Pain and Gain

Pain and Gain Crime doesn’t pay.  Director Michael Bay goes the distance to remind audiences of that necessary lesson because it also gives him the opportunity to glorify and glamorize every ugly facet of it.  Sitting through Pain and Gain, an alleged black comedy that exposes the danger of American greed, I’m left to contend that the writers and actors sought to dig up a fascinatingly dark tale spun so unbelievably from the ground up that 15 percent of it must actually be true.  After all—this is a true story.  I could have used a newspaper clipping of said story or even a mere tweet.  Bay’s punishing drama lasts 130 gruesome minutes.

The story takes place in 1995 where a Miami fitness guru, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a smarmy snake with muscles, slithers his way into a senior position at a gym and manages to triple its membership within a short amount of time.  But the cash isn’t green enough, and after a few interactions with self-made titan sleaze Walter Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), Daniel decides he can give the jerk what’s coming to him and steal all of his dough.

To do it, Daniel recruits the bronze mammoth and reformed ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and the steroid abuser Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie).  Together the odd-trio team attempt a series of failed executions at nabbing Kershaw before finally kidnapping him and then torturing him for three weeks until he signs over all of his finances and possessions to the unorthodox bodybuilders.  The gang seals the deal by killing him, or so they think, and Kershaw escapes near death.  Held captive in a hospital bed, Kershaw’s repelling personality and lack of convincing evidence regarding his abduction cause the police to laugh off his account of events.

Left broke and broken, Kershaw hires a retired private investigator (Ed Harris) to find the three tank-sized clowns that stole everything from him.  It ends up only a matter of time that Daniel and his pals fall victim to the temptations of the wealthy lifestyle and they compromise their plans, setting off a series of idiotic judgments and actions that lead them to further murder and destruction.

pain and gain imagePain and Gain happens to illustrate everything about soulless filmmaking.  Despite decent performances from the cast, the script never allows us to care for anyone of these hulking doofuses because they’re all so vile and violent.  Wahlberg’s character should carry the story in a tragic fashion, but he’s so unlikable in every conceivable manner, as are the other characters who fall victim to his manipulations.  Johnson has the most well-rounded role as the beefy aggressor who has found Christ, only to immediately find the devil in Daniel.  Mackie plays the third hand with little of interest added to his character.

When the characters fail, Bay makes sure we feel the pain.  His music video-style only glamorizes the violence and depravity.  These three men become enforcers of brute punishment, and rather than explore any psychological dimensions of these characters, Bay plays the outrageous blackness of the film for laughs, only they don’t hit as hard as his three leading actors—if ever.  Instead the director lights up the screen with oil, sweat, and sunlight and plays his misogynistic melee tale for all its worth, consistently objectifying women and playing up the volatile chumps and their violent ways as something to be desired.  From the outset, we don’t understand these characters in any possible way, so why spend 130 slow minutes trying to laugh off their bloody antics?  Bay thinks he’s delivered a cautionary tale, but instead his penchant for cinematic destruction provides a herd of antagonist morons doing grotesque things that are meant to look ‘oh so cool’—which reminds me of another one of Bay’s ugly and overlong crap chutes from ten years ago.

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OblivionMovie-Critics are calling Oblivion a mixed bag of sparse sci-fi plot threads strung together loosely and liberally.  They’re right.  I expected as much.  After all, what ground could the post-apocalyptic thriller have left to cover?  A future decades ahead.  Earth laid to waste.  Little to no survivors.  Futuristic machinery patrolling a ravaged globe.  Human technicians assigned to operate and repair the machines.

That’s the premise of Oblivion, which I suspect will mirror the upcoming thrillers After Earth and Elysium to some degree.  From The Matrix to 2001 to Moon to Wall-E to I, Robot and on and on, I could compare Director Joseph Kosinski’s film to many a science-fiction pictures of past.  That doesn’t hinder his film at all.  I anticipated I would spot similarities.  The film’s title even suggests where the story is headed.  Yet Kosinski’s canvas opens with mystery and intrigue that leads to grand places and ideas, even if they’ve all been mined before.

Tom Cruise plays Jack Reacher Harper, a pilot in the futuristic Earth, and one of the few survivors from an alien invasion led by Scavengers.  The Scavengers took out half of the moon causing vast planetary natural disasters, and humanity responded with nuclear warfare.  In the end, the aliens left, but Earth became a devastated habitat full of nuclear radiation.  Humans moved to a space station while Earth regenerates its ability to sustain life for a large population.

Huddled clans of Scavengers still roam the grounds.  Thus an army of government-produced drones monitor and control enemy activity.  But sometimes the drones are shot down or malfunction.  Harper, a drone repairman, keeps the drones up and running.  Outside of his job, he lives above the clouds in a technically advanced floating home base with his girlfriend and assistant, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who monitors his movement on the ground level.  She also communicates with the command base from which she receives orders including Harper’s daily itinerary.

