American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel


The Reverend Robin Meyers is preaching blue in the reddest of red states.

(2019) Documentary (Abramorama) Robin Meyers, Carlton Pearson, Marlin Lavanhar, Lori Walke, Bernard Brandon Scott, Nehemiah D. Frank, Robert Jones, Colin Walke, Nicole Ogundare. Directed by Jeanine Isabel Butler

It is no secret that religion has become a powerful political force in 21st century America. While the Founding Fathers touted a separation of church and state (and Jesus himself believed that one should render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and render unto God what was God’s), in more recent days the Evangelical right has become, if you’ll pardon the expression, hell-bent on rewriting history and turning their faith into a de facto state religion.

American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel is a documentary that attempts the difficult task of examining the role of religion in modern politics and how God became a Republican. They center largely on liberal-leaning Robin Meyers, the pastor of the Mayflower Congregational United Church of Chris Church in Oklahoma City. Author of the book Why the Christian Right is Wrong, he is a jovial sort who often jokes “In Oklahoma, you can be a Democrat or you can be Christian. You can’t be both – it’s just peculiar.” He and his associate minister Lori Walke (unusual enough that she is a female minister in a profession dominated by men) and the Reverend Dr. Marlin Lavanhar, pastor of the All Souls Unitarian Church, are bastions of liberalism in a largely conservative pastoral community.

Oklahoma is perhaps the reddest of the red states, with every single county having voted for Donald Trump in the last Presidential election and for Mitt Romney in the one previous. The state is overwhelmingly Southern Baptist and to a very large extent that is who seems to be the driving force for the political arm of the Christian right.

However, as theologian and historian Dr. Bernard Brandon Scott of the Phillips Seminary in Tulsa and one of the world’s foremost scholars on the Apostle Paul and his works. He reminds us that the modern Bible is essentially a “4th century creation masquerading as a 1st century eyewitness report,” referring to the Council of Nicea called by Emperor Constantine of the Holy Roman Empire to consolidate the Bible into a single version with agreed-upon chapters rather than dozens of different versions each with their own set of writings. Several gospels, such as the Book of Mary, were permanently removed, remaking the Church into a patriarchal enterprise whereas earlier women were a big part of the movement as crypt paintings and early Christian artwork shows.

Dr. Robert Jones also moves into more modern history, depicting the rise of Jerry Falwell and of politically-motivated pastors and the groundswell of the religious right that became a large part of the Tea Party and now the base that drives the Republican party. The movie also unflinchingly looks at the role of racism in the religious right, concentrating on the Greenwood Massacre – locally and incorrectly referred to as the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 – in which a thriving African-American community called Greenwood, also known as the “Black Wall Street,” was burned to the ground by an angry white mob.

This becomes truly evident in the Mayflower’s decision on whether to become a sanctuary church for those fleeing deportation. In Oklahoma, most pastors would say that there’s no decision whatsoever – sanctuary churches run counter to what modern evangelicals believe that America’s borders must be protected. One wonders what Jesus might have thought except that, as Dr. Jones points out, Jesus and his parents were unwanted refugees as well.

In all honesty the discussion is pretty one-sided here, although those with differing viewpoints were invited to be interviewed and all declined according to the filmmakers. Still, it is an eye-opening film that uses the gospels themselves to point out the inconsistencies in modern evangelical thought. The movie uses music effectively (particularly an effecting sequence in which an instrumental version of Leonard Cohen’s “Alleluia” is played) but the movie is mostly talking heads, although the conversations are incredibly important as they go to the very soul of American Christianity.

It is hard to believe that any Fox News-watching conservative Christian will be moved very much by this, although the story of former associate minister to Oral Roberts, Carlton Pearson, shows that change is possible as he takes a church whose founders were ringleaders of the aforementioned Greenwood Massacre and turned it into a church where African-Americans were not only welcomed but have become dominant. In that sense while liberals will find this documentary fascinating, I fear that it is literally preaching to the choir.

REASONS TO SEE: The background information gives a good sense of how the Christian right acquired political clout. Very conversational but important conversations.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get a little bit preachy.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of the results of the Greenwood massacre.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won more than 40 awards on the Festival circuit.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Evangelicals
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Man With the Magic Box

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Free Trip to Egypt


One great stone face and another.

