Category Archives: Movies

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

Actor Donald O'ConnorQuickly: 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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A Book a Week: America’s Favorite Movies, Behind the Scenes

Here is the first of my used bookstore finds: America’s Favorite Movies: Behind the Scenes, by film historian Rudy Behlmer. Published in 1982, this now out-of-print work is a treasure trove of primary source material for some of the most enduring classics of Hollywood’s golden age. It covers some that I either don’t know or don’t care for, but it also includes many personal favorites such as The Adventures of Robin HoodStagecoachCasablancaThe African QueenSingin’ in the Rain, and High Noon. These are movies whose staying power derives largely from the fact that you don’t have to be a stuffy film critic to appreciate them. No directorial narcissism or abstract mucking about, just good stories well told, made by people committed to getting it right, sometimes at enormous personal cost. The book also sets their production in rich historical context, explaining how they were affected by the Depression, WWII and the Cold War. Herewith, a few quotes and notes that I found to be of particular interest (with trailer links in the titles).

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On the Death of Robin Williams and the Gift of Life

[Editor's Note: This post tackles a dark subject, so young readers proceed with caution.]

[Update: I've added one more story to this piece related to Robin's work with the military, because I found it interesting and moving.]

Last week, mercurial comic genius and beloved actor Robin Williams took his own life by hanging. As he made his mark a little before my time, I’m really just now beginning to approach his body of work. So upon his suicide, I observed the national mourning from a place of relative detachment. Now that I’ve given myself a little crash course on his life and career, I think I’m in a better position to offer my own few cents on Robin Williams’s legacy, his death, and America’s reaction to it.

Robin Williams gave the phrase “insanely talented” a whole new meaning. He had a bizarrely brilliant, inimitable comic gift, and yet he was a fine dramatic actor whose best work ranks with the best of actors like Tom Hanks and Dustin Hoffman.

He was also a notoriously foul-mouthed entertainer and a deeply disturbed man whose suicide came as no surprise to many, after years of addiction, depression, and broken marriages. Yet despite his ugly personal demons, he was known as a warm personality who treated the lowliest extra with respect, was given to spontaneous acts of kindness, and quietly donated time and money to wounded veterans and local food banks. And though his publicly flippant treatment of God and the Bible bodes ill for his eternal destiny, privately he loved to read The Chronicles of Narnia out loud to his kids, slipped into the back row of Tim Keller’s church more than once, and even briefly confessed Christ in rehab towards the end of his life. The duration of this commitment is unclear, but it is clear that he badly needed answers and began stumbling toward them before finally turning away to enter that dark gate of abandoned hope.

What to do with such a complex personality, and such a mixed legacy? However we respond, we can and must do better than cloying sentimentalism. Continue reading

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A Book a Week: Gloria Jean, A Little Bit of Heaven

Gloria Jean, A Little Bit of Heaven

[Psssst, for those of you not clicking, you're missing out on a video embed of a great gospel number by Gloria. Just a friendly word... :-)]

As promised, here is my review of the biography of child singing star Gloria Jean, written by Scott and Jan MacGillivray. The sub-title is A Little Bit of Heaven. Presumably this was chosen because That Awkward Moment When I Caught a Skin Rash From Bing Crosby, Mel Torme Proposed, and Donald O’Connor Hugged Me So Hard He Broke My Ribs would’ve run a tad long.

Although this isn’t an autobiography, Gloria is generously quoted from interviews conducted by the authors, so her own voice still comes through clearly. And what a treat it is! Gloria Jean is one of those people you’re not likely to have heard of. She never attained the legendary status of a Shirley Temple, and most of her work is out of print. But once you get to know her, you’re very glad you did.