During a routine maintenance scout, Harper finds a radio beacon activated by Scavengers.  Questions abound.  What or who are they calling?  When they attempt to capture the leery pilot, Harper must investigate what little he knows about the Scavengers, what they might be planning, and how they might be tied to his dreams about a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) whom he does not know but seems to remember.

oblivion-searchFurther developments lead the narrative into even bigger territory, and most of what is offered has been recycled but not necessarily for the worse.  Kosinski’s film is set apart from its film-brethren by its visual landscape.  This is an amazing movie to look at.  I’m shocked this film wasn’t converted and released in 3D.  I admire a director and studio not following the herd for an extra buck.  Lush nature is contrasted with the decay of nuked civilization, and giant hydrocopter versus computerized war drone battles couldn’t be composed any better.

The story eventually introduces a colony of humans led by the great Morgan Freeman, but unfortunately, much of the supporting human characters are underused.  Cruise leads the show, and proves ever-capable, but if Oblivion falls under the weight of its grand ambition, it’s because the script misses the underlying human factor.  The film focuses less on humanity’s impact, and more on the impact to the Harper character who must come to terms with the painful reality of his place and identity in a devastated world.

The plot doesn’t exactly move at a fast clip either.  Oblvion, while featuring some stellar visuals and action, meanders more often than drives.  Harper investigates location after location.  He returns to home base and discusses his findings with Victoria again and again.  The movie reaches the halfway-marker before really diving into some meaty ‘events.’  There’s a lot of eye candy throughout the film’s entirety, but this movie needed to pick a destination and operate via a concrete route.  This is where the film borrows heavily from other films and that’s okay.  But choose some key check points in the story along the way.

Kosinski’s Oblivion is still a film to admire in many respects.  Despite insanely good visuals, I really felt like the film didn’t have the feel of a studio product.  It felt like the objective of a filmmaker brought up under some great sci-fi movies who set out to pave his own from used parts.  He doesn’t deliver slam-bang-pow-wow entertainment.  He gives us a thoughtful action film supported by a magnificent production design and visuals that will last long after the story fades from memory.

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Life of Pi

The durability of the human spirit comes into focus under the expanded eye of Ang Lee’s ambitious opus Life of Pi.  Think the attempted magnificent reach of this year’s earlier tanker Cloud Atlas molded down into Cast Away.  I won’t say Ang Lee, an auteur of his own making, entirely succeeds in his gargantuan spiritual quest, but his film is such a visual and magical triumph that I can’t discount it because of its under-compensating grasp.

Like its Cloud Atlas brethren, Pi is based on a so-called un-filmable novel penned by Yann Martel.  Perhaps he sorted out the details a tad better than screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland).  The story involves a 13-year-old dreamer boy from India named Pi forced to leave his homeland with his family and the animals of the zoo they own.  They board a vessel and voyage out to sea for the United States where the father has earned newfound employment.  A late night’s early rumblings and flashes of lightning awaken Pi and he takes to the deck to experience the powerful storm’s beauty.  Eventually the roaring waters overtake the ship and flood every level, drowning Pi’s family and most of the animals.

Pi is loaded onto a lifeboat and finds himself caught on a mini-ark with a wounded zebra, a ferocious hyena, a wise primate, and a dangerous bangle tiger.  The hyena soon attacks the zebra and monkey, leaving the tiger, named Richard Parker, to end the hyena’s life.  Pi faces the entrapping vastness of the sea while simultaneously fending off Richard Parker until they both come to an understanding with each other.  Pi takes to catching fish for himself and his new companion in order to keep each other alive until they can be rescued.

The film is filled with outstretched symbolism to the point where Pi is forced to interpret most of the symbolism for later characters in the story.  An adult version of Pi (Irrfan Khan) narrates the fantastical journey to a young reporter (Rafe Spall).  “You will believe in God,” Pi tells him.  The entire odyssey consists of Pi’s relationship to God throughout the catastrophic tests he faces.  We learn young Pi becomes fascinated with religion early on as a child, first acquiring his parents’ Hindu roots before becoming enraptured in Catholicism where he grapples with the impossible love of God sacrificing his innocent son for the sins of the world.  Later, Pi finds Islam literally in passing.  His father instructs him that he cannot follow three religions at once and to either pick one to follow, or simply look to science to answer the majority of his questions about existence.

Pi isn’t quick to lean into his father’s request, just as Pi isn’t quick to see the carnivorous tiger as a simple wild animal.  “In his eyes, there is a soul.”  Throughout his journey, Pi cannot explain why God has placed him under the weight of such loss and misery.  But Pi never loses hope and never accepts that God has abandoned him.  He also may not be able to narrow down the ‘correct’ version of God, but he never loses faith that God loves him and is consistently carrying him through every obstacle.

