The Rum Diary (2011)

rum_diary_ver2_xlgPaul Kemp (Johnny Depp) is an American journalist who has relocated to San Juan, Puerto Rico as a freelance writer in the 1950s.   He’s hired by a not-so-great American newspaper to write the daily horoscopes.   At first he thinks it’s a joke, but alas, it is not.

As the film unfolds, there’s a tension in the air, and I don’t mean the rum-aroma air that almost seeps through the screen.  There is a tension existing inside Paul Kemp.  As he sits at Al’s bar with Chenault (Amber Heard) he tells her, “I don’t know how to write like me.”   From the beginning of the film, we see this struggle.  After witnessing his first Puerto Rican cock fight, Paul wanders off with a camera.  He snaps some pictures of the local children in a trash dump.  He then writes a story about the children eating in the dump.  He wants to draw the attention of the reader to this great injustice.  It’s rejected by the editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins).  “Nothing will change,” Lotterman reasons.  “You underestimate me,” Kemp replies.

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Anonymous (2011)

Anonymous (2011)

Anonymous_2011_film_posterAnonymous, penned as a film about the “real” William Shakespeare, is a political drama laced with soap opera-style relational tensions.  The film is set in Elizabethan-era England during the time of the Essex rebellion.  Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford, realizes after watching a play put on by Ben Jonson exactly how powerful words can be.  He approaches Ben and offers him a play for him to stage.  But the authorship must remain anonymous.

Ben stages the play (Henry VIII) and at the conclusion the audience demands to see and hear from the playwright.  Ben anxiously looks up to the Earl’s box for some kind of direction.  In the meantime the young, egocentric actor Will Shakespeare (who is like a grown up version of Dopey) runs out on the stage to take the playwright’s bow.  Director Roland Emmerich continues to weave Shakespearean plays in the film as the political drama of who will succeed Elizabeth I unfolds.  In the midst of this weaving, Emmerich sprinkles in a number of flashbacks that help us (or at times confuse us) in understanding the characters more.  For example, in these flashbacks we learn that the relationship between Edward and Elizabeth goes beyond Earl and Queen.

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The Identical (2014)

The Identical (2014)

the-identical-dvd-coverOpening in the 1930’s Mississippi, in what could be a John Steinbeck novel, a man tries to find work to support him and his pregnant wife. He returns home with no luck to find his wife had given birth to twins. Overwhelmed by both joy and dread, the father now has to discern how he will care for these newborns.

While at a tent-revival, the father (Brian Geraghty) hears Pastor Reese Wade (Ray Liotta) give an inspirational sermon, sharing openly about he and his wife Louise (Ashley Judd) struggle to have a child of their own. The father filled with agony for providing for two newborns suddenly has an epiphany. Continue reading

Call Me Claus (2001)

Call Me Claus (2001)

Finding the Christmas Spirit

Call Me Claus

Call Me Claus is a simple made-for-cable-TV movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Nigel Hawthorne. Goldberg is Lucy Collins who is a successful TV producer for a shopping network. Lucy is searching for the perfect Santa Claus to bump up the ratings.

Nigel Hawthorne is Santa Claus (Nick). He is forced to search for a Santa Claus replacement. It turns out that every 200 years there is a new Santa Claus, and according to the Elf Board, the current Santa has to find a replacement. Hawthorne’s Nick has exhausted his list of potential new Santas. If he doesn’t find a new Santa by midnight on Christmas Eve, the world will come to an end. (Did I mention this was a made-for-cable-TV movie?) Continue reading

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.