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Passion, Idol, Undervalued 2015 Films - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 24, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Passion, Idol, Undervalued 2015 Films

Did you miss Tyler Perry's presentation of The Passion, live in New Orleans, last Sunday night?

Some people might have been wary of an account of Christ's last days and hours presented as a musical. But let's remember that Tyler Perry's entire career as a playwright, director, and actor in comedies has been infused with an unembarrassed inclusion of his Christian beliefs and values.

This is not a case of Hollywood trying to cash in on a story they don't understand, infusing it with their own mostly-anti-Christian values. Tyler Perry is not Hollywood, and neither was The Passion.

Oh, there was showmanship, all right. A spectacular stage on the New Orleans waterfront, surrounded by a live audience (mostly standing), provided the center for the show, with singers performing well-known popular songs that had been repurposed (but usually not rewritten) to express a part of the story of the Passion of Christ.

For instance, Trisha Yearwood, looking and sounding wonderful, portrayed the mature Mary, mother of Jesus, singing three moving songs at various points in the program. This inflated her role in the Passion story far beyond what the gospels suggest, but emotionally speaking, she helped us see the death of Jesus through his mother's eyes.

I worried when they cast Chris Daughtry as Judas that this would be yet another show where Judas was meant to be the sympathetic character. In fact, though Daughtry was the most charismatic performer of the evening, at no point did he become the sympathetic hero. He was the tortured traitor, and the story remained true to the gospels.

Of course the show did not step through every single event reported in the gospels, and some events and words were put in a different order for dramatic effect. But in every case, I agreed with the choices they made. Especially the choice to completely omit the trials before the Sanhedrin and Herod Antipas, so that at no point did we have to watch someone portray a "villainous Jew."

Instead, the only authority figure, the only judge we see is Pontius Pilate, played, with brilliant casting, by Seal. His scene with Jesus is one of the most powerful in the show.

There was also racial sensitivity, in that Jesus and Peter were played, not by lily-white northern Europeans, but rather by Hispanic performers: Prince Royce, a Latin pop star, as Peter; and telenovela star Jencarlos Canela as Jesus.

Both of them did a beautiful job of acting and singing, while their mild accents reminded us that the New Testament story took place, not in Europe, but in a Mediterranean country where the people spoke another language.

Throughout the show, we occasionally cut away, not just to commercials, but also to a procession in which a twenty-foot high cross, the same brilliantly lighted white as the stage set, was carried through the streets of New Orleans by a constantly changing and growing crowd.

This procession reached the stage on cue, and was mounted on a frame; but it remained horizontal, and there was no attempt to represent the image of Jesus on the cross -- though we did get a verbal description of the process of crucifixion.

There were modernizing elements throughout. As a prisoner, Jesus wore an orange jumpsuit. Peter denied Jesus in real-world settings in New Orleans. The soldiers who came to arrest him were depicted as American policemen in riot gear. These things could have been inflammatory, but the production was designed so as to minimize any such response.

The story was about Jesus, the Redeemer and Prince of Peace, and the whole production maintained that attitude throughout.

The style of music was not, as I had feared, rap; instead, it laid pop and rock elements on top of a foundation of heartfelt gospel music. The chorus above and behind the stage was pure gospel, as were the introductory and concluding songs.

In fact, the show ended with "When the Saints Go Marching In," a completely appropriate choice for a show like this in New Orleans. It was a reminder that this Dixieland standard is, at heart, an old-timey spiritual.

(I'm fact-checking this review by reading the report on The Passion at cbsnews.com, and in their song list, I was amused that they listed the original performer of "You'll Never Walk Alone" as Gerry & the Pacemakers. Really? Nobody had ever heard of Rodgers & Hammerstein, of Carousel?)

I was entertained during every minute of the actual show (though we fast-forwarded through the man-on-the-street interviews, since they were utterly devoid of interest and just delayed the real story). I don't know if this play-like pageant would mean anything to unbelievers -- why should it? -- but most believing Christians I've talked to found it moving.

