Nope, There’s the Kitchen Sink, Too

The phrase “everything but the kitchen sink” has been around for at least a century. It means grabbing everything you can, overloading, filling something to overflowing. However, it doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation. If you’re on the receiving end, a deal where you get everything but the kitchen sink is great for you, though it might be overwhelming. The phrase came back to me as I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

The first Guardians film was a mammoth sleeper hit. Even though it was part of the Marvel Universe, it literally was far out on the edge with little to tie it to Ironman, Captain America, et al. Even the tag of Thor that introduced Benitio del Toro’s Collector featured two secondary Asgardians rather than the Thunder Lord himself. Chris Pratt was known more for his comedic turn on “Parks and Rec” and was definitely not thought of in beefcake terms. While Zoe Saldana is beautiful and talented, it’s not that easy being green. Former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista had only done a few movies where he was mostly featured for his physique. And arguably the two best-known actors in the cast, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, were voices for CGI characters, including one who said only three words.

But it worked. After an opening that ripped your gut emotionally, it switched to the pure joy of comedic action during the opening credits. And it did benefit from a truly awesome mix of songs from the 1970s and 1980s. Writer/director James Gunn had paid his dues with some schlocky material, including scripting two Scooby-Doo movies, but he’d also shown his humor with the comedic/horror film Slither and the superhero deconstruction Super. He let the film flow from action to farce to tenderness to humor to heart-tugging emotion. It became the third highest grossing film of 2014, and beat out Captain America: The Winter Soldier as the most successful Marvel movie that year in the US, though Cap took the worldwide box office.

But you don’t get to fly under the radar twice. There was a huge amount of pressure on Gunn to match or beat the success of the original movie, and he had a budget twice as large to work with. It could have been a situation like The Matrix: the original a sleeper hit, the subsequent movies bigger and louder, but with plots that, to be charitable, were piles of mush. The good news is that Gunn’s blasted through the expectations and created an enjoyable movie that recaptures the feel of the original while going a bit deeper. The first movie was about five disparate characters merging into a family. Volume 2 is about how you bind that family into a unit, and about picking up a few cousins along the way.

Needless to say there are growing pains. The movie opens with a short piece from Earth in 1980, showing Meredith Quill with her spaceman boyfriend. Fast forward to the present day with the Guardians hired by the Sovereign race to protect the Anulax batteries from a rampaging monster. Most of the battle takes place in the background while Baby Groot rocks out to “Mr. Blue Sky” by the Electric Light Orchestra, which definitely belongs on an awesome mix tape. In exchange for protecting the batteries, the Sovereign High Priestess, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), gives the Guardians Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillian) for the price on her head. However, Rocket figures since the batteries are right there, unprotected except by the Guardians, he might as well take them. The Sovereign don’t take kindly to it and send a huge drone force to destroy the Guardians. Their ship sustains major damage, but they’re saved by the arrival of Peter’s father, riding on a white egg-shaped spacecraft. The group separates with Peter, Gamora, and Drax accompanying Ego (Kurt Russell) and his companion, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to Ego’s planet. Rocket and Baby Groot remain to repair the ship, unaware that the Ravagers who kidnapped Peter from earth have rebelled against their leader, Yondo (Michael Rooker) and are coming for the Guardians at the behest of Ayesha and the Sovereigns.

The kitchen sink comes into play on individual sequences, such as one where Baby Groot is asked to find a piece of equipment that will help Rocket and Yondo escape the Ravagers. It goes on and on, dancing perilously close to becoming repetitive and boring, but just when it’s about to tip over the edge Gunn cuts it and leads into a massive battle sequence.

Strangely enough, the two outstanding characters in the film are Yondo and Nebula. For Nebula, she gets to work out her issues of being the least liked daughter with Gomora. Of course, with these characters the “working out” is a prolonged battle that nearly kills both of them. For Yondo, he gets to rise to true hero status.

This is a movie you’ll likely want to see multiple times, just to catch what you missed the first time through, or the second, or the third. The final credits are another kitchen sink moment, with six – count ‘em, six! – tags, plus extras salted into the credits, including lines that say “I am Groot” that eventually are translated into an actual credit.

