Category Archives: Movies

My Favorite Movie of 2014: Interstellar

“Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” — Dylan Thomas

Matthew McConaughey and McKenzie Foy in Interstellar

Since this film is still showing in IMAX theaters, and since it’s still my favorite film of the year, I thought it appropriate to put out my review of Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar. Grappling with Big Questions about Life, the Universe and Everything, with characters I cared about, set against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of astrophysics geekery… what more could I ask for? As my dad said on our way out of the theater, “I might come up with something to dislike about it. Next year.” But in truth, that’s not quite accurate. I do have some criticisms of the film. They’re just outweighed by the positives.

In brief, the premise is that some time in the near future, Earth’s crops are plagued by blight, and the atmosphere is slowly becoming unbreathable. In this 21st century dustbowl, we’re introduced to former NASA pilot/engineer turned farmer Joseph Cooper (“Coop”), played by Matthew McConaughey. Coop is a restless soul, a man born out of due time. In the words of his father-in-law, he “was good at something and never got a chance to use it.” He can’t pretend to like farming. But the world needs farmers, not engineers, and he’ll do anything to carve out a life for his two children.

His daughter Murphy is preternaturally smart. So when she starts to report some paranormal happenings, Coop is puzzled and skeptical. Books are falling off her shelf by themselves, she says. A small ship model is found inexplicably broken on the floor. Her theory? “I looked it up. It’s called a poltergeist.”

“That’s not very scientific, Murph,” murmurs Papa with mild disapproval.

“You said science is about admitting what we don’t know.”

The kid’s got a point. And a knack for foreshadowing dialogue.

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Quick Thoughts On Some New Movies

A number of films are just now being released or are going to be released soon that have piqued my curiosity. Below are my quick first impressions of each of them together with some preview clips.

Interstellar: I’ve already seen this movie once and am dragging my father to go see it with me again soon for a nerdy daddy-daughter date. The latest from every geek’s favorite director, Chris Nolan, it’s my favorite movie of the year so far, and I plan to offer a full review of it at some point. It’s an exciting and moving sci-fi adventure, with an agreeably small amount of objectionable content. Although it’s grounded in a secular worldview, it’s definitely worth seeing. The cast is excellent and the special effects are gorgeous. McConaughey’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. Rated PG-13 for a little violence and a handful of swear words, including, regrettably, one f-bomb.

“I love you. Forever.”

***

The Imitation Game: As you’ll see in the list, ’tis the season for biopics, and this one is especially interesting to me. It focuses on Alan Turing, a programmer and code-breaker who worked with a secret team to crack the Nazi code in World War II. In the process, he built  one of the first computers and is now considered to be the father of computer science. Besides the fact that I geek out over all things WWII, code-breaking, mathematics, computer science and the like, and besides the fact that the incomparable Benedict Cumberbatch is playing Turing (psssst, Oscars), my interest in this film is motivated by the fact that I have actually met one of the code-breakers. Peter Hilton, the youngest member of the team, went on to give lectures about their work at universities around the country, and I was fortunate to see him speak shortly before his death. My father brought me, and I’m not sure I was even 10 years old yet, but the talk was a delight, and meeting Hilton afterwards even more so. Though Turing is the focus of this film, it tickles me to see Hilton in it.

Unfortunately, Turing was also a homosexual, so I worry that the last part of the film may politicize that aspect of his life. At the time there were harsh and arguably unethical penalties for homosexual behavior, but we all know what axe the film-makers would like to grind, even though the film has no sexual content and is rated a mild PG-13. But the main body of the film tells a fascinating story that I still want to see.

***

The Theory of Everything: This is a new biopic of Steven Hawking that focuses on the progression of his neurological illness and his marriage as he worked on his ground-breaking theory of the universe’s origins. Frankly, I have a bit of trouble thinking of Hawking in a sentimental way, since he’s been such a voluble opponent of Christianity in his writings. (Personally, I find this ironic, since his theory that the universe had a beginning initially made the scientific establishment nervous because it pointed too uncomfortably to a Creator who caused it. But that’s neither here nor there.) In any case, this is in fact a very sentimental film, and it may be that it touches on some human truths in the process. I’ve read that the young relationship with his wife is very sweetly portrayed, although it hints at their unfortunate mutual permission to find romance elsewhere as his illness became wholly debilitating. Eddie Redmayne is a very good up-and-coming young actor, who’s already generating Oscar buzz with this performance. Minimal objectionable content, rated PG-13 mainly for the disturbing thematic element of Hawking’s illness.

