Five of Our Favorite Christmas Movies

Watching Christmas movies during the Christmas season is one of our favorite traditions. We have a number of articles dedicated to Christmas movies on REO – some good and some bad. We’ve argued that some popular movies are not actually Christmas movies and have received a good amount of pushback. We’ve even given a primer on how to put together your very own Christmas Movie watch list. Yet in all of our Christmas movie writing, we have never done a collaborative article about some of our favorite Christmas movies. Today is the day we fix that glaring oversight. These are not necessarily the movies we consider the BEST Christmas movies. They are simply movies we each love to watch and share with our own family and friends. We hope you enjoy our list.


How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

Gowdy Cannon – I get this movie is somewhat polarizing, at least in my circles. Most seem hate it or dislike it while folks like me love it enough to watch it every single year in December.

I confess that when it came out, I didn’t go to the theater to watch it. And when I did see it I was very “Meh” about it. Like millions of other people, I adore the book and the original cartoon version. It’s a perfect half hour of Christmas entertainment for ages 2 to 102. Simple and poignant and with no fat. And not to be insane but the Grinch is kind of like a kids version of DC’s Joker: he doesn’t need a backstory and trying to explain him actually detracts from him. That was my biggest negative about this live action version.

But then one year I showed it to my ESL class for our Christmas party and they laughed all the way through it and even clapped boisterously at the end. And [Narrator voice] I thought of something I hadn’t before: Maybe this movie can’t be bought in a store! No, seriously, what I learned was that I was clearly over-thinking it.

Honestly, if you get past the unnecessary Grinch childhood history, it’s a fun and funny ride with plenty of holiday cheer and the kind of sentimental moments we have come to associate with Christmas in America. I laugh out loud multiple times at it every year (“Even if we’re HORRIBLY MANGLED…there’ll be no sad faces at Christmas,” “Aardvarkian Abakanezer Who..I HATE you!) as Jim Carrey was definitely in his comedic prime at this point in his career. And while it adds, it doesn’t subtract and nails the right touches of the original story. The Grinch’s character transformation at the end is heartwarming be it cartoon or Carrey in a ridiculous amount of makeup. And I cannot lie: I’m a huge fan of the meta, self-aware trope that TV shows like Scrubs, Community and Arrested Development use and Ron Howard brought it to the big screen years before any of these shows were made, including his very own AD. When the Grinch says “I’m speaking in rhyme!” and when he mocks Howard’s directing I smile every time.

So this movie definitely earns some criticism but at the end of the day, entertainment goes beyond reason and critique to me and if all you want is a joyful and triumphant 100-minutes of Christmas spirit, this is a good choice.


It’s a Wonderful Life

Mark Sass – It’s a Wonderful Life is the only Christmas movie that I watch every year. During the holiday season, I intentionally set aside time for this film. And as the appointed date (usually Christmas Eve) nears I often wonder if this will be the year when the movie loses its charm or magic. You should know that generally speaking, I do not enjoy older movies. They feel dated to me and show their age in almost every scene. Furthermore, I am not someone who watches their favorite movies every week, month, or even year. I can get too much of most films to a degree that I don’t enjoy them as much as I once did. But that has yet to happen with It’s a Wonderful Life! After 20+ viewings I still thoroughly enjoy the film. The movie never seems old or dated. The story, characters, themes, and even the humor (which is something that frequently doesn’t translate well from one generation to those that follow) are all superb! The best films transcend time and hold up after numerous viewings. It’s a Wonderful Life is certainly among the best and greatest films of all-time.


The Santa Clause

Phill Lytle – I love this movie. I have since the first time I saw it. I realize it’s not a great film by any objective standards, but that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying it every time I watch it.

It’s a great concept – turning Tim Allen into a reluctant Santa. Allen does a wonderful job of bringing his style of humor to a family movie, with some of the edge taken off, and his gradual transformation into jolly Saint Nick provides plenty of visual gags. It has good laughs, plenty of heart, and enough Christmasy moments to make it a perfect family film for the Holidays. The supporting cast is great, with Judge Reinhold adding his perfectly delivered condescension and David Krumholtz bringing sarcasm and wit to what could have been a bland character. The music feels familiar in a way that actually works – it feels like “Christmas movie music” and that makes me feel all warm and snugly on the inside.

There is nothing groundbreaking about The Santa Clause but that doesn’t seem to diminish it for me at all. I will gladly watch this one every single Christmas.


Jingle All the Way

“Put that cookie down! NOW!”

D. A. Speer – Much to the chagrin of my wife, it’s a yearly tradition in our house to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “smash holiday classic” Jingle All the Way. I love so much about this movie. First, the comedic talent. You have two top-notch comedians featured prominently throughout the film: Sinbad (playing disgruntled mailman Myron) and Phil Hartman (playing creeptastic neighbor Ted). Both of them were at their peak and gave top-notch performances in the movie. Secondly, there are just tons of memorable scenes in the film. From the all-out brawl of fake Santas at the knock-off toy factory (“I’m gonna deck your halls, bub!”), to the frenzy at the shopping mall that ends with Arnold trying to take a ball away from a kid in a ball pit (I’m not a pervert!!!”), to the grand finale at the holiday parade (“Out of my way, box!”), the greatness just keeps coming.

No, the movie isn’t perfect. It’s full of cheese, and even contains an over-the-top, yet charming performance from internet favorite Jake Lloyd (pre-Phantom Menace). But that’s just part of the whole picture of what makes this a classic movie for me. This was still in the age when movies could be made just for the sake of telling a whimsical, goofball story. There wasn’t anywhere near the amount of pressure to have to include some kind of important agenda. It seems like the kind of movie that just wouldn’t fly today in a pitch meeting, or if it were to be made, I doubt that it would go to theaters. Probably straight to Netflix at best.

I’m glad that this movie exists, and it’s worth viewing at least once in your life. Not sold on it yet? Let “Arnold” himself try to convince you:


Christmas in Connecticut

Ben Plunkett – Growing up, my family was hugely into the classics. We discovered another old classic we hadn’t watched yet–boom!–we were there. (Incidentally, we’ve discovered many a time through the years that just because a movie is old, doesn’t mean it’s a classic. Some need to be forgotten, locked away never to be seen or heard from again.)

Anyway, when Christmas rolled around we watched many of the great Christmas classics of yore like A Christmas Carol, The Little Shop Around the Corner, The Bishop’s Wife, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Lemon Drop Kid, and many others. It was not until around the mid to late 1990s that I became aware of an old Christmas classic known as Christmas in Connecticut. Since those days it has become one of my favorites (I can’t say it’s my top favorite since I have so many way up there.) Christmas in Connecticut is actually a pretty basic romance, but it is so much more than that and done in a very entertaining, witty way. It is also chock full of heart, an ingenious central plot, outstanding writing, and excellent and unforgettable characters (the side characters are particularly good here).

Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth Lane, a very city-loving journalist, writing for a popular magazine, pretending to be a wife and mother who lives and thrives on a farm in Connecticut. Her immediate supervisor is in on the act. The lead publisher, Alexander Yardley, not so much. One fine Christmas time he suggests that war hero, Jefferson Jones, come join her family on their farm for the holidays. Fortunately for Lane, her architect fiancé just happens to own an actual farmhouse in Connecticut and agrees to go along with the ruse. She also happens to be the favorite niece of Felix, a master chef, (my favorite character) who comes along on the holiday escapade.

Except for the set up first few minutes, the entirety of the movie takes place on this beautiful farmhouse, one that exudes cozy, homey Christmas. I think it’s safe to say this is the sort of place Santa takes his holidays.


