October 28, 2016


Mel Gibson has done it again. "Hacksaw Ridge" is the cinematic event of 2016-2017. "HR" is the true story of Private Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist from Virginia who enlists in World War II, but--as a conscientious objector--staunchly refuses to bear arms. Literally. He won't even touch a gun, let alone go through the required rifle training. His dream is to be a medic and save lives.


Desmond Doss is the only c.o. to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Why? He saved 50-75 lives of the wounded on the battlefield when the orders were to retreat. One of the taglines for the film is: "One man stayed behind." Andrew Garfield, who plays Doss, effortlessly inhabits this simple, guileless, fearless country boy (as evidenced by actual interview footage with Doss at the end of the film).

The movie begins with showing us exactly who this young man is, from childhood on. We enter deeply into his family dynamic (World War I veteran father who has turned to alcohol and domestic violence). Despite their dysfunction, God and religion are a living, breathing reality in the Doss family. As a man of faith himself, Gibson can depict this with non-ironic authenticity.


Act Two is the strange dilemma of a brave young man--thought to be a coward by his comrades and superiors--navigating the heart of the U.S. Army as a pacifist. Due to the uniqueness of his situation and a series of miscommunications, Doss faces spending the war in a military prison before he ever sees action. His salvation is the U.S. Constitution, at a time in U.S. history when it was actually honored and upheld (yes, that's cynicism you are noting in my tone).

Act Three is sheer, all-out war.


Although a grand-scale film, it never, ever loses the small, personal, human scale. In fact, it's all about that. So much so that it could be called a film that subscribes to a "personalist" philosophy. "HR" has it all: history, humor, romance, principles, honor, conflict, moral conundrums. The love story is sweet and surprising: a mini-primer by the gracious "greatest generation" on how it's done. Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) loves Desmond because he "isn't like the others." Smart women love men who know who they are, who can stand on their own two feet, who live by their convictions. Not just convictions: their convictions.

The casting is dead on. The actors embrace a 40's vibe in unison. The soundtrack/score is engulfing. The writing/dialogue is sterling. And on top of all these accolades, this is just good old-fashioned movie-making with the added arsenal of today's digital wizardry. However, it really looks and feels like it was shot on film. "HR" must be seen on the big screen. I repeat: must be seen on the big screen.

Drawbacks? Negatives? The first few minutes of the film begin with some shaky, hokey, on-the-nose exposition, but it quickly disperses. Vince Vaughn is hilarious as the nickname-slewing Sarge, but he also plays his role with a kind of John Wayne/Tom Hanks softness that unrealistically mitigates the utter desperation of the situation.


My main question going into this film (as with all war films) was: Does it glorify war? My answer is no, but that will depend on the viewer, of course. "HR" is a gorefest (typical of Gibson, anyway)--but that's exactly what war is: especially this difficult, impossible arena of "Hacksaw Ridge." We are exposed to spurting arteries, heads blown off, living legless torsos, maggot and rat-ridden corpses, men-turned-grotesque-monsters shrieking  all the way to their hideous deaths. Why was "Hacksaw Ridge" so vital? It was the path to Okinawa.

For me, war was shown to be "sufficiently" horrific and hellish in "HR." But I don't know how someone who has endured war or played a steady stream of military videogames will see it. Are we all inured? "HR" will definitely draw parallels to "Saving Private Ryan." The insane din, the whizzing bullets, the never-ending nightmare of healthy young men instantly turned into bloody parcels of meat. The men we get to know so well being picked off one by one. However, the carnage is much more incessant and much more extreme in "HR"--not for the faint of heart.


My second question going into the film was: Is our hero going to be some Bible-toting, Bible-quoting mystic who miraculously dodges bullets and grenades because he's praying and relying on the Word of God and Psalms of protection? The answer is no and yes. "Grace perfects nature and doesn't replace it." The grace of God builds on nature. God and us working together. ALL is gift, including Doss' natural "mountain goat" litheness and cool-headed courage. BUT. There is also such a thing as the miraculous. God intervening directly. We shouldn't let our eagerness to pander to "objective" rationality and "facts" make us deniers of a greater Reality. What Doss accomplished was nothing short of miraculous. And he tells us so: "I just kept asking God: Give me one more, Lord," as he went back again and again UNARMED AND UNDER FIRE to bring the injured to safety.


