Believe Me

Posted on September 30, 2014 at 11:06 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and partying
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 26, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: B00MI506MC

Copyright 2014 Riot Studios
Copyright 2014 Riot Studios
Will Bakke has followed his two thought-provoking documentaries on faith with a remarkably smart, funny, brave, and heartfelt first feature film that explores religion and values without ever falling into the easy conventions of many faith-based films. Bakke has a sharp eye but a warm heart and a refreshing honesty that allows him to let us laugh at some of the silliness and hypocrisy he has observed but is always respectful of those who find meaning in the way they engage with God. He is a sharp observer of the craft of filmmaking as well, and the story structure and camera and editing work here show that he is ready for the big leagues. I am looking forward to what he does next.

In his last film, a documentary called “Beware of Christians,” Bakke told the story of his journey with four friends, all from devout Christian families, as they traveled through ten European cities to expand their understanding of what it means to be a person of faith. That experience clearly informs this fictional story of four college fraternity brothers. When one of them discovers that his scholarship has run out with one more tuition payment still due, he persuades his friends to establish a fake Christian charity so they can keep the money. Each of them has a different perspective. Sam (Alex Russell, soon to be seen in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken”), is the slick, dimpled operator who thinks this is just the ticket to smooth his path to law school. Pierce (Miles Fisher) is the selfish rich kid who does not want his father to know he is in debt. Baker (Max Adler of “Glee” and “Switched at Birth”) is the party animal who is up for whatever’s going on. And Tyler (Sinqua Walls of “The Secret Life of an American Teenager”) is a nice guy who goes along because they promise he will not have to speak in front of a group and they promise that some of the money will actually go to charity.

Sam is a charismatic speaker and the audience wants to believe. Not only do they raise money quickly for their fake charity (cutely dubbed “Get Wells Soon”), but they attract the attention of a promoter named Ken (Christopher McDonald), who wants to book them on a nationwide tour for Christian audiences. Also on the tour are a singer named Gabriel (“Happy Endings'” Zachary Knighton, with just the right touch of oily smugness) and the tour manager (and Gabriel’s girlfriend) Callie (Johanna Braddy). The guys have to up their game to appear to be more authentic. They don’t just use highlighters and post-its to mark Bible passages, they baptize their Bibles in swimming pool water to give them that thoroughly-thumbed look. In one of the movie’s highlights, Sam explains to the others how to use certain words and poses (like “The Shawshank”) to communicate piety and get more money from believers, and even how to swear just enough but not too much. Can they immerse themselves in the world of faith — and the evidence of true need — without being affected by it, especially with the example of at least one believer who demonstrates true grace?

Bakke and his co-screenwriter Michael B. Allen bring a lot of specificity to these scenes, and a sensitivity that shows he is laughing with the Christians (especially when it comes to Christian entertainment), not at them. They understand that their open-hearted generosity can be unthinking but is almost always kindly meant. And they understand that being a believer does not inoculate anyone from human failings, especially pride. They also understand that true faith requires the full engagement of the spirit. And they respect their characters and the audience enough to make it clear that the answers we value most are never easy.

Parents should know that this film has some drinking and partying and some criminal and unethical behavior.

Family discussion: Which character best fits your idea of what it is to have faith? What should Ken have done when he found out what the boys were doing? What will Sam do next?

If you like this, try: “Beware of Christians” and films like “Elmer Gantry,” “Jesus Camp,” “Marjoe,” “Blue Like Jazz,” and “Leap of Faith”

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Comedy Drama Movies Satire Spiritual films VOD and Streaming

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Posted on March 13, 2014 at 6:08 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some sexual content, and violence
Profanity: Strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Murder, wartime violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 8, 2014
Date Released to DVD: June 16, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: B00JAQJNN0

The_Grand_Budapest_Hotel_3Writer/director Wes Anderson loves precious little worlds and his movies are not just created, they are curated. There’s a reason that this film is named for its location, not its characters or plot. Anderson is the master of “saudade,” the nostalgia for something you never had or that never existed. The Grand Budapest Hotel is as romantically imagined as its name, more vividly realized than any of the human characters in the movie, and we instantly feel the pang of its loss.

