Archive for the ‘film’ 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
Film review: ‘Madea’s Witness Protection.’ 114 minutes. Rated PG-13. Lionsgate.
The titled character rants, scolds and chatters her way through another movie in Madea’s Witness Protection, the newest foray of Tyler Perry’s “mad black woman” creation.
Yes, Perry shows his great versatility in playing several roles: Madea, her bumbling brother and her federal prosecutor nephew. But how often can you hear Madea spew dumb stuff, and say it three times or more, without squirming and looking at your watch?
At least Perry makes the setup somewhat believable. George is a simple, honest accountant (Eugene Levy) who finds he’s been set up by a shifty corporation to take the fall in a Ponzi scheme involving hundreds of millions of dollars. He offers to rebuild the money trail, but of course he and his family need a safe house.
Naturally, the federal prosecutor assigned to him is Brian (Tyler Perry as a middle-aged man). And for some reason, the feds are all out of safe houses. So naturally #2, the family has to be put up at the house of his aunt: Madea.
The plot then rolls on three wheels: the effort to nail the real scammers, the need to heal rifts in the family, and Madea’s outsize, overbearing personality — which, however, Perry tries to soften a bit with a grain or two of wisdom.
There are a few other subplots. The son needs some male bonding. The daughter is an insolent brat and needs to value her family. The wife (Denise Richards) tells George that family is more important than the material success he was chasing. Right, right. Family values. We get it.
Not that this is a terrible film. One good thing, as in just about every Tyler Perry film, is the respectful treatment of faith and its adherents. At a church down the street (although Madea doesn’t attend), we hear some evocative spirituals from a gospel choir. We also hear an emotive sermon from the pastor (John Amos). The church folks show a bold, joyous faith and even use Jesus’ name as something besides a swear word.
Another positive of this film is throwing work to actors who haven’t gotten much attention lately. Eugene Levy is a masterful comedian, a cast member of the brilliant Second City Television and its successor, SCTV. Doris Roberts, as his senile mother, is a veteran of the memorable show Everybody Loves Raymond.
We also get a glimpse of two fine 1970s sitcom actors, John Amos as the pastor and Marla Gibbs as a neighbor. And Denise Richards as George’s wife — well, she’s still nice looking and can say a line without embarrassing herself.
Tyler Perry is immensely talented, and a man of good will and great sensitivity. But he just may have put on that lipstick and gray wig and floral housedress once too often.
Interestingly, Perry may have concluded that himself. The screening I attended included a preview of Alex Cross — in which he plays a tough cop.
If you want to look into the movie more, here’s the website.
James D. Davis=
TV review: ‘My Reincarnation.’ 86 minutes. Airdate: 10 p.m. eastern time on PBS (check local listings).
Detachment is the route to nirvana, according to the Buddha. But in a western Buddhist family, it’s also a road into the generation gap.
My Reincarnation, kicking off the 21st year of PBS’ POV series, is a quiet yet classic look into the meaning of life and human nature, told through the story of a Tibetan Buddhist guru and his Italian-born son. In the process, it explores issues of destiny versus autonomy, heritage versus individual freedom.
Director-cinematographer Jennifer Fox gives us an extraordinary, 30-year look at the life of Dzogchen Buddhist master Namkhai Norbu and his son Yeshi, living in Italy. Yeshi has the simultaneous fortune and misfortune to be the son of a revered teacher — a Rinpoche, believed to be a reincarnated master. Better (or worse), Namkhai comes to believe his son is his own reincarnated master and quietly tries to steer him into Buddhist practice.
As do many western sons, Yeshi resists and resents his father’s wishes for him. We see him starting in 1989, more interested in girls than gurus. He also resents how Namkhai flits to various seminars, charming large audiences, while holding his own son at arm’s length.
As Yeshi grows into manhood, he reaches his goals: He marries, has two children and becomes a businessman, often driving around Italy to this or that meeting. Yet the more he achieves, the less it means to him. He even finds himself reciting mantras to a CD as he drives.
