‘The Fighting Preacher’ REVIEW

For many years filmmaker T.C. Christensen has made a career out of making sweet and inspirational, faith-based films for Latter-day Saint audiences. Many of these are set in the past and seek to tell part of Church history like The Cokeville Miracle or 17 Miracles. These movies are definitely not for everyone but if you like programs like When Calls the Heart or Little House on the Prairie than you will enjoy them. His latest effort, The Fighting Preacher, is a bit uneven but overall it succeeds in telling a sentimental true story about tolerance, kindness and how a Christian spirit will win over hate every time.

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The film is based on the experiences of Willard Bean (David McConnell); a boxing champion who in 1905 is called by the Church to move to the town of Palmyra, New York and make a home for himself and his family in the recently purchased Joseph Smith Farm. As the name implies, the home was once owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint prophet and founder Joseph Smith. Nearby is the Hill Cumorah which is where the prophet claimed to find (by the guidance of an angel) the gold plates he translated into ‘The Book of Mormon’. Unfortunately, the Saints were eventually pushed out of Palmyra by residents who feared the new religion and the fervor of its followers and after 85 years the town had remained free from all ‘Mormons’ as they were known at the time.

One would think after such a long time away from each other, the anger against the Latter-day Saints would have dissipated in Palmyra but this proved to not be the case for the Beans. They faced opposition and challenges trying to do normal things like purchase everyday necessities, get medical care and even helping their daughter get an education.

At first Willard is tempted to use his boxing skills to retaliate against the people but eventually he learns such problems are better solved by an offering of homemade pie rather than a fist to the face (if that description sounds too saccharine, than trust me. This is not the movie for you!).

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The casting goes a long way in making The Fighting Preacher work. McConnell is easy to relate to and has nice chemistry with Cassidy Hubert who plays his wife Rebecca (my only nitpick with her is she had very modern lipstick on). The little girl, Scarlett Hazen, who plays their daughter Palmyra is also adorable. She did a great job!

The rest of the cast is fine but there isn’t a huge attempt to flesh out people beyond a slamming of the door with a ‘get out of here you Mormons’ rebuke. As a former missionary, I have no doubt this was a reality, but as a movie, it comes across as forced. The script as a whole is clunky with dialogue that doesn’t feel natural or human.

For a better example of a similar plot with a much better script I recommend last year’s Jane and Emma. That film took the time to flesh out the characters and give authentic nuanced dialogue.

Even with its flaws, however, I still recommend The Fighting Preacher. It knows its audience and unlike some faith-based films, the message is very positive. It tells the viewer to accept people of all beliefs, and to be kind and loving to all men and women (even when it is not reciprocated). The performances are also strong enough to forgive a script I wish was better.

6 out of 10

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‘Wild Rose’ REVIEW

The last few years have been a lot of fun for those of us that love movie musicals. Whether they are musical biopics or traditional musicals there have been a lot of fun entries lately. I wasn’t a big fan of Bohemian Rhapsody because of its terrible script but others I have loved like Sing Street, Rocketman, Mary Poppins Returns, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, A Star is Born, The Greatest Showman and even Disney Channel’s Zombies! Fortunately, I have another indie musical darling to tell you about called Wild Rose that fans of musicals and just good storytelling will love.

Wild Rose tells the story of girl named Rose-Lynn Harlan played by Jessie Buckley. She is from Glasgow, Scotland but she dreams of going to Nashville and becoming a country music singer (not country/western as she corrects people). Unfortunately, she had 2 children before she was 18 and then got involved in some drug shenanigans which sent her to jail for a year. Meanwhile, her mother Marion, played by the incredible Julie Walters, is tired of holding down the fort for her daughter and worries her dreams are robbing her from living in the moment with her children.

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Evidently Jessie Buckley is famous for being on an American Idol type show in Scotland, and I believe it, because she has an incredible voice. I hope the original songs get remembered come Oscar season because they certainly deserve to be. Sometimes her speaking voice is hard to understand with that thick Scottish accent but it’s all worth it when she sings.

The story in Wild Rose isn’t the most original but the characters are layered and interesting. At first I didn’t like Rose as she is very selfish, but her character’s journey worked on me, until I was rooting for her. They also don’t muddy her story with much of a romance, which I appreciated. It’s just a woman trying to decide between her children and her dreams and how much sacrifice is too much.