Volume 2 satisfies. Go ahead and watch it – a few times.

Not Enough Promise

There have been excellent movies that dealt with genocide. For the Holocaust, there’s Schindler’s List, Shoah, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Au Revoir Les Enfants, among many others. The Rwandan genocide had the powerful Hotel Rwanda, and for the Cambodian “Year Zero” cleansing there was The Killing Fields. Curiously, one genocide has never been the subject of a movie: The Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Turks during and after World War I. A million and a half Armenians were wiped out by the Turkish authorities, a full three/quarters of the population. Worse, the genocide became a template for the Holocaust. Part of the reason Hitler thought he could get away with his elimination of the Jews was how Turkey killed off the Armenians with little interference from other countries. To this day, the Turkish government officially denies that there was ever any genocide in spite of overwhelming evidence. Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide” in 1943 was thinking of Armenia when he did it. Later he explained, “…it happened so many times… It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians Hitler took action.”

The recently-released movie The Promise was an attempt to right that oversight. The producer behind the film was legendary businessman and ethnic Armenian Kirk Kerkorian. The movie-real estate-casino mogul hired the director of Hotel Rwanda, Terry George, to work magic a second time to tell the story of how the Armenians were purged from the Ottoman Empire after having been a part of it for five hundred years. (Historic Armenia was in the eastern part of Turkey and crossed over the border into Russia’s southernmost region.) I’d love to report The Promise fulfilled the hopes of Kerkorian, who died in 2015 well before the movie was filmed. Sadly, I can’t.

The $90-million dollar production had the resources, and the locations, set decorations, and costuming are first-class. George recruited an excellent slate of performers, including Oscar Isaacs, Charlotte Le Bon (The Hundred-Foot Journey), Christian Bale, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Angela Sarafyan (“Westworld”), Jean Reno, and James Cromwell.

The problem is the events get lost under a pedestrian romantic triangle. The film offers only the vaguest explanation of why the extermination broke out. It gives no context to the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of modern Turkey, including the youthful Army officers who staged a coup d’état in 1908 to remove the Ottoman sultan and set up a constitutional monarchy instead. (They’ve forever given the name of “Young Turks” to youthful insurrectionists in business.) There’s also little illumination given to the actual massacre, which featured death marches, concentration camps, mass burnings, and poisonings.

Instead, we have Isaacs as the small-town druggist Mikael who manages to make it to medical school in Constantinople by using the dowry he received for becoming betrothed to Maral (Sarafyan). There he lives with his uncle, a wealthy merchant, and comes into contact with Ana (Le Bon), the daughter of a world-renowned musician who is teaching dance to the merchant’s children. Ana, though, is in a relationship with American newspaperman Chris Myers (Bale). It’s both romantic and professional, as Ana is a skilled artist and illustrates the stories Chris writes. Turkey enters the war in 1914 on the side of the Germans, and on April 24, 1915, the deportation of 250-plus Armenian intellectuals signals the beginning of the genocide. (George and his co-writer, Robin Swicord, completely ignore that this coincided with the attempt by the Allied naval forces to break through the Dardenelles, which led to the failed land campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula.)

The characters are simplistic and unconvincing, in particular Bale who ping pongs between the ugly American and the crusading news reporter. Bale’s character could have been a conduit for explaining the why of the events, but that chance is squandered. The movie also gives short shift to American Ambassador Henry Morganthau Sr. (Cromwell) who did much to alert the world to the genocide and organize relief for the survivors. He’s given one short scene, where his function is mostly to save Bale’s character.

The Promise is a disappointment. Hopefully someone will undertake a novel or a movie that does do justice to this horrible episode of history. The Promise missed its chance.

The Ultimate Haunted House Story

A classic subgenre of horror is the haunted house, where people are caught in a building with an evil force of some kind that means them harm. A classic novel of this genre would be Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It’s even more popular for horror movies, with a great example being Robert Wise’s adaptation of Jackson’s story, 1963’s The Haunting. (The remake in 1999 is an example of the worse of the genre.) Other good examples include two adaptations of Stephen King stories, The Shining and 1408, and 1973’s The Legend of Hell House, based on a Richard Matheson novel adapted by the author. In 1979, Ridley Scott blended the conventions of the haunted house with science fiction for the original Alien. Now there’s a new sci-fi/horror hybrid: Life.