Does it replace great film presentations like Cecil B. DeMille's black-and-white King of Kings, or Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, or the Charlton Heston Ben-Hur? Of course not. It isn't a movie, it's a stage play, and viewed in that light, it's one of the best jobs I've ever seen of putting a stage play on the screen.

If you missed the live broadcast on Fox, you can still stream it. Learn how at http://www.fox.com/the-passion/how-to-watch-the-passion .

*

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to seeing Risen this week -- I like the premise of telling the story of the Roman officer assigned to prevent anyone from stealing the body of Jesus and pretending he was resurrected. It reminds me, of course, of Lloyd Douglas's classic Christian novel The Robe, but it sounds a bit more promising as a movie than the Richard Burton version from fifty years ago.

And the upcoming remake of Ben-Hur is a good idea. Considering how many times Ben-Hur was presented as a stage play during the 19th and early 20th century, I'm glad that it's being reenvisioned with today's CGI capabilities. And despite the director's best-known credit being Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, one of the writers is John Ridley, who won an Oscar for the script of 12 Years a Slave.

I'd hate to think that the oversized acting of Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd in William Wyler's 1959 Ben-Hur was the last word on this classic story that was by far the most popular American novel of the second half of the 19th century.

However, I'm already gritting my teeth at the trailer of The Young Messiah. The premise of the movie is a good one, set at the time when the holy family leave Egypt to return to Nazareth.

But the scene between Mary and Jesus shown in the trailer is nauseatingly similar to all the Superboy depictions in which young Clark Kent is urged to conceal his superpowers till he's older.

There was a medieval tradition of young-Jesus miracle stories, like the time when Joseph cuts an expensive piece of wood too short, and young Jesus miraculously makes it long enough to do the job.

But these stories have nothing to do with the gospels, and I personally find it offensive to turn the childhood of Christ into just another superhero origin movie. Considering that vampirist Anne Rice wrote the novel the movie is based on, I have even less trust in its ability to depict a character who in any way resembles Jesus of Nazareth.

*

This final season of American Idol is, in many ways, the best. The judging team of Harry Connick, Jr., Jennifer Lopez, and Keith Urban is by far the best ever, and this year they have been given the power to shape the show in rational ways.

Though any female contestant who tries to play the "sexy" card, showing cleavage, has quickly learned that they cannot compete with Jennifer Lopez's breast-baring costumes. You don't send a dolphin to impress people who can't take their eyes off Moby-Dick.

Instead of the traditional procedure of having a performance night followed by a results show, once the top twenty were chosen, every night was both a performance and results show. Because the judges were given the option of saving one of the bottom three each night, all the singing meant something because even the ones eliminated by having the fewest audience votes had a chance to compete for that one save.

Another thing that made the show wonderful this year was that they showed us the actual screening process. For the first few years, the producers loved to send tragically untalented performers before the judges so that Simon could abuse them and Randy could laugh at them. Ha ha.

But every one of those how-sad performers had been screened and sent on -- so it was not delusional for them to think they had a chance. They were deliberately and cruelly deceived.

This year, they brought past contestants to join the screening judges at a dozen or more tables, where they listened to would-be contestants and decided whom to send on to the judges. And they sent only people who had a legitimate chance -- or a heartwarming story. None of the appalling specimens that used to be a continuous embarrassment during the early weeks of the show.

We're down to the final five now. I have to admit that some of my favorites, as human beings, were not brought into the top ten, and I miss them. And there were three Interchangeable Girls, whom we could never remember as individuals. But now only one of the Interchangeable Girls remains, and since she just got plucked from the bottom three, and there are no more judges' saves from now on, I expect her to leave on the next show.

The real contenders are actually some of the best we've ever seen on the show. Trent Harmon looks like, and is, a country boy -- but that boy can sing. MacKenzie Bourg is a pathologically charming guy with a total singer-songwriter vibe, but he was actually a serious athlete growing up. Not many singers have that background.

Nobody has more charisma onstage than Dalton Rapattoni, a heartthrob who absolutely owns the stage without ever looking as if he's trying to impress us.