Those are Five of our favorites. What are yours? Let us know in the comment section below. And be sure to like and share this article (and all of our articles) on Facebook and Twitter. You are our hands and feet, people! Each one reach one and all that. Thanks for reading.




An Indefinitive Ranking of the Rocky Movies (Part 2)

Read Part One here.  Let’s dive right in with the rest of the list…

 

4. Rocky II (1979)

I was one year old when this was released and part of me hates it that I didn’t get to experience the hype of knowing this movie was coming after what a rousing success the original was.

Regardless, it’s hard to imagine that throngs of people walked out of the theater 39 years ago disappointed in what they saw. No, it doesn’t surpass the original. But it compliments the original in a way the other movies didn’t: by perfectly maintaining the Rocky persona from the first one and by showing us how Rocky and Adrian grew together and established a foundation for their exceptional marriage. (Rocky proposing at the zoo after Gazzo’s driver talked smack to him about it in the first one is a wonderful touch. I”ll never be able to say enough about how extraordinary a writer Stallone was in the big arcs and in the details and nuances.)

Before the last two movies were made, Rocky fans could pretty well be divided into two groups. While everyone hated 5, there were those who preferred 1 and 2 and those who preferred 3 and 4. There really is a stark transformation between the two pairs of movies. In the latter two, Rocky became (to quote Mick in III) “civilized”; Adrian became outspoken. Before that, you had two meek people in very meek circumstances. In Part 2 they are figuring each other out as newlyweds in the midst of the normal array of trials that life throws at you. From financial issues, to getting laid off, to pregnancy scares, we get to see the Balboas as real characters. We all can relate to something that happens in the first two acts of this film. To me the strength of the first two movies is the character building and then they used the rest of the series to take chances with character changes and with plot direction.

And not to be overlooked is that Mick’s best moment to me in the series is the speech he gives Rocky in the chapel when Rocky is consumed by Adrian’s hospitalization. The way he affirms him in his unique Mick way is special, and it is this speech that Rocky goes back to in V when he’s on the ground while fighting Tommy. Then we get the Adrian “Win” quote and it feels like the fight is just a footnote after the rollercoaster of emotion this movie takes us on.

But the fight is spectacular and emotionally consuming. That cannot be overstated. I have almost never seen any of my brothers cry, but I know of one of them who tears up pretty good at the end of this movie.

 

Favorite Quotes:

The truth? I seen you beat that man like I ain’t never seen no man get beat before. And the man kept coming after you. Now we don’t need that kind of man in our lives.
–Tony, trying to talk Apollo out of the rematch

You know I was wondering, what do you think you’re doing the next 40 or 50 years?
–Rocky, proposing to Adrian

“I just wanna say one thing…Yo Adrian, I did it!” 
–Rocky


3. Creed (2015)

There is no doubt that even though this isn’t Stallone’s brainchild this is a Rocky movie and continues the story. Just with a necessary new focus.

And what a Rocky chapter it turned out to be. I was pumped about this movie but as I’ve heard mega fans of different franchises express numerous times in anticipation of sequels, prequels, reboots and the like, I was extremely cautious. This could’ve been a disaster. It was the opposite. I give Coogler all the credit in the world for bringing this franchise into the modern era in a way that 69-year old Stallone knew he could not, but doing it without losing what made the Rocky story so special. Explicit and obscure references to the prior films are all over the script and scenery (including “Gonna Fly Now” and chasing the chicken). Even the heart of Philly is at the story’s core.

My favorite thing about this movie is the balance of screen time between Rocky and Adonis. Neither upstages the other and that is exactly how it should be. Rocky is the star of these films. Stallone created this timeless, inspirational world centered around the greatest character of all time. But Donnie is getting the torch passed to him in a fascinating story about Apollo’s illegitimate child figuring out who he is as a fighter and as a person. Michael B. Jordan is a sensational actor, whom I gush about quite often. Either man dominating the fore would have made for a lesser movie. They are in tandem, not in competition.

Their chemistry lights up the big screen. The moment where Donnie shows up to Rocky’s restaurant and knows things about him and Apollo is one of those awesome entertainment moments where the first time I watched I stopped breathing I was so captivated. The theater could have been on fire and I would have not noticed. The contrast in Adonis as the young, modern, west coast professional and Rocky as the middle-class inner-city old man (highlighted by Adonis explaining to a bewildered Rocky that his workout regime was in the “Cloud”) is hilarious. And they’re becoming fast family and showing the world exactly what synergy is does my Rocky fan heart good. There is nothing they could have done to make this film more relevant to past and current generations. Coogler built a beautiful bridge with this work.

Lastly I add that in a game vs. Portland in 1992 (the year he retired) Larry Bird went off on National TV for 49 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists in 54 minutes and on 19-35 shooting, including a clutch, off-balance three that sent the game into overtime. While playing on a destroyed back, a bum thigh and a messed up Achilles. THAT was Stallone in this movie. In the twilight of his career, he gives a throwback performance for the ages. Since 1976 this man has been bringing the emotion, making me as a guy feel deeply. I don’t know that he has ever been better.

Favorite Quotes:

Adonis: I can train at your house.
Rocky: No, I don’t know. Nobody’s been to my house in a long time. You might not be comfortable there. 
Adonis: What? You walk around naked?
[Later]
Rocky: You better not walk around naked either! 

“Women weaken legs.” 
–Rocky, recalling Mick

“You can’t learn anything while you’re talking. That’s a fact of life. As long as you’re talking, you’re not listening.” 
–Rocky


2. Rocky III (1982)

If you asked me which of these films I would most want to watch, I would say IV or the original. Or maybe Creed. But if we are ranking them based more on merit than a feeling, I have to say this is the second best Rocky movie.

The reasons are legion. Mr. T gave the performance of his life as the volatile, trash-talking Chicago brawler, Clubber Lang, who was different enough from Apollo simply in how scary he was. Mick’s death was a poignant punch in the stomach, complete with Rocky’s immediate meltdown and subsequent introspective reaction to it, as the “Mick” music plays behind him. Star Wars and The Sixth Sense may have the best plot twists of all time, but Apollo becoming Rocky’s manager has to be up there right behind them. The series excelled at keeping Rocky the underdog, which is hard to do with a man who was on top so often. Watching Rocky get manhandled by the toughest of 80s icons while his manager was dying got the job done. It’s just a superbly written, cast, and executed movie.

Not only was Apollo’s return a stunning development, the story arc of him helping Rocky to get his edge back before the rematch with Clubber really deepened the emotional impact of the movie. By taking him to his old training stomping grounds in L.A., the whole tone of the movie is altered. The Rocky series has race and cultural differences all over it (every single ring fight is between two different ethnicities), but it never ever was about that. This is as close as they came to shouting, “Hey everybody! Apollo is black! Rocky is white!” And it was not superfluous at all. What Apollo did was genius and it worked. It wasn’t preachy in the slightest but it did remind me that we can learn from people and cultures who are different than us. Rocky had to change to beat Clubber. Apollo facilitated it.

As stated above, Adrian was much more understated in the first two movies than in the next three. She disagreed with Rocky in Part 2, but she didn’t really argue with him. This movie debuted Argumentative Adrian. And it was magnificent. Every movie from this one until V featured a Rocky-Adrian face-off that I honestly want for my real-life marriage. The scene on the beach where she gets him to admit that he’s scared is brutally honest, raw and transparent. The cards were on the table. In his words, she breaks him down. All to help him, which it does. It’s one of the two or three best scenes in all seven movies to me.

