MIDWAY GOES ALL THE WAY

SHORT TAKE:

Inspiring reenactment of the days before and of the watershed Battle of Midway during World War II, highlighting the selfless heroism and courageous dedication of men who committed EVERYTHING they had to fighting what  seemed to be a losing struggle with the Japanese Empire.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid teens and up as the violence is necessarily graphic and brutal. No sexuality but the language is occasionally rough and appropriate to the men and circumstances.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS!

Romans 5:7: “Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just man, though perhaps for a good man one might even find courage to die.”

We all love action heroes who put their lives on the line in extreme moments to save family or friends in desperate situations: Bruce Willis’ John McLane in the Die Hard series, Tony Stark in Endgame. Even the disaster “B” movies like Skyscraper and The Poseidon Adventure can be guilty pleasures, admiring (pretend) courage in the face of the (manufactured) crisis.

Now imagine HUNDREDS of these types of everymen, volunteers or drafted, trained certainly but no superheroes. But this was real. These men had real families and lives. The pain, the terror, the disfiguring injuries and sudden young deaths, the gut wrenching grief left behind, HAPPENED to people your grandparents knew – or TO your grandparents. Your own family histories, photos, private letters, and stories told at family gatherings are probably rife with tales of loss and sacrifice of young men who left everything behind, including their youth and many their lives, to protect their country and families.

The story of Midway begins on a warm December in Hawaii, where people planning outdoor church services and picnics with their families, are suddenly faced with split-second life changing and life losing decisions when, without  warning, planes tore out of the sky shooting at  friends and crewmates, ripping them to pieces. Few would have blamed any who froze or ran, but hundreds of these men seized the nearest weapon to shoot back, some hopelessly trying to simply buy time for others to reach safety, while the vessel they were on broke, sank or burned in brutish apocalyptic Hellscapes of screaming and smoke and explosions, with no possibility of escape.

That was Pearl Harbor and the movie Midway examines the fallout from this cataclysmic event and the eponymous Battle for our lives that followed in Pearl’s wake. The Battle of Midway was the determiner whether the war would continue to be fought out in the ocean and around Japan and Europe or whether it would make its way to the shores of continental USA and be prolonged, possibly for decades.

Midway tells the story of the men who, at Pearl and during the Midway Battle, followed Christ’s example, willingly offering up their lives for their fellow countrymen regardless of who they were, knowing only that they were in desperate danger.

All of the acting choices were inspired, the indigenous accents of the people being portrayed understated and realistic.

Woody Harrelson (2012, Zombieland, The Glass Castle) is the perfect Charles W. Nimitz, bringing his familiar wary self confidence to this real life seasoned soldier, agonizingly cognizant he is in the fight of his country’s life.

Dennis Quaid (Frequency, A Dog’s Purpose, The Alamo) is the growly fire hydrant shaped tough guy William “Bull” Halsey who leads from the front.

Patrick Wilson, (The Alamo, Phantom of the Opera) whose talents have been grotesquely underused in the fright flick Conjuring franchise, comes into his own as the intelligence officer Edwin Layton, whose warnings leading up to Pearl had been ignored and who now was determined to put everything on the line to be sure his country was never under-prepared again.

Ed Skrein (Alita: Battle Angel, Deadpool) is the fighter pilot Dick Best, who put his country’s freedom and his fellow patriots before any consideration for his own personal safety.

Aaron Eckhart (Batman: Dark Knight, White House Down) is Jimmy Doolittle who led the potential suicide mission into the never-before attacked Tokyo to strike a morale blow for America.

Nick Jonas (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) is Bruno Gaido, whose calmly philosophical personality and selfless heroism are brought to light on the screen.

Luke Evans (Hobbit trilogy, steam punk Three Musketeers, live action Beauty and the Beast) portrays Wade McClusky, decorated air group commander whose reasoned instincts and willingness to think outside the box became critical elements in the outcome of the Midway Battle.

All these actors brought to life real heroes, instilling their performances with the respect and dignity those historic military fighters deserve.

There are no last-minute saves or inevitable wins, no cliched characters though some cast members portray composites of real people, no politically correct soft pedaling, no feminist agenda. This is historically based on the raw courage of the men who went toe to toe with a ruthless aggressor Empire, with only a handful of planes and the few patched up aircraft carriers which survived the Pearl Harbor sneak attack. These are the men who truly were the Thin Line between the west coast of America and conflagration by the Japanese Empire. The soldiers at Midway were the only thing standing between us and a brutal autocracy for whom the Geneva Convention meant nothing, and which slaughtered a quarter of a million Chinese as retribution for the aid given by a few dozen Chinese to a single American Squadron.

These men, many young and barely out of their teens, stood like the Spartans at Thermopalaye, with their homes almost in sight against an overwhelming Imperial military which would have shown no quarter, no mercy, no diplomacy and no compromise for anything west of the Rocky Mountains. Had the Japanese won at Midway there was a distinct possibility that everything from Seattle to San Diego would have burned, the citizens butchered or enslaved by the merciless occupying Japanese force, as they had done in China. As such, these desperate and disparate courageous men threw themselves against this juggernaut, with photos of their families tucked into the control panel, in planes technologically years behind the Japanese, flying missions which were often tantamount to suicide, with little regard for their own personal safety.

