Juno (2007)

JunoUnder the direction of Jason Reitman and with a script by Diablo Cody, Juno breaks the mold of usual comedies. The film is so different from most films that there is very little doubt that it is something special. What begins as a somewhat screwball of a comedy turns out to be so much more. The characters are so well-developed that we come to love them in all of their screwballness. There is very little wonder that Roger Ebert said that Juno “is just about the best movie of the year.”

Ellen Page is Juno MacGuff. Page, 20 at the time, is brilliant, delivering Cody’s witting lines with class and style, all while making a theater full of people fall in love with her. Michael Cera is Paulie Bleeker, a tall, skinny, track runner, and Juno’s best friend. Juno convinces Paulie that they should experiment with sex. While Paulie is not as eager as Juno is, he complies and, of course, Juno gets pregnant. Teenage pregnancy is not usually a comedic moment. Reitman’s film, however, handles it with grace that portions of our society do not.

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Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters (1984) Original_2A quiet librarian, who is a tiny woman, gently returns books to their shelves. Around her, books are beginning to move . . . off the shelves and around the library. This is just one of what will become many psychic nuisances. Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Dr. Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) geek out in their own way as they investigate the nuisances. After losing their lab and research positions at the university, they branch out to start their own business.

An old, run-down firehouse is renovated to become the 24-7 headquarters for the Ghostbusters. It is here that they meet Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) for the first time. Dana comes to the Ghostbusters because there seems to be a strange glow and menacing monster inside her fridge. While, Ray and Egon take interest in the actual case, Peter takes more interest in Dana. This is the character that Bill Murray plays so well. He is intelligent, and cool-headed, making side comments whenever he can.

The movie, no doubt a classic summer blockbuster, combines two elements that, prior to this film, were never combined . . . well. It did well the special effects, which require painstakingly detailed work. The floating, green, slimy ghost, the horned beasts, and the other strange things that need ghost busting. On the other hand, it is comedic gold. The dialogue is quick and smart, and with the combined alumni from the schools of Second City/National Lampoon/”Saturday Night Live”, there is little doubt of its awesomeness. The comedy that Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis learned in these settings is the kind that requires spontaneity and improvisation. And these are some of the masters.

Theologically, what does Ghostbusters offer us? When Winston (Ernie Hudson) joins the team, he and Ray talk about the Biblical connections to the end of days kind of stuff that is happening around them. Winston didn’t believe in the supernatural when he started working for them, he just needed a job. But after seeing it, he believed, which for him makes the possibility of the Revelation-like end of the world even more believable.

A metaphorically reading of Revelation would leave us with various “beasts” that would bring destruction upon the earth. The message at the end of Revelation is that no amount of beasts or destruction will prevent the victory of Jesus Christ and the creation of the New Heaven and the New Earth. And yet, we as Christians play a significant role in the Kingdom of God. We are agents of that Kingdom, eliminating the beasts that roam the earth for the simple intention of destruction. Like the Ghostbusters, we seek out the dark creatures of our world to eliminate. We set out to put an end to poverty, racism, hate, bullying, oppression, marginalization, and neglect. We have a responsibility as people of God to do this justice work. And, like the Ghostbusters, people are going to think we are foolish and strange for doing so. But it is our calling. It is our vocation. It is our purpose. We are the ghostbusters for the Kingdom of God.

Alan Partridge (2014)

alan-partridge-posterMore than twenty years ago Steve Coogan created the character Alan Partridge as a fictional sports reporter for the current affairs program on BBC called “On the Hour.” For those fans of Philomena, this is not the same Steve Coogan. The character of Alan Partridge has his own Wikipedia page to which we learn that he is “an insecure, superficial and narcissistic ‘wally.’ ” The character would later get his own tv series, “I Am Alan Partridge” (think The Larry Sanders Show). In a way, Alan Partridge  is to British TV and film what Ron Burgundy is to American cinema.