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Julie Walters deserves all the awards for her performance as Rose’s mother. I felt for her even more than Rose (it is kind of like Lady Bird in that regard). She is a mixture of worry, fear, love, hope, kindness and frustration. It’s easy to make parental characters in these films one-note, judgemental types, but that’s not the case here. There’s such humanity in Walters’ performance anyone should be able to connect with her and her struggles.

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Like I said, the only major weakness in Wild Rose is that sometimes the dialogue can be tough to understand. I will be grateful when I can watch it with subtitles at home and can pick up on a few scenes I might have missed! It also has some predictable moments but nothing that bothered me personally. It’s a real hidden gem of the year, which I hope you seek out.

Wild Rose earns its R rating for language and a little sexuality but it should be fine for mature teens.

If you love music and human stories check out Wild Rose!

8.5 out of 10

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‘Crawl’ REVIEW

I bet I will be the only critic that compares the new creature scares movie Crawl to a good Hallmark movie but that’s just what I’m going to do. I spend many hours watching Hallmark movies for my podcast The Hallmarkies Podcast and I’ve learned that the good ones know what they are and execute it well. They don’t try to be anything other than a sweet romcom, with nice chemistry between the leads, and a warm holiday message.

It’s the same idea in Crawl. It absolutely knows what it is and executes it well. It doesn’t try to be campy or silly. It doesn’t add annoying characters or convoluted subplots. Crawl knows it is a creature scares movie with 2 people dealing with gators and it executes that concept very well. It’s as simple as that.

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Crawl stars Kaya Scodelario who starts out the film trying to rescue her father from the basement crawl space of his Florida home. Unfortunately when she gets there she learns he is stuck with 2 gators in the basement (behind some large pipes). Getting out is then the main plot of the movie. Unfortunately, this task is made more difficult by a huge hurricane that threatens to drown them before the gators can eat them.

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Director Alexandre Aja does a great job moving the characters around enough within the small space to create different set pieces by which to fight the gators. They also keep the movie a lean 87 minutes so you never have time to get bored. It feels relatively grounded and realistic and for a small budget film the gators/special effects look great.

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Barry Pepper and Kaya Scodelario do great work as a father and daughter and the film gives us just enough of their backstory and relationship to attach us to them without becoming boring. As they are basically the only characters on screen, their chemistry also adds a ton to the film’s success. It kind of reminds me of 10 Cloverfield Lane in that respect. I was rooting for both of them throughout the entire movie which made the scenes with the gators more intense and fun.

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I suppose if there are negatives to Crawl, there are some moments where we must suspend disbelief. In particular the injuries the 2 lead characters have seem to ebb and flow depending on the needs of the script. However, I was invested enough in the story and characters to not care. There are also definitely side characters introduced to be kill candy for the gators, which gets a little predictable.

All that said, I had a great time watching Crawl. It’d be a wonderful choice to go with all your friends and have a good tense time at the movies. Nobody will be too traumatized, and they will all have fun.

Go see it! It’s a blast

8 out of 10

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‘The Lion King’ (2019) REVIEW

Recently director Jon Favreau defended his remake of the animated classic, The Lion King, to USA Today saying it is ‘not completely a shot for shot remake‘. Upon hearing this, I became hopeful that this remake might be similar to his version of The Jungle Book, which had its flaws but took a new approach to Mowgli and to the ending that I appreciated. Now having seen new remake, I am quite baffled by Favreau’s words because aside from the visuals, I saw no noticeable story differences between it and the animated classic. It’s as close to a shot-for-shot remake of a film as I’ve ever seen (Critic David Ehrlich compared it to the remake of Psycho by Gus Van Sant, and he’s absolutely correct.) Of course, the new version of The Lion King will make boat-loads of money but if you are asking for this critic’s advice I would give it a definite skip.

