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.

FlixChatter Film Blog

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.

re·demp·tion
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…

[SPOILER ALERT: It…

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“Safe Haven” – 3 STARS

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” – 4 STARS

Vacation posterThere may not be another Christmas movie with more laughs than “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”. Moviegoers have followed the Griswold family on a cross-country vacation, a European vacation, and a Las Vegas vacation. But arguably the funniest of the “Vacation films” focuses on their attempt at a “good old-fashioned family Christmas”. Anyone familiar with the Griswolds knows this is easier said than done and the results are nothing short of pure hysterical fun for the audiences. But while this film does capture many familiar and funny family situations surrounding Christmas time, it also features some of that typical National Lampoon naughtiness that works against the holiday appeal that it has as well.

Chevy Chase reprises his role as Clark Griswold, a well-meaning but moronic husband and father who sets out to have a traditional family Christmas. That includes venturing out in the wild to find a real Christmas tree, decorating the outside of his house with Christmas lights, and inviting his parents and in-laws to his home for the holidays. Naturally there is not a single one of Clark’s good efforts that work out as planned mainly due to his lovable stupidity. Beverly D’Angelo is back as Clark’s wife Ellen who, as in the other movies, perfectly understands her husband’s propensity for overdoing things. She’s a sometimes calming voice of reason and a perfect complement to her nutty husband.

But aside from Clark and Ellen the movie is filled with great characters. E.G. Marshall steals several scenes as Clark’s cantankerous father-in-law Art. He grumbles and gripes and never passes up a chance to put Clark down. Doris Roberts is also good as Ellen’s mom who is a little too friendly with the booze. And then there’s John Randolph who is great as Clark’s supportive father. I also have to mention William Hickey as the stogie-chomping Uncle Lewis and Mae Questel as the senile Aunt Bethany. They arrive later in the film but inject their own heavy doses of laughs. But the real star of the movie is Randy Quaid as cousin Eddie. He and his family show up uninvited and that’s when things really turn wacky. Quaid’s real life antics have proven that this is a part that suits him well. He is absolutely hilarious as a dimwitted bum and moocher who is family nonetheless. Everything from his wardrobe to his mannerisms will remind you of someone that you know and he gobbles up every scene that he is in. It’s safe to say that he steals the movie.

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We get all of the standard “Vacation” occurrences. Several times Clark completely goes out of his mind. Several times he almost kills himself. And of course things go from bad to worse as every one of Clark’s good intentions blow up in his face. And we the audience laugh all the way through it. But that same National Lampoon Standard is also something that keeps the movie from being as great as it could be. It seems they just couldn’t resist putting in several doses of innuendo and raunch, just enough to clash with the holiday spirit that it conveys elsewhere. I know this isn’t a big deal for many people, but I saw this as a wasted opportunity that strips the movie of its Christmasy, family-friendly potential. There are still some incredibly funny moments. But for me, you can’t just set the family down and enjoy it, unless you DVR a TV version.

There are so many scenes and so many lines in “Christmas Vacation” that you just can’t forget. Aside from the few seemingly compulsory instances of vulgarity, its a hilarious comedy that really works. It takes so many of the familiar family and Christmas quirks and accentuates them as only the Griswolds could. It’s hard to believe that “Christmas Vacation” is already 23 years old. But there’s no denying that in that time it has evolved in to a holiday classic. It’s a movie that so many watch every Christmas. I know we do.

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.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS