“Paul, Apostle of Christ” (2018)

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Faith-based movies have had a tough time finding a seat at the big screen table. Much of it is due to budget quality filmmaking. It can also be tough to get a look from more secular-minded moviegoers especially when the messaging is pretty heavy. And while hardly the case with every critic, it can be difficult for these movies to get an objective analysis. Take this quote from a review of the new film “Paul, Apostle of Christ” – “A Faith-based snuff flick with little appeal beyond the Bible-thumping demographic”. Ouch.

That’s one reason I appreciate Affirm Films, a label of Sony Pictures. While several of their productions are hampered by the above-mentioned problems, the label does offer an avenue for many of these movies to reach the big screen. “Paul, Apostle of Christ” is their latest and it’s definitely on their higher end in terms of quality yet not without a few quibbles.

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Set in A.D. 67, the film takes place in Rome during a desperate time for the fledgling Christian church. Followers of Christ find themselves subjected to brutal persecution at the command of Emperor Nero. Some are burned alive on the streets. Others are thrown into the “Circus” where they are torn apart by lions for sport. Only a handful of the older church leaders were still alive. One was the Apostle Paul.

As the story begins Paul (a still, affecting portrayal by James Faulkner) is locked up in Rome’s Mamertine Prison. After several missionary journeys sharing the Words of Jesus and training young churches, the Apostle knows his remaining time on Earth is short. Yet while his body is tired and frail he maintains a heart full of faith, inspiring believers, many of whom hide away within the walls of the violent city. Among those believers is Aquilla (John Lynch) and Priscilla (Joanne Whalley), a couple who secretly shelters a small community of believers in Rome and who anxiously await a word from Paul.

In 2004 Jim Caviezel gave an intense, heart-wrenching performance as Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. Now 14 years later Caviezel portrays Luke, follower of Christ and writer of portions of the New Testament. Luke returns to Rome where he secretly meets with Paul and begins writing what will become The Acts of the Apostles.

Writer and director Andrew Hyatt carefully takes portions of scripture to form the framework of his story. Chunks of the film feature quiet, thoughtful jail cell conversations between Paul and Luke where the two reflect on Paul’s journeys and discuss faithfulness amidst persecution. Some of Paul’s signature life moments are touched on through dream-like flashbacks – the stoning of Stephen, his Damascus road conversion, just to name a few. Hyatt does a good job of showing the weight those events still have on Paul.

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At the same time Priscilla and Aquilla struggle with a fracture among their community. Should they stay in Rome or attempt to leave? Should they take up arms and fight back? Another key figure is Mauritius (French actor Olivier Martinez), a Roman prefect put in charge of the Mamertine prison. He is a bit disillusioned with Nero’s leadership yet steadily loyal to Rome. He’s also fascinated by his enigmatic and most prominent prisoner.

The structure of “Paul” could be a stumbling block for some. You could definitely call the film a slow burn and it sometimes struggles to maintain a sense of dramatic tension. This is particularly noticeable through its middle act. Yet at the same time there is something about its quietness that works with the story being told. That’s not to say the film is a bore. Hyatt visualizes the brutality of the persecution, nothing on the level of Gibson’s “Passion”, but quite effectively. And the circumstances surrounding each of the characters lend to some satisfying individual story threads that make the movie work as a whole. That was more than enough for me. Hopefully it will be enough to find an audience because “Paul, Apostle of Christ” deserves one.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Paddington 2”

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I still remember January 2015 and the delightful little surprise that was “Paddington”. January is the time of year often known as a dumping ground for movies with little studio support. “Paddington” landed in the United States (after a successful 2014 launch overseas) and not only gave us something to watch early in the year, but a really good movie as well. Now its sequel continues that trend of bright January surprises.

Let me get this out of the way, “Paddington 2” is one of those rare sequels that’s better than its predecessor in nearly every way. That’s not a knock on the first film, “Paddington 2” is just that good. Paul King returns as director and co-writer of this adorable family movie telling the continued adventures of a friendly Peruvian bear and the Brown family of London who adopted him as one of their own.

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Things are wonderful for Paddington. His infectious kindness has endeared him to all of his Windsor Gardens neighbors. Well, with the exception of the delusional self-appointed neighborhood watchman (Peter Capaldi). Ben Whishaw is back lending his gentle and mellow voice to Paddington. Also returning is Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as Paddington’s congenial human parents Mary and Henry Brown.

Knowing his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday is just around the corner, the compassionate cub looks to get her the perfect gift. He finds it in a friend’s antique shop – a beautiful old pop-up book of London. One of my favorite sequences sees a wonderstruck Paddington flipping through the pages for the first time, his imagination pulling him into the book. Inside he walks from page to page showing Aunt Lucy the city she has dreamed of visiting. It’s gorgeous, charming and from then on the movie had me.