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Let’s start off talking about the film’s greatest strength, the visuals. Despite Disney’s reticence to use the term, they are an incredible achievement in ANIMATION! (The reason I believe they haven’t wanted to use the word is because it is one thing to remake an animated film with live action but to remake an animated film with another animated film feels like even more of a copycat than all the others!). Particularly in wide shots the photorealism is impressive. It seems hard to believe that everything down to the smallest blade of grass is fabricated on a computer and yet that is the reality. If people want to see this film for the visuals alone I wouldn’t fault them, but I guess I was hoping to have more to recommend given the original film is such a favorite of mine.

There are other positives like the voicecast is all competent and the music/songs are well executed. However, I was a little disappointed only one song from the Broadway musical is included as a song over the credits and the one original song ‘Spirit’ is just an accompaniment to a transitional scene when the characters are walking. I was hoping it would be part of a new narrative for Nala but that is not the case.

The only song I did not like was their rendition of ‘Be Prepared’, which felt like such an after-thought. It’s one of my all-time favorite Disney villain songs and it came and went without making any impact. There was no spectacle or gravitas, which made Scar a much less interesting villain.

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The best part of the film character-wise is Timon and Pumba (Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen). Their scenes, while identical to the original, have the most energy and life to them. They are also the closest to being believable as actually talking and singing animals. With the lions and other characters, their mouth movements never quite worked, with their faces not matching the words/lyrics in a natural easy way (maybe because real animals make individuals sounds like a purr or a roar rather than formulating whole words).

There’s also a problem with the photo-realistic character’s inability to emote in the way a 2D animated character can. Little Simba in the original can have big tears well up in his eyes, and his whole face can be full with the emotion of losing his Dad. That’s not possible with a photo-realistic lion; thereby, rendering the scenes one note and flat.

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Coming out of the film I felt it might actually be a better choice for young children (under 5) than the original for this very reason. The tense scenes feel more clinical when realistic; therefore, they aren’t as devastating to the viewer. If a child can handle a nature documentary where animals are in peril, they should be able to handle what they see in this remake.

I know when my brother used to watch the original he would get very upset at the dramatic scenes, and I don’t think that would be the case here. (My friend disagreed with me and felt it might be scarier to young kids because it is more realistic so I suppose it depends on the child). It is less emotionally manipulative than the original but that also means it is less impactful.

Unfortunately this lack of emotional investment strips The Lion King of what makes it special. It becomes an exercise in checking off boxes for the story we know and love instead of anything remotely memorable. The recent version of Dumbo had lots of problems but at least there was some attempt to offer a new take, with different visions for the characters. This is just bland. There are no two ways around it. It’s bland, bland, bland.

My advice is save your money. Stay home and watch the original classic film!

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BLIND SPOT 43: ‘THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES’

When I was planning my Blind Spot series for 2019 I knew I needed to tackle one of the most heralded films that I had yet to see: William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. The film not only won 7 Oscars but it is widely considered the best film to ever win Best Picture. In addition, it’s also a favorite of many of my movie friends including the great MovieRob who has seen more than enough movies to have his opinion be taken very seriously. The only reason I hadn’t seen it is because the length and subject matter intimidated me but that’s what makes the Blind Spot project great! I finally watched this classic film, and I’m sure glad I did.

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The Best Years of Our Lives tells the story of 3 veterans (Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, Frederic March) of World War 2 who meet on their way home to their small hometown of Boone City. While all soldiers, they are each quite different and they go on to each have different struggles in adjusting to home life.

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Naturally we also get to know the women who are in the lives of our soldiers. I especially liked Myrna Loy who is number one on the call sheet but gives an understated supporting performance as the housewife who comes to realize her  returning husband may be an alcoholic and that his recovery from fighting will be no easy task.

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Probably the most memorable role in The Best Years of Our Lives is from Russell who had never acted before but plays the soldier with no arms with such humanity (probably because it is who he literally is!). I kept thinking now they would just cgi away an actor’s arms (see Dumbo from this year) and what a loss that is for cinema. What I appreciated most about his performance is most of the time he’s pretty reasonable, not looking for sympathy. He even seems proud of what he can accomplish with his hook hands, as he should be. However, he also keeps people at a distance because he doesn’t want to burden them with his struggles. This is most of all true with his fiance Wilma played with great heart by Cathy O’Donnell. Their love story together is very touching.

