Labor Day

For listeners of the James T. Harris show – I honestly didn’t hate this movie as much as it sounded like! Actually, I just had too many opportunities to poke fun at it.

So, here’s the real skinny.

click to watch trailer

Labor Day is based on a book, for those of you who don’t know, written by Joyce Maynard. It’s clear that the movie is based on a larger story. Throughout the movie I kept thinking to myself that there is a personal story on the cusp of coming to the surface. In many scenes, it seemed the heart of the story almost burst through the narration and lingering Terrance Malike-esque montages.

The problem, as I suspected from watching the movie trailers, is the movie burdens itself unnecessarily by making one of it’s key players, Frank, an escaped convict. This might be more of an indictment on the book itself, which I haven’t read. Regardless, the audience is asked to suspend disbelief concerning the relationships of the main characters, who do not have a clear motivation to help the audience buy into a monumental life change taking place over a long weekend.

Escaped convict Frank hijacks the fragile home life of Adele, a severely depressed single mom (Winslet) and her 15 year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith) struggling with feelings of abandonment. The audience is asked to believe that the romance between Frank and Adele is somehow natural, not stockholm’s syndrome.

Henry, who is our protagonist, bears the guilt of failure his father is too cowardly to accept. The parallels between Frank’s physical imprisonment and Adele’s psychological and emotional burdens are obvious, though never personally explored.  The suburban setting seems appropriate and helps set the stage for each of the characters to expose the others’ internal conflicts, while they depend on each to be free of their past guilt or shame. But all this is talked-around more than shown.

It’s just not clear in the movie exactly what the point of all this is. This is the result of the shortened timeline incurred by the fact that Frank is using this family to hide from authorities until he can escape. Is Frank truly innocent, just the man Henry and Adele need? Or is he manipulating them? The elephant in the room is never addressed, and the movie spends the bulk of its time avoiding this tension by creating romanticized comfort-food scenes. In short, the story treats its own dramatic tension as a burden, rather than a means of developing its own characters to the full potential they clearly posses.

It wasn’t that the movie was terrible, rather unfinished. It seems as though it has something personal to convey, and just hadn’t the words for it… yet. It often comes close, but never gets over the problem of having a love story develop out of thin air. If, for example, Frank had been introduced as a man who had served his time but was a social outcast who never had the opportunity to prove his innocence, we might have something.

Having said that, Adele’s past is gradually revealed. But this is done through flashbacks, and the crucial elements that might have explained her love for her captor are introduced late. By this time, the audience has assumed Adele’s motives are never going to be made clear. That’s a shame, a scene or two could have revealed enough of her painful past to clue in the audience and narration could have been skipped altogether.

Labor Day asks its audience to do too much heavy lifting in the absence of clear personal motives for its very well-played characters. It could have been great, but turns out mediocre.

Gimme Shelter

Gimme Shelter tells the story of Agnes, a 16 year-old runaway. Agnes flees her abusive, drug-addicted mother to seek refuge from Tom, her ultra-rich, absent father.

Tom welcomes her only so that he can move on with his own life as quickly as possible. His family sees her as the only blight in their mansion, but eventually Tom wants to be the kind of man that cares for his illegitimate daughter.

Tom’s wife, however, is cajoling and tries to keep her life comfortable. The hypocrisy is too much even for stubborn Agnes. She’d already had enough reminders of how inconvenient she is. She would have run away if it weren’t for the morning sickness.

Being scrutinized in a clinic is even worse than living in her father’s mansion, but she had to be certain and the sonogram confirmed the pregnancy test. To Agnes, the heartbeat was a ticking clock and the clinic could stop it from counting down.

Agnes’s mother kept her as a kind of life-support and desperately wanted a grandchild for a second chance at life. Agnes wanted out of that life, desperately. She might have silenced the ticking clock inside her, but then she saw the pictures.

They did not show a wound-up clock, counting down the months until what was left of potential in Agnes’s life was taken from her; it was a baby with an already-beating heart, just as vulnerable and trusting as Agnes had once been. Agnes was forced to trust herself, as her baby was.

