Special Collaborative Post: 10 Redeeming Films for Easter… or any other time of the year

I had the wonderful opportunity to collaborate with my blogging buddies Ruth and Terrence on 10 movies that feature great examples of redemption. With Easter upon us, what better time to focus on such a wonderful subject. Please be sure to visit Ruth’s and Terrence’s sites by clicking their links in the post. Happy Easter and God bless.


Happy Easter everyone!

I’d like to wish everyone a wonderful holiday. Fellow Christians all over the world are celebrating the resurrection of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ… I’m forever grateful for His atoning sacrifice. So in the spirit of personal redemption, I invited two of my best blog pals Terrence and Keith to participate in coming up with 10 redeeming films we’d highly recommend.

an act of redeeming or atoning for a fault or mistake, or the state of being redeemed.

So, what’s a “redeeming” film? The definition varies, but borrowing from this Christianity Today article , we mean movies that include stories of redemption—sometimes blatantly, sometimes less so. Several of them literally have a character that represents a redeemer; all of them have characters who experience redemption to some degree—some quite clearly, some more subtly.

So without further ado, I present to you our list…


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“Safe Haven” – 3 STARS


There are several things that you automatically expect when your watching any movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. You know you’re going to get an overloaded plot, the characters are going to be bombarded with tragedy, a main character will probably die, and whether its rain, a pond, or the ocean, you’re going to get a lot of scenes involving water. Now the water thing doesn’t bother me. I’m sure there’s a nice little story as to why water is so prominent in these films. But the other stuff along with a history of bad performances have made the other Sparks adaptations almost unbearable to watch. So I guess the question is why on earth would I watch his latest endeavor “Safe Haven”? More importantly, would it be able to avoid the habitual weaknesses of the other movies?

Well let me start off by saying that Sparks almost had me with “Safe Haven”. In fact he came incredibly close. “Safe Haven”a flirts with being a really good movie mainly because it steers clear of those crippling stumbling blocks that killed every other Sparks production. Much of the credit for this goes to Gage Lansky and Dana Stevens. Their screenplay keeps things simple, grounded, and focused, that is right up until the very end. It’s there that the story undermines everything it had done up to that point by tossing in a clunky action sequence and an off-the-wall twist that had me slapping my a forehead.

safe haven 1

Julianne Hough plays Katie, a young woman with a big secret. We first see her in a bus station where she hurriedly hops on a bus heading to Atlanta. Right on her heels is police officer Kevin Tierney (David Lyons) who narrowly misses catching her. Katie flees, in search of a place where she will feel “safe” Officer Tierney issues an all-points bulletin and continues to search for her. We know Katie is involved in something bad but the movie never tells us what it is all at once. Instead we are fed bits of information through a series of flashbacks.

Katie’s bus stops briefly at a sleepy little North Carolina town called Southport that sits at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. She decides to stay. She buys an old fixer-upper house isolated in the woods and lands a low-key job as a waitress in a fish restaurant. She also reluctantly starts making connects in town including catching the eye of the conveniently widowed Alex (Josh Duhamel). It doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to guess that the two eventually fall for each other. Hough and Duhamel are actually quite good together. Hough is beautiful and fairly believable and her acting was a surprise. She did have some rough patches but overall she was much better than I expected. Duhamel is a very likable actor but I’ve yet to see him really relay emotion. He gives a good enough performance here but it’s nothing that will grab your attention. But the main thing is that they do have a nice chemistry and we get plenty of scenes with these two pretty people together. But you can only run from the law for so long and Katie’s past could eventually destroy her new life.

I was curious to see how director Lasse Hallström was going to handle this movie. He’s got an interesting résumé that includes some really good films such as “Chocolat”, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”, and last year’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”. But he also made the Nicholas Sparks disaster “Dear John”. Well thankfully this is no “Dear John”. Hallström never let’s things get out of control and he’s able to keep his characters entertaining and interesting. He does get close to falling into eye-rolling sappiness at times but he actually succeeds in making this a fairly enjoyable romantic drama, something that can’t be said about the previous Sparks productions.


Now “Safe Haven” does use some of the standard clichés that you see in a lot of these type of pictures. We get the super cute little kid doing and saying super cute little things and there are certain moments in Katie and Alex’s romance that were taken straight out of the Hollywood handbook on formulaic romance scenes. But I have to say that these things are at a minimum and they never overtake the film. There’s also the water. I mean there’s water everywhere. Of course Alex and Katie have to get caught in a rain storm and there’s a lot of scenes that include the Cape Fear River. There’s even a reoccurring bottled water that has significance. That Nicholas Sparks, he sure loves his water.