Life of Pi is Ang Lee’s quest of faith for the audience.  The film reaches a wobbly conclusion that lessens a bit of the fantastical impact of the themes blooming to life, but the film is so majestic and ambitious that I couldn’t help but be captured by the spirit of it.  While many may view this as an opportunity to shoehorn the incarnation of God into a catch-all for every religion and belief system, I viewed it more as a thoughtful exploration of sorting out the attributes of God rather than the versions.

The film also works largely due to the lavish spectacle it is wrapped in.  The production values are top-notch.  You will not see better special effects all year.  This is the first time that I can truly say the CGI effects used to create living creatures had me 100 percent convinced I was watching real animals.  Lee also utilized impressive 3D technology to enhance the experience in the same way Avatar used it.  The images have a crisp and life-like depth.  I can’t recommend the film’s visual aesthetic enough.  If you choose to take a leap of faith on this film, see it on the big screen in 3D.

Life of Pi is certainly not a perfect film, but I think it examines a dedication of faith along with all of faith’s questions and doubts—and does it well for a major studio production.  In a world trying desperately to erase any and all versions of a Creator-based faith by replacing it with a faith in unprecedented and foolish chance of existence, Life of Pi, despite its shortcomings, is somewhat of a miracle.  The pacing and conclusion may test some viewers’ patience, but I think those willing to invest in the story will still find the film plenty worth their while.

A quick note to parents: the film pushes the limits of its PG rating with some very intense moments of animals attacking other animals.  None of the shots are particularly ‘graphic’ or bloody, but there are scary instances for young kids.

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I understand that many people feel as though they already know the story of Abraham Lincoln . We grow up learning about him in grade school and are taught all about his wonderful achievements as a president. So why would Steven Spielberg want to research and fine tune for over a decade to make this movie? Probably the same reason any artist takes a long time on their work—he wanted to make a masterpiece.

The story focuses around the last few months of Lincoln’s presidency and life. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is forced to balance two of the most important decisions of his presidency in ending the Civil War and passing the 13th amendment that would forever abolish slavery in the United States . In order to accomplish these tasks, Lincoln employs the help of his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to secure the votes needed for the amendment while he attempts to secure surrender from the southern states. In addition, he must also deal with his personal demons relating to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Much of the action is concentrated on the debates over the amendment vote in the House of Representatives. Led by the strong supporting role of Tommy Lee Jones who plays Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, the back-and-forth between Jones and his opponents offers many of the humorous and memorable moments from the film. However, the most powerful and memorable scenes come from Day-Lewis’s portrayal of President Lincoln.

The film may start out a little slow for some viewers, but the political drama and humor throughout the film are definitely enough to keep the attention of the audience. Never has the portrayal of the United States legislative process been so enthralling. Besides, the overall goal of the movie is not to thrill people with action sequences, but to offer a new perspective on the one of the greatest presidential stories of all time. Spielberg does a fantastic job of mixing dialogue-driven exchanges and brooding shots of Lincoln that reveal the inner turmoil felt at the end of his life. The movie allows Lincoln’s character to shine without sinking too far into the rhetoric that slogs many political dramas down.

Ultimately, this film is driven by the outstanding performances turned in by Day-Lewis and his supporting cast. This is not necessarily the flashiest of roles for Day-Lewis, but one that should cement his status among the greatest and most respected actors of his generation. The nuance and subtlety that he brings to the part of Lincoln will leave most moviegoers wondering if he really is the beloved 16th president. The sheer gravitas that Day-Lewis lends to the role is unparalleled.  Sally Field is excellent in the role of  the eccentric Mary Todd Lincoln. The wide range of emotions she conveys allows the character to be tragic, yet accessible to the audience. Tommy Lee Jones also turns in one of the greatest performances of his career that is sure to garner some praise and accolades come award season. The brilliant directing by Spielberg only helps to make this film one of the best of the year and a certain best picture contender come January, even if it may not be considered his greatest masterpiece of all time.






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Ben Affleck’s pro-America thriller Argo has a little bit of something for everyone.  If you’re interested in a little-known piece of 30-year-old history.  If your curiosity is roused by the nooks and crannies of the Hollywood studio system.  If you want laughs.  If you crave suspense.   If you want to see good actors invest in a smart script, look no further.

Do you know anything about the 1979 Iranian Revolution in which an angry mob of the nation’s protestors stormed the neighboring U.S. Embassy for a takeover?  Did you also know that six American Embassy employees escaped the takeover and took refuge in a local residence owned by Canada-born immigrant?  How about a covert plan to send in a CIA agent to rescue them under the guise of a Canadian movie producer shooting a major science-fiction picture in an exotic locale?  I knew none of this.