(2019) Documentary (Kindness) Tarek Mounib, Brian Kopilec, Ellen Decker, Adam Saleh, Terry Decker, Katie Appledorn, Jenna Day, Jason Reynolds, Marc Spalding, Amr Madkor, Ahmed Hassan, Salma Salem, Mohammed Ragab, Asmaa Gamal, Tom Appeldorn, Mark Decker, Nevine Madkor. Directed by Ingrid Serban

 

We live in a deeply divided country that has in many ways become hard right and hard left. There is a segment of our society which was deeply affected by 9/11 and continues to bear the scars of that terrible day even now. Their belief about Muslims, spurred by right-leaning news sources, is that most of the Muslim population of the rest of the world are largely terrorists and those who aren’t are terrorist sympathizers. They believe in President Trump’s agenda of excluding immigration from Muslim countries and maybe, to a certain extent, of deporting Muslims living here back to the Middle East.

Tarek Mounib, a Canadian entrepreneur of Egyptian descent, found himself very disturbed by this attitude. While working in Switzerland, he had an epiphany; why not take some Americans who have this mindset to Egypt, have them hang out with real Egyptians and see if it changes their world view. He thought if he paid for all expenses for such a trip, that he could maybe get a few people to go.

At first, he went directly to what he thought would be the motherlode; a Trump rally in Louisville, Kentucky. There he met Brian, an ex-Marine with a yen for travel who agreed to go for the experience. Two of his friends, Jason and Jenna, both evangelical Christians, also agreed to go – in Jason’s case, hoping he could use the opportunity to make a few Egyptians see the light. Mounib also got Mark, an African-American police officer working at the rally to agree to go although of all those who ended up taking the trip he seemed to be the least prejudiced of them all.

Other means of recruiting others didn’t work so well. It wasn’t until Mounib appeared on a nationally syndicated radio talk show that he finalized his line-up; single mom Katie who had deep-seeded issues with the way women are treated in the Islamic faith, and elderly couple Eileen and Terry, both of whom had become xenophobic after 9/11. Eileen, who confessed she had marched in the Sixties for racial equality, had realized that she was a racist and hated herself for it but couldn’t find a way out of the vicious circle, especially when their only son Mark took a job in Saudi Arabia.

Mounib paired the travelers with Egyptians who would spend the day with him and in addition to taking them to the usual tourist sights like the Cairo Museum and the Pyramids, also had meals with them and introduced them to friends and family. Most of them are well-paired; for example, Jenna and Jason are paired with a large Egyptian family; Mark with a jovial overweight Egyptian who is more pro-Trump than most of the Americans; Eileen and Terry are paired with a cinematographer and Kate with a female activist. Sadly, we don’t get to know the Egyptians nearly as well as the Americans. I think that might have helped the movie make its point more powerfully.

There are some awkward moments; the group including their Egyptian hosts are taken to a Zar healing ritual, both the evangelicals and their host family are greatly disturbed at what they see on the Muslim side as a perversion of Islam and on the Evangelical side as paganism. An odd place to find common ground, but these are odd times.

This is the kind of movie that we all need to see but especially those who feel, as many of the travelers initially do, that the world is an us versus them type of place and that there is an unconquerable divide between the Muslim world and ours. Not everyone is transformed by this experience who goes – Jason ends up trying to convert Mounib which I found a bit amusing – but there are at least some interesting discussions. Jenna ends up admitting that if heaven turned out to be a place without Christ, she would rather go to Hell. That’s pretty powerful when you think about the ramifications of it.

There is a coda as the filmmakers follow some of the participants well after the trip is over. Two of the participants were truly transformed by their experience (and you can probably guess who just by reading this review) and when a momentous event occurs, we truly see how completely that person had changed. It’s the kind of tug on the heartstrings moment that will leave even the most jaded moviegoer a bit misty-eyed.

Too often we emphasize the differences between cultures while ignoring the similarities. At the end of the day we are all just people, making the best of things in a world that is impossibly hard to navigate at times. We are all just fellow travelers on the same road and maybe when we boil it down that way, then little details like how we worship God or where we live or what we eat or the color of our skin ceases to matter much. The quickest way to heaven’s gates is through an open heart.