But the obvious winner -- and yes, I'm predicting here, because it's a no-brainer, unless the voters go insane -- is La'Porsha Renae, a diva with one of the most gorgeous vocal instruments ever on the Idol stage. And she also looks great as she performs, whether she's standing still or strutting the stage.

As long as I'm predicting, I expect the final two to include Dalton, and the final three to include MacKenzie.

Don't watch the show for the next few weeks in order to see a contest. Watch it to see a concert, because La'Porsha Renae, Trent Harmon, MacKenzie Bourg, and Dalton Rapaggoni all deserve to have serious recording and performing careers. I want albums from all of them.

It's the last year of American Idol, and that's partly because Idol isn't getting the dominant ratings it used to get. Maybe by giving up the train-wreck vibe that was fostered by Simon Cowell's years on the show, the producers guaranteed that the audience would shrink to those who actually cared about the music.

But why not go out on a high note, so to speak -- with the best array of singers and the best judges ever?

That's what they're doing, and if you ever enjoyed Idol, set your DVR or TiVo to record these final shows. You really don't want to miss them.

*

There were some good films in 2015 that didn't get a lot of attention. Yes, Brooklyn, was nominated for an Oscar, but this gentle story of a young Irishwoman who immigrates to America, falls in love, and then returns to Ireland to find that she's torn between the two lands didn't have the pizzazz, the pyrotechnics, the hype that brought most of the other contenders more clearly to our attention.

Just before the Oscars, my wife and I were told by friends that this story was so moving that it became their choice to win. I'm afraid that I didn't like it quite that well, but I liked it a lot and maybe, when I rewatch it, I'll come to agree with my friends.

Certainly Saoirse Ronan, whom I first saw in Hanna back in 2011 (I skipped The Lovely Bones completely, and have never regretted it), is a luminous actress who disappears so completely into her parts that she's almost unrecognizable from film to film.

Right now, several underrated films from early in 2015 are appearing on cable and satellite, and it's worth pointing out that they're better than I expected.

Run All Night, starring Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, and Joel Kinnaman, sounds a lot like the Keanu Reeves revenge movie John Wick. But where Wick keeps its hero in splendid isolation, driven only by rage, Run All Night is almost the opposite movie.

The hero, played by Liam Neeson, is a retired hit man, and he doesn't live in wealth and splendor like Wick. He's lonely and sad, mostly because, having left his wife and son years before, he now has to deal with his son's angry refusal to allow him to be part of the family.

The result is a movie with plenty of action. Liam Neeson's Jimmy Conlon isn't as magical a killing machine as Keanu Reeves's John Wick, but, as with Wick, it comes down to a confrontation between Jimmy Conlon and Ed Harris's Shawn Maguire, his old friend and mafia boss.

Yet we also see Jimmy trying to overcome his son's resistance to any help from his father. He has to save his son's life more than once, but far more powerful are the moments when he stops his son from killing any of the gunmen who are trying to kill them. "If you pull that trigger, you're no better than me," says Jimmy to his son, and thus he agrees with his son's assessment of him as a very bad man.

Vincent D'Onofrio plays a detective who has been pursuing Conlon for years, but now mostly wants him to name all his victims so that the detective can close those cases and give the victim's families a solution, a face to put on the murderer of their loved ones.

In the midst of all the evil, there are some good people doing good -- mostly Joel Kinnaman's Mike Conlon. Kinnaman is so fierce-looking that we can believe him as the son of a hit man and a dangerous guy; but we can also believe him as a man who'll work in low-level jobs rather than take part in a life of crime like his father.

There's no shortage of sons in the real world who can't really feel themselves to be complete until their father dies, but in the case of Mike and Jimmy Conlon, there's good reason for both of them to feel as they do; and their eventual reconciliation is earned, bit by bit, word by word, bullet by bullet.

It's a moving film, in my opinion, which deserves your attention now, even if you missed it in the theaters.

As for the movie Max, let's face it. It's a dog movie. It's a boy-loves-dog movie. But it's not a Lassie movie and it's not Old Yeller, even though it has echoes of both.