So while “Safe Haven” can be a little sappy, a little cliché, and too convenient, those aren’t its biggest offenses. Even with the surprising control and restraint that we see in the majority of the film, the ending blows most of it out of Sparks’ beloved water. There’s an early twist that I actually thought was pretty well done. But it leads to an action sequence that felt terribly out of place. It just suddenly throws too much at you and it felt pretty cheap. But then the story gets back on track with a really touching final sequence. The only problem is the filmmakers don’t leave it alone and they toss in a twist that left me shaking my head. I don’t know, if I watch it again I might feel differently, but it seemed to me that they ruined a really good ending by trying to be too crafty. Sometimes you have to recognize a good thing and let it play out.

So what’s my final take on “Safe Haven”? I’ve slammed every Nicholas Sparks production that I’ve reviewed and I was expecting to do the same here. But as I consider the film as a whole I can’t help but recommend it, even if it’s a slight recommendation. Hough is lovely and Duhamel as likable as always, and even though they’re not the most polished performers, their chemistry sold me. I’m still not one to say I now look forward to Nicholas Sparks movies, but for me this was a step in the right direction.

“Bridesmaids” – 2.5 Stars


I’m one of the few movie fans who just doesn’t appreciate Judd Apatow’s special brand of humor. In fact I often will skip a movie just for seeing his name attached to it. I would have done the same with “Bridesmaids” if not for the Academy Award nominations and critical buzz it received. Unfortunately it doesn’t take the movie long to latch itself to the other Judd Apatow productions. Yet underneath the veneer of fart jokes, toilet humor, and raunch lies a movie with some heart and some genuinely funny moments, a movie that could have stood on its own and done without the other junk that Apatow seems compelled to put into his pictures.

After seeing the trailer my first impression of “Bridesmaids” was that it was “The Hangover” starring women. That was enough to turn me off. But from a story perspective it’s quite different. It’s actually a movie about Annie (Kristen Wiig), a disillusioned thirtysomething living in Wisconsin whose had a run of bad luck. She recently had to shut down her bakery, she has no money, and she’s forced to share an apartment with a loopy British guy and his freeloading sister. She hates her new job at a small jewelry store and her personal life is equally in shambles. Her boyfriend left her and she’s currently in a one-sided go-nowhere relationship with the insufferable and self-centered jerk Ted (Jon Hamm). It’s a good life, right?

Despite all her troubles at least Annie has her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph). That is until Lillian reveals that she is engaged to be married to a loaded Chicago bigwig. Annie is asked to be the maid of honor and to plan the wedding with the help of Lillian’s quirky group of bridesmaids. Among those bridesmaids is the wealthy, prim and proper Helen (Rose Byrne) who doesn’t mind throwing around her money and connections. Soon Annie and Helen find themselves in a serious competition to be the true BFF of the bride. Melissa McCarthy plays Lillian’s crude and sometimes obnoxious sister-in-law who doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the bridesmaids. McCarthy received an Oscar nomination for the role. But even though she provides some laughs with her raunchy female John Candy routine, its just a variation of a role we’ve seen many times before.


Annie and Helen’s rivalry heats up and eventually boils over. Annie’s desperate attempts to one-up Helen ends up causing a series of mishaps that not only threatens the wedding but her friendship with Lillian. While the whole wedding thing is a key component to the story, it’s really a movie about Annie and her decision to face the changes in her life. It’s about not letting life’s changes grind you down. Instead you move on. You turn the page. This isn’t easy for Annie because the movie really piles it on her. I mean you name the tough situation or bad break and Annie gets it. But life throws her a lifeline in the form of Nathan (Chris O’Dowd), a friendly highway patrol officer. The question is, will Annie ever reach out and grab the line?

As I mentioned, there’s really is a lot of heart in the story and Annie’s plight is certainly a sympathetic one. It’s also easy to care for her thanks to Wiig’s wonderful performance. I also really enjoyed Maya Rudolph as Lillian. She and Wiig play off of each other beautifully and the movie was at its best when these two were on the screen together. But when it gets down to it, this is a comedy and “Bridesmaids” has some truly hilarious moments. The script has moments of comedic brilliance that results in some of the funniest scenes I’ve watched in a long time. But this also gets to the film’s big weakness which I alluded to earlier.