REASONS TO SEE: A strong and vital project with some truly powerful moments. There’s an unexpected coda. Transformative in many ways. Love that it emphasizes the similarities of cultures rather than the differences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t spend enough time letting us get to know the Egyptians.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was timed to coincide with Cunningham’s centennial.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American History X
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
For the Birds

Hail, Satan?


Freedom of religion means ALL religions.

(2019) Documentary (Magnolia) Lucien Greaves, Jex Blackmore, Nicholas Crowe, Malcolm Jarry, Michael Wiener, Stu DeHaan, Jason Rapert, Anton LaVey, Megyn Kelly. Directed by Penny Lane

As a general rule, we as a species are pretty dense. You can talk until you’re blue in the face using unassailable logic and still the rest of us don’t get it. It’s not that we’re that dumb, it’s just that we don’t listen very well. Sometimes to get our attention, you have to shake things up somewhat.

In 2013, Malcolm Jarry, Lucien Greaves and a few other interested parties founded The Satanic Temple. Utilizing imagery and iconographies designed to shock people out of apathy, the group initially was formed to combat what the founders saw as increasing Evangelical Christian presence in government. They did it with humor and intelligence, linking Florida governor Rick Scott to legislation that would allow Bible passages to be used in public schools.

Although the spokesman for the Temple was initially an actor playing Greaves, it became evident to Greaves he would have to become the face of the group in order to be more effective. Before long, he was attracting a lot of like-minded people to the group, many of them self-identifying as outsiders and misfits, some of them from the heavy metal community and others from the goth community (such as Jex Blackmore from the latter).

The group came to major notoriety when they opposed monuments at state capitals in Oklahoma and Arkansas by suggesting that since Christian monuments were being erected, they should be allowed to erect an 8-foot tall bronze statue of Baphomet, a version of Satan, on the same ground. Christians of course didn’t take kindly to it but one had to admire their pluck and their logic.

The documentary gives us an intimate look at the Temple and those who are part of it, particularly the articulate and charismatic Greaves but also Blackmore, a fiery and passionate feminist who led the Detroit chapter of the Temple. Acclaimed documentary director Lane pulls no punches in a falling out between Blackmore and the Temple recently over remarks she made supporting violence against the current ruling party.

However, that’s more of a distraction. The ongoing legal fights the Temple have going and their stated goal of religious plurality (which is what the founding fathers envisioned originally) and their absolute opposition to attempts to turn our republic into a theocracy are very much the focus here. Lane allows Greaves, Jarry, Blackmore and others to make the Temple’s case in a calm and sober manner – but not without a sly wink and twinkling eyes. However, it should be noted that many of the Temple members interviewed here use assumed names and hide their identities in other ways so as not to cause their families any unnecessary discomfort. People look upon Satanists as evil and vile; while that perception in the case of the Temple isn’t correct, the stereotype persists.

Incidentally, despite the name the Temple does not literally worship Satan or evil. They see Satan as the ultimate rebel (the famous Byron quote “Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven” is applicable here) against the status quo. While they borrow the iconography of devil worship as depicted by the “satanic panic” news hysteria of the late 80s and 90s (horned goat masks, robes, nudity and so on), they aren’t about sacrificing babies or animals or anything else. For my part, I wonder if their usage of such symbols isn’t providing free advertising for evangelicals.

One of the things that is telling about the differences between the Satanic Temple and Christianity is that while the basic laws of the Christian church tell you what you shalt not do, the Seven Tenets of the Satanic Temple tell you what you should do – treat others with respect and compassion, to use scientific understanding as a foundation for belief, to forgive the mistakes of others because humans are fallible, to not impinge on the freedom of others, to render inviolate the bodies of others, and to inspire nobility of thought and compassion despite the often contradictory nature of the written and spoken word. Fine concepts to live by if you ask me.

=The movie played the recent Florida Film Festival and is likely to show up again at the Enzian or perhaps some other local theater. Don’t mistake this for a film promoting hedonism, excess and corruption; in seeing a movie about a group who might appear shocking and anathema to you, you might just find your own point of view changing for the better.