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There isn’t a ton of plot in The Best Years of Our Lives. Even the grand moments are only grand because we know what they mean to the characters. They are simple moments like a man sitting in a used plane, another giving a speech at banquet for the bank he works at or a former soldier showing his girl how he puts on his pajamas. Simple stuff but it means a ton within the story. I particularly teared up at said banquet speech when a drunk Al promises his fellow soldiers will be supported by his bank and get the loans they need. This is probably a more of a pipe dream than anything else, which is what makes it both touching and tragic.

All of the acting is superb in The Beast Years of Our Lives and everyone has tremendous chemistry. Some will probably find it tedious, but despite my misgivings, I was fully engrossed with the characters and their journeys. It actually felt quite relevant to the struggles many veterans experience today. Often for soldiers it is very difficult to find employment, manage PTSD and relate to civilian life. However, even beyond that this film is full of human stories, and as long as they are well told, human stories will always be relevant.

If you haven’t seen The Best Years of Our Lives don’t wait as long as I did to give it a watch. You  will be rewarded by a moving story of love, family, and the ability of the human spirit to turn the worst years into the best.

For a modern film with these themes I recommend Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace which was one of the best films of 2018.

10 out of 10

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Current Mini Reviews

Hello my fine movie-loving friends! Today marks an exciting day. Believe it or not I have officially seen every movie of any interest to me in both regular and art-house cinema! That almost never happens to me but with a lot of horror movies coming out there hasn’t been as much that interests me when compared with a typical July.

With so many movies seen this means it is time for one of my much celebrated ‘Current Mini Reviews’ posts! These occur when I don’t have time to write an entire post on a film but want to log my response to help all of you know what’s out there to see. So here goes!

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PLUS ONE

First up is the romantic comedy Plus One starring Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid in the lead roles. This film is available in theaters and on demand and while it is definitely R rated, it is also a pretty charming romcom.

Quaid (who is very charismatic) and Erskine play 2 friends who make a deal to be each-other’s plus one for 10 weddings they have been invited to in one year (I would die going to so many weddings!). As romcoms go, naturally their friendship blossoms into something more, and all kinds of shenanigans unfold. Plus One definitely follows an expected formula but the leads have enough chemistry and it was funny enough to entertain me. If you can handle an R rated movie than I recommend it.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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PAVAROTTI

Directed by Ron Howard this documentary on the legendary opera singer Luciano Pavarotti doesn’t break the mold of a standard celebrity biographical documentary but I still enjoyed it because of the stunning music. Howard allows the performances to go on for long stretches so you can get a feel for the experience the audience had listening to such a master tenor. The interviews are interesting but again quite standard for this kind of film. Go see it for the music!

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME-

I know it is kind of sneaky to put only a mini-review for such a big film in here but my friend Patrick already reviewed this film for the site and I have no desire to compete with his review. Unfortunately I was not as in love with this movie as Patrick or the masses seem to be. It has its pluses but some real problems as well.

First the aspects I enjoyed is Tom Holland as Spider-Man. He’s sweet, vulnerable and completely likable as our teen web slinger. I also liked Zendaya as MJ and pretty much all the ‘teenagers go to Europe’ stuff I liked.

Unfortunately I did not like the villain plot. Without spoilers I found it convoluted, predictable and dull. Similar to Zemo, in Civil War, the amount of steps that needed to make the plan work is ridiculous and it required actions by Tony Stark in previous films that don’t make sense. Also some of the more creative moments felt like too much of a video game for my taste. Even something psychedelic like Doctor Strange still felt more grounded and therefore more engrossing with more stakes than the illusions here. Just not my cup of tea visually I guess.

It’s weird because everyone online seems to love this film but myself, my friend Jen and my two nieces all left disappointed so who knows? It’s not awful but definitely lower tier Marvel (and I’ve seen it twice to verify).

Also do the humans in this world even try any more to fight against the bad guys or just the Avengers because that’s what it felt like? I also don’t understand why Spider-man needs anonymity in this universe. Liberally none of the MCU is secret so why him? I dont get the big deal?

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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YESTERDAY

For some reason when the trailer to Yesterday came out there was a big backlash against it. I don’t know if it is just the popularity of The Beatles people wanted untouched or they sensed a dud but many were up in arms about it. I, on the other hand, thought it looked quite charming and was excited to see it.