In this 2014 full-length feature film, Coogan reprises the role that was loved by some and questioned by others. The comedy is a weird hybrid of jokes that are really funny, and jokes that just cross the line. Partridge, here in this film, is a radio DJ who suddenly finds out that he and a co-worker, Jack, are on the short list of being fired. Only one of them can stay. Alan makes his plea with the new owners of the station to fire Jack. This leads to a hostage situation in the studio, which Alan is the bridging voice between Jack and the police.

The film calls into question the issue of how we fight for justice. The new owners are clearly only thinking about how to make money. Their concern is about their own wealth, and not about the quality of the radio programs they produce. Jack’s means of standing up against this injustice involves a shotgun and taking hostages. Alan kinda comes to terms that there might be a better way. And, as hard as it might be to image, the 55-year-old DJ matures. At the same time, Jack is dealing with an enormous amount of grief, which raises the question, “Where are his friends?” Again, another maturing moment for Alan when he comes to realize (kinda) that Jack considers him one of his best friends. The film seems to show that there are two kinds of people, those concerned with themselves and those concerned about others. Which are you?

And yet, the film introduces a third kind of person, whom you have to look closely for, as she may get lost in the goofiness. While Jack is the voice of the working class, and Alan (like his new bosses) is self-consumed, Alan’s assistant Lynn (Felicity Montagu) is Alan’s moral compass, not to mention that of the film. Lynn is the one who is able to think past herself and see the larger picture. And, honestly, she is probably one of the funniest actors in the film. She is the one who tells Alan “Maybe you shouldn’t do that.”

Lynn is the oft missed voice crying out in the wilderness about the lack of other-centeredness. She is the voice, and really the only one, Alan listens to.

Overall, once you get past the ridiculousness of the humor, it is quite enjoyable. Granted, it is a question of taste, and you may not be able to handle it or stick it out. It is, however, exactly what Partridge fans have been longing for: their favorite screw-up in situations he should never be in, doing what he does best – screwing up.

 

About Last Night (2014)

About Last NightThis remake of a 1980′s film of the same title stars Kevin Hart as Bernie, which was originally played by Jim Belushi and made Jim Belushi. The 1980′s About Last Night put Belushi on the map and his career took of. There is hope that the 2014 About Last Night will do the same for Kevin Hart.

Though based on the play by David Mamet’s titled Sexual Perversity in Chicago, the screenplay for this 2014 film leans heavily on the 80′s version starring Jim Belushi, Elizabeth Perkins, Demi Moore, and Rob Lowe. The major different between these two films with the same title is that the cast in the 2014 film delivers amazing performances all the way around. The biggest criticism of the earlier film was that Demi Moore and Rob Lowe delivered kind of a good performance. As an assemble, this cast is one of the best.

Hart is on the rising comedians who banked at the theaters with his own theatrical release of his stand-up. He has been in a few movies (Grudge, Ride Along) where he has been the sidekick. But here, in About Last Night, he is the lead. As Bernie he is best friend to Michael Ealy’s Danny. Danny has been out of a relationship for some time but refuses to date again. The film opens with Bernie sharing with Danny the sexual encounter he had with a woman named Joan (Regina Hall) the night before. Meanwhile, Joan is doing the same thing with her roommate Debby (Joy Bryant). The editing is so good that Bernie and Joan are finishing each others’ sentences without even knowing it. But it does something else. It communicates, from the beginning, that men and women are equal when it comes to relationships. What the woman says is just as important as what the man says, something we do not always get.

The film is said to be a tale of two romantic couples. Bernie and Joan set up Debby and Danny, inviting them to the club to hang out with them. Debby, when seeing an ex of hers, pretends that Danny is her boyfriend by grabbing his hand to hold. Danny tells her he will pretend to be her boyfriend anytime. And their relationship begins that evening when they have sex. Which happens a lot in this movie between these two couples, and they talk about it . . . a lot. And if that is something you don’t like in a movie, this is not the movie for you.

