The Patriot (2000)

This is an archive of one of the earliest Looking Closer reviews. I keep it as a souvenir of the early days (although I hope I've learned a thing or two about writing since then).

The Patriot is an ambitious epic, exhausting more for the emotional toll than for its running time.

Mel Gibson inhabits the character of Revolutionary War hero Benjamin Martin with admirable physicality and emotional range. After suffering a personal attack by the British, Martin struggles to control his rage as he leads effective counterattacks on them. The story that unfolds is episodic and formulaic, with few surprises. But it is packed with full-scale battles, sneaky rifle shooting in the woods, and risky strategizing between desperate men. The movie will be a thrill for audiences who like their heroes big and strong, their tragedies multiple and devastating, and their movies simple and straightforward.

Unfortunately, if you’re looking for anything philosophically, intellectually, or historically enlightening, the waters here are pretty thin. It only tells us things we already know, and it repeats those simple truths often and loudly.

A Good Strong Hero

Popular culture has become obsessed with de-mythologizing history's admirable men and women. It is a cynical age. One can hardly imagine what a new biopic on Abraham Lincoln or George Washington would look like. It seems like the only interesting detail about Thomas Jefferson, according to recent re-tellings, is that he slept with a slave girl. Modern art and entertainment is preoccupied with discrediting the honor of great men, or justifying the crimes that made them notorious. The prevalent perspective is that greatness and morality are relative and a matter of interpretation. We make ourselves feel better about our own indiscretions, or those of our current leaders, if we can say "Well, the great men weren't really so great."

I must give The Patriotcredit for striving to give us an admirable national hero... a man who puts his life on the line for family and country. It's good that the big screen still has room for heroes who honestly and wholeheartedly strive to be good men. Seeing the good and the bad in a hero can provide some balanced perspective, but I prefer to zoom in on a character's strengths rather than his weaknesses.

However, I must also add that The Patriot, although it has a well-balanced, flawed hero, swings too close to Nation-worship. It is so caught up in its own salute to one man's nobility, and to the glory of men who fought for freedom, that very little rings true or honest. Early America is painted with too soft a brush. There are, I am informed, historically documented instances of British soldiers as brutal as this film’s villain. There were slaves who have been freed, happily continuing to serve their masters. And there were heroes. But this film gathers these exceptions together into a bundle for the sake of arresting drama. The result is a skewed and misleading portrait of the war and the times.

An Idealized World

The film's greatest technical achievement, its collection of battle sequences, is not necessarily something worth boasting over. There are many prolonged, slow-motion battle sequences that flaunt authentic weapons and innumerable convincing slow-mo deaths. Director Roland Emmerich (Godzilla, "Independence Day") likes to slow down the movie’s epic battles, so audiences can appreciate the exquisite details of the bloody conflicts. While his hero is conscience-stricken about killing, Emmerich sure enjoys serving it up in generous helpings.

Off the battlefield, The Patriot looks more like adventure-novel illustrations than a historic recreation. Our heroes walk through nothing but the most gorgeous scenery. Their clothes never look lived in. They exist in rooms that are free of dust or signs of regular activity. It reminds me of a history play at an elementary school. And the dialogue provided for the characters by screenwriter Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) isn't much more interesting. They speak in bland and ponderous conversations, without any hint of personality or dialect. It makes you long for a script revision by the Coen Brothers or Billy Bob Thornton.

But it's not just the simplicity that bothers me. It is the manipulation. The film doesn't hesitate to grab the most blunt instruments to make you cry, to make you angry, to make you cheer, to make you so emotional that you can't think straight.

Making Sure the Audience Cheers

Right away, Colonel William Tavington (Jason Issacs), the British officer who leads the offense against our hero, is shown to be a sneering rebel, a madman with authority, a sadistic butcher who does not follow the codes of British military conduct. He throws down the gauntlet early, murdering a young boy, one of Martin’s sons. Later he smilingly rounds up a whole village and burns them to death. All he needs is a big black cape and heavy, distorted breathing.

It's true, there were some heinous war crimes in the Revolutionary War. This does not make it fair, however, to stack the deck in this film and call it "historicism". Making Darth Tavington the sole focus of our aggression turns our sympathies with inappropriate force and prejudice against the British. Other Brits — including the orderly Cornwallis — are shown grumbling about Tavington's methods. But Tavington is still the central representative of the British in this film. Everything leans toward giving him what he has coming.

This burning of the villagers in a church is, according to a recent article on Salon.com, a crime that the Nazis committed once, not something the British did. Having used "artistic license" so freely, Emmerich and Rodat are sure to have the audience up in arms, shouting for the death of Darth Tavington. No need to waste time with a historically accurate portrayal when you can just embellish and make the enemy like the Nazis at their peak. That'll rile the crowd up real good.

Emmerich doesn't stop there. He's going to get us teary-eyed if he has to sucker-punch us to do it. So he brings up slavery, something we all agree on, something we all can get emotional about. But he oversimplifies that too.

The one black member of the militia is nothing more than a token here; he doesn't get any lines except as the spokesman for slaves who dream of a free world. The "slaves" that work for Benjamin Martin here have been conveniently "set free" and are so enamored of his spotless family that they serve him "of their own free will." Later, when the Revolutionary War is over, they can't wait to start building a "New World" ... by voluntarily continuing their current servitude instead of pursuing their own families, their own lives.

In fact, any black character in The Patriot is there either to make inspiring remarks about slavery and freedom, or to further accentuate how great the hero is. We don't have to deal with a single, suffering slave in the whole bunch. Once again, the movie is providing us with fuel for emotions, not something to think about, not evidence of the more difficult and complex realities of the time. It is true that there were slaves who chose to serve their masters freely. But here again, The Patriot has given us an exception to the rule because it is more palatable to the audience and heightens the emotional drama. If Martin was portrayed as having slaves that forced us to confront the reality of actual slavery, we wouldn't like him as much. It would have made him more... human. That would have run the risk of asking the audience to think for themselves.