In the near future, six astronauts on the International Space Station prepare to capture a probe returning from Mars with samples from the planet’s surface. The ISS astronauts are themselves an international group, with a Russian commanding officer, Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). British containment specialist Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) must ensure the station isn’t contaminated by the samples, while another Brit, botanist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), will examine what the soil contains. The weightlessness of space is especially good for Derry, who is a paraplegic. The crew is rounded out by Japanese systems specialist Sho Murikami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and two Yanks, pilot Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) and senior medical officer David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Adams manages to trap the probe, and the samples are transferred to a lab on the station and placed in an isolation box. Derry introduces other factors to the samples including atmosphere and water, and is rewarded by the growth of a tiny organism. Children at a school in the United States are given the honor of naming the first example of life outside our world, and they call it “Calvin.” Derry’s fascinated by Calvin, whose individual cells are capable of multiple functions. At first Calvin looks like a delicate flower, but as it grows it shows it will do anything to survive.

Director Daniel Espinosa had worked with Ryan Reynolds before, on the hit thriller Safe House in 2012. Espinosa’s follow-up, Child 44 (based on Tom Rob Smith’s acclaimed novel), died at the box office in spite of the presence of Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, and several other distinguished actors. It only managed a 25% score on Rotten Tomatoes. He’s recovered his mojo with Life, certified fresh on RT. The action moves smoothly from twist to twist as the suspense is ratcheted up with each scene.

Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have often blended comedy with thrills, having done 2009’s Zombieland and then last year’s mega-hit Deadpool. With Life they play it straight, and they also play it realistic. In a way they’ve taken their cue from The Martian. The space station has limited resources for the astronauts that can’t simply be replaced by the writer playing God. It’s not like the westerns where a gunfighter might shoot off twenty rounds without reloading his six-shooter.

Another point of realism is with the interaction of the cast. While Gyllenhaal, Reynolds, and Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) are established stars – and get their pictures on the poster – they blend into a unit with Dihovichnaya, Bakare, and Sanada.

Life definitely owes a debt to Alien, though the overall feel of the movies is different. One interesting connection is that Ridley Scott produced Espinosa’s Child 44. While they stand separate, Life does remind you of the power and effectiveness of Alien before it got diluted by Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, and Prometheus. Perhaps Alien: Covenant later this year will recapture some of the original’s Life.

The Newest Tale As Old As Time

When Howard Ashman began the titular song of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast with the line “Tale as old as time…,” it wasn’t an exaggeration. Elements of the story can be found in tales 4000 years old, though the most direct link would be the story of Psyche and Cupid from the 2nd Century AD book “Metamophoses” by Platonicus. The modern form dates from France in the mid-1700s, with “La Belle et la Bête” by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, though other authors have added their own touches to the story since then. It’s been filmed many times, including Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la Bête, and has spawned a couple TV series. The best version, though, has to be Disney’s 1991 animated feature – the first animated movie to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination. I wrote a full post on it after its re-release in 3D six years ago, and it remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Now I must add an asterisk to that statement. If anything, the new live action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is better.

This is the third live action version of a classic Disney animated movie to come to the theaters. Tim Burton started it with his Alice in Wonderland, then Kenneth Branagh did a sparkling non-musical version of Cinderella in 2015. The studio is planning a full slate of adaptations, with the next one to be Mulan next year. (Currently the plan is for it also to be a non-musical.) While I was looking forward to Beauty and the Beast, I admit I had a bit of trepidation as well. The 1991 version brought me to tears in the theater, and I still can’t watch it without choking up at the climax. But the new version isn’t just a hit; it slammed in the center of the bull’s-eye.

