Tuesday, May 31, 2011

St Bernadette of Lourdes

Directed by Jim Morlino
Navis Pictures
Not Rated
1 hour 17 minutes

Do you remember, as a child playing school or spaceships? Did you realize that you were developing your natural acting talent? All children have acted out the stories they read in a book, saw in their favorite film, or heard from their parents. Innovative film-maker Jim Morlino keenly believes in the innate acting ability which children express in playtime.  In an interview on the EWTN show “Life on the Rock”, Morlino described boys playing pirates and girls playing princesses in their backyards naturally and convincingly with few props. An off-Broadway and TV actor who left the field after conflicts with his blossoming Catholic faith, Morlino directed his own children in home movies using more and more sophisticated camera and sound techniques culled from internet tutorials. His first project was an adaptation of the Redwall series version of Robin Hood.  St Bernadette of Lourdes is his first foray into professional level filmmaking, complete with a score composed by Yale grad David Hughes. His directing talent, combined with the sincere acting of 166 children and the gifted performance of his daughter Genevieve who plays St Bernadette offers a fresh style of filmmaking.

The candidness of children acting out the rejection of Bernadette’s visions because of poverty is deeply moving. Bernadette’s expression of radiant joy during the visions of the Blessed Mother emanate from a pure heart and her own faith, not from mere acting craft.  Few young actors have had the freedom to express their childlike imaginations as their natural acting gifts are captured on film. That is what makes the youthful cast of “St Bernadette of Lourdes” so refreshing. Jim Morlino communicates the essence of the scene to his young actors, works out the camera angles and lets them express what is in their imaginations, and their hearts.

Playfulness and unexpected touches of humor keep the story line from being too dark for the children who act in it, yet there is little invention in the script, unlike the Oscar winning Hollywood production, “Song of Bernadette”. St Bernadette of Lourdes offers the viewer a unique point of view, that of the innocent souls of children. Morlino believes they require little direction beyond being told where to begin and end the scene, he allows their natural faith to shine through their performances. And shine they do, with startling clarity.

The film begins in an unanticipated point in history, in the ninth century when the Emperor Charlemagne had the Moors under siege in the fortress at the future site of the Grotto of Lourdes. It was a statue of Our Lady which ended the siege with the conversion to Christianity of the Muslim commander.  Morlino has a passion for history and has plans to do a drama based upon events after the French Revolution. This places the events at Lourdes in 1958, over a millennium later, into perspective of God’s plan. The children who act in this film have a mature sense of mission, no less than transforming the culture.

“The arts compose a hugely influential component of our culture. If we can inspire one child to take up a career in those arts, and to create stunning beauty that lifts men’s souls towards God, and in doing so, glorify Him, we will have succeeded.”
With performances like these, they are off to a good start.
Recommended for all ages.

Website to purchase St Bernadette of Lourdes is Navis Pictures. 

Book Review: "Judge & Jury" by James Patterson

FBI agent Nick Pellisante has been pursuing Mafia don Dominic Cavello for a long time, and Cavello is finally on trial for the terrible, heinous crimes he is responsible for.

Andie DeGrasse, an aspiring actress and single mom, does her best to not get picked for the jury, but she is chosen nevertheless.

During the trial. an unexpected, terrible event shocks everyone and Andie and Nick must join forces to make sure that justice is done.

Mr. Patterson expertly combines the human interest of Andie and Nick's relationship with the suspense of pursuing Cavello.  It is a gripping story that you won't want to put down.

Content warnings include language and one brief bed scene.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

PhotobucketShould I see it?

Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Written by: Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger
Starring: Jack Black, Jackie Chan, Angelina Jolie, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Dustin Hoffman, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Michelle Yeoh

Sequels can be difficult things.  Generally, the original film is a stand-alone production that resolves itself.  Additional episodes have not only to survive the comparison to a successful first film, but they also must remold the characters into a new narrative which both relates to the original while also staking new ground to avoid be a cheap rehash.

Kung Fu Panda was a smart, beautifully designed family movie.  It was also tightly structured and offered little direction for a sequel.  Po (Jack Black), the titular panda, had become the Dragon Warrior and vanquished the menacing Tai Lung (Ian McShane).  Instead of devising a new threat out of whole cloth, screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger smartly delved into Po's past, exploring his origin story.

Po has become equals with the Furious Five.  He is still bumbling, gluttonous and given to grand proclamations on how awesome he can be.  Despite these flaws, he has grown in his skills.  While battling bandits in a local village, Po has a vision of his infancy.  Confused, he brings his trouble to his father Mr. Ping (a swan goose).  Mr. Ping admits to Po that he is indeed adopted, which comes as a shock to the dim-witted panda.  Po was left on Ping's doorstep after his parent's village was destroyed by the evil Lord Shen.  Shen has harnessed the power of gunpowder and cannoning .

