Review: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

“Everyone longs to be loved. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.” – Fred Rogers

 

The Mr. Rogers I remember was a TV personality that had a warm and welcoming opening song and changed his jacket for a sweater and played with a trolley. He did voices in the Land of Make Believe and spoke gently and kindly to his audience and was good friends with people like Mr. McFeely. Thanks to him, I have known what a duckbill platypus is since I was five.

The Mr. Rogers of Won’t You Be My Neighbor I did not recall. And for that reason, among many others, this story needs to be told. God communicates to us so clearly through narrative. Our Bible is chock full of them. Biographies teach us things that ‘How To’ books never could. We need lives–real, heroic, inspirational lives–to help us make sense of this corrupt world. Fred Rogers is the modern example par excellence as to why.

Thanks to this documentary we get to see how big a visionary he was, seeing TV as the future before it was even the present. We get to see him fight for funding for it, using meekness to speak boldly and change the circumstances. We get to see him provide entertainment for kids that was wholesome and countercultural. We get to see him talk to children in a courageous, competent and congenial way about things like assassination, low self-esteem and anger. Things that seem daunting to talk about in private, much less in front of an audience. He taught against racism in as innocuous yet powerful a way as possible, in a time where it was terribly needed. He taught that it was OK to be sad without being patronizing. He talked through issues about emotions in an emotionally intelligent way, to such a level that my educated and experienced teacher wife was blown away. She could not believe how much he knew about how to talk to children, especially since it was 40 years ago before a lot of modern research was popular. Mr. Rogers was ahead of his time and in many ways a genius.

Most of that was surprising to me. But the stories went deeper. Mr. Rogers was known for dealing with children, but he worked with adults. And he proved that you can speak the truth to someone about a very hard subject and still make that person feel deeply in their soul that you love them so much they see you as a surrogate father. We in the U.S., even in Christianity, haven’t all figured this out. For this reason as much as any, I adore Fred Rogers. And until I watched this film, I had no idea.

If you have noticed that this documentary is rated P-13, I want to be clear that the previous paragraph is a part of why. The heaviness of real-world issues and interpersonal relationships isn’t always for general audiences. Yet there are other things that cause it to be rated as it is. Though Mr. Rogers lived a mostly G-rated life, his story is told by others. And as such, there were a few profane words in the interviews and a reference to a prank on set that is not something I would expect parent readers of REO would want small children to see. Also, Fred Rogers got angry at times about issues facing children in the US, especially when it came to what was on TV. And this documentary shows some of what Mr. Rogers hated.

My criticisms of this work are minor. I loved the music from the trailer and wish they had used it more. The transitions from story to story seemed a bit awkward at times to me, but another review I read said they were perfect so perhaps that is something I do not understand about documentaries. And finally, the cursing in the film is something at least at this point that has me torn. I suppose the point of this is for teenagers and adults to be inspired and to tell his story without many filters. Yet considering what his life stood for, I wish it were appropriate for kids. I suppose the kids still have his 1700+ TV episodes to watch.

Mr. Rogers talked a lot about love in his life. But he proved that while talking is easy and living is hard, it must be done if we want to make a difference. Love is unapologetically inconvenient. Mr. Rogers practiced it both in public and private, as valiantly and humbly as he could. At least according to those who knew him best.

I recommend this documentary to everyone who has been touched by Fred Rogers in any way, which would be millions of people all over the world, even nearly 15 years after his death.

Four stars out of five.

 

 




500 Words or Less Reviews: To Kill a Mockingbird (Film)

In 1960, Harper Lee published her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. It has since become one of the most beloved books of millions of readers. The movie adaptation of the book bearing the same name was released just two years after its original publication. One might have thought that since the movie was released so quickly after the book’s first appearance it would be extremely good at best, but it is debatably the greatest movie adaptation of a book ever. (To be honest, there are several others that are very close contenders. Nevertheless, TKaM gets my vote.)

In the year it opened, To Kill a Mockingbird garnered eight nominations at the Oscar’s, winning three of those. But moviegoers recognized that it was more than merely one of the best movie of the year; both critics and audiences rightly saw it as one of the greatest movies of all time. It has maintained that status.

I don’t think anything made by mankind is ever perfect. Things that we do and make can always be perfected in some way. But I do admit that there are some things pretty close to perfection. This particular work of art directed by Robert Mulligan fits well in that category.

There is so much to appreciate here, from the mastery of the music, the directing, the writing, the cinematography, etc. Everything clicks, everything turns like a well-oiled movie machine, a projector, if you will. A good argument could be made that the acting is the film’s most outstanding feature. This is particularly true of its three main actors: Gregory Peck (Atticus Finch), Mary Badham (Scout Finch), and Phillip Alford (Jem Finch). This is Peck at his award-winning and iconic finest, which is actually no surprise. Peck is always so good at his profession that he could probably out-act most actors at acting while gagged, tied, and encased in a coffin—and still win an Oscar. No, the actual surprise here is the acting of Badham and Alford, neither of whom had been previously trained but who both did a superb job carrying most of the movie alone.

To Kill a Mockingbird is set in a quaint little town and looks at the world from the young vantage points of Scout and Jem. The story is a coming of age one of sorts. Along their young journey they get their first real glimpse into the adult world filled with its selfish pride, racism, death, and hatred. In the midst of this stands the pillar that is their father, Atticus, a lone bulwark of wisdom and mercy and grace and love.