Ben Affleck plays the all-brains CIA agent, Tony Mendez whose ridiculous plan is ‘the best bad idea’ the government has to extract the six hostages—men and women expected to absorb fake Canadian identities and pose as a film crew in order to fly out of Iran alive.  If they raise any suspicion about their covers, they will likely be executed.

Sounds grim?  Don’t take Affleck for granted.  In hatching the scheme, Affleck and his writers of the film have plenty of commentary to swath over Hollywood studio system of decades-past.  Alan Arkin and John Goodman deliver huge laughs as film industry veterans sculpting the ultimate cover for Mendez, and they have a ball doing so.

Affleck, whose talent has surged in the last five years, has proven that his abilities extend beyond Boston-set crime thrillers.  With Argo, he proves immensely capable both in front and behind the camera.  His character Mendez wrestles with the life-and-death demands of his job as six lives depend on his scheme.  Meanwhile, his family suffers from his absence at home.  But just when you think Affleck is all deep-rooted drama, he drops huge laughs in by the barrel, taking shots at the film industry and the occasionally stupefied CIA.

I see major award attention headed Argo‘s way—not because it’s an Oscar-bait film—but because it’s actually a very good film that audiences will eat up due to the fact that it is suspenseful, funny, well-made, and even educational.

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Trouble with the Curve

Clint Eastwood is a man who has earned the right to do what he wants. Having starred in movies like Dirty Harry, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, his acting career in Hollywood spans more than 50 years and is replete with more iconic characters than most actors could ever hope to play.  He has also directed more than 30 feature films as well as several episodes of TV shows, and despite his recent oddball speech at the Republican National Convention he commands respect among his peers like virtually no one else.  After 2008’s Gran Torino Eastwood decided to trade his acting chops for a director’s chair, making movies like Invictus and J Edgar.  But recently, because Clint Eastwood does what Clint Eastwood wants, he took another turn in front of the camera for the baseball movie Trouble with the Curve. While the film is certainly not going to win awards for originality it is an enjoyable and well-told tale of family, friendship, and what happens when time simply passes one by.

Eastwood plays Gus Lobel, a scout for the Atlanta Braves who knows baseball backwards and forwards but couldn’t fix a broken relationship if he had instructions that were written in crayon. The ever-charming Amy Adams is daughter Mickey (named after the great Yankees switch hitter) is a workaholic lawyer (is there any other kind in Hollywood movies?) who can’t find time in her life for anything resembling a relationship, thus her interactions with dear ol’ dad are relegated to the occasional dinner at a local pub while checking text messages on her blackberry.  Gus is so old that his ancient art of baseball scouting has been all but replaced by soulless computers, and has long since given up trying to have a real relationship with Mickey. And then there’s Johnny (Justin Tiberlake, basically playing himself), the plucky upstart scout from the Red Sox who follows Gus around as they scour high school games for up-and-coming talent. Ticking off other boxes on the character checklist are Pete Klein (John Goodman), Gus’s old friend who has been with him in the baseball business through thick and thin, and Philip Sanderson (Matthew Lillard), the young upstart Braves scout  who finds players based on spreadsheet data, not gut instinct.  Gus mouns the fact that the great game of baseball has changed, and young punks like Sanderson only see numbers and not real players.  Mickey is this close to making partner at her law firm, but might lose it all thanks to a conniving coworker who also wants the open spot. And Johnny just wants to be the best gosh-darned baseball scout he can be, and maybe score a date with Mickey while he’s at it.

So what’s Clint Eastwood doing in a by-the-numbers dramadey like this? Who cares! Trouble with the Curve is as predictable as they come, but Eastwood’s grizzled old man is second to none–particulary when paired with Adams’ pitch-perfect sweetness.  We’re not so much watching a movie as we are enjoying some solid performances from a few great actors. It’s fun to watch because Eastwood is so pitch-perfect for his role–who else could get a theater full of people to laugh with a line like “Get out of here before I have a heart attack trying to kill you!” as he threatens a bar patron who won’t take no for an answer after striking out with Mickey.  Adams does her best to portray a stressed-out lawyer trying to reconnect with her dad, but she’s not fooling anyone: this is the same girl sang her way into audience hearts as the gleefully innocent Gisele in Disney’s gem Enchanted.  Timberlake…well, no one is ever going to watch him in a movie for his acting chops but he’s clearly enjoying the role and having fun playing the third wheel to Gus and Mickey.  There’s no surprises here, and no cheap deaths for the sake of baiting the Academy.  What you expect is what you get, and when you want two hours of solid if not-exactly-groundbreaking entertainment, you could do a lot worse than this movie.



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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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Rating: 4.5/5 (2 votes cast)