Excellent justifications for use of force are presented--not only the promoting of nonviolent action. All the hard questions are dealt with. "Hacksaw Ridge" is a magnificent film that will take its rightful place in the annals of war movies. This is a very important film for young men to see (in life, men in particular find themselves faced with the question of when to use physical force and when not to). Men, young and old, need to know that there also exists ultimate bravery, heroism and daring--apart from violence, destruction and devastation. The valor of peace can exist even in the midst of war.


--Mel was born in the USA. When Mel was 12, his father moved him and his brothers to Australia to avoid them being drafted into the Vietnam War. It's interesting to see how many war movies Mel has been involved in, starting with the stellar and tragic "Gallipoli." Perhaps Mel is working out something very personal in these films.

--This is definitely a film about fathers and sons. But also about women and men.

--The "Coming Attraction" trailers in my theater included several "fun" and even "funny" violent action films. Followed by a PSA about PTSD and suicide in the lives of Wounded Warriors.

--Mom to Desmond about his father: "He doesn't hate us. He hates himself."

--I'm not particularly an Andrew Garfield fan, but he's good at playing Americans. (Also good in "99 Homes.")

--Desmond Doss was not standing in judgment of anyone but himself. The only person we can truly judge.

--The men don't have the faith of Doss. But they had faith in his faith because they saw it in action.

--Every time I see a WW2 film I repeat to myself: "These are men before Kinsey, men before porn." Two must-see films on this: "Out of the Darkness" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMueTE_mokQ  "The Kinsey Syndrome--How One Man Destroyed the Morality of America" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQyl4YR-aQw

October 13, 2016


I'm debating whether or not to do a teensy little spoiler of the new Christian film "Priceless." The marketing for the film readily gives this juicy tidbit away, but on the other hand, it would be effective if those who come to the theater know nothing. But on the other hand, who goes to a movie not knowing the first thing about it? But on the other hand (wait--that's three hands), this is a review, and I must divulge the subject of the film: human trafficking. The title, of course, is apt. It's a line of dialogue as well as a prominent theme in the film. Human beings are priceless.

The human beings trafficked here are women: two sisters, one underage, who have been duped into believing they are being hired for legitimate jobs in the USA. Our main character, James, a trucker down on his luck (deceased wife, adored six-year-old daughter taken from him by Social Services), unknowingly transports human cargo, making "deliveries" of the locked trucks he shuttles. How could he not know? The women may have been told to be absolutely silent by their handler (whom they think is helping them), as they eat, sleep and presumably defecate in the roomy holding cell on wheels.


"Priceless" is based on a true story--how true these characters and their actions are is not specified, but we know that what we are seeing is, tragically, exactly what happens to countless individuals: duped, trapped and enslaved in various ways from various countries, including the USA itself. The two young women here are being forced into sexual slavery (prostitution). As the story unfolds, the truth of what he has been hauling and his complicity begins to haunt James and he wants to "make things right." Reversing the damage will not be so easy, and in the end will require him to put his life on the line. James was "once a good man," now in need of redemption himself. He teams up with Dale, an older man who won't say why the women's plight means so much to him (but we can guess right off the bat).

The exposition is gradual and creative, but the palpable danger could have been heightened exponentially in the hands of the right director. Actually, this could have been a tremendous film in the hands of the right director. All the components are there! As I have pointed out before in my reviews, movies like "Priceless" suffer from the same "Christian film" malaise: a hesitance to really go for it. To be a little more gritty. And to employ all the bells and whistles in today's filmmaking toolkit. Much of the acting was superb ("James" was just fair, and camera conscious, IMHO)--the two women and the pimp in particular were outstanding (with some outstanding "gritty" scenes), but the incredibly slow Southern pace and preaching bouts mar the story.


What's great about this film is, first of all, tackling this subject matter to raise awareness. For those completely ignorant of how trafficking works, it paints a realistic portrait. Also, there is so much emphasis on human dignity, with some great accompanying dialogue, I would think that anyone who has been abused in any way, women who have let themselves be used (there's a scene with a prostitute who is doing this by "choice"), will be schooled in their worth, as well as see screen examples of good men who honor women. Men who have ever participated in or facilitated prostitution in any way will be given pause, as the character of these kind of men is on full display, and the question implied is: It's not the women that are "cheap"--are these men worth anything? "Priceless" is a love letter to women everywhere.


