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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Law Abiding Citizen

You’ve probably seen The Dark Knight, so imagine what that movie would have been like if the Joker had been the hero. That’s the basic idea of Law Abiding Citizen. The Joker is Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler, looking much more vulnerable than he did in 300), who has an experience in the first scene that would probably drive most people to super-villainhood. Two men, Ames and Dalby, break into his home, stab him, and rape and murder his wife and daughter.

Playing opposite Butler is Jamie Fox as assistant Philadelphia D.A. Nick Rice, who prosecutes the two defendants. The case draws a bad judge, who suppresses DNA evidence, making Nick nervous as to whether he can win. Nick then has the unpleasant task of telling Clyde that he feels he has no choice but to offer Dalby a plea bargain to testify against Ames and put Ames on death row. Clyde, of course, begs him not to do it.

Butler lights up the screen as a man who's lost everything.

As a prosecutor, I identified with Nick’s struggle a great deal. Prosecutors have to work in a flawed system, concerned more with the rights of criminals than those of victims, and we have to make a lot of hard choices. Nick’s decision is based partly on a belief that he has no choice and that “some justice is better than no justice at all.” However, he is also motivated partly by the desire to preserve his 96% conviction rate, and his ambition to one day become D.A. He devastates Clyde when he makes the deal.

Nick Rice searches for clues

The scene switches  to ten years later. Nick witnesses Ames’ execution, when something goes horribly wrong (or maybe right). As the serum slips into Ames, he begins to writhe and scream. The serum is supposed to bring about death painlessly, but Ames dies in agony. It is later discovered that somebody switched the canister of serum for another chemical. Meanwhile, Dalby, a free man, finds himself drugged and kidnapped by Clyde, and strapped to a gurney, where Clyde explains everything  he’s going to do to him in painful detail, before slowly cutting Dalby’s body apart while Dalby screams (the explanation comes in handy because the audience is mercifully spared most of what happens).

Nick gives Clyde a bracelet made by his daughter.

Clyde is arrested and interrogated by – you guessed it – Nick. He offers confessions in exchange for being provided luxuries during his pre-trial custody. Ever-concerned about his conviction rate, Nick agrees to purchase the confessions. However, it soon becomes clear that Clyde was planning on being “caught” the whole time. From inside a jail cell, he begins to unfold his plan for retribution against the entire corrupt legal system, saving Nick for last.

It's not a movie until something blows up!

Law Abiding Citizen is one of few movies that I have seen that actually give an accurate portrayal of the legal world. I definitely identified with the struggles – both external and internal – that prosecutors must face. We live in a dark world, and I often wonder how civilization holds together at all. Much like The Dark Knight, however, the realism breaks down as Clyde’s homicidal antics go further and further. It’s impossible to believe one man could hold an entire city hostage from inside a jail cell, even with ten years to plan. Foxx and Butler both turn in tour-de-force acting jobs and involve the audience in their struggles. We tend to root for Nick, and yet we can’t help but feel angry with him for chickening out and playing politics. Meanwhile, it’s fun at first to watch Clyde get his vengeance, but he goes way too far. The supporting cast also does a great job. Some of the most memorable shots are of people’s faces when they realize they are about to die – not an easy thing to pull off. Colm Meany gets a rare heroic roll, and actually survives the whole movie.

This is one of those movies not everyone will enjoy, but everyone should see.

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Psych: Season 1

PsychA few years ago USA Network launched a “Characters Welcome” campaign designed to give viewers an idea of, presumably, the kind of material they could expect to find on their station.  The gist of the campaign was that on USA Network one could find shows with interesting, unique, funny, compelling, or provocative characters rather than shows that contained too much style without any human substance.  And while I don’t know if the network was successful in re-creating their image with that campaign, I do know that Psych, which appeared on the scene around the same time as the “Characters” network reinvention, certainly has personality to spare.

