Tag Archives: movies

This Is Not For You

2 Jun

When you’re married to a religious studies professor, you come across some weird stuff. So when we watch this film made by evangelical Christians, I had to ask myself, “Am I their audience? Better yet, do they even KNOW their audience?”

The film is called Awakened, and its about the revival spirit that has flourished on Indian reservations; the growth of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the first nations. At least, that’s what they said in the description. This should be fifteen minutes, right? Interview some pastors, show some revivals, edit it some catchy music, done. Nope. This is ninety minutes long! What else did they cram in there?

It starts off with a description of Native history and how the way missionaries approached the tribes, crushing their culture in favor of WASP Christianity… that was interesting. With the civil rights movement, many natives rejected Christianity, because that faith rejected their culture. Missionaries realized their mistake The film shows clips of Billy Graham in 1975 addressing a conference of Indian pastors saying we need to match their culture with Christ.

Okay – this captured my interest. But then I started noticing something. The native Christians were not showing worship in their culture; the services were indistinguishable from any white protestant service I’ve attended. They sang two songs in… I’m guessing Navajo, but it was How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace – 19th century Protestant hymns. There’s no adapting Christ to culture here! Who is this for?

It was also short on revivals… In fact they deliberately avoided the word. They preferred “awakening.” There were interviews with folks (mostly white) about the power of the Spirit moving, but little on specifics. Then they interview some Messianic Jews and their visions they’ve had.

Wait… what?! What happened to the Native Americans? Well, there was a play on the phrase, “gathering of the tribes” throughout the film, a deliberate author to tie American tribes with the tribes of Israel. So since Messianics are Christians who follow (their interpretation of) Jewish practice, it makes (some sort of) sense. Then we follow this Native missionary who works in Los Angeles preaching to… USC college students? That’s when I stopped watching – in my opinion, the filmmaker completely dropped the point of the film!

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I missed the point of the film. Awakened is not about Native Christians; it’s a piece about how there is a spiritual awakening in America – a sign of Christ’s return. They showed acculturated natives because that’s what the evangelical Christian audience could relate to. If you saw Native dances at a service (the Catholics got this), the real audience would have been confused. This film was not for me. It wasn’t even about Native Christianity. It was about the second coming of Christ… and everyone better look busy.

I do not recommend this film, but watch the trailer, and you get the idea. It’s heavy on (what I call) “the hard sell” and low on content. Great production value, good music, but it’s preaching to the converted. I just wish it had been more honest about that before I watched it.

Remember when movies were fun?

23 May

So the previous night, I watched The A-Team (2010), thinking, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen this before. This was mindless fun.” I was shocked to find a) I hadn’t seen it before and b) it was fricking amazing! This was fun with a capital F.

This might fall under “Your mileage may vary,” but I’m a big fan of action, big fan of comedies, and this delivers under both. Mind you, I was also a big fan of the original show back in the 80’s, and although I have seen episodes recently, they captured the goofiness of the original series excellently.

The cold open starts you off with going after a corrupt Mexican general that no one can find. They introduce each of the characters one at a time and it’s beautiful; even if you had no idea who these characters were, you understand completely who they are by the end of it. Face is introduced wrapped in tires, about to be set on fire after sleeping with the general’s wife, and still telling the general he better surrender now. I love it.

For the most part, they do a great job of balancing practical effects with CGI, but it gets harder for them to do it well as the movie progresses, because the situations get more and more ridiculous. However, you can forgive the climax shootout because everything up to this point has been absolutely amazing.

Is it high art? No, but from minute one of the film, you know what you’re into. Goofy lines, hot action, straightforward exposition, and over-the-top characters. There’s a scene when they have to jump out of a C-130, so they escape in a tank attached with parachutes. Then the bad guys are shooting the parachutes, so they have to use the main gun to adjust their landing into the lake. Yeah, it’s THAT over-the-top, and I love it.

Sure, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it hits me in my wheelhouse. Have you seen it? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below! Then if you want more over the top action, check out one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too steep for your wallet, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. You’ll be glad you did.

Better Than They Needed To Be

4 May

I’ve recently come across a new category of films. These are films that turn out to be great–deep and moving and philosophical–but are at their core, simply a cheap franchise. Why are they better than they need to be?