Bernie and Joan break-up and it becomes a strain on everyone. But eventually the two realize that they are made for each other. Danny and Debby, on the other hand, at first are reluctant to get involved with each other because of their former relationships. Even so, they eventually move in together. One of the first things Debby does is purchase a dining room table for the dining room space in Danny’s loft. The table is where they attempt to have Thanksgiving Day dinner with their friends. However, the relationship takes a turn and isn’t quite the same.

While Bernie and Joan are secretly back together, Debby and Danny break up. After some time, they meet up again and agree to go out and catch up.

While the film is a tale about two couples falling in love, it is also about friends being there for each other through the joys and the sufferings of life. Relationships are hard. When you love someone life is not just going to be automatically perfect. It takes a lot of work. And through that hard, and meaningful work, it is important to have good friends there to support you and be there for you. And that is what Bernie and Danny have in each other and what Joan and Debby have in each other.

And that is what the movie is really about.

American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor: Christian Bale, Best Actress: Amy Adams, Best Supporting Actor: Bradley Cooper, Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Best Director: David O. Russell, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design.

American HustleIt is a rare thing to find a combination of actors, a good script, and a director who can get the best out of all of them. We come close in American Hustle. As the film correctly tells us from the beginning, “this mostly happened.”

It is a story of corruption, loyalty, duplicity, and love. And at the center is a slightly overweight, balding with a really bad comb over con artist, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale). Irving started early in his vocation. He would run through town and throw rocks into local business windows, giving them a cause to call his dad, the only glass man in town. While Irving owns a chain of dry cleaners in New York, his real business is selling forged and stolen art. He is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and adopted her son as his own. Rosalyn is a bit of a nut-brain and a loose cannon. To say the least, Irving is successful.

Life takes a turn for Irving when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Sydney is a former stripper determined to make something of herself. She and Irving bond over Duke Ellington at a pool party and their dangerous affair begins. Dangerous because they become partners in a scheme where Sydney is a British elite who has connections for loans. They take the money upfront for the loan which they have no intentions of returning. Everything is smooth, until Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) shows up in their office to get a loan. Richie is a FBI agent working on a sting operation. The film’s twist and main story line happens here. Richie convinces Irving and Sydney to work with him in a sting for other con artists. The two agree to stay out of prison.

The rising action of this story arc begins when Richie sets his eyes on New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Carmine is trying to rebuild Atlantic City in an effort to bring jobs to his voters. Richie sees this as a huge career move to catch a politician, along with all the deep pockets, in a scam. Richie sends Irving and Sydney in, but is attracted to this lifestyle (as well as to Sydney) and wants in on this action. Despite Irving’s warnings, Richie pushes ahead.

Richie, to say the least, is high-strung when he comes to his vocation. He still lives at home with his mother and spends hours with his straight hair in curlers to get the mysteriously, sexy Italian look. Richie, like all of the characters in this film, longs to be someone he is not. Each of these characters are driven by this ambition to make something of themselves and to be successful at it. And they do not always choose paths that would be considered righteous. There are many shades of grey, with no clear lines between what is right and wrong (something I think we have seen more of since The Dark Knight).

Some of the greatest Biblical heroes have dwelled in this area of grey. David, the man after God’s own heart, was a con artist in his own right. After having an affair with Bathsheba, he attempts to con her husband Uriah into returning from battle and sleeping with Bathsheba. Uriah, too loyal to his fellow soldiers, refuses to sleep in his own house, much less with his wife. After that didn’t work, David’s plan is to have Uriah moved to the front line of battle so that he will die.