Max is a war dog, whose handler is killed in combat in the Middle East in 2014. The dog is confused and traumatized by the death of his handler, Kyle Wincott. Max ends up with Kyle's angry younger brother, Justin (the superb Josh Wiggins), who comes to trust and then love the dog.

The movie turns much darker than I expected, though, when one of Kyle's friends, local boy Tyler Harne, gets a job at the storage facility owned by Kyle's and Justin's father, Ray (Thomas Haden Church). Tyler tells Ray that Kyle died because Max went crazy and turned on him in combat; this enrages Ray so much that he wants to kill Max.

But all is not as it appears, because Tyler is involved in some serious criminal activity with a local sheriff's deputy and some across-the-border gun merchants. Max and Justin, along with Justin's friends, find themselves in grave danger as they try to keep anybody they love -- including Max

-- from getting killed.

I expected a boy-loves-dog movie. What I saw was a boy-grows-up movie that bears more than a slight resemblance to Run All Night -- though it's the son trying to rescue the father, rather than the other way around.

I recently saw 1974's Earthquake for the first time, and wow, is it seriously bad. And by bad, I mean bad starring Charlton Heston, which elevates it to the level of spectacular badness. This is because, unlike other big stars who appeared in bad disaster movies from that era, Heston doesn't underplay his part as if he's vaguely ashamed to be in the film. No, Heston always plays his parts at full throttle, and in Earthquake the result is both poignant and laughable.

There are many plot resemblances between Earthquake and 2015's San Andreas. In both cases, there are scientists trying to predict earthquakes. The star of the movie is the husband in a marriage on the rocks, a marriage that is saved in part by the heroics involved in spending a whole movie rescuing people.

There are architects. There are dams that spring leaks and then break. One of the spouses has found someone new to love. You know, all the plot points you'd expect. Especially people getting knocked down, falling from high places, falling into new cracks in the earth, and getting swept away in flood waters.

But forget the resemblances, because, like the classic Twister, San Andreas is better than it needed to be. Even though Mario Puzo was one of the writers, Earthquake has one of the most horrible scripts ever written; San Andreas had a screenplay by Carlton Cuse -- who has also written Bates Motel, the brilliant new sci-fi series Colony, and Lost.

And here's something important: We no longer expect our heroes to be vocal about it, to act like heroes, as in the days of Charlton Heston's great roles. Instead, in our post-Clint-Eastwood world, we expect the taciturn hero, out-Garying Cooper.

For this purpose, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson turns in a far-better-than-expected performance as the rescue-helicopter pilot whose daughter is trapped at the San Francisco end of a worst-earthquake-ever while The Rock is busy saving his almost-ex-wife in Los Angeles.

It's during their frantic and dangerous trip north to rescue their daughter that The Rock and his wife, played by Carla Gugino, work out some of the problems that tore their marriage apart after the death by drowning of their other daughter years before.

The scientist-hero is played by Paul Giamatti, who does a great job of making us both understand and care about the fake science, so that we almost believe that yes, they did find a way to give at least a few minutes' warning before a big quake. And a few minutes can make a difference in the survival rate.

His foil is a reporter played by Archie Panjabi, and their subplot mostly involves trying to get a warning out in time to do any good -- without benefit of the tv station's upload link.

There is one villain, an architect played by Ioan Gruffudd, who is a long way from Horatio Hornblower and the Fantastic Four in this role.

The best plot, though, is a completely credible love story between the daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), and a young English architect, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), who happens to be in the same building with Blake, applying for a job, when the earthquake hits. Ben and his pre-teen brother, Ollie, save Blake from being trapped in a car in an underground parking garage; she then leads them through the city with disaster tips she learned from her dad.

I mean, once one of you has plucked a thick shard of broken glass from the thigh of the other, and the other has used a jack, plus tire-deflation, to extract you from a car moments before it was crushed under a falling concrete ceiling, how can you not fall in love?

But it works, largely because the actors are all so innocent and charming. Did I mention that the boy Ollie is played by the innocent and charming Art Parkinson, who also plays Rickon Stark in Game of Thrones?