REASONS TO SEE: Greaves is a charismatic spokesman. A serious subject is tackled with some humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some where their misfit badges a bit too stridently.
FAMILY VALUES: The is some profanity and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shortly after the documentary came out, The Satanic Temple was granted religious exemption status by the IRS.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the Subgenius
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Red Joan

The Freedom to Marry


Two women wishing to marry each other face a daunting obstacle.

Two women wishing to marry each other face a daunting obstacle.

(2016) Documentary (Argot) Evan Wolfson, Mary Bonauto, Marc Solomon, Thalia Zepatos, Jayne Rowse, April DeBoer, Brian Brown, Janice Shaw Crouse, Barbara Rosenstein, Joan Wolfson, Sondie Rieff, Dr. Jerry Wolfson, Carole Stamyar, Matt Foreman, Garry Buseck, Ward Curtin, Tim Gill, Kate Kendell. Directed by Eddie Rosenstein

 

There is no doubt that one of the most important court cases of our time resulted in the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2015. By a 5-4 margin, the Supreme Court invalidated the laws of 13 states that made same-sex marriage illegal. Gay men and lesbians from that day forward had the same freedom to marry whomever they wished as their straight counterparts.

Getting to that point however was no easy task. Evan Wolfson, a Harvard-educated lawyer, started crusading for this freedom starting back in 1983. He had co-founded Freedom to Marry along with Marc Solomon who was a seasoned campaign director. Together, the men started a grassroots organization charged with changing America’s mind. Back then, Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of traditional marriages as being the only recognized ones. Nonetheless, Wolfson and Solomon, along with a handful of volunteers, felt that they needed to fight so that same sex couples got the same rights and privileges as straight couples got, including the right to inherit, the right to make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner and the right to adopt and raise children.

Mary Bonauto felt very much the same way Wolfson and Solomon do. A lawyer working for GLAD, a gay and lesbian organization along the same lines as the NAACP, Bonauto had been waging a battle to represent same sex couples get their unions legally recognized for decades. It was often frustrating heart-wrenching work as again and again gay rights lawyers like Bonauto and Wolfson were denied justice.

The passing of California’s heinous Proposition 8 was particularly galling. Wolfson in particular was devastated but as he began the postmortem of why the initiative had passed he came to a realization that most straight people saw gays as hedonistic deviants who didn’t marry for love but because they wanted the health care benefits of their “spouse.” He realized that the task was not necessarily to ramrod an unpopular law through but to turn the tide of public opinion and make them see LGBTQs as just like everyone else. In short, he needed their stories to be told.

What they accomplished was nothing short of miraculous. Starting with polls and focus groups, they began recruiting operatives – LGBTQ couples and their parents – to begin talking openly about their hopes and dreams, about the love they share for their partner and about their concerns for their children. In almost no time at all, public opinion began to shift. State laws began to change.

Wolfson felt the time was right to go for broke – a ruling from the Supreme Court itself that would once and for all make same-sex marriage legal throughout the land. Freedom to Marry and other advocacy groups chose four lawsuits that had made their way through the courts to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act as well as Proposition 8. One of those cases was committed couple Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer from Michigan.

Rowse and DeBoer are both medical care professionals who had a longstanding relationship. They had adopted four special needs children but they realized that due to Michigan’s laws, they could not adopt as a couple because they were lesbians; they had to adopt two of the children individually. Therefore if something happened to one of them, their adopted children would not stay automatically with the other partner but would be taken away and placed in a foster care home. To both these ladies this simply could not stand and they brought suit against the State of Michigan which went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court where once again they were unsuccessful. This paved the way for history.

Rosenstein follows the triumvirate of Wolfson, Solomon and Bonauto in the months leading up to the landmark decision. Bonauto had been legal counsel on the Rowse-DeBoer lawsuit and was a welcome addition to the team that would be presenting arguments in front of the United States Supreme Court. Bonauto, who had never done so before, was understandably nervous. Rosenstein gives us background on all three of these major players (and to a lesser degree to the plaintiffs De Boer and Rowse, the only plaintiffs profiled at any length in the film) going back to childhood.

Some of the material, particularly when they’re discussing things like Amicus Briefs and legal strategies, is a bit dry. Bone-dry, as a matter of fact but don’t let that put you off; this is a film that even though you know how the decision is going to turn out still manages to build a certain amount of suspense and tension. The relief is absolutely cathartic and I was taken back to when I heard about the decision just a couple of years ago and the euphoria I felt. Finally, my gay friends had the same freedoms and privileges that my wife and I had and I couldn’t have been happier for them.