He begins sharing his managerial knowledge with his father’s organization, which is experiencing growing pains. And perhaps he gains some understanding of Namkhai’s dilemmas. As he notes in the film: As an organization grows, it puts more distance between a guru and his followers.
Yeshi decides to visit the Tibetan monastery where his alleged previous self taught. He is overwhelmed by the greeting: the colors, the music, the rituals, the elderly followers who have been awaiting the Rinpoche’s return.
That seems to be the tipping point as Yeshi accepts the mantle of teacher. He becomes a close copy of his father, traveling constantly to minister to a growing following. Oddly, it doesn’t draw father and son closer: Namkhai doesn’t applaud Yeshi’s turn of vocation, and the two find little time in their busy schedules to spend together. Tibetan religion and tradition are better for Yeshi’s choice. Personal freedom and happiness, maybe not.
Is this good or bad? Happy or sad? To her credit, filmmaker Fox doesn’t indicate. She leaves the bottom line to us. That’s remarkable for someone who spent four years as Namkhai Norbu’s secretary.
Although My Reincarnation is an outstanding achievement — what sociologists would call a “longitudinal case study” — it leaves one chapter unwritten. What of Yeshi’s own two children? As he emulates his father, flitting around to minister to his followers, do they understand his sense of mission? Or do they feel neglected, abandoned, as he did?
And when they grow up, what will they choose? A life of Buddhist detachment? A western-style pursuit of rewards and relationships? Something else altogether? And will they feel manipulated if, like their dad, one or both are marked as reborn masters?
Jennifer Fox was right. My Reincarnation is not only about the difference in eastern and western values, but about the struggle between father and son. What is life for? Building and nurturing relationships? Or engineering the escape known as nirvana? Do we need to find ourselves or lose ourselves?
You can learn more with these links.
For more on the documentary, including pictures and a description of Dzogchen Buddhism, click the film’s website.
For more on the Norbus, including their schedules and local centers, click this link.
For more on the POV series — and apps to watch My Reincarnation on iPad and iPhone — click here.
James D. Davis
FILM REVIEW: ‘Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story.’ Crystal City Entertainment. 84 minutes. Unrated.
Unfolding like a Greek tragedy — where the end is known from the beginning — Follow Me flows through the childhood, romances and military life of Yoni Netanyahu, inexorably toward the climax: the Israeli raid to rescue hostages at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
Historical accounts, and news stories of the time, present the 1976 raid as a masterful lightning stroke. What Follow Me contributes is a background look at the cost: the governmental hand-wringing, the fast yet painstaking plans, and especially the life of Netanyahu, the raid’s only Israeli military casualty.
It’s a fine account of a warrior-statesman who longs for private life yet constantly puts his nation’s safety above his own. It would have been even better with a fuller examination of Netanyahu’s flaws as well as his virtues.
The documentary is set to open May 18, just before Yom Yerushalayim, the anniversary of the day in 1967 when Israel captured all of Jerusalem. The release also falls within National Jewish American Heritage Month.
Yoni is presented as a handsome, scholarly boy, born in Israel but raised in the United States. A natural leader and Israeli patriot, Yoni wins a scholarship to Harvard but finds himself called to help defend his birthland again and again.
Through his own letters, plus interviews with friends and family — including brother Benjamin Netanyahu, current prime minister of Israel — we get a picture of a thoughtful, even poetic person who proves himself on the battlefield yet feels ill-suited for military life. Still, he serves twice, with a dedication that costs his marriage and, eventually, his life.
For alongside the biography, filmmakers Jonathan Gruber and Ari Daniels build tension with periodic newsclips of Arab terrorism, such as the massacres at Ma’alot in Israel. The storylines converge in the 1967 Six-Day War, when Yoni is wounded in his left arm while fighting for the Golan Heights.
Despite his wound, he returns to active service and becomes an officer in a crack commando squad known formally as Sayeret Matkal, informally as the Unit. There he acquires a daring and decsive reputation, even leading outnumbered comrades into battle against Syrian forces during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
When terrorists hijack a plane to Uganda in 1976 — and they start separating Jews from other passengers — it becomes evident to Israeli leaders that they are the only ones with the will and the power to respond. And, of course, the toughest commandos — including Yoni’s squad — are called on to do it.