I haven't seen anything else that Johnstone-Burt has done, or Daddario either (oh, wait, she was in several episodes of White Collar, so I must have seen her). But I want to see more from both of them.

Even though the most interesting storyline is that of the young lovers making their way through the ruins of a collapsing San Francisco, the fact is that The Rock is, appropriately, the anchor of this movie. He's the guy who saves people, not with a lot of gratuitous grunting and straining as he shows us how hard he's working at his rescues, but rather with a sense of urgent inevitability. This must be done, so he will do it.

Till now, I've deliberately sidestepped another reason why San Andreas is vastly better than Earthquake. Even though Earthquake had the then-new Sensurround so that audiences could feel some fake shaking, the special effects were laughable. Actors had obviously been told to jerk themselves around as if they were being shaken by a quake, but ... wow it was awful.

With computer graphics and much better stunt work, the disastrous events are much more believable and terrifying. There's a moment when Gugino watches her lunch companion go through a door on the top floor of a high rise during the quake and tries to follow after her, to get her to climb up on the roof where The Rock is going to save them.

But when she opens the door, there's nothing there. That whole side of the building has sheered away, and she watches as a man loses his hold and plummets many stories down, which must have happened to her lunch companion only moments before.

Meanwhile, I, as a confirmed sympathetic acrophobe, almost wet myself.

The Rock's and Gugino's journey northward changes methods of transportation almost as often as Around the World in 80 Days, as their damaged helicopter crashes, they steal a pickup, abandon it when a deep uncrossable fissure bars their way, then commandeer a skydiving airplane and fly it to San Francisco, then parachute out of the plane into what used to be Candlestick Park because there's nowhere to land, and finally steal a boat, which they use to ride out the tsunami and then tootle around half-drowned city until they happen to go right past the building where Blake and Ben and Ollie are struggling to survive and ...

Yeah, that's a huge, unbelievable coincidence, but come on. If that coincidence didn't happen there wouldn't be a movie, so let's cut 'em some slack, ok?

Throughout the whole film, the special effects are very good. Cracking and bursting dams, crushed and broken bridges and overpasses, pancaking and toppling edifices, and the ground rippling as the huge tremors pass through the earth -- these all work.

Of course it's ludicrous to think that a helicopter could stay in the air after flying its rotor through a bunch of falling concrete debris -- but if we can let sci-fi spaceships dodge through asteroid storms, we can let a helicopter stay aloft after damage that should have bend those rotors like pretzels.

And when we get aerial shots of the tsunami water bursting through the streets of San Francisco, it can be a little annoying to see how they ignored the fact that the city is as hilly as a bunch of upside-down cows' udders, and very little of the water would remain in the streets except around the flattest edges of the city.

But hey, even if the water couldn't actually be where it is, they make the water believable. The tsunami is very well-done, and our heroes' made ride up the front face of the wave is as good a nail-biter as you're likely to find in a disaster movie.

The movie ends with a pullaway sequence where we rise higher and higher into the air, looking down on San Francisco, which is now an island. I had to pause that sequence to see if our old house in Santa Clara was underwater. It was. I mean, not specifically, but the area where it's located was clearly not on dry land.

So when we look back on 2015's movies, I think it's OK to value and enjoy movies that nobody would ever propose for Oscars or even Golden Globes, because they aren't arty enough or don't have the right kind of stars or subject matter. Run All Night, Max, and San Andreas are at least as likely to keep finding appreciative audiences as any of the nominated and award-winning films.

In fact, even though I admire The Big Short more than any of those three films, I'm far more likely to be captivated by any of these three "lesser" films and watch it through to the end just because it happens to be on.

The Rock wasn't going to be nominated for an acting award for San Andreas, but that doesn't mean he isn't a good actor who had exactly the right chops (and the right physique) for an earthquake rescue movie.

It's ok to like movies that are entertaining, moving, exciting, or funny; it's even ok to like them better than movies that get a lot of critical praise. I don't care what happens when a CGI bear doesn't like you; but I found myself caring very much when a mafia boss or a battle-dog or the ground under their feet didn't like the characters I cared about.

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