Shen has returned to the region and threatens to take over all of China with his power weapons.  Po and the Furious Five move to confront Shen.  Po also hopes to learn more of his past and the fate of his parents.

This film is as well-written as the first.  Black is given plenty of material to work with and makes Po one of the more likeable animated characters in recent years.  As I mentioned in my review of the original film, I am no fan of Jack Black.  In this role however, he is undeniably perfectly cast and should get most of the credit for the film's charm.

The design of the animation is also notable.  The original film included a number of different animation styles woven into the story.  This time around the design is even more elaborate and inventive.  If the story had not worked, this would still be worth considering just for the visual creativity on the screen.

I generally will watch films like this in a full theater full of parents and children.  Normally, I despise watching films in public with kids because of the noise, smells and disruptions.  With something like this however, I find it instructive to gauge the film's reception.  After all, I'm not a kid, so it is a little hard for me to speak on their behalf.  The kids appeared to have loved it.  I know my children were riveted by the action sequences and loved the humor.  Another element I watch for is the laughter.  If just the kids laugh, the humor is probably simple stuff.  When parents and children laugh together, as they were doing during my viewing, you know you have genuine, well-written humor on the screen.

If you and/or your children enjoyed Kung Fu Panda you will like this follow up.   I recommend it highly.

Worldview: Christian parents may be hesitant about letting their children watch this film.  There are elements that are legitimate concerns.  Since this film takes place in ancient China, Eastern philosophy is everywhere.  Concepts such as yin yang are present.

There is also the element of divination through a prophesying soothsayer warning Lord Shen that a black and white warrior would one day defeat him.  This warrior is Po and a couple of times Po's black and white body is transformed into a yin yang symbol.  This essentially represents yin yang beating the evil. 

You will need to decide for yourself if you would want your children to be introduced to these ideas in this venue.  Personally, I argue that such an introduction is perfect.  Your children will undoubtedly be entertained by the film.  Many of these references will fly right past them without their knowledge.  Following the film a Christian parent should instruct their child on what they saw and what was presented in the film.  The best way to confront ideas is to talk about them, even when they're delivered by a cartoon panda.


Related Reviews:
Animated movies
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

Movie Review: That's What I Am - PG

Limited theater release, also available on DVD and Netflix.

Human Dignity + Compassion = Peace 

 That is the theme of this story, and one lesson that Mr. Simon (Ed Harris) shares with his class.  The story takes place around 1965.  12 year-old Andy Nichol is disappointed when he is paired on a school project with Stanley Minor, known as 'Big G' because he is the resident school 'geek'.  Stanley has bright red hair, big ears, and handles being the target of school bullies with dignity, and his head held high.  In addition to learning from Stanley, Andy also has a crush on Mary, who he pursues.

Andy really matures in this story,and he is able to help Stanley as well.  But he can't help when another  character is unjustly accused of something.

I found the family interactions in 1965  especially interesting.  Randy Orton from the WWE has a role as one of the student's father.   This story was much more emotionally gripping than I expected.

A very family-oriented movie that you'll want to watch with your kids.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Review of "Finding Fatima"

by Ian and Dominic Higgins
90 minutes
Not rated

The Higgins brothers are the same British filmmakers who produced the Fatima drama "The 13th Day", "Finding Fatima" is a docu-drama about the apparitions which capitalizes on the interest their earlier film evoked by answering many of the questions left unanswered by the earlier film. They make a perfect companion set. They both have the unique chiaroscuro tint, and enough drama to keep the casual viewer interested.

In several interviews with Fatima experts like Fr Andrew Apostoli, relatives of eyewitnesses and the Fatima seers themselves, and dramatic recreations of eyewitness accounts illustrated with film clips, the actual events of the apparitions are described in a captivating way while providing the details which educate the viewer about that apparitions. Even if you have watched many films about Fatima, you will learn more about the apparitions, for example; the reaction of the children and their families to the apparitions, testimonies from the eyewitnesses of the Miracle of the Sun, the anti-Catholic political climate of Portugal in 1917, and the amazing impact of devotion to Our Lady of Fatima around the world.
The fascinating interaction of the most famous Marian Apparition of the 20th century with its historical context is explored in greater detail than in other films I have seen, in fact the film opens in an unexpected place; Hiroshima Japan on the day the first atomic bomb was dropped, sparing six German priests who attributed the miracle to living the messages of Fatima. This film explains how six apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a remote Portuguese village had an unprecedented impact on world wars, and especially upon the life of Blessed John Paul who said, "the message of Fatima is even more relevant today than it was in 1917". This week marks the 30th anniversary of the attempt on his life, which many feel was thwarted by a miracle wrought by Our Lady's hand.

