Archive for the ‘dvds’ Category
DVD Review: Love’s Christmas Journey. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. 4 hours (two parts).
It’s been a decade since the first of Janette Oke’s “Love Comes Softly” books went onscreen, and they’ve even outlasted her writings. This film, like its two predecessors, is done in her style but not with her authorship.
How successfully? Let’s find out.
We return to Oke’s vision of the West, where big strapping cowboys tip a hat and help the womenfolk off carriages. And where a frontier town looks grubby only after a severe thunderstorm.
Well, it does have the occasional ruffian pulling guns or riding crazy through town. For them, there’s Sheriff Aaron Davis, a ramrod who always seems to get the drop on the bad guys. Well, almost always. More on that later.
Into this (kinda) peaceful setting rides blonde, forlorn Ellie, his pretty sister, come to visit her widowed brother and two children for Christmas. Why forlorn? Well, she’s widowed, too, as we see in frequent nightmare sequences where a tornado destroys a barn, along with her husband and daughter. (Apparently you’re not supposed to remember a similar plot device in the 1996 movie Twister.)
Ellie is befriended by the townspeople, especially matronly Beatrice (JoBeth Williams, almost unrecognizable from her stint in the Poltergeist films in the 1980s). They join others in putting up Christmas decorations and coaching kids in a nativity play. Ellie also gets frequent visits from deputy Michael, in a subplot that takes little guessing to predict.
There’s also a standard Bad Guy Boss — you know, the Land Baron who wears black, sits at a big desk and speaks in polished accents. Alex is eager to learn where a planned railroad will go, so that he can buy up the land in its path. He secretly sends out henchmen to clear the way by beating and evicting some ranchers.
Among those he tries to pressure is Mayor Wayne (Sean Astin, who has worked in projects as varied as TV’s 24 and cinema’s The Lord of the Rings). Mr. Mayor has his own problems: He may have oversold the railroad, forecasting prosperity for the town before even knowing where the track would go.
The mayor is also leery of Erik, who has his eye on his daughter. Erik, you see, is the town’s black sheep because his father was a robber who cleaned out the town some years back. When the mayor’s barn is torched, he’s quick to blame the young man.
All these subplots boil to an improbable crisis at once. Erik is jailed after he’s accused of burning the barn. Aaron is jumped by an outlaw and left for dead. Michael searches for him and goes missing. Christopher tries to find his dad, too, and promptly gets lost in the wild. The storm rips through the Christmas decorations everyone made so painstakingly. Even Ellie falls into danger as she tries to ferret out Alex’s shady dealings.
No worries. All turns out well, including the sheriff’s fate. He’s found and nursed to health by a kindly, jolly, white-haired old man. His name? Nicholas (nudge, wink).
The show is clearly produced as a TV miniseries, with scenes conveniently broken up for commercials. Even so, it often drags. Yes, loving or wistful expressions look nice in lamplight. But how often can you repeat that shot before it gets old?
Not that the film lacks redeeming qualities. Mr. Mayor learns to see Erik for his own qualities, not those of his criminal father. The townspeople learn to place faith in themselves and one another, rather than outside help from a railroad. And Ellie grows close to Aaron’s children and opens up to the warmth from her neighbors. It’s a subtle, graceful lesson that love takes more forms than romance.
Natalie Hall does probably the best performance as Ellie, filling the role with a sad, brave dignity. Her expressive face flashes a bright smile or a playful indulgence, or fights to suppress tears. The script has her often pushing aside her own grief to help her friends or Aaron’s children.
Ernest Borgnine, who died this past July at the age of 95, does an effortless job as Nicholas, chatting and chuckling as he takes care of Aaron. Greg Vaughan as the sheriff seems stiff at first, then shows a gentler side to his children.
If I were to grade Love’s Christmas Journey against the other two Oke films I’ve seen, I’d put it at the top. It has juuuuust a little more of the rawness and random mishaps that must have hit frontier towns. And its spiritual lessons are woven more intricately into the plot.