So me and my son watched the first two Hunger Games films together, after my friend introduced me to them in Tucson. At their face value, the story is rather simple. Teenage girl, dealing with teenage problems, now has to balance her love triangle in a deadly situation. Okay–since your audience is teenagers, you have to keep the rating down to PG-13, otherwise, they can’t get in the movie theatre.

You’re asking the director to make a film about a battle to the death… without showing blood. This sounds like a box office nightmare.

And yet… you watch it and… it’s unbelievably brilliant! It compares economic disparity, elaborates on the falsehood of television, deals with PTSD… all of this through something that was supposed to be a throw-away blockbuster. The story writing is amazing, there are NO bad roles or bad actors in this film, and the costume and makeup are insanely good.

Then how did they get around showing a blood bath without blood? Simple camera tricks; in the first film, they had shaky cam work. The second one was even more clever–having the camera leave the focus for a second or have something else move in front of it. Better yet, do it off screen! The scariest part of the second film had no blood in all, just the screams of the people of they loved… (shiver)

Similar thought about the Lego Movie. Lego had been making movies for years–usually 5 minute clips with no sound showing off how their playsets could be used. So they knew it could be done well. However, no one was expecting anything hilarious and brilliant. The writers realized that, “Gee, no one’s expecting to take this seriously, so why not just go all out with it!” And they did.

Once they had a great script, they could bring in a serious amount of voice talent with known names to do the roles. (Of course, you could say the same about the Emoji Movie.) However, they had access to all the franchises that Lego has ever done (DC Comics, Lord of the Rings, NBA All-Stars), which helped up the ridiculous factor. What came out was an amazing film that has great quotes, great earworm music, and a plot that made you laugh and cry with these animated characters.

In the end, way better than they needed to be. Is there another example that fits this category? Should it be it’s own subgenre? Let me know in the comments below! Speaking of better than they ought to be, check out one of my books. 🙂 However, if you’re not convinced that $1.99 is worth losing to chance, go ahead and download one of my stories for free! Then I’ll see you at the movies.

Sympathetic Villains

15 Mar

It happens so rarely that you have to sit up and take notice. In my opinion, the best fiction has an antagonist that you can actually sympathize with. When you know why they’re doing their scheme, it makes the story really come alive.

So I finally decided to watch Jack Ryan Season 1 on Amazon Prime. I like the Tom Clancy books, I like his universe, and I’ve even read the books (literally) ghostwritten for him since his death. Then I watch the show and… yep, you’ve got all the old characters reimagined for the modern day and I’m loving it. Then they introduce Mousa bin Suleiman… holy crap!

Here you’ve got the perfect villain; it doesn’t start that way, though. He’s just a dad with four kids, struggling with his new job, and his wife doesn’t like the guys he’s bringing over to the house. He just happens to be the leader of a breakaway Muslim extremist cell. He’s intelligent, speaks multiple languages, charismatic… heck, he even beats the crap out of ISIS leaders who are perverting the cause. You’re rooting for him as much as you’re rooting against him. Plus the actor does an amazing job of showing the man who has so much need for revenge, at the same time, worried about what his actions are doing to his family. Frickin’ brilliant!

Mind you, that’s the Clancyverse–from the beginning in Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy always made sure you knew what the villains were doing and why. They were not just paper targets for the heroes… they had a solid reason why they were doing bad things. In some ways, I always thought Clancy gave terrorists far too much credit. When he wrote clever scenarios for attacks, Tom thought like… well, an American. Al Qaeda knew what targets get the most attention. Bin Laden attacked the biggest building in New York (twice!), Clancy blew up a church in Texas (well, on paper, anyway). Personally, I think the church in Texas would be more effective, but I’m getting way off point.

Sympathetic villains are hard to come by, probably because it takes time to develop them. Take Hans Gruber from Die Hard; you follow him and his whole crew from the beginning of the film. He’s smart, effective, charismatic and he’s there to rob the place. You don’t know that at the beginning of the film, of course, but he’s systematic and clever and suave. Of course, when you’re trying to rob a major international corporation, you kinda have to be. I guess that’s why I also like Heat. De Niro is great as the leader of this heist, but they hire one doofus who likes to fire off his gun and suddenly everything unravels. (That movie was actually based on true events.)

It’s so much easier to create black and white villains, or robots wrestling, or faceless aliens coming to kill us all. But when you have to know why they’re coming to kill you… oooh, much scarier. What do you think makes a good sympathetic villain? What’s some better examples? Let me know in the comments below!