What relevance to the Fatima messages have for us? Certainly offenses against the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts have increased exponentially in the past 94 years and Our Lady’s predictions about the spread of communism, the persecution of the Church and in particular the Holy Father have come true in our times. So Our Lady of Fatima’s call to prayer, penance, and conversion is more urgent than ever, yet there is even more reason to believe in the timeliness of these messages and to learn more about them. This film provides a modern means to share this life changing message with those who may not be moved by the traditional religious documentary. It also contains aspects of the apparitions which earlier documentaries do not cover.

One little explored aspect of Fatima is the connection Fatima has with Muslims. Perhaps one of the most relevant aspects of Fatima for our times; is the fact that many Muslims are drawn to Fatima. This was all in God’s plan, according to Archbishop Fulton Sheen who said,
Since nothing ever happens out of Heaven except with a finesse of all details, I believe that the blessed Virgin chose to be known as "Our Lady of Fatima" as a pledge and a sign of hope to the Muslim people, and as an assurance that they, who show her so much respect, will one day accept her divine Son too.

In my personal experience, I  once met a Muslim leader at a Marian conference who said, "I have to know more about St Fatima, I have a statue of her in my home "( he was referring to Our Lady of Fatima) The gentleman finished the conference by breaking down in tears as he was prayed over by a priest. He seemed to be on the road to conversion. Could Fatima contain the secret to World Peace? Would adherence to the call of Fatima bring about the end of terrorism, the scourge of our times?
An excellent film for family movie night, though some of the recreation of the atomic bomb, hell and war torn Europe may be disturbing for children younger than 8 years,
Highly recommended.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Movie Review: Thor - PG13

Because of his arrogance, and for breaking a truce with their enemy that had been in place, Thor is banished to earth by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins).   He soon meets Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a scientist, and her friends who help him adapt.  When a villain from his home world of Asgard threatens earth, it is up to Thor to try to regain his power and defend earth, and the people who have become his friends.  He also learns a couple of valuable lessons in the process.  I think the story was quite effective in teaching the value of humility and the folly of arrogance.

There  is  LOTS of action, very well integrated with a captivating story and spectacular cinematography and special effects.  I thought Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Anthony Hopkins (Odin) were particularly good in their roles.

No content warnings.  I took my nephews, 10 and 13, and there was nothing objectionable.   We all loved it.

2 words: see it!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Justin Bieber's concert film; "Never say Never"

Blu-ray/DVD Combo and DVD available  Friday May 13
Paramount Home Entertainment
When a copy of this documentary about pop singer Justin Bieber arrived in my home it sent off a tsunami of excitement among my teenage daughters, who told me “Mom, you really made it as a reviewer, Justin Beiber is HUGE!” So, as a film critic, my popularity is related to the fact that I can comment on a 16 year old whose pants don’t quite cover his buttocks. Ah, Hollywood!
The reaction of my daughters is typical of Bieber’s effect on young women according to this documentary which shows scene after scene of hysterical tweens proclaiming their undying love for the charismatic singer. Bieber, who went from a YouTube debut to selling out Madison Square Garden at age 17,  diffuses undeniable charm with his dimpled grin and downswept mop of hair. His instrumental gifts and resonant voice combined with boyish looks have made him a phenomenon akin to Elvis or the Beatles in terms of ticket sales. Bieber’s agent, Scooter Braun who discovered him, and fought the establishment to give him a chance, has earned his bragging rights. This film is his “I told you so” to those who unwisely downplayed Bieber’s talent and marketability.
 The documentary traces the origins of Bieber’s meteoric rise to success by means of biographical interviews of those involved with his early life; his teachers, soccer coach, teammates, his young mother and doting grandparents. The father who abandoned Justin as a toddler has had a predictable change of heart and is back in his life, but was not interviewed on camera. Something about this outgoing,  musically inclined kid, shown as a boy playing drums on chairs and anything available seemed to say, “someday this kid’s gonna be famous.”  
Several scenes of Bieber being coached by Southern drawling voice teacher whose motherly approach seems to be the reason Bieber’s Christian faith is so far unmarred by superstardom like other child stars. We see fleeting shots of the Bieber team praying before concerts and he is never seen with a girlfriend or in a sexually suggestive situation. His songs are clean and upbeat, if a bit influenced by hip hop. He performs onstage with Will Smith’s son, Jaden, and with Usher, who was Bieber’s musical inspiration. There are the typical complaints about the discipline needed to rehearse and   perform so many concerts, but his sensible voice coach reminds him this is what you bought in to when you became a singer. How refreshing to have a star with someone to keep his whining in check! Does this remarkable woman have time to mentor Lindsay Lohan?
 Bieber fans will enjoy endearing home video clips, baby pictures, his backstage antics,  and concert footage. My homegrown Bieber fans were watching this film beside me and emitting alternating squeals of enthusiasm while wiping tears of joy. Justin Bieber fans have made this early tribute of his short but remarkable career into the best-selling concert film of all time, and this crusty reviewer can find no reason to dampen their enthusiasm. He is a gifted young musician who doesn’t offend parents while entrancing his teenage audience with pop songs like “One Less Lonely Girl” He has even been quoted in the blogosphere recently as being pro-life, though this was not referred to in the film. What’s not to like?
Rated G. All audiences but recommended for Justin Beiber fans only.