Along the journey, they will adventure with their best friend Dill Harris, and encounter unforgettable characters like Boo Radley (portrayed by Robert Duvall in his debut film appearance), Tom Robinson, Calpurnia, Mayella Ewell, Bob Ewell, and many other wonderful and colorful people.

Lastly, a final shout-out to legendary composer, Elmer Bernstein, for the film’s haunting, beautiful, utterly timeless soundtrack.




Five More Sports Movies We Love

The best movies tell unforgettable stories and introduce us to legendary characters and performances. So it is no surprise that in a culture obsessed with sports, some of the best films of all time are about them. Sports prove that truth is indeed better than fiction quite often–you will notice below and on any list of sports movies how many are based on or inspired by true stories. Movies, for their part, make us interested in sports we as Americans often are not obsessed with, like boxing, karate and hockey. The two together have given us exceptional entertainment.

Today our staff discusses five more sports films that we love. You can read our first article in this series here. This is not a Top Five list; just five selections that impacted us deeply…as sports fans (most of us), moviegoers and human beings that love to be inspired.


Remember the Titans by Phill Lytle

Maybe this one is too obvious. I’m not sure that matters that much to me. I love this movie. I love the story – even if the filmmakers took liberties in telling it. I love the performances, with Denzel doing what he does best, the young cast of football players/students bringing life and personality to the team, and to the unsung heroes of the film like Will Patton as the assistant coach. Everyone brings their A-game to the movie and it shows. The music by Trevor Rabin is earnest and epic which only serves to help everything mean a little bit more.

This is a movie that calls its shot from the very beginning and unless you have never seen a sports movie before, you will know where it is headed. You anticipate the beats, the dramatic flourishes, and the building climax. None of that matters. This was Disney firing on all cylinders, perfectly delivering on their tried and true method. That might sound cynical of me. Trust me, it’s not. I unapologetically love this film even if it does pretty much exactly what you expect it to from the opening frame.

It’s a movie built on moments, speeches, emotions, and inspiration. It sets out to tell a heartwarming and uplifting film and it pulls it off without a hitch. Remember the Titans is a Titan in the world of sports movies and deserves to be on everyone’s favorites list.


A League of Their Own by Gowdy Cannon

“There’s No Crying In Baseball!” put this film on the map so to speak, but after about 10 viewings I can say that it is so much more than Tom Hanks at his comedic finest. It’s a perfect storm of untold history, tense family drama, riveting sports action and timeless storytelling that joins a pantheon of exceptional American screenplays. To me it is not just one of the best sports movies of all time, but one of the best films of any genre of all time.

Hanks is his typical scene-stealing self. Gina Davis is great. Lori Petty is perfect as the insecure younger sibling (as the 4th of 5 children, I am fully qualified to make that call). Unheard of Megan Cavanagh, who doesn’t even have a picture on her wikipedia page, is unforgettable. Even modern punching bags Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell are good in their support roles. And they all have tremendous chemistry.

Not to be lost is without of doubt my favorite Jon Lovitz performance ever, as the scout Ernie Capadino. Essentially 100% of what he says makes me and my mom laugh out loud, even after repeated viewings. To this day I can look at her and say “You see the way it works is that the train moves and not the station” and we will crack up.

If a litmus test for movie grade is how rewatchable it is, A League of Their Own gets an A.


Space Jam by D.A. Speer

Everybody get up, it’s time to slam now! A few years back, shortly after my wife Kate and I were married, we thought it would be great fun on a whim to hold a Space Jam party. We invited friends over, had some snacks, and watched the movie. You never really know just how well a movie will hold up over the years, because over time, a movie can seem so much better in your mind than it actually was. We took the gamble…and it held up well!

At lunch today, I asked my wife, “What is it that made Space Jam such a good movie?” She looked at me for a second and said, “What about it isn’t a good movie?” I had a hard time answering. On paper, I’d have expected the movie to be a failure. MJ teams up with the Looney Toons to challenge aliens for their fates over a theme park. What could possibly go wrong with an idea like that?

Well, somehow director Joe Pytka was able to pull off movie magic. The story is compelling enough to make it fun. The music inspired everything from couple’s skates at the local roller rink (I Believe I Can Fly), to endless current-day internet remixes of the theme song by Quad City DJ’s. The star power is perfect for the time. This is right in the height of Jordan mania, after his first return to the NBA. As a teenager, I had a poster of him on my wall, slamming in it with his tongue out. Would I want to see him play against cartoon monsters? Psh, I could have watched him shoot free throws in practice and would have been enthralled. Bill Murray is there. Charles Barkley is there. Larry Bird is there. Heck, even Newman shows up.

Yeah, it’s not the most epic movie by today’s standards, but it will forever be a classic in my mind, half court dunks and all.


Warrior by Phill Lytle

I hate MMA, or mixed martial arts. It’s one tiny step up from to-the-death, gladiatorial combat, and I honestly don’t understand or appreciate its appeal in the least. Which makes my reaction to Warrior, a movie about two brothers who are MMA fighters, so perplexing. I never thought I would love a movie about MMA fighting, let alone like a movie like that, but Warrior defied my expectations and had me from very early on. The story is nothing groundbreaking – if you have seen any boxing movie or many sports movies for that matter, you can sort of guess where everything is going – but the execution of the story is what makes this film work so well. Nick Nolte, Tom Hardy, and Joel Edgerton give amazing performances as a father and his two estranged sons. I’ve never been a huge Nolte fan but he is incredible in this film playing a very damaged and broken father. Hardy is just pure intensity and he brings a real menace and danger to his character, but with just enough cracks in his facade to show that there is a lot more to him than just anger and passion. Edgerton plays the most “normal” role, but he gives his character so much depth that I hate to classify it as normal. The fight sequences are well shot – they are brutal and very effective. The film is shot low budget style which lends the film more realism and immediacy. The music is great as well, with a song by The National that closes the film perfectly.