Any storytelling that pretends something complex is actually something simple is irresponsible storytelling and bad art. It is on the complex issue of whether violent retaliation was the best method that Emmerich is most manipulative.

Thou Shalt Violently Retaliate

One scene best sums it up: When a reverend is ministering to his congregation, a soldier walks in and asks men to join him and enlist in the armed resistance. The reverend, interrupted and annoyed, questions whether this is appropriate timing. It is, after all, a worship service. He is quickly admonished. Within seconds, the apologetic minister is shown awkwardly fumbling for his own rifle. "A shepherd must protect his flock," he says, rushing out to shoot the British. Our heroes smile…the poor fool has decided to be a man. The music crescendoes. Clearly, in this movie's moral structure, anybody who hesitates to respond to the British immediately and with violence is misguided. In this saga of men fighting for a free country, freedom of opinion is frowned on. The reverend is not afforded a free will.

Be careful. The movie already has you cheering for the things you agree with. Are you sure, though, that you agree with this? Is this particular issue so black and white?

Nobody gets to question the morality of the colonists’ violent opposition...except Benjamin Martin. But his hesitation at the film’s beginning is shown as fear and worry over his family, not a true moral conviction about violence. Later, when the violence has hit home, he says he is ashamed about doing nothing. Again, we are told that the cost of warfare makes it a moral imperative to become violently involved.

There are often other ways of dealing with oppression. If there aren't, why didn't Christ urge the oppressed Jews to take up arms? I’m not saying pacificism was the colonists’ best option; I believe, though, we should respect and consider the thoughts of those who examine other ways of retaliating.

Mel Gibson as... Mel Gibson?

A fellow critic has persuaded me that The Patriot is a more responsible film than Braveheart. (The hero actually resists the pull to get revenge.) But because it follows the basic Braveheart formula, there's not much new here. The battlefields look the same, except for the uniforms and weapons. And the music sounds the same... big, patriotic, and John-Williamsish (this time it IS John Williams.) In spite of his attempts to vary his roles (Payback) Gibson has become predictable in action movies. They become countdowns to a bloody showdown and a pious speech. It worked best in his performance as Hamlet. (He’ll never find a better screenwriter than Shakespeare!)

Benjamin Martin, in this film’s portrayal, is a dutiful man, bound by honor to family and country. But he is haunted by his past war crimes, and his conscience is strong. We do see one particular moment when that old monster within him reawakens against the British, and for a moment the film comes to life with a frightening brilliance. Our hero act inappropriately. But even this loses its sting, merely because of who we are watching. It might be a character flaw for Benjamin Martin, but it's what Mel Gibson does best. As any Gibson Guy must do, Martin remains restrained until the breaking point. Then the camera zooms in on Gibson’s best trick... the eyes dull, the face drains of expression, and the animal takes over. Mad Max has returned.

Not only that, but Benjamin’s eldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger), who provides the obligatory love story (another important part of the film's well-worn formula), appears to make his debut as the next Mel Gibson. We love Gabriel because he's an echo of classic Gibson...the rebel with a cause who gets the girl, has his own revenge score to settle, and his own glorious bloody showdown. Two Mad Maxes for the price of one!

So if you want another Mel Gibson-brand epic, with simple, dramatic, noble gestures… this is your movie.

But if you want a truly inspiring film about war, nobility, and freedom, rent Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V. With less than half the budget, and with language that's delicious to recite, Branagh will inspire you to be a patriot of great character. Roland Emmerich knows a cannon can do a lot of damage, but Shakespeare knew that a well-crafted speech can inspire a thousand soldiers.

Forgive me if I am a bit impatient with this film. I am weary of seeing the same movie, with minor variations, played over and over again. Sure, these are moral heroes and detestable villains. But so what? This year's Gladiator had a little life in its dialogue, and a few pleasing new twists, but, like The Patriot, it still boiled down to this: "You killed someone in my family... so I will, eventually, impale you on something." In the name of freedom. Of nobility. Of America. Of Ireland. Of Rome. Or whatever. It all boils down to an endorsement of violence as a way to resolve differences. Today's history lesson: History goes on teaching us nothing.


Max (2002)

[This review was first published on the original Looking Closer website on May 12, 2003.]

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Noah Taylor is best known for his charming lead role in the romantic comedy Flirting, and more recently made memorable marks on Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky. Now he’s starring as the most notorious monster of the 20th century.

Max dares to delve into the life of Hitler in the days before the Holocaust, and Taylor is scarier than any orc in his intense performance as Adolf. His performance reveals a bitter, wrathful, prejudiced, and explosive young man torn between his desire for an audience and his mediocre talents as an artist.Read more


The End of the Affair (1999)

[This review was first published at the original Looking Closer website in 1999.]
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The End of the Affair takes us back to London in wartime. There, we're told a story in which the echoes of air raid bombings leave scars on history and hearts.

At first, it might sound like the tale of a simple love triangle: The wealthy and beautiful Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore) betrays her boring husband Henry (Stephen Rea) and begins a passionate affair with an obnoxious novelist named Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes). But then, a most unlikely fourth party becomes involved... none other than the Almighty himself.

This turbulent story finds its epicenter in a key moment when the war collides with the lovers during a secret rendezvous. A sudden and dramatic turn leaves Maurice in grave distress, and Sarah turns to God for help. It's the film's most profound and vivid scene... she kneels so that we only see her clasped hands, and she makes a desperate bargain with God.

And God answers.

If God were to grant you a request as directly as He does for Sarah here, it would be difficult for you to shake your newfound assurance of His presence. The End of the Affair gets its title from the fact that it changes Sarah tremendously. But the biggest flaw in Neil Jordan’s movie is how severely it contradicts the core of Graham Greene’s novel, how it lets the affair in question continue after this point, whereas in the book this event truly marks "the end of the affair."

In the novel, Sarah is changed forever. In the film, she is far more fickle; although she remains aware of God, she continues to behave in a way that is displeasing to Him.