The choice is overwhelming and Agnes flees, this time into the streets, no direction, just away. She sleeps in a car, rummages for food through dumpsters, becomes the target of a man soliciting for prostitutes and ends up in a hospital.

Every time she wakes in a bed with clean white sheets, her shame is magnified and she hates the help for making her aware of herself again. This is where the movie does an excellent job of showing Agnes’s tension, and that of all the girls in her shelter.

You see, Agnes and the pregnant teens living with her were those that need help from everyone else. They were used to being looked upon as hopeless, useless, ugly; the result of someone’s once-in-a-lifetime mistake, whose clock should have been silenced before it became a heartbeat. This belief became their belief too, confirmed by the cruelty of the world around them and the neglect at home. Agnes’s mother gave birth to her, but stole her identity.

It is in a shelter that Agnes finds acceptance and restoration of that precious identity. She learns that she is not someone to be ashamed or embarrassed of. She learns the distinction of boundaries between herself and the relationships she craved, as opposed to the boundaries she needed to be the trustworthy mother both she and her daughter needed her to be.

The movie is based on a true story; on many true stories. It shows the complexities of Agnes’s life and why it is so hard for her to make the right choices. It is hard to watch at the beginning, but there is great redemption and it’s not only at the end of the movie.

Gimme Shelter is stunning in its writing and character development, well worth watching in theaters. It doesn’t only deal with abortion and its consequences, it deals with the life of the mother who wants an abortion; the reasons behind her choices and how she came to see herself the way she does.

It also shows how that can be changed and why all the hard work of making that change is worthwhile. It is a testimony, but critics are confusing that with being “preachy”.

More than anything else, it offers a compelling reason to listen to truth. This movie shows the context of Agnes’s life story, something largely neglected by many people in our culture today – especially in their own lives. We would do well to remember there is significant beauty in truth, and in our identity.

I, Frankenstein

click to watch trailer

Frankenstein’s monster, Adam, is cursed with eternal life in a soul-less body, the same irony that might have been visited by just about every Frankenstein movie before this one. Which isn’t a bad thing. The movie even takes on topics like free will and man’s relationship with his maker. But problems arise when this version of the horror classic, if there is truly such a thing, mixes in heaven-sent gargoyles at war with demons trying to re-create soul-less monsters to possess.

If I, Frankenstein wanted to take itself seriously, then it needs not treat Mary Shelly’s book like a corpse waiting to be resurrected with stick-fighting scenes and awfully boring special effects. The original text was truly frightening, as I remember, because it tapped into the nasty side of human nature and the irony of self-rule.

The more intriguing story, and the better vehicle for this movie’s theme might have been the wacky doctor himself. At least this would raise questions of what drives man to be his own god even though it ultimately leads to his own ruin.

But hey, what can you expect from comic book movies? The ones that do it best don’t take themselves too seriously. Ultimately, a lack of self-deprecating humor and over-posturing is what does this movie in. Unless there’s a Mystery Science Theater 3000 track being released with the DVD, which will undoubtedly come on the heels of the theatrical release, don’t waste your time.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

click to watch trailer

The Jack Ryan of The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger was a different kind of hero. He was an ordinary man who was afraid at times, who was vulnerable. What made him extraordinary – other than the circumstances that placed him in the middle of extraordinary situations – were the things that make common men real-life heroes.

Jack kept himself well informed of what was going on in the world around him. He was also tenacious. Once he knew the truth, he responded accordingly, which brings us to the final point: Jack didn’t pass the buck. He took responsibility for his actions. These are the overlooked qualities of true heroes.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, might be titled, “Jack Ryan: Shadow of the man” and it isn’t because the new Jack Ryan isn’t a brawler. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Jack beats a 300 lb. assassin in hand-to-hand combat, hacks into a terrorist’s computer; he drives like a Nascar racer through the streets of Russia, remotely tracks down another assassin, whom a team of counter-terrorist agents couldn’t find and locates a bomb that a team of counter-terrorist agents couldn’t find right after subduing said highly-trained assassin… by hand… after some stunt motorcycle driving. Is this Jack Ryan or Jack Bauer?