***

Citizen Four: A documentary on Edward Snowden, the man who leaked the truth about the NSA and had to flee the country for it. It contains actual footage of interviews with Snowden. Looks gripping and intense. (Rated R for language.)

***

Unbroken: Probably the most hotly anticipated film of the year, this is Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of the best-selling true story about Olympic athlete and war hero Louis Zamperini. I was also fortunate enough to see Louis speak before he passed away, although I regrettably didn’t get a chance to meet him. Most of you probably know the story already, but it’s an unbelievably harrowing roller-coaster ride. He survived getting shot down over the Pacific, only to spend months in a brutal Japanese prison camp. While I’m cautiously optimistic about the film, I have some concerns. First of all, the acting and the script seem kind of cheesy just from the trailer (although I’ve heard that the violence is quite gritty and brutal). Secondly, I haven’t seen any talk of whether it even addresses the best part of Zamperini’s story—his conversion to Christianity at a Billy Graham crusade, which brought him out of a downward spiral of depression and addiction caused by his wartime trauma. In our politically correct milieu, will this inspirational story end just at the point where it becomes truly inspirational? You be the judge.

What films are you looking forward to this year? What films have impressed you so far? Comment below and let me know!

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On Music, Grace and Something Higher

The Soloist image

The older I get, the more tangibly aware I become of God’s presence through beauty. Among the world’s beautiful things, music is perhaps the most powerful and the most difficult to resist for even the most hardened un-believer. It releases a wellspring of longing in the soul that can’t be contained or denied.

One of my favorite movie quotes comes from the film The Soloist, based on the true story of a homeless musical savant named Nathaniel Ayers. An LA Times reporter named Steve Lopez discovered and befriended him, and the popular newspaper columns he wrote about their experiences together were eventually published in book form. Although Ayers never fully overcame the mental problems he struggled with, their friendship changed both men forever. The film takes some liberties with Lopez’s character, but the core story remains utterly compelling. In this scene, Steve and Nathaniel receive private access to an orchestral rehearsal at Disney Hall. As they sit and listen together, Nathaniel closes his eyes, enraptured, seeing the music in his mind as only he can. When Lopez tries to describe the experience later that night in a karaoke bar, he’s lost for words. He shouts over the din, “If you had seen him, if you could have felt him… I’m watching him, he’s watching the music, and while they’re playing, I say ‘My God, there is something higher out there! There is something higher!'”

He’s far from the only one to be so surprised by joy. Just ask Billy Joel to tell you about his encounter with Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

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Movie Review: The Judge

A good movie is hard to find. Bad writing, bad acting and even worse morals are the norm for much of what Hollywood is shoveling out these days. And more often than not, self-styled Important Films that Say Something wind up being thinly-disguised propaganda for the political left. Apparently, that rare breed of film that simply tells a story isn’t considered Important enough in and of itself.

While he has quietly voiced some conservative opinions, actor Robert Downey, Jr. seems like an unlikely candidate to lead a revival of substantial, thought-provoking movie-making. But the star who’s made millions in mainstream superhero flicks has surprised his fans by expressing a desire to do just that, with a production company he and his wife have co-founded themselves. The Judge is their debut project. And while the Hollywood establishment is wrinkling their noses at it, it appears that the majority of ordinary movie-watching Americans are giving it a thumbs up.

The film is billed as a courtroom drama, whose two main characters are a father (Robert Duvall) and son (Downey, Jr.) attempting to find reconciliation after decades of silence and bitterness. The father is the county judge, and the son, Hank, is an arrogant hotshot lawyer. (His tagline: “Innocent people can’t afford me.”) When their wife and mother dies, Hank’s return re-opens old family wounds. And just when it seems things couldn’t get worse, his father is involved in an accident that looks suspiciously like murder. What’s more, the Judge is suffering from memory loss and can’t recall any of it. There’s only one decent choice for Hank: Stay and defend his old man in court. But that may be easier said than done.

