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Archive for January 2012

Batter up — just don’t batter the kid

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DVD review: “A Mile in His Shoes.” Nasser Group North. 89 minutes. Rated PG. My grade: B.

For five years, filmmakers have been trying to copy the surprise success of Facing the Giants, a football film produced by a church in Georgia. And often with the same hook: sports.

Just in the last year we’ve seen “inspirational” films about golf ( Seven Days in Utopia ), basketball ( Breaking the Press ), mixed martial arts ( Warrior ) and yes, football ( The Fifth Quarter ). What’s missing? Right: baseball, the national pastime.

TomTheHand via Wikimedia

Touching that base is A Mile in His Shoes, based on the book The Legend of Mickey Tussler by Frank Nappi. It’s about minor-league baseball. And faith. And team spirit. And the “differently abled.” And country. Lots of country. If you don’t like tractors, country music and miles of farmland, zip past the first several minutes.

Finally we get to the River Rats in rural Ohio, a stereotyped team of losers with no way to go but up. Coach Arthur “Murph” Murphy’s manager tells him to recruit a good pitcher, or else.

In Indiana, Murph finds Mickey, a simple-minded farmboy with a golden arm: To feed his pigs, he busts up apples by throwing them into a hanging bushel basket — in the same spot every time. Murph begs Mickey’s domineering, overprotective dad to let him try out for the Rats.

The father at first says no: Mickey has Asperger’s syndrome, an autism-like condition that hampers social skills. Finally Dad relents on the urging of his wife and son.

The naïve Mickey progresses slowly, with the help of Murph and a team buddy. And once he gets on the pitcher’s mound, he starts throwing strikes with machinelike precision. The Rats climb out of the cellar toward a league championship.

So who wouldn’t like the new pitcher? The one he bumped, of course. “Lefty” first sneers and plays tricks on Mickey. Then he has his girlfriend get Mickey alone so a couple of masked thugs can beat him up. Mickey is so traumatized, he sits out a few games.

Murph lets him stay at his house for awhile, and it becomes clear why he’s taken so much to him: His own dead son was a baseball player. He even lets Mickey stay in the boy’s bedroom.

Several things happen quickly. Police sniff around Lefty as the main suspect. His girlfriend confesses guilty feelings to her pastor, who urges her to do the right thing. And Mickey decides to face his fears and return to the pitcher’s mound.

And that’s pretty much where this film peaks. From then on, you pretty much know what’ll happen. Unless you guessed it when Murph first met Mickey.

Not that A Mile in His Shoes lacks redeeming values. References to God and the Bible are slipped gently into the plot, not forcibly as in many gospel films. And the girl’s pastor is portrayed as a supportive person, rather than a hypocrite or out-of-touch clod.

Director-writer William Dear is on sure footing with a baseball film, having done 1994’s Angels in the Outfield and 2007’s The Sandlot: Heading Home.

Toronto-born Dear even manages to make us think we’re in rural America when the farm scenes were shot in rural British Columbia. Much of the cast is Canadian as well: Even the theme song came from Nova Scotia-born George Canyon, who also plays Mickey’s father.

Canadian-American actor Luke Schroder, son of veteran Rick Schroder, refreshingly portrays the shyness, literal mind and obsession with detail of Asperger’s patients, without lapsing into caricature.

The main American in this movie is Dean Cain, best as Superman in the early ’90s series Lois & Clark. Cain does a decent turn as the good-hearted coach who is trying to shield his team, and especially Mickey, from his all-business manager.

So there’s a lot of good in A Mile in His Shoes. I just wish “inspirational” filmmakers would try some other genre than sports. Imitation may be the sincerest form of television, as Fred Allen said decades ago. But it doesn’t make the most creative movies.

Oh, yeah: The film’s publicist says FTC guidelines require me to add this . . .

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

. . . which strikes me as kind of lame. Who would recommend something he didn’t think was good?

James D. Davis

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Written by Jim Davis

January 29, 2012 at 2:24 am

Story of a controversial saint

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DVD Review: There Be Dragons. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. 122 minutes. Rated PG-13 (violence).

Fire melts and purifies gold, as the Bible tells us. So it was with Father Josemaria Escriva, the quiet but earnest priest who grew up during its brutal Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. But this film about him is less than pure.

Escriva, who was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002, founded the controversial organization Opus Dei. You may recall that a branch of Opus Dei was Dan Brown’s chosen villain in his book and movie “The Da Vinci Code.” Well, there really is an Opus Dei, and “There Be Dragons” shows its founder as a slender, gentle, almost impossibly good man who is yet troubled by feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy for God’s work.

The film actually takes the viewpoint not of Escriva himself, but of a journalist, Robert Torres, who is researching his life. That’s just as well. Not many of us can identify with a saint.

Robert has hit a dilemma: For some crucial details, he must travel to a hospital in Spain and visit Manolo, his dying father — with whom he hasn’t been on speaking terms in decades. Once there, Robert finds his father has a tape on his life waiting for his son.

We flash back to a Spanish village, with wooden wagons and horseless carriages signaling that this is the early 20th century. Manolo reveals that he and Josemaria grew up in the same town — Josemaria in a poor family, Manolo in a rich one. Manolo follows his harsh, callous father into a business career, while Josemaria hears the call of the priesthood.

The two grow into their vocations: Manolo turns selfish and materialistic, but Josemaria walks around in holey shoes in order to buy a hat for an old lady. “I choose to live in the real world,” Manolo snarks at his boyhood friend. Josemaria, undaunted, forms his lay group, whose name is Latin for “The Work of God.”

