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.

Two Sisters Review… 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.

Continue reading “Two Sisters Review… Inside Out”

Two Sisters 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.)

Continue reading “Two Sisters Review… Beyond the Mask”

Answering Your Questions About “American Sniper” [UPDATED]

American Sniper Kyle and Cooper collage
Top: SEAL sniper Chris Kyle ; Bottom: Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper

[UPDATE: 1/25/15 Since first writing this post, I’ve found more information on one of the slanderous claims that’s going around about Kyle, and I’ve updated it accordingly.]

Whether or not you’re the movie-going type, you’ve been hearing an awful lot about this one movie lately. It’s breaking box office records, FOX news is promoting it like crazy, and wild-eyed leftists are feverishly tweet-blogging their hatred for it and its subject. I’m talking about Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, based on the best-selling book by Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle.

With over 150 confirmed kills, Chris Kyle is the most lethal sniper in American history. After ten years of putting country before family, he resigned from the Navy to recover from post-traumatic stress, save his marriage and get to know his own children. He chose to put his story in book form to give people a candid look at the Iraq conflicts and the sacrifices made by military families. A compelling war memoir and a painfully honest love story, it shot to the top of the charts, and Kyle’s public profile soared. But he took the most pride in the organizations he founded to help other struggling veterans cope with the transition back to civilian life. These included veterans with PTSD. On February 2, 2013, Chris Kyle was shot and killed by one of those veterans at a gun range. All of Texas mourned.

Those who knew Chris Kyle well remember him as a war hero, a loving husband and father, and a humble man who shied from the spotlight and never stopped pouring himself into the military community. But as always, the left-wing media knows best. Meanwhile, you, a fairly pro-military conservative Christian (if previous surveys of my readership are a clue) are watching it all unfold and getting curious. If you’re like me, you may not have even heard of Chris Kyle until this movie came out. You now have conservative friends who are raving about the movie, and you’re wondering if you should see it too, just to find out what all the fuss is about. You’re probably wondering how much of it is Hollywood and how much of it is Kyle’s true story. You wonder if it’s really as conservative as Fox News says. You wonder if it’s any good. And you wonder if there’s anyone out there discussing Chris Kyle’s story from a Christian perspective, as distinguished from a purely conservative perspective.

Wonder no more, because [Larryboy voice] I. Am. That. Hero. Having seen the movie, read the book, and listened to every interview with Kyle that I could find, I’m here today to answer all your questions about American Sniper. Continue reading “Answering Your Questions About “American Sniper” [UPDATED]”

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.

Continue reading “My Favorite Movie of 2014: Interstellar”

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 “Movie Review: The Judge”

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…

Continue reading “Movie Review: God’s Not Dead”

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 “Movie Review: Grace Unplugged”

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 “My Top 5 Films of 2013”

Movie Review: The Last Ride

The Last Ride is the debut of Bill Gaither’s son Benjy as a film producer. Though he neither directed the movie nor wrote the script for it, he is credited as “executive producer, producer” on IMDB and wrote all the original music for the film, including several new songs. The movie is a fictionalized look at the last days of country music superstar Hank Williams, who died tragically at age 29 from substance abuse and health issues related to the birth defect of spina bifida. After becoming a country music legend in an amazingly short time, Williams let both his personal life and his career disintegrate. In 1952, he attempted to stage two back-to-back comeback shows scheduled over New Years’ in West Virginia and Ohio. A heavy ice storm ruled out flight, so Williams hired a college student to drive him. This also failed because of the ice storm. While some details of Williams’ road trip remain a mystery, we know that he died some time on News Years’ Day, 1953.

This film imaginatively fleshes out those details, but viewers should be aware that much of it is simply made up, and unfortunately some of the fiction collides with the fact we do know. Nevertheless, I was moved by this film and would recommend it to viewers looking for a compelling human story. Here is my full review. Continue reading “Movie Review: The Last Ride”