What I like about the storylines of the original movies (I’m leaving out Sum of All Fears for obvious reasons) is that their dramatic tension illustrates true-to-life connection between human weakness and covert operations.

The villains have power and wealth on their side, but they are always betrayed by their pride. No matter their inherited position, wealth, or abilities, the villains’ own personal motives always get the better of them. It follows, then, that the villain is bested by a hero who does not have affairs, a drinking problem, self-loathing, chronic guilt, etc. These are usually championed by the anti-hero in a cape.

As much as Jack Ryan’s adherence to and defense of truth inevitably hands him responsibilities he’s too wise to bring on himself, it redeems him from betraying his calling, and thus he saves the day. As much as the anti-hero’s isolationism ruins him, it is portrayed as a quality that spares him from betrayal.

Batman, Wolverine, & Iron Man are not necessarily persuading youths in our society that heroes are comprised of supernatural ability via government experiment, inherited genius and billions of dollars with inner rage plus an English assistant who appeals to their reason. But maybe these comic book characters reinforce the belief that justice prevails only by the hands of those with supernatural ability, and it comes at such a cost we should count the blessings of being ordinary. As Jean Valjean sings in the opening of 2012’s Les Miserables, we are advised to “look down.”

Every young boy’s hero is his father. Every child needs a mentor, someone they can admire, who gives them courage to be better and live better than life by default, and instead live by design. Too often, the head of the house lives an uninspired life, thinking that those who have a calling to pursue justice are somehow “the chosen ones.” As Henry Thoreau said, many men “go to the grave with the song still in them.”

We are not designed to plateau, but aspire – and not for our own sake. Jack Ryan, for example, never thought highly of himself, but he did respond to his calling. There are truths that need to be lived out by the common man which Jack Ryan champions and it has everything to do with vision.

Arguments could be made for our favorite comic book movies, but overall, these superheroes’ indulgences are portrayed as an endearing character trait, something to prop them up, even if it’s not what is right, it is “necessary.” Perhaps audiences can relate to that brand of hero, the kind that can excuse himself from certain choices because the world is against him. Maybe Jack Ryan’s true-to-life heroism is too super to be believable anymore. Maybe he’s just a boy scout, not a chosen one.

Another movie in theaters tells the true story of real-life heroes, and they are the kind of men who really could do just about anything – the stuff of movie fiction. During an interview for Lone Survivor, actor Ben Foster said, ”These [S.E.A.L.s] are not superheroes, these are men.” It’s an important reminder, and an intimidating challenge. (If you have not read Marcus Luttrell’s book, I strongly recommend you do so. His story illustrates this point perfectly.)

I suspect we do not want to believe we can answer to the high calling we see portrayed in fiction. But that we constantly revisit and amend heroic figures is telling. It speaks to the yearning we all have, and the fear we feel when we recognize the reality of the challenge to uphold truth and justice. It is something the common man is capable of, and if it means being labeled a boy scout, so be it. One positive quality the anti-hero does possess is that he does not concern himself with the opinions of others.

Jack Ryan’s adventures were the stuff of fiction, but they are relevant as a picture of truth. All good fiction is. The hero of these stories reminds us how fragile life is, and how men and women who are ordinary by today’s standards are really the ones we count on every day. They are a dying breed.

Still Walking (coming soon!)

KoorThey began walking each day before sunrise. It was 50 degrees and to keep warm, they had to keep moving – especially Koor who was naked.
Many had not survived the night. Those who did owed their lives to older children, who fought off lion attacks with torches. The older boys were 13 years old. Koor was six when his journey began and has since become a U.S. citizen. 24 years later, he is still haunted by memories of the four-month walk, and his heart is still in Sudan.

“Still Walking” a short series by Shawn Over – coming soon to