The father-son bonding premise intrigued me, and after watching this trailer, I was hooked by the acting and the writing (note: one crude slang term). I decided to see the film and give it my own verdict. My verdict is that The Judge is simultaneously the best and most frustrating movie I’ve seen all year.  Continue reading

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Marriage in the Movies: Mrs. Doubtfire

 

Mrs. Doubtfire

“Once the father of your children is out of the picture, the only solution is total and lifelong celibacy. And if you violate that, heaven forgive you. Good luck!” — Mrs. Doubtfire

***

After watching this film for the first time in my little Robin Williams marathon of a couple months ago, I knew it was an important one to address if I ever did a series like this. So today, we’ll continue our series on Marriage in the Movies with Mrs. Doubtfire.

The movie tells the story of an eccentric actor named Daniel Hillard, who goes to extreme lengths to stay in touch with his children when his wife files for divorce. “Extreme,” in this case, means applying for and getting a job as their nanny…in disguise. His new persona is a gentle, twinkle-eyed Scottish grandma, whom he hastily christens “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Turns out, “Mrs. Doubtfire” is Mrs. Hillard’s dream nanny—firm, kind, wonderful with the children, and constantly doling out little nuggets of life wisdom on a variety of topics, including marriage. But when another man enters the picture, things get very awkward very fast, and the question becomes not “whether” Daniel will lose his cover, but “when.”

The film, which became one of Williams’s most popular roles, is billed as a comedy. But it winds up feeling more like a tragedy, as the shattering effects of divorce are very convincingly presented. However, I wouldn’t mind so much if it stopped there. It may be depressing, but at least it’s truthful. What’s really pernicious about the thing is that by the end, it’s trying to sell audiences on the lie that maybe divorce isn’t so bad after all. That’s where it goes Importantly Wrong.

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Marriage In the Movies: Fireproof

Welcome to the first installment of Marriage in the Movies: a new series wherein I survey what the art form of film can offer on this all-important topic. The movies I will feature stand out because marriage, as opposed to mere romantic affection, is absolutely central to the story. Without it, none of them would have a plot. Some may state their message clearly, others may let the story do the talking, but all of them have something to say about marriage.

That’s where I come in: First, I briefly explain the premise of each film, for those who may be unfamiliar with it. Then, I look at it from the perspective of a Christian who also loves movies, and I judge whether what they have to say is Importantly Right or Importantly Wrong—or perhaps, in interesting cases, some of each.

My first installment is an unapologetically Christian film that many of you have probably seen: Fireproof. (Most of my selections will be more mainstream, although many will still get a lot of things Importantly Right.) In this film, a fireman struggles with the pressures of work while waking up to the reality that his wife is ready to divorce him. While at first he is not a believer, his believing father and friend both challenge him to fight for his marriage. In the process, he discovers a faith of his own that sustains him even when it appears that his efforts aren’t bearing fruit.

I remember vividly when this film first came out. Actually, I remember vividly the year before it came out, when I was eagerly following every scrap of B-roll and production blog update as the finished product slowly came together. This was partly motivated by my enthusiasm for Sherwood Pictures’ faith-based film-making, partly by my rapidly growing and very spiritual interest in Kirk Cameron. Continue reading

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Dancing In the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part III of III)

A great while ago the world began
With a hey ho, the wind and the rain
But that’s all one, and our play is done
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

 Twelfth Night, Act 5, Scene 1

***

Part I here

Part II here

In 1975, the BBC asked Donald O’Connor if the musical was dead. His succinct answer: “No. It is dead the way we used to make ‘em.” He spoke without resentment. It was just a fact.

Donald O’Connor was the last of the song and dance men. Known as “the youngest old-timer in show business,” it was his misfortune to reach the height of his powers precisely when the song-and-dance musical was dying. Rising to take its place were the spontaneous musicals, the Sounds of Music and Oklahomas and West Side Stories. Characters were ordinary people expressing their feelings, not entertainers putting on a show. There was no longer a place for O’Connor’s particular skill set on the big screen. So it was back to his first love: the stage.