It’s the raunchiness and cheap toilet humor that drags the movie down (something that seems to be mandatory for every Apatow production). These unnecessary moments yanked me out of the story and undermined a lot of the more clever and intelligent humor that the movie uses. You could cut out the raunch, including a lot from McCarthy’s character, and the movie would be better for it. Then you have scenes such as when the ladies are trying on gowns at a high-end bridal shop and then begin feeling the effects of food poisoning. The gross-out bathroom humor is lazy and ridiculous and seems terribly out of place. I swear I felt I was suddenly watching a cheap National Lampoon’s flick. Sadly, these are the things that keep “Bridesmaids” from being an even better film than it is. Yet despite these shortcomings there are moments that are incredibly funny and even heartwarming. You just have to weed out the other Apatow influences to enjoy them.

REVIEW: “Looper”

Time travel is one of those fun and intriguing concepts that has found its way into every movie genre. Obviously there is time travel in science fiction films, but it can also be found in the horror, action, drama, comedy, and even romance genres. So there’s an apparent attraction to the idea of time travel and its been explored in a variety of different ways. Therefore the real challenge for a filmmaker is to take this familiar subject and give us something new and fresh – something we haven’t seen before. I’m thrilled to say that’s exactly what writer and director Rian Johnson has done with his mind bending sci-fi action film “Looper”.

As you can guess, “Looper” takes place in the not-to-distant future. Time travel has been realized but by the year 2074 it has been outlawed. The crime syndicates illegally use time travel as a means of executing and disposing of targets, something that has grown increasingly difficult to do in their time. That’s where loopers come in. They are mob killers who execute the targets sent from the future, collect the silver bars sent with the target as their reward, and then dispose of the bodies – no mess and no connections to the mob. Loopers operate out of Kansas City in the year 2044 and are headed by a mobster named Abe (Jeff Daniels). In fact, we learn that Abe is essentially running the entire city.

Joseph Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of Abe’s most trusted loopers. He’s efficient and by-the-books. But soon Joe is faced with what’s called “closing the loop” – the syndicate’s version of retirement. You see, the looper will be sent the future version of the himself to be executed. No party or shiny plaque. Just a hefty payment in gold bars and a release from their contract. “Good-bye” and enjoy the next 30 years. As we hear in the movie, the looper job doesn’t attract the most forward thinking people. Joe is surprised and unprepared when his latest target turns out to be himself only 30-years older and bald (Bruce Willis). He makes the biggest mistake a looper can make – he hesitates and old Joe jumps him, knocks him out, and then escapes. Soon young Joe has the mob hot on his trail as he’s trying to “make things right” by catching up with and killing old Joe. But old Joe has a mission of his own which really turns everything on its head.

The first half of the movie focuses more on the loopers, on introducing us to Johnson’s world, and setting up Gordon-Levitt’s character. A huge part of any movie like this, especially when dealing with time travel, is creating a believability to what you’re presenting. In other words, we need to buy into what we’re being shown. The concept behind this Rian Johnson futuristic concoction is brilliant and a breath of fresh cinematic air. What’s even more impressive is how well it’s realized on screen. He doesn’t overdo his futuristic landscape so I never felt too disconnected from this world. But there is some cool technology and Johnson clearly has fun with some of it including his ugly green energy dependent cars and the bad cell phone reception. But the city itself is a dirty and unpleasant place filled with poverty and drug use – just what you would expect from a mob-led city.

The second half of the movie takes a slight change in direction. Much of it takes part on a farm outside of town owned by a single mother Sara (Emily Blunt who exchanges her English accent for a country girl one) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). Young Joe’s search for old Joe leads him to the farm where he hopes to find shelter from the syndicate and clues to what his older self is up to. But he quickly learns that there’s more to this farm family than meets the eye. These scenes add some authentic emotional punch to the film. But Johnson also uses this part of the movie to open up several new doors which add more and more layers to the already challenging story. Of course there were a couple of times where I had to stop and process what I had just seen, but I really liked these different directions and as a whole, the complex yet miraculously cohesive script is constructed with such intelligence and precision so that I never felt lost nor did I feel the material ever bogged down.

It’s also worth mentioning the spectacular visuals and no-holds-barred action sequences. It doesn’t take long to recognize Johnson’s skill with framing shots and moving his camera. He uses several unconventional techniques which give the move a unique look. We get several close-ups where Johnson wants the expressions of his characters to tell the story. He also often times places his camera at ground level giving us the feeling we are looking up at them. This is very effective particularly during the buildup to a couple of key action scenes. Speaking of the action, it is incredibly done. It’s a brutal and violent mix of sci-fi and 1980’s gun-blazing action and both work extremely well. Johnson doesn’t skimp on the blood but it feels right at home in this picture.