Unfortunately the doubters proved to be correct, and I was disappointed in Yesterday. A world without The Beatles is an interesting concept and Danny Boyle infuses the film with his trademark optimism but he is unable to overcome a lead character (Himesh Patel) that’s hard to root for and a romance with Lily James that has no chemistry. I was also surprised how sloppily made the film was with some poor editing and some ADR issues with the singing.

In the end, it’s just a bunch of The Beatles karaoke so I’d skip it. (Also the world would be way worse without The Beatles than not having Coke!).

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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ECHO IN THE CANYON

The documentary Echo in the Canyon profiles the music scene of the 1960s that developed in LA’s Laurel Canyon area. This includes interviews with bandmembers from The Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield and more. Jakob Dylan becomes are narrator as we learn about the epic recording sessions that mostly occurred in small studios or in the musician’s homes.

Any music fan will love interviews with Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Stephen Stills, David Crosby and more. It was great. Unfortunately I was less enthused with the long sections of the tribute concert put on by Dylan, Regina Spektor, Beck and more. These are very talented singers but it was distracting from the musical story of the classic bands and the time and place the documentary is profiling.

Still, I enjoyed it well enough to recommend to any music fan!

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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PAPI CHULO

An interesting trend I have noticed lately in film is the exploration of male friendship- particularly unlikely male friendship. We even recently had our Oscar winner focus on this subject in Green Book. Another example is this sweet little film called Papi Chulo.

Matt Bomer plays Sean, a weatherman who has lost his husband and is finding the transition process very difficult. He is lonely and doesn’t seem to have any real friends (he goes to a party but he seems to be more worried about impressing them than any kind of real kinship). One day he befriends a house painter he hires named Ernesto played by Alejandro Patiño. The fact Ernesto doesn’t speak English is actually a plus as Sean just needs someone to listen and not respond.

Papi Chulo is a bit too casual in its treatment of moments of serious mental health crisis in Sean’s life but it has a huge heart I couldn’t resist. It is rated R for a little bit of language, alcohol use and background sensuality but it’s overall pretty tame and very sweet.

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ (Guest Review)

Hello Rachel! Yes, it is I, Patrick Beatty Reviews! Taking over your site to talk about Spider-Man: Far From Home (btw, thank you so much for having me on!). Directed by Jon Watts, who helmed the previous Spider-Man Homecoming, this sequel takes place sometime after Avengers: Endgame (so make sure you’ve seen it first. But who hasn’t at this point?). Peter Parker is going on a summer study abroad trip around Europe and is needing some serious R&R, and maybe a shot at romance with M.J. (played by Zendaya). But the work for an Avenger doesn’t end, as his vacation is cut short by Nick Fury, along with a new character Mysterio (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who need Spider-Mans help in fighting a slew of new villains called ‘The Elementals’. That is ALL I can say when it comes to this movie’s plot, but what I can say is it’s the most fun and exciting live-action Spider-Man film to date!

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First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Tom Holland is a PERFECT Peter Parker. His acting and physical performance as Spider-Man is perfect, and he truly embodies the character we know and love from the comic books. This is Tom Hollands 5th performance as Spider-Man, and you can see that he is in his element as the character. Holland has terrific chemistry with his friend Ned (who gets a great side story) but also with Jake Gyllenhaal and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury). Holland again proves he is up there with the greats with how well he is able to interact with these two acting giants.

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The side characters in the film are also very funny, with great additions, which I can’t spoil but really bring in the humor for this film. Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan) for the scenes he is in absolutely nails his part, and I liked his back and forth chemistry with Holland. Where I may get some flack is I didn’t love the chemistry between M.J. and Peter Parker. I honestly think of the “Spider-Men” and their significant others, the Holland/Zendaya pairing falls the flattest. I had a tough time understanding why they liked each other, but perhaps if they had more scenes together to flesh out the “whys” of their relationship I might buy into it more. Don’t get me wrong, I love both their characters, but I don’t see the sparks just yet.