And let us never forget that this movie started and ended with the greatest sports inspirational song of all time in “Eye of the Tiger” AND gave us a whole scene cameo of Hulk Hogan. Those two things are major bonus points.

(And we won’t get into the awkward beach hug.)

Favorite Quotes:

“I’m afraid! Alright! You wanna hear me say it?!? You wanna break me down?…For the first time in my life, I’m afraid.” 
“I’m afraid, too.”
–Rocky and Adrian

“Pain.” 
–Clubber’s one-word prediction for the second fight


1. Rocky (1976)

Winner and still champ, the original Rocky is nearly impossible to dethrone. And it’s not just because it’s the genesis of the character and story. It’s because its story and character development reign supreme by any criteria. The Oscar nominations and wins speak for themselves. And seeing as how much Stallone had going against him to make and star in this movie, we know every accolade was earned.

After over 3,000 words in this two-part article, I probably have exhausted nearly all of the good adjectives English has to offer. But there is still one left: Greatest. That is what this movie is. To today’s culture, this movie is slow in developing. But to people like me who grew up with it and sometimes want it to “take me back,” we know just how special something slowly prepared can be.

That is this movie. It’s a simple story. A down-on-his-luck boxer, who proclaims himself a bum (a term that comes to mean something throughout the series), falls for a very shy girl he sees at a local business. They have an extremely awkward first date. But she comes to trust him. He in turn bares his soul to her in subtle but profound ways. If you are not paying attention you can easily miss how important it is when Rocky confesses to her that Apollo’s insults did bother him, after laughing them off in public. That is more significant than the boxing is to me, especially in the series beginning. Rocky and Adrian are just so lovable and humble. In a word, they are human. And what makes their relationship enthralling is that they fill each other’s gaps.[1. Several women in my church claim Rocky is a chick flick.].

Rocky as the title character is as good as it gets. He is a tough guy from the streets with minimal education, but he’s not simplistic. He is a hero in the little things in life, like knowing people in the neighborhood, looking out for children and hobos, and simply not thinking he’s better than he is. He is the most unassuming person you can meet. Everything Rocky becomes later in the series is built on this foundation. And it’s perfect. You can even see how he comes full circle as Rocky in Balboa and Creed is much closer to this version than in III or IV (V is basically the transition back after they lose all of their possessions). It’s remarkably endearing. Far more than any actor in any other role, Sylvester Stallone is Rocky. There is no one in fiction to me like him. I can’t get enough of him. They could make 100 of these movies and if Rocky’s in it, I’m there on opening weekend.

The love story and central character development eventually cede to what the movie supposedly is about: the main character getting an unprecedented shot at the boxing title from the champ himself, flawlessly portrayed for four movies by Carl Weathers. Yet even before the fight, Rocky captivates us with his character. Very few images are as iconic to me in this series, among the two dozen that are, as Rocky pounding the frozen beef at Paulie’s job.

And then there is the defining moment in the whole series to me, just before the final fight. Rocky can’t sleep and he confesses to Adrian that he doesn’t care about winning as much as “going the distance”. Because no one had gone the distance with Creed. That is Rocky in a quote. It is no coincidence that in half of the movies that end with a ring fight, the main character does not win[2. In Balboa, he doesn’t even stick around to find out if he won and the crowd cheered for him as if he did win.]. Because it’s not about winning. Rocky, even up to the Creed chapter, is about heart, about chin, about character-building and storytelling. The means will always be more important than the end. I’m not one to bash the current generation like a crotchety old man, but this is a timeless truth everyone needs to learn.

So that’s why it is number one. They have given us phenomenal subsequent chapters to this story. But ain’t nothing like the original. It can’t be replicated. And it can’t be beaten.

Favorite Quotes:

“Ah come on, Adrian, it’s true. I was nobody. But that don’t matter either, you know? ‘Cause I was thinkin’, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight… ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”
–Rocky to Adrian

Where’s your hat?
–Rocky’s first comment to Adrian after going the distance with Creed

I don’t see no crowd around you neither.
–Rocky to Paulie

“No, I think I invented it.”
–Rocky when interviewed about punching the freezer meat

“He don’t know it’s a show. He thinks it’s a fight.”
–Tony, to Apollo, after Rocky knocked him down in the first round

“I don’t know. She’s got gaps, I got gaps. Together we fill gaps.”
–Rocky about Adrian

 

 

Thoughts, reactions, complaints and comments are welcomed below!

 

 

 




An Indefinitive Ranking of the Rocky Movies (Part 1)

“Why do you wanna fight? 
“Because I can’t sing or dance.” 
–Adrian and Rocky

 

 

 

Growing up without Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and with just a pedestrian affection for Star Wars (I thought I was a big fan until I went to Welch College and met people who watched the prequels like 15 times on opening weekend), Rocky was as close as my brothers and I got to the geek level of fandom. We watched the movies over and over. We owned boxing gloves and pretended to be the characters. We listened to the soundtracks nonstop.

So I definitely have an opinion on the movies and how they rank against each other, though I would be quick to add that when people ask me my favorite movie of all time, I say “Rocky” and mean the whole story and not just the 1976 original. It is a saga to me divided up seven ways, with tomorrow debuting the 8th piece of this perfect American story pie. Nevertheless, when ranking them I do not want to do the typical American thing and presume that the opinion of one 40-year old man is “definitive”. This is absolutely up for debate. Yet I want to write about how I consider them, from least great to the individual movie GOAT.

But before I get to the main list of movie rankings, here is my personal opinion on the rankings of the climactic fight in each movie. Every movie ends essentially the same because, let’s face it, these boxing matches were what brought the crowds to theaters and inspired people:

7. Balboa—A visually spectacular fight with plenty of drama. The fact that it brings up the rear is a testimony to how legendary the Rocky fights are.

6. Creed—Thanks to cinematic advances it is more realistic than any other fight in the series. Yet the competition is just too fierce. The defining moment in this one isn’t as special to me as most of the others. Perhaps because Adonis, while a brilliant character, isn’t quite Rocky.

5. Rocky V—People did not like this fight being a street fight instead of a ring fight. But I give it huge props for not being derivative and for the quotes that it gave us (see below).

4. Rocky III—Would be higher but it is literally the only ultimate fight in the entire Rocky catalog that doesn’t go the distance, which feels significant given the heart of these films. But Rocky trash-talking Clubber as he whips him is epic.

3. Rocky—Rocky with a stunning knockdown early on, after Apollo had never been knocked down…the look on Apollo’s face when Rocky gets up in the 14th round and begs for more…Rocky going after the ribs in the 15th….there are no English words for emotion to describe it. Of note: Rocky won an Oscar for Best Film Editing for this fight. They put on the 15th round makeup on Stallone and Weathers and shot the fight in reverse as they took the makeup off.

2. Rocky II—I’ve watched this fight at least 30 times and it gets me every time. The ending draws me in as though I were watching a real sporting event. The advantages this one has over Balboa-Creed I, other than the heart-stopping finish, are not only the advanced cinematography and better choreography (not to mention we get to see nearly all of the fight instead of just five rounds as in the first one). But it also wins points for the clever gambit Mick used that ultimately decided the fight: Rocky fighting right-handed before switching back in the 15th. Mick’s boxing acumen won this fight. Well, that and Apollo’s off the charts hubris. Chills on top of chills for this masterpiece.