Part of it is the casting. I’m now convinced that Emma Watson really is a wizard who’s cast a spell beguiling us. Her singing is just as wonderful as her acting, and her intelligence shines brightly in the character. Luke Evans (Fast and Furious 6, The Hobbit trilogy) manages to make meta-villain Gaston realistic and definitely threatening, while Josh Gad’s version of LeFou is delightful and definitely deeper than the 1991 version. Dan Stevens probably is most known as Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” though now it will be for his performance as The Beast. Even with the massive makeup, you still see through to the Beast’s soul. The film has an overabundance of riches in its supporting characters. The castle is populated with Ian McKellan, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. A special delight for me was Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, Maurice.

Another benefit comes from the highly-successful Broadway version that expands the story from the 1991 film’s original 84 minutes. (The new version runs 129 minutes; there are a couple of places where the flow of the story slows a bit, but they’re minor hiccups.) Music from the Broadway version has been incorporated, with lyrics by Tim Rice to music by original composer Alan Menken, and the story has been fleshed out in other ways as well.

The adaptation was done by Stephen Chbosky, who wrote “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” which he both adapted for the movie version and directed. Chbosky had also done the adaptation of Rent, so he’s worked in the musical genre before.  He collaborated with Evan Spiliotopoulos who’d done multiple direct-to-video scripts for Disney and was well-acquainted with the studio’s style. Some of the story departs from the 1991 film and instead incorporates pieces from the 18th Century versions, in particular Maurice’s experience in the Beast’s castle, and expands Belle’s background. They also add some wicked quips, including one referencing the permanent winter surrounding the castle which passes without comment in the animated version.

Director Bill Condon, too, has worked with movie adaptations of musicals before, writing the script for Chicago as well as writing and directing Dreamgirls in 2006. He’d also won an Oscar for his 1998 script of Gods and Monsters, which he directed. Condon isn’t constrained by the visuals of the original. He pays tribute to them occasionally, such as during the “Bonjour” sequence as well as Belle’s “I want adventure” reprise, but overall he smartly reimagines the scenes and sets so they work in the live-action realm.

There was a kerfuffle amongst some conservatives when it was announced a character would be openly gay – no points for guessing which one. It truly is a tempest in Mrs. Potts. Nothing in the film is more objectionable than in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons from seventy-five years ago. They were a bit edgier than Disney, but they were funny then and are still funny today. Also, it’s rather ridiculous to be upset about a gay character in a film about a girl and a horned beast falling deeply in love. Beauty and the Beast is all about seeing the heart and not the externals.

What’s more poignant is why the character’s orientation was included. The lyricist of the 1991 movie, Howard Ashman, was openly gay. He could turn a phrase as well as any of the giants of musical theater, such as Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, or Alan Jay Lerner. With his composer partner, Alan Menken, they’d created the musical version of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Following that, Disney had them compose the songs for The Little Mermaid, the movie that established the new age of Disney animated brilliance. Beauty and the Beast was their masterpiece, but strangely enough it almost didn’t happen. The film was originally written as a non-musical. Ashman and Menken were working on what was supposed to be their follow-up – Aladdin – when Disney execs asked them to save Beauty and the Beast as the production was going nowhere. But during that time Ashman was diagnosed as HIV-positive. It progressed to full-blown AIDS, and Ashman died eight months before Beauty and the Beast was released. That film bears the dedication “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.” The inclusion of a gay character in the live-action remake was a tribute to Ashman.

As most know, Beauty and the Beast demolished the box office records for a March release, racking up over $170 million domestically and passing $300 million worldwide in its first weekend. But for me, its success was me sitting in my seat in the theater with tears streaming down my cheeks at the film’s climax. I knew it was coming, but still I was overwhelmed. I sat in the theater to the end of the credits to give myself time to recover.

When a movie can touch people in the audience with that power, it is truly something beautiful.