Shifting base of operations to Las Vegas gave the restless performer a steady audience and the ability to nurture fresh talent. One young lad joined him for a special performance to commemorate his 30th anniversary in the business, which nearly doubled as a 31st birthday party. (Candid footage of the reception shows O’Connor surreptitiously piling an extra slice of cake on the boy’s plate.) With a happy second marriage and a growing new family, it seemed that he had landed on his feet. His son Fred later recalled, “I was very blessed to have my dad as my dad… We were never without anything, and the things we really wanted, he told us ‘These are things that you have to work for.’ And I’m glad he did.” Daughter Alicia fondly remembered how he would delight the children with quicksilver impressions, saying that “You never knew who was coming to dinner.” But as O’Connor danced closer to the line between “drinker” and “alcoholic,” he fought a rising fear that like his father and brother, he would not live to the age of 50.

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Dancing In the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part II of III)

“I was born and raised to entertain other people. I’ve heard laughter and applause and known a lot of sorrow. Everything about me is based on show business. I think it will bring me happiness. I hope so.” — Donald O’Connor, Parade, 1954

 

***

Read Part I here.

Gene Kelly knew what he was doing when he hand-picked Donald O’Connor as his right-hand man in Singin’ In the Rain. His own ballet training was perfectly complemented by O’Connor’s raw hoofing talent. O’Connor later credited Kelly with teaching him to be a “total dancer,” from the waist up. Each borrowed motifs from the other to create their iconic synchronized routine “Moses Supposes.”  But working with Kelly had its tense moments. In this rare interview clip (edited by yours truly), O’Connor shares a priceless anecdote about the legend’s famously short temper on the set of their number “Fit as a Fiddle”:

The memories of Debbie Reynolds also offer some insight into O’Connor’s gentle, professional personality. When Gene became frustrated with Debbie, he would take it out on Donald. But Donald bore it with perpetual good humor. In one instance, as all three practiced a step in “Good Morning,” Kelly himself was unknowingly repeating an error while blaming O’Connor for it. Reynolds expected O’Connor to retaliate at any minute, but all he said was “I’m sorry.” Finally, Kelly stopped and announced, “I’m doing it wrong! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Yet for all his abrasiveness, Gene recognized a professional when he saw one: “Nobody else in the business could have taken the beating I gave Donald O’Connor in Singin’ In the Rain… Donald comes from vaudeville. He’s disciplined. I’ve seen him rehearse a step a thousand times.” Looking back on it all, O’Connor could only laugh and say “Working with him? Yeah, he was miserable. No, we had a great time together… I was never offended by Gene, I love the guy too much.”

Of course, “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the number that everyone remembers from O’Connor’s work in the picture. When MGM released its compilation That’s Entertainment, this was the one that could still make listless audiences break into spontaneous applause in the theaters. Mark Steyn has described it as “the essence of entertainment,” adding “Its only purpose is to delight. Which is a lot harder than it sounds.”

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Dancing in the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part I of III)

Actor Donald O'Connor

Part II here

Part III here

Quickly: Who’s the most talented entertainer you can name? For many, it would be the man who just took his own life last month. An older generation might name Dick Van Dyke. Yet another generation might reach still further into the past, to silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. What do legends like these all share in common? Answer: They all had an extraordinary gift for making anyone happy, except themselves.

To that remarkable list, I would add another name. I would add the name of the man who immortalized laughter in three short minutes of pure genius on film. I would add the name of Donald O’Connor.

Perhaps Paramount exec A. C. Lyles said it best: “Donald O’Connor’s name, spelled backwards, would be talent.” Gene Kelly simply dubbed him “The O’Connor.” But his story sounds too painfully familiar: a lightning-fast comic wit, a master of improv, full of explosive energy and beloved by fans, yet privately haunted by divorce, addiction and depression. Except that his story does not end like so many other sad, sad stories. No, my friends. This is a story that ends with hope. Continue reading

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Lost Soul: My Video Reflection on Robin Williams

Last week, I had some thoughts on the suicide of Robin Williams. While they deviated a bit harshly from the norm, I stand by what I said, because some balance was desperately needed amid the obsessive adoration. However, I can’t deny that once my attention was drawn to this character and the characters he created, it was difficult for me not to be drawn further in. It’s a rare talent that can leave you limp with laughter in one moment and move you to tears in the next. This sad, strange little man filled me with curious fascination, yet simultaneously, with pity. That was his way.

By sheer coincidence, I was recently  listening to some Bruce Hornsby music and came across a little-known song called “Lost Soul.” The lyric brought me up short, because it was so startlingly poignant and apt. With surprising speed, something came together in my mind and my movie making software. I began to create and edit.

The finished product surprised even myself. Continue reading

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