What is strange about this movie adaptation of The End of the Affair is just how far director Neil Jordan went to alter the last chapters of the story. (I owe thanks to Peter T. Chattaway for sending me excerpts from the novel demonstrating this divergence; I haven't read the entire novel for myself.) I cannot go into great detail about the changes without spoiling what surprises the film has for you, but I will say that what might have been a story about the long hard but rewarding road of virtue becomes in the film a confusing and contradictory muddle of broken promises, lies, prayers, attempted corrections to behavior, and then backslidings.

The film wants to make grand statements about something, but about what is unclear.

Are we supposed to hope Sarah stays true to God, or to Maurice? Or do we hope her husband has a change of heart and tries to reinvigorate their marriage? Neil Jordan seems to be primarily interested in having excuses to put the two lovers in bed for long athletic bouts of sex. And yet, even there the characters are joyless, acting rebelliously as though proving a point rather than proving their love.

Jordan's approach betrays what might have been a powerful story.

Maurice Bendrix is clearly a villainous man; he cheats, he lies, and his obsession is so intense that he shows little care for Sarah's troubles or questions. He drives her to yet another failing that fills her with guilt before God.

Julianne Moore's performance is very strong as a woman at war with herself, torn between loyalty to God and desire for her lover. She makes Sarah seem courageous to deny her lust and turn away from the affair. But Jordan's revisions rob her of this nobility in the end, making her fickle and celebrating her compromises. She is left weeping in a church telling God that she just can't keep her promises. Later, when her "goodness" brings about an honest-to-goodness miracle, it's hard to understand, since she's already given up on virtue. In the novel, it must make more sense... she remains true to God in spite of hardship, and her sacrifice prompts a miracle and hardens her angry lover's heart against a God in whom he claimed never to believe.

So why does the movie try to convince us that the parting of these lovers is a tragedy? To all available evidence, they were bad for each other from the start.

What a sad and melancholy piece of work. The marvelous Stephen Rea as Henry is allowed only to mope and feel sorry for himself. His monotone monologues make him a prime candidate for a Prozac prescription; at least he'd be a more cheerful weakling. As Maurice, Ralph Fiennes basically reprises his English Patient role as the heroic destroyer of covenants and promises. He gives Maurice a prominent forehead that seems to emphasize his bone-headedness. He's supposed to be a good novelist, but his romantic overtures sound like the work of a smitten freshman doing homework for Poetry 101. And the affair itself, like that at the center of The English Patient, seems more foolish than tragic, because all that binds these two characters is carnal desire.

To make matters worse, what I suspect will be remembered as Michael Nyman's most overbearing soundtrack works hard to lend pathos and tragic heroism to the lovers' dalliances. The backdrop of relentless rain makes the proceedings more dour, and the cinematography shows us a grim and un-romantic London.

In fact, the only scenes that carry any laughter or lightness are those that feature a private detective named Parkis. Employed by Henry and Maurice to discover Who has stolen Sarah's heart, Parkis tries to relate his discoveries to his employer. Ian Hart (Backbeat) plays Parkis perfectly. He's a nervous wreck, so scared of his own need for love that he uses detective work as an excuse for voyeurism. Parkis is a prisoner of British manners who can't just say "I found her crying..." but instead stammers "Tears were an issue." I found myself wishing for another movie in which Parkis was the main character, living out a comically miserable existence running errands for these selfish and sour lowlives.

It seems Neil Jordan, who in interviews has talked in a detached way about God being the greatest "invention" humans have created, exhibits a hard heart toward God and religion in this film. This is disappointing. Jordan has told such powerful stories of compassion and forgiveness in his finest works, The Crying Game and The Butcher Boy. In the novel, it seems Graham Greene is wrestling with his own personal experience and the guilt of having been unfaithful (the book is said to be based on his own wartime affair.) In the film, the perspective seems very much that of Maurice, who sometimes refuses to believe in God, while at other times lashing out at God as a scheming entity who robs us of our desires.

Any honest believers will admit that they suffer lapses, or at least challenges to, their faith. All of us get angry with God from time to time when things don't go our way. But this is evidence of weakness, of selfishness. This is the state of the child angry at his parents because he wants to be the center of the universe, and in fact, he isn't. This is not a state to be championed, glamorized, or celebrated. It does not make heroes out of men. And I don't feel sorry for Maurice or for Henry, as the film wants me to, when they don't get what they want.

The End of the Affair leaves me wishing that Maurice and Henry... and Neil Jordan, perhaps... discover the rewards of a "giving" kind of love, rather than stewing over what they didn't "get" out of self-serving obsession.

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Writer and director - Neil Jordan; based on the novel by Graham Greene; director of photography - Roger Pratt; editor - Tony Lawson; music - Michael Nyman; production designer - Anthony Pratt; Sandy Powell - costume designer; producers - Stephen Woolley, Neil Jordan. Starring - Ralph Fiennes (Maurice Bendrix), Julianne Moore (Sarah Miles), Stephen Rea (Henry Miles), Ian Hart (Mr. Parkis), Jason Isaacs (Father Smythe), James Bolam (Mr. Savage) and Samuel Bould (Lance Parkis). Columbia Pictures. 105 minutes. Rated R.


The Rookie (2002)

I’m not much of a baseball fan. I’m not much of a Disney fan. But The Rookie surprised me. Not only is it the best Rated-G movie for grownups since The Straight Story… it boasts what will be remembered as one of the best performances of the year.

Dennis Quaid plays Jim Morris, a middle-aged Texas schoolteacher who tried to turn turn pro-baseball pitcher long after most men would have given up. Endearing, understated, full of humor and angst, Quaid's performance may be the highlight of his impressive career.

Director John Lee Hancock, whose most significant work previous to this was the script for the uneven drama A Perfect World, has done everything right with this film. He’s walking a well-worn path, daring to tell yet another tale about a guy who never thought he could make the big leagues. But this adaptation is grounded in facts, and Hancock is careful not to embellish things to make the crowd happy. He moves us without sending Hancock to the World Series and without giving him any bottom-of-the-ninth victories. The tears and the thrills come from moments of character development, not moments on the scoreboard.

