Wreck-it Ralph

Wreck-It poster

The premise of Wreck-It Ralph is a digital-age version of Toy Story (1995). It all takes place in a happy little arcade, strangely free of graffiti, litter and juvenile delinquents. Every night, when the arcade closes down, the characters in the games are free to wander between consoles, socialize and goof around. Only one catch: if you die outside your own game you don’t regenerate. But I’m sure that won’t become an issue.

We are introduced to this world by Wreck-It Ralph himself (John C. Reilly), the miscast, wheel grinding, time-card punching “bad guy” of the game Fix-It Felix, Jr. He explains how, all day, he has to demolish a building with his comically big hands, so the hero, Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), can save the day. After which, Felix is rewarded with a pie on the roof of the building, and the tenants throw Ralph off the roof, into a mud puddle. Ralph shares his frustration at seeing his contribution to the game go unrecognized while Felix is given pies and medals. Ralph is talking to a villain support group, whose members extol the value of being a villain. As Zangief, from Street Fighter II, says “If Zangeif was good, who would crush man’s head like sparrow’s egg between thighs?” They tell him that it’s a villain’s lot in life to get beat over and over, and watch the hero get the glory, and that his life will be happier if he excepts it.

And I just have to make a comment here. Don’t villains usually win in video games? Especially in arcade games, which are designed to keep you pumping quarters in. Realistically, it would be Felix getting thrown into the mud 99% of the time. Oh, well.

Ralph has his inevitable confrontation with the rest of the game’s cast (Nicelanders, they are called), in which Mayor Gene (Raymond Perci) tells Ralph that bad guys don’t get medals, and if Ralph ever won a medal (since he clearly never will) the Nicelanders would let him live at the top of the building in the penthouse. Ralph calls his bluff, and storms off to do just that. Something that’s amusing to watch here, and in certain other scenes, is the choppy, blocky way in which the characters move. It is, of course, intentional, and it does bring out the feel of a 1980s platform game, which is what this is supposed to be, but I’m sure it also saved Disney several tens of thousands of dollars.

Ralph’s quest for a medal leads him to steal the uniform of a space marine from the game Hero’s Duty, a fictitious game that is exactly like 10,000 real shoot’em up, blow’em up, throw-away first-person shooters that you find in arcades all over the world. Ralph’s misadventure in Hero’s Duty is certainly one of the best, possibly the best scene in the movie, and gives rise to a line every parent in the audience will love: “When did video games become so violent and scary??” It also introduces us to Sgt. Tamora Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the model-proportioned, yet tough-as-nails cliché who leads the marine troop. Calhoun’s spittle-throwing PG version of a potty mouth might just be the most entertaining part of the movie, but “It’s not her fault,” because “she’s programmed with the most tragic back story ever.” I won’t tell you what this back story is. Suffice to say, I laughed enough to shed tears when I saw it, because it’s so over the top, and yet just like what you see in video games today. Calhoun is awesome.

Tri-fold

Eventually, Ralph also lands in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed cart racing game. The landscapes in Sugar Rush are beautifully rendered, although, if you’re a salty snacker like me, you might get a little nauseous after a while. Here, Ralph meets Vanellopy Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a game character who wants to join the races, but is ostracized from the racing community because she is a glitch, the oppressed subculture of the video game world. Ralph is blackmailed by Vanellopy into joining her quest to buy or pry her way into a race so she can become part of the game, and the two start to become friends. Their relationship is similar to that of Sully and Boo in Monsters, Inc., except that Vanellopy talks. And boy does she ever. She could have gotten really annoying in the hands of a lesser director, but Rich Moore (who has directed voice acting for The Simpsons and Futurama) toned her down just enough that she’s lovable, if slightly eccentric. Ralph, Vanellopy, Calhoun and Felix eventually find themselves in a battle to save the arcade from a cataclysmic threat, and from one of the most subtle, surprising and effective villains I have seen in a long time. This leads to a lot of great chemistry between the characters, and a weird, yet strangely plausible romance between the pint-sized Felix and the arm-twisting, nose-breaking Calhoun (classic pick-up line: “Look at the high definition in your face! It’s beautiful.) I will say, I thought the ending was just a little too happy. There’s a point where it looks like victory is going to require a terrible sacrifice, and the movie would have been more powerful if it had. But, in typical Disney fashion, they had to have everything work out a little too perfect. Oh, well.

To help the reader fully appreciate the quality of Wreck-it Ralph, I thought it would be worth putting my encounter with it in context. My wife and I had previously driven 250 miles. We did this because, for the first time ever, we were going to leave our 2 1/2 year old daughter in the care of her grandparents overnight so we could spend a romantic evening together. On said evening, we dressed to the hilt and had a romantic dinner at one of the finer restaurants in town, then spent some time strolling around downtown under the lights. Finally, we checked into a hotel and got ready for bed. We had a bottle of champaign in a bucket of ice when we slid into bed. We were snuggling a little bit, when we decided  a movie wouldn’t hurt, so we charged some extra to our room to see Wreck-it Ralph. At the credits, we realized we could back the movie up in 30-second increments, so I spent about 10 minutes repeatedly pushing the button, and the ice in the bucket melted while we passed the champaign back and forth and watched Wreck-it Ralph a second time.

Yeah. It’s that  good.