We enter through a Sheherezade-ian series of nesting narratives.  A girl visits the grave of a writer, and we go back in time to see that writer (Tom Wilkinson) as an older man, talking about where writers get their stories (from real life), and then back again further as a younger man (Jude Law), actually getting the story in a bleak, bordering on seedy distressed version of the hotel, from an old man named Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham).  And then we go further back in time to see Zero as a young man, a proud lobby boy in the titular edifice, a gorgeously splendid, elegant, and luxurious resort in the mountains of a fictitious European country called Zubrowka, somewhere in the midst of Switzerland, Luxembourg, Austria-Hungary, and the Balkans.  Anderson invites us into the artificiality of the memory within a memory within a story told by a stranger. He does not bother with cinematic tricks to make the hotel look real.  We see it made out of paper, with a paper finicula pulled by a string to bring the guests up the mountain, as though it is part of a puppet show, which, in a way it is.  At times it feels as though it is being put on with the marionettes from the “Lonely Goatherd” number in “The Sound of Music.”  There is no effort to make the actors playing the younger and older versions of characters look alike.  But the detail work is as meticulous as ever, so that must be intentional, and meaningful.

In the era of the Jude Law storyline, the hotel’s inept concierge is M. Jean (Jason Schwartzman).  But, as Zero tells the story, in the heyday of the hotel, the concierge was the legendary M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).  A concierge is there to be the all-purpose fixer, finder, and minder, like the entire staff of Downton Abbey in one.  M. Gustave is infinitely attuned to the needs of the hotel’s wealthy, important, often noble (as in duchesses, not heroes), and always demanding clientele.  There is a reason they are always referred to as guests.  And if they require a particularly specialized and personal form of service, he is willing to oblige, even if the guest in question is a titled termagant in her 80’s (an hilariously unrecognizable Tilda Swinton as Madame D.)  Fiennes gives a performance as perfectly precise as his character, whose flawless demeanor evokes exquisite deference, competence, and discretion.  Like Anderson and Anderson’s autobiographical stand-in played by Schwartzman in “Rushmore,” M. Gustave is a showman, and one with an extravagantly grand and very ambitious sense of mise-en-scene.  Early on, we see M. Gustave striding through the hotel lobby, a gracious farewell to a guest on one side, sharp but not unkind directions to staff who are not up to standard on the other. Later, in two intrusions by this story’s version of the Nazis and later, as a prisoner, he responds as though he is in a drawing room comedy.  Fiennes pulls off the tricky balance between farce and drama as the story takes him through murder, art theft, love, war, and delectable pastries.  And he is matched by newcomer Tony Revolori as the young Zero, a refugee who aspires to M. Gustave’s savoir faire, and who becomes first his protege and then his friend. 

As always in a Wes Anderson film, starting with the very first scene of his first movie, “Bottle Rocket,” there is an escape.  M. Gustave is imprisoned, but still strives to maintain an aura of gracious living.  After a rough encounter with another prisoner, he is bruised but airily assures the visiting Zero that they are now dear friends.  He confronts the direst of situations — or tries to — as though they are at the level of an errant lobby boy.  But when he is deprived of his beloved fragrance, L’Air de Panache, he begins to crumble.

The details of the various time periods are, as expected, exquisitely chosen, well worth a second viewing.  Ant it is a bit warmer than Anderson’s previous films, less arch, less removed, softer toward its characters, even tender.  Anderson often makes objects more important than people but in this one, with the painting and the pastry almost character themselves on one side and Zero and his true love Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) still stylized but still heartfelt on the other, they’re getting closer.

Parents should know that this film includes wartime violence, with characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images, strong language, sexual references and an explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Did M. Gustave and Zero have the same priorities? What is added to the story by seeing the author and Zero later in their lives?

If you like this, try: “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Rushmore”

 

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Comedy Crime Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical Romance Satire War

G.B.F.

Posted on January 14, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Writer George Northy and director Darren Stein manage to subvert and salute the traditions of the high school comedy in this smart, fresh, and funny story that shakes up the classic elements of teen movies but recognizes their eternal verities.  It is fitting that a story about undermining stereotypes slyly undermines expectations of high schoolers and high school movies.  Everything from “Mean Girls” to “Clueless” to “Pretty in Pink” gets shaken and stirred.