In order to purchase the book Paddington picks up some small jobs to earn money. As you would expect slapstick ensues, tempered and funny. But there’s a problem. A washed up actor named Phoenix Buchanan has his eyes on the book as well. Hugh Grant has a blast hamming it up as this narcissistic goofball who believes the book contains secrets that will help him recapture his formal glory. He devises a plan to swipe the book framing Paddington in the process.

It’s here the movie makes a hysterical shift. Paddington is arrested and eventually sent to prison. The entire prison sequence feels like something yanked straight out of a Wes Anderson picture. The dialogue, the quirky sense of humor, the visual composition all scream Andersonian influence. Soaking in Erik Wilson’s images is pure joy and as an Anderson superfan I found myself constantly amazed at how well King utilizes (or is he paying tribute to) such a unique style. But the film doesn’t depend on that influence. King makes this very much its own movie.

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It’s also laugh-out-loud funny. How can you not laugh at a mean, burly Brendan Gleason munching on a marmalade sandwich and discovering its savory magic. By the way his character’s name is Knuckles McGinty and he is the tough-as-nails prison chef. Watching the contagiously kind Paddington attempt to crack this hard nut is both undeniably sweet and genuinely hilarious.

Of the five ‘kids movie’ trailers we saw before our showing three of them contained variations of the tired but immensely popular fart joke. One of the great delights of “Paddington 2” is its trust in itself over lame gimmicky “humor”. Even as the movie picks up steam in the final act it never loses itself like many of these pictures do. And it always stays on message – you can never go wrong by being kind, caring, and compassionate. And the ripple effect of such a mindset can change the world. Now there is a message we all need to hear and “Paddington 2” makes sure we get to laugh along the way.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Post”

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Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is set in an era when the media (generally speaking) wasn’t egregiously compromised by the political pulls of the left or the right. It was a time (more often than today) when principle took precedent over ideology and the media took seriously the role of equally holding all elected officials accountable to the people. There is far less of that today, although I’m not sure Spielberg and company would agree with me.

“The Post” starts in 1965 with war analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) discovering government deception concerning Vietnam policy and progress. The story bolts forward a few years with Ellsberg stealing classified documents that reveal years of misinformation by the government dating all the way back to the Truman administration. He leaks the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times who run a front page expose before having their story shut down by a court injunction.

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All of that is setup for the meat of the story which takes place in 1971, Washington D.C. Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) has inherited The Washington Post newspaper following her husband’s suicide, but serving as its publisher and president has been a tough ride. Not counting her own personal lack of confidence, she’s also forced to navigate several obstacles from insecure board members to investors uncomfortable with a woman running the company. For the bulk of the film Spielberg does a good job tapping into the current red-hot women’s issues. It’s later that he moves from effectively showing us the inequality to spelling it out for us. But more on that later.

Her go-getter editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) knows there is more to uncover so he sends his crack assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (a really good Bob Odenkirk) to track down the New York Times’ source. And when sensitive documents fall into their lap, Katharine must decide whether to let Bradlee print the story risking incarceration and the livelihood of her paper.

Spielberg deftly bounces between Katharine’s personal journey and Bradlee’s newsroom. Both are given plenty of time to unfold and develop. As you would expect, Streep is very good and completely in her element. It isn’t an extraordinary performance, but it’s work from her that we sometimes take for granted. Hanks is a different story. It’s not that he’s bad here. He feels off – as if he’s really stretching to sell us a character that Jason Robards did better (and won an Oscar for) 42 years ago.

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Katharine’s stirring story and the thrilling newsroom drama come together in a tense and powerful meeting of the minds (and wills) which Spielberg unpacks to near perfection. But then something happens in the final fifteen minutes or so. In rapid succession the film begins dropping one corny, contrived ‘movie moment’ after another. Storytelling gives way to speechifying and the movie’s themes (previously explored through the story itself) are propped up by glaringly obvious scenes manufactured to the point of phoniness. And then you have Spielberg often straining to make a connection between the Nixon and Trump administration. Again, the material is there, but Spielberg sometimes feels the need to speak for it.

“The Post” does far more right than wrong. For a good three-quarters of his movie Spielberg brilliantly balanced two very different but equally enthralling stories. And for a while I was seeing it as a wonderful “All the President’s Men” companion piece. It’s just a shame the final act resorts to cheap scenes and sappy speeches that seem directly aimed at Oscar voters. But as his movie had already shown, Spielberg didn’t need all of that and the bulk of the picture is an enthralling experience.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Pilgrimage” (2017)

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For those few folks needing more proof (assuming they still exist) that big budgets aren’t essential to good moviemaking, I present to you Brendan Muldowney’s “Pilgrimage”, a beautiful and propulsive medieval thriller anchored in 13th century European complexity and brutality. With a meager budget of just over $5 million, “Pilgrimage” looks and plays out better than many of its higher-priced counterparts.

