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Noble figures, doomed cause, forgotten war

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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.

Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) molds a band of guerrillas into a rebel army in ‘For Greater Glory.’ (Hana Matsumoto photo, courtesy of ARC Entertainment)

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.

Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) comforts his wife (Eva Longoria) in ‘For Greater Glory.’ (Hana Matsumoto photo, courtesy of ARC Entertainment)

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

Written by Jim Davis

September 24, 2012 at 1:19 am

Madea gets in your face yet again

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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?

Tyler Perry reprises the titled role in ‘Madea’s Witness Protection.’ (Courtesy Allied Integrated Marketing)

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=

Written by Jim Davis

July 16, 2012 at 2:45 am

Not always happily ever after

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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.

If you want to find out more about the two films, here’s the website. But if you’re more interested in Janette Oke’s original books, she has a website, too.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

May 13, 2012 at 3:26 am

Cowboys and caddies

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Luke lines up a shot as a tournament crowd watches. (Courtesy Lovell/Fairchild Communications)

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 and Sarah watch fireworks, but don’t make any, in this G-rated movie. (Courtesy Lovell/Fairchild Communications)

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.

Written by Jim Davis

December 26, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Posted in dvds, faith, film, movies, Uncategorized

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Vivid look at Catholic beliefs, but not the people

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TV / video review: “Catholicism.” PBS (check local listings).

Cameras pan through majestic cathedrals; Hispanic children smile and sing; Africans dance in procession and Europeans pace reverently with lighted candles in Catholicism.  The 10-parter fills both the eye and the mind, but not always successfully.

Produced by Word On Fire of Skokie, Ill., the documentary does as good a job as any in recent memory, in showing both the sweep and nuance of the Roman Catholic Church. An obvious motive is to balance the numerous news stories about priests accused of molestation. But Catholicism also introduces viewers to theology and social teachings of the church. Unfortunately, it doesn’t dwell a lot on the believers.

Cover image for "Catholicism," both the book and the video.

Host for the show is Word On Fire founder Father Robert E. Barron, who leads us on a travelogue across several continents. We see not only the usual St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but also the Cathedral of St. John Lateran there. We also see historic churches in Cologne, Germany, Guadalupe, Mexico, Jerusalem and elsewhere. And we see worshipers in places like Kolkata, Kampala, Lourdes and Sao Paulo. It’s a good illustration of how the church is indeed catholic, or universal.

The good priest explains various concepts, like the existence of God, the liturgy, the reason for worship, and how the Church can be called the “Body of Christ.” I especially liked how he calls for peaceful dialogue. “I think we’ve forgotten how to have a good religious argument that’s not just bland toleration [or] killing each other,” he says.

And yes, he deals with the molestation crisis, confessing that the perpetrators were sinners (how could he say otherwise?). “To say that the Church is holy is not to deny for a minute that it’s filled with sinners,” he says. “But none of this gainsays that the church is . . . a bearer of grace.”

Barron is a good host. He comes off as earnest, engaging, enthusiastic. He gestures with huge hands and speaks conversationally, rather than professorially. It’s a welcome change from the rednecks or ramrods that infect so many TV shows on religion.

So, here’s the church, here’s the people, but what do they say? Very little in this miniseries: Barron is the only talking head. The show mainly forms a set of backdrops for his talks. So many beautiful men, women and children are seen throughout Catholicism. What does the faith mean to them? Some short interviews would have added much to the program.

To its credit, Catholicism is a program that other people besides Catholics could enjoy. The color and polish showcase the beauty that Barron and Word On Fire see in the Church. But part of that beauty is in the people themselves. They should have been allowed to play a bigger part in it.

Perhaps the reason is that the film is meant to be part of a catechesis, or instruction, for adults. It has a companion book of the same title, also by Barron.

Word On Fire also has several materials based on the documentary: study guides, workbooks, even prayer cards for evangelization. They’re promoted on its own site.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

October 9, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Christian basketball film doesn’t quite sink it

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Film Review: ‘Breaking the Press.’ 20th Century Fox / Mustard Seed Entertainment. 94 minutes.

Ever since the success of the football film Facing the Giants in 2006, many producers have been trying to catch the eye of that newly found niche, the churchgoing, moviegoing public. This year we’ve already seen Soul Surfer (surfing) and The 5th Quarter (more football) — and now it’s the turn of Breaking the Press.

This newest film is a retelling of the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son, in a context of high school basketball. It’s done with some success, thanks to decent acting and believable cinematography. But because of its heavy-handed spirituality, it may not get much beyond the church audience.

Brothers Josh and Matt Conaghey are friendly enemies and competitors on the basketball court at their small town high school in Texas. Unfortunately for Matt, Josh is a hotdog with a knack for grabbing and dunking the ball. It both helps and hurts that their loving, Bible-quoting dad, Joe, is also the coach.

Josh transfers to a larger high school in Dallas for a chance at the big time. Away from Dad’s influence — he’s staying with an relative — he falls in immediately with an outrageously stereotyped li’l vamp. “His Delilah,” the narrator says. She gets him drinking and partying and foolin’ around every night.

His grades slip, his on-court performance falters, and he’s expelled from school. Too proud to return home in shame, he hits the streets, working odd jobs and sleeping in alleys.