Writer Wes Tooke and director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Patriot) show the stark savagery with which America was confronted, bringing to unvarnished relief the raw dauntless valor required of these American heroes. Robbie Baumgartner’s (Argo, Hunger Games) cinematography puts you in the flying seats with the pilots as they dive bomb in and out of the sky, challenging the limits of human endurance against incredible G-forces to survive the onslaught of anti-aircraft coming from the Japanese ships. The soundtrack by Harold Kloser and Thomas Wander (Independence Day, 2012)  is inspirationally stirring and evocative not only of the selfless patriotism of the country behind this effort but evocative of the very plane propellers and stuttering guns which flew like under-weaponed knights against this massive Japanese dragon.

So go see this tribute to great American soldiers who stood between us and a sadistic pitiless foe, who risked and gave their lives, not only for the just, or the good, but following Christ’s example, for every man, woman and child in America. Go see it, if for no other reason, than we owe it to their memory.

 

ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP – GOOFY GORY FUN

SHORT TAKE:

Sequel to the over-the-top zombie movie spoof about four survivors of a zombie apocalypse.

WHO SHOULD GO:

ABSOLUTELY NO CHILDREN! And only for adults who have a taste for gory macabre humor that pushes the envelope – like Shaun of the Dead, Cabin in the Woods, and the Evil Dead franchise. No sexual content of note aside from seeing two unmarried people in bed talking, but there is a lot of profanity.

LONG TAKE:

Let me make this simple: if you liked Zombieland then you will like Zombieland: Double Tap. There is nothing deep or philosophical about either of these movies. They are just plain old gory fun.

The premise of Zombieland: Double Tap answers that most pressing of all questions: Where are our intrepid heroes from the original Zombieland 10 years later?

The original cast returns as four survivors of a zombie apocalypse who form an ersatz family, fighting the undead with as much joie de vivre as possible. Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri see review HERE, Now You See Me 1 and 2, 2012 AND lest anyone forgot, broke out as the sweet Woody Boyd assistant bartender in Cheers) is Tallahassee again, the leader of the group and the one who attacks zombies with the most creative and gleeful enthusiasm. Jesse Eisenberg (Social Network, Batman v Superman) reprises Columbus, Tallahassee’s sidekick. Columbus’ official romantic interest is Wichita, (Emma Stone – La La Land see review HERE), older sister of Little Rock (Abigail Breslin – Signs, Raising Helen).

To tell more than these bare bones would be to give away too much. Suffice it to say, ZDT is as clever and as campy as its predecessor, playfully turning the zombie genre on its head. Instead of characters cringing in fear and running in fright from the brain hungry mobs, this crew embraces the challenge of zombie killing the way others in a non-zombie world might embrace an extreme sport like skydiving into a shallow pool without a parachute or Safari hunting lions with a crossbow.

I must say zombie killing has been good to these guys. Zombieland was the first thing I ever really liked Woody Harrelson in, Jesse Eisenberg makes a far better Columbus than Lex Luthor, none of the actors, except Abigail Breslin appear to have aged a day and Little Rock couldn’t help it because she went from teen to young adult, and all of them seem to be having the best time of their lives.

Adding to the merry mayhem of people they meet along the way are: Zoey Deutch as Madison, Avan Jogia as Berkley,  Rosario Dawson as Nevada, Luke Wilson (brother of Owen and Andrew) as Alberquerque, and Thomas Middleditch (Godzilla see review HERE, Tag see review HERE) as Flag Staff.

The music is at turns perky folk Americana, upbeat, creepy, and sometimes all of the above at once, incorporating songs from Caddyshack‘s “I’m Alright” to Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”. (You’ll understand why each of them are included when you see the movie.)

The characters are self-aware, make fun of themselves, the genre, their characters and do not just break the fourth wall but don’t really seem to care if there is one or not.

Had the actors, writers (David Callaham, Rhett Reese, and Paul Wernick) or director (Ruben Fleischer) stepped back even an inch from the full steam ahead, break through the guard rails approach, Zombieland would not have worked.

As it is, this ultimate camp of the year zombie movie, for the demographic of those who prefer goofy in their gore, camp in their carnage, and do not mind more than a bit of grotesque with their humoresque, Zombieland: Double Tap is, in its own special and unique way, a delight. But please oh please, leave the kids at home unless you want to start the therapy fund early.

THE ADDAMS FAMILY – GOOD MOVIE WHICH JUST FALLS – LONG – OF BEING AN EXCELLENT ONE

SHORT TAKE:

Charming animated movie based on the Addams Family characters, created decades ago by Charles Addams, but honestly, with not enough plot for a full length feature.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone who is interested. No sex, there is ghoulishness but nothing really scary (except for perhaps the very young), cartoon (obviously) violence, no bad language, but could be a bit slow for any of the youngish set used to the quick and flashy.

LONG TAKE:

The story, for anyone not familiar with this quirky bunch, is about a tight knit loving family who do not quite fit the standard mold. (Though some of them may be a bit — moldy.) Resembling nothing so much as a band of ghouls, vampires and assorted monsters, they frighten the neighbors wherever they go. In truth they just wish to be left (to rest) in peace to raise their children and live (or be dead) without bothering anyone else. Unfortunately, a developer buys the land around their home and a neighborhood eventually grows up around them. And not your ordinary neighborhood but a carefully planned and controlled one which sees the Addams as a threat to their desire for plastic conformity.

While this is a promising premise, alas The Addams Family animated feature falls not short of being a classic but too long. They had all the ingredients of a five star triumph: engaging memorable characters, excellent voice acting from grade A actors, excellent though stylized animation, and even a built-in multi-generational cult audience.

Unfortunately, what they did not have was a plot that could sustain a feature-length film.