Warrior is first and foremost a movie about a broken family trying to find healing. That is what drew me in and what knocked down my walls. I was prepared to hate this movie due to my hatred of the sport it showcases. I was not prepared to fall completely for it.


Over the Top by Gowdy Cannon

Millions know Sly Stallone from the Rocky and Rambo series. Far less remember him in this movie about an estranged father, his spoiled son and….arm wrestling? How many movies about arm wrestling are there? I don’t know, but when you’ve conquered the world as Rocky and Rambo, you get to take these risks. And while I may be in the minority, I think it yielded a reward. The superbly named Lincoln Hawk (Stallone) has the lovable humility of Balboa yet is still very much a unique character. And the journey he embarks on to earn back the love of his only son and to win an arm wrestling tournament (Really! It’s about arm wrestling!) is one I have enjoyed numerous times.

A few years ago I began a tradition of having a “Man Movie Night” with other men at my church and this was the first one I showed. Because most people have seen Stallone’s other work and this is a hidden treasure to me. Yet despite its manliness, I think the heart of father-son reconciliation can appeal to most people.

The movie has some faults for sure, like the arm wresting (arm wrestling!) tournament format of double elimination is not consistent, and the drama is at times pretty contrived, but Lincoln’s secret finger re-positioning weapon vs. Bull Harley in the final and all the memories he makes with with his son son along the way render all the flaws forgotten.  Complete with a fantastic antagonist role by Robert Loggia and some of the best terrible wonderful cheesy 80s sports montage music ever, I adore this movie.


There you have it. Five more sports movies we love. Our last list got some pretty strong feedback – both positive and negative. Hopefully this one will as well as we always enjoy a good back-and-forth with our readers. Use the comment section below to post your praise or ridicule of our selections today.




500 Words or Less Reviews: Ready Player One

Time warps our memories of things we once loved in various ways, and when enough time goes by, the exact memories we had begin to slip away from us like sand through an hourglass. When we finally are able to come back to the thing itself, whether a good book or a Nintendo game played with a trusty NES controller, some pieces of time come shooting back up to us through the hourglass. For a moment, we are reconnected to those past memories and versions of ourselves. And yet, we have changed in that time span. Our perception of what we are able to experience again is colored by eyes that have since matured and have felt more of the weight of the world.

I read the book version of “Ready Player One” almost two years ago, so it’s fitting that enough time has gone by for me to forget key scenes or details from the plot. It’s like my memory of what happened has since dissolved into fragments. During the early screening for the film, I was sitting between a close friend and a random stranger, and all three of us had read the book. We discussed a few scenes, and the plot progression started to come back to me. My anticipation started to build. Would the film deliver, or would it let me down?

When I first heard that the Ready Player One movie was in production, I wasn’t too thrilled. The book was an ambitious and expansive imaginary romp through 80’s nostalgia. “They’ll never pull a movie like this off convincingly,” I told myself. The trailers left a lot to be desired because it looked like they were going to change the plot significantly. And they did.

But you know what? Somehow it worked.

After the movie, the three of us sat and reflected on what we had just watched. The movie had the overall feel of an 80s adventure flick, Spielberg style. It felt like what author Ernest Cline (who was part of the creative process on the film) might have done with the plot in a parallel universe. My biggest fear going into the movie would be that it would turn out to be a heartless, piecemeal version of what I had experienced and loved while reading the book, but I was quite happy to be wrong. Yes, parts of the movie felt a bit rushed or contrived, and I was still miffed at a few parts of the book that didn’t make it into the movie, but overall I was very glad to have seen it.

The movie left me feeling a bit bizarre because it was like what I had once experienced, yet it was different altogether. It’s akin to playing a favorite game from your childhood that is now radically different in form, yet still retains the original essence of what you had enjoyed in the past.

8/10

(Parental content advisory: There are a few strong curse words throughout the PG-13 rated film.)




Lights, Camera, No Action! Five Non-Conventional Science Fiction Films

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines Science Fiction as “a form of fiction that deals principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals.” That is an adequate definition but it falls far short of describing the kind of impact sci-fi stories have had. From its very inception, science fiction has endeavored to challenge, to provoke, and to inspire, and sci-fi films have been at the forefront of that movement. There are the classics of the genre: 2001: A Space Odyssey. Star Trek. Alien. While sci-fi has never been confined to one style, many people think of action films when they talk about sci-fi. Star Wars (not science fiction, for what it is worth), Avatar, The Terminator. No doubt there is a place for high energy, fast-paced, action-oriented sci-fi films. Yet the root of the genre is in stories and ideas. For today’s Five, we want to focus on a handful of sci-fi films that do more than just entertain. Enjoy and be sure to tell us about your favorites in the comment section below.[1. Click the Title of each film to be taken to Amazon for the option to purchase the films and a portion of that purchase will go to supporting REO.]