Rosenstein does present some opposing viewpoints – that of Bryan Brown and Janice Shaw Crouse – as well as protesters from the right including people who appear to be part of the Westboro Baptist Church. Brown sounds relatively reasoned at times but both he and Crouse come off as intolerant bigots whose Christian justification has more to do with fear than love. Evangelical Christianity does not come off well in this documentary and some might find that hurtful.

However, perhaps if more Christians stood up for love (and many do) rather than exclusion, perhaps they might not be judged so harshly. Certainly the anti-gay protesters will be on the wrong side of history when all is said and done. Regardless, this is a documentary that shows an amazing journey of how a relatively small activist group won the hearts and minds of the American people against all odds and helped make history in a positive way. To my mind this is an important and potentially Oscar-worthy documentary although having a relatively unknown distributor might work against it in that sense but were this being distributed by an outfit with more clout there would be no question that it would be getting consideration further down the line.

REASONS TO GO: A behind-the-scenes chronicle of one of the most important court cases of our time. Even though the outcome is well-known still manages to make an uplifting ending. Fast-paced editing keeps the audience’s interest. Evan Wolfson is a genuine hero.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the subject matter can be a little dry.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult thematic content as well as some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following their success making same sex marriage legal all over the land, Freedom to Marry shut its doors in December 2015 and Wolfson continues to consult for LGBTQ activist organizations.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Case Against 8
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Take My Nose…Please

CORRECTIONS: Marc Solomon was originally described as “an expert fundraiser” which should have read “seasoned campaign director.” Also, Mary Bonauto was a lawyer for GLAD, not GLAAD. The former was an error on the part of the reviewer, the latter a typo. Cinema365 regrets any confusion that may have been caused by our errors.

Noah


Russell Crowe is about to get Biblical on yo ass.

Russell Crowe is about to get Biblical on yo ass.

(2014) Biblical Epic (Paramount) Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, Nick Nolte, Mark Margolis, Kevin Durand, Leo McHugh Carroll, Marton Csokas, Finn Wittrock, Madison Davenport, Gavin Casalegno, Nolan Gross, Skylar Burke, Dakota Goyo, Ariane Reinhart, Adam Marshall Griffith, Don Harvey, Sami Gayle. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Most everyone in the Western world – and a good part of the Eastern – are familiar with the story of Noah and the Great Flood. How God, in his wrath, wiped out all life on Earth – except for Noah, his family and all the innocent creatures of the Earth…well, two of each species of them, anyway.

The story of Noah actually takes up only four chapters in Genesis however and is lacking in any sort of detail except for those important to the writers of the Bible and/or those they were writing it for. You have to wonder what the real story was.

Darren Aronofsky did. Intrigued by the tale of Noah since the age of 14, he set out to film his own interpretation of the events that led up to the flood and what happened during and after it. He and co-screenwriter Ari Handel did extensive Biblical research and while they did interpret some of it fairly loosely, this is what they came up with.

Noah (Crowe), a descendant of Adam’s son Seth and grandson of Methuselah (Hopkins) lives with his wife Naameh (Connelly) and his sons from oldest to youngest Shem (Booth), Ham (Lerman) and Japheth (Carroll) in the wastelands. They take from the Earth only that which they can use, eat the flesh of no animals and stay away from the civilizations of the time which are the works of the descendants of Cain. Noah had watched his own father (Csokas) slain for no real reason by some of those descendants.

Noah receives visions from the Creator – never referred to at any time as God in the film – that He is displeased with the wickedness of the world and intends to wipe everything out and start over. He will use a great flood to accomplish this. Troubled by his vision, Noah decides to visit his grandfather to see what this all means which makes sense since as part of the vision he saw the mountain his grandfather lives a hermit-like existence on. Along the way they pick up Ila (Watson) whose family was butchered by Cain’s descendants and whose own horrible injuries have left her unable to bear children.

Methuselah gives Noah a tea to drink which brings on another vision – this time of a great ark that must be built to survive the storm. Methuselah gives Noah a seed – the last seed from the Garden of Eden. This creates a forest and convinces the stone Guardians – fallen angels whose light has been sheathed in mud – to help Noah and his family to build the massive structure.