Indeed, the Church isn’t the safest employer in Spain at the time, when mobs of revolutionaries are killing priests on the streets. The Spanish Civil War is approaching, a clash of Fascists and Communists that historians see as a dress rehearsal for World War II.

Josemaria’s Opus Dei followers shift him from hideout to hideout, then plan to smuggle him out of Spain altogether. In an asylum, he is shaken when a girl asks why God would allow her to be raped. He is also troubled at the thought of deserting people in Madrid who depended on him.

For his part, Manolo poses as a Communist guerrilla while spying for the Fascists. He struggles with his own doubts — and jealousy — as he sees the idealism of a commander and his lover, a beautiful female fighter.

Yes, the childhood friends meet again in a strange way, just as Josemaria is about to escape over the Pyrenees Mountains. And in a verbal epilog, the dying Manolo drops a bomb on his won: revealing Robert’s own part in the story.

Vivid production values make There Be Dragons consuming in its realism. You can almost feel the roughness of the stone buildings and smell the sharpness of gunpowder. The battle scenes — clanking tanks, dive-bombing planes, guerrillas firing from behind sandbags — capture the panic and chaos of a war that killed as many as 600,000 people.

Scenes in Manolo’s office and an insane asylum are shot in stark, contrasty light and shadow, perhaps to show the battle of spiritual light and darkness. Director-writer Robert Joffe — who also made The Mission and The Killing Fields — made good use of his $36 million budget.

The script is a little more problematic. There’s an obvious subplot of a failed father who wants forgiveness and reconciliation, a frequent theme in recent movies. But telling a story about a man learning a story from his father — puts us twice removed from Escriva, the purported subject.

More important, There Be Dragons says nothing of recent criticisms of Opus Dei: its alleged secret ways, rightist politics and dictatorial control over members. Defenders and journalists have answered these, but they should have been mentioned in this film. If you can flash back, you can also flash forward.

After all, the battle is not just light against darkness. As Paul says in the New Testament, it’s also about avoiding “the appearance of evil.” It’s been a long time since Father Escriva had to be hidden. His modern followers — and filmmakers like Joffe — would do well not to hide anything else about the organization the saint founded.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

January 15, 2012 at 4:51 am

‘Holy war’ via mixed martial arts

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DVD review: “Warrior.” Lionsgate Films. 139 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Using physical conflict as a symbol of inner battles is as old as the Bible, which says the patriarch Jacob wrestled an angel. But in Warrior the conflict is so brutal and in-your-face — as you’d expect in a film dealing with mixed martial arts — that its themes of redemption and forgiveness are in danger of being overwhelmed.

The story revolves around two brothers and their father: why they hate him and each other, and how they resolve their anger.

Brendan's wife tries to convince him to stay out of mixed martial arts fighting in 'The Warrior.' (Courtesy Bender/Helper Impact)

The fight scenes are ferociously realistic, benefiting from UFC champions Nate “The Great” Marquardt and Anthony “Rumble” Johnson in the cage, plus Rashad Evans as a sports commentator. Fighters punch, body-slam and throw Muy Thai kicks. More than one actor came away with bruises and worse during the filming.

But for a martial-arts movie, Warrior starts out really, really slow. Brendan gets a visit from father Paddy (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic. Paddy asks forgiveness for deserting his family for the bottle, but Brendan tells him to stay away from himself, his wife and his children.

Brendan also has more pressing matters: His teaching job isn’t paying the bills, and the bank is weeks from foreclosing. He decides to return to his MMA career and grudgingly asks his dad to train him. Then he then gets mad all over again when he learns Paddy is already training his ex-Marine younger brother, Tommy.

Brendan gets another trainer and surprises everyone: He has a knack for getting beat up, then winning suddenly with a well-timed arm bar or leg lock. But his wife begs him to stop before he gets hurt or killed. Brendan waves her off, saying that it’s down to fighting or losing the house.

Meanwhile, brother Tommy is tearing through opponents, typically knocking them cold with a single blow. Fellow Marines show up at his matches and cheer him on.

What drives his fury are three things. He resents Brendan for choosing family life instead of following him into the military. Tommy also shares Brendan’s contempt for their father. And, as it develops, he’s hiding some shame of his own.

There’s a subplot about a big, scary Russian fighter (think Drago from Rocky IV), but by then the climax is clearly looming: a faceoff between the brothers. That makes for an interesting question. Both are the good guys. Who will win the match? Who should?

The story has obvious echoes of Raging Bull and Cinderella Man as well as Rocky. The main difference, besides the MMA angle, is how the cage fights and family fights affect each other — and what it means to win the latter. Warrior deserved more attention at the boxoffice; it was probably overshadowed by The Fighter, which came out nine months earlier.

For some reason, most of the main actors in Warrior are sci-fi and fantasy veterans. Joel Edgerton (Brendan) is fresh from the remake of The Thing; Tom Hardy (Tommy), from 2010’s Inception. Playing Brendan’s wife is Jennifer Morrison, late of Star Trek and currently in TV’s Once Upon a Time. She does a surprisingly good job in a minor role: smooth, natural, underplayed.

For his part, Nolte is a longtime respected actor, but it’s no stretch for him to play a jowly, blubbering former drunk.

Spiritual issues? Well, Brendan speaks bitterly about how Paddy deserted him and Tommy and their mother. He also has to find a way to reconcile with his brother and calm Tommy’s rage.

But it’s a thin premise for a “spiritual” film where no one prays, meditates, attends church, reads any holy book, consults a guru or clergyman, or mentions Jesus except in contempt. That’s the unspoken conflict in Warrior: between spirit and flesh.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

January 5, 2012 at 3:37 am

Posted in faith, film, films, Uncategorized

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