While you’re at it, you can check out some good villains in my books! 🙂 Or if the $1.99 threshold is too high for you, download some of my free stories. Mind you, I don’t have as much time to develop the enemies in those, but you can get the flavor for my writing. Enjoy.

Yiddishkeit for Assimilated Jews

9 Feb

Finally got my musical-loving son to watch “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971 movie) and he absolutely loved it. However, by the time it came out, it was idealizing a world that was already foreign and lost for Jews.

The movie takes place in Russia sometime around the turn of the century (pre-1905 Revolution) in the imaginary village (shtetl) of Anatevka. Even though my family could immediately recognize the ceremonies of Shabbat candle-lighting, Jewish weddings, and prayer services, the tension of the plot–the world changing from their traditions to modern practices–was completely alien. Since it was a hundred years ago, it makes sense. After all:

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’

L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

Of course, when Sholom Aleichem, the pseudonym for probably the most famous Yiddish writer of all time, wrote the Tevye stories (which the musical is based on), he was already addressing a readership for whom those Russian villages was already a memory. He lived in New York City, he wrote to Jewish immigrants to America, and in 1894 when his book came out, he was telling them about a world they (or their immediate relatives) had just left. There was a great nostalgia for a home they could never return to.

The musical came out 70 years later (1964) and ran on Broadway for almost 20 years. By that point, most of the people who read Sholom Aleichem were dead, their kids wanted to forget their Yiddishkeit (Yiddish culture) and assimilate as Americans, but their grandchildren wanted to remember. Why? Because in 1967, there was a little dust-up called the Six Day War. Israel defeated four Arab countries intent on destroying them. American Jews suddenly felt proud of being Jewish. They wanted to express their heritage. And BOOM–here it was! A story about how their grandparents lived–what nachas! (joy)

Mind you, even fifty years later, when those grandchildren now have grandchildren, it still translates to the modern day. Imagine how much American culture has changed since 1971 when this movie came out. Nostalgia for the past, changing traditions–all of these are concepts that modern Jews can latch onto. And… it’s good to have a reminder that our ancestors were persecuted, that three of my wife’s great-uncles were sent to Siberia, and how Kiev and Odessa were not far enough to escape that life. It’s only in America where we were free to forget.

Is there a film that does that for you? A view back on a world that your family lived through but is now gone? Share it with me in the comments below!

It’s the Little Things

1 Feb

For me, it’s the little things. For example, watching a really silly film called Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000) and noticing that they were using actual Illinois plates! Sounds stupid, but so many films don’t get it right.

It seems like a silly thing, but a little detail like license plates can throw you off. If you watch any commercial, all the cars have generic license plates–usually gray squares with numbers. It insists that what you’re seeing is fake… with a professional driver… or a closed track. Do not attempt.

In the opening scene of The Dark Knight (2008), the film makers made sure since they were filming in Chicago, in case you were confused by the Illinois plates in the background, made the Gotham City plates look just like the Illinois ones at the time. In case you’re wondering how we got from the 2000 plates to the 2008 plates, the Secretary of State goes into great detail explaining it.

Side note: That’s the current Secretary of State of Illinois. Jesse White was SoS in Illinois when I lived there last… 15 years ago. He spoke at Illinois Boys State while he was just a state rep while I was in high school over 25 years ago. Just pointing that out; come to your own conclusion.

It’s like product placement–me and the fam are binge watching Chuck, the brilliant comedy action show from 2007-2012–and I pointed out that Subway became a sponsor of the show midway through the 2nd Season. This saved the show, but once you see the number of Subway sandwich references, you can’t unsee it. It was my son, Asher, who finally noticed that they deliberately avoided any other product placement – for example, all the chips bags were turned around so you couldn’t see the label. Frankly, I don’t think it costs a show to do free advertising, and I don’t see companies objecting… but maybe there’s a legal reason I’m not aware of.

However, someone took the effort to do that. Just like in Star Trek: The Next Generation, someone’s job was to make sure that the stardates were the correct order. In the original series, they just used whatever four-digit number they wanted. And anything that keeps the audience’s attention in the show, and not distracted, is a win.

Can you come up with a better example where the little details were appreciated by you… and precious others? Let me know in the comments below!

“And an Ensemble Cast!”