Often in this kind of indie film (Christian or otherwise), there are good sequences and scenes and a coherent story, but it winds up feeling episodic  because the action doesn't flow due to a lack of attention to transitions, and thus the dramatic tension is broken over and over. "Priceless" also suffers from several on-the-nose voiceover and "reflection" scenes ("Now here's what's going on spiritually, folks!") which could have been worked into the action itself. I might add here that "Hotel Rwanda" suffered egregiously from this constant breaking of dramatic tension that left us not feeling apprehensive at all--like there was no slaughter going on right outside the walls. For a much better feature film on Rwanda, see  "Beyond These Gates." But I digress.

There is one huge "save-the-day" coincidence toward the end (coincidences are a no-no in film in general, and never allowed at the end).


There is heroism on the part of Antonia, the older of the two sisters, and she is the one who introduces God into the picture. In spite of her suffering, she has faith while James does not. The Godtalk is cogent, strong and believable coming from the lips of a Mexican woman and a cowboy-hatted gent, but it doesn't feel like they're really talking to each other, but proselytizing us, the audience. Maybe that can't be helped in filmmaking today where we are so used to God being verboten. Movie Godtalk can make even us believers cynical (because He sticks out like a sore thumb when you're not used to Him being there)!

There are no easy solutions to the dilemma of rescuing both women. Don't look for neat endings and quick conversions! But ultimately, the film really does "go there" when we see what it takes to deal with the ruthless who have no respect for human life.


--This film is in the same vein, ilk and pace of the following "Christian films": "October Baby," "Mom's Night Out," "Old Fashioned" (the first and last of which I found a lot of good stuff in). I don't put the Kendrick Brothers' films here because they are a cut above.

--Am I being extra-harsh on "Christian" films? No. It's just that poor or uneven production values in a film are completely distracting from the "good bits" (as the British say). Movies need to entice you to suspend disbelief, to "just go with it" because we know we're in good hands and won't be continuously jarred and have to work incredibly hard to keep suspending disbelief, to give the film "another chance," to sit back, relax and be given a vicarious experience. Uneven quality filmmaking keeps "taking us out of the film": a mortal sin in my Screenwriting studies at UCLA.

--Thanks to the filmmakers for raising awareness of this egregious and pressing issue.

October 4, 2016


A new film aptly entitled "Denial"--about a famous Holocaust-denial court case--is a jewel. I hope it will be used in classrooms. I will be doing some SPOILERS in this review in order to pick apart the storyline, as well as the reality of dealing with Holocaust deniers.

Rachel Weisz plays professor, historian and author, Deborah E. Lipstadt, and carries the film with grace, warmth and humanity. Her character is a woman of pluck, intelligence, veracity and determination. Weisz, a Londoner, masters an endearing and flawless New York City accent.
This script could have been a tedious "talkie" with impassioned speeches and recountings of the horrors of the extermination camps, but although it refrained, "the suffering was heard." Good filmcraft.


Lipstadt is a professor who has dedicated herself to debunking those who try to debunk the Final Solution (the wholesale, systematic slaughter of Europe's Jews by Hitler and Nazi Germany during World War II). In one of her books, she cites Dr. David Irving (Timothy Spall), a vicious, megalomaniac historian who falsifies history in order to paint an alternate world where the Holocaust never happened. The karmic question (posed by Lipstadt to her students) at the beginning of the film is: "How do we know that the Holocaust happened? How do we know what really happened? Where is the proof? How strong is the proof?" Immediately, we see the consequences and importance of these queries: How do we know anything happened? How can we be sure of history? Who gets to be the keepers and framers of history?


Dr. Irving shows up (with his own videographer) at a talk given by Lipstadt. He begins heckling, challenging and pulling flamboyant stunts to discredit her. Dr. Irving is removed by security because Lipstadt's policy is to never debate those who deny history. She will debate those who have different opinions about why and how events took place, but not THAT they took place. She will not debate FACTS. But Irving (who is British) goes on the offensive and sues her (in the British court system) for libel. He alleges that she has tarnished his professional career and he is now treated like a pariah because of her accusations. And here's where it gets even more strangely intriguing. In the British system, if you are sued for libel, YOU must prove that you are innocent, not the other way around! 


Lipstadt hires a crack team of British lawyers, but still has difficulty wrapping her head around this "guilty till proven innocent" reversal. The one thing she wants to do is get on the stand herself and testify. She wants to put Holocaust survivors on the stand to tell their stories. Her legal team forbids both. She is to sit there, tight-lipped, and let them handle it. It's the only way she's going to win. It's a strategy. Jesus Himself told us: "Be as clever as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). "Denial" may remind you of the English lawyer, St. Thomas More, in "Man for All Seasons," as he uses his knowledge of the law to protect himself.