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New Series Announcement: A Book a Week

For the last stretch of the summer, I’ve decided to spend the time that might otherwise have been wasted sleeping in, arguing with atheists on the Internet, surfing the Internet, etc., on reading and reviewing one good new book per week. Happily, I just popped in on a lovely little used bookstore the other week and picked up several good ‘uns. So I thought I might let you, my readers, take a peek at what I’m reading for the next few weeks. But since it seems half the country is on vacation right now, I decided to wait until next Friday to publish the first installment. All the books in my queue so far are non-fiction, mostly revolving around entertainment history, or in one case, military history. The two sections were right next to each other at the bookstore. It’s a wonder I dragged myself out of that place at all!

My first entry in this new little series will actually not be a used book purchase, but something I recently purchased new. It’s the biography of a forgotten child singing star from the same era as Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin. Her name is Gloria Jean. This young lady was the original Jackie Evancho—a true prodigy. She was trained as a coloratura soprano from childhood on up and achieved worldwide fame through her facility with both classical and pop standards. Along the way, she rubbed shoulders with so many legendary show biz names it would make your head spin. And not just names only show biz buffs would recognize either. The book draws heavily from her own words and contains stories you won’t find anywhere else—funny stories, strange stories, and downright beautiful stories. It’s also a sober look at the less pleasant side of child stardom and show business in general, as the small-town girl rose to fame only to fall off the map again.

She has her own Youtube channel now and still interacts with fans via a website. Here she is introducing some vintage clips of her singing and acting, to whet your appetite and get you counting stars. Come back next Friday for the full review!

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Monday Morning Humor: Dick Van Dyke Explains Comedy to Kids

When I was little, my three great loves were Dick Van Dyke, Danny Kaye and Donald O’Connor. (Pause for a gratuitous collage):

Dick Van Dyke, Danny Kaye and Donald O'Connor collage

Where was I? Oh yes, one reason why these particular three were my great loves (w/apologies to Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, etc.) was that they all had something specific in common: They were geniuses of physical comedy. And nothing can make little kids laugh like brilliant physical comedy. Of the three, I probably fell hardest (as it were) for Dick Van Dyke, on the strength of his two classic performances in Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins. He is also the only one still with us today (with a Twitter account no less—check him out busting a dance move in the department store on Vine too). In today’s clip from his classic sitcom, he is inspired to unpack the science of slapstick and pantomime in front of a classroom of little kids, after failing to impress them merely with words and his cred as a sketch writer for the Alan Brady show. Enjoy:

 

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Movie Review: God’s Not Dead

So, I saw God’s Not Dead in theaters last month, and I lived to tell the tale. For those of you who may have heard of the movie and were wondering what I thought about it, here are all my pros and cons in one place. It surpassed all expectations at the box office, becoming a legit Christian blockbuster. $48 million was the last figure I heard. Clearly it’s connected with its grassroots evangelical audience. Premise: One lone Christian student takes up the challenge to convince his college peers of the evidence for God, or else face the wrath of the vindictive atheist professor. It’s a classroom David and Goliath drama, plus a little apologetics, Duck Dynasty, and the Newsboys. Did I love it? Did I hate it? Did I find something to like about it? There’s only one way to find out…

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Movie Review: Grace Unplugged

This film drew quite a bit of Christian buzz when it came out last year, and it focuses on the music industry, so I thought I’d check it out and review it for you guys. Here’s the premise: Johnny Trey, a one-time one-hit rock star, has left the Hollywood life behind him, kicked drugs, and settled down in a small town to raise a family. Now he serves as a worship pastor at his church. His daughter, 18-year-old Grace, shows musical promise but chafes under her father’s strict regulations for the band. When daddy’s old manager offers him a new record deal after a cover of his classic sugar-stick goes viral, he smiles and declines easily. But Grace decides to do her own cover of the newly popular hit and e-mails it to “Mossy.” Mossy likes what he hears, and after yet another fight with dear old Dad, you can guess what happens next: Yep, little miss evangelical-teen-with-daddy-issues packs her bags and heads for Hollywood! Just write the rest of the script yourself from there and you probably won’t be far off from the real one.