The movie’s Crusade-era setting is an intriguing place in itself – a land filled with volatility and hostility. Just on the outskirts of the many conflicts we meet a small group of monks living on the western coast of Ireland. They are approached by Brother Geraldus (Stanley Weber), sent at the behest of the Pope to retrieve and escort back to Rome an ancient holy relic being guarded by the monks. This quest (subtly reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”) becomes the centerpiece for Muldowney’s movie.

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Four of the Irish monks are sent to escort Geraldus. Among those chosen is Brother Diarmuid (Tom Holland), a young novice who has never known life outside the monastery, the wise elder Brother Ciaran (John Lynch), and a mute (Jon Bernthal) who has faithfully served the monastery since mysteriously washing ashore a few years prior.

The group’s cross-country venture takes them through lands filled with factions hungry for control. They encounter one such faction led by Sir Raymond (Richard Armitage) a soldier and a loyalist to his king. At the urging of his father, Raymond and his men agree to escort the brothers and the relic across the treacherous island. What follows is an arduous and sometimes brutal pilgrimage that stretches each of these men to their limits.

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“Pilgrimage” is more than a simple “quest movie”. Writer Jamie Hannigan’s story tests each character by fire – in many cases spiritually and in all cases physically. There is a steady examination of both the strength and weakness of faith, whether it be faith in God, faith in Rome, or faith in a king. And it’s fascinating to watch the film explore the contrasts between the natural and the supernatural, divine providence and unmitigated chance, men of the cloth and men of the sword. At times I wished it went deeper, but there was never a time when I wasn’t absorbed.

It isn’t just the historical setting that’s so potent. The way Muldowney and cinematographer Tom Comerford shoot the film is just as puissant. Ominous skies filled with boiling clouds and vast landscapes as beautiful as they are dangerous. And then you have the bursts of violence that gruesomely clash with the monks’ pursuit of piece and piety. They are brutal reflections of the real world outside of the monastery – a revelation of reality young Brother Diarmuid quickly becomes acquainted with.

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And what a stellar cast. This is Holland’s story and he continues to define himself as one of our best young actors. Weber, Armitage and Lynch are all very good. But it’s Jon Bernthal who steals the show. He is mysterious and subdued (he actually took a vow of silence to prepare for the role of a mute). But there is also a blistering ferocity to his performance that that adds yet another layer to his character and the movie.

Made with a small budget and shot in thirty days, “Pilgrimage” sleekly maneuvers through its limitations instead of succumbing to them. One one side it’s a driving medieval action thriller. On the other side is a story that delves into the various shades of faith found within the spiritual (“We are not alone. We are never alone. Have faith”) and the carnal (“Before one can plant new flowers one must cut away the weeds”). I was caught up in it from start to finish and was surprised at how much it gave me to chew on. A second viewing only confirmed my enthusiasm.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Paterson”

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“Paterson”, the beguiling new film from Jim Jarmusch, is certain to be criticized by some as slow and mundane. They wouldn’t be wrong. But the great joy of the film lies in Jarmusch’s unfettered assurance in his story and in the way it should be told. And when a true craftsman is confident in what he’s creating you can bet there is purpose and meaning hidden in the film’s every corner. So it becomes our duty to look deeper into the supposed minutia and see what he is trying to convey. That’s always been part of the allure of Jarmusch’s films.

“Paterson” is no different. It’s a cinematic poem about a poet and the everyday life that inspires his poetry. To understand the film we must understand the man. And to understand the man we must understand his life. To do that Jarmusch takes us through seven ordinary days for a man named Paterson (played by a perfectly subdued Adam Driver), a bus driver from (poetically) Paterson, New Jersey.

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Paterson’s life is one of routine. Each morning he wakes up around 6:15, snuggles with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and eats a bowl of cereal before walking to work. When he gets home they have dinner then he walks their cantankerous English bulldog Marvin (an absolute scene-stealer). While out he stops at a corner bar where he treats himself to one beer. We usually leave him staring into his half-empty or half-full mug, depending on how his day went. The next morning this creature of habit gets up and does it all over again.

But it’s the spaces in between this daily routine that give the film life – the collections of seemingly small things that make even the most ordinary day unique. Jarmusch fills these spaces with an assortment of the simplest conversations, observations, and interactions. He never feels compelled to manufacture melodrama or conflict. Instead he allows life to happen without any dramatic prodding. And it’s these modestly presented moments that give Paterson his identity.

With his soulful face, tempered emotions and unassuming presence, Driver couldn’t be better suited for Jarmusch’s low-key vision. His Paterson eases through life, accepting and embracing what it has to offer. That mindset feeds into his poetry which he pieces together during the quiet moments of his day. I’m not the guy to say whether his poems are good or not, but where they come from and what they reveal about Paterson is far more important than their quality. His poetry is a window into one of Jarmusch’s running themes – appreciation for the little things. I mean he wrote an entire poem about a box of matches.