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ParaNorman

ParaNorman posterThis movie is stupid. Worse than stupid, it is probably the most retched piece of filmth I have seen in a long time (and I have seen some doozies). It offends on all fronts. It’s badly written and badly directed. On top of that, the story is just plain stupid and it insults anyone who knows something about history (admittedly a minority). And finally, it perpetuates certain misconceptions that are very dangerous and damaging.

The movie opens with Norman sitting on the floor, watching a movie, while he talks to his grandma. Then his father enters the room and tells him to take out the garbage. Norman walks into the kitchen, and we meet his parents and teenage sister, Courtney. We immediately notice one thing: everyone in this family is butt-ugly. Both the mother, Sandra, and Courtney have hips in different time zones, Perry’s (the dad) gut fills up the room, and all their faces appear to have some deformity. Norman tells Perry that Grandma is requesting he turn up the heat, and we get the big surprise: Grandma is dead. Norman has the ability to see and talk to ghosts. (Why does a ghost

The ghost of Norman's mother, who's head was tragically crushed ... what? She's one of the living characters? Yikes.

The ghost of Norman’s mother, who’s head was tragically crushed … what? She’s one of the living characters? Yikes.

need the heat turned up?) So of course, his family encourages him to mourn the loss of his grandma in his own way, and gently directs him to some more constructive occupation of his time. No, I’m kidding. They’re total dicks to him and call him a freak.

As the movie goes on we see that everyone in town (Blythe Hollow, apparently someplace in Massachusetts) is the same way. There’s not a single attractive OR likable character in this whole movie. To be sure, Hollywood deserves criticism for being obsessed with appearance and filling its movies with impossibly beautiful people, but this movie goes to the opposite extreme. If they didn’t care how their movie looked, why didn’t they make it live action? Give some much-needed work to all the aspiring actors who don’t meet the usual standards of perfection? Almost every character looks like something I’ve seen dangling from a Q-tip, and has a voice to match. It makes the whole movie downright painful to look at and listen to, even before the dead start crawling out of their graves. Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell seem to have a particular obsession with women with huge butts. One of the most (sigh) memorable scenes in the movie is of a black, female cop on a motorcycle, using her butt to force a van off the road.

Most of the first act revolves around Norman getting picked on by everyone in the world. We sit through a lot of bad dialogue and toilet humor, all delivered with painful awkwardness. Most of the scenes open with a close-up on the face of some hideous grown-up we are supposed to hate. Norman eventually learns from the ghost of his uncle that he is supposed to use his gift to avert a super-natural catastrophe. A young girl was hanged as a witch in 1712 in Blythe Hollow and at midnight that night, her ghost is going to wake up and reek a terrible vengeance upon the town. What is she going to do? Spread a plague? Set the town on fire? Nope. She’s going to raise the bodies of the six witnesses and judge who convicted her. And then … well, we never really get any explanation of why this is such a big deal. The zombies don’t really do anything but stagger around and moan for the whole movie. It’s about like a Scooby Doo cartoon; it’s all about running from the zombies, but there’s never any indication of what will happen if the zombies catch us. We’re just supposed to run because … they’re scary because … the script says so. Even if we grant that the zombies will perpetrate some standard zombie fare, the mention of which is omitted from a PG movie, we’re talking about seven dilapidated corpses versus the world. What’s the big threat? Sure there might be some casualties, but there’s not a single character in this movie I’d lament being rid of.

scooby doo

If you squint your eyes, you literally can’t tell this isn’t Scooby Doo.

And in fact, when Norman is finally cornered by the zombies, they don’t try to eat him but rather speak to him, asking him to read from a certain book, which will effectively send them back to the grave. This is supposed to be a big moment where we realize the zombies, now repentant for killing the girl, aren’t dangerous, after which Norman comes to their defense and berates a torch-bearing mob for being fearful and reactionary. But if the zombies are good guys, how do they serve the witch’s purpose of revenge?

As for the witch, a word needs to be said about the portrayals in popular culture of Puritan life and thought, and of so-called “witch hunts” (unlike a lot of mainstream movies that exploit the stereotype, this one actually accuses the Puritans by name). Unfortunately I don’t have the time or the space here to give a full treatment of Puritan history. It will have to suffice to say that, unless you have done serious independent research on the subject, you should forget everything you think you know about the Puritans, as they are probably the most unfairly maligned group of people in history. They possessed a truly rare understanding of the world and of human nature that allowed those that came to this continent to create stable and sustainable societies with very few resources. They were passionate about education and were one of the first groups to require by law that all children be literate. They eventually founded a number of the most venerated colleges in America, including Harvard. Alexis de Tocqueville would later write that Puritanism was the very thing that provided a firm foundation for democracy.

I bring this up because popular culture, when it mentions the Puritans, always tries to get us to laugh at them as superstitious nincompoops, and hate them as religious nuts whose zeal gave way to atrocities, the symbol of which in movies is usually an exaggerated version of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. But here’s the thing: in popular entertainment, they are always real witches. How many movies try to get us to believe that witches are real, and can do so many cool (if terrible) things? Movies like Sleepy Hollow, The Blair Witch Project, or this one always want us to scoff at the simple mindedness of colonial peasants, but their witches always turn out to be real witches, whose powers are indeed a great danger to everyone around them. In which case, why shouldn’t they be outlawed and eliminated?

The reaction of the audience, upon realizing they paid to watch ParaNorman.

The reaction of the audience, upon realizing they paid to watch ParaNorman.

Anyway, we get a cheesy climax, where Norman confronts the witch and she turns the landscape into a really blasé field of yellow smoke and floating islands that was probably easy and cheep to animate. He’s able to get her to stop by, I don’t know, being nice to her or something. The various dead characters all go back to their graves and the living get various trite comeuppances, good and bad, according to their sympatheticness.

I tried to find something good to say about this movie, I really did. I suppose the animation is okay, especially considering that they did it with models. In this age of computers, that deserves a nod just for being there. I think I did laugh at a line once or twice, maybe three times. But I couldn’t tell you now what the funny lines were, because the memory is buried under two hours of agony and regret of my wasted time and money (I only paid $1.28, but the movie sucked so much I’m still depressed about it). At least I can spare you from repeating my mistake. You owe me one.

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Obama’s Amercia 2016

Remember those pictures that were so popular back in the 1990s called Hollusions? The first time you walked up to one, all you saw was a field of dots sprayed on a piece of paper, like snow on a TV screen. You had to learn to focus (or rather not focus) your eyes in the proper way. It took patience. The first time, it could take an hour of looking, but suddenly, you would see the dots arrange themselves into a holographic image. Some of them were beautiful, some were a little bit scary, but once you learned to see them, it was hard to imagine how you ever missed them, and hard to be patient with those who still couldn’t see the picture.

That’s what it was like for me to observe Barack Obama’s candidacy, then his presidency, asking the tough questions, and finally to see this excellent film made by Dinesh D’Souza. Obama was a phenomenon in 2008. Watching one of his rallies was like watching a Michael Jackson performance. You saw male and female, young and old, black, white and all others. A huge crowd of people from many walks of life, all united in, not the support, but the worship of one man. A man who, like Jackson, was “black” but … not really; his skin not very dark, his features resembling those of his white mother, and not one drop of slave blood in him. Rather, he reflected his international background, projecting a mix of ethnic groups. His platform was equally nondescript, one of “hope” and “change,” with no concrete positions expressed until after he was in power. He was a blank canvas, upon which the naïve projected whatever they desired.

Can you see it?

However, many have been puzzled by Obama since 2008, as there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to his actions. His actions cannot be explained by the usual differences between Republicans and Democrats. You might recall that, when the congressional vote was nearing on Obama’s universal health care plan, Democratic voters were calling their Congressmen in large numbers, begging them not to pass the bill. Obama had enough close allies to push it through, however. Around the same time, Obama was in the middle east, apologizing to America’s enemies. He had no problem using force in Libya to depose a dictator who was no threat to America, yet he does nothing to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. When his actions in Libya led to the murder of an ambassador and several other Americans, he again apologized to radical Islamists for the First Amendment. He blocks efforts to drill for America’s life blood on American soil, yet encourages such drilling in South America. Seeing all this, millions of us can’t help but ask “Does he want  America to fail?”

D’Souza covers the way in which Obama was lauded by millions, not as a good candidate for a job, but as a messiah. Millions stamped themselves with

A drawing from obamamessiah.blogspot.com. The post gives no indication of being satirical or facetious.

his “O” icon. Paintings were done of him resembling the traditional Jesus. Classrooms full of children were required to sing songs in his honor. Crowds of people were on TV, literally weeping for joy when he was elected. I want to be clear about something: D’Souza does not spend this film bashing Obama. He simply covers some truly embarrassing behavior of real Americans from the past several years.

I’m thankful for D’Souza. He grew up in India, and, just as it took a child to point out that the emperor was naked in the famous tale, it seems to take a newcomer to America to say the things that some of us just can’t, however true they may be. D’Souza points out the fact that Barak Obama is the first President in American history to be elected primarily because of the color of his skin, and is brave enough to say that no white (or Indian) man would ever have been ushered into the White House after just four unremarkable years in the Senate.

But what’s really impressive about Obama’s America 2016 is the depth of the journalism. D’Souza has put enormous effort into digging up Obama’s past, traveling around the world and interviewing everyone from his extended family in Kenya, to those he knew in Indonesia,  to people who worked with him on the campaign trail. Using Obama’s two autobiographies as a guide, D’Souza pries his way into Obama’s head to see what makes him tick.

Does Obama want America to fail? D’Souza unearths a straightforward answer to this question; one that, after the care and thoroughness of his search of Obama’s past, is very hard to argue with. Most of the way through, I suspected that this was actually a pro-Obama film. D’Souza remains objective in his explanation of the emotional journey of Obama, and you really do start to feel with Obama. And with all the adorable footage of Kenyan children in Obama shirts, you can see how people fell so madly in love with Obama. But the last 15 minutes of this film give you the mental equivalent of finally seeing those dots arrange themselves into a picture. It becomes clear why Obama does the things he does, and it is genuinely scary.

Obama’s America 2016 is available to rent at Redboxes across the nation, and you need to see it before you vote.

Can you see the picture yet?

 

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Red Tails

Producer George Lucas took on an ambitious project when he set out to make Red Tails. He had to finance it mostly himself because, as he later said in an interview, studios didn’t want to make the picture because there weren’t enough rolls for white people. (Check out this link at 5:00.) Interesting that liberal Hollywood tried to stop a film with an all-black cast. Political commentator Alfonzo Rachel would later say that Hollywood did so because they don’t want young blacks to start wanting to learn about the Tuskegee Airmen (our protagonists, the first black squadron to see combat in WWII), because if they do, they’ll learn that most of them, like most blacks of the time, were Republicans. While there might be something to this theory, I tend to think Hollywood’s reluctance has less to do with the racial politics of the ‘40s than with those of today. Certain stigmas on the portrayal of blacks in film can make it really hard to make a good movie with too many black characters. Red Tails bears the marks of these stigmas – not as deeply as some movies, but they’re there nonetheless. Consequently, a movie that could have been another Memphis Belle had to settle for being just another Flyboys. It has some good action and a few good lines along the way. It also contains one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in awhile, as Cuba Gooding Jr. trying to play the grizzled, old Major Stance. He spends the whole movie sucking on a pipe, doing his best General MacArthur impression. Hilarious. Terrence Howard does considerably better as Colonel Bullard. Red Tails works fine as a popcorn flick, but gets annoying at times because it thinks it’s in the same league as Saving Private Ryan. It isn’t.

The first reason for this is its total lack of intensity. For all the action, the squadron suffers two dead, one wounded and one captured through the whole movie. The text at the end says that the historical Tuskegee Airmen lost 66 men with more wounded, but you sure wouldn’t know it from the film. This is because, even as Red Tails seeks to tell a story disproving racist claims of the past, as I said above, it bears the marks of the racism of today. Hollywood continues to be afraid to portray black characters as having any flaws, needing to learn anything, or failing at anything they do. Consequently, we see ridiculous things in this movie. In addition to the lack of casualties, we actually see Lightning (David Oyelowo), the squadron hot shot, blow up a destroyer with machine gun fire. This is slightly more realistic than the destruction of the destroyer in Mega Piranha. Slightly.

You can see from Red Tails why it’s so hard to make good movies about black people. This movie never breaks a sweat. We know the Red Tails can’t lose, and can hardly suffer a setback, so there’s never any suspense or sense of danger. The movie tries to build up some tension with ominous talk of the new jet fighters the Germans are developing, but when it comes down to it at the climactic battle, even the most cutting-edge technology is no match for the coolness of Hollywood-packaged black guys.

When I saw The Memphis Belle, I was on the edge of my seat the whole way through. I desperately wanted the bomber crew to make it home, and I wasn’t sure that they would. With Red Tails, I never worried.

What’s more, the film suffers from a drive to inflate the contribution its heroes made to the war. The film opens with a scene of white fighter pilots abandoning the bombers they are supposed to escort, and the line by a man on a bomber, “Damn those glory-grabbing bastards, again!” The bomber squadron is then cut to ribbons by the Germans. Later, a general tells Bullard that “We need to change the way we fight,” and he is giving the Red Tails a chance because he needs fighters that will stay with the bombers. The first time the Red Tails rendezvous with a bomb squadron, the pilots of the lead bomber are disappointed when they see that their escort is black. (Humorously, the black pilot they are looking at is several hundred feet away, and obscured by two canopies, and his whole body is covered, except for his eyes. How can they even tell?) Then, when the Red Tails refuse to chase a German “decoy squadron,” the bombers are shocked. “They’re giving up glory to save our asses!” Toward the end of the movie, a white squadron who is supposed to relieve the Red Tails fails to even show up. All this is, frankly, a loogie to the face of every non-black man who risked or sacrificed his life to save the world from Hitler and Tojo. Throughout the war, every flier on all sides knew that the job of the fighters was to protect the bombers, and non-black fighter pilots consistently did so. What is portrayed in Red Tails is nothing more than fiction concocted to make the Tuskegee Airmen seem revolutionary. The historical Red Tails fought with courage and dedication, but they did not turn the war around.

Can you tell which of these pilots is black? Here’s a better question: can you tell which of them is a brave American defending his home?

A lot of commentators have complained about a lack of interest in movies that focus on black people, and have blamed racism for it. But what racism is actually doing is taking the life out of such movies as they get made. Great war movies put us in the reality of the moment, to get some sense of the fear and the pain of war (if only through a glass, darkly). They have us wrestle with the questions the men wrestled with and make us understand the moral uncertainties that come even when you believe in what you’re fighting for. There is a moment in The Memphis Belle I will never forget, during the protagonists’ final mission. The copilot of the Belle is angry that he has spent the whole war in the cockpit, and doesn’t want to go home without being able to say he shot some Nazis. Before the last mission, he slips the tail gunner a pack of cigarettes to let him take over shooting for part of the mission. When the moment comes, he slips into the turret and begins blasting away. Before long, he knocks out a high-flying German fighter. He whoops with delight as the fighter plummets … Straight into an American Bomber. The bomber is cut in half, and the copilot listens, over the radio, to the pitiful wails of the men aboard as they plummet to their deaths. Obviously, words fail me. But I remember The Memphis Belle because the characters were real, not supermen. I jumped every time a bullet came through the wall of the plane. I felt with the plane medic as he struggled to save a wounded crew member, then wrestled with the urge to drop him out of the plane with a chute, hoping the Germans would take him to a hospital.

Something that’s interesting to note about Saving Private Ryan: Steven Spielberg, a Jew, included a Jewish character in the story, named Mellish. For some reason, he made Mellish one of the least likable characters in the movie, and ultimately had him lose to (of all people) a Nazi in face to face combat. I have no idea why Spielberg chose to do this, but, whatever his reason, it shows a certain contemplative humility that either white guilt or black narcissism just won’t allow into films like Red Tails. If the makers of black cinema want to see a wider interest in their films, they need to start putting their characters in a realistic light.

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Machine Gun Preacher

This is one film that has already had an impact in the real world, if only because it has suddenly made it cool again for Facebookers to lament the actions of child killer Joseph Kony, and send around anti-Kony Slogans that you are supposed to “like” and “share.” Machine Gun Preacher is a movie laden with violence, swearing and some sensuality, so kids shouldn’t see it, but, to be fair, it’s actually rather mild compared to the way it could have been. It portrays southern Sudan and northern Uganda in a realistic light. It confronts the politically incorrect, but very real fact that African Christians, and other non-muslims, are being persecuted and killed by Muslim jihadis, and have been for a long time.  But it focuses primarily on the menace of Kony, who leads his cult under a weird mix of Islam, Christianity and witchcraft, and kidnaps children, forcing them to kill for his army or be killed by it.

But we get another story first. In Pennsylvania, Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is being released from prison. Childers has spent his life on the street, learning to use, deal, and fight. He has made his living as hired muscle for drug runners, and has hurt and killed more people than the law will ever uncover. Butler was an excellent choice to portray Childers. He’s taller and slimmer than the man he plays, but otherwise looks very similar. He has the build for the action part of the roll, and his acting in this picture is tour-de-force. Incidentally, he did this film for one thirtieth of his normal rate. Childers’ wife, Lynn, (Michelle Monaghan) picks him up and drives him home. Believing that she is still working as a stripper, he asks her what time she has to work that night. She tells him that she has given that up because it “isn’t right in the eyes of God.” He derisively asks “Oh, you found God?” She replies “He found me. And He helped me change.” At first Sam is angry that she’s left a profitable job, but he soon starts to realize that his old habits are coming back with a vengeance, and that he is on a fast track to be back in prison or dead. One day, Lynn catches him in the bathroom, trying to wash blood off of himself. All he can say is “help me.”

From left: Marco, unknown, Childers, Deng.

The following Sunday, Sam goes with Lynn and their daughter Paige to church. This movie was played in theaters all over America. I rejoiced when I saw that, not only was the portrayal of a Christian church fair and respectful, but that the gospel of Jesus Christ was accurately communicated. At the end of the service, Childers answers the pastor’s call to get wet in the baptismal font. A lot of serious Christians have legitimately argued that spur-of-the-moment alter calls such as the one depicted send more people to Hell than they save from it. But history does show us that Childers, at least, was a changed man afterword, and when watching a Hollywood movie, I don’t see any point in getting greedy. So there you have it: a conversion story from Hollywood. A rushed and watered-down conversion story to be sure, but a conversion story nonetheless.

Childers and Butler at the premier.

Childers eventually travels to Uganda as a construction worker, to help a mission. He hears about Kony and the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army,” and sees a woman who’s face has been mutilated by them. Knowing that he can take care of himself, he leaves the beaten path and sees the aftermath of an LRA attack on a village. The last shot is of him howling in grief over a dead child. He returns home and eventually tells his wife God has told him to build two things: the last thing America needs (one more church building) and the first thing the Sudan needs (one more orphanage, only this one will be near Kony’s territory).

In reality, this orphanage is now the largest in Southern Sudan and has fed and housed over 1,000 children. Today, more than 200 children are being raised and educated there. Most of the staff is composed of orphans that grew up there themselves. And while this is never mentioned in the movie, Lynn works closely with Sam on the ministry, and they have a group called Angles of East Africa that they founded together.

The two “rescue vehicles” of Childer’s mission.

The strange thing is, you would usually expect a movie that is based on a true story to sensationalize and make it bigger. From what I’ve read, this movie seems to do the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of action, but the story seems blunted, almost as if the director doesn’t really want us to see Childers as a hero. A lot of things are never explained. For example, we never see how Childers came to be giving orders to the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, but after a few scenes he’s leading a team of five men, including Deng (Souleymane Savane) and

The newly saved Lynn waits for her murderer husband to emerge from prison.

Marco (Mdudzi Mabaso), into life-or-death missions. We’re left to assume he simply inspired a few of them to follow him and do something about Kony. After a while, Childers starts treating his family like dirt. The movie eventually leads up to one of the most abrupt and unsatisfying non-endings I have ever seen. Perhaps worst of all, the last bit of spiritual dialogue we hear in the movie is Childers lashing  out at God for not saving some kids. I didn’t have a problem with it being there. After all, what Christian hasn’t wrestled with feelings like this? But I see no reason to finish the movie on that note, especially when the real Sam Childers doesn’t have that attitude today.

All in all, this movie brings plenty to the table: good visceral action, some hard questions to wrestle with, and a story that remained untold for far too long. Most of the problems it does have can be attributed to trying to tell an absolutely massive story, on two continents, in just over two hours. It’s far from being a perfect movie, or a perfect spiritual message. But it’s a darn good movie, and even as a spiritual message it has something to offer. This is a movie that needed to be made, and that you need to see.

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Brave

This movie rocks. Everything about it. The story, the colorful characters, the laughs, the scares, the gorgeous scenery rendered in flawless CGI, and the haunting Celtic soundtrack that wafts through the theater as you sit transfixed. Pixar has done it again, serving up a feast for the eyes and ears, without sacrificing a good story, thought provoking messages, and something for every age, gender and background to relate to.

At the start, we meet Merida (Kelly McDonald), princess of a Scottish kingdom, and Daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Elinor works overtime, trying to teach Merida to be a princess, which generally involves being lady-like. Merida loves to ride horses, shoot arrows and climb mountains, much to her mother’s chagrin, and father’s chuckling pleasure. The best scene in the movie is an early one in which Merida, and her horse, Angus, gallop through a shimmering emerald forest, Merida firing arrows into passing targets while Gaelic siren Julie Fowlis weaves a haunting yarn over fiddles and Celtic flutes. I’d probably buy the DVD just for that scene.

For awhile, it looks like Brave might turn out to be a microwaved version of Aladdin. Merida is horrified when she learns that her mother has invited three other kingdoms to submit contestants for her hand in marriage, and three princes are coming to compete for her in the Highland Games. A series of arguments follows, in which Merida doesn’t want to get married, least of all to someone she’s never met, and her mother tries to remind her of her duty to the kingdom and the importance of stable government. The big day arrives, and the three princes fire arrows at targets to determine who will win her hand. Suddenly, in what initially appears to be the ultimate cliche, a cloaked figure approaches the archery range. Merida throws off the cloak (big surprise, right?) and declares, “I’ll be shooting for my own hand!” As her mother protests, she fires arrows dead center into each target, winning the competition.

Of course, for your average modern fairy tale, this would probably be the climactic scene. Our strong, free spirited heroine throws off the shackles of patriarchal oppression, beats the men at their own game (using weapons, of course), and establishes herself as an independent woman, or at least chooses her own man. It would have been easy, and politically safe, to throw something like that together, but of course, easy doesn’t cut it for Pixar. We still have a lot of movie to go and, while Merida doesn’t exactly end up as a tamed shrew, she soon realizes she has a lot to learn about life in medieval Scotland, not the least of which is putting family and country above her own desires.

Pixar’s talent for story telling especially comes through in the fact that this story relies for its context on a back-story from eons past. This back-story is mentioned only in two very short, and rather washed-out flashbacks, but it still makes perfect sense (within the context of the movie, that is). Using the art of brief, visual story telling Pixar wove the two stories seamlessly together.

That’s probably as much as I should say. Pixar wisely left some major plot points out of the trailers, and it’s better for you to be surprised. It’s no fun reviewing great movies; I can’t say much or I’ll ruin it. I should note that the main reason I’m not giving Brave five stars is that I’ve only watched it once. But I intend to remedy that when it’s out on DVD.

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The Grey

THAT’S IT ?!?!?!

I literally shouted those words at the screen when it went black after The Grey. In a full theatre, no less. I couldn’t believe it. I felt like an 18-year-old groupie who had been picked up at a night spot by director Joe Carnahan, titillated and swept off my feet with rides in sports cars and parties at private pools, enraptured in building anticipation, only to find out in bed that Carnahan has this … “little problem.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt this let down by a movie. Perhaps it is partly my fault for allowing my expectations to get so high. Since our daughter was born, it’s gotten much harder to get to the theater, and last weekend was the first time I had been since the Fourth of July, when I reviewed Green Lantern. But after seeing the trailers, I couldn’t wait to see The Grey. It had all the ingredients for a perfect wilderness adventure:

A group of tough guys who know a thing or two about the out doors (in this case oil-rig workers in Alaska),

A plane crash in a harsh, remote location with little hope of rescue,

A pack of very large, very hungry wolves on the hunt (the trailer made it clear this movie was not afraid of PETA),

and Liam freaking Neeson, who, in the closing seconds of the trailer, is surrounded by wolves. He tapes a bunch of empty bottles to his left hand and smashes them against a rock. Then he tapes a combat knife to his right. The Alpha wolf lunges forward, then Neeson does the same, and we see the title. I was hooked. I knew whatever happened in the moments after Neeson charged that wolf, was going to be AWESOME!

It was the perfect formula: a primal battle! Brain against brawn! Teeth against tools! What could possibly go wrong? I walked into the theatre thinking I might be about to witness the greatest man vs. beast movie since Jaws.

It starts out well enough. The plane goes down in the subarctic tundra, and John Ottway (Neeson) and six other men crawl from the wreckage. Once they pull themselves out of the shock, they begin to build a fire, make a shelter out of the plane and look for food. Their spirits have begun to lift when their dinner around the fire is interrupted by a howl. They stand up to see a huge wolf just inside the campfire light, and a sea of glittering eyes behind it. After a standoff, the wolves retreat into the darkness. A few hours later, a member of the group gets up and actually walks away from the fire to urinate. After what he’s seen, this makes no sense, but whatever; I guess it’s kind of a movie staple. He dies, of course.

The next day, Ottway, the group’s wolf expert , decides that if they can reach a forest some distance away, they could better defend themselves. On the day-long trek through knee-deep snow, they loose one more to the wolves. As night falls, they reach the forest, just as it begins to fill with the dinning and barking of the wolves. They hastily build a fire to keep the wolves at bay, then build four smaller fires to make a perimeter that they can sit inside. Ottway produces five straight branches and five shotgun shells he salvaged from the plane, and begins to instruct the others in making bang sticks to fight the wolves.

Alright. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Out of nowhere, a wolf jumps on John Diaz (Dallas Roberts), despite the fire. There follows a wild flurry of yelling, thrashing, and a couple of loud bangs, presumably bang sticks, and finally, we see Diaz on top of the wolf, thrusting his knife in and out of it. The thing is, we never really saw the fight with the wolf. So far, we’ve had a lot of great buildup and a lot of great suspense. The movie has created an atmosphere where we can never really relax, and the wolves, even when not seen, are always felt. But we really haven’t seen any good action.

But that’s okay, because the climax is going to be awesome.

This is where the movie starts to go downhill. Ottway decides for some reason that they have to move, and they go walking through this forest full of wolves in the dark. For some reason, there is never an attack, and they stop at a place where Ottway decides they will be safe. And they build ONE campfire. We’ve already seen how the wolves have become bold enough to enter the circle of fires they made earlier, but all fear of the wolves seems to have flown away for some reason. Even more strangely, the wolves seem to oblige. The next day, the group reaches a canyon and decides to climb across. They manage to attache a rope to a tree on the other side through means very hard to swallow, but whatever, it’s a movie. As the last member of the group (Durmot Mulroney) climbs across, the rope breaks and he swings across, hitting the tree hard and falling to his death. His body is then immediately pounced upon by the wolves, almost as if they were waiting at the base of the tree! Now, how did that happen? How did the wolves climb down one side of the canyon and then up the other? And even then, how did they know exactly where Mulroney was going to fall? And why hadn’t the rest of the group shouted anything to him about wolves at the base of the tree? Why did the wolves magically disappear the night before when it would’ve made sense for them to be attacking, only to reappear in such a ridiculous way here?

Let it go. The climax is going to be awesome.

Neeson poses and never delivers in “The Grey.”

The group presses on, as their number continues to dwindle. Strangely, we never hear a word about the bang sticks after that first campfire in the woods. It sounded like they used one or two during the attack at that point, but they have to have some left. The other reason this doesn’t add up is that, shortly after the plane crash, there is a scene where Ottway is attacked by a wolf. It latches onto his leg, and two other survivors run up and apparently beat the wolf to death with bits of the plane. This confirmed my impression from the trailer and set a good tone for the movie: these are tough guys. Some of them have been in prison; all of them have spent months working an oil rig in Alaska. They’re used to these elements. Even in a situation this bad, they would have a fighting chance. But now, every time the wolves show up, all they can think of to do is run. And as anyone who has spent time around dogs knows, as slim as your odds might be fighting a wolf pack, they’re going to be even slimmer running. When am I going to get what I paid for?

That’s okay. The climax is going to be awesome.

As predicted, Ottway is the last one left alive. Trudging through a clearing with most of his equipment gone, he suddenly finds himself surrounded by wolves. The Alpha advances from the pack. The excitement builds as he empties the contents of a back pack. He kisses a picture of his wife, tapes a bunch of empty bottles to his left hand and smashes them against a rock. Then he tapes a combat knife to his right.

Oh, boy, this is it!

Ottway reaches inside himself and recites a short poem composed by his father. Then we see his eyes, now devoid of fear. The Alpha lunges forward, Ottway does the same, and …

THAT’S IT?!?!?!

I couldn’t believe it, but that was the end. There was nothing of that scene in the movie that wasn’t in the trailer. If fact, I got online when we got home and checked out the trailer again. They actually show you a little bit more in the trailer than they do in the film! Talk about false advertising! Where was my glorious man-wolf battle?? CARNAHAN! You lied to me!

A few hours later, I read that there was one more scene after the credits, in which we see Ottway and the Alpha, both on the ground. The Alpha is apparently dying; Ottway’s condition is harder to determine. Even if I had stayed for this scene, it would have been small consolation. That only means that Carnahan didn’t consider it a forgone conclusion that Ottway had no chance. So why didn’t I get to see him fight?

Anyway, for those of you that are complaining “you spoiled the ending,” I did so because, really, there was no ending. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the ending. All of it. I did you a favor, saving you time and money. And for those of you saying “you missed the point. The wolves are a metaphor for death and the story is really about being brave when death is coming for you …” I can understand that. But this is a movie. It’s based in the visual. What is the point of having a story of internal struggle leading up to a physical confrontation, if you’re not going to show the confrontation — especially when it would have been so simple to do! In Jaws, for example, we still have most of the same themes — over coming your fear, a bond that developes between three very different men when they face death together, etc. But we get the pay-off at the end. We get to see what happens. We get to see the symbol of fear and death destroyed. And even if said symbol had won, it would have been a more satisfying ending than that of The Grey.  And in any case, if all the movie was trying to do was tell a story about philosophical ideals, why was it sold to me as an action/adventure picture?

I can contemplate the meaning of life without buying a ticket, thank you.

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Courageous

The Kendrick Brothers of Sherwood Bible Church are at it again. No doubt hoping to match their home run of Fireproof of 2008, they’ve shifted their focus from taking on divorce to attacking fatherlessness in America. We’re still in Albany, Georgia, but this time, instead of following the heroics of the Albany Fire Dept.,  we’re on patrol with the Dougherty County Sheriff’s Dept. (Interesting that, Albany being a city of 77,000, it doesn’t seem to have its own police force, but I guess they had to trim the cast somewhere.)

The Kendricks have ramped the action up a notch with this one. Right at the beginning, we see Fireproof’s Ken Bevel, now playing Nathan Hayes, stop for gas, only to have his truck stolen by a dew-rag clad gang-banger (T.C. Stallings, a devoted husband and father in real life). He throws himself half-way through the driver’s window, and we are treated to a fist-fight with Nathan hanging out the window at 30 miles an hour. The movie eventually leads up to a climactic scene with guns blazing. In between is more action, more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, and a heart-felt message about how crucial a father is to a child’s development, and how those without fathers often become dew-rag clad truck thieves.

The story follows Deput. Hayes, a recent transfer to the department, three other Deputies, Adam Mitchell (Alex Kendrick), Shane Fuller (Kevin Downes), and David Thompson (Ben Davies), and Javier Martinez (Robert Amaya), a rarely employed construction worker, and their families. Javier breaks his back to provide for his family and eventually finds employment working on Adam’s house. He then becomes part of the group. David is the rookie of the squad who’s holding in a shameful secret. He has a daughter around three years of age, whom he has never met, and whose support he had not contributed a dime to. (Apparently, the Georgia Division of Child Support Services was vaporized along with the Albany P.D.) Shane struggles to be a dad to his son when he only sees him every other weekend.  Adam dotes on his daughter but refuses to join his son for the father-son 5K. And Nathan and his wife, Kayla (Elenor Brown), struggle to fend off the “saggy-pants boys” interested in their teenage daughter.

A tragedy eventually forces these men to reevaluate what they are doing as fathers. The story dives into Christian kitsch for awhile. Adam comes up with a written resolution and the five families actually hold a ceremony with their pastor in which they dramatically recite it. In a similar vein, we later see Nathan take his daughter to a very expensive restaurant (below), where he, again with great ceremony, presents her with a “promise ring.” Yeah, I know. I chortled at this scene, too, but then I found out my wife had very specific plans for me to do exactly that with our daughter one day.

But for all the kitsch, the film really is trying, and trying to do far more than just entertain. The problems with Courageous mainly serve to highlight the fact that most movies just fill themselves up with explosions and car wrecks and expect you to buy a ticket. Courageous sets the bar much higher, and does come close to clearing it.

There was a time when I would have been unable to enjoy this movie. I can enjoy it now largely because I have a wonderful wife, who makes my life very sweet. That said, there are still some key points of this film I can’t help but take issue with. A lot of the film’s attitude is summed up when Nathan delivers the curmudgeonly line “If fathers just did what they were supposed to, half the junk we see on the street wouldn’t exist.” This seems to be the mantra of conservatives and liberals alike: it’s all men’s fault. But if you look at the history of America over the last 40 years or so, men have not been the only – or even the primary – culprit of the breakdown of the family. History does not tell of a movement of men throwing off their responsibilities to society. We don’t see crowds of men burning their undergarments and demanding the right to kill their children. We do, however, see women doing all these things.

In the U.S. today, more than two thirds of all divorces are initiated by the woman. And why not? The feminist political machine has tilted the legal game board of divorce ridiculously toward the woman’s pockets. (Please note: Every man in Iowa should carefully read chapters 236 and 598 of the Iowa Code before he even thinks about getting emotionally attached to a woman. As for the other states, talk to a lawyer there.) Millions of children in the U.S. grow up without fathers because their mothers want it that way.

My first year out of law school, I worked in a family law firm. I never had a man in my office who didn’t care about his children. Most of my clients were there because they were having to fight just to see their children. The slant in family court is based on more than gender stereotypes.  The judicial community includes many territorial lionesses. A child is power, and they are not about to share it. Conversely, male judges are of the old way of thinking, in which men are expected to take the lumps and bear the weight of the world on our shoulders without complaint. This combination of liberal women and conservative men, not only in court, but also in society, is a frustrating dynamic. While women are exhorted about their rights, men are flagellated with our supposed responsibilities. Lawyers aren’t supposed to get emotionally involved, but I couldn’t help feeling the pain my clients felt. Commanded to be fathers by the right, yet torn from their children by the left; commanded to “be a man,” yet emasculated.

Courageous never addresses any of this, failing to live up to its name. The Kendrick brothers buckle under the pressure of political correctness. Too afraid to take women to task for their desertion, like so many before them, they turn on men.

It’s hard to stay angry at a movie that has this much heart, and is actually trying to make a difference in the world. But while it’s a valiant effort, another Fireproof it is not.  Fireproof met

Actor-director Alex Kendrick takes aim at bad fathers.

people squarely where they were at. There’s no reason 3 billion men couldn’t have connected with Caleb Holt, the fire chief who shows valor in the work place, but doesn’t know how to love his wife. The story eventually shows that, only by first receiving the unconditional love of God can Caleb show unconditional love to the flawed and sinful woman he lives with. It would actually  have been fairly simple for Courageous to do the same thing. Shane Fuller is a character that millions of men would easily connect with, including unbelievers. He is divorced. He wants to be a father to his son, but, as he explains it, he only gets him every other weekend, after his mother has filled his head with her toxic opinions of him. He wants to provide for his son, but almost a third of his paycheck is swallowed by alimony. Shane should have been the lead role of this movie! He could have been the Caleb Holt of Courageous. How can Shane, and other men, be the kind of fathers God wants them to be, despite the obstacles? How can God help them to raise their kids right despite what they have  to deal with? This was a golden opportunity for the Kendricks to win the hearts of their intended audiece. Beating up on men will do nothing to fix the family. Ministering to broken men where they are at will do a lot more.

Sadly, Shane is confined to a small role as the bad cop we’re not supposed to like, and Courageous preaches to the choir. Most of the focus is on Adam, Nathan and Javier, who all have perfect wives, straight out of a Christian fantasy.

Overall, I recommend seeing Courageous. There’s a lot of great moments I didn’t want to spoil here. The fact that I can even disagree with it shows it had more of a brain than most movies. It’s not easy to make a movie that ministers. I still laughed and I was still swept along by the story. It was good to see Christian cinema taking another (mostly) positive step.

Number four at the box office in October of 2011. High-five!

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