Primer

I have a particular weakness for time travel shows and movies. That is why while I might experience some fatigue or get bored with other types of popular genres,  I always, always love anything involving time travel. Anything. And the best of the genre, the most thought-provoking, the most complex that I have seen is Primer (2009). Let me say right here that this movie is not everyone’s cup of tea. Many people will just find it incredibly boring and overly tedious. And it certainly isn’t flashy, being made for only $7,000. If you are a movie viewer whose primary goal is watching a movie with lots of action and a fast-moving plot that lets you turn off your brain, Primer is not for you. However, if you love a movie that really challenges your mind, Primer is the time travel movie for you without a doubt.

There is so much complexity going on with this movie that I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t get it all the first time through. Maybe not even the tenth. There are several good discussions online to help people who have viewed it to better understand it. The emphasis in that last sentence in on “who have viewed it.” Many of these places obviously have spoilers, so watch it through once or a few times before visiting any of these places. You might also want to try figuring it out for yourself first. (Benjamin Plunkett)


Gattaca

Genetic perfection? DNA manipulation? What once only seemed possible in the world of science fiction is almost a reality. Before that though, writer and director Andrew Niccol gave us a film that exhibited the true power of the sci-fi genre. Gattaca is smart, stylish, and full of symbolism and spiritual questions. The story takes place in a world where genetic tinkering allows parents to choose the best version of themselves to pass on to their children. Babies “created” this way have a massive advantage over babies conceived in the old-fashioned manner. This is where we meet the protagonist, Vincent Freeman, whose only dream has been to reach for the stars and become an astronaut. That path is closed to him due to his genetic inferiority. His hero’s journey is one of impressive willpower, unmatched determination, and a little help from a few outside sources.

Niccol envisions the world as both futuristic and retro, maintaining an elegance throughout. All the actors do good work, but Ethan Hawke and Jude Law give career best performances. And to this day, the musical score is one of my favorites. Gattaca checks all my boxes for what I love about the genre. (Phill Lytle)


Moon

Moon

Back in June of 2009, Moon quietly released with a limited showing in America, earning a paltry $136,046 on its opening weekend. Word quickly spread of just how good of a movie it was, and by November of that year, it had earned over $5,000,000. My brother-in-law went to see the film at an independent theater at the time and told me that I needed to go see it, but I just never got around to it. Moon even made a few appearances on Netflix in the past, but I always missed out…until its most recent arrival.

The main actor, Sam Rockwell, does a fantastic job exploring the loneliness and frustration that might come with an extended stay on the Moon, where he is serving out a period of time harvesting solar energy for Earth. His character is completely isolated from the rest of humanity, and watching him develop as his grip on reality starts to come unraveled is an unsettling, interesting experience. The robot GERTY, voiced by (now-disgraced actor) Kevin Spacey, adds to the sense of loneliness you feel for Rockwell’s character as you see the robot’s faltering attempts to imitate human emotion and touch.

Watching the film now, almost 9 years after its release, is a bit of an odd experience. Other space survival films (The Martian, Interstellar, etc.) have since borrowed or re-imagined some of the same scenarios, so it’s that much harder to isolate and imagine how the film would have been taken at release. Overall the plot and progression are spot on, along with the soundtrack. If you’re interested in sci-fi at all, be sure not to pass this one up before it leaves Netflix again.  (D.A. Speer)


The Iron Giant

The Iron Giant

 

Brad Bird is one of the best directors working today and this early animated film is a perfect example of his particular talents. This is a story that if handled by less skilled hands would feel clumsy or derivative. We know this story. It feels like it is a part of our cultural DNA. Small town. Curious child protagonist. Existential fear of some foreign nation – the USSR in this case. And finally, the unlikely friendship that is the backbone of the plot. Our child hero – Hogarth – befriends a giant robot that has crashed near his home. It’s a fish-out-of-water story, a buddy film, and a mystery story all rolled into one. The animation is simple and elegant. The music is rich and full of strong themes. The script is crisp, funny, and poignant. All the voice actors do great work, even Jennifer Aniston. For my money, there are very few animated films that are better. The Iron Giant towers over the competition, not with flashy action or choreographed fights, but with strong characters, a compelling story, and a deeply emotional climax. (Phill Lytle)


Signs

Signs

Every once in a while a movie comes along that transcends entertainment and becomes a piece of art that creates deep conversation and makes a difference in real life. M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs was that for me and my closest friends. It impacted me in such a way that I showed a clip of it before a sermon I preached in 2003: the conversation between Graham and Merrill about whether or not there are “signs” of God. Amazing conversation between two A-list actors. Exceptional mood setting, lighting, and general cinematography as well. The double meaning of the movie’s title brought life to that sermon and hours of conversation to my church friends.

The movie is not scary as much as it is riveting and spooky and thrilling. In his review of the movie, the late Roger Ebert said, “Shyamalan doesn’t want to blow up the world; he wants to blow our minds.” I think that says it well. Much of the movie is subtle and building. It’s not a flashy film. And this makes the intense parts even more effective, as when Merrill sees the alien on the TV footage. Complete with plenty of laughs (actual tin foil hats, anyone?) and touching moments (Graham telling his children about how they were born when he thinks they are going to die), it is a suburb blend of all the right emtions. But more than anything this movie rises and falls on the writing and direction of Shyamalan in colliding a world of the wrecked faith of a former clergyman and the classic movie trope of invading aliens. And he knocks it slam out of the park like Merrill’s 587 foot HR. (Gowdy Cannon)

 




500 Words or Less Reviews: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in August of 2014. It was a passion project for Ben Stiller, the director and lead actor on the film. It is an adaptation of the short story by James Thurber. It is a very sincere film. If earnestness gets on your nerves then you probably won’t like it. It was rejected by most filmgoers and I am unsure why.[1. The film was not well received, scoring only 51% at Rotten Tomatoes and grossing only $58 million in the US box office on a $90 million budget.] It’s not perfect and there are a few missteps along the way, but overall, I think the film accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Walter Mitty is a negative assets manager for Life MagazineLife is in the process of publishing their final edition – and the negative that is intended to be the cover photo is lost. Walter is tasked with finding it. The film is an interesting blend of reality and whimsical, day-dream type fantasy. Walter loves his job but he yearns for his life to matter more – to be more fulfilling. As the film progresses we get to watch Walter step out of his comfort zone and start to live the life he has long lived in his dreams.

Few films have challenged me the way this one did. I wrote the following after watching it:

“I have a job that I don’t love. I would rather be doing something else, though I don’t know what. I am not unhappy with my current job. In fact, I am more content at work now than I probably have ever been in my adult life. Yet sometimes, I feel like I ought to be doing something more spiritually rewarding. At least, that is how I feel when I hear Christians talk about jobs and careers.

This movie helped me take stock of my life. I don’t find my identity in my career. I find it in relationships. My standing with God. My relationship with my wife, my kids, my family and my friends. I find my identity in service in my church and outside of it. But, I still feel like there is something more that I should or could be doing.

So, I am going to try to figure that out. I loved how Walter pushed himself and discovered new ways of viewing his life. I want to try to push myself in ways that might make me uncomfortable at first. How that will look is beyond me right now, but I’m going to try to figure it out. I am very comfortable and I don’t think that is a place that God really wants any of us to be. So, I am going to change that, if I can.”

While it was still a year before any real changes happened, this movie was the impetus to getting Rambling Ever On off the ground. It was an idea we had toyed with for some time, but this movie pushed me to make it a reality. Depending on your opinion of REO, you can thank or curse Walter Mitty.

 




Five Movies I’ll Watch Every Single Time They are On

This is not a “best-of” list. These are not my five favorite films of all time. I might be weird (don’t say anything) but there are certain films that I am drawn to. Films that no matter how many times I have seen them, if I happen upon them while scrolling through my channels, I will sit down and watch them. Every time. My guess, based on what I have observed, is that many others are the same way. Our lists are likely completely different, but most of us have our go-to films. Once again, not our favorites. Not the best. Just the films that work on us each and every time. Here are five of mine. In the comment section below, tell us about yours.


National Treasure

This one might be THE go-to film for me. I remember years ago, my wife and I would go to my parents’ house every Sunday afternoon for lunch. At that time, my parents had a decent cable package and inevitably, at some point in the afternoon, I would be in the living room in a comfortable recliner, flipping my way through their channels. I lost track of how many times I would stumble upon National Treasure and get sucked in. It didn’t matter that I already knew the story – the grand mystery behind it all. I knew the jokes, the action beats, the insanity of Nicolas Cage. If National Treasure was playing on television, I was watching.

My oldest son and I watched it a few days ago. I soaked it all up again. It never fails.


The Shawshank Redemption

I’m pretty sure this film might be the G.O.A.T.[1. For those keeping score at home, this means Greatest Of All Time.] of all go-to films. There are endless jokes online about how often this film is always shown on TBS or TNT. (I have no idea which one, since I don’t have cable and those channels, seem pretty interchangeable to me.) All I know is that if someone is watching Shawshank and I walk in the room, I am also watching Shawshank. There is a rhythm and effortless charm to the film. It’s set in an ugly and harsh prison, and it still feels as much like a “feel-good” film as any I can find. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are perfect in their roles and their film friendship is a thing of movie legend. The movie is endlessly quotable and the resolution is brilliantly conceived and executed. I’ll spend time with these prisoners many more times before I die.


Sunshine

This one might feel a little weird for this article. It’s a sci-fi, horror film. It’s much more sci-fi than horror, but the final 20 minutes or so do fall into the horror category pretty neatly. Directed by Danny Boyle, of Slumdog Millionaire fame, Sunshine is the story of a desperate attempt to “restart” our sun. A spacecraft heads on its mission to the sun to detonate the largest nuclear bomb ever made in hopes that it will cause a chain reaction that will allow the sun to once again fully heat the earth. Without this, the human race and the earth itself only have a few years left. This is a film that I did not love on my first viewing. I saw it again a few months later and liked it a lot more. I saw it shortly after that, and I loved it. Each time, I couldn’t really figure out why I felt compelled to watch it again, but that didn’t stop me. I keep coming back to it like a moth to a flame. Or a spaceship to the sun…


Sahara

Based on the Clive Cussler series, Sahara had been Matthew McConaughey’s pet project for years. After a lot of time and money, he finally got it off the ground and completed the film. It was a complete box office disaster. Doesn’t matter to me at all. I enjoy this film every time I see it. I love the chemistry between McConaughey and Steve Zahn. There is nothing groundbreaking about the film – it borrows all sorts of things from other, “better”, adventure films. But the cast is affable and the film is exciting. For this type of film, what more could you want?


