Category Archives: Movies

My Top Five Robin Williams Movies, Part II (cross-post)

Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in Awakenings

Robert De Niro (L) and Robin Williams (R) in Awakenings

Here’s the link to the second half of my Robin Williams top five retrospective, guest-posted at Paul Asay’s blog Watching God.  We’re going backwards, so Part II discusses my top two choices. If you missed Part I, click here. I also close out Part II with a video tribute I edited together last year. (Those of you who haven’t seen it already can watch directly on YouTube here.)

In arranging this shortlist, I focused on the films that I thought were best as films, not just Robin Williams performances. To be clear, I don’t recommend all of them for all audiences, and I’m honest about where I think some of them are flawed. Use your own discretion and don’t take this as an unequivocal endorsement of every movie on this list. Still, I chose them because I think they’re all well-made, they all say something true, and they all feature Williams at his best. The final standings, in order, were:

  1. Awakenings
  2. Insomnia
  3. The Fisher King
  4. Good Will Hunting
  5. Dead Poets Society

By chance, both of my top picks feature Williams in supporting roles beside Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, two great Hollywood legends. Performances like these prove that Robin Williams the actor was not merely a gimmicky extension of Robin Williams the comic, but a serious talent who could hold his own next to American cinema’s finest.

Paul told me that these would actually be his personal top five as well, but he would rank them this way (though he was then seized with sudden worry about where to put Hook, a worry I confess I didn’t share):

  1. The Fisher King
  2. Dead Poets Society
  3. Insomnia
  4. Good Will Hunting
  5. Awakenings

I’m pleased to say my review of the detective thriller Insomnia impressed him so much that he bumped it up a full notch after previously having it in 4th place. Sadly, I can’t convince him to dislodge Dead Poets Society from second place, but all was made clear when I learned that he was a college literature major when it first came out. Figures. (Just giving you a hard time, Paul!) I also convinced him to give Awakenings another watch, and I hope I can convince you to do the same, because it is a truly great film which is sadly underrated in the Williams canon. Williams gives perhaps his most poignant, self-effacing performance here, in a true story that makes a powerful statement about the human condition and the sanctity of life. The film is devastating and sad, but as I say in my review, it will change you. It changed me. To learn more about the work of Oliver Sacks, who wrote the book on which it’s based, watch this 7 minute video. Be warned: It’s not easy watching, but it is unbearably beautiful:

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My Top Five Robin Williams Movies, Part I (cross-post)

31 Mar 2011, New York City, New York State, USA --- Robin Williams attending the Broadway Opening Night After Party for 'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo' at espace in New York City --- Image by © Walter McBride/Corbis

Image by © Walter McBride/Corbis

Focus on the Family’s Paul Asay has once again very kindly lent me his personal blogspot for some reflections on the best films of Robin Williams, who committed suicide a year ago this week. I asked Paul if he’d be interested in hosting a top five list, and he was. Anyone who’s interested can read Part I here right now. Paul and I will publish Part II next week. Please note that these are not comprehensive reviews, although I do try to note some content concerns in a few of my picks. Some of my favorite Williams films are sadder, darker, and aimed at a more mature audience than popular favorites like Aladdin or Hook. However, all five of my picks do have something in common: They all grapple with life’s toughest questions. What is our purpose? What is integrity? What is truth? How do we deal with loss? How do we deal with ourselves? How do we love the unlovable? Where do we look for love? For redemption? And all of them have endings that, while sometimes bittersweet, leave the viewer with the sense that at least some of these questions have been answered in a satisfying way.

As I explain at the beginning of my piece, I personally was not a Williams fan until last year, so unlike Paul, I took little notice of his death. I eventually came to appreciate his work not because of celebrity infatuation, but because I thought that much of it was actually worth something. The mark of any good film is that it speaks to something true about human nature beyond the confines of individual characters and plots. I hope I have brought that out successfully. And whatever your own level of Williams fan-hood, I hope that you, too, will gain something from my insights on these films.

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Marriage in the Movies: Regarding Henry

Now that I’ve spent two weeks talking about the discouraging realities of homosexual “marriage,” I think it’s time for something uplifting about real marriage. What better way to provide that than by reviving a series my readers have probably forgotten about? As a quick (re)-introduction, this series looks at various Hollywood films and judges how well they handle the topic of marriage. I eased in with a Christian film (Fireproof), and have since tackled the Robin Williams classic Mrs. Doubtfire and the modern documentary-style film Boyhood. I was planning to add a lot more entries, but it just never happened. I’m hoping to start freshening it up a bit more regularly, because I think it’s a very timely topic to explore.