The Second Book of Job

Most people are acquainted with the beginning and the end of the Biblical story of Job. They know about God letting the Accuser, Satan, test Job’s devotion through all manner of calamities. (The book reflects an earlier Hebrew understanding of Satan as a servant of God, before influences from cultures that conquered Israel turned it into an adversarial relationship.) Job passes the test and has all he’s lost restored to him plus more beside. In between, though, there are 36 chapters of dialogue between Job and three of his friends – though with friends like these you don’t need enemies. They’re convinced that Job has sinned, because why else would all these calamities happen to him, and they basically tag-team Job to get him to confess. Job resists and keeps his faith in God. In the end God re-enters the scene, puts everyone in their place, and honors Job’s faithfulness. In a way, you could think of the new movie The Shack, and the book on which it’s based, as a different version of Job. In this case the calamities have broken Job’s faith, and instead of facing unhelpful friends, Job goes directly to an encounter with the Trinitarian God to gain understanding of suffering and grace.

Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) grew up in the church, but it was a toxic relationship. His father, a church elder, was a closet drunk and wife-beater. Mack breaks his silence in the church to help his mother, but instead of receiving help he ends up being beaten himself by his father. A couple of decades later, the adult Mack is living in Oregon. He’s married to a wonderful woman, Nan (Radha Mitchell), and they have three beautiful children: Kate (Megan Charpentier), Josh (Gage Munroe), and Missy (Amelie Eve). They attend church with their neighbor Willie (Tim McGraw), and Nan and the children have a close relationship with God, who Missy calls Papa. Then, while the kids are camping with Mack, Missy is kidnapped. The FBI believes she’s been taken by a predator who’s struck five times before. While canvassing the area, they find Missy’s dress and blood on the floor of a dilapidated shack, but her body’s never found.

By that winter, Mack is a shell of a man, devoured by his grief. Then a note appears in his mailbox, addressed to Mack only by name. It says they haven’t talked for a long time and if he’d like to meet, then come to the shack the next weekend. It’s signed Papa. Mack goes to the shack, wondering if it’s a ploy by the man who took Missy. Instead as he approaches the building he steps from winter into a beautiful summer day and finds the shack changed into a lakefront cottage. Inside are Papa (Octavia Spencer), Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush), and Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara).

It took ten years for this bestseller to make it to the screen. At one point Lionsgate was the primary production company, and Forest Whitaker was attached as director. Summit Entertainment took over for Lionsgate, though they’re still a distributor. Whitaker dropped out and Stuart Hazeldine was selected instead. Hazeldine was known mostly as a script doctor, having done uncredited rewrites for Knowing and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but he’d also received good reviews for his debut feature, a psychological thriller entitled Exam. The Shack had a modest budget for a major US feature these days – $20 million – and Hazeldine makes it look like he had five times the money with which to work. The screenwriters – John Fusco (Hidalgo), Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Lanham – created an adaptation that is remarkably faithful to the original book.

Worthington, Spencer, Mitchell, and McGraw are all well-known and bring a competency to the movie that is too often missing from what’s identified as Christian film. Often that’s used as an excuse: “It’s a good film for a Christian movie.” The Shack doesn’t need that qualifier; it’s a good film that happens to deal with Christianity (more on that later). Spencer is wonderful as the personification of God throughout most of the film, in particular for her ability to deliver witty zingers to Mack while still communicating deep love. I will note two minor quibbles with Worthington: early in the film, he shows Mack’s depression by speaking so softly you can hardly hear him; later, when emotions come out, so does a trace of his Australian accent. Otherwise, he was effective in a challenging role.

The film also features Graham Greene and Alice Braga in smaller roles, though they are integral to the story. A pleasant surprise was the performances of Avraham Aviv Alush and Sumire Matsubara as Jesus and the Holy Spirit respectively. (Sarayu, the name used for Matsubara’s character, is the Sanskrit word for “wind,” which is how the Spirit is described in the Bible.) Alush is an Israeli actor who’s blessedly natural in the role. He’s also not blond or blue-eyed, which is a large step toward authenticity in my humble opinion. Matsubara comes across at first as delicate and ephemeral, but later we also see her strength. Megan Charpentier is also excellent as the daughter who comes close to following her father’s path.