Finally he comes to his senses and loudly repents in an over-wrought night scene on the steps of a church. He comes home, literally to his father’s arms. Matt, though, may be another matter. In Josh’s absence, he has grown into the team leader. Why take back a wannabe star who has been thinking only of himself?

Breaking the Press does a better job of showing the actual sport than The 5th Quarter did. That film showed very brief clips. This one gets into the strategy (hinted in the title itself), told by coaches, players and sports announcers. The games are shot via multiple angles — from the bleachers, a balcony, overhead, even on court among the players — capturing the excitement and nimbleness of basketball.

Trivia alert: Catch a glimpse of a horror movie on TV in the Conaghey household. It’s the 2004 flick Curse of the Komodo — which starred William Langlois, one of the screenplay writers for Breaking the Press.

Although the filmmakers said they wanted to keep from being preachy, the characters toss off God words an awful lot. Granted, it’s refreshing to hear “Jesus” in a movie as something besides a swear word. But it still seems they’re trying too hard to wedge the gospel stuff in.

Josh, played by Tom Maden, comes off as hard-headed yet naïve. He wants his way and his future, but clearly can’t handle the temptations that freedom offers him. I guess that’s true to the prodigal in the parable.

The meatier role falls to Chad Halbrook, as older brother Matt. Having felt overshadowed all his life by the talented Josh, he finally comes into his own after his brother transfers — only to face him again as he returns.

Drew Waters, a veteran of the TV series Friday Night Lights, is a credible coach and father, by turns showing leadership, tough love and self-doubt. Farah White, a Paula Abdul lookalike, is his relentlessly sweet and supportive wife.

The film makes a bit of the fact that both sons are adopted. The element was apparently to make a point of the evangelical Christian belief that when you place your faith in Jesus, God “adopts” you as his child. That’s made clear in a study guide that comes with the DVD version of the film. Oddly, though, it isn’t developed much in the film itself.

Written by Jim Davis

September 30, 2011 at 3:50 am

DVD review: ‘The Lion of Judah’

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DVD review: ‘The Lion of Judah.’ AMG Films. 87 minutes.

Beyond “children’s animation,” The Lion of Judah is hard to categorize. I wanted to like it for the eloquence it eventually shows, and the rather clever allegorization of the gospel. I wanted to diss it for taking so long to get there, beyond the dumb action and trite dialogue.

The story starts in a first-century stable in Bethlehem, home of a wise old hen, a crude pig, a matronly cow, a smart-talking rat, a rooster with ADD, and a horse who’s cowardly enough to embarrass the lion in The Wizard of Oz.

Into this motley lot scampers a spunky lamb named Judah: “I’m a lion — Rarrrrr!” Judah says he’s destined to “set everyone free,” but he is shortly boxed up and taken to Jerusalem.

Stableful of animals forms the cast for 'The Lion of Judah.'

The other animals figure out why: With Passover approaching, Judah is likely the next sacrifice at the great Temple. And they know who can decree the lamb’s pardon. See, this is the same stable where the baby Jesus was born, more than 30 years before. (Yeah, I know, but if you can suspend disbelief about talking animals, you can forgo asking how barnyard animals can live three decades.) They set out for Jerusalem to find the king.

Along the way, they meet other creatures. There’s a couple of pompous, pharisaical pigeons who can’t stand the rat. There’s a flock of ravens who call themselves the “Unclean” gang, as a side lesson on egalitarianism. And there’s a cynical, streetwise donkey colt who laments the power that humans hold over his life. It’s not hard to guess who gets to meet Jesus first.

Artistically, The Lion of Judah is a very mixed bag. The wood and stone textures are nicely rendered. The animal expressions are evocative and their actions are smooth, but their feet don’t leave tracks. And speaking of tracks, the background music often lapses into bland Christian pop. The best sequence is when the camera follows the blackbirds through the streets of Jerusalem, searching for Judah.

Voice-wise, the best is Georgina Cordova as the lamb. A veteran of other animated features, including The Tale of Despereaux and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, she adds just the right bite and perkiness. Michael Madsen, from Kill Bill and Donnie Brasco, is also good as the gruff Mafioso-like raven boss. Sandi Patty as the cow is gentle but a bit snooty. Ernest Borgnine is largely wasted as the rat.

Some of the story is interesting, for someone who can tell the efforts at recasting Bible stories allegorically. The pacing, though, is rather uneven. Much of it is unfunny and uninvolving. And whenever it slows, one of the animals jumps or trips or runs into a wall or somehow gets thrown through the air.

Eventually they find the lamb, but too late: He’s in the Temple yard, being prepped for sacrifice. Meanwhile, Jesus is being led to Calvary to be crucified. The King can’t save himself, let alone a lamb. Or can he?

The comparison of the animal sacrifice with the death of what the Bible calls the “Lamb of God” is an easy and obvious one. But for viewers who weren’t brought up in church, or may not have attended lately, will it be as evident?

Like most Christian forays into various genres, The Lion of Judah is a good first effort. But Christian producers often don’t have the time and talent and effort to compete with their secular counterparts, in this case Pixar and Dreamworks. Thus far, the main Christian group to pull off CGI is the one that made VeggieTales. And they sold out to a network, which could foot the bills, but watered down the Christian message.

After its national theater run, the film is to be released on DVD this fall by the Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group. If you want to check it out further, visit http://www.lionofjudahthemovie.com/.

Written by Jim Davis

July 17, 2011 at 4:08 am

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