1. Rocky IV—I don’t think any final match or game in any sports movie touches the war that was Balboa-Drago. When Rocky cut the Russian in Round 2, the entire nation jumped out of its chair, took off its shirt and waved the American flag, chanting “U-S-A!” like Homer Simpson. It was electrifying. It was outrageous. It was beautiful. What a moment! And there is no sports plot twist like the Russians changing their allegiance to Rocky near the end of the fight. If you were alive in the 80s you know how significant this (literally) incredible and ridiculous moment was. It’s like if North Korea or ISIS today sent a basketball team over here and we started cheering for them over Steph Curry and LeBron James. It was as fantasy-level unbelievable as anything that happens in Narnia. And no one cared. Peak American cinema.

 

Now to the film rankings. Note that my inability to keep the word count down on this, my favorite movie franchise of all time, means I have divided it up into two parts.  Numbers 7 to 5 are today. The Top 4 will follow tomorrow.


7. Rocky V (1990)

This movie is so hated, Stallone made Balboa 16 years later just because he was tired of hearing about how hated this movie is.

I confess I genuinely like it. It clearly brings up the rear in the Rocky canon but the other six are all great to exceptional movies. It has great highlights to me: Rocky flashing back to Mick giving him the cufflinks, a hilarious Don King ripoff, Rocky standing up to Tommy at the end, Adrian ripping into Duke over and over, a classic Rocky-Adrian no holds barred conversation (contrast Adrian from this movie to the one in the original—THAT is character development), etc. And this movie is absolutely as quotable as any of the others.

In my opinion, it was panned so universally in large part when it came out because Rocky doesn’t fight in the ring. It broke the formula and people weren’t ready for it. Also, this is the only Rocky movie where Rocky isn’t clearly a boxer or clearly a trainer and that made the plot a bit awkward. It was really too much of a mishmash of Rocky’s role in 1-4 and his role in Creed. And it just didn’t play well. For me, I do not deny it has weak aspects, notably that Sage Stallone and Tommy Morrison were terrible actors (May they rest in peace). Still, it’s a good movie and my wife and I watch it in sequence with the rest. And let it forever be known that having Elton John co-write and sing “The Measure of a Man” (a pretty unknown song that wasn’t played on the radio) over images from all five movies to that point to end gave us the best closing credits of all time. 

Favorite Quotes:

Large Men at Bar: Hey, Rock, you need help?
Rocky: No guys, this ain’t no pie-eating contest.

Rocky [to Tommy]: You knocked him down, why don’t you try knocking me down?

Duke: IN THE RING IN THE RING TOMMY GUNN ONLY FIGHTS IN THE RING.
Rocky: Yeah? My ring’s outside.

Rocky [repeating Mick]: Yo Tom-my!  I didn’t hear no bell.

Mick [in flashback]: Get up…because Mickey loves ya.  

 


6. Rocky Balboa (2006)

This is a safe movie if there ever was one. After a decade and a half of Stallone hearing complaints about V, he finally got his final Rocky chapter off the ground. (Creed nor Creed 2 were both created by Stallone). And he brought about his personal closure playing it as close to vest as he could: making it so similar to the original that Rocky fans would feel like they were taking a trip down memory lane. And unlike The Force Awakens, the obvious similarities were not controversial. After I watched it with my brothers and my dad, my brother Tracy commented, “Now I can die in peace with how Rocky ended.”

There is a walk down memory lane with Rocky and Paulie visiting all the places that meant something in the first movie, to honor Adrian’s death (which Stallone wrote in to give the movie more emotional punch, and it worked). Stallone even brought back little Marie, all grown up now and much more respectful to Rocky, and opening scene opponent Spider Rico.

Still, the movie has some unique personality. Rocky’s passionate speech to his son Rocky, Jr. (played by the inimitable Milo Ventimiglia[1. And how much it meant to see Sly Stallone guest star on This Is Us and for Jack’s children to rave about how much their dad loved Rocky!]) about not making excuses is not something we saw in any previous movie. Same for Rocky’s diatribe to the boxing commission after they rejected him for a license. Stallone’s performance in Creed was better, but he really held nothing back here and nails these character-defining scenes. Like a man who at the time thought this was his last chance to play such an iconic character.

I also adore Max Kellerman’s reaction to witnessing a “Rocky” fight for HBO, whom he works for in real life. I’m sure his reaction was not acting, but instead was a legitimate response of awe as a real life Rocky movie fan, and produced a fascinating moment where life and art collided.

 

Favorite Quotes:

Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. 
–Rocky, to Robert

Italian food made by Mexicans ain’t that special.
–Paulie

You one crazy old man.
–Mason Dixon, to Rocky, before the last round


5. Rocky IV (1985)

Let me say it again: Everything about this movie is over-the-top ludicrous…the cheesy 80s music, the Apollo dance number, Rocky climbing a mountain while training, the amount of steroid-enhanced bombs Rocky takes the head without dying, the fact that the Russians turned on Drago in the fight and began cheering for Rocky…and on and on.

But that really doesn’t matter. This is a breathtaking, sublime 90 minutes of film. I know no other ranking on my list will cause as many howls of protests as putting this one fifth, which again, testifies to the depth of the franchise. And to show how razor thin the difference is in the top five, you could ask me to rank them again in six months and I might have this one #1 or #2.

So why do I have it so low at this moment? Well, as many critics have pointed out, once you take out the training montages and that outrageous ending fight, this movie is like 23 minutes long. That’s barely an exaggeration. There is not much plot or character development to this installment and that is totally fine because this movie had the mammoth shoulders of three prior transcendent chapters to stand on in that regard. We knew the main players so it just fed us rapid plot points and twists like a Red Bull being injected straight into the entertainment veins: Big Russian wants to box, Big Russian kills Apollo, Rocky decides to fight Big Russian in Russia, Rocky wins. That’s it. That’s the movie. And it’s glorious from start to finish. I have watched Rocky 4 more than any of the others. It never ever gets old.

If there is any movie that deserves a spot on, hilarious, fictional 30 for 30 on how its plot ended the Cold War, it’s Rocky 4.

 

Favorite Quotes:

Announcer 1: “He’s cut!  The Russian’s cut!”
Announcer 2: “And it’s a bad cut!”

“You cut ‘im!! You hurt ‘im!! You see?!?!  You see?!? He’s not a machine!! He’s a man!”
–Tony

“And a few cheers now for Rocky Balboa…”
–Announcer, somewhere between Rounds 11 and 12

“No TV? What about my Rose Bowl Game?”
–Paulie, adapting to Russia

“He’s not human. He’s like a piece of iron.”
–Drago, about Rocky


So that’s it. That’s the first half of the list. Go here for my ranking of the four greatest Rocky movies of all-time. Comments on these installments are welcomed below.

 

 

 




500 Words or Less Reviews: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

*This review will be spoiler-free.*

 

One of the biggest complaints I heard about the original Fantastic Beasts movie was that it was so far removed from the original series, it didn’t feel like a Harry Potter story. To me, it still had a good plot and great characters and is worth rewatching, but I sympathize with that complaint.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald gives us much more of the original canon in subtle and overt ways, but still does a fine job of keeping the narrative separate from Harry’s era at Hogwarts so that it can stand on its own legs and tell a fresh story without the weight of massive book scrutiny.

Eddie Redmayne is back as the peculiar Newt Scamander, who another character aptly describes as a man who doesn’t care for power or prestige but for what is right. Scamander may not ever rise to the level of characters like Hagrid and McGonagall in my mind but he is a welcome addition to the Harry Potter universe.

They chose Newt’s book to be the title of these films and while the films themselves are not truly about the beasts that he loves so much, they do play a significant role in plot development. And Newt unleashes a new, wondrous, Jim Henson-esque creature that steals some scenes.

