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


Overstreet's Favorite Recordings: 2003

1. Over the Rhine.....Ohio

Over the Rhine celebrate their tenth album by making it a double. What we get is one of the most powerful discs they've ever recorded, the soulful gospel/folk/rock that they do best. That disc is followed by another, more adventurous and experimental effort. Karin Bergquist sings like her life depends on it. She and her husband, songwriter/ keyboardist/ guitarist Linford Detweiler, have penned some of their most poetic and inspiring lyrics, taking us on a tour of heartbreak and struggling faith. Call it a heart attack in the heartland.

Essential tracks: Changes Come, Lifelong Fling, B.P.D., Ohio, Jesus in New Orleans

2. Joe Henry.....Tiny Voices

On the map of contemporary music, it is located at the crossroads between Tom Waits' Bone Machine, Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind, and Leonard Cohen's Ten New Songs. Henry tells abstract stories of life in a fractured world, where we live with suspicions of the sublime, but often settle for far less. The jazzy rock combo he has assembled for this record is brilliantly improvisational, making each song like a small miracle of spontaneity. "Loves You Madly" is as a punch-drunk pop number that's as memorably sing-able as anything you're likely to hear this year. A giant leap forward from his last release, the memorable Scar, Tiny Voices is a must-listen for any adventurous musical explorer.

Essential tracks: Loves You Madly, Tiny Voices, Your Side of My World, Animal Skin

3. Emmylou Harris.....Stumble Into Grace

A breathtakingly gorgeous piece of work, and the finest record Malcolm Burn has ever produced. Emmylou really pushes herself as a vocalist here, finding new textures, lighter touches, and a newfound enthusiasm for her ethereal falsetto. Her backing musicians couldn't be a more talented bunch: Buddy Miller, Daniel Lanois, Malcolm Burn, Darryl Johnson, Brady Blade, with Julie Miller, Jane Siberry, Colin Linden, Kate McGarrigle. The songs include laments from the Almighty for the loss of his beloved creation and the creation's laments for the loss of Eden and God. And smack in the middle of it all is a hymn-like tribute to Johnny and June Carter Cash. The album feels like the sequel to Wrecking Ball, but the true marvel is that she wrote all of these songs, where Wrecking Ball was a collection of great songs by other songwriters.

4. Daniel Lanois.....Shine

Another gorgeous, meditative work from a contemporary psalmist. Lanois has matured most of all as a vocalist. His sound remains familiar, sonorous, haunting and hushed. And his lyrics remain focused on a rather monastic call to freedom from the problems of possessions and temptations. This album, like Acadie, sounds one part travel journal, one part prayer journal: the diary of a pilgrim making progress.

5. Radiohead.....Hail to the Thief

On Hail to the Thief, Radiohead brings along a lot of the new sounds they invented and assembled on the journeys of their last few albums and returns to the land of verse/ chorus/ guitar-solo rock-and-roll. Thief is an angrier, edgier, darker cousin to OK Computer. And, unfortunately, it finds Thom Yorke still seeing gloom and doom everywhere he looks.

6. People You Meet.....People You Meet

Imagine if Pavement or Pedro the Lion went into a Sgt. Pepper mode... add touches of Beach Boys, U2, and Elliott Smith. Nathan Partain's lyrics reflect heavy spiritual questions, and he voices them through intriguing, cryptic lyrics and storytelling that is striking and raw. His voice reminds me at times of Elliott Smith and Joseph Arthur, but he's got more guts as a vocalist than either of them. (The second track "110" features some truly freaked-out "singing".) It is hard to describe this experimental, energetic, reckless record. The music is the brainchild... more like brainstorm ... of Partain and his guitarist/engineer Joel Garies. With help from Rick Jensen, they have mixed an album full of surprises. The mastering was done by Richard Dodd, who has mixed, mastered, produced, and played alongside such artists as Johnny Cash, Ashley Cleveland, Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle, Maria McKee, Wilco, and many others. Put simply, the record rocks. It's one of the strongest things I've heard all year.

The band is just getting their operation up and running, but you can order the album via their website: http://www.peopleyoumeet.net. (The album's only $13.50, and that includes shipping.) You can be one of the first "in the know" on these guys.

7. Lucinda Williams.....World Without Tears

Combining the in-studio immediacy of Essence with a stronger focus and some of her most bold and poetic lyrics, Williams has here forged what sounds to me like the sharpest and strongest album of her career.

8. The Innocence Mission....Befriended

Befriended is a fleeting beauty, like a beautiful long poem. Don Peris’s pristine production here achieves the finest mix the band has ever enjoyed, giving Karen’s voice unprecedented clarity, sparsely arranging creatively choreographed guitars.

9. Joseph Arthur.....Redemption's Son
(technically a 2002 album, but wasn't available here until this year)

An album full of ambitious, inventive, ponderous songs that range from Nine Inch Nails-style rage rock to U2 anthems of the power of love. Joseph Arthur is a one-man show par excellence, with heavy spiritual questions on his mind that sometimes threaten to swamp the songs in angst. While he could use an editor, his big ideas are truly impressive. Here's hoping we hear a lot more from this guy.