Book Review: "Step on a Crack" by James Patterson

NYPD Detective Mike Bennett really has his hands full. A dozen men are holding a group of celebrities hostage at St. Patrick's Cathedral at the funeral of a former first lady. Mike is chosen to be lead negotiator with the hostage-takers.  While dealing with this, he must also tend to his 10 children, while also caring for his wife Maeve, who is in the hospital dying of cancer.

I've read a few of Patterson's Mike Bennett novels, and this one is definitely the most dramatic and emotional.   The contrast between Bennett's family life and professional life adds to the suspense.  This is a real page-turner: you will constantly be wondering what will happen next.

Bennett has become my favorite Patterson character..

Content warning includes language.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Music Review: "Identity" by Robert Pierre

I had the opportunity to preview 4 songs from Robert's new album "Identity".   Robert has a strong, beautiful  voice, and I especially enjoyed how each song used a driving tempo and beat, well integrated with the lyrics, to deliver a specific message. Some thoughts on each:

  • In "Jesus", we are reminded of the one name we need to pray on our darkest day.
  • "Breaking My Heart" is a story of being transformed and letting go of worldly things to follow Christ.
  • "Identity" is about  acknowledging and living our Christian identity.
  • "You Hold Me Now" reminded me very much of the well-known poem "Footprints" in that Jesus helps us carry our daily crosses, whatever they may be.

A very enjoyable and inspiring  album!

You can hear some of Robert's music on his website, and he even has a free iphone app on iTunes.

Forgiven (2011)

Reviewer: Scott Nehring

PhotobucketDirector: Alan Autry
Alan Autry, Greg Grey
Alan Autry and Kimberlee Autry

Rated Straight to video.  In other words, no rating.

This DVD was sent to me through a marketing group for Christian, or at least family friendly, movies.  Never trust movies given to you in packs.

As you can see from the crew list above, Alan Autry is the auteur responsible for this cinematic effort.  Autry, a former Green Bay Packer (which raises his stock with me) stars as Jake Kincaid, a wandering, mean-eyed cowboy who gets stranded in a small town and ends up working for Emma (Autry's wife Kimberlee).  After that, nothing much happens.

Here is the problem with this film, it has no reason to exist.  Autry pushes his story forward against its will, never allowing anything natural to occur.  We are taken from one scene to the next without an organic flow and no narrative force.  This script is a serious case of "this happened, then this happened" writing.

Autry pulled Jake Kincaid from a TV movie he made in 2002 called The Legend of Jake Kincaid.  He apparently thinks everyone knows this 9 year old TV movie because he doesn't bother introducing the audience to his main character.  He appears and there is a sense we're supposed to be impressed.  By the time he starts to fumble around with character development Autry has already lost his audience and lost control of his storyline.

According to IMDb.com, the budget for this movie was around $500,000.  I have no idea where that money went because it's certainly not on the screen.  If you invested your money in this production, you got a seriously poor return on your cash.  The sets look like tourist trap displays.  If they had shot a scene in a gift shop it wouldn't have looked out of place. The actors are novices for the most part. This was written, directed and stars Autry and he cast his wife in the role opposite him.  This is a really fancy home movie with costumes and predetermined dialog.

Even if you're not terribly discerning and enjoy the usual Christian film nonsense, this is still worth avoiding.  It is just plain bad filmmaking.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Soul Surfer (2011)

Reviewer: Scott Nehring

Should I see it?
Sure...but with low expectations.