The lines between right and wrong become blurred. Richie is all his effort to do right, does a lot of wrong. Irving, from his childhood on, did a lot of wrong with good intentions. But, like David, it doesn’t make them less human. With the FBI operation to catch Carmine red-handed goes south, Irving has to make it work. He becomes good friends with Carmine, going to dinner with him and the wives. Irving struggles with the relationship between an authentic friendship and another con. His humanity finally rules, leading to Irving’s most redemptive act. He goes to Carmine and explains to him, at times through ugly tears, that the whole thing is a FBI set-up. Irving believes in Carmine and in what he is doing. He recognizes that Carmine is doing a good thing for a lot of good people. Again, there is a lot of shades of grey.

american-hustle

David O. Russell is the director, and he knows his quartet of actors well enough to know how to get the best out of each of them. This could easily explain how all four of them have reached nominations. And it could be that Russell has directed the four in other films; Bale and Adams in The Fighter, and Cooper and Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. This ensemble reminds us of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Not only does Russell get the best out of the ensemble, he tells a story with smooth transitions, one episode of the story flowing into the next without any awkwardness. At times, the tools of the transition are the voice over narration by Bale and Adams, or the powerful use of music. Overall, Russell tells a story that is funny, while profound, reminding us that there is a lot of grey in our own lives.

Home Alone (1990)

home-alone-movie-poster-1990-1020269039When I was a kid, I remember anxiously waiting for the chance to stay home alone. It was as if to stay home alone without a parent or another sibling was to receive some outstanding award. It was proof that my parents trusted me. But, it was also the only chance to do whatever you wanted to without being told you couldn’t. It was freedom.

John Hughes, the prolific screenwriter of a generation, penned Home Alone. Hughes, well known for films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, had the gift of being able to remember what it was like to be young. He could tap into the imagination of a child or teenager, keep audiences laughing, and throw in a dose of reality.

Home Alone is the story of eight-year-old Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) waking up and finding himself home alone. His family and extended family had already left, in haste, for Paris, where they will spend Christmas. At first, it is a dream come true for Kevin. He eats what he wants; watches what he wants; and sleeps where he wants. But he quickly becomes the defender of his home against two goons, Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern) who have their eyes set on Kevin’s home. Kevin develops a series of traps for the burglars to keep them out. And they work.

When the film came out in November 1990, critics were not fans. Entertainment Weekly gave it a “D.” Roger Ebert repeated that it just wasn’t plausible. Yet, here we are talking about it, watching the marathons on cable television, and looking forward to it.

Perhaps it is because Hughes – as he does so well – empowers us to tab into the Kevin inside ourselves. We all have had those moments when our imaginations run wild and we envision what we would do if our homes were under attack by bumbling burglars. Whether or not it is “plausible” that these things could really happen, they do in the child’s imagination. And that is why we love it so.

Even with imagination running amuck, Hughes is able to drop in a little bit of Christmas hope. The only neighbor on Kevin’s street that is home during Christmas is old man Marley (Roberts Blossom). The kids have nicknamed him the Shovel Slayer, because he walks up and down the sidewalks with his snow shovel. At first Kevin is deeply afraid of the old man.

marley-and-kevin-in-churchOn the night in which Kevin prepares for the arrival of Harry and Marv, he stops by the church. The exterior of the church is Trinity United Methodist in Willmette, Illinois, while the scenes were filmed in Grace Episcopal. While sitting in his pew listening to the children sing, old man Marley moves from his pew to sit next to Kevin. Marley is there to listen to this granddaughter sing. It is the only time when he gets to see her.

Kevin: So give it a shot, for your granddaughter anyway. I’m sure she misses you and the presents.

Marley: I send her a check.

Kevin: I wish my grandparents did that. They always send me clothes. Last year I got a sweater with a big bird knitted on it.

Marley: That’s nice.

Kevin:  Not for a guy in the second grade. You can get beat up for wearing something like that. Yeah, I had a friend who got nailed because there was a rumor he wore dinosaur pajamas.

Old man Marley takes Kevin’s advice, and as Kevin is reunited with his family when they return home, Marley is reunited with his. It is the heartwarming moment of the film.  And the moment when we all find hope. Christmas is about family coming and being together. Christmas is about forgiveness and reconciliation.