Yeah, it still has courtesy and cleanliness and downright sweetness clinging to nearly every scene, like corn syrup. But hey, what do you expect for films that are titled Love’s this or that?
If interested, you can find out more about this and the other 10 “Love” films on The Hallmark Channel website.
James D. Davis
DVD review: For Greater Glory. ARC Entertainment and Dos Corazones Films. 143 minutes. Rated R (violence, some disturbing images).
It may be hard to believe, but Mexico once tried to wipe out Catholicism. That brutal effort, and the ill-fated war it spawned, is the subject of For Greater Glory.
The film, funded by the Knights of Columbus, popped in and out of theaters and quickly vanished this year. That’s a pity, because it was better than that — both for its star power, its production values and the historical lesson about religious freedom.
The movie tells of the short, three-year war against the efforts of President Plutarco Elias Calles to wipe out Mexican Catholicism in the 1920s. The anti-clerical brutality gave rise to a guerrilla force known as the Cristeros, or Soldiers of Christ. They posted some early victories, and Calles agreed to allow some freedoms. Many Cristeros, however, refused to accept anything less than victory; thousands were hunted down and killed, and the war itself was largely forgotten.
Shot for a reported $12 million, the film resembles the recent There Be Dragons in sweep and intensity. Part western, part World War I in its look, the film pits legions of rifled soldiers against pistol-packing horsemen.
Calles’ Federales hang priests, burn churches, throw crucifixes onto bonfires, even kill women and children who voice faith in Jesus. The violence is graphic and the body count is high.
Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia), a general turned businessman, tries to ignore the bloodshed but finds it hard to refuse a direct plea from the Cristeros. His wife finally convinces him to do the right thing.
The guerrillas are painted as warrior-saints (some were even canonized by the Vatican): quick with guns and bombs, pious around crosses and images of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Still, the Mexicans in general are portrayed as multifaceted human beings, not the cardboard peasants and banditos of so many other movies.
One oddity: The guerrilla war cry is given as “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” It was actually “¡Viva Cristo Rey! ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!” Maybe the Knights of Columbus wanted the film to appeal to Protestants, who don’t share their devotion to Mary.
Under Gorostieta’s leadership, the rebellion gains ground, with even women helping smuggle food and ammunition. But high-level politics are against the Cristeros: Both the Vatican and the U.S. government seek an end to the fighting, the latter to keep business deals flowing. For Greater Glory avoids accusing the Vatican, but it makes the American ambassador cynical and callous, even ignoring the sight of corpses hanging on telegraph poles.
Garcia does a decent job as the reluctant commander, starting as a paid consultant, then gradually becoming a believer. Ruben Blades underplays his role as Calles, cultured in manners, casual about the need to slaughter opponents. Eva Longoria has a brief but decent role as Gorostieta’s supportive wife.
Peter O’Toole plays a gentle though rather dotty old priest who sacrifices his life rather than flee Calles’ soldiers. His friendship with a young boy is supposed to lend a softer tone to the film. But given the well-publicized problem of priests and young boys — over the last three decades — this seems like an incredibly tone-deaf element in the plot.
The boy, José Luis Sanchez, is undoubtedly included in the story because he was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, as were a couple of dozen priests and Cristeros. That seems yet another bit of cynicism: The church seemed to do little to halt the killings, but it honored the victims after their deaths.
The DVD edition adds a lengthy back story on the Cristeros, with impressive sourcing by bishops and historians. Perhaps the DVD will let the Knights of Columbus at least recover production costs. Thus far, the fate of For Greater Glory seems as sad as the events it retells: It has made less than $10 million worldwide.
Commentators have sometimes compared the anti-clerical laws of Mexico and the health regulations of the Obama administration, which is trying to make all insurers — including Catholic colleges, hospitals and dioceses — provide coverage for abortion and birth control. That’s an incredible leap of logic. For Greater Glory works better as a parable on the need for religious freedom. Not to mention the need to dial back violence — not only physical but verbal and legal.
James D. Davis
DVD Review: ‘Superbook.’ CBN.