I also have to talk about the acting. The performances in “Looper” are solid throughout with some being Oscar caliber in my opinion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to prove that he’s a top Hollywood talent. Here he’s armed with heavy makeup, a prosthetic nose, and a Bruce Willis smirk. The funny thing is he channels Willis perfectly from his slouch to his expressions, all while giving a very different performance than Willis. And speaking of Willis, he is excellent here. What stood out was the range that he shows in this performance. For instance there are scenes where he’s a cranky codger, an emotional wreck, and laugh out loud funny. But there were also scenes that reminded me of John McClane from Die Hard – steadily yelling while his machine gun pumps loads of lead. Emily Blunt is fantastic as always, Jeff Daniels just eats up his lines, and Paul Dano plays the same measly, wormy character that he always plays. Then there is young Pierce Gagnon who is phenomenal. He’s such a tender presence but his performance goes well beyond that standard cute kid role. He’s given a lot to do and he really stands out.

I’m sure it’s obvious by now that I really liked “Looper”. But it’s not a perfect movie. While the story is intensely original and thoroughly engaging, there are a few plot holes as well as some pointless throw away scenes in the first half of the movie. For example early on we see young Joe has a relationship with a prostitute. He appears to be quite fond of her even though she’s only in a couple of scenes, one of which seems to be there strictly to add some pointless content to the film. This time could have been spent better elsewhere. I also couldn’t help but ask the question – what type of crime organization would actually hire Paul Dano’s character to be a looper? His performance is fine but I had a hard time believing in him. That said, he did provide us with one of the films very best sequences. I’ll just leave it at that.

I could go on and on about “Looper” but let me just sum it up by saying that it’s the most ambitious and imaginative movie I’ve seen all year. It’s smart and audacious and Rian Johnson actually pulls it all off. It’s completely unpredictable and no matter how hard you try, you never catch up with it. It’s always one step ahead of you. “Looper” takes the familiar device of time travel to new places through a brilliantly original concept. Johnson lays out that concept clearly for the audience. Then he takes it, shakes it, twists it, and contorts it and then challenges the audience to keep up. He dabbles in different genres and themes, examines societies, questions morality, and asks us to take it all in and process it. That’s something I’m happy to do especially when the movie is this good.



With this week’s release of the incredibly popular “The Hunger Games” on DVD and Blu-Ray, I had a chance to see it for a second time. I thought it would be fun to share my review of the movie again for those who may be newer to my blog. What are your thoughts on this much talked about picture? Were the odds ever in your favor as you sat down to see what all the hype was about? Here’s my take.

It’s been called the next big thing at the movies. It’s projections point to an opening weekend of around $150 million. Fans are filling theaters with anticipation. With such hype and expectations, how is it that I had never heard of “The Hunger Games” before seeing its first movie trailer? Expected to be the first in a profitable series, “The Hunger Games” is based on a series of novels written by Suzanne Collins. It’s a dystopian science fiction film that’s based on a preposterous premise yet it manages to be strikingly entertaining.

With the “Twilight” series mercifully set to end later this year, “The Hunger Games” is looked at as the next big franchise and has even drawn some misguided comparisons to the romantic vampire versus werewolf films. But there are several things that separate “The Hunger Games” from the “Twilight” series. First, this film opens itself up to a much broader audience. The movie embraces several good sci-fi and action elements that should appeal to a wider variety of moviegoers. “Twilight” made millions but had a much more restricted target audience. Also “The Hunger Games” made a point to bring in quality performers and it really shows in the finished product. The acting is head and shoulders above the teeth gnashing performances in “Twilight”. In other words, “The Hunger Games” has more to offer than many of the other popular multi-million dollar series.

The movie takes place in Panem, a nation broken up into 12 districts. It’s a futuristic world that features a capital city filled with advanced technology surrounded by landscapes that resemble the Ozark or Smokey Mountains. The power and affluence are confined to the Capitol while the outer districts are filled with poverty-stricken villages struggling to survive.  We learn that years ago there was an uprising in the districts that resulted in a strong militaristic response from the Capitol. After quenching the uprising, The Capitol instituted “The Hunger Games”, an annual competition that required each district to provide one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete against each other in a survival fight to the death. There would be only one winner and that winner would receive fame and glory. The games were intended to serve as a lifelong punishment for the district’s uprising and to show the twisted view of mercy and forgiveness of the Capitol.