Hancock gets strong work out of cinematographer John Schwartzman and the editors. They avoid quick-cut action and give community baseball the light, pace, and feel that it really has. After the movie, I found myself itching to take some friends to the park with a baseball and gloves, just for conversation and catch. When the camera goes to the big leagues, Hancock’s perspective gives us the right feeling of awe at the vast stadium, the hot white lights, and the size of that green green field. He even takes time to show us how long it takes to run from the bullpen to the pitcher’s mound. I’ve never been to a professional baseball game, but I’m pretty sure now that I know what it feels like.

Jim Morris’s story deserved to be told, as likely as it was to become a sappy, sentimental button-pusher. The guy dreamed of the big leagues all through his childhood. He got close with some impressive 85 m.p.h. pitches, but then hurt his shoulder and was told by the doctors not to pitch anymore. So, disillusioned but not self-centered, Morris humbly went to work, like so many Americans, at jobs that weren’t part of his dream. And he built a rewarding life, one that would have been rich and meaningful even without the miracle.

But the miracle was quite a bonus. Morris, encouraged by his students to give his dream one more shot, discovered that surgery had somehow improved his arm. And what happened post-40 was so unlikely that he almost turned back out of fear… fear of what success might do to the life he had built brick by brick.

I was deeply moved by The Rookie’s honesty and grace — not words I would usually use to describe formulaic Disney product. The term "formulaic" is not a compliment. Many films (especially Disney films) are lazily produced because the filmmakers are banking on the success of a predictable formula, which they follow without bothering to enhance it. It takes the touch of an artist to invigorate a familiar outline with fresh ideas, or to use metaphors that make the work resonate on different levels. The Rookie is one of those rare, wonderful "formula" films that tells its story with earnestness, believability, attention to detail, and fully developed characters. It favors understatement over exaggeration, subtlety over sentimentality (although occasionally it lets the syrup flow.) Even in the "familiar" moments, the filmmakers restrain the music, effects, and close-ups that routinely command us to weep. Instead we have that uncomfortable feeling of watching real people in quiet, intimate, life-changing moments.

My thanks to whoever it was that let Hancock take his time, spreading this relatively simple story over two-hours-plus, so we could become acquainted with all of the supporting characters. Rachel Griffiths makes Morris’s wife a believable, tough, hard-working, naturally sexy woman. Bryan Cox brings a rough likeability to the role of Jim's father, even though he comes closest to filling the stock role of a villain. And the kids are believable too. These aren’t the perfect, always-happy never-a-problem cabbage patch dolls that played Mel Gibson’s kids in We Were Soldiers. The Morris baby bawls and tries their patience. And Hunter, Morris’s young son, is given a unique sense of humor when his wide-eyed admiration might have quickly become the stuff of cheap television drama. Hancock’s patience with his actors allows them to find moments of convincing humanity. We feel we could travel to Texas and meet these people, browse antiques in their dusty shops, and pull up a chair in their warm meat-and-potatoes homes.

There is a startling moment near the film’s conclusion when Morris grabs hold of his wife’s hand and looks at her with an expression of amazement and gratitude. We're looking at him, waiting for permission to celebrate his achievement. But no. He doesn't say a word. He just looks up in amazement. The credit for this miracle does not belong to him. It belongs elsewhere... with those who coaxed him and helped him get there. It is in no way the Hollywood moment you’d expect — it turns our attention away from Morris and reminds us of the powers and miracles that brought him to that place. It rings true.

Morris is not a big screen hero in the "I did it my way" tradition. His achievements are the result of a cooperative effort that emphasize how we are all role models for each other — parent to child, husband to wife, teacher to student … and sometimes even students to teacher.

The Rookie, against all expectations, is one of the finest family films to come along in the last decade. (It will have to be a rather incredible year to push this one out of my year-end Top Ten list.) One can only hope that the folks who gave this one the green light will recognize why it works so well. If they do, then hopefully we can look forward to more films as finely crafted as this. And I’d add this request for any filmmakers out there: Would you please continue offering Dennis Quaid parts as rich as this one? He deserves them.


The Rookie (2002): guest review and film forum

The following review was contributed to Looking Closer by guest reviewer Ron Reed, and the Film Forum was published at Christianity Today.

Ron Reed:

Your grandfather once told me it was okay to think about what you want to do until it was time to start doing what you were meant to do. That may not be what you wanted to hear.

When there's an envelope taped to a birthday present, you pretty much know what's going to be inside, but that doesn't mean you don't open it. This movie's a lot like that: it's an inspirational greeting card of a movie – in its look, in the shape and style of its storytelling, and in its "follow your dream" sentiments. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't bother watching it.

When a film sets out to tell the story of a high school science teacher and baseball coach whose uninspired players make him a promise to try out for The Bigs if (against all odds) they win the championship, chances are this story's going to run the base paths in pretty familiar fashion. And when Coach is a guy who hangs a medallion of Rita, patron saint of impossible dreams, from the mirror in his pickup truck, it's pretty much preordained that things are going to work out.

The real surprises come in how this movie gets where it's inevitably going, in the attention it pays to the difficulties human relationships go through in the pursuit of dreams – whether they also happen to be divine callings or not. One of the people at the centre of Jim Morris's life is his father, a preoccupied man made over into the image of the military that owns him and directs his steps: the accomplishment of the movie-makers is not to leave Dad and son stuck there, but to track that troubled relationship on into adulthood, without falsifying it. When the elder Morris advises his son to do what he is meant to do, I couldn't help remembering a similar conversation with my own mother as I faced a decision whether to go into the ministry or to pursue the life of a theatre artist. I wonder if it's just a personal reading, or whether this father's advice doesn't ultimately convey something about the inevitability of living out one's vocation – particularly one that's being steered by the unstoppable Saint Rita and the prayers of a pair of Texas nuns. (On her deathbed, Rita was asked by a visitor if she'd like anything brought from her home town. She asked for a rose. The visitor returned to the family estate, frozen in the middle of winter, and found a single blossom on an otherwise bare rose bush.)