Johnny Depp is surprisingly quite modest in his titular, antagonist role. For a man who has made a living off of being magnificently weird as unique characters, he doesn’t try to do too much here. I suppose the backstory from the original series, the characters “look” and the script are enough and he doesn’t have to be outrageous to bring Grindelwald to life. If anything, I thought he was too subdued.

Jude Law is as brilliant as you would expect and Dan Fogler reprising his role as Jacob is even funnier and more sympathetic than the first go round. The rest of the cast is a mixture of decent to bland.

There are twists galore in this movie but I must see the rest of the series before I can judge them.

On that note, without revealing anything, I will conclude by saying the ending will have people talking until the third part is released. And my only comment in this review is to say that it is imperative to me that they do not make the same mistakes that were made with The Cursed Child. As mentioned, a significant part of what makes these movies work so far to me is that they are separated from the seven-book/eight movie story enough that they can let these movies breathe without fear of them clashing with the original. They may be nearing dangerous waters.

The Harry Potter brand is clearly at a crossroads. The crucial plot decisions of these next three movies will swing the post-book series material either into the “It was nearly all terrible” or “Fantastic Beasts was fantastic and we barely remember The Cursed Child.” I’m eager to see the result.

 

Three stars out of five.




Five Neglected Comedies from the 80s We Highly Recommend

The 80s had its problems but it gave us a lot of awesome things like Lunchables, the Transformers, trapper keepers, the Rubik’s Cube, and the list goes on. One of the best of the best (to some) is the excellent lineup of comedy movies throughout the 80s. Many of these are very well known and still loved. However, REO is horrified with the greatest of all horrors that several of our favorites have been forgotten, forsaken in the dusty, grimy back alley of cinematic history. Here are our recommendations of five great but relatively forgotten comedies from that decade.


The Private Eyes

Don Knotts and Tim Conway were a legendary comedic duo, yet it seems this movie is far more under the radar than anything else they did. And that is a shame. Because it is hilarious from start to finish. Released in 1980, my family owned it on an old VHS tape and I watched it so much I had essentially every word of dialogue memorized as a child (which interestingly made my mother quite proud). It was such clever writing for that era and Knotts and Conway, as the bumbling Inspector Winship and Doctor Tart, brought the humor to life with once in a generation talent and chemistry.

Rife with samurais, hunchbacks, gypsies, mysterious shadow figures and Wookalars (you have to watch), this comedic murder-mystery set in England really keeps you on your toes. And in typical Knotts and Conway fashion, shows us how easy it is to love “two idiots what going to leave their mark wherever they go.” Not counting cameos, this is the last ride for these two men. And they went out in style. With a Wookalar!! (Gowdy Cannon)


Fletch Lives

Fletch is widely considered one of the great comedies of the ’80s. It’s witty and razor sharp and Chevy Chase is at his sarcastic best. Fletch Lives, the sequel that came a few years later is widely derided as a pale imitation of its predecessor. I find that opinion to be ridiculous. No, Fletch Lives does not reach the highs of the original but it admirably captures its tone, style, and humor. Chase is given a chance to play a handful of memorable “characters” – Ed Harley and Claude Henry Smoot to name a couple. The supporting cast included screen legend R. Lee Ermey as a smiley, smarmy televangelist and Cleavon Little as Calculus Entropy, perhaps the best side character in either Fletch movie. Seriously, I would watch multiple films about Calculus.

If I were handing out grades, Fletch gets an A+ and Fletch Lives gets a solid A-. To put it more bluntly, for all the Fletch Lives haters out there, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where Fletch Lives never got made. Perhaps I’m wrong. If so, I can only respond like Fletch would, “It takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong. I am NOT a big man.” (Phill Lytle)


The Gods Must Be Crazy

My parents spent time in Cote D’Ivoire as dorm parents at a missionary school for about half of the 90s. While there they fell in love with a movie called The God’s Must Be Crazy. They came back, introduced it to me, and I’ll be dogged if I didn’t fall in love with it too. To be honest, much of the camera-work of the movie is not great. This is possibly because it was extremely inexpensively made from donations from local sources. That location: South Africa. It isn’t set there though. It is set in the nearby country of Botswana with the Kalahari Desert playing a crucial role. If you can get past the somewhat shoddy cinematography, you will find the entirety of the writing and plot chock full of wit, charm, and a variety of different kinds of great humor. This is particularly true when it comes to the main character, a bushman named Xi (played by an actual bushman named N!xau). The central plot begins with an empty Coca-Cola bottle discarded by a pilot flying over the Kalahari. It lands where it is discovered by Xi’s tiny, peaceful family tribe. In the ensuing greed and jealousy that erupts, the tribe determines that the bottle is indeed an “evil thing” sent down by the gods to test them. Brave Xi then sets out on a quest to cast the “evil thing” off of the ends of the earth. Then the real madness and insanity begins. (Ben Plunkett)


¡Three Amigos!

I’m pretty sure no movie of the 80s made me laugh more than this one did. In my circles, it is hard pressed to call it “underrated” because so many people I know love it. But it didn’t make a ton of money and it has a very mediocre rating on IMDB.com, so I think it fits in general.

At a time when Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short were all extremely funny actors, they brought it together for a ridiculous yet heartwarming masterpiece of comedic cinema. From the very opening where they hold out the first AH sound in “Amigos” for a stupidly and hilariously long time, to their discussion of what “infamous” means to their unforgettable “My Little Buttercup” song and dance in front of a terrified cantina, the Amigos make sure the laughs do not stop in this movie.

Not to be outshone, even a little bit, is the superbly named and utterly outrageous villain El Guapo. He is truly one of the greatest antagonists of all time in this genre. His overdone machismo and his scathing one-liners are the stuff of legend to me and my friends. And he even has a perfect sidekick, Jefe. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have told Phill, “I am still here El Guapo!” to encourage him that I stand behind REO 100% (Thankfully Phill hasn’t shot me like El Guapo did Jefe.)

On the short list for the most quotable movie of all time to me (“Can I have your gun when you are dead?”, “Good night, Ned!”), I couldn’t get enough of ¡Three Amigos! in 1986 and, unlike most 80s movies, it still holds up well today. It has made me laugh until I have cried. (Gowdy Cannon)


The ‘Burbs

I think The ‘Burbs is one of Tom Hanks’ best films and one of his best performances. I realize how absurd that might sound to a lot of people. The ‘Burbs is a ridiculous comedy about a group of nosy and meddlesome suburbanite neighbors. They come to believe their new neighbors, the Klopeks, are mass murderers who are burying their victims in the backyard. The film is populated with hilariously colorful characters – from Bruce Derns’ insane Lt. Mark Rumsfield[1. You can read more about him here.] to Rick Ducommun as the hapless conspiracy nut Art Weingartner. Not to mention Carrie Fisher’s great performance as the patient and slightly exasperated wife. The film provides laughs on multiple levels – pratfalls, subtle quips, and clever wordplay. But the glue that holds it all together is Hanks. He is equal turns the voice of reason and the most paranoid of them all. His final monologue where he defends the odd Klopek family is delivered with such authenticity you actually believe it deserves to be in a much more serious film – except that Hanks is in on the humor and absurdity and makes sure all of that still comes through loud and clear. I’m happy to report that The ‘Burbs has found a small fanbase after it’s lackluster reception in 1989. In a perfect world, it would be considered a classic. (Phill Lytle)


Those are our picks. What are yours? Let us know in the comment section. Thanks for reading.