My featured film for today is a little 90s picture called Regarding Henry. And yes, if you’re looking at the promo shot on the right and thinking, “Is that… Han Solo?” you get a cookie. Indeed, many critics (myself included) rank this film among Harrison Ford’s strongest performances. But it’s not just Ford’s work that makes it memorable for me. It’s the movie’s surprisingly insightful treatment of marriage and the family. In fact, if the script threw in some references to God or church, it might even pass as a Christian movie (except with much better acting and writing). I like it so much that I was even inspired to put together a little music video for it, which you’ll get to watch if you read to the end of this article. (Unless you cheat and skip there, of course.) Spoiler alert, as usual.

Here’s the premise: Henry Turner (Ford) is a hotshot, cutthroat lawyer, a workaholic who maintains a cool relationship with his wife and daughter. One night, he steps out to buy cigarettes and happens to blunder into a hold-up. The trigger-happy registry robber fires two shots, and in a few seconds, Henry’s life is changed forever. His wife is shattered with the news that even if he recovers speaking and motor skills, most of his memories have been erased. He is forced to start fresh. But as the movie shows us, that may not be such a bad thing. (And for those who think that premise is just too implausible, Harrison Ford has said that while preparing for the role, he actually met and interviewed an actual lawyer who experienced this very process.)

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Todd Suttles Movie Sighting: The Second Chance

Recently, I re-watched a small Christian movie called The Second Chance (2006), directed by Steve Taylor and starring Michael W. Smith as a yuppie music pastor who spends some time serving in an inner-city church. Naturally, the film uses Smith’s musical talents for more than one set piece. Guess who I spotted in the choir on a couple of them? Todd Suttles, now singing baritone/bass for the Gaither Vocal Band. Here’s my favorite number, “Follow Me.” Michael’s character has wandered into a church choir practice, and the lady director enthusiastically encourages him to sit down and play something with them. You can see Todd in the orange shirt on the far right. He has a step-out around 2:10.

You might be wondering if the movie itself is any good, and the answer is that parts of it are very good, but it’s a mixed bag. Michael W. does a surprisingly good acting job, and the black pastor he works with is even more impressive. The writers are clearly very familiar with inner city church ministry in Nashville and fill the story with memorable small moments and characters. A subplot involving a pregnant prostitute is particularly sad and powerful. My main problem with the film is its excessive wallowing in white guilt. Granted, it could have been even worse, and it tries to present an equal array of black and white antagonists (including a corrupt black city official and a cruel black gangster). It also acknowledges that the black pastor is prideful and cynical, and he needs to give Michael W.’s wide-eyed character a fair chance. But in my opinion, it doesn’t come down hard enough on some of his spewing, and the closing scene has him getting choked up at a Malcolm X quote. Yes, both pastors are presented as having lessons to learn, but it seems like in the end, the white guy has learned more.

Then again, it seemed pretty mild compared to what I found when I looked up the actor who plays the black pastor, Jeff Obafemi Carr. The guy is a total nutcase. He’s a black liberation activist with his own cult down in Nashville that, if I have this right, combines Pentecostalism with African tribal paganism with Freemasonry. Nope, not making this up. But hey, he can act. Soooo, ANYway. Enjoy the music!

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Guest Movie Review/Interview: Inside Out

“[It’s about] growing up, and about inner conflict, and about dealing with yourself, and all that stuff.” — Littlest Sister on Inside Out

***

Littlest Sister and I had another adventure in the theater recently. Since our interview/review format worked so well for the faith-based movie Beyond the Mask, I decided to use her precociously articulate charm for my own ends once again and get her take on Pixar’s latest smash hit, Inside Out. The simple premise is that a little girl’s emotions are personified, and we get to go on a journey with them inside her own mind, as she deals with a tough family move and the pressures of growing up.

As before, the format for this interview was record, conversate, transcribe and publish. No splicing and dicing! We realize we’re about a month late to this party, so as a result, there will be a few spoilers (albeit understated spoilers, considering the unique nature of the story). If you’ve already seen the film or don’t mind having it mildly spoiled for you, we hope you enjoy our joint insights on it! It certainly had both of us wishing we had brought tissues.

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Christians in Entertainment: Denzel Washington

‘Tis the season for pretentious, overly long commencement speeches. But one commencement speech has been getting particular attention in the media recently: Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington’s address to the graduates of Dillard University. Dillard is a small, private school for black students in New Orleans. When Washington stepped to the podium, he announced that he was going to “keep it short,” unlike his commencement speaker, who “went on forever, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…” (Yes, this is pretty much spot-on. I speak from experience.)

Here is the short, simple message Washington wanted to convey: “Number one: Put. God. First. In everything you do, put God first. Put God first in everything you do. Everything you think you see in me, everything I’ve accomplished, everything you think I have (and I have a few things), everything that I have is by the grace of God.”