28 Jan

Last night, I was discussing with my son the difficulties with an ensemble cast. How it can work in some instances, but not others. But do you know when you should write for three to nine main characters?

You’re probably wondering, “Gee, what kind of conversations does Marcus have with his son, that cast size becomes a topic?” Well, my son Asher loves acting, and because of COVID and lack of friends, he watches a LOT more TV. So naturally, this is something on his mind.

At my gushing, we also watched League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which generally gets a bad rap, but I love it despite its flaws. Partly because it’s a steampunk movie (and there are precious few of those), but mostly because its the concept of Victorian lit characters coming to life, banding together to fight evil!

I usually blame the fact that most moving-going audiences don’t know their Victorian lit enough to appreciate these characters, but watching it with Asher made me realize another problem–there are too many characters! So you notice in the picture that there are seven (or eight) main characters, a villain (or two), and several secondary characters to keep track of. After the one third mark, none of them have enough screen time for us to really appreciate any of them. You could have taken away Skinner and Sawyer (and maybe Jekyll) and it would have been a much better movie.

But an ensemble cast on screen can work! Take The Avengers, which also have seven main characters. Why? Because you know all these characters already. Apart from Black Widow and Hawkeye, each of these characters had their own movie, so they’re already developed. You don’t need to develop their story in The Avengers; you just want to see them interact with other superheroes that you already love.

Which is why an ensemble cast works great on a TV show. Take Chuck, for example, since me and my kids are going through it right now. As you can see from the picture, nine main characters. Except they’re aren’t–there are three main characters (Chuck, Sarah, and Casey) and then everyone else comes and goes in the plot as needed. Sure, they’re in the opening credits, but only the Trio of Power is in every episode. A TV show lets you do that–provides time for all the characters (even secondary ones) to be developed fully so that you can love them.

That’s why–in my opinion–LXG failed. The other problem was leaning too hard on a LOT of CGI, but I thought the actors gave great performances and it could have worked had the audience known these characters. In novels, you have a middle ground–you have time to develop, but not a LOT of time. So you’re stuck with a balancing act. When I wrote Fatebane, there were four main characters… and even then, that was one too many. So when I wrote the sequel, there were only three. When you’re on a spaceship, the crew is important, but you don’t want so many characters that the reader can’t keep track, so I had the main character, the captain, and the competent officer… everyone else came and went.

What do you think? Have you seen an ensemble cast work in movies? In books? Why do you think that worked? Let me know in the comments below!

Book v. Movie (1964)

23 Jan

I’ve been on a Bond kick lately, so I decided to actually read one of Ian Fleming’s books, to see how to compared to the movie I loved so much. So I picked up Goldfinger and started reading… wow! There is no comparison.

There wasn’t a great time difference between the book (1959) and the movie (1964), so it was fascinating to see the changes they used to show the story on the big screen. First off, the plot made a hell of a lot more sense! Naturally, in a book, you’ve got plenty of time to explain what’s going on to the audience. Also, I realized later that I grew up with an “edited for television” version of the movie, that (among other things) completely skipped the beginning mission before the credits. So naturally, my opinion of these things are skewed.

Second, Bond did a LOT more spycraft in the book–he actually does spy stuff–rather than just bust into places and see what happens (which they lampshade in the later movies). The written James has a lot more time to brood, to have an inner monologue, not just be the soulless killing/sex machine that we’ve come to know and love.

They compressed a lot of the characters, which makes sense for time, but that means that Jill and Tilly Masterson are actually in the book for a lot longer. You get to know these women (and not in the way you’re thinking). Interestingly enough, Pussy Galore barely appears–Tilly is the female companion that’s dragged with Bond to the US.

Why Bond is kept alive when going into the final act still makes absolutely no sense, apart from the fact that he’s the main character. The reason that gangsters are there makes a lot more sense. And the way that Bond foils Goldfinger’s plan makes a lot more sense, although I think the movie version of G’s plan was actually better.

There’s a lot less gadgets, certainly less lovin’, and in the end, a much more solid story. Mind you, there are some dated references (because this was the late 50’s), dated terms (I had to look up “commissionaire”), and some dated attitudes (Bond has some theories on what “turns” women to becoming lesbian), but that did not distract me from the plot.