Okay, so I’m being a bit snarky. I did genuinely like some things about this film, so let’s list some Pros before we get into the Cons:

Pros

* The character of the father. I really, really liked this character—both the way he was written and the way he was acted. In fact, I liked him so much that I found it hard to sympathize with Grace’s whining, and I kind of wanted to pull some of her pretty, pretty hair out when she bad-mouthed him behind his back. Maybe I just don’t “get” whiny teenagers, but I was always rooting for Team Dad in their arguments. When Grace skips youth group for a movie, and worse, she lies about it to her mother, Dad is NOT happy about “that little song and dance you gave your mother.” Actor James Denton believably conveys deep love, anger and hurt as Trey’s little girl grows up and rejects him. Unlike some of the other characters, he actually seemed like a real person, with real emotional layers.

* I appreciated the unflattering, but  probably 90% accurate portrayal of how the pop music business actually works (except that Grace hops on a tour bus before she’s chosen and recorded more than one song, which simply doesn’t make sense). Her fashion designer is also kind of over the top (we get it, in American movies a British Accent alwaysalways = Bad). But when Dad shakes his head sadly and says, “Oh, you are not ready for this,” he’s more right than she can imagine. Continue reading

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My Top 5 Films of 2013

It’s awards season in Hollywood, that seemingly endless cycle of self-congratulation that mercifully does end with the distribution of little gold men for what is supposedly the best film-making of the year. And it’s my pleasure as a Christian who also loves movies to report that some of the films being recognized this season actually deserve it.

I think I’m going to call 2013 “the year of human exceptionalism” for movie-making. Some of its finest films offered powerful portraits of a single person who must rise above great challenges for freedom, dignity or life itself. It was a throwback to the right kind of humanism. I sometimes think that if our society could back-track even just to the point where man was still seen as uniquely valuable, it would be a vast improvement over the post-modern rot that has set in today. Though I have no hope that a handful of stellar films will do the trick, or even convince their own makers of the deeper truths behind them, I can at least praise good work when I see it.

In this post I will sketch out the premise of each film (spoiler-free!) and try to explain concisely why it deserves a place in my Top 5. Although not all of these movies were nominated for awards, I will also throw in an “Oscar bait” category for those that were, with asterisks for win predictions. Finally, I will clearly indicate any content concerns, as I am not one of “those” Christian movie-watchers who scorn content advisories. While I do believe discerning Christian viewers can take something of value from all of these films, your mileage may vary. Be heartily encouraged to use your own judgement.

But before I jump into the list, I want to pause and say a few words about one film that I agonized and agonized over, even placing number one at one point, before finally choosing to drop it from the top five altogether upon re-watching and reflection. It’s a hot contender for all the major awards, including Best Picture. Yet even though by some measures it may be the best film of 2013, topping secular and Christian film critics’ lists alike, it wasn’t my favorite film.  Continue reading

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The Tragedy of Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox then and now

Since Michael J. Fox has recently made a comeback to prime-time television, producing and anchoring a family sitcom as a father with Parkinson’s disease, there’s been a renewed interest in the actor. I thought I would take the opportunity to share some of my own thoughts about his life, his career, his political activism, and of course, his decades-long battle with Parkinson’s. For all children of the 80s, he is forever immortalized as Alex P. Keaton and Marty McFly. For me, his voice alone will always evoke fond childhood memories of Chance, the young canine protagonist of Disney’s Homeward Bound.  On a personal level, he is arguably the best-loved actor in Hollywood. At the same time,  he is (rightly) unpopular with many conservative Christians because of his vigorous campaigns for embryonic stem cell research.

In search of source material that encompassed all that while at the same time going beyond it, I realized I could do no better than Fox’s own memoirs. A verbal prodigy from early childhood, Fox needed nobody to write them for him. His graceful, vivid prose reveals intriguing details about his background, his family, and even his perspective on the Christian faith. As I read his autobiographies and collected other research materials, I was struck by his force of personality, yet keenly felt how tragic his story was in every possible way. When I sat down to capture everything I thought and felt in a single essay, I had to force myself to stop, because I found it all so fascinating. So I hope you all will join me on this little journey, and I hope you find it as thought-provoking as I did.  Continue reading

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