When the kids were little we all picked a theme song. I won’t tell you what anyone else’s was but I will tell you that they ranged from Broadway to rock and roll and mine was the theme song from the TV show The Addams Family. “They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky, they’re altogether ooky … ” Okay, well it wasn’t Shakespeare but what it WAS was confident, eccentric and whimsical. While others saw them as odd and scary, I saw a warm loving and wholesome (in their own way) family. Gomez and Morticia were very much in love even after many, possibly hundreds, of years of marriage. The kids were homeschooled, they lived with extended family – Gomez’s brother, Fester, and Morticia’s “grandmama”. They took good care of their pets – well, OK a lion named “Kitty” and a tall man eating Venus fly trap named Cleopatra. Gomez was an extremely successful, kind and philanthropic businessman who kept an open pocketbook to anyone in need. They adored their children, spent all their time together as a family, were welcoming to everyone, including the neighbors who occasionally ran from the bemused but well meaning family in terror. They never forced themselves on anyone but were  happily content to quietly go about their own business. Yet they were looked at askance just because they chose to do things a little — differently.

In short they reminded me of — us.

As a kid I enjoyed The Addams Family for its unusual humor and adorable characters. Later in life I had a much deeper appreciation for their situation. A LOOONG time ago when the kids were little, homeschooling was a very peculiar affectation to many people. The two most common questions we got were: “Homeschool – where is that?” and “Is that legal?” Many thought we were crazy. Even some of our friends would distance themselves when the subject of educating children came up. And our families were convinced we would tire of this “cultish” idea. 30 years later we had graduated all 6 out of high school and into college and careers. And retrospectively I recognized – we WERE The Addams Family to a lot of people.

So they hold a special place in my heart.

The source material is from a single panel comic by Charles Addams that featured regularly in The New Yorker. It specialized in dark and macabre humor: Morticia discarding the blooms of flowers to keep the stems. The children chopping the heads off of dolls with a child sized guillotine. The 1960’s TV show with John Astin (the adopted father of Sean Astin aka Samwise Gamgee) as Gomez and Carolyn Jones as Morticia, kept the dark comedy, but converted it into a cockeyed Leave it to Beaver sitcom. The movies, with Raul Julia taking over for Astin, and Angelica Houston for Jones, echoed their predecessors with devoted enthusiasm and ramped up the outlandishness of the family’s eccentricities. I thoroughly loved all of it.

This animated movie wisely pulls from all three. The voice acting is perfect and evokes the — uh — spirit of all the unique personalities: Gomez harkens back not to the good looks of the human leads but portrays Gomez as the short squat little pin-stripped ghoul he was originally drawn to be. The acting talents of Oscar Isaacs (Star Wars, Operation Finale) and Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde, Tully, Mad Max: Fury Road) instill Gomez and Morticia with all the lively personality of their live action predecessors. And while Chloe Grace Moretz (Dark Shadows, Carrie) as Wednesday is much like Christina Ricci’s stone faced version from the live action movies instead of the sweet faced Wednesday from the TV show, Nick Kroll (Operation Finale) does a spitty mouthed Uncle Fester which is far closer to Jackie Coogan’s version in the TV show  than Chris Lloyd’s feature film Fester. Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things and It – that kid better watch it as he’s well on the way to being type cast) did a lovely job as the voice of the good natured but “explosively” enthusiastic Pugsley. Bette Midler (singer extraordinary and actress from The Rose) does a surprise “appearance” as the voice of Grandmama. SCTV veterans Martin Short (Inner Space) and Catherine O’Hara (Ode to Joy – see my post HERE) perform an adorable cameos as visiting deceased spirits who give Morticia advice. I think all the choices made by the animators and actors worked together beautifully – cherry picking the elements which work best in this medium and blending them together like the tints in a fine painting.

The music uses both modern and iconic, employing the likes of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” as well as the familiar theme song from the TV show. Of particular note is the BRILLIANTLY inspired end credit sequence wherein the animated characters repeat precisely the scenes shown at the beginning of the TV show: Morticia and Gomez’ sword practice, Lurch at the organ, Fester’s smudged post-explosion face – in a loving homage to the wonderful 1960’s super quirky sitcom.

Unfortunately, unlike the live action movies, there is just not enough for these wonderful characters to do. Events — occur — and there is a theme of conformity versus independence, but it is more Road Runner booms and sight gags than storyline. There’s lots of quick one-liners and don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-them clever sight gags, but it just doesn’t all quite gel into a whole idea worthy of its 87 minute run time.

The “villain”, Margaux Needler, ultra-micromanager real estate mogul and TV show host, who will stop at nothing to get her “perfect” development off the ground, is a carbon copy of the perfectionist and micromanager homeowner association chairwoman Gladys Sharp, whose personality is lifted right off the storyboards for Over the Hedge. Both characters are even voiced by the same actress, Allison Janney.

It’s not that The Addams Family is bad, but it treads no knew ground and drags. With the content available here this would have been far more successful as a quick paced 20 minute short.

However, I think with the talent at hand and the rich potentials for the premise they could do SO much better and I look forward to a sequel if the writers would just put a bit more effort into the script.

But for all the flaws, I was delighted to see my favorite eccentric family on the big screen again.

DESTINATION WEDDING – ODD ROM COM THAT WORKS AGAINST EXPECTATION

SHORT TAKE:

Unusual tale of how two unpleasant people create a positive relationship through a series of conversations at a weekend destination wedding.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Absolutely only adults and preferably married ones at that for: profanity, casual blasphemy and an explicit, albeit genuinely funny and fully clothed, scene of realistically portrayed sexual intimacy.