Usually films dealing with Christianity or the Bible wind up at two ends of the spectrum:  faithful but amateur, or high-end mush. This can be seen in a couple recent releases. On the faithful amateur side there’s God’s Not Dead, with its stiff acting, cardboard characters, and a script that had the subtlety of a 2×4 to the head. (You could also include any film that Kirk Cameron’s done in the last two decades.) On the other side you have high-budget Hollywood pictures that make a complete mess of the story, like the Russell Crowe Noah or Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. The satirical site the Babylon Bee recently ran a story that the Oscars would hand out an award for the least-offensive Christian movie this year. “Academy members reportedly sat through hours of grueling Christian films in an effort to select the one that was the least offensive in terms of quality, production value, writing, and acting.” As with all satire, it’s just a little bit past reality.

The Shack charts a different course by dealing realistically with problems that so many people face – problems that have driven people away from God. The old question that sums up the stumbling block for many people is, “How can God be a God of Love when He lets these horrible things happen?” The Shack confronts that question straight on, in a way that is both spiritually valid, and emotionally raw. The author has said that the shack is a metaphor for the soul.

The book was written by William P. Young as a way back from his own spiritual nadir. He’d been a missionary kid in Papua New Guinea, living among the cannibal tribes until he was six and sent off to boarding school. At the school there was systematic abuse, a Protestant version of the Catholic priest scandals, and Young was a victim. While he was outwardly okay with a wife and family, inside he was broken and reached bottom after having an affair with one of this wife’s friends. He wrote “The Shack” over the course of six years as he struggled with the nature of God in light of what had happened to him. When he finished, he printed copies and gave them to his family as a literary mea culpa. Following that, he tried to get it published. Twenty-six publishers rejected it, so Young self-published. Word of mouth pushed it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list for trade paperback novels, with it selling over 4 million copies in a little over a year. Young now has an arrangement with the major publishing house Hachette.

While many have embraced the story, there has also been a strong negative reaction to it among Evangelical Christians. Some object to its portrayal of God as a black woman and the Holy Spirit as a mysterious asian woman; they claim it promotes feminism, or a form of goddess worship. Others say it’s just a novel or just a movie but it shouldn’t be taken in a theological way. A professor at a conservative Christian college in Portland wrote an article about the book calling it “the greatest deception foisted on the church in the last 200 years.” His main problem with it is termed “universalism” which is the idea that all humanity can be saved by God. (It’s the same controversy that caused the Evangelical church to disown Rob Bell when he published “Love Wins.”)

There is a strong strain of paternalism in some branches of Christianity. The thought that God could exhibit female traits strikes them as heresy, even though in the gospel of Matthew Jesus says of the people of Jerusalem, “…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” This insistence on the dominant male God has become a stumbling block for many today who, because of abuse or other family problems, cannot relate to the idea of God as a loving father. In fact, Papa explains to Mack that that’s the reason for her form. (Later in the movie, Octavia is replaced by Graham Greene for a sequence because, as Papa then tells Mack, “For what you face now you need a father.”) For me, my answer for this is: If you proclaim God as omnipotent – all powerful – then why limit God by your own prejudices?

While The Shack is written as a novel and presented as a film entertainment, that doesn’t negate it as a source of theological thought and reflection. For many, the novels of C.S. Lewis, such as the Narnia series or “The Screwtape Letters,” are as much theological commentary on life as they are novels. And it should be remembered that almost all of the popular imagery of heaven and hell comes not from the Bible but from Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” written in 1320.

Universalism flies in the face of conservative Christianity because of their strong focus on sin and repentance. It has its seed in the Protestant Reformation, which was partially the result of the Renaissance Popes monetarizing grace through the selling of indulgences – basically “Get out of Hell Free” cards. As happens, reactions can go far to the other side of the spectrum. Later in the Reformation some put forward the idea of predestination, that a person is formed as righteous or fallen before birth and there’s nothing they can do about it. That teaching has pretty much gone the way of the dodo, but some believers are offended at the idea that people they consider horrible sinners could still receive grace from God.

The Shack, though, features a sparkling explanation of grace and redemption through the course of the film. The answers it gives aren’t easy or simple, since the questions aren’t easy or simple either. But for those who bring up universalism as their complaint against the film, they should remember that after the rich young ruler went sorrowfully away in the gospel, the disciples wondered how anyone could be saved. Jesus’ response was. “For man some things are impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Again, we shouldn’t let our human understanding and prejudices shrink God down to our size.