 

 




Moments of Revelation

The bones of this article were written for my now defunct blog over ten years ago (January 2008.) A version of it was published by an online magazine called The Brink some time back as well. I keep coming back to it though. When I wrote it, I was only 30 years old. I had been married for less than ten years. I had two boys. I was less than two years into my job as a Disability Claims Examiner for the State of Tennessee.

Things have changed in the intervening ten years. I am 18 years into marriage with an amazing woman. I have three boys now – ages fifteen, fourteen, and nine. I’m a man. I’m 40! I have been at my Disability job for over 12 years. And I keep coming back to those things I wrote a decade ago. It is a simple story and one that has repeated itself in my life more times than I can recall.

I was driving home from work one afternoon. The traffic was bad – as usual – though in retrospect, it was nothing compared to our current traffic problems in Nashville. The heater in my car was nearly dead, and needless to say, it was cold. Not surprisingly, I had a headache as well. I wouldn’t describe my mood as good. It wasn’t a horrible day – I wasn’t angry or bitter or anything like that. In as simple terms as I can put it, I just wasn’t “feeling” that Tuesday afternoon. Does that make sense? There are days where it is better for everyone to just turn the page and get to the next one. That was my reality that cold, January afternoon. I was ready to move on to Wednesday.

That all changed, though, while I was driving home. When I first wrote this article (or blog post), I had a catchy name for what happened to me. At least, I thought it was catchy, but as it didn’t actually catch on, it was probably not nearly as catchy as I hoped. I had a “Moment of Revelation.” I was 30 and full of vim and vigor so you have to grant me some grace in thinking that “Moment of Revelation” was going to revolutionize the world.

What exactly was my “Moment of Revelation?” God didn’t audibly speak to me. I didn’t get a vision from heaven. What did happen was that I caught a glimpse of something beyond me and my immediate circumstances. Scripture tells us that God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; I am sure there are many different ways that verse can be interpreted or explained, but I am not going to exegete the passage. I know what that verse says to me; God has made everything beautiful in its time and he created humanity with an innate ability to appreciate truth and beauty. He did this so that we could and would recognize the Originator of that Truth and Beauty.

That gets me back to my “Moment of Revelation.” I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular while I was driving, so I wasn’t exactly searching for anything beautiful, but beauty found me anyway. I had the radio on one of those “We play whatever we want” stations. (Jack FM if you want me to be specific.) The volume was low because the song that had been playing was terrible. Due to the low volume, I missed the first couple of notes of the next song, U2’s glorious With or Without You. Once I realized what song was on, I turned up the volume to a comfortably deafening level. (“Comfortably deafening” might seem contradictory, but if you are a big music fan, I think you know exactly what I mean.) I don’t have the ability to describe the rush of emotions that hit me. I forgot I was cold. I forgot my headache. I forgot the crappy day I had at work. I forgot about the bumper-to-bumper traffic. I simply allowed the song to “minister” to me. I know that sounds preposterous and touchy-feely, but it happened.

My entire outlook for the day changed. That one song at that specific time was exactly what I needed. Before anyone chimes in about the song itself, I’ll make a few things clear: I didn’t/don’t base my theology on this song, even though it probably captures the typical Christian experience better than just about any song on Christian radio any given year. I don’t have to agree with everything an artist is expressing. I just need to be ready to catch a quick glimpse of the eternity that the artist may or may not have even intended.

I experienced this the first time I saw Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey hug on the big screen in The Fellowship of the Ring. I was hit over the head with it when Stephen Lawhead, in his magnificent Pendragon Cycle, wrote about Merlin holding a wounded Arthur in his arms as their small boat sails to Avalon. Every time I hear The River Will Flow by Whiteheart, my soul smiles. I think God smiles too. These “Moments of Revelation” are everywhere; we just have to be ready to receive them. Mind you, they are not just in the arts. It could be a sunset. Laughing with a friend. Spending time with your family. I could go on for pages about the ways my kids help me experience it. My point is that we need to cultivate an appreciation for these moments that God gives us. There is a fundamental reason we have this ability; it points our eyes to our Creator. If we truly appreciate the beauty and truth we find in our lives, it will only nurture our love and devotion to the Source of that beauty and truth.

I look for these moments often though probably not as often as I should. I have even written about a few of these moments already for REO. (Here, here, here, and here.) If your day, or week, is not really doing it for you, keep your eyes open. Maybe God has a moment prepared for you. Don’t miss it because you are too busy stuck in your present circumstances.

Can you relate? Do you have these moments? We would love for you to tell us about them in the comment section below.

 




I Believe I Can Fly! My Five Favorite Flying Scenes

Ask just about any kid what superpower they want most and they will choose the ability to fly. Ask any adult the same question and you will likely get the same answer. There is something wonderfully appealing about being able to fly. It’s why we took to the skies over 100 years ago. Movies have frequently attempted to capture the joy and excitement of flying. From Star Wars and its space battles to Top Gun and its over-the-top male bonding in the sky, movies have done their best to help us experience what it feels like to go airborne.

Below, you will read (and see[1. All video clips are courtesy of the respective studios…Don’t sue us we aren’t making any money off of them!]) my five favorite flying scenes. A few disclaimers and honorable mentions before we get to the main list. First, I have not included any of the more “realistic” flying scenes – scenes where people are piloting airplanes or jets. Those can be fun but I think they mute a lot of the excitement we long for as children. Most kids want to fly, not fly in something. Second, as it will become more obvious below, I am drawn to scenes where the music and the mood capture me as much as what I am seeing on screen. Finally, I may have cheated a little on a few of these and violated my first point above. You’ll see what I mean below.

Honorable mentions:

1. Iron Man – the first time Tony Stark flies in the Iron Man suit. It’s a fun, well executed scene.

2. Avatar – Neytiri goes flying on an Ikran. If Avatar excelled at anything, it was the visuals and James Cameron holds nothing back for this sequence. Seeing this in 3D was spectacular filmmaking.

3. The Neverending Story – Atreyu and Falcor fly over Fantasia. I have loved this movie since I was a child. The effects in this scene don’t hold up to today’s standards, but man did they transport me to a new world when I first saw this film.

With all that said, here are my five favorites in no particular order.


Toy Story – Woody and Buzz fall with style

 

This scene is a perfect summation as to why Pixar films are so good. It’s the climax of the film and the filmmakers could have simply used that as an excuse to end the film with something huge. And in a way, it does end big, but everything that happens in this sequence happens to further develop the story and the characters. Buzz Lightyear and Woody have been butting heads since the moment they met. Buzz won the other toys over with his incredible “flying” demonstration early in the film. Yet, by the end of the film, he has come to terms with the fact that he is a toy and cannot fly. So what does Pixar do? It has Woody and Buzz working together to literally fly to the moving truck – and beyond. It’s action and excitement in service of the story and the characters. That is great filmmaking and it’s why Toy Story, and many other Pixar films, are so beloved all these years later.


Superman Returns – Superman saves the day

 

I realize that this film has been lost in the craze and popularity of the recent Marvel films. That’s a shame because Bryan Singer made a really good Superman film. This film serves as a sequel of sorts to Superman II – the one from the 80s. Superman has been gone from earth for five years. He left to see if he could find any signs of an intact Krypton. He returns to find that many people in the world, Lois Lane included, have moved on. This scene is his reintroduction to the world. For my money, this is the first time a film was truly able to capture Superman’s power, speed, and ability. The entire airplane rescue sequence is intricately constructed – with new obstacles popping up every few seconds. Besides the fantastic visuals, the music plays a vital role as well. Composer John Ottman did what most composers do not seem capable of doing: He checked his ego at the door and willingly weaved portions of John Williams’ classic Superman score with his own original score. You can hear the opening notes of the triumphant Williams Superman theme at the very end of the clip. The full theme is heard multiple times throughout the movie and that, coupled with Ottman’s original score, make for an awesome pairing.