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Even his relationship with Laura reflects a gentle, relaxed perspective. They delightfully compliment one another despite their noticeable differences. Look no further than their creativity. Paterson’s poetry is personal and he keeps it tucked away in his notebook. Laura’s creative ambitions are flaky but earnest and she doesn’t mind sharing it with anyone. Paterson is dedicated to poetry despite his lack of confidence. Laura goes with her artistic flavor of the moment. It may be cupcakes, interior design, or country music guitar. Yet both are equally supportive of the other. Some of the film’s sweetest moments have Paterson taking in Laura’s excitement and then offering encouragement. Again, no spectacular artificial tension. Just life.

“Paterson” is indeed about appreciating the little things. It’s also about the convergence of art and everyday life. It’s even a tender story of love and contentment. As in his previous films Jarmusch’s approach is minimalist yet subtly robust. His structure resembles stanzas of a poem and they are filled with relaxed easygoing rhythms that sweep you through from start to finish. You’ll notice other Jarmusch signatures – his quiet off-beat sense of humor, his compelling use of location, and the fascinating mellow harmony with which he works. If you are a fan of his films like I am, “Paterson” will be an absolute delight.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

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R.I.P. Nellie, an absolute scene-stealer as Marvin.

REVIEW: “Point Break” (2015)

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“Point Break” is a tough one to figure out. Putting aside the obvious answer (m-o-n-e-y), I’ve wondered why someone would even attempt to remake Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 cult classic. Could a contemporary approach even capture the wacky ingredients which made the original such an over-the-top, fun movie of its time? In the case of this 2015 remake, not exactly.

Director Ericson Core and writer Kurt Wimmer take their version in a noticeably different direction. The outline is basically the same but with a much more dour and self-serious tone. Bigelow’s film had a subtle layer of humor which showed itself in the macho bromances, cheesy surfer banter, and of course Gary Busey. Core and Wimmer yank out all of that and the movie suffers for it.

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Luke Bracey takes the Keanu Reeves role as Johnny Utah. He’s no longer an ex-college football star with a bum knee. Instead he is an extreme sports poly-athlete (still not sure what that means) driven to the FBI after a friend’s death. Edgar Ramírez (an actor I generally like) takes Patrick Swayze’s place as Bodhi, an extreme sportsman and environmentally conscience mystic who often waxes eloquently about his oneness with the planet (“We’re trying to save this place by becoming one with it.”)

Bodhi is a thrill-seeking Robin Hood who, along with his merry band of X Gamers, rob from corporations and spread their wealth to the poor. In between these illegal deeds Bodhi is attempting to complete the Ozaki 8 – a series of extreme challenges which honor the forces of nature. This is what puts Johnny on their trail. He goes undercover earning the trust of Bodhi and gaining sympathy for his cause. But as Keanu so elegantly put it in 1991 “I’m an FBI agent!” The same applies in this film which does complicate things a bit for Mr. Utah.

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Unfortunately there isn’t much else to add. Storywise the new “Point Break” is pretty bare-bones. Hardly any time is spent trying to understand these eco-friendly renegades. All we get is goofy philosophizing meant to tap into their thinking. It doesn’t work. There are also plenty of brainless logic gaps that had me wondering how Bodhi’s crew had escaped capture for so long.

The same paper-thin treatment is given to the characters. In many ways they are never given a chance. Bracey’s brooding gets old and he’s rarely given a chance to do anything else. Ramírez tries his best to make Bodhi a mysterious and lively individual and at times he pulls it off. But the material never allows him to stretch the character past the scripts unfortunate limitations. We also get a wasted Ray Winstone performance. He takes on the Busey character minus any hint of humor. And get Teresa Palmer wedged in as the kinda, sorta love interest. Her character adds absolutely nothing to the story.

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But while it lacks in story, its visual presentation exhilarates. The remake doesn’t strictly focus on surfing. And while I believe that hurts the story, it also offers a host of opportunities for Core to capture some truly incredible extreme stunts from around the world. From BASE jumping in the Swiss Alps to wall climbing next to Venezuela’s Angel Falls. These are some insanely extreme sequences in some of the planet’s most beautiful locales and they are visually astounding. Core’s background is in cinematography and you can certainly see it on display.

If only the story had been given that same level of care and detail. Instead little creative thought seemed to go into the actual story, and the changes they did make simply don’t work. I don’t need “Point Break” to be serious or thought-provoking. I want it to be fun, action-packed, and it must have a sense of humor. Nowhere beneath the remake’s pseudo-spirituality, philosophical babbling, and fake tattoos will you find the humor it desperately needs. It certainly looks incredible and that saves it from being a disaster. But that’s not enough to make it a good remake.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2 Stars