Hoodwinked

I love this retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story. It’s not perfect – the animation is just not great even though they do some things with it that is inventive and very striking. The story does lag a little at the end and the climax is not nearly as satisfying as the first 45 minutes. But even with those minor complaints, the film is a resounding success. The story is familiar yet told in such a unique way that you feel like you are really getting the best of the old and the new. I love the format that they use to tell the story. The four different, yet somewhat similar, viewpoints are a great conceit to really give the film some good laughs. The wolf is my favorite character, but all the characters have their moments. And the film is full of Fletch references, so you can’t go wrong with that.[2. If you don’t know Fletch, then you really need to fix that immediately. Now that I think about it, Fletch probably belongs on this list as well. When you decide to watch it, just charge it to the Underhill account.] I get pulled in anytime my kids start watching this one. It’s just that good.

 

 




Five Outstanding Westerns that You Should Literally Watch this Very Second (or ASAP)

Hollywood is full, FULL, of outstanding westerns from its beginning to current day. There are many that deserve all too well to be on any list of great western recommendations. This is a Five, so we wanted to highlight five of our personal favorites and a few that may not be so well known but totally should.


1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

My formal education did not include a ton of movies so it is amazing to me that both in Spanish Class in High School as well as History Class my first year at USC, my instructors showed my classes this film. A 1948 classic that has transcended time, it more or less did for me with westerns what Sergeant York did for war movies. I’m not a sincere fan of either genre but I can’t get enough of these movies.

Humphrey Bogart is magnificent and in this role as Dobbs earns the fame still associated his name 70 years later. Yet there is a plethora of other characters that make this movie so memorable, people most Americans have never heard of like Tim Holt, Walter Huston and Alfonso Bedoya has “Gold Hat”. And speaking of him, I would feel amiss not to mention one of the most famous lines in the history of American cinema. A line that has been referenced literally dozens of times in TV, other movies, music and other media. But I cannot mention it without getting it right, because I sense like many other famous lines, it is misquoted. It’s:

“Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

Note that the word “stinkin” isn’t until the last line. But this movie is way more than a quote. It’s a thrilling adventure of that teaches us a lot about injustice, greed and what it means to trust others when we’re in desperate circumstances. It gets real at times. And it does not have a sentimental Happy Madison type ending. Yet the conclusion still leaves me very satisfied and wanting to watch the whole thing again. Isn’t that the premiere mark of a great film? (Gowdy Cannon)


2. The Big Country

I am a huge fan of the western genre. I love films whether very old or brand new. There are many, many great ones that could be named. While I could list one that is a well known and justly deserved fan favorite, I will lend my praise to a relatively ignored classic: The Big Country. The Big Country is one of the most underappreciated movie treasures out there. The big names to match this Big County and big film include Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, and Jean Simmons. Most of the reviewers I have read seem to think it okay at best. While the musical score is almost universally applauded, the film is supposedly too long, too ambitious, is too pretentious, and contains way too much empty space.

Okay.

I honestly doubt that half the reviewers I read have watched it in its entirety. Many of them contain glaring plot errors in their descriptions. I imagine most of them just watched a few clips and wrote the rest of their reviews based on other reviewers who did the same thing. I will agree that the premise of The Big Country is not all that original. But unoriginality does not always make a bad film. Hollywood history is chock full of classic unoriginal films. Chock full. And The Big Country is part of that “chock.” Filled to the brim with great music, filming, acting, and writing, it’s an unrecognized western classic. (Ben Plunkett)


3. The Shakiest Gun In The West

The Shakiest Gun in the West

Many grew up watching Don Knotts in The Andy Griffith Show. I grew up with Threes Company and watching him and Tim Conway over and over again in a 1980 movie called The Private Eyes. I watched it probably 50 times and for years could quote the whole thing, complete with character accents.

But eventually people started pushing me to broaden my Don Knotts horizons and I did, taking in The Apple Dumpling Gang (also with Conway) and a 1968 Comedy Western called The Shakiest Gun In The West.

And it was quite the addition to his filmography. It’s classic Don Knotts as the bumbling, clueless, lovable almost hero and filled with memorable scenes and lines. My favorite is when Knotts’ character Jesse Heyward is getting ready for a showdown with Arnold the Kid and after practicing five shots he wastes his final bullet putting his gun back in his holster. I can hear my brother Jeremy in my head saying, “Two at the can…two at the sign…one in the skillet…and one in the pants.” We laughed about it dozens of times. I laugh right now just thinking about it.

The supporting cast is great, highlighted by Bad Penny and we even get a glimpse of Pat Morita in the only role I’ve seen him in that didn’t feature the words “Karate Kid” or “Happy Days” in the title. The movie also has an unforgettable song that plays during the opening title sequence and sets the mood for the show you’re about to experience.