It is Hughes’ lesson to us all. At Christmas, we can forgive. The Christ Child whom we sing about on Christmas Eve came to redeem. The child came to forgive and to reconcile us back to the Creator. This is Christmas.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

wfrrIt’s hard to believe that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is twenty-five years old! The film hit the big screen in 1988. I was eight when I saw the film. Three of my cousins and I along with our Papa went to see the film. An amazing thing to see at the time on the big screen. These actors and animated characters sharing real space with one another.

The film is set in 1947 Hollywood, where Marvin Acme, the gag-gift king of town and owner of Toon Town, is murdered. The police come after animation film star Roger Rabbit as their main suspect. Private Investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) gets caught up in the middle of it, and eventually figures out that Roger is being framed. But by whom? And why?

Everything about this film – the plot, the dialogue, the look, the feel—is a 1940′s crime film. Everything, that is, except the Toons. Roger Rabbit is the first film that flawlessly combined real actors and animated cartoon characters. Walt Disney studios collaborated with Steven Spielberg (a known lover of animation) to make this flawless presentation possible. With direction by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) and animation by Richard Williams, we get a film that presents the animation in such a convincing way that it doesn’t distract from the plot. And that is the brilliance of this film. On the surface, it has a pretty seamless plot, but combined with new technology, it is nothing short of a masterpiece. The cartoon characters appear on screen occupying real space, just as the human actors do. And we are not talking about computer animated cartoon characters, these are hand drawn cartoon characters. The real deal.

Toon Town is a ghetto. When Eddie visits a club, where is going to snap some pictures of Acme and Roger’s wife, Jessica. There is sense that the toons who are working there are doing so for the humans. In fact, Toons are not allowed to patronize the club, though they serve drinks and provide the entertainment. R. K. Maroon tells Eddie at one point that Dumbo is working for him, on loan from Disney, and he works for peanuts, as he throws peanuts out the window. There is a certain level of prejudice and injustice directed towards the Toons. In fact, Acme is the one who owns Toon Town.

Eddie has had a strong dislike for Toon Town and its residents, holding on to his own bit of prejudice. It all stems from his brother being killed by a toon. You can see Eddie’s discomfort in the mere fact of Roger’s presence, not to mention working with him. But as the film continues, Roger grows on Eddie. Eddie learns that he cannot continue to hold a grudge against a whole population of “people” because of the act of one. Where grief had left him bitter and angry, his developing friendship with Roger helps Eddie learn to smile again, to enjoy life, and to see individuals—human or toon—for who they really are. In the course of it all, Eddie is finally able to make peace with his brother’s death.

It is through spending time and getting to know a Toon, that Eddie’s prejudice is curbed. Eddie’s own perspective of Roger and Toon Town changes, and he helps them assure the rights to Toon Town. Eddie is a lot like Jesus. Jesus spent a lot of time in his earthly ministry with sinners, outcasts, and the poor. Jesus spent time with and got to know the people that nobody cared about. Jesus saw past the social labels of individuals and saw the person. Eddie’s journey with Roger Rabbit empowers him to do the same.

Who have we restricted to a ghetto? Who do we need to spend more time with and get to know?

Parental Guidance (2012)

parental-guidance-posterFirst Thoughts

Billy Crystal and Bette Midler star in the hilarious comedy about grandparents who have been asked to watch their grandchildren for a week. At first, I wasn’t too sure about this film. It was on my “wait-for-DVD” list. But, when the chance came to go a free preview screening, I thought, “Why not?” And I’m glad I did. The film was much better than I had anticipated.

This is a great family film. Crystal and Midler were a great pair as Artie and Diane. Their daughter, Alice (Marisa Tomei) and her husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) need to go out of town as Phil accepts an award. The only way they can do it, if is Alice’s parents come to Atlanta for a week. The three children, Harper, Turner, and Barker are all great. They each have their own challenge – Harper is playing the violin without joy, Turner stutters, and Barker has an imaginary friend. All of these find some resolution at the end of a week with Artie and Diane.