The other central character in this man's life is his wife Lorri, and Rachel Griffiths' portrayal truly provides the centre of gravity for this film. What an actress! She charges the standard-issue strong-but-supportive wife role with tremendous electricity and presence, and every one of her big scenes is filled with unspoken nuance before or between or after the lines – check out her exit from the porch after the talk about their son, her reaction to the sport coat call, or the scene where she finds her husband in the bullpen. I hear she's a regular on Six Feet Under. Almost makes me consider watching television.

For all its too-handsome instant-nostalgia look, the film gives us lots of specific detail as well. The family's arrival in Big Lake, Texas is marked by "Bang the Drum Slowly" on the theatre marquee. Elvis sings the gospel-tinged "Midnight Rider" as Morris throws BP. The high school ball games may be predictable in serving exactly the plot functions we know they'll have to serve, but they also feel like ball, and not Big League TV ball either. Jim's son wears his rally cap at a key moment in the game, and we realize that he's getting the kind of fathering his dad never got. It's a treat to see this ordinary father arrive at try-outs beleaguered by the minutiae of baby maintenance, and I appreciated the light touch about the "miraculous" increase in this washed-up pitcher's fastball. I love the concision of that next-to-final shot, summing up this man's life and calling in the high school trophy cases, and then the final image of nuns scattering flower petals – they're roses because of Saint Rita, and they're yellow because, well, this is Texas!

I'd recommend this movie for families to watch together – it's a well-made, positive story with faith elements that can provide an entertaining evening together or some great conversation about real questions of vocation or the miraculous. Still, I can't help thinking the writers let us down with this treatment of the true story of Jim Morris's improbable shot at the major leagues – could it be that shrinking the role of faith to a good luck amulet and one pre-game prayer session denies us any sense that Christianity offers anything more than a mix of destiny-shaping magic and civic religion. Does God serve no more role in this believer's life than to provide baseball miracles at the request of some long-ago nuns? Is that what authentic personal faith looks like, or is it just a Hollywood kind of shamanistic superstition?

But most of the time I'm just glad that Hollywood can make a baseball movie – and this is very much a Hollywood movie – that's also about the hard work of marriage and parenting and being parented. More surprisingly, it doesn't feel obliged to negate the power of God that worked in this man's life. In The Rookie, God may be on the bench, but at least He's allowed in the ballpark.

Film Forum on The Rookie

Until now, screenwriter John Lee Hancock was best known for penning A Perfect World, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. But this week Hancock has delivered a rare gift to moviegoers, a G-rated family film that has audiences cheering and critics raving. Many are saying Dennis Quaid gives the best performance of his career in the leading role. In fact, The Rookie is the most acclaimed G-rated film since David Lynch's The Straight Story.

Sources say very few details in this true story have been altered to please the crowd—there's noBeautiful Mind revisionism to make a fairy tale out of difficult fact. Hancock and screenwriter Mark Rich found the tale of Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Morris powerful enough to inspire audiences without adding sentimental glop. And what a story: Morris surrendered his baseball career and his dreams when he injured his shoulder and doctors told him he'd never get his impressive abilities back. So he built a new life as a husband and a father, a community baseball coach, and a high school chemistry teacher. That's remarkable on its own, but when Morris's students challenged him to chase his dream one last time, he went for it. At 40 years old. And the dream came true.

Sports movies are too often tailored to convince us that all we need is willpower and a dream. The Rookie could easily have become a cliché about the glory of sports. But moviegoers testify that above all this is a story about the power of supportive and encouraging families and communities to make unlikely things possible. While this spoils the myth of the independent, self-sufficient hero, it offers a far healthier example to those chasing dreams of achievement and excellence.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) is inspired by the story. He writes that Hancock and Rich "do lay the schmaltz on a bit thickly. But, to their credit, they do replicate the small town flavor of a community bound together by the personal heroics of one of their own. The way the people important to Jimmy rallied around him, encouraging and exhorting him to go forward to achieve his goals … is exactly how members in the body of Christ are to help one another."

In a review appearing online today, Douglas LeBlanc (Christianity Today) highlights "the film's prevailing theme of grace coming into the lives of people who pursue their dreams with courage and love." LeBlanc argues that Morris's quest for the major leagues is "less interesting … than the back story written by Mike Rich. Morris's father is so emotionally repressed that he cannot touch his son even in a moment of athletic triumph. Character actor Brian Cox brings subtlety to a role that he could have easily overplayed. The tentative steps toward reconciliation between father and son make the G-rated Rookie a worthwhile outing."

Jamee Kennedy (The Film Forum) calls it "a triumph of heart and soul and a wonderfully uplifting movie. Although the film's promos drip testosterone-laden baseball action, this film is really all about second chances and what we do with them."

The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops calls it an "uplifting charmer. In spite of a few sags in momentum … Hancock's film pulls on the heart strings … while pleasing and inspiring without the slightest suggestion of violence, sex, or even a crude word."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says the film "celebrates hard work, community, perseverance and the need for spouses to share a common, unselfish vision for their home. Also, there's a sharp contrast between healthy and unhealthy approaches to fathering. The Rookie is guileless entertainment with lots of heart and plenty for parents and teens to talk about."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) calls it "one of the best baseball movies ever made. Much more than just a story about the sport, it's a testimony that God can give second chances in life no matter how old a person is. This one will go on my list as one of the top ten movies this year, and I predict it will be a huge hit!"

Lisa Rice (Movieguide) says Dennis Quaid "gives an excellent performance. [The Rookie is] so well made, that it should win many awards. It also serves as a telling example to Hollywood that clean … pro-family movies can be the hottest ticket in town."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) responds euphorically: "Christians and people that value high morals need to support this film. Let's create some positive buzz!"

Some Christian critics prefer to focus on what the movie doesn't have. Mary Draughon (Preview) writes, "It's heartwarming to see an entertaining, feature film about a loving family. The Rookie's glaring absence of sex, violence and foul language … adds to its charm."

Even hard-to-please critics in the mainstream press are won over. Stephanie Zacharek ofSalon.com writes, "The idea is sentimental, but Quaid dries all the sappiness out of it. There's something in his face that suggests both contentment and restlessness, but even more important, the sense that it's perfectly natural (and understandable) for the two to coexist in all of us. That's what makes his moments of joy—the swollen music on the soundtrack notwithstanding—seem pure and wholly believable."

Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) says it "derives its power by sticking to the facts."

Jeffrey Wells (Reel.com) finds it a rare treasure: "Comparisons have been made to Remember the Titans, but that film was 'entertainment' … [it] used every trick and ploy it could think of to stir the emotions. [The Rookie] works its peculiar magic without seeming to milk, shovel, or pull any one's chain."

Marc Caro (Chicago Tribune) writes that the film "plays off of the most basic yearnings: What baseball fan hasn't imagined striding to the mound of a major league stadium and zipping a fastball past a desperately swinging batter? What son hasn't wanted his dad to be proud of him? What father hasn't wanted his son to be proud of him? The Rookie may be pushing buttons, but at least they're the right buttons."


Grosse Point Blank (1997)

This review was originally published at Green Lake Reflections, my first film review website.

Grosse Point Blank is almost unclassifiable. Director George Armitage (Miami Blues) has cooked up what is bound to become a cult classic — but where will you shelve it in a video store? What is it? A gangster movie/romance hybrid? A nostalgia-trip comedy? A shoot-em-up/you-can't-go-home-again morality play? Nope, none of those makeshift labels will serve. But unless you're averse to some bone-rattling shoot-outs — for some, let's face it, even comic violence is a "gross point" —  there are a world of reasons to see this wonderful... uh... this movie.

First, Minnie Driver: Her ebullient performance in Circle of Friends made that sappy little movie actually worthwhile. Here, again, she’s fantastic — a refreshingly unconventional leading lady in that she isn't likely to remind you of any other leading lady. She's an original.

Second, John Cusack: He seems to have been biding his time since Say Anything, waiting for just the right movie to come along, one that his wry, idiosyncratic, endearing personality fits. He’s found it. This is the role he was born to play.

Third, a premise so clever that it's a wonder we haven't seen it before: As professional assassin Martin Blank (Cusack) heads home for a high school reunion, Hit Man Martin Blank (Cusack) wants to resurrect his romance with an old flame (Driver), the one he abandoned at the prom a decade ago. But he's finding it difficult to come to terms with the creature he has become. Will Martin kick the killing habit in time to win the girl? Will he resist the temptation to join the "union" of professional killers? Has his hometown changed beyond all recognition? And what of his classmates? What have they done with their lives?

Fourth, it's got two award-worthy supporting actor performances: one from Alan Arkin, playing Blank's reluctant therapist who must prepare him to return home to his 10-year high school reunion; and another from Joan Cusack (John's sister), playing Blank's manager.

If there's one role I might have cast differently, it's Dan Aykroyd: he's just not menacing enough to give the film the sense of real danger that it needed. I would love to have seen Nicholson or Pacino ham it up here; this is a movie that would have called for it.

Still, watching Martin’s moral dilemma is an entertaining, hilarious, satisfying two-hours that will hold up for second and third viewings. The high school reunion develops into such a nightmare, it might scare a whole generation away from their own reunions. The action, when it comes, is fast and furious, tinged with wisecracks that would make Tarantino cheer. Grosse Point Blank strikes a perfect balance between romance, comedy, and action, and yes, without ever being pretentious, it actually says something. As in John Woo's Face/Off, the extreme violence is never taken too seriously, even though it is masterfully executed. And yes, while Martin may be disillusioned and lost, the film itself comes equipped with a more carefully calculated moral compass than most action films can boast.

And rumor has it... there might be a sequel coming. Bring it on.


Galaxy Quest (1999)

2012 Update: I've just revisited Galaxy Quest and am happy to report that it holds up very well more than a decade later.

This movie has a special place in my heart for its sense of humor, for its remarkable use of Tim Allen (an actor I can rarely tolerate), and for the way it introduced moviegoers to the talents of Sam Rockwell, who has been vital to many impressive films since then. Its special effects look increasingly shoddy, but that seems to suit the spirit and shape of the movie, which shows affection for slapdash, low-budget, sci-fi movie conventions even as it spoofs them. And for all of its absurdities, the movie remains unapologetic, confident, and sure-footed. I would ask for a sequel if the last 20 years of comedy sequels hadn't convinced me that comedy sequels are almost always a bad idea.

Here's my original, hastily written review, which was first published at the original Looking Closer website in 1999.

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Galaxy Quest is a solid, consistently funny, creative, visually impressive sci-fi spoof that stands out from other spoofs because it manages to balance silliness with sincerity.

I initially avoided it, fairly sure that I smelled a stinker. Boy, was I wrong. This is not another waste of special effects and acting talent. This is not the Lost in Space movie. This one's a keeper, especially for sci-fi fans.

The movie introduces a Star Trek clone, a popular TV phenomenon called Galaxy Quest, and takes us to a convention where maniacal fans line up to meet their TV heroes. The cast of the show signing autographs includes an arrogant captain like Captain Kirk (Tim Allen), a humiliated Shakespearean actor best-known for his limited part as the Spock-clone (Alan Rickman), a big-breasted beauty whose job on the show is to repeat whatever the computer says (Sigourney Weaver), and several more recognizable archetypes. (Even their names are nods to their stereotypes -- Rickman plays Alexander Dane, the actor that portrays the Vulcan-like Dr. Lazarus.)

The cast is in for a real surprise. They have fans out there beyond the stratosphere... fans that don't know the show isn't real. In fact, these aliens believe that the televised episodes of Galaxy Quest are a historical document. So when the aliens come under attack, they decide to appeal to the universe's boldest heroes. They steal them away in hopes that these legends can save them from their violent and ugly alien oppressor.

Sound familiar? Yes, this happened when a bunch of Mexicans stole away the Three Amigos to save their village from raiders. And it happened when circus bugs were tricked into defending the ant colony in A Bug's Life. While I criticized A Bug's Life for borrowing so blatantly a plot from a previous film, I won't bother to complain about this one. After all, Galaxy Quest exists to echo old formulas. Every scene is so packed with detailed tributes to this or that sci-fi classic, I'm sure this movie will reward repeated viewings and be as much fun to watch in ten years as it is to watch now.