So if you’re looking for a western big on laughs and a lead character that bears no resemblance whatsoever to John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, this is a movie worth watching. (Gowdy Cannon)


4. True Grit

To my knowledge, there are only two film versions of True Grit: the 1969 and 2010 versions. While the 1969 version is not bad and is a pretty accurate retelling of the novel, the 2010 version is much, much better in just about every way. The only place where both match in greatness is with their Rooster Cogburn actors: John Wayne and Jeff Bridges. While they may be equal in this manner, Bridges wins out because he is surrounded by excellence in every single other aspect of his film. In my opinion, there is not one thing in the film that is shoddily done. The music, the acting, the film work, the dialogue, the attention to detail, the thorough capturing of the novel’s spirit. Everything. Matt Damon deserves a particularly loud bout of praise for his portrayal of the cocky but goodhearted Texas Ranger, Laboef. Bridges and Damon are accompanied by an amazing cast of characters, some of whom only appear onscreen for a handful of minutes. I’m not sure that I can overstate my love for this movie. I strongly believe that it would belong in a top ten list of the greatest westerns ever made. (Ben Plunkett)


5. Open Range

There is a lot to love about Open Range. First, Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall are a fantastic duo in the film. They have an easy chemistry and are given plenty of room to inhabit their roles. Second, the cinematography is open (no pun intended) and expansive; really giving the viewer an appreciation for the untamed and wild Montana landscape. While the film has plenty of other elements to celebrate, for Open Range, it all comes down to the climactic shoot-out. After a film that unhurriedly moves along, the final gun-fight is bold, shocking, and edge-of-your-seat filmmaking. Kevin Costner, pulling double duty as the director, expertly stages the fight with plenty of moving pieces, a concise and understandable geography, and a fair share of “hero” moments for our main characters. It’s an intense sequence that allows this slow-burn of a film to end with a blaze of glory – classic Western motif and homage all in one. (Phill Lytle)

 

 




Five Horror Films Worth Watching

It’s that time of year again. Time for too much candy and scary movies. I’ll say this upfront – I love horror movies. Of all the people that contribute to REO, I’m confident that my love for the genre is head-and-shoulders above the rest. I love the tension, the mood, and the thrill of a good, scary film. One day, I would like to further explore what draws people to horror films. I’ll leave that topic for another time. For today, I want to shine the spotlight on a handful of films that represent the things I love the most about the horror genre. For what it’s worth, I tend to avoid violent or bloody horror films. Seeing someone tortured or killed in some gratuitously grisly manner are not things I typically enjoy. I prefer my thrills to come from atmosphere, tone, perfectly-timed jump-scares, and other things of that nature. Give me a story with good characters and a creepy plot, and I will most likely enjoy the trip.

In an effort to make this a little different, I am going to forgo the usual mini-review format we have used in the past. Instead, I will do a brief Q&A with myself about each film. Yes, I will talk to myself and then share with you the fruits of my conversation…with myself. It all makes sense in my head so hopefully it will make sense to at least a few of you out there. Warning: If you are not a fan of horror films, this article is probably not for you. Now, if you are curious about horror movies that avoid excessive violence and gore, and don’t rely on strong sexual themes or content, then perhaps this list can be of service to you. Warning Number 2: I’ve included the trailers for each of these films and if you are easily scared or sensitive to this type of thing, you might as well move along and read something else on our website. Might I recommend a nice poem or love letter to tacos?


The Exorcism of Emily Rose

 

What are the basic facts about this film?

It came out in 2005. It was directed by Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) and it stars Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson. It is based on a true story about an apparent demonic possession and subsequent exorcism where things went horribly wrong.

In 50 words or less, what can I expect from this film?

A smart, well-constructed film. The story is told from the perspective of an agnostic defense attorney (Linney) and she tries to build a case to defend a priest (Wilkinson) in a homicide trial. It’s as much courtroom drama as it is supernatural thriller.

If you had to pick one thing, what is it about this film that really won you over?

I love that it treats spirituality and the supernatural seriously. It creates a very compelling dialogue by examining this very complicated case. Derrickson is a professing believer and because of that, he never panders nor does he make light of the idea of evil.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is rated PG-13.


 

The Conjuring

 

What are the basic facts about this film?

It came out in 2013. It was directed by James Wann (Insidious, Furious 7). It’s based on the true story of a demonic attack that was investigated by paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Very Farmiga. Also starring Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor.

In 50 words or less, what can I expect from this film?

A fantastically creepy atmosphere. Wonderful scares throughout. A strong storyline with real heart.

If you had to pick one thing, what is it about this film that really won you over?

While I realize that the real-life Warren’s are controversial figures, in the film, they are a fantastic team. They are a beautiful picture of a strong, supportive marriage and their dedication in fighting evil is captivating. Plus, the film is about as good as it gets in mood and tension. And just to cheat a little on this question by giving you more than one thing, the family that is victimized in this demonic attack, the Perrons, are as sympathetic and believable as you could hope for.

The Conjuring is rated R.

The Conjuring 2

 

What are the basic facts about this film?

The sequel to the previous Conjuring film, it came out in 2016. Also directed by James Wann. Also starring Patrick Wilson and Very Farmiga. Also based on a true story about a poltergeist in England that was investigated by the Warrens.

In 50 words or less, what can I expect from this film?

Similar, if slightly less-satisfying, returns as the first film in the franchise. While it never reaches the highs of that one, it brings enough thrills, tension, and drama to warrant a view. It amps up the supernatural activity, which might be a draw for some.

If you had to pick one thing, what is it about this film that really won you over?

Much like the first film, this series takes the supernatural seriously. But more importantly, it takes Christianity seriously. The Warrens are believers and fight back against the forces of evil with Scripture, prayer, and conviction. I’m not saying that I endorse all the views of the film, but it is refreshing to see a film like this when so much about Christianity is reviled in popular American culture.

The Conjuring 2 is rated R.

Quick note about both Conjuring films – they are both rated R. Not due to language, gore, or sexual content. The MPAA (the ratings board) gave them an R rating because they deemed them too scary for a PG-13 rating.


The Others

 

What are the basic facts about this film?