To add yet another warped component to the story, The Hunger Games have become a Super Bowl like event. Much like 1987’s “The Running Man”, citizen’s throughout the capital city watch and cheer the games like they would a major sporting event. Special events and talk shows centered around the participants and leading up to the games are soaked up by the heartless and blood-thirsty Capitol crowds. In contrast, those watching in the outer districts do so not out of sport but out of concern for their loved ones. The movie goes all out to show a stark economic and moral difference between the wealthy city people and the poor district citizens. It’s a contrast that looks to play a bigger role in the future films.

The movie starts inside the very poor District 12. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a tough 16-year old girl forced to take care of her mother and little sister Prim (Willow Shields) after the death of her father. The sisters gather together with the other kids from their district for what’s called “The Reaping”, a random drawing to find out who will represent the district as “tribute” in the year’s games. When a terrified Prim is chosen, Katniss steps in and volunteers in her sister’s place. Joining Katniss from District 12 is a baker’s son named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The two are shuttled to the Capitol where they are prepped and paraded around until the day for the games is upon them.

You can’t talk about “The Hunger Games” without talking about Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. A lot of great young actresses tried out for the role including Saoirse Ronan, Chloe Moretz, Hailee Steinfeld, and Shailene Woodley. But Lawrence was chosen and she was the perfect choice. Since I first saw her in her Oscar nominated role in “Winter’s Bone”, she’s been one of my favorite young actresses. Here she gives a strong and committed performance that feels true and authentic. In fact, she often times rises above the material and when the story goes a little off-track she manages to elevate it and carry it on her shoulders. It’s a brilliant performance and she fleshes out every quality of her character that you would expect.

Lawrence is joined by a nice supporting cast including Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, a bumbling boozer who is the only survivor to ever come out of District 12. Stanley Tucci is great as Caesar, the voice of The Hunger Games. He hams it up with his wild blue hair and huge grin but he’s also a bit slimy and disturbing. Elizabeth Banks plays Effie, a Capitol liaison to District 12 and Lenny Kravitz plays a stylist who has the job of making Katniss and Peeta make a good impression. We even get Donald Sutherland delivering his signature overly dramatic but perfectly effective lines as the sinister President Snow. While these supporting performances are quite good, some of the younger actor’s work doesn’t quite measure up.

The story itself captures a lot of what makes for good science fiction. It also does a nice job building up the tension leading up to the start of the games. I also saw myself emotionally caught up in several of the movie’s more heart-felt scenes. The action sequences aren’t as plentiful as some have advertised and the violence is strategically edited to ensure the PG-13 rating. But I did find watching teenagers hack each other up, some with pretty flippant attitudes, to be a bit uncomfortable. I also felt the tributes (the Hunger Games participants) to be inconsistently written. Several are introduced in a way that makes you think they are significant but they meet their demise in fairly meaningless fashion. Better writing could have made the tributes (aside from a small handful) feel more important therefore giving the games themselves a lot more weight.

There were also a few head-scratching moments in the story. Throughout the preparation leading up to the games, everything seemed to focus on making a good impression in order to gain sponsors needed for survival. The wardrobes, the introductions, the interviews – everything was for the purpose of sponsors. But during the games, sponsorship didn’t have much of an impact at all which made all the posturing seem pointless. I also couldn’t help but wonder what a society would find entertaining about kids having a survival fight to the death. Look, I understand that they were sick and morally bankrupt people. But a 12-year old little girl in a competition to the death shouldn’t be that interesting even to the most twisted and perverse individuals.

But even with a story’s occasional clunkiness, there’s something that drew me into the world of “The Hunger Games”. From the very start, I found the film created a futuristic society and sociopolitical environment that was surprisingly realistic even though it’s science fiction. I also felt the film’s fluid pacing helped create several moments of genuine tension that had me on the proverbial edge of my seat. There are also several heart-wrenching and emotional scenes that never felt fake or manufactured. And while the ending was a little underwhelming, it puts in place several intriguing possibilities for the next film. “The Hunger Games” is a movie that could have been better with a little more polished and thought-out script. But it’s also a film that puts together a disturbing yet enthralling world that I was totally caught up in. Combine that with an amazing performance from Jennifer Lawrence and some strong supporting work and you have the groundwork for a very satisfying franchise. May the odds ever be in our favor as this series moves forward.