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Far From Home feels like when a tv show goes on “Vacation”: where you are getting a completely new and fun experience than you’ve felt when the show sticks within its main location. I loved the road trip feel and it’s a fun break from the somewhat serious tone Marvel had with ‘Infinity War’ and ‘Endgame’. The special effects are also amazing, particularly in the 3rd act. A lot of 3rd act superhero films only result in punching and fighting. Far From Home, in contrast, they utilize Spider-Man and his villain in a perfect way, and really energized the entire ending.

So did Spider-Man break new ground in the Spider-Man film-verse? I would say for die-hard fans who have wanted the ‘full Spider-Man experience then yes. This is an exciting, fast-paced adventure, showcasing the best parts of Spider-Man. There are some twists that some may not be expecting, and honestly, I could see people going either way on liking them or not but I had a great time with Spider-Man: Far From Home. I’d love to know what you all thought of it once you see it! Thank you again Rachel for having me!

I’m giving Spider-Man: Far From Home an 8/10

‘The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith’ REVIEW

Those who have been reading my blog for some time know I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or known by some as The Mormons). I don’t normally don’t talk about my religion on this blog but occasionally a faith-based film comes up for review and it is only natural then to share my religious perspective. The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith is actually a sequel to a very popular entry that came out in 2001 (when I say popular it got a Disney distribution, so more than just amongst my community).

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The first The Other Side of Heaven film tells the story of missionary John Groberg (Christopher Gorham) as he serves on a very small island in Tonga for 2 years as a young man. This sequel continues his story but it is a decade later. John with his wife Jean (Natalie Medlock) bring their large brood of children back to the islands to serve as a mission president. From the start they face many tests of their faith and must learn to love the Tongan people in a whole new way.

Overall if you are a fan of the first film I definitely think you will enjoy this sequel. It’s not perfect but it’s well made and Gorham is very strong and charismatic in the lead. I had the chance to interview director Mitch Davis for the Hallmarkies Podcast (see above), and I could see while watching the love and passion poured into the film by him and others.

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They also did an incredible job casting Russell Dixon to play Thomas Monson who would later go on to become prophet of the LDS Church. The resemblance is uncanny both in looks and mannerisms and as someone who loved President Monson, it warmed my heart to see him portrayed so well.

I also thought the second half of the film when the whole island begins to fast and pray together was very touching. Most anyone will be inspired and moved by those moments of shared faith.

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My only flaws with the film is I wish they had brought in that sense of community earlier to help balance out the portrayal of a very angry, even violent, Methodist pastor. If it hadn’t been resolved so tastefully I would have been annoyed. (It was touch and go there for a bit because his behavior is close to unredeemable. He really should be in jail not leading a congregation).

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Also I didn’t love Natalie Medlock as Jean. In the promo footage she mentioned she’s not much of kid person and unfortunately it shows. There was an awkwardness in her scenes that made it hard for me to buy her as the mother of 6. (Although I did like a moment in the script when she tells John “I’m all prayed out”. It was a human moment). The performance just wasn’t my favorite.

The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith is opening on 200 screens, so if it sounds like something you’d enjoy, go out and support it. Rarely does a film like this get such a wide opening, and it’s got enough heart and a great lead performance to be worth a watch. People of faith can’t complain about the depravity of modern films and then not support inspirational, well-made offerings like this and expect their concerns to be taken seriously.

The film is rated PG-13 for some violence but it’s nothing a good chat with your kids can’t address, and I like I said, it ends on a hopeful note. Take your family and enjoy yourself at the movies!

7 out of 10

smile worthy

 

 

Pixar 43: ‘Toy Story 4’ (Spoilers)

Like many people I was a bit anxious when I heard the announcement of Toy Story 4. How could Pixar bring another entry into their treasured franchise after Toy Story 3 ended in such a satisfying way? It seemed like an impossible task but the Pixar folks have always said they only do sequels if they have a story, so I trusted them to get it right! Today I am happy to tell you my trust was not in vain. Toy Story 4 is another wonderful addition to our team of toys and a fitting conclusion to our best friend Woody’s story.

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It’s impossible to talk about Toy Story 4 without discussing the trajectory of the previous 3 films. In Toy Story we have a confident Woody who learns to be a friend to the new and different Buzz. He begins the story as a good leader but as many leaders are, he’s also self-interested and prone to jealousy and deep insecurities. It is only through becoming friends with Buzz that Woody learns to let go of his pride and serve others.