High school makes a great setting because it is a universal experience of heightened emotions that lend themselves well to comedy, drama, and identity.  It is the last place where everyone is pretty much stuck together.  The core elements of high school movies usually feature an outcast and often end up at prom.  “G.B.F.,” which stands for “gay best friend” follows that formula.  It is the story of two closeted gay seniors in a school that (improbably) does not have a single out gay student.  While a few years ago, this might have been a touching story about the courage to come out and confront homophobia, and a few years before that a comedy about a student pretending to be gay but really being straight, this film is set in a school with straight students who are desperately hoping for openly gay classmates to come out so that they can befriend them.   It’s hard to have a gay-straight alliance without any gay members.  And not one, not two, but three high school divas are desperately seeking a GBF as an accessory, to tell them how fierce they are.

The three divas are drama queen (really, she rules the theater clique) Caprice (Xosha Roquemore), Mormon goodie girl ‘Shley (Andrea Bowen) and capo de tutti capi Fawcett (Sasha Pieterse).  When Tanner (Michael J. Willett) is accidentally outed via an app on his phone, he all goes from zero to hero as the three girls compete with each other for his attention and favor.  The girls have a few surprises in store as well, as does Shley’s boyfriend.

The tone falters in spots and the acting falters frequently.  The appearance of Natasha Lyonne as a teacher just reminds us of how much better she was as a teen actress (especially in another gay-themed film, “But I’m a Cheerleader”) than many of the cast here.  But the quick, witty dialogue and the good heart of the film make it fun to watch and the heartening message helps smooth over the rough spots.

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Comedy High School Satire Stories about Teens

American Hustle

Posted on December 19, 2013 at 6:00 pm

american-hustle

“Some of this actually happened,” the movie’s opening shot deadpans.  It is true that the United States government both threatened and paid a con man to help them con some bigger fish and then accidentally ended up conning some of the biggest fish ever caught — six US Congressmen and a Senator.  David O. Russell directed and co-wrote “American Hustle,” the story of 1970’s fraud, insanity, and betrayal, plus a lot of “what were we thinking” hair and clothes and a rockin’ soundtrack, from “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” to “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?” and the inevitable “Horse With No Name.”

The storyline has so many layers of double-cross, lies, betrayal, grandiosity, and sheer insanity that the audience may feel they are getting lost, but in a way, that is the point, and of course, that is the decade for it.  I mean, look at the home perm on Bradley Cooper, who plays the hotdog FBI agent Ricky DiMaso as something of a cross between Starsky, Hutch, and Huggie Bear.

And then there is the hair on Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld.  It can perhaps best be described as an edifice.  As the movie begins, we are treated to the painstaking assembly of his pompadoured comb-over, remarkable to witness and a dead-on detail that lets us know who we will be following for the rest of the film.  He is a phony, he is all about making the surface look better than it should, and  he will do whatever it takes to put forward the image that will sell whatever he is trying to sell. Ascot, check.  Pinky rink, check. Briefcase full of cash, check.

Flashback.  Rosenfeld is the master of at least half a dozen medium-sized scams when, at a party, across the room, he spies a beautiful woman.  It is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).  They share a love of Duke Ellington and a talent for re-invention.  “My dream” she tells us, “more than anything, was to become anything else than what I was.”

They cook up an almost-legal scam, taking  up-front fees on the promise of using their connections to obtain loans from some vaguely defined “London connections.”  All is fine until they get busted.  And DiMaso, intrigued by their world of deception, persuades them to work for him to bring down some big-time criminals.

But things get complicated and messy.  DiMaso’s boss (a terrific Louis C.K.)  is reluctant to have federal officers engage in criminal activities, even to catch other criminals.  One of the great joys of this film is when the boss keeps trying to tell DiMaso an ice-fishing story that never gets to the point because the hotheaded DiMaso keeps interrupting him.  Rosenfeld is married to an unhappy, volatile wife named Rosalyn (a dazzling performance of astonishing depth and mesmerizing assurance by Jennifer Lawrence) and stepfather to her son.  He has to find a way to resolve things with the FBI, the mob, and the politicians.