CBN has redone the “Superbook” TV series after a quarter-century, and it’s way better. It still has a magic book zapping kids into Bible stories. But with computer-generated imagery, and better writing, it’s more realistic and fluid.
How much better? You can see for yourself. Every “Superbook” DVD has the new version, with its lifelike shading, believable dialogue and swooping camera movement. The DVD also has the “classic” version of the same story, with its stiff animation, crude sound and shallow writing.
The theme is the same: Chris Quantum and Joy Pepper stumble onto a problem or shortcoming; then “Superbook” opens up and teleports them into a Bible story. They meet Bible characters and see how the heroes dealt with similar problems. Then the book zaps them back to the present, and they gain new understandings of how to deal with their issues.
But Chris and Joy have a more contemporary makeover. They’re now middle-school kids, not preteens. He skateboards and plays guitar. she likes her cellphone and excels at trivia games. He’s less apt to throw tantrums. She’s more thoughtful and expressive, unlike the simpering earlier version who was always tee-heeing into her hand.
Gizmo the wind-up toy is remade into a full-size robot, though with the same chubby build and red-and-white color scheme. He also speaks with a little boy voice instead of a metallic monotone. And he’s apt to sprout rocket shoes or telescoping arms when they’re most needed.
The video uses all the shadowing and texture mapping you’d expect from modern CGI, and the audio does music and thunderous effects equally well. Listen through headphones and hear how the sound moves as people walk.
One quibble: The new theme song, by sweet-voiced folksinger Debbie Scott. Her style may appeal to preteen girls, but boys? Doubtful.
To their credit, the “Superbook” makers don’t shy from some of the Bible’s tougher stories. One, “The Test,” retells the Bible story about God telling Abraham to sacrifice firstborn son Isaac on an altar. Another, “Roar,” retells the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. A study guide with each DVD helps you talk through each lesson with your own children.
Besides their more textured look, the videos hint at some decent research. The Abraham story shows the kids learning to use an abacus. In the Daniel episode, you get a glimpse of the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon. It has the blue-painted bricks and golden bulls and dragons that archaeologists think it did in the sixth century B.C.E.
The videos also do some interpretation, though. In the Bible, three mysterious men visited Abraham and announced his wife Sarah would bear a son. In “The Test,” one of Abraham’s visitors is Jesus. That dovetails comfortably with Christian theology, but of course it’s not specified in the Old Testament story.
Each episode ends with a pop song about the theme, with key scenes from the story as video fill. I say “fill” because after all, you just saw it all. Not sure it adds much to the DVD.
You can find more about the series on superbook.tv. The site includes games, character rundowns, wallpaper-size pictures from the episodes, and a free 52-page devotional book for kids in .pdf format.
James D. Davis
DVD review: “Love’s Everlasting Courage.” Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. 88 minutes. Not rated.
Whoaaa. Did I just see what I saw? Let’s check the title again.
Yep. It’s one of those stories from the “Frontier Woman” series by Janette Oke, made into 11 films for The Hallmark Channel. But in Love’s Everlasting Courage, the frontier woman dies.
The previous installment, Love Begins, traveled a familiar trail as lonely homesteader Ellen got her man, blue-eyed, raw-boned Clark Davis, as a reward for her hard-working virtue. This one is different. It deals with a more realistic question: What if you don’t live happily ever after?
Because things aren’t going well on the Davis ranch: The wells are dry, there’s no rain, and the bank is breathing down their necks. Ellen (Julie Mond, from General Hospital) gamely pitches in, taking a job in town as a seamstress. But no sooner does she start work than she develops a cough. Sure enough, it’s scarlet fever, and she weakens gradually until she dies.
Clark (Wes Brown, from True Blood) is devastated, but must carry on for their young daughter, Missie — and cope with a fire that nearly burns down the house. He gets help from his mom Irene and dad Lloyd (Bruce Boxleitner from Tron: Legacy and Cheryl Ladd from Charlie’s Angels,) in a refreshing portrayal of parents as something more than senile meddlers.