The speech has gone viral. There’s some unfortunate prosperity gospel business towards the end, but on the whole it’s pretty great, and you can read more quotes here, or watch it in full here if you don’t mind handheld video. The passion and conviction of Washington’s delivery is disarming, considering his stature in Hollywood. But then, Washington has never been one to shy away from talking about what he believes.

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Christian Movie Madness (or Is There Such a Thing as a Great Christian Movie?)

Recently, ChristianCinema.com released the results of a month-long movie poll pitting various Christian films against each other. Paralleling basketball’s “March Madness,” the tournament entered 64 films that were eliminated or advanced in a knockout format as Christian viewers voted. Naturally, movies with an aggressive social media campaign behind them had an edge, which might explain why the 2014 release God’s Not Dead was ultimately crowned (in Christian Cinema’s words) the “Best. Movie. Ever.” Because nobody’s ever made good films outside the evangelical Christian film-making bubble, so best Christian movie, best movie, same different right?

I did my own review of God’s Not Dead when it first came out. I gave it 2.5 stars out of 5, which in hindsight actually seems too generous. I don’t have to explain why it’s not the best movie ever, but it’s a far cry even from being the best Christian movie ever. It beat out obviously superior movies like Passion of the Christ and The Blind Side on its way to victory in this particular poll, which isn’t even including every good Christian movie ever made.

The selection process for the 64 films that were included was interesting and somewhat baffling to track. It prompted me to think about what even counts as a Christian movie. It also made me think about what it takes to make a movie that’s simultaneously great and Christian.

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Special Guest Movie Review: Beyond the Mask

This week, I took my youngest sister to the theater for a screening of a new family adventure movie called Beyond the Mask. It was produced by cousins Chad and Aaron Burns, homeschool alumni who are now working to make Christian films together. Set at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, it boasts some scenery-chewing star power with John Rhys-Davies as the villain (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings) and contains more special effects shots than blockbusters like Inception and Pirates of the Caribbean. (When I showed her the trailer, her reaction was, and I quote, “Ooooh, sword fights and stuff on fire. I want to see this!”) The premise is that a former British spy migrates to America and becomes a masked vigilante for the cause of liberty, hoping to redeem himself from his shady past. Along the way, he discovers true love, strong hate, harsh revenge, and all that fun stuff.

Our theater captain was the effects coordinator for the film, as well as the 2nd assistant director. The town showed up in force, and Littlest Sister and I had a high old time together, though we did note some things that could have been improved. Among other things, we discussed the film’s historical accuracy, and our conclusions may surprise you! So instead of having me write a typical review, I thought it would be fun to change it up and interview her instead. I simply hit record and transcribed our entire conversation, with very entertaining results.  As you’ll see, the family resemblance is quite strong. Enjoy this special guest appearance. (My questions are in bold, and her answers are in normal type.)

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A New Christian Movie (That Might Actually Be Good!)

Rik Swartzwelder and Elizabeth Roberts in “Old Fashioned”

As a die-hard movie buff, I have to be candid and admit that I don’t typically walk away from a Christian film enthusing, “BEST MOVIE EVER!” It’s not that I look down my nose at people who aren’t cinephiles, it’s just who I am and what I like. The truth is, I could quite literally talk all day long about great movies (although it’s better when someone else is actually in the room listening!) I’m one of the only people I know who could watch a Tom Cruise action movie but only get really excited at the Robert Duvall cameo. And if you have no idea who I’m talking about, that’s totally fine. Moving on…

Nonetheless, I still observe the Christian movie industry with hope. And I try to give the trailers for coming Christian film attractions a fair shake. This past month, a little film came out that piqued my interest, and it may pique yours too. It was cleverly marketed as the “anti-Nifty Blades of Hay” (my fake name for the Cult Phenomenon Which Shall Not Be Named, on which you can read more of my thoughts here). The marketing trick worked, and the small film generated a lot more buzz than usual as a result. My question was, is it actually any good? While I have yet to see it myself, I am pleasantly surprised and hopeful based on a few clips and trailers. Continue reading

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Monday Morning Humor: The Best Pictures Never Made

Wow, quite an Oscar night this year, wasn’t it? The beautiful stars parading down the red carpet, while you ignored them because they’re mostly ill-behaved louts who despise you, your country and everything you hold dear! The celebration of the cinematic arts (and their steady decline since 1939)! Well, just to keep the mood going, here’s Andrew Klavan discussing some movies that weren’t nominated for any Oscars this year, for the simple reason that they’ve never been made. I can’t think why. Though to be fair, this video is actually a few years old, and there were some bright spots in 2015’s Oscar lineup, including Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (Klavan-approved and reviewed by me here). I also enjoyed a smattering of the other Best Picture nominees and was truly moved by some Oscar-worthy performances. (If you haven’t checked out Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, he is really phenomenal.) But still, Andrew is not far off the mark.

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