So some Christians will be upset that The Shack doesn’t fit their notion of God. I heard someone created a meme with a picture of the shack along with every heresy they believe the story contains. Other Christians will find it illuminating and affirming (I’m one of those). The focus is on restoration and renewal of the relationship between Mack and Papa, and through that the restoration of the reader/viewer’s concept of God. Throughout the movie, the dialogue gives you plenty to think about, but it goes down like a cup of fresh, cold water.

But what if you feel like you are a Job, burdened and broken? What if you’ve lost any belief in God, or have turned away because God now seems to be the mascot of politics and of those who put condemnation before love or grace? What if you know your own shack is run down and hardly habitable, but you see no way to repair it? Then please do see this movie.

Third Time’s The Charm

I’ve often lamented that in a movie trilogy, the first one’s often good, the second’s better, and then the third turns out to be a load of crap. Superheroes are particularly at risk of this. After two decent films, the Christopher Reeve Superman series added Richard Pryor to the third movie and jumped the shark bigtime. Val Kilmer’s turn as Batman was a step down, with Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones not just chewing the scenery but ripping it apart with their teeth. Tobey Maguire in Spider-man 3 actually made me cringe – twice! And then there’s X-Men: The Last Stand. It almost was for the series.

But the Wolverine movies have flipped the script. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was awful, though it did serve a purpose by so badly mauling Deadpool’s character that Ryan Reynolds had to make his own movie. 2013’s The Wolverine was better, though the ending was a mess. But now with Logan, the series has its strongest outing with Hugh Jackman’s last turn in the title role. It’s not the best superhero movie ever, but it’s really good, and Jackman gets to go out with a bang.

By 2029, the world of the X-Men has collapsed with most of the mutants gone after years without new mutant births. Those left hide in the substrata of society. Logan (Jackman) works as a limo driver, ferrying drunk bachelorette parties and rude businessmen around El Paso, Texas. He lives on the Mexican side of the border in a deserted factory with an enfeebled Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose once-all-powerful mind is breaking down, and the albino Caliban (Stephan Merchant), who nurses Charles while Logan works.

On a funeral job, Logan is approached by Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), seeking his help for a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen). Gabriela wants to get Laura to North Dakota near the Canadian border, to a fabled sanctuary for mutants called Eden. She tells Logan that Laura is just like him, a description that’s soon confirmed. But Logan’s also approached by Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a smooth-talking mercenary with a mechanical left forearm and hand. Pierce works for Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant) and has been tasked with cleaning up a mess. Part of the mess is Laura.

As with The Wolverine, James Mangold directs. He also came up with the story and co-wrote the script with Michael Green, who’s currently bringing Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” to Starz, and Scott Frank, who’d scripted The Wolverine and who also did Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Minority Report. They keep the film tightly focused while the action flows like waves throughout the movie, building to the climax. One interesting aspect to the story is they’ve incorporated the comic book world into the plot, as if the comics were inspired by the real characters. It actually works.

Over the course of 17 years and 9 movies, Jackman’s Wolverine has become the iconic character in the X-Men series – an evaluation with which Deadpool would definitely agree. He’s always exciting to watch, even with his one-profane-line cameo in X-Men: First Class. Here though he plays a much more human and humane version of the character, facing mortality for the first time. Likewise, Patrick Stewart gets to play Professor Xavier as King Lear, betrayed not by family but by his own mind. As Laura, Dafne Keen is a fitting foil for Jackman. She’s the daughter of Will Keen, who’s mostly appeared on British TV series such as “Wolf Hall” (as Thomas Cranmer) and the recent Netflix hit “The Crown.” Laura is a key role to make the film work, and Keen owns it.

The production benefited by following in Deadpool’s wake, since that movie proved that a superhero film didn’t have to be constrained to fit a PG-13 rating. Logan earns its R rating with hard-edged action beyond what’s been seen in the X-Men franchise thus far. It’s not gratuitous but fits with the life-or-death stakes in the story.

Wolverine was Jackman’s first role outside of Australia, and it was only a scheduling conflict for the actor originally cast in the role, Dougray Scott, that allowed Jackman’s casting 3 weeks after shooting began. Now he’s conquered stage and screen (and Deadpool’s heart) and is a major star. It’s fitting that he gets to give a farewell performance in the role.

I’ve mentioned Deadpool several times during this review, partly because in a number of venues a teaser trailer for his next film is attached to Logan. It’s also on YouTube and can be viewed here. Minor spoiler: the scroll at the end is a book report on “The Old Man and the Sea” as written by Deadpool. Enjoy.

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“Based on a True Story” can be a warning that the filmmakers have taken so many liberties the “true” of the story has been lost. On the other side of the equation, it can instead tell the audience that an unbelievable story actually did happen. Lion is an example of the latter.

In 1986, 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives in a village in western India with his mother, older brother, and younger sister. It’s a hard life – Saroo assists his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) in stealing coal off a moving train to barter for milk – but they are a loving, close family. When Guddu heads for a job in a nearby town, Saroo talks his brother into taking him along to work. But when they arrive Saroo is too tired and only wants to sleep. Guddu leaves him on a bench at the town’s train station, with the admonition not to go anywhere.

Saroo awakens to find the station completely deserted. A group of railway passenger cars have been left on a siding, and Saroo enters a car to find a better place to sleep. When he awakens, the cars have been locked and hooked to a train headed to the main railroad yards in Calcutta, 1600 kilometers away. Saroo manages to survive in the city, though not without several close calls, in particular from people who exploit the city’s street children. Through good fortune he’s adopted by an Australian couple and moves to Hobart, Tasmania.

Twenty years later, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel), is still close to his adoptive mother and father, John & Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), and has a romance blooming with Lucy (Rooney Mara) whom he met at hotel management school. At a party with others students of Indian descent, a plate of food releases memories of his lost life. He only knew his mother as “mama” – no proper name – and what he remembered as the name of his home village didn’t match anything on the maps. About all he remembers as a landmark are water towers by the train station. One of the party goers suggests using a new computer program to backtrack his route. The program: Google Earth. (Google assisted the production, including providing images from the time frame of the film.)

This is the first feature for Garth Davis, an internationally acclaimed director of commercials. The screenplay by Luke Davies, based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiography, splits the movie into two almost equal pieces between the young Saroo and his later quest to find his family. Davis, assisted by cinematographer Greg Fraser, captures both India and Tasmania in a rich, intimate way. While Davis and Davies hadn’t done much feature film work before Lion, Fraser is one of the preeminent directors of photography in Australia. In the last decade his films include Rogue One, Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher and Let Me In.

This is a more mature performance from Dev Patel, who became a star with Slumdog Millionaire, followed by both Best Exotic Marigold Hotel pictures as well as appearing in HBO’s “The Newsroom.” He gets top billing, though he doesn’t appear until the last half of the film. However, he makes the most of his time and deserves the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination he’s received, as well as the win in that category at the BAFTA awards. While he’s tended toward gawky characters in previous projects, this could be the beginning of beefcake roles for Patel who shows smoldering good looks and a buff physique.

Nicole Kidman is also nominated (Best Supporting Actress) for her restrained but deeply felt performance. At the end of the film we see real footage of the real Sue Brierley and realize Kidman nailed the embodiment. But the major delight is Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo. The camera reads his emotions like a book. In his first role he holds together the first half of the movie, and hold it he does.

I don’t know if this Sunday night will bring any golden statues for Lion. Along with Patel and Kidman, Davies and Fraser are nominated along with the film’s score, plus a Best Picture nod. The picture, though, has aimed to have an effect long after the lights go up in the theater. In India, 80,000 children go missing each year. It’s the equivalent of losing the population of Indianapolis each year. There are also 11 million children on the streets of India, roughly equivalent to the combined population of New York and Los Angeles. The film’s production companies, See Saw Productions and the Weinstein Company, have launched the LionHeart foundation with the Charity Network to help India’s street children.

I do suggest you bring along a tissue or two when you see Lion.