian theology in particular. Some are Dogma, Paul, Michael, Legion, and pretty much anything written by Dan Brown. Some are merely misguided, some just foolish, and some viciously biased anti-Christian propaganda.

To give the benefit of the doubt to Mr. Aronofsky, and because of his Noah, I like to think Mother! falls under the sincerely meant but ignorantly misguided category. It is my understanding that Aronofsky attempted a metaphorical telling of the entire Bible, from pre-Genesis to the Apocalypse and, for a little while, he got it right.

SPOILERS

The premise has an almost Thorton Wilder – Skin of Own Teeth feel and made me think it might work better as a play. The story is about a never named young Woman (Jennifer Lawrence), deeply in love with her also never named older Husband (Javier Bardem), living in the quiet pastoral countryside in a charmingly creaky mansion that might have, at one time, been a farm house or even minor plantation. The Husband is a once famous writer with block and both patiently wait for his inspiration to happen again.

Unexpected guests appear in the form of a sickly doctor who is a fan of the Husband’s work (Ed Harris) and his boozy prickly wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). The Woman wants them out but the Husband wants them to stay. The sons of the guests show up (played by real life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), fight over the coming inheritance and one kills the other then flees but not before demonstrating the mark of Cain on his forehead in his brother’s blood.

Up to this point I get it. The idyllic scene is Paradise. Bardem is the Creator whose very Words will fill their world with life. Lawrence is the paradigm for Mary. Harris and Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve – Harris brings death in the form of cigarette smoking and his own disease. Pfeiffer represents the vices of lust, uninhibited behavior, spite, and vengefulness. Their sons are, obviously, Cain and Abel. And up to this point, if you are prepared for this vision, it plays out as an interesting allegory. Had Aronofsky kept to the Biblical themes it might have been a great film. But it is at this point his theological symbology train goes off track.

God is love and desires obedience of His Creations but does not NEED love or adoration the way the Husband does. If Lawrence is playing Mary then she would not be clueless about the arrivals to her house, nor scream at "God" nor slap Him nor tell him no. As difficult as we humans all are, Mary is our adopted Mother. While she might be grieved at our condition, she would not try to bar us from her house – this is if we are keeping to the theology from which Aronofsky is supposedly dipping his ladle. And the linchpin of all Creation is that Mary told God "yes" in ultimate obedience to Him – "Mary said, 'Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.'”  Luke 1:38.

By the end of this very odd film, Aronofsky’s Woman is more Kali, Hindu goddess of destruction and sexuality than Catholic Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus our Savior and Prince of Peace. By Aronofsky's own admission Lawrence's character is a "Mother Earth" figure, which druidic reference is completely inapproriate to a movie with all the Judeo-Christian themes and symbols. This inclusion alone exposes the glaring errors in Aronofsky's vision. 

Bardem is more like one of the Roman gods who craved worship and "needed" the love of others to thrive and be creative. In Christian theology, God is not the greatest among creations, yearning for approval and recognition, but is entirely outside of creation, being Creation Itself, and requires nothing from us – any more than a painter requires anything from his painting. But in Aronofsky’s misguided understanding of the Bible he seems to see God as suffering from creative entropy until he has one really good night with his wife and is greeted by a crowd of adoring fans. He is more admiration addicted rock star than God of Jacob, Joseph and Issac.

And, frankly, Aronofsky’s interpretation of the sacrifice of Jesus had me running to take a judiciously timed bathroom break. Again, Aronofsky's version is theologiocally unsound as Jesus was more than full age of consent and knew exactly what He was doing, what was being done to Him and why. He was not an unwilling infant martyr to a misguided divinity’s misplaced trust in his groupies.

Mother!, to borrow from a What Culture evaluation, is really only for film students and critics. It is a study in art house script writing which might have risen to masterpiece had Mr. Aronofsky had a firmer grasp of the theology he was supposedly analogizing. Instead it comes off as the violent musings of a gifted high school videographer who didn't pay enough attention in Bible study but only vaguely, and without context, remembered all the gory bits.