10. Various Artists.....Crossing Jordan

Lousy t.v. show. GREAT collection.

I doubt there has been a better Various Artists album since O Brother, Where Art Thou. This one also happens to be produced by T-Bone Burnett as well, and features Sam Phillips, Richard Thompson, Alison Krauss, and Lucinda Williams.

Others that never strayed far from my stereo this year:

Damien Jurado.....Where Shall You Take Me?
Sinead O'Connor.....She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High
Maria McKee.....High Dive
Gillian Welch.....Soul Journey
Elvis Costello.....North
Ryan Adams.....lloRnkcoR
Cat Power.....You are Free
Edie Brickell.....Volcano
Sting.....Sacred Love (except for that annoying single "Send Your Love")
Eels.....Shootenanny!
Bonnie "Prince" Billy.....Master and Everyone
Nathan Ryan.....Vincible
The Postal Service.....Give Up
Lost Dogs.....Nazarene Crying Towel
Steve Malkmus and the Jicks.....Pig Lib
Minus 5.....Down with Wilco


Overstreet's Favorite Recordings: 2002

yhf1. Wilco.....Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Its like the sound of experienced explorers setting foot on a new musical continent. Wilco's restlessness has found them territory all their own. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the bravest and most creative record of the year. (You can learn all about how it came about by seeking out the new documentary titled I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.) Working back through their catalog, you'll hear new ideas rattling around in their reckless mix of country, grunge, folk, and blues. This is the sound that was taking root, and now it has burst into bloom. Here, Wilco peppers their carefully developed homemade folk-rock sound with electronics, creating a dissonant and emotional language of depression, confusion, and longing. It's a story told over a cycle of songs: the singer looks back, nostalgic for innocence; it looks around at the heartbreaking present and the singer admits responsibility; and then it looks forward, with renewed conviction and hope. Jeff Tweedy creates an engaging lead character who breaks a heart, regrets it, wishes he could take it back, and learns to admit his mistakes. The more familiar you become with Tweedy's whiskey-sour-and-cigarettes voice, the more beautiful it seems.

zzz-bsc2. Beck.....Sea Change

Sea Change is a gorgeous, sprawling album of heavy-hearted introspection. I think it's Beck's finest album and, as is so often the case, it comes out of a time of heartbreak and trouble. This recording may as well be dubbed the first album of a daring duo: Beck and Radiohead's producer Nigel Godrich. Godrich seems liberated by the slow, sparse arrangements of these heartbreak narratives, so that Beck's lyrics creak and groan like a battered ship at sea. And the sea... the sea is an ocean of strings more overpowering than on any rock record I can remember. Beck doesn't suggest anything beyond the merest hope of healing for his broken heart. But art is not required to give us the whole picture. If it gives us part of the picture as fully and honestly as possible, we should be able to fill in the rest. The music, while sad, is beautiful, and proof enough that all things work together for good.

zzz-tomwaits3. Tom Waits.....Alice

Alice is a surreal journey through a wonderland full of freaks and frights. The songs come from a play for which Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan composed music in 1994. The play follows the strange relationship between Lewis Carroll and the "Alice" of Through the Looking Glass, and thus there are references to obsession, madness, dreams, and the reflective surfaces of glass and ice throughout.

The singer's surreal and suicidal groans are painful because they are so beautiful: "But I must be insane/To go on skating on your name/And by tracing it twice I feel through the ice/Of Alice..."

4. Elvis Costello....When I Was Cruel

Costello's many styles and explorations seem to fuse here into a fascinating hybrid. He's calling it his return to rock, but straightforward rock only occurs in occasional bursts on this release. "45", "Dissolve", and "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" certainly recall the rowdy noise of early Elvis C., but others like "15 Petals" and "Spooky Girlfriend" demonstrate he can dip into other genres and sound like a seasoned professional. (Would you believe "Spooky Girlfriend" doesn't just sound like a Destiny's Child single? Yet, it lyrically lampoons the superficiality of the songs those girl-pop groups usually.sing.) Lyrically, these songs emphasize the sad burden of wisdom that comes with age. It's interesting to hear a middle-aged rock star singing with more passion and energy than the youngsters.

5. Sixpence None the Richer.....Divine Discontent

While it fails to show the band moving into new areas, this is another solidly built, shiny pop album, heavy with spiritual questions, disillusionment, struggle, and determined hope. Matt Slocum writes heavy lyrics. Few songwriters use pop and rock as a vehicle for prayer the way he does; he stands under the banner of contemporary psalmists alongside Bono, Bruce Cockburn, Julie Miller, and Linford Detweiler, to name a few. His somber psalms sting because they are delivered by the light, airy voice of Leigh Nash. Nash sounds like the kind of singer whose agents would advise her to spend her short career on frivolous pop ditties; instead, she brings qualities of vulnerability and humility to her expressions of grandiose spiritual themes. To borrow a phrase: It’s a voice “like a bloom that pushes up through stony ground.”