Set in Santa Barbara, California, Psych follows Shawn Spencer (James Roday), a drifter of sorts who has never been able to hold down a job, a girlfriend, or even a reliable vehicle.  From an early age his by-the-book policeman father Henry (Corbin Bernsen) taught him to be cognizant of his surroundings, taking in all the details of his surroundings and noting even the smallest details that might seem insignificant to most other people.  The goal was self-reliance, but the result was a son with a near-terminal case of ADHD who has a hard time taking anything seriously.  Now in his late 20′s, he gets money by calling in the police tip hotline when he notices subtle clues on newsreel footage that help lead to the arrest of local small-time crooks and other such riffraff.  Meanwhile his childhood friend Gus (Dulé Hill) is an über-responsible pharmaceutical salesman and despite the different paths the two have taken in life, they are still friends and pal around together.

Detective O'Hara

Juliet O'Hara, police detective and Spencer's love interest.

In the first episode Spencer is at the police station collecting his tip reward when he uses his powers of observation to “read the minds” of a crook and a few policemen.  Picking up on clues like debris on clothing, unconscious hand gestures, body markings, and even discarded trash, he is able to infer key bits of information about the personalities of people around him.  The twist, though, is that Spencer convinces people that he has psychic abilities.  After using his fake abilities to solve a murder in the pilot episode, along with some help from straight-laced Gus, the two of them set up a private detective agency that they work from throughout the rest of the season.

USA Network prides itself on unique and interesting characters, and Psych has that down in spades.  Each person in the show has more personality than all the one-dimensional people and aliens in Avatar combined.  Roday is dripping with high-school-dude charm, and he is instantly likable from the get-go.  His fake psychic antics, while often ridiculous, are plenty amusing–especially when he is channeling Jim Carrey and Steve Martin with outlandish physical movements and contortions as he pretends to receive messages from the spirit world.  Gus, playing the classic role of the straight man, is the perfect foil for Spencer, often telling him how ridiculous their plans are, how impossible a given case would be to solve, and how the two of them will no doubt get into a world of trouble for embarking on whatever hair-brained idea they come up with next.  And yet he inevitably goes along with the plan nonetheless.  It’s the classic buddy cop formula that has worked for decades (Riggs and Murtaugh, Tango and Cash, Burnett and Lowery, even Carter and Lee), and Spencer and Gus are entertaining enough to carry the show even when the plot gets pretty ridiculous.

Each episode follows a similar formula:  They typically begin with Spencer as a kid in the mid-80′s learning, often through his own mistakes, a life lesson (look for creative solutions, don’t give up, don’t gamble, don’t cheat, etc.) from his harsh but loving father.  Then we join Spencer and Gus at their office in the present day.  Soon enough they stumble across a mystery by way of a newscast, reading the paper, walking by a crime scene, or just by having a client drop in looking for a psychic to help them find a missing loved one or solve a problem they can’t take to the police.  Spencer and Gus go investigate, inevitably run across stuffy Detective Lasseter (Timothy Omundson) and his partner, the perky but ambitious detective Jules O’Hara (Maggie Lawson) and police chief Karen Vick (Kirsten Nelson) who are often trying to solve the very same case.  In almost every episode Lasseter is stubbornly barking up the wrong tree, while plucky Spencer notices a handful of clues such as a lock of hair, footprints, broken glass, a misplaced business card, and the like, overlooked by the detectives but key to the investigation.  Spencer then uses these clues to piece together the solution to the crime, while waving his hands about and flailing around to pretend he is getting his information from sources in the hereafter.

Detective Lassiter

Detective Lassiter can't stand Spencer but comes to appreciate his usefulness.

It’s a reliable formula, and for the most part it works:  This ain’t Law and Order, folks.  But for the first few episodes I was exceedingly frustrated with the show.  The police detectives are so inept, the cases so far-fetched, and the “fake psychic” element so overblown that the entire show just seemed stupid.  But the ridiculousness of it all is kind of the point.  Psych doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should the viewers.  In fact, by the end of the season I appreciated its lighthearted take on the TV detective show genre–almost as if were an antidote to the endless heavy-handed detective shows out there.  It’s just lighthearted entertainment, and eschews the dark murder investigation and blood-n-guts shock factors of other shows in favor of silly antics and old-fashioned whodunit crime solving.