PhotobucketDirector: Sean McNamara
Written by: Sean McNamara, Deborah Schwartz, Douglas Schwartz and Michael Berk
Starring: AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Carrie Underwood, Kevin Sorbo and Helen Hunt

Rated PG for an intense accident sequence and some thematic material

Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) is a focused, up-and-coming surfer.  Her parents Tom (Dennis Quaid) and Cheri (Helen Hunt), both surfers, support their daughter following her dream of becoming a professional.  After a dramatic win at a tournament, Bethany lands a sponsor and can see her dream being realized.

Tragedy strikes when Bethany is attacked by a shark which rips off her left arm at the shoulder.  A tenacious sort, Bethany recovers from the devastating loss and returns to the surf to claim her dream despite her disability.

This is a true story and it is an inspiring one on many levels.  Bethany is a strong girl who overcomes tremendous odds.  Her bravery and determination are nice to see.  Robb displays a powerful female who is capable, talented and formidable while still being feminine.  This is very uncommon to see on screen.  All too often women in film are forced to drop their feminine sides when they are to be strong.  They bulk up with sinewy muscles, pull their hair back and adopt masculine clothes (see any Michelle Rodriguez movie) and strut like they've shown up to kick butt.  Fewer and fewer female characters display inner strength while maintaining their feminine stature.  Let alone being allowed to act feminine without that behavior being shown as silly, frivolous or negative.  

Another interesting point about this film is the display of the family's faith.  The Hamiltons are Christians and their faith is a part of their daily lives.  Often when the issue of faith is raised in a film such as this, it is an awkward exercise that swallows up the narrative.  Here the displays of faith are mostly natural and rather subdued.  Someone will say "we will pray for you" while another character leaves the room.  Tom casually reads the bible.  The family consistently says grace before meals.  These unobtrusive moments are what is needed in film.

Christian filmmakers too often feel they need to hammer faith into their audiences in order to make the point.  I argue that through subtle displays of faith, showing prayer and concern for morality in casual moments will do more to help our culture than all of the hysterical Christian films ever made.  We learn our social mores from the Arts, in particular film.  Why do you think homosexual activists specifically targeted the entertainment industry in the early seventies?  They knew that the greater population learned what to think through what they watched on screens.  Change the image, change their minds.  Christians should learn from this.  If we constantly see prayer, charity and forgiveness in film, if we see the Christian lifestyle rather than get a Christian sermon, we will slowly begin to see the culture improve.

I'm on a tangent - back to the movie.

This is a pleasant film but it is flawed.  The acting is very strong.  AnnaSophia Robb has come into her own and easily carries the film.  When I sat through her feature film debut Because of Winn-Dixie I found her to be grating.  Then again, I loathe most child actors, so it may not be her fault.  Robb has grown into a young woman and has found her voice.  She is a strong lead and this production shows she is capable of handling much more.

In addition to Robb, Dennis Quaid, Heather Hunt and Kevin Sorbo also are notably good.  While they aren't going to score Oscars, they do bring much to the production.  Given the number of one-dimensional moments in the film, it would have been easy for these experienced actors to lay back and call it in.  Each of these actors work with the material that is given to them and turn out some good performances. 


The problem with the film is in its script.  Seven people are credited with the screenplay and story.  Seven.  It takes less people to man the Space Shuttle than it did to write this movie.

The story is naturally interesting.  People are fascinated by sharks (The Discovery Channel drags out Shark Week every year for a reason) and the idea of getting one's arm bitten off is an attention getter.  The problem with the script is that after the indicdent there is barely any real conflict.  Bethany's recoperation is quickly resolved.  She doesn't appear to have much residual psychological issues.  She's not scared of sharks.  She's not scared of the water.  At worse she gets frustrated by trying to open a bread bag with one hand and eventually cries about not understanding God's plan for her.

Without a vibrant conflict through which she can grow, there is very little to do until the final moments.  She quickly heals, hops on the surfboard confidently and is off chasing her dream once again.  Everyone around her stops to tell her how brave, strong and amazing she is.  It is as if the film's central question is "Is Bethany simply awesome or is she super fantastic to boot?"

The script would have been helped by focusing closer on her family's reported troubles with their faith or possibly her natural concerns about her appearance and ability to surf.  All of these items are either ignored or glossed over.

Despite the flawed script, I found this to be a mostly enjoyable, light film.  People of faith will enjoy the production the most, and appreciate being taken seriously on screen.  I think this would also be a good pick for families with young girls.  Bethany Hamilton is a good role model and AnnaSophia Robb has done a wonderful job bringing her to the screen.