Lipstadt's legal eagles know the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of British law. At times these high-powered barristers (and solicitors) appear to her to be cold and uncaring, but nothing could be further from the truth. Shrewdly, they don't want the Holocaust to be put on trial, only Dr. Irving. They don't want the survivors to be humiliated. They want to "starve" Irving so he can't put on his usual circus.

Lipstadt feels the weight of her duty to history, the Jewish community and the survivors themselves. She can't blow this. She can't lose. But victory needs come through some decidedly un-American and un-Deborah tactics.


There are lighter moments in the film that don't feel like perfunctory "comic relief" to offset an egregious topic. They are natural flourishes proceeding from the personalities and the contrasts of the conflict at hand. The camerawork is standard and gets out of the way for the most part. The film includes a visit to Auschwitz by Lipstadt and her legal crew. I've seen quite a bit of footage of Auschwitz through the years, but this is like an organic documentary-within-a-feature-film, focused on a few aspects of that hellish place, cinematically "breaking the fourth wall." Well done.

If you're afraid this is an "intelligent" film, um, it's definitely smart, but it's also witty and chuckle-worthy. I challenge you to step up your game. Educate your mind. A fellow New Englander--who, with me, deplores the ever-increasing anti-intellectualism of the USA--always quotes to me (borrowing from the UNCF): "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."


I went into the film wondering about free speech issues. How can we legislate about those who choose to wackily deny reality without taking away the right to free speech (although free speech always has its limits)? And now with social media--how could we ever control trolls? Do we even want to? How exactly do you classify "hate speech" when virtually any opinion is categorized thus today? The answer in the film is rather simple: "Free speech? Yes. But you will be held accountable for your lies" and your willfull denial and manipulation of facts. And then, astoundingly in the film (something my philosophy professor at a boss, orthodox Catholic college drilled into us): "Not all opinions are equal."


I did NOT remember this 2000 trial in the news, so I wasn't sure of the outcome of the film. For those of you who don't remember it either, I won't do a spoiler here. Let me conclude this review with these two thoughts: Who's in charge of history? We all are. When will the Jews "stop talking about the Holocaust" (although it hasn't even been 100 years and survivors are still alive)? Never, I hope. Remembering the Shoah benefits the dignity of all humankind.


-- General Eisenhower ordered the liberated concentration camps to be filmed and photographed because he knew that people would have a hard time believing the depths of depravity and cruelty the Allied Forces were witnessing firsthand, and the enormous number of lives lost. So why would anyone deny the Holocaust happened? Why would someone taunt Holocaust survivors as frauds (as Irving did)? Anti-Semitism, certainly. Nazi sympathies, certainly. Sensationalism and outrageously making a name for oneself by doing the forbidden and profiting off the grief and pain of others, certainly. But theologically speaking? I've always maintained--and I'm not alone--that hatred of Jews (just because they're Jews) is hatred of God. The Jews are God's first incarnation in the world. As my Scripture prof used to say: "God needs a body in the world. His Chosen People were His first indwelling in the world." Or, as I reply to Jewish people I meet who think it's pompous to go around calling themselves the Chosen People: "If you're not chosen, neither are we" (since Christianity is a continuum of salvation history). As Jesus told the Samaritan woman: "Salvation is from the Jews."

--I didn't think Rachel Weisz was much of an actress toward the beginning of her career. She has really grown and is now a fine one.

--There are different kinds of speech. Deborah E. Lipstadt was good at "teaching" speech, "lecturing" speech, "writing" speech. But she was not good at British legal speech. It's OK to specialize.

--When one of Lipstadt's lawyers refuses to shake hands with Irving at the end, I believe he did so because to Irving, this was all a game. And it's not.

--Why is the British system like this (with regard to libel)? Perhaps a leftover from the governing notions of the "divine right of kings"?

--Like many true bigots, Irving was not limited to anti-Semitism. He had other virulent prejudices.

--Seeing the wild- and evil-eyed Irving portrayed by Spall, just reminded me that right now, there is immense BS and evil being planned for the world. Some people dedicate their whole lives to BS and evil. Better we beware and be aware. And dedicate our lives to the true, good and beautiful in earnest.

October 3, 2016


Thanks for all your prayers! Please keep 'em coming!
(Often there's even more light AFTER the retreat!)