The unfinished ice-fishing story is the point.  This is not a nice, linear explanation for what happened.  This is a bunch of stories that intersect in a maze of all seven of the deadly sins plus a few that should also be on the list.  Brilliant performances by everyone in the cast (including Alessandro Nivola as an FBI official and an unbilled guest star as a guy from the mob) and a witty, insightful script are what hold it together.  Lawrence makes us furious at and sorry for her character at the same time, and she is sizzlingly funny.

The purpose of this film is not to illuminate the particular events of Abscam.  It is to meditate on the irrepressible American enthusiasm for self-invention and the thicket of betrayal and damage that can be the result.  It is about the stories we tell, even the ones like the ice fishing story that never get to make a point.  Russell himself can’t resist tweaking the details, making the characters more interesting and sympathetic than they really were.  But that wouldn’t be a good story.

Parents should know that this film has very strong adult material including constant bad language, explicit sexual references and situations, nudity, drinking and drug use, extensive criminal behavior and betrayal.

Family discussion: Who are the biggest con artists in this story?  How do the characters determine who deserves their loyalty?  Was justice done?

If you like this, try:  “Flirting with Disaster,” “The Fighter,” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” from the same director

 

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Based on a true story Crime Drama Politics Satire

The Campaign

Posted on August 9, 2012 at 6:05 pm

“Freedom.” “Jesus.” “America.”  And whoever you are, you are “the backbone of this country.”  This attempted political satire feels as empty as the platitudes spouted by the candidates in this R-rated comedy that, like the political system it portrays, goes for the easy and expedient and the trashy instead of the substantive or constructive.  Bill Maher, “The Daily Show,” and “The Colbert Report” have raised the bar on political comedy, so we expect more bite than this lackluster film, as generic as its title.

Will Ferrell plays four-term Congressman Cam Brady, a Democrat from North Carolina, expecting to run unopposed in the upcoming election.  But he all of a sudden becomes vulnerable when leaves a raunchy voicemail for his mistress on the wrong answering machine.  The mega-wealthy Motch brothers (played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd and inspired by the real-life Koch brothers, who fund many right-wing causes and politicians) decide they would be better off with another candidate.  So, even though he is “weird” and has no experience in politics, they pick Marty Huggins (co-producer Zach Galifianakis).  He is the son of a wealthy man (Brian Cox) who has strong connections to business and government.  The Motches send in Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), their best political operative to run the campaign, and he crisply cuts right to the point: “I’m here to make you suck less.”

Immediately, Marty’s life is turned upside down as his beloved pug dogs are replaced with a golden retriever and a black lab — both in bandanas — because those breeds have the highest approval ratings.  He and his wife and their home get extreme makeovers and Tim keeps Marty on talking points.  Meanwhile, Cam’s overconfidence and poor judgment help Marty rise in the polls.  The Motches have been using a loophole to sell goods produced in China labeled as “made in America” (based on convicted felon Jack Abramoff’s deal in the Mariana Islands).   They plot to create an enterprise zone in the district, waiving environmental, safety, and wage regulations so they can create American sweatshops with imported Chinese workers (“insourcing”).  They just need a Congressman who will do what they tell him. And their control goes even deeper than money.

It is briefly intriguing to see Dan Aykroyd taking over the kind of “Trading Places” rich bad guy brother role Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy played when he and Eddie Murphy were the leads, but the contrast just shows how little energy and bite this film in comparison.  McDermott picks things up with some dark wit and Katherine LaNasa is a highlight as Cam’s steel magnolia of a wife.  But Ferrell is deprived of his greatest asset as a performer.  He is at his best when he plays flawed men who are immature and self-centered but still likable because they really want to be liked and struggle to do the right thing.  Cam just does not care.  And Galifiniakis’ mincing affect and Southern drawl are not as witty as he intends them to be.  This is one of those campaigns when you wish the ballot had an option for “none of the above.”

Parents should know that this movie includes extremely crude humor with very explicit sexual references and situations and very strong and vulgar language, brief female nudity, drinking, drunkenness and drunk driving, smoking, comic peril and violence including snake bite and shooting injury, a lot of corruption and overall bad behavior played for comedy.

Family discussion:  What elements of the story seemed most true about our current political system?  What is the impact of “Citizens United” on elections?

If you like this, try: “In the Loop” and documentaries like “The War Room” and “Unprecedented”

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Comedy Politics Satire
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