As in Love Begins, faith and spirituality are subtly folded into the story. People pray and mention God; there’s a cross over the bed; but there’s little explicit. At least until the zillionth failed attempt by Clark and his father to dig for water. Then Clark finally cracks.
“It says in the Good Book that the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Why am I being punished? … If God’s so wonderful, why do I always feel like he’s forsaken me?” he tells his father — a surprising appearance of the age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people?
Lloyd comes back with standard advice to “have faith and endure.” Then he says more substantively, “There are wonders all around, things to be thankful for … The truth of God’s love is not that he allows bad things to happen. It’s his promises to be standing right beside you when they do.” He and his wife, of course, stand as examples of loved ones who stand with Clark.
The answer is no more conclusive than the ones theologians offer when they wrestle with what they call theodicy. But Love’s Enduring Courage at least
Actually, this film and Love Begins are based only loosely on the Oke series, not on anything she actually wrote. Perhaps it’s just as well. When Clark and his family deal with tough issues of real life, their frontier is a better match for ours.
James D. Davis
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.
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
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.
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
DVD review: Seven Days in Utopia. 100 minutes. Rated G.
For 2011, we saw a rash of religious-spiritual sports films: basketball in Breaking the Press, football in The Fifth Quarter and Everything in Between. We now pick up a golf club with Seven Days in Utopia, somehow combining the sport with country, cowboys and cute girls. OK, just one cute girl.
Still, the the film is well done for its type. It has some decent acting, fair to very good production qualities, and a realistic lesson about making life more than the living you make.
The opening scene sets the mood: a man silhouetted in the sun, taking swing after swing. The mood is intent, focused, to the point of obsession.
Luke is a promising young golfer who hones his whole life toward winning on the green. But under pressure to perform — plus the strained relationship with his overbearing caddie father — he cracks at the worst time: during an important tournament. He snaps his club, throws it into a water hazard and drives off.
Out in the country, he crashes and has to stay in Utopia, a rundown but friendly little Texas town, while the car is repaired. He’s befriended by elderly Johnny, played by Robert Duvall with the same folksy grace he lent to 1983’s Tender Mercies.
Turns out Johnny is an old pro himself, with his own golf course, though no one else seems to play there. He mentors Luke with some unorthodox golfing lessons, like painting and fly fishing. He also shares his troubled past, for which he’s still paying.
Luke’s other lessons come off the golf course, as he finds his place among the other Utopians. One of them is Sarah, a pretty redhead played by Deborah Ann Woll, previously a guest actor on The Mentalist and My Name is Earl. Sarah chats with Luke as they sit on bales of hay, though they don’t take a roll in it; this movie well earns its G rating. But their relationship helps convince him that there’s more to life than putting.
But there’s business to finish. Luke has to reconcile with his father somehow. He has to get into another tournament, while preventing his fears and the game itself from consuming him. And he must face down a champion golfer and sink a crucial putt.
Visually, Seven Days in Utopia is often beautiful. Director Mathew Dean Russell, a veteran of films like 2006’s Night at the Museum, captures the faded but engaging charm of the real-life town of Utopia, Texas. And he occasionally shines: In one shot, the camera follows the arc of a golf ball — not merely tracking it, but appearing to fly behind it.
The film is also an honest-to-God look at golf, not just a gospel tract with a thin sports overlay. Luke is played by Lucas Black, not only an actor but a scratch golfer. The champ and Luke’s nemesis is played by K.J. Choi, a Korean-born PGA pro. Director Russell even recruited some Golf Channel reporters for cameos.
Spoiler alert: We never do find out if Luke makes the putt, which is kind of a cheat. The film ends with an invitation to visit a website, didhemaketheputt.com. The answer is unexpectedly obvious, yet matters less than the spiritual issues raised in the film.
If you like Seven Days in Utopia, you can actually buy some Utopia merchandise. The Links of Utopia golf course has its own website, which hawks a lot of film memorabilia — especially caps, towels and ball markers with the film’s slogan, “See, Feel, Trust.”
Here’s the film’s website.