In the end, I really enjoyed Goldfinger the book, despite having watching the movie first, and that makes me very surprised. I’m gonna have to read more of Fleming’s books! Have you had a chance to read the James Bond novels? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

Sacred Oil of Clovis

11 Nov

Previously, I was talking about the problem I have with mysticism. This made me think about a film that made me think about that question: The Messenger (1999). Is it a good film? Eh… Does it have some amazing scenes? Oh, YES!

First off, this film has some serious acting power: Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway and Dustin Hoffman. It’s directed by Luc Besson, who did The Fifth Element, which for my money, sold me watching it. It’s actually got some pretty decent fight scenes, set during the Hundred Years War, so it’s technically proficient. But the film has got this weirdness factor to it–because the question the film is trying to address is–Is Joan of Arc a saint or a lunatic?

At the same time, it talks about the political fight that Joan of Arc brought about. The dauphin couldn’t claim the throne because he didn’t have the popular will or the military victories to challenge the English claim. Joan changes all of that. So there’s a bit where they’ve finally gotten to crown their new king, and the priests are dithering because the sacred oil of Clovis is empty. It was full the last time he saw it. After a couple seconds of that, the royal mother (Faye Dunaway) grabs the vial, takes some ordinary oil, and refills it. The priest askes, “What are you doing?!” The mother just says deadpan, “Performing a miracle.”

And that becomes the oil they anoint the king with… and no one was the wiser. Later on, Joan becomes a political liability, so she gets “captured” by the English (or betrayed or accident). and she’s brought before the inquisition. Dustin Hoffman is the inquisitor and makes her question what she thinks she knows. It is… well, let me just show you the clip:

Really amazing film, and yet… I think I’ve only seen it once. Which makes me question how good it actually is, or if my tastes are more towards comedy and I don’t rewatch drama that much, or maybe those are the only two scenes I liked. Rotten Tomatoes has it at 30%, which makes me question myself.

Have you seen this film? What do you remember about this? Is there another film that addresses the border between the mystic and the real world that you like more? Let me know in the comments below!

“When Did You Lose Your Grace?”

28 Sep

As I’ve said before, I’m an aficionado of cheesy films. The Prophecy (1995) scratched me where I itched; to date, this is the only film I’ve seen in the theatres more than once. I love this story – angels as heavenly hitmen! No one brings it better than Christopher Walken!

Forget the sequels, this film is wonderfully made. Of course, you have to accept the concept first – there was a second war in heaven and there are “rebel” angels who need the perfect evil general to lead their armies to overcome the “loyal” angels. Somehow, that soul is in a colonel who committed war atrocities in Korea and died in a rural town in New Mexico. Okay, pretty big suspension of disbelief.

Failed Priest Turned Cop – Elias Koteas

The movie starts off with a Catholic priest who suddenly gets a vision so profound he loses his faith and becomes a homicide detective. Okay, big job switch, but he’s our protagonist. He also happens to be the perfect person to follow the leads when angels start killing each other in the streets.

Gabriel – Christopher Walken

Leader of the rebel angels, when his lieutenant is taken out by Simon, one of the loyal ones, has to come down to Earth to get the soul himself. Amazing job through the entire film. He has GREAT lines and fun scenes that balance the utter brutality of his character.

Simon – Eric Stoltz

Plays perfectly what you think an angel would look and sound like. Great performance.

Satan – Viggo Mortensen

Before he became famous as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, this performance is what I know him from. Suave, goofy, and demonic… Hells, Viggo is frickin’ amazing! One moment talking calmly, next teasing, next psycho – wow!

Even the secondary characters rock hard. Patrick McAllister, who played the colonel, never said a word during the film (because he was dead, not that stopped anyone else), but conveys creepy silently. The little girl (Moriah Shining Dove Snyder) is one of the best little girl performances EVER, right behind Newt in Aliens. Completely believable, worked well. Even the teacher / love interest was good, but then again, it was Virginia Madsen… and after Jennifer Connelly, she’s my big celebrity crush.

The lines are memorable, the story flows, and you are alternating laughing and being shocked… sometimes in the same scene. Amazing world building. Fantastic cinematography – there’s one scene that has no words, but explains the new character’s entire backstory in fifteen seconds. Wow! I thoroughly recommend this movie!

However, as said before, my taste in films is not everyone’s. Have you seen this movie? Did you think it sucked? Was it a life-changing experience for you, too? Were you somewhere in between? Let me know in the comments below!

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