E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – Flying bikes

 

Speilberg was working on a level most other filmmakers only dream of when he made E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. It’s one of my 10 favorite films and the climax is a big reason why. There is a sense of wonder and joy during the final chase – then flight – sequence it’s almost palpable. It’s perfectly staged by building up the tension a little at a time until you feel that something just has to give. And then the boys take flight on their bikes! I get chills every time I see it.


Peter Pan – Wendy learns how to fly

 

I hate that this film seemingly got ignored when it released back in 2003. In a perfect world, this would be the definitive film version of this story. What draws me to this sequence–besides the pure joy and excitement demonstrated by the kids, and the impossibly chaotic and beautiful child imagined solar system–is the music. Again, if the music works for me, the film has a great chance to become a favorite. My reaction to this musical theme by James Newton Howard is hard for me to really explain. It hits me deep. It builds, it plays a bit, and then it explodes into the grand rendition of the Neverland theme. I saw this in a mostly empty theater when it came out and I was floored. There must have been dust in the air or something because my eyes were all manner of watery.


How to Train Your Dragon – Hiccup and Toothless’s first flight

 

Childlike wonder. That is all that really needs to be said about this sequence and this film. I enjoyed this film the first time I saw it. I liked the world, the story, and the music. Then my middle son fell in love with it. He was around six years old when he saw it for the first time at our house. Watching him watch this film is one of my favorite memories. I don’t know if I have ever seen a face as transfixed, as mesmerized, as awestruck as his face when he watched this first flying scene. I completely fell in love with the film once I saw it through his eyes – the eyes the film was meant to capture all along.


That’s my list. I know there are dozens of other worthy scenes that I could have mentioned. I would love to hear from our readers. In the comment section below, tell us about some of your favorite flying scenes. Anything is fair game – even planes, jets, and all other flying machines. Thanks for reading.

 

 




Gollum Cries Discrimination After Being Portrayed by “Nasty” Human Actor in “The Lord of the Rings” Films

Hollywood, CA, The Fourth Age – Reclusive and antisocial fantasy creature, Gollum, or Sméagol as he was once known, has finally broken his silence about his life being put on screen in The Lord of the Rings films. “It’s not fair! Not fair at all, precious! They don’t ask us if we wants to be famous! They don’t ask us if we wants to be known! They lie and cheat and steal, the nasty mens! Gollum! Gollum!”

When pressed to reveal his biggest problem with his story finally being told on the silver screen, he wailed, “Nasty, dirty, actor! Andy Serkisis! He jumps and screams and cries, yes he does precious. Sméagol sees what he does. Sméagol knows. He lies, yes, yes! He lies. He pretends to be Sméagol but he isn’t Sméagol. No, he isn’t Sméagol. He’s false, precious. A wicked, nasty, cheat. It’s not his business to be Sméagol. Not his business! Sneaky little Serkisis. We hates him forever!”

While it is unclear if he realizes that Andy Serkis did not physically portray him on screen, as his character was created through a complex digital filmmaking technique called “Motion Capture”, Gollum/Sméagol did seem to understand that some special effects wizardry was at play. “Cruel, cruel mens and their nasty computers! They tricks everyone, they did! Sméagol did not do it. No, no! Sméagol did not do it. Mens and their filthy zeroeses and oneses did it! Yes, they did precious! Yes, they did. Curse them!”

Representatives for the poor wretch have filed a lawsuit against actor Andy Serkis and New Line Cinema, citing digital appropriation and “humanwashing” of the character. At this time, neither Serkis, his representatives, or New Line Cinema have responded to these accusations.

 

*Image courtesy of Warner Bros/New Line Cinema as Gollum refused to be photographed for this article.




Reform the Line: Finding Purpose in Failure

Whether it’s due to upbringing, past influences, or sensibilities developed over the years, I do my best to keep my eyes and ears open to truth that can help shape me into something better. That is not meant to be a pat on the back. From an early age, I have been blessed to learn from much wiser people the importance of examining everything I consume – whether literature, music, or movies. I was taught that everything I take into my mind needs to be filtered through the light of God’s truth and grace.

It is that context that sets the stage for so many of my most valuable lessons. I’ve written about a few of them for Rambling Ever On already which you can read here, here, and here. And while this particular moment of revelation was once again provided by Tolkien and his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, this time it was delivered through the film adaptation by Peter Jackson. To make any sense of this story, I must beg your indulgence for a few minutes as I do my best to provide context, and that will require a bit of storytelling and ground laying on my part. I promise it has to be done for any of this to make sense.


At the outset of The Return of the King, the third movie in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the people of Rohan are going to war against Mordor, the great evil of the world. Their spirits are high after a hard-fought battle at Helm’s Deep. They had won the day through courage, determination, and the perfect timing of a wizard. The sun rose in the east and brought with it new life, new hope, and a complete routing of their enemy. Now, Gondor, their great ally to the southeast, has called for aid, and Rohan answers. The Rohirrim – the great cavalry of the Rohan people – rides to fight in the great war of their time. With them ride Aragorn, the heir to the throne of Gondor and hero of Helm’s Deep, along with Legolas Greenleaf and Gimli son of Gloin, elf and dwarf warriors of renown. The odds are not good but with these mighty warriors at their side and a little luck, perhaps they will win the day again.

That is the scene that Peter Jackson’s epic conclusion to The Lord of the Rings trilogy presents to the audience. The Return of the King further stacks the deck against our heroes. On the eve of battle, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli make the difficult decision to seek another road to Gondor, leaving the Rohirrim to ride to battle alone. It is a huge blow to the morale of the soldiers. Aragorn had given them hope. His presence inspired renewed courage. Just like that, he was gone and with him, their courage. They lose hope and they openly question the wisdom of riding to war.

Théoden, King of Rohan, has lived a long and mostly unfulfilled life. For too long, he was an ineffective leader. For too long, he sat by as his country and his people suffered. After Aragorn departs, one of Théoden’s soldiers speaks aloud that which all others are thinking, “He (Aragorn) leaves because there is no hope…We cannot defeat the armies of Mordor.” They know they cannot win this fight. It is at this moment of despair, that Théoden truly becomes the king he has always desired to be. He responds with such resolve that it calms the hearts of his soldiers and prepares them for what they must do. “No we cannot. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless.” Théoden recognized the hopelessness of their situation, but he recognized something even more important: the absolute rightness of their task. The righteousness of it all. They would ride to war and die in war because it was the right thing to do.

In what is possibly the crowning cinematic achievement of the film, the Rohirrim arrive at the Fields of Pelennor, outside the walls of Gondor’s capital city, Minas Tirith, to find a host of enemy warriors swarming as far as the eye can see. It is a veritable ocean of orcs, trolls, and other creatures of darkness and evil. Théoden calls to his troops. He rallies them with his chant of “Death!” They charge, building speed as they take arrow after arrow, and finally, triumphantly, they break through the line of terrified orcs. They completely turn the tide of the battle. They rally the armies of Gondor. They bring hope and courage to the free peoples of Middle Earth. The orcs flee in fear knowing that they cannot stand against the righteous fury of the Rohirrim. It is a beautiful sight.

It is then that the Rohirrim realize that Mordor is stronger than they realized and another army had been held in reserve: an army of oliphaunts (giant elephants) prepared to lay waste to anyone still on the battlefield. Hope turns sour and despair sets in again.