LONG TAKE:

A love story with a twist. To my knowledge this phrase was coined by my friend Franklin. He claims it an apt description to ANY movie. That may be so, but Destination Wedding really is one.

While the movie doesn’t exactly turn the standard for the rom-com on its head it does view it obliquely. Destination Wedding certainly follows the formula: somewhat unlikely couple meet, after a few coincidental further encounters they find they have common interests, fall in love, run into obstacles to the relationship, etcetera. What’s different about Destination Wedding is both the structure of the movie and the characters.

Written and directed by Victor Levin, (who penned 29 episodes of the adorable rom-sitcom Mad About You),  the movie would transit to the stage with ease. Much like a mobile My Dinner with Andre, the leads are the only people who have dialogue. While My Dinner with Andre took place almost exclusively at a dinner table in a restaurant, Destination Wedding wanders all over different events’ settings: an airport, an airplane, the rehearsal dinner at a restaurant, the outdoor wedding, hotel rooms, etc. But the settings are barely noticed. The entire focus of the film is on the conversations between these two unlikely lovers, Lindsey and Frank.

You know the romance involved will be a bit different  when it begins with the subtitle: “A narcissist can’t die because then the entire world would end.”

Frank is played by Keanu Reeves, the titular action movie hero from John Wick. Lindsey is played by Winona Ryder, most famously and recently as the frenetic mother, Joyce, desperately trying to protect her family from Stranger Things.  Although there is no violence or supernatural killers in Destination Wedding, looking at the pictures from the lead actors’ current most notable respective roles one can see why there is a natural chemistry between the actors.

Reeves here contributes to his too small stock of comedies. Reeves deadpan delivery is perfect for the emotionally distressed and extremely subdued Frank,  who comes from a family which is extravagantly dysfunctional, and includes his half-brother, the groom. Cynically, Frank’s opinion of romance is summed up in his response to whether he believes there is someone for everyone. Frank retorts, “Close. I believe that there is nobody for anyone.” Lindsey, on the other hand, has a stable family background, but her problem is that she is still in love with the groom, and expresses her bitterness and frustration in self-absorption and constant critiques of others.

I once heard Dr. Laura Schlessinger describe her philosophy of a healthy relationship as finding someone whose quirks you don’t mind who doesn’t mind yours. Lindsey and Frank certainly have the quirks. The story examines whether their quirks will mesh comfortably or grind each other to pieces. Like two oddly shaped puzzle pieces, the two rub each other the wrong way from their first casual conversation. But as they are both depressed outliers at this matrimonial celebration who find mutuality in hating the groom, avoiding the relatives and thinking the bride has “all the sense God gave a toaster,” they repeatedly end up ignored and forgotten by the wedding party at the different events – together.

Extreme dislike, like love, is a strong emotion which can be flipped on its head and the audience is entertained by watching for how, when and if Lindsey and Frank will catch up with the idea that they are in some bizarre way made for each other.

Their major winning personality trait is their honesty about themselves and others which they employ to strip each other bear emotionally and psychologically. But like Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader both are in desperate need of this personality scrubbing of the emotional dragon scales with which they have armored themselves, and to which scrubbing, to their credits, they reluctantly but patiently submit.

The acting is quiet and amusing. You would not think listening to these two dissect the wedding party and each other for 87 minutes would be fun, but it was. These two weirdly mismatched people slowly grow on the audience and each other. And we can not help but wonder what will next be revealed as each layer is removed and healthier more vulnerable parts of their souls begin to emerge. This is the fourth movie for Ryder and Reeves to do together, and their chemistry is light-hearted, easy and evident.

The cinematography is simple and straight on as though you WERE watching a play, with the beautiful setting of San Luis Obispo California, wine country, as merely a frame to this clever little romantic snapshot. It was shot in 10 days with no close-ups and few if any retakes.

Along with the casting of these two who have been friends since the 1980’s, there are a couple of other in-“jokes” as well. Lindsey suggests they play “Devil’s Advocate” in a discussion of their future as a couple, an offhand allusion to the movie The Devil’s Advocate in which Keanu Reeves starred. Frank alludes to his father’s new girlfriend as, “Being a senior while he [the father]was a freshman,” which is pointedly similar to a quote by Reeves’ character’s best friend, in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, when Ted refers to Reeves’ character Bill’s very young stepmom.

Also, as an interesting side trivia, like their characters, though having been in serious relationships before, neither of the actors have ever been married. In addition, there’s a running cinema legend that the two actors have actually been married to each other for 25 years, having appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula during which a real Romanian priest was engaged for the wedding ceremony of their characters.

This is a movie for adults only, for language, conversation subject content, and a graphic scene of sexual activity. Although no skin is ever seen the clothed behavior is vivid and explicit although genuinely funny in its very artlessness.

So if you are an adult in the mood for an individually peculiar, romantic comedy of two broken people searching for their complementary parts, you could do worse than follow Lindsay and Frank as they literally and figuratively go off the beaten track to find their awkward match.

And — welcome back to your rightful home in comedy Mr. Reeves!

ODE TO JOY – LOVE STORY WITH A TWIST

 

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF “ODE TO JOY – LOVE STORY WITH A TWIST” REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

How do you manage a romance if being happy makes you pass out? This is the conundrum with which a cataplexic man struggles when his perfect woman unexpectedly appears.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Mature older teens and up for language, comedic miming of sex, and attempts by the main characters to physical intimacy, though there is no nudity or anything graphic.