6. David Bowie.....Heathen

Another old-timer. Hey, these guys were at their peak of popularity before I was teenager. While their popularity may have declined, their material has not necessarily peaked. Here, Bowie revisits old sounds, mixes them with new ones, and fuses it all into an expression of spiritual discontent. It's fun, funny, sad, soul-searching, whimsical, angry, and even hopeful. He may not have made his peace with God, but he still believes enough to argue, and that makes for a compelling listen.

7. Lauryn Hill.....MTV 2.0 Unplugged

This isn't so much a great album of music as it is a great recording of one person's spiritual epiphany. When the Grammy-winning Lauryn Hill disappeared for two years, there were rumors of some kind of breakdown. The opposite was true. From her testimonies between songs on the MTV Unplugged stage, Hill recounts her awakening to Scripture and to God's love. When you see the truth as fully as she has encountered it, lies are shown up as repulsive, and she shakes off the trappings of celebrity here with a passion. Then the songs, rough, raw outpourings of emotion, anger, prophecy, and ecstasy, reveal a woman in intimate dialogue with her Lord. While they may not be carefully crafted art just yet, they are the sounds of a new voice and a new beginning. Like the sounds from rusted pipes after a long winter, they are the vibrations and quakes signifying clear water is soon on the way. An astonishing record.

8. Linda Thompson.....Fashionably Late

Linda Thompson returns to the spotlight after a near 20-year absence. Having worked through her vocal difficulties, she now sings with a cold, clear beauty, like a traveler who has suffered many storms and learned the difference between lies and the truth. Many of these songs speak of disillusionment with various love affairs, but she writes these characters as humble enough to see the error of their own ways as well as the ways of those who did them wrong. This brings a quality of honesty and experience to the writing. The harmonies with her son Teddy and with folk singer Kate Rusby are thrilling, and the instrumentation as precise, spare, and lush as last year's masterful Fan Dance from Sam Phillips.

9. Tanya Donelly.....Beautysleep

Another triumphant comeback. Tanya rediscovers some of the creative genius she displayed in her early days with Belly. She brings wit, world-weary wisdom, and passion to her vocals and her lyrics in an album more focused on the joys and mysteries of motherhood than even Sinead O'Connor's Universal Mother. (You won't find many rock records that will even raise the issue.) These songs are testaments of survival, perhaps a little too enamored of the singer's own self-reliance. But it's great to hear her sounding hopeful and excited again. Best of all, the creative potentail Donnelly teased us with in Belly's brillian debut Star is bursting out all over this stormy album.

10. (tie) U2: The Best of 1990-2000 /
Coldplay.....A Rush of Blood to the Head

The reigning kings of rock-and-roll released something more than a "best-of" this year. This stands as a chronicle of the band's reinvention, their self-effacing parody of rock stardom, and their triumphant return to hopeful anthemic rock just when the world needed them the most. But it also works as a standalone album, featuring new and improved versions of some of their best works. The biggest highlights are a glorious new version of "Gone", an edgier and more amusing take on "Numb", and two new songs that hold their own among these tried-and-true hits: "Electrical Storm" and "The Hands that Built America." Complaints? How could a "best-of" fail to include "Elevation", "Please", "The Fly", and "Love is Blindness"? Oh well, that's just quibbling. This is a great addition, and it comes with a collection of rarities and B-sides. This supplemental disc is a hit-and-miss affair, but it boasts some real gems, especially "Your Blue Room" from the Passengers album and the underrated "North and South of the River."

As if applying to be a U2 for the Next Decade, Coldplay released an unapologetically hook-heavy album of carefully crafted arena rock. While their songs are sometimes annoyingly simplistic and rendundant, the vocals soar and the lyrics, while a bit sophomoric, are full of hope and gospel inspiration. They're still looking for their own unique sound; there are too many echoes of U2 and Oasis here, but it's exciting to watch them grow.

11. Bruce Springsteen.....The Rising / Peter Gabriel.....Up

Two albums that deal with loss and grieving. One is musically richer and more rewarding than almost any other album this year, but the lyrics are mired in near-despair, and what few gestures of hope are offered are rather empty and vague. The other is musically forumulaic and familiar, but lyrically it stands as a collection of soul-searching poems in which the writer gives voices to those who suffered personal loss in the recent terrorist attacks. Peter Gabriel's Up is at once a thrilling musical journey and a severe disappointment -- lyrically -- for this longtime Peter Gabriel fan. Bruce Springsteen, on the other hand, has never done much that excited or interested me, but this year his lyrics were like psalms during a dark time, and the familiar Springsteen rock-and-roll felt rather reassuring.

Others that never strayed far from my stereo this year:

Buddy Miller.....Midnight and Lonesome
The Flaming Lips.....Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Tom Waits.....Blood Money
Spiritualized.....Let It Come Down
Pedro the Lion.....Control
Michelle Shocked.....Deep Natural
Steve Earle.....Sidetracks
Neil Young.....Are You Passionate?
Ed Harcourt.....Here Be Monsters
The Eels.....Souljacker
Beth Orton.....Daybreaker
Peter Gabriel.....The Long Walk Home (Soundtrack to Rabbit-Proof Fence)