The story, developed by Crystal, is a great story about being family. It is told through the comical eyes of Billy Crystal, complete with baseball metaphors and silly gags. Artie is a baseball game announcer. He (like his creator) loves the game. At the end of the season, however, Artie is fired. He is too old, and they want fresh blood. This is the first dilemma in this story.

Artie has a hard time dealing with being fired, because it means the end of his dream of announcing for the Giants. As he talks to Diane about it, the phone rings. It is Alice, she is in a bind, and is wondering if they would be interested in watching the children for a week. Alice is expecting them to say no. While Artie shakes his head no, Diane yells out, “Yes!” This opening scene shows us that there is something amiss between parents and grown up child. As the film unfolds, we begin to put all the pieces of this paper together.

And as we piece the story together, we realize the brilliance of releasing this movie on Christmas day. It is a story about family coming together, depsite their distance geographically and emotionally. There is no Christmas tree, no Christmas presents, no Christmas celebrations. Just everyday family stuff. And that is what’s remarkable about this film. It is not Christmas, but it feels like Christmas. Why? Because it is about family.

We all have some Crazy

There is no doubt that everyone who sees this film will connect with one of the family members. And we can all relate to Alice who tries to avoid letting her children around their crazy relatives. We learn that for Alice, the crazy are her parents. When Artie and Diane arrive at their home in Atlanta, they learn that they are the “other grandparents.” The ones that rarely see their grandchildren. Diane vows that by the end of the week, that is going to change.

As I screened this film in the movie theater, there was a lady a few seats down from me that kept making comments about Alice’s behavior. Her commentary on the film, was a connection. She related to Artie and Diane who aren’t as crazy as Alice makes them out to be, because Alice has some crazy in her, too. Alice has tried to raise her three children the exact opposite way that her parents raised her. They are not told “no,” they are told to consider the consequences. And despite the rolling of the eyes from Artie and Diane, it works for Alice and her family.

Alice is so worried about leaving her kids with her parents, that she almost never leaves to go be with Phil. Diane finally takes Alice that the hand and drives her to the airport. She tells Alice that she needs to be with her husband, because when your children grow up and leave, your  husband is all you got.

Transformation is Possible

Artie and Diane’s way of parenting is different from Alice and Phil’s. What makes the movie is watching Artie and Diane figure out how to build a relationship with their grandchildren. Yes, they make mistakes. Artie puts himself first, putting Barker in danger. Diane threatens Harper’s violin teacher. This is part of the remarkable quality of this film. Artie and Diane make a ton of mistakes. But mistakes and failures are not final. Transformation is possible.

After the mistakes, and after the clean up, there is time for coffee. Artie comes down into the kitchen and finds Alice drinking a cup of coffee (or herbal tea). He sits with her and the two of them have a great heart-to-heart about what happened. They also begin the hard work of mending their relationship.

Alice eventually comes to terms with the fact that her parents have a made a difference in her children’s lives. Harper finds her twelve-year voice and tells her mom she doesn’t want to audition for this other school. She likes the school she’s at. Barker’s imaginary friend tragically dies. As Phil points out to Alice, only Barker could make that happen. Artie tells Barker a number of times that Barker needs to be in control of his friend, not the other way around.

And the tearjerker of the film comes when Turner, who stutters and struggles to find his voice, walks up on stage to an empty microphone. He suddenly starts reciting the play by play of a baseball game that he and Artie have been listening to. Word for word, Turner recites the whole things without stuttering once. It is in this moment that Alice not only realizes but accepts what her dad has done for her family.

Overall, the film is a great family movie (grandchildren, take your grandparents). The story is not as disjointed as I feared it would be. The gags are funny, with clean language, and not all of the funny scenes are in the previews. The young actors are just as good as Crystal and Midler.

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