LONG TAKE:

What do Sherlock, Deadpool, Big Bang Theory, Saturday Night Live and a Bob Fosse docudrama have in common? The best of the supporting cast of each of these film projects in an adorable little rom com, directed by Jason Winer and written by Max Werner and Chris Higgins called Ode to Joy.

A friend of mine has often teased that EVERY movie could be described as “a love story with a twist”. But Ode to Joy really is.

SPOILERS

Martin Freeman, (Watson from Sherlock) is Charlie, a man who suffers from a neurologic condition called cataplexy, a condition in which any strong emotion, but for him especially joy and happiness, will cause him to — basically faint. Watching a cute cat video could render him unceremoniously unconscious, and while it may initially seem funny, the movie points out how dangerous, both physically and emotionally, the condition can be for those who actually suffer from this condition.

The script is based upon a radio interview (which you can listen to HERE) with a man named Matt Frerkin, himself a neuroscientist, who discovered he had this condition after becoming unable to move whenever he experiences strong emotion.

So Charlie keeps himself in constant emotional check, leading a quiet life as a librarian — until the girl of his dreams storms in.

Jake Lacy (featured as Gwen Verdon’s second string love interest in the mini-series about the life of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, Fosse/Verdon) plays Cooper, his watchful but fun love ‘em and leave ‘em brother.

Morena Baccarin (Deadpool’s fiancee) is Francesca, the woman who breaks into Charlie’s well encapsulated life.

Melissa Rauch (the loud but loveable Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory) is Bethany, a mousy eccentric woman, who rounds out the quartet.

Jane Curtain (an SNL charter member) is Francesca’s Aunt Sylvia, who is full of life despite her terminal illness.

There’s more than meets the eye to this un petite affaire de coeur. At one point Charlie yells at his brother, plaintively wondering if he understands what it is like to live every day afraid of making a fool of yourself. The answer is, of course, yes. Everyone does. We all have our burdens to bear. And when anyone falls in love, as Charlie has, they expose themselves to the ultimate vulnerabilities.   It doesn’t take cataplexy to make you aware of the potential hurt and humiliation, rejection and risk of falling – in Charlie’s case literally – head over heels. Charlie’s cataplexy is merely an extreme physical manifestation of the chance we all take with that bold step out to admit we love.

What can leave us more exposed than being unconscious, especially unbidden and unexpectedly? And that is a perfect analogy for the leap you must take in a commitment. You lay your life, your heart and your unconditional willingness to accept rejection out on the floor, undefended to whatever might happen beyond your control. God, Himself, takes that risk with every human’s Free Will when He offers us Grace and unconditional Divine Love. Though there are consequences to turning our back on this Love, God never ceases to offer that Love. And ultimately this is what Charlie realizes he must do to pursue the good of another – genuine Love, Love without a sense of entitlement, what Plato would call philia born of eros, or a Catholic might call Charity – in order to find true — Joy.

There are scenes in which Charlie experiences true Joy, but is not “Happy” in the emotionally excited way which most of us think of as “happy” or which would trigger his cataplexy. Charlie, during these scenes, is noticeably joyful, pointed out by the other characters, even while we the audience members know he is sad, as Charlie attempts to bring Joy into the life of someone else even at his own expense. He unwittingly discovers what is true Love, even though neither his friends or even Charlie really understands this.

As for Francesca, she is a woman who prefers to set herself up for romantic failure. Having lost her mother to hereditary breast cancer and on the verge of losing her beloved Aunt to the same disease, she tends to keep things superficial, moving frequently and choosing shallow men uninterested in a permanent relationship. But Francesca too instinctively knows true Love and Joy as, though sad, she Joyfully visits and helps her Aunt, who she describes as her best friend. And counseled by her open-hearted, Bucket List accomplishing Aunt Sylvia, Francesca also wrestles with the idea of what it means to Love and commit.

It occurred to me that the characters were what an adult version of Inside Out might look like from the mind of someone “in love” who matures from adolescent infatuation to true altruistic Love. From Francesca’s often unfettered enthusiasm and Cooper’s libido, to Bethany’s confused obliviousness, Charlie’s hyper-awareness of his vulnerabilities, and finally the wisdom of Aunt Sylvia who, more than most, understands the ephemeral preciousness of life and the importance of altruistic Love, they rotate about each other examining the question of the importance of living well and FOR someone you love – even if you have to risk pain and loss.

The music by Jeremy Turner is simple, the cinematography by David Robert Jones uncomplicated, but the story is neither. Although Ode to Joy is in that familiar niche of quirky romantic comedies with some unique obstacle to the main couple’s happiness, Ode to Joy is also an intelligent and clever story which surprises, offering quite a bit to think about.

The language is occasionally adult with completely unnecessary profanity. And  two unmarried couples try to go to bed together, though no nudity and ultimately, and wisely, nothing happens because of — comic reasons.

My only real complaint about the movie is it leaves the outcome of one of the characters unresolved and unaddressed, especially frustrating as that character was unfairly treated and earned a conclusion.

But overall Ode to Joy was – a joy to watch. So if you have a rainy afternoon to spend with someone you love, you could do worse than spend it watching and talking about this lovely little film with the big heart that is an Ode to Joy.

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.

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS – TAKE A ROAD LESS TRAVELED STARRING AMERICA’S FINEST ACTOR

 

SHORT TAKE:

This first is in a series of movies which I will review which are unlike any other films. I begin with a gentle comedy fantasy, starring the greatest American actor who ever lived, with a new perspective on Sherlock Holmes.