Then we get to Toy Story 2 where Woody learns to think of Andy, and his commitment to letting Andy play with him as long as he wants. It’s his mission and calling and it is more important than being worshiped in a Tokyo museum. In Toy Story 3 the team has struggled and become a family and that deep and abiding bond gets them through the prison that is the daycare center.

So what about Toy Story 4? What is left to learn? Well, to answer that question we have to think about the nature of toys in this universe. As far as I can tell their sentience is eternal. They have no bodily fluids so arms can be removed, they can be reassembled into new toys without any reduction to their sentience. This leads us to the question of how can Pixar retire the toys if they can’t be killed?

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We could leave Woody to be played with by Bonnie but doesn’t that lead to the same cycle over and over again? Is that a happy ending for our friends? There has to be a way for them to progress or what once gave them joy (playing with a child) will become miserable. I think the people at Pixar realized this and that Toy Story 3 could not be the actual ending for these characters because as happy as it was for Bonnie it wasn’t really a happy ending for Woody.

So, that’s where we get to Toy Story 4. As an old cowboy doll Woody is not a favorite toy of Bonnie. She is kind to her toys but prefers other toys like playing with Jessie. One day she goes to kindergarten and makes a toy out of trash she calls Forky. Creating her own toy seems to give her comfort during the scary time of a new school and she loves Forky dearly. Woody sees this and decides to watch over Forky and make sure it learns how to be a toy for Bonnie (a thing it rejects as it isn’t used to being sentient). Basically Woody becomes Forky’s father, and like a baby rejects things that are good for it, so does Forky.

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Woody decides that taking care of Forky is his new role in the bedroom. He even says at one point that ‘it’s all I have left’. He knows his playing days are minimal and this is the most important thing he can do to help Bonnie. He even jumps out of a moving car window in order to help save Forky. (This is quite different than his response in Toy Story. He would have been happy to see Buzz in the trash back then).

Eventually Forky and Woody end up in an antique store in a small town where to their surprise they run into an old friend Bo Peep. She had been given away by Molly (Andy’s sister) years before and to Woody’s surprise she has figured out a whole new way to live. She’s strong, confident and happy with an almost pirate-like existence. She still gets to be played with at the park but as she says ‘I am not lost’. Every day she determines her destiny and how she is going to contribute to the world.

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At first Woody is shocked by this and has difficulty understanding her way of living. But as the mechanics of the plot go forward he starts to see how independent Bo is which is very attractive and eye-opening. Most of the shenanigans with Gabby Gabby and Duke Caboom are fun in their own right but more importantly they are opportunities for Woody’s room-based view of the world to expand.

That’s not to say these events aren’t amusing because they are absolutely hilarious. Duck and Bunny in particular create some of the funniest sequences in the history of the Toy Story franchise. There are also some decent scares from the ventriloquist dummies named Benson and a lot of beautifully animated action while saving Forky. I also appreciated that Gabbby Gabby wasn’t a surprise villain like we’ve gotten so often from Disney lately. Her story was more of a surprise hero, which was really sweet in the end.

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But all that fun isn’t going to be enough if Woody is back in the closet at Bonnie’s rarely being played with. That’s no way to end our hero’s story! Just as the toys became a family in Toy Story 3, they, led by Buzz, understand that part of being a family is letting our loved ones follow their dreams. We send our children off to college or on a mission knowing our world’s are never going to be the same but we know it is what is best for them. We send them on their way with a hope and a prayer that they will be ok but we also let them know that everything at home will ‘be ok’. Such is the case with Woody and Buzz.

‘Bonnie will be ok’ Buzz tells Woody. In other words ‘go and have your adventure. Everything at home will be ok. We love you’. So off Woody goes and Buzz and friends stay behind to make sure they keep their promise to Woody. It’s no surprise the toys learn to listen to their inner voice throughout the story because goodbyes are hard (I just had one with my Grandma’s funeral this weekend) and it is only through a lot of practice do we have the spiritual strength to help our loved ones go down their path no matter how badly we will miss them.

A perfect ending to a story that started with our friend only thinking of himself. Well done Pixar. Well done.

A+

smile worthy