In fact, the worst complaint I can level against the show is that at times it’s just too ridiculous.  In “9 Lives” Spencer claims to get information from a cat, “Cloudy…Chance of Murder” has him joking around in a courtroom murder trial and eventually becoming a legal consultant, and in “Poker? I Barely Know Her” he pretends to communicate with poker chips.  Scenarios like this take things just a little too over the top and dangerously close to frustrating, as if creator Steve Franks is insulting the intelligence of his viewers.  But this is escapist entertainment, and as someone who enjoyed Ace Ventura, I don’t think I can complain about Psych being a bit too outlandish.  It’s good clean entertainment, so long as you check your brain at the door.  But then, that’s kind of the point.

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Surrogates

Surrogates posterBruce Willis has spent a lot of his career kicking in doors, but I bet this is the first time he’s had to do it just to get his wife out of bed. Surrogates is a disturbing story of man kind’s dependence on technology and susceptibility to control by fear.  In the not-too-distant future, mid-Sunday A.D., 98% of all humans live vicariously through life-like robots. They lie in chairs that look like the offspring of a La-Z-Boy and a virtual reality entertainment center (“stem chairs”), and rarely leave their homes. Their work, and all other interaction, is done by their “surrogates,” androids connected to their brain stems.

You may, of course, choose your own “surry.” You can be whatever gender, race, body type, or hair color strikes your fancy. It’s sort of a universal Stepford Wives. You see what your surry sees, and feel what it feels (except the pain, of course).

In the future, all murder scenes will look like this.

In the future, all murder scenes will look like this.

Needless to say, the casting crew had their work cut out for them on this one, even by Hollywood standards, searching for enough perfect-faced, perfect-bodied people to fill out the future streets full of sculpted robots. These, of course, are to be contrasted with the recluses controlling them from home, who have really let themselves go. Willis plays Tom Greer (and his surrogate), an FBI agent whose wife refuses to even set foot outside her bedroom “in the flesh.”

Greer plugs into a stem chair.

Greer plugs into a stem chair.

Greer has bigger problems, however, because early in the movie, what starts as a routine vandalism investigation (below), soon appears to be a double homicide – the first two homicides in the western world in several years. It seems that someone has developed a weapon capable of sending a signal through a surry that not only destroys the surry, but liquefies the brain of the user.

Robocop meets CSI. Got enough crackers for all that cheese?

Robocop meets CSI. Got enough crackers for all that cheese?

The initial theory is that this is subversive action by “Dreddies,” members of a colony where surrogates are outlawed. The Dreddies follow the leadership of  “The Prophet” (Ving Rhames, below), claim sovereignty over a small patch of ground, and spurn all advanced technology, using horses and buggies, and the like.

Ving Rhames, trying way too hard.

Ving Rhames, trying way too hard.

In chasing his man, Greer narrowly survives, and has his surry destroyed. The FBI takes him off the case and refuses to issue him a new one. Now, for the first time in years, he must leave his home and track the killer (you didn’t really think he’d obey his captain and stay off the case?) with only his own weak flesh at his command. His investigation takes him first to the Dreddie colony. But is The Prophet what he seems? (I’ll give you a hint: I brought it up.)

Would you tell this it wasn't your wife? Some guys are just never happy.

Would you tell this it wasn't your wife? Some guys are just never happy.

Willis could have earned a lot of kudos for this film if he’d allowed the makeup department to make his human self ugly. It appears however, that his agent fought not to lower his image one bit. Everyone else is hideous, giving a realistic portrayal of people who haven’t shaved, showered or brushed their teeth for several days. Willis’ acting is passable. His most memorable scene is probably one where he begs his wife, through the eyes of her surry, (Rosamund Pike) to let him see her again (above). The best acting in the movie is probably done by Rhada Mitchell, as the blond, buxom surry of Greer’s homely (work) partner, Peters. I say this because this surry is taken over by several different people in the course of the movie, so she’s always switching characters. She also gets a scene where she runs at incredible speed through the street, doing flips over cars, and so forth. Which raises a question that the movie never resolves: if the streets are now populated with super-strong, super-fast robots, why are there still so many cars?

It’s hard to say more without spoiling a decent flick. I’ll just say if you like sci-fi, or crime stories, Surrogates is worth a look. Not a classic, but exciting, involving and thought-provoking.

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