WHO SHOULD SEE THESE:

Depends on the movie – but the range for ones I have in mind are about mid-teen and up, for plot topics, or language, or because younger kids would simply be bored or frightened. As always, but especially with these since there is often little to compare them to – you should check them out first before showing them to your kids.

INTRODUCTION:

A preponderance of movies now-a-days are derivative. You can’t blame movie executives for it really. When you are sinking millions of dollars of other people’s money into a project it is a great comfort to know it is similar to another one that made a profit. And I love formula movies. There is an enjoyable reliability in the anticipation of a familiar theme – like listening to a variation of a song you love by a different artist. Like Buble’s upbeat jazzy version of the originally clunky Spiderman theme song. Or Sia’s creepily ominous version of “California Dreamin'” from the recent disaster movie San Andreas.

But every now and again I find a unique little one-off which makes it fondly to my list of favorite movies. By unique, I mean it has no sequels, no prequels, and no one (yet) has plans to remake it. They are not part of a franchise, few people have ever even heard of them, and if you go on Amazon to look for them the “Customers Who Watched This Item Also Watched…” you will not find a single item anything like it. Oh, you’ll find a list of other movies the actors have been in or the director has made or a stab at the genre, but NOTHING approaching these sparkling gems in the cinematic firmament.

Here is the first of my favorites in no particular order – aside from the fact it stars my favorite actor ….. ever.

LONG TAKE:

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1971)

I think George C. Scott is probably one of, if not THE best American actor ever. (Sorry Marlon). His filmography spanned decades. He threw himself completely into every role but never lost sight of the idea it was a job and he a performer whose responsibility it was to entertain his audience the best way he knew how. His career was as varied as his thespian skills were intense. At home in comedies, mysteries, biographies, romances, classics, horror, dramas, you name it, he played cops and lawyers,  generals and sleaze-balls, gangsters and scientists. He was an attorney in Otto Preminger’s 10 Oscar nominee 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder, and the off-the-wall General Turgidson in Kubrick’s 1964 classic 4 Oscar nominee Dr. Strangelove.  He was the man of choice in a version of Scrooge, Edward Rochester with a Jane Eyre played by Suzanna York (who later played Christopher Reeve’s Superman’s mom), the Beast opposite his then wife Trish Van deVere’s Belle, Fagin in Oliver Twist, Mussolini in a biodrama about the dictator, one of 12 Angry Men, the captain in a version of the Titanic, a hit man in a Stephen King movie, and the stalwart and heroic General George S. Patton in 1970’s amazing Patton, the latter a winner of 7 Oscars including best director, movie, screenplay, and lead actor.

Mr. Scott turned down both his Best Supporting nomination for The Hustler and stuck to his guns turning down even the Oscar for his win in Patton. He maintained the Oscars had morphed from a friendly dinner among compatriots to a “meat parade” with “contrived suspense for economic reasons,” and that he was not in competition with his fellow thespians.

THEN, right after his definitive turn as Patton, at what was then the height of his career, he made a little known film for a small budget, whose virtues rest squarely on the shoulders of the actors. They Might Be Giants was written by James Goldman, directed by Anthony Harvey, and with music composed by John Barry (who also scored 11 Bond films), were the same three men who crafted the brilliant Lion in Winter.

The premise of They Might Be Giants is that Judge Justin Playfair (don’t look at me, I didn’t make up the name, but this will give you a clue as to the film’s ambiance), is so stricken by grief over the loss of his wife that he has retreated into believing he is Sherlock Holmes. His brother, with motives other than Playfair’s best interests, seeks out a psychiatrist to have him committed. Unfortunately, or fortunately, her name just happens to be Mildred …. Watson. Dr. Watson is gently played by Joanne Woodward, who with a considerable acting track of her own, was the wife and long-time working companion of Paul Newman. Scott is (one viewer noted) “majestic” in this quirky mystery-romance, describing the film as a “delicate … comedy/fantasy”. I couldn’t agree more. Without giving ANY spoilers, I will admit this is not a perfect film, but what is there is creative, memorable, and delightful.

So, as Robert Frost might encourage, take the road “…less traveled by,” and check out this small movie aptly named They Might be Giants.

It is also available on Amazon HERE.

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON – MARK TWAIN MEETS ST. AUGUSTINE

 

SHORT TAKE:

Delightful loose retelling of the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with “shades” of St. Augustine’s philosophical wisdom.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up as, while there is no sexual content, the film contains some rough language, and brief scenes of violence and tension. Also, younger kids would probably be bored with the slow and thoughtful pace of the story.

LONG TAKE:

Some reviewers have noted the similarities in the The Peanut Butter Falcon to both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, especially Finn’s trip down the Mississippi with the run away slave, Jim. And while this is true, this aspect of the debut feature length script, as brilliantly and simply co-written and co-directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, inspired in part as a love letter to the people of the Outer Banks, is only the superficial structure to a story with far deeper and more complex theological implications.

St. Augustine once said: Trust the past to God’s mercy, the present to God’s love, and the future to His Providence. The Peanut Butter Falcon is the embodiment of this lesson as it brings to life three unusual but very relatable people who collide in one of the most charming and delightful movies I have seen in a long time.

Tyler, namesake of the co-author, played by Shia LaBeouf, is a darker version of Huckleberry Finn‘s Jim. Tyler is a walking guilt trip, desperately in need of mercy, an unhappy man with a tragic history looking to punish himself for the regrets in his life. He is the only one for which we see flashbacks, underscoring Tyler’s obsession with the past. An unsuccessful fisherman, he is angry with the world, especially himself and runs away from his responsibilities, one step ahead of justice for his petty and vengeance-inspired crimes as well as the rough and dangerous men who he has infuriated.