Follow Me benefits from extraordinary access to top Israeli leaders like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yoni’s brother; President Shimon Peres; Ehud Barak, minister of defense, and Matan Vilnai, minister for home front defense. They all speak on camera, as do Yoni’s first wife Tutti and his widow Bruria.
Only occasionally does the film veer from its sentimental tone. In one spot, Yoni morosely contemplates his beloved homeland living in a constant state of war. In another, he casually mentions developing the skills of close-up fighting, such as pressing a gun against a foe’s body to muffle the shot. But there was surely more to his dark side. I doubt you’d get into an outfit like the Unit, much less become a commander, without developing a measure of ruthlessness.
The imbalance in the film may come from the lack of sources outside family, friends, military comrades and Yoni’s own letters. It would have been interesting to hear from those he helped to rescue at Entebbe. Some former classmates from Harvard might have been enlightening.
And any strong character inevitably accumulates enemies, or at least antagonists. Talking to a couple of those would have helped round out the portrait of Yoni.
Despite what another military film says, we can handle the truth.
James D. Davis
DVD review: ‘We Bought a Zoo.’ Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. 124 minutes. Rated PG.
Lions glare, peacocks strut, tigers “chuff,” bears rear menacingly and humans fall in love in We Bought a Zoo, a light li’l Christmas film, originally released on December 23. Based on a true story, the movie did a decent $103.7 million worldwide in its theater release. Now Fox wants to market it to the faith-based crowd.
We Bought a Zoo benefits from its basis in British writer Benjamin Mee’s book about how his family learned to care for the 200 animals of the Dartmoor Wildlife Park in southwest England. The book reportedly has a lot of animal lore and inside info on caring for them.
American flourish #1: Benjamin is played by still-hunky Matt Damon, a widower who seems eager to move to the countryside to escape the women who want to snap him up. He buys a rural house almost sight unseen, realizing too late that it comes with a menagerie.
American flourish #2: Teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford). Sullen and rebellious, of course. Not only because of Mom’s passing, but because moving will take him away from his girlfriend. While the family and crew work to improve the zoo, Dylan sits around, morosely drawing gothic pictures.
American flourish #3: Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), Benjamin’s small daughter, who is almost unbearably cute and excruciatingly precocious.
American flourish #4: A simmering attraction between Benjamin and Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), the head zookeeper. But no worries, it’s still a PG film.
Benjamin’s real appeal is his sense of responsibility in caring for the zoo, putting his back into it, even risking his financial health, when he could have walked away. Also a plus is when he reaches out to his disaffected son. Of course, the theme of the Failed Father Who Gets Another Chance is still another American flourish.
And don’t feel sorry for son Dylan: He finds his match in a young beauty, Lily, played by Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister. Her pearly skin and heart-melting smile eventually win over even the introverted boy.
The top stars are, of course, the animals. An elderly tiger locks eyes with Benjamin as if trying to make him understand how ill it is. Peacocks bond with Rosie and cluster around her.
All the work is necessary because of American flourish #5: The Villain, in this case a state safety inspector. Good casting, though: It’s played by John Michael Higgins, a master of the smirk and snide remark.
Now that the film has gone to video, promoters like Allied Faith & Family are touting it as a spiritually based flick, a parable of reconciliation, family love, sacrifice, even “how all of God’s creatures can exist in harmony.” It seems a bit of a stretch, given the lack of distinct religious or spiritual content in the film.
We Bought a Zoo also stands on its own merits as a general family film. That’s enough for many families — in and out of church — who want competently made films that won’t offend kids.
Whether it will bore parents is another issue. Some may say, “Oh, geez, there wasn’t a plot twist I couldn’t see coming!” But I suspect most will say, “Cut ’em some slack! At least no one is getting bitten by zombies or shot by criminals!”
James D. Davis