This is not a mockery of Star Trek. By emphasizing the show's appealing traits as well as its flaws, Galaxy Quest is clearly an intelligent tribute. And whether you love or hate Star Trek, you'll find that the cast are warm and enthusiastic, setting a perfect balance between lampooning and honoring the actors and characters they represent. In recent years, the Star Trek franchise has lost that frivolity that makes the original series so much fun to watch even today. It has tried to become more serious, overbearingly meaningful, and politically correct. As a result, its become less entertaining. And because its sermons are paper-thin, there's little left to make new episodes memorable. (I'm sure I'll get mail for this. But that's been my experience.) I hope the Star Trek franchise can learn something from this movie and find once again that balance of sincerity and silliness. I have to agree with a few other critics I've read... this is the best Star Trek movie in ages.

I applaud the screenwriters, David Howard and Robert Gordon. They knew when to quit. A spoof like this can wear out its welcome quickly. These writers stuck to the strongest jokes, kept things moving, and never let things become too serious. They even manage to orchestrate a couple of tender moments in the hilarity. Galaxy Quest never stoops to the base and dirty humor that would have been so easy, and as a result, it remains good clean fun for the whole family.

My compliments to the cast for working well together and having the humility to take on roles that are hardly flattering... especially the distinguished Alan Rickman and the always-professional Sigourney Weaver, both consummate actors. It's good to know these fine talents have not lost the joy of doing something for fun.

Kudos also to Stan Winston, who makes this film distinctive from most serious sci-fi films by creating some truly fascinating and striking alien creatures. The monstrous villains in this film are as impressive as anything we've seen in the Star Wars series.

By chuckling at the conventions even as it serves them up, Galaxy Quest affirms that this kind of entertainment can be worthwhile, even inspiring. Legendary heroes like these may be absurdly idealistic to grownups, but for viewers with enough imagination and childlike enthusiasm, they can be an inspiration. Just watch how this whining, insecure bunch gains confidence when they're forced to behave like their onscreen personalities.


Final Solution (2002)

Final Solution weaves several stories together against the backdrop of the last days of apartheid in South Africa.

And they are true. Gerrit Wolfaardt was indeed a white supremacist who threw fuel on the fire of violence and hatred until the efforts of some compassionate and cautious heroes led him to a change of heart and mind.

The reality of this recent history hits home hard through the filmmakers' dedication to details. A good deal of this film looks like it could be documentary material filmed as riots, assassinations, terrorism, and the ensuing grief and carnage rocked the dusty streets of South Africa.

Director Christopher Krusen's work highlights just how people with hateful agendas take good ideas and warp them to their own convenience, bending language to deceive and destroy. We see Wolfaardt being handed books like Mein Kampf while he ignores others like Cry, the Beloved Country. He comes to believe that black Africans have no souls, and that it pleases God for white people to wipe them out. (The "final solution" of the title refers to Wolfaardt's strategy for genocide.) Fear keeps him from looking around much-he doesn't want to find out that he's wrong. Scripture verses yanked from their context, divorced from any discussion of Jesus's ministry and the Apostles' mission to all people, operate as senseless slogans, their meanings misunderstood and perverted.

The film also turns an unflinching eye at the violence dealt out by white supremacists on the black African inhabitants of these neighborhoods, just as it gives us an excruciating look at what happens when they oppressed rise up against their aggressors. Where most cinema conspires to get its audience cheering at acts of vengeance, this action comes across as similarly horrifying.

It is also affecting to see what counteracts hateful attitudes. I was afraid that the answer was going to be "true love"... that all it would take was a woman. And the story as it is told here does come close to that. If this were not a true story, the fact that his romantic interest is a compassionate teacher of South African children would seem like an unlikely contrivance.

But Celeste (Liezel van der Merwe) serves more as a trickster than a seductress. She knows she has his attention and his heart, and she is clear-eyed enough to know that the answer is not to treat him with equal and opposite aggression. Instead she treats him as a human being of deep conviction, and decides to lure him toward experiences that will allow him to come to the right conclusions on his own. What a refreshingly intelligent change of pace from the usual "Teach Those Racists a Lesson" story!

Wolfaardt begins to second guess his education in hate when he begins to spend time with the South Africans and finds his affections and respect altered by the experience. The more he actually sees them living their lives, the more he interacts with them, the harder it is to write them off as lesser beings, as proper targets for an assassin's rifle.

The film's strongest virtue is that its storyteller knows that the struggle against hate is not over once the hateful man repents. There is a great deal of damage to repair. There are habits to break. There is forgiveness to be sought. And Krusen strives to represent that in a sort of "trial" held in the church. (The most interesting thing about these scene to me is the fact that it is not police that keep these hot-tempered proceedings in order, but the presence of the press, documenting everyone's behavior.)

Gerrit Wolfaardt, played with sincerity by Jan Ellis, does not quite come to life as a complex and convincing leader of a racist movement the way Ryan Gosling did in last year's most riveting portrayal of racism The Believer. He seems somehow simpler, an angry young man ready to embrace whatever arguments give him an excuse to harden his fear of the unknown into hatred.

But this is not so much a problem with Ellis as it is with the script in the last act of the film. We can see how his contempt leads to anger-anger is easy to portray, easy to understand, and the film seems almost proud of its graphic displays of violence. We do not, however, follow him deeply enough into his re-consideration of matters, when Scripture suddenly takes hold on his heart. The film makes a powerful point-that close examination of God's word leads to peace, forgiveness, and compassion, not division and war. But for this viewer, the transformation happened too quickly. We do not see much of the days that follow, of the learning to overcome long-practiced hatred. It is as though he is changed overnight from mean-spirited bigot into a sincere bearded missionary.

And since Gerritt is the film's only three-dimensional character, it is hard for us to find the rest of the situation compelling. Gerritt's partners-in-crime are never more than sketchily developed buffoons. In the last act, just as we think things are coming to a close, we are introduced to the story of another character, but it feels out of place.