The film came out in 2001. It was written, directed, and scored by Alejandro Amenábar. It stars Nicole Kidman and Fionnula Flanagan.

Set just after World War II, on the Channel Islands, The Others tells the story of a mother (Kidman) who cares for her two young children who suffer from a rare photosensitivity that makes it impossible for them to ever be exposed to direct sunlight. They live in a huge mansion and weird stuff starts to happen.

In 50 words or less, what can I expect from this film?

A foreboding, claustrophobic atmosphere. A haunted house film where the true nature of the haunting gets revealed little by little throughout. The Others is a film that takes a simple concept and layers it with wonderful characters and poignant family moments.

If you had to pick one thing, what is it about this film that really won you over?

The sense of mystery. I love not knowing where a film is going and trying to guess how it is all going to end. The Others does that and does it well. There are signposts throughout the film and perhaps more observant viewers will pick up on those, but for most people, the climax will be satisfying and not the least bit shocking.

The Others is rated PG-13.


The Woman In Black

 

What are the basic facts about this film?

The film was released in 2012. It was directed by James Watkins and stars Harry Potter…I mean, Daniel Radcliffe. Also starring Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer, Sophie Stuckey, and Liz White.

The Woman In Black tells the story of a young lawyer (Radcliffe) who is sent to a remote village to orchestrate the sale of an estate on the marshland. He stays in the old house on the estate looking for records to facilitate the sale. The villagers treat him poorly, outside of one man (Hinds) and it quickly becomes apparent that something is very wrong on the marsh.

In 50 words or less, what can I expect from this film?

The Woman In Black feels like a throw-back haunted house film. It has good scares, a creepy tone, and a good lead performance by Radcliffe. It relies on shadows, darkness, and the viewer’s imagination to create a lot of the most frightening moments.

If you had to pick one thing, what is it about this film that really won you over?

It’s a very simple film with a well-worn storyline and concept. Sometimes that doesn’t work, but in this case it does because it’s all done with style and care. The film rarely uses cheap thrills to scare the audience, though it is not above a few good jump-scares.

The Woman In Black is rated PG-13.


So there you have it. Let us know in the comment section what you think. Now that you have read through my list, which is not a top five or anything like that, feel free to chime in below with some of your favorites.

 




“Luther: The Life and Legacy of the German Reformer” – A Review

In celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther, filmmaker Stephen MacCaskell made the documentary Luther: The Life and Legacy of the German Reformer (2017). Many scholars of the Reformation may criticize the film’s evangelical bias, but it is refreshing to see a well-executed historical documentary that celebrates the same doctrine that drove Luther. Just as Luther was dedicated to the authority of Scripture and the doctrine of Justification by Grace through Faith, so are the Reformed theologians (including R.C. Sproul) who provide consistently insightful commentary.

I write this commentary as an Arminian Christian, a historian of the Reformation era, and a High School History teacher. From an Arminian perspective, there is nothing to shy away from in this documentary. Like all forms of Reformation Christianity, Arminianism fully agrees that salvation is the work of God and not a product of works. This film should serve as a catalyst for the discussion of many foundational theological truths.

An hour and a half is not sufficient to do justice to the life and influence of the “monk who changed the world.” The film was certainly made more for a congregation than for historians. Even so, the film is historically accurate and doesn’t avoid difficult issues. One section deals with Luther’s temper, untamed tonged, and his “Jewish Problem” (anti-Semitism). Many may find the film’s treatment of the “Jewish Problem” as unsatisfactory, but I am impressed that a short celebratory film took the time to point out Luther’s significant flaws. It even uses the words of Scripture and John Calvin to do so.[1. See this article for a good discussion]

This treatment of the Reformation follows a typical Protestant, specifically Reformed, approach. Late Medieval Religion is understood to be works based and pervasively corrupt. Corrupt Popes, such as Julius II, and greedy clergy members like John Tezel, are portrayed as normative. While I don’t disagree with this general narrative (examples of corruption abound), I was disappointed that the film didn’t make any attempt to discuss examples of late medieval Catholic reformers like the fiery preacher Savonarola, the mystic Thomas a Kempis, or the humanist scholar Erasmus. Rather than complicate the story with a richer view of late medieval piety, the film simply discussed the condemned pre-reformers, John Wycliffe and Jan Hus and their impact on Luther. While a simplified narrative is easier on its audience, from a historical point of view, it’s unsatisfying.

I teach 9th grade World History. Aside from being a little slow for an audience with the attention span of a poodle, one of the significant flaws of Luther is that it assumes far too much knowledge of theology and history. While it may be a great resource for a theologically educated congregation, 9th graders, even at a Christian school, lack the previous knowledge to make this video a good use of time for a classroom. This, of course, can be addressed as long as the teacher uses the video to reinforce what they have already learned of Luther and the Reformation and not to introduce it. This approach might also help the teacher facilitate a discussion of the film’s historical interpretation that could also help to mitigate some of its shortcomings.

Overall, I recommend Luther: The Life and Legacy of the German Reformer. It is well made, which is rare for Christian films of any kind. It makes effective use of some simple computer animation as well as crisp on-location footage. Although its interpretation of the Reformation is too simplistic to satisfy the historian and too advanced for the high school student; it can be a great resource for the man or women in the pew. Hopefully, this film will only be the beginning of a deeper exploration into the Reformation.

(Editor’s note: You can rent or buy the movie at Amazon by clicking this link.)