It is easy to give up when faced with failure. It is not an uncommon thing to give our best and watch it fall apart in front of our eyes. This inevitably leaves us feeling dejected and discouraged. We have all been there. We have poured our hearts into something so important and so precious, only to see it blow away in the cold winds of failure. I would wager that most of us have experienced this in some form or fashion. Many of us are experiencing it right now.

Life can feel unfair. Things go wrong – many times in ways that leave us broken. Often, it goes bad due to our own failings or flaws, though that is a separate conversation for another day. The failure I am discussing now is a different thing altogether. We can diligently live out our purpose and calling and still see it crumble at our feet. We can know, without a doubt, that we are doing the right thing and still be crushed by disappointment. We can do the righteous thing and receive suffering, loss, and even death as our reward.

Take the real-life story of Jim Elliot and the Ecuadorian missionaries. On January 8, 1956, Jim Elliot, Peter Fleming, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, and Nate Saint were brutally killed by warriors from the Waodani tribe in the jungles of Ecuador. This occurred after months of trying to connect with the tribe. In fact, a few days before they were martyred, they had met with a small group from the tribe and were thrilled that God had finally opened this door. They had been led to the Waodani tribe. They knew the risks, as their correspondence and writings would later attest, but they also knew that if this was the will of God, they had only one choice: obey. By any human standard, their mission was a total failure.

Their friends and family were heartbroken when they received news of the attack. Instead of hating the Waodani tribe for what they did, some of the remaining family members, Jim’s wife Elizabeth in particular, chose to continue the mission. In place of fear, anger, and hatred, they went back to the Waodani and showed them courage, peace, and the love of Christ. Their ministry, and the memory of what the five young martyrs did change the Waodani people forever.


That is the lesson The Rohirrim, King Théoden, and The Return of the King had for me on my most recent viewing. Mordor was too strong and too powerful to defeat. Théoden and his soldiers knew this. They had done the unthinkable and broken the line on their first, desperate charge. For a few brief and glorious moments, they thought they had turned the tide of the battle and won the day. To the east, the line of oliphaunts and the second army from Mordor shattered that dream. Once again, they were faced with the futility of their task. They rode to Gondor’s aid knowing that death would be their only reward. But they rode nonetheless. Théoden, having already found his courage, sees the new army approaching and the fear it inspires in the eyes of his men, and he stands resolute. He quickly rallies his men and they respond as they have been trained to do from their youth. He yells the line that struck me with such force that I quietly gasped. “Reform the line! Reform the line!” The line reforms and the Rohirrim once again charge, courageously, hopelessly into the gaping maw of a much stronger army.

The outcome is irrelevant. They march because it is right. They march because it is the only honorable and noble choice left to them. I doubt we will be faced with such a choice – a life or death decision. But we are faced with difficulties throughout our lives. We serve in thankless and overlooked ministries. We sow the seed and never reap the harvest. Some of us deal with sickness and infirmity. Some of us deal with tragedy, more than it seems fair for one person to bear. We labor and sometimes, it feels in vain. That is our reality. We see this story play out in Scripture repeatedly. Moses not crossing into the Promised land. David not being allowed to build the Temple. Joseph and his continual setbacks and trials. Paul and his thorn in the flesh. All the martyrs throughout the pages of Scripture.

My takeaway from all of this is pretty simple. God does not promise us an easy road. He does not guarantee success, by any earthly definition. His plan is greater than all of that. He requires but one thing: obedience. That is a lesson I need to hear often. I need to see results. I need to see the Lord move in my church in a mighty way, but at times, it feels as if we are dying a slow and prolonged death. All of this even though I am convinced we are doing exactly what the Lord wants us to do. Perhaps it is His good will to let us serve out our days and never see tangible results. Faced with that possibility, what are our options? Do we seek greener pastures? Do we compromise in hopes that it will benefit us in the long run? Or do we “reform the line” and do exactly what we believe the Lord has for us to do?


Jim Elliot wrote this prior to his death, and though not as famous as his “He is no fool” quote, this speaks directly to the heart of what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ, “Rest in this: it is His business to lead, command, impel, send, call or whatever you want to call it. It is your business to obey, follow, move, respond, or what have you. I may no longer depend on pleasant impulses to bring me before the Lord. I must rather respond to principles I know to be right, whether I feel them to be enjoyable or not.”

Failing is not enjoyable. Suffering is not enjoyable. Sometimes though, it is right and righteous. Sometimes, failure is exactly what is being asked of us. Théoden and the Rohirrim charge the new army and hope rekindles. The good guys win the day as Aragorn arrives at just the right moment with an army all his own. Théoden never sees that victory. In the midst of the battle, Théoden is mortally wounded and as he lies dying in the arms of his beloved niece, he is finally at peace. “I go to my fathers, in whose mighty company I shall not now feel ashamed.” He did what was right, no matter the results. No matter the consequences. That is our calling. That is our purpose. Obey. To do the right thing no matter what. To “reform the line” as many times as it is necessary. This is no fairytale, where heroic deeds are rewarded with victory upon victory. We live in a broken and fallen world where oftentimes, God uses our brokenness and failures for His glory. We fail, but there is beauty and redemption in those failings if they flow from humble and obedient hearts.

As followers of the living God, we too will pass on from this life to the next and if we are faithful and obedient to our calling, we too will have nothing of which to be ashamed. No matter the earthly successes or failures of our lives, our ultimate reward is waiting for us in the arms of our Savior who will welcome us with the best words imaginable, “Well done my good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord!”

 

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” – Jim Elliot

 

 




500 Words or Less Reviews: The War

Filmmaker Ken Burns is probably most famous for creating the documentary miniseries, The Civil War (1990), and for good reason. It is a documentary masterpiece. In the years since he has made several other series on a variety of other historical subjects. Hoping to recapture the magic of The Civil War, my sister and I recently watched his 2007 World War II series The War. While it did not match The Civil War in thoroughness or filmmaking magic, The War was nonetheless extremely good.

As for the thoroughness, the film is clear about its limited scope and its rationale for such. Each episode is introduced with these two lines: “The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting. This is the story of four American towns and how their citizens experienced that war.” I would not be a bit surprised to learn that he put this here specifically because test audiences kept complaining that the series was a limited look at World War II. In effect, this two lines explained that World War II was so huge that it would be impossible to give a complete look at it in a mere seven-episode series. No, instead it looked at multiple stages of the war as seen through the eyes of Americans from Waterbury, Conn.; Sacramento, Calif.; Mobile, Ala.; and Luverne, Minn.

All of the commentaries are people from one of these towns and were individuals who either fought in the war or normal American citizens who were drastically affected by the war in various ways. Unlike The Civil War, there is no commentary by experts like historians. The people who lived these things are the only experts we get. This is just fine because hearing the testimonies of these people who actually lived it makes it more real, more poignant. It gives audiences a closer, more emotional, look at things like the plight of Japanese Americans; life in America during World War II; life for Americans imprisoned by the Japanese in a Philippine internment camp; and, of course, soldiers who fought in the war on a multiplicity of fronts.

Although most of them are not technical experts in any historical area, the selection of those individuals who commented was excellent casting. All of the now elderly people chosen had a kind of indescribable charm, a respectability, an impeccably honorable essence. Even more so, for obvious reasons each of them clearly felt deeply about the subject matter. It was this that more than anything else added to the enrichment of this story. They were The War’s secret weapon. The seven episodes will take you on a journey all over the world through the eyes of these American citizens who lived and saw the horror, saw the greatness, experienced the time that changed their lives and impacted the world forever.