But there is also a blunt honesty about the way he treats his fellow man. In Act 5 of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle rebukes her bombastic tutor Henry Higgins, complaining that the manners of Higgins’ friend Colonel Pickering are better than Higgins’ manners because:  “He [Pickering] treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.” To which Higgins retorts: “And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl.” There is a bit more than a little of Henry Higgins in The Peanut Butter Falcon’s Tyler.

Tyler is the best role of LaBeouf’s career to date. His character looks at the world with sad eyes but squarely. When Zak, to garner a bit of sympathy, announces to Tyler that he has Down Syndrome, Tyler tells him he doesn’t care. And Tyler means it. With gruff respect for his new tag-along companion, Tyler genuinely does not care one way or the other that Zak has “special needs”, but treats Zak the way he does everyone, including a nervous grocery clerk, the blind preacher who gives them shelter, the lovely Eleanor, the man who gives him a hitch, the employer who has just fired him – all with the same respect – meeting everyone at eye level, not caring what they think of him,but offering each a measure of decency the best way he knows how.

Zak, the main character in this film with the quirky title, is a wonderful modern day Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn. Brave and adventurous, Zak even spends much of the first parts of his journey, like Tom and Huck, barefooted, walking down country roads with his ersatz “Jim”. Zak had been stuck in a nursing home as, abandoned by his family, no other place would take him. But Zak is also the personification of unconditional love, a sweet soul with an indefatigably happy outlook on life, who lives in every present moment with trust in God, unbounded enthusiasm and an open heart. Played brilliantly by a young man who actually has Down’s Syndrome, the clever and adorable Zack Gottsagen, some of whose clever ad-libs were included in the script, is charm personified.

The chemistry between the three leads is obvious both on and off screen. Gottsagen’s co-stars LeBoeuf and Johnson, in the “Making of” featurette HERE and interviews like the ones HERE, and HERE, and HERE, express what seems to be genuine fondness for their new fellow thespian, as well as admiration for his natural acting abilities and instincts.

The film’s titular Peanut Butter Falcon, Zak, also looks squarely and honestly at the world, but sees it very differently from Tyler. More than anything in the world Zak wants to be a professional wrestler like Salt Water Redneck, (Thomas Hayden Church) whose videos Zak watches ceaselessly with his friend and endlessly patient roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern – classic veteran of stage and screen whose now elderly and experienced presence I have been delighted to see cropping up in such divergent films as Chappaquidick and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). Zak flees the nursing home in pursuit of his dream.

Eleanor stands in the place of Tom’s Aunt Polly. Like the Biblical Martha, Eleanor is worried and upset about many things, fearful of the bad things that can happen to the people about and for whom she cares, not the least of which is the “flight risk” Zak, as this escape is not his first. Eleanor is a young widow who spends her time volunteering at the elderly home. She worries over Zak like a mother hen, fretting exclusively about his future, blinding herself to Zak’s immediate needs and manifest abundant abilities. When Zak goes missing, Eleanor strikes out on the seemingly impossible task to find Zak and return him to what she believes is the best place for him – the safety of her ever watchful eye.

The actress who played Eleanor looked extremely familiar, though, in a rarity for me, I could not place her. Then I looked her up in the vast electronic cinematic library that is us.imdb.com only to find she had been in a trilogy for which her face was plastered everywhere, but which movies I had not seen. Dakota Johnson made her name as the notorious co-star of the rather infamous Shades of Gray films. But fear not, as my husband wittily suggested I assure you, this is NOT 50 Shades of Peanut Butter. However, there IS  a completely innocent but rather amusing Easter egg reference to the Gray films for those familiar with this portion of Ms. Johnson’s repertoire.  Assessing her filmography, I believe this is likely the best performance of her career and certainly the nicest movie she has ever been in.

Duncan, (John Hawkes who has appeared in such varied features as the comedy TV show Psyche, as the Union colonel Robert Latham in Lincoln, and the frighteningly abusive husband in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), is most obviously this version of Tom Sawyer‘s Injun Joe. Duncan hunts relentlessly for Tyler and, by extension, his companions, bent on revenge.

Together the three friends – Tyler, Eleanor and Zak – embark upon a Twain-ian adventure which literally places them, for a while, on a raft down a river.

The cinematography is like a stylized home movie. Beautifully filmed in Savannah, Georgia, making best use of the natural biodiversities from man-tall grasses and long stretches of sandy beaches to inviting swimming holes and Spanish Moss-covered oaks, much of the story is set along the Outer Banks – a series of barrier islands and spits along the east coast of North Carolina and Virginia, as our characters make their way to Florida.

The music is very reminiscent of O Brother, Where Art Thou? – a mellow  expression of Southern culture featuring a soundtrack of banjo picking and fiddle music, with folk songs and Gospel tunes sprinkled throughout, like stars in the black velvet sky of a summer night.

The language is occasionally quite rough, but not gratuitously so, and certainly in keeping with the customs of the financially precarious crab fishermen who live from hand to mouth on the outskirts of civilization, in the wilds of Georgia.

There is no sexual content aside from the underweared attire of the purely innocent Zak’s escape ensemble, and a chaste kiss between our other two protagonists.

So go enjoy this wonderful expression of both a modern Mark Twain tale and the personification of St. Augustine’s admonition to seek God’s mercy, love and Providence,  as seen through the eyes and adventures of a very special Huckleberry Finn and his two companions.