The last act stumbles off the course of focused show-don't-tell storytelling and wanders into the territory of moral platitudes and preachiness. The violent leader of the angry South African protesters suddenly gives up his grudge, walks away from the debate, and starts waxing philosophical about how Jesus may have been a black man. Unlikely, and inconsistent with the understated tone of what had come before.

Nevertheless, as a Christian film studio, Messenger Films is setting a good example. Here is a production company that strives to tell a good story, inspire the viewers, and reveal hope and meaning without treating the viewer like a kid at a lecture. They avoiding stooping to the scare tactics employed by other Christian media forces.

It's an example worth following for Christians working in art and entertainment. We need to rediscover what great art always proves — that the truth is much more effective when people are drawn to it for its beauty, excellence, complexity, and provocative ambiguity than they are when it is mediocre, oversimplified, and heavy-handed. If you can only offer stories and visions that have been "cleaned up," your audience will not accept your vision as an authentic picture of the way things are, and they will reject what you bring them as artificial, or worse — propaganda. It is the artist's job to hold up a mirror and let the truth of the matter do its work for those who stop to look closely.

For his success in adhering to higher standards of art, for his restraint, and for his honesty, I applaud Cristóbal Krusen. His first film is a promising work.


All the Pretty Horses (2000)

[This review was first published at the original Looking Closer website in December 2000.]

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What a shame.

All the Pretty Horses, director Billy Bob Thornton's adaptation of the great Cormac McCarthy novel, must have been a marvelous film.

But this is not that film.

This feature-length montage of scenes from Thornton's as-yet-unreleased movie has breathtaking cinematography, reminiscent of the wild and beautiful natural world captured in Terrence Malick's films. Its performances, especially the crucial roles played by Matt Damon and Henry Thomas, are engaging, tough, and convincing. The music, when Daniel Lanois is playing guitar, is enchanting. The story is compelling, full of challenging ethical dilemmas and soul-searching dialogues.

But everything else is a problem.

When Billy Bob Thornton put together his final cut of All the Pretty Horses, it ran more than three hours long, reportedly. And rightly so. The novel is a strong, sweeping epic. But here, in the movie that resulted from the studio's demand for cuts, it is barely two hours long, and it rushes frantically to pack in the important events of the first two acts so that Acts Three and Four have some resonance. What we have is are big-screen Cliff's Notes for the novel.

The credits claim that the movie stars Matt Damon, Penelope Cruz, Henry Thomas, Ruben Blades, Bruce Dern, and more. I saw Damon and Thomas, and there were brief appearances by Cruz. Blades showed his face a few times, but rarely spoke. And Dern... well, he gets a few choice moments at the end, and that's all.

The opening act is a choppy ride across the border into Mexico. John Grady Cole (Damon) and his pal Rawlins (Thomas) are headed out to find ranch work, when they are joined by a suspicious youngster named Blevins (Lucas Black, who starred in Thornton's Sling Blade.) Blevins is a tough-talking kid on the run from something, who knows what. He also claims to be a human lightning rod. Grady is patient with the youngster, but Rawlins is worried. Before long, Rawlins' worries will prove to be frighteningly well-founded, and Cole will find that he is kindness has led the two of into deep trouble.

During this chapter, the music by Marty Stuart seemed to me all wrong... a bombastic, stereotypically American anthem, announcing that something quite exciting was going on, when it wasn't. The occasional flourishes of the musical score by Daniel Lanois sound much more fitting to the tone of the story: tentative, spooky, spiritual. I suspect that the Stuart soundtrack was inflicted on the picture by the studio, to give it a more commercial and traditional flavor. Thornton had worked with Lanois just fine on Sling Blade, and I can't imagine why he'd toss away such evocative work.

Grady and Rawlins, as the story goes, gets a good job on a ranch and falls for the ranch owner's daughter Alejandra (Penelope Cruz), just in time for old ghosts to come back and haunt him. The romance at the heart of the film happens so rapidly, with so little development of dialogue or relationship between Grady and Alejandra, we don't understand Grady's compulsion, his willingness to risk all that is important to him in order to be her man.

Later, when he suffers horrible injustice in a Mexican penitentiary, we begin to truly fear for what will become of him. Damon's performance here is especially strong, looking at first like he expects to wake up from this nightmare, then slowly accepting its agonizing reality. Then, the prison chapter of the story ends so abruptly you might swear that somebody has loaded the wrong reel of film!

The concluding episodes feature a violent adventure, which seems to be intact (because, of course, audiences love adventure), but then wraps up with a fleeting courtroom scenario that seems implausible due to its brevity.

I have not seen this film yet. Instead I have seen broken pieces that promise a wonderful whole. It taunts us with glimmers of greatness, but then tells us what the studio thinks audiences want, not what the director wanted us to see. Watching this film is like being told you'll have a scenic tour of the country on horseback, and then you're strapped to a bucking bronco. I walked away saddle-sore and disillusioned, having only glimpsed the greatness of what I'd come to see.

Miramax Films. Director - Billy Bob Thornton; writer - Ted Tally; based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Starring - Matt Damon (John Grady Cole), Henry Thomas (Lacey Rawlins), Lucas Black (Jimmy Blevins), Ruben Blades (Don Hector), Penelope Cruz (Alejandra), Bruce Dern (Judge). 112 Minutes. Rated PG-13.

The Ladykillers (2004)

[Jeffrey's review of The Ladykillers was originally published at Christianity Today on March 26, 2004.]

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This is not the first time moviegoers have seen Tom Hanks secretly tunnel through the earth beneath a stranger's house.

In 1989'sThe 'Burbs, a subversive comedy  by Joe Dante about eccentric criminals in a friendly suburban neighborhood, Hanks dug his way right into an explosion that rocked the neighborhood. It happens again here, in The Ladykillers — which happens to be a subversive comedy about eccentric criminals in a friendly Bible Belt neighborhood.

But that's where the resemblances between The Ladykillers and other Tom Hanks comedies stop.Read more