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.

Dora and The Lost Movie Badly Told

SHORT TAKE:

Disjointed mess of a movie based upon a cartoon with no real effort to make a live action worthwhile. Choppily written and poorly acted, what is not cliché looks like a weekend effort to produce an advertisement for the Dora the Explorer cartoon series.

WHO SHOULD GO:

There’s nothing inappropriate for children but nothing of merit to keep their attention either.

LONG TAKE:

In the movie Daddy Day Care, while meeting one of their newest six-year old charges, they discover the kid can speak Klingon. Steve Zahn’s character, Marvin, who plays the resident geek of everything television, translates then asks, shocked, “How much television does this kid WATCH?!” I wondered the same thing about the filmmakers of Dora. It felt written by someone whose childhood was spent absorbing WAAAAAY too many television visual and sound bites OR who had zero confidence in their audiences’ ability to maintain any attention span whatsoever. That, with the rushed weekend-shoot quality, bad acting from even the likes of Michael Pena and Eugenio Derbez, and the TV movie unrealism of wearing clean white pants after 2 days sleeping rough, made it impossible to relate to this movie.

The structure, such as it was, never settled down. I had whiplash 20 minutes in as Dora kept changing the direction of the story.

This movie is all over the place. Dora can’t decide if it wants to be The Lego Movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a kid version of Indiana Jones, a live action cartoon, or a spoof of her origin animation.

It opens as though you’re watching an episode of a live action Dora The Explorer, with a six year old Dora dancing and skipping in pristine clothes through a jungle full of arguably dangerous animals, like a poisonous frog. Then we cut to discover it was all in her imagination as she sits in a plywood race car with her cousin, Diego. Then during dinner she repeatedly looks off in the distance to empty air asking “Can YOU say _________” filling the blank in with a previous spoken word or scientific reference. Even her Dad thinks this is weird and her mom assures him she will outgrow it.

Diego leaves with his parents to America and we cut 10 years later to Dora, now played by Isabela Moner, (wonderful in Instant Family), whose talents are excruciatingly wasted in this movie, singing her way through the jungle with a talking monkey – which turns out NOT to be part of her imagination, even though the rendering of the chimp is decidedly unrealistic.

And then, despite everything else being more or less based on real life, there is the walking, talking fox with a thief mask who interacts with humans as though he wandered in from a sequel to the awful Incredible Mr. Fox. Even the chimp is not openly this anthropomorphized, except in one sequence alone with Dora, which COULD have been a moment of Dora’s overactive imagination. So the presence of Swiper among the troop of entirely human bad guys is just — odd — as though SOMEone had inhaled a bit too much of the hallucinogenic pollen which makes all the characters – for about 5 minutes of the movie – think they ARE cartoons.

For a while I kept expecting this to all be a continued figment of her imagination, ala Lego Movie. But it was just weird bad writing.

Dora is portrayed as an aggressively cheerful Pollyanna who seems oblivious to most social customs, all attributed to the fact she was homeschooled by her professor parents as they explored the jungle.

Then we switch to a “fish out of water” story as Dora is sent to live with her aunt, uncle and now grown and civilization-acclimated cousin, Diego (Jeff Walhberg) so her clueless parents (the usually scene stealing Michael Pena – adorable in Antman and heartbreaking in Collateral Beauty) and Eva Longoria can go look for the City of Gold. Pena tries over hard to quirk up the movie but an interminable minute of his beat box “Rave” music imitation is more painful than amusing.

Walhberg, nephew of Mark Walhberg, spends most of the movie looking embarrassed. It was hard to tell whether his pained expression came from his character’s embarrassment over his awkward cousin’s behavior, or the actor’s own personal humiliation for signing on to this poor outing. Dora is sent to a traditional institutional school where, despite her obvious education and intelligence she can not grasp the art of “fitting in”.

THEN, cobbling together an excuse for a Jumanji-style misfit group – the jealous class pet, Sammy (Madeleine Madden), the geeky infatuated boy, Randy (Nicholas Coombe), Dora’s cousin, Diego, and Dora – are all kidnapped and brought to the jungle as hostages to convince Dora’s parents to help the bad guy treasure hunter, ala Indiana Jones, find a lost city of gold. Dora’s parents are purist explorers who would never seek to prosper from their educational finds, yet never explain how they can afford to spend all their time in comparative luxury out in the wilds.

On top of everything else Dora sings her way through different moments – not like a musical but with the kind of singsong childish skipping pieces one might hear in a —- 10 minute cartoon.  She even makes up a “poo song” for a city friend who must abide by a call of nature outside for the first time in her life. 90 minutes of this had me rooting for the bad guys.

The last scene indulges in a Disneyfied-Bollywood dance sequence. The energetic choreography in Indian-sourced movies are usually my favorite parts. The dances in the true Bollywoods are meant to enhance the demonstration of emotional bonding which has progressed throughout the movie. In Dora, it’s more like sending disappointed kids off from a poorly planned and rained out celebration with soggy party bags, it just doesn’t help make anyone feel better about the event.

And it’s a shame because such a good movie could have been made out of the idea of a rugged homeschooled kid providing guidance literally and socially to a bunch of institutionalized kids to help them think outside of the box and become better people. Sadly, this is NOT that movie.

I suppose it could have been worse given the lead writers were Cliff Gifford who, as creator of the Dora cartoon,  has, previously, not really written for people and Matthew Robinson whose major screen credits up to now have involved movies titled Sex Surrogates and Jerked.

In short, don’t waste your time on this nearly two hours of drivel.