Years pass and word passes to Tubal-cain (Winstone) the King of the local city who recognizes that Noah is serious. He means to possess the Ark for his own and start a new world in his own image while Noah is just as sure that men are a plague upon the Earth that need to be eradicated. Neither outcome sounds particularly palatable to Naameh and her children.

There has been plenty of controversy surrounding the film even before it came out. Evangelical Christians were damning the film based on remarks made by Aronofsky who is an atheist and said in an interview that it is the least Biblical epic made about a Bible story and characterized Noah as the first environmentalist. Of course, that’s the kind of thing that is sure to make an extreme right-wing Christian get their panties in a bunch.

However, in many ways I can’t blame them. They take a good deal of liberty with the story – six-armed fallen angels made of rock, Tubal-cain who barely appears in the Bible and then as essentially a blacksmith being elevated to King and nemesis. The core elements are all there though and the scenes of the flood are spectacular.

Sadly, not all the CGI lives up to that. There isn’t a single animal in this film that is alive – every animal is CGI and many of them are beasts that are no longer around or never were around. They don’t walk like animals do and there are so many that they all kind of run together. I know the story inherently calls for spectacle but the grand scale is too much; we need something as an audience to latch onto.

Fortunately there is Crowe who makes a mighty badass Noah. Noah is a bit pigheaded during a certain stretch of the movie and you can see in him the tenacity that would make a project like the Ark even possible. There is also a tender side to Noah that allows him to sing a gentle lullaby to an injured and frightened little girl. Noah is portrayed in the Bible as someone who follows God’s directives unquestioningly and we get the sense of that here.

Unfortunately, there is also Connelly who is a terrific actress but has one of the least satisfying performances of her career. She has one scene where she has a confrontation with her husband over his increasingly vile point of view, particularly when they receive some startling news involving Shem and Ila. The normally reliable Connelly is shrill and overacts within an inch of her life. I was kind of saddened by it. Watson, likewise, is misused and her character – who is apparently made up for the purpose of testing Noah since she doesn’t appear in the Bible – never really syncs up.

There is a message for our modern day squandering of our resources and our inhumanity to one another. Once again there has been some grousing from the right over these leftist messages, but I have to say that the Biblical parables were meant to be timeless and relatable to all people no matter the era. If Aronofsky is attempting that here, I would think that he’s in line with the intention of these stories if not their execution.

At the end of the day the clumsy CGI and occasional bouts of overacting make this two and a half hour film squirm-inducing particularly near the end. There are some beautiful moments – a dove appearing with an olive branch in its beak signifying that land exists and their ordeal is nearly over, or the rainbow at the film’s conclusion that signifies God’s covenant to never use the waters to destroy all life ever again. I wish I could recommend this more because of them, but the flaws overwhelm the strengths of the film too much that even a miracle couldn’t save it.

REASONS TO GO: Crowe is strong. Draws modern parallels on the story.

REASONS TO STAY: Overreliance on spectacle. Some of the CGI is woeful. Misuse of Connelly and Watson.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence and some scenes may be too intense for the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was banned in Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE prior to release because it would contradict the teachings of Islam, which forbids the depiction of prophets cinematically. Islam considers Noah to be one of the prophets.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fountain

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Florida Film Festival Begins!

Sugar


Sugar

In baseball there is always fireworks.

(Sony Classics) Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Michael Gaston, Jamie Tirelli, Jose Rijo, Ann Whitney, Richard Bull, Ellary Porterfield. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Dreams are a very personal thing. We all have them – some sort of goal that we yearn to achieve, be it a career, a relationship or a life goal. Sometimes, our dreams turn out to be very different in reality than they are in our minds.

In the Dominican Republic, baseball is more than a sport; it’s a ticket out of the abject poverty that blankets much of the country. For Miguel “Sugar” Santos, a pitcher with raw talent, that ticket is about to be cashed. He attends the camp of the Kansas City Knights, a Major League Baseball team with a talent camp in the Dominican.

Sugar’s talent nets him a minor league contract and he reports to the Quad City Swing, a team located in the middle of Iowa. Sugar is sent to live with the Higgins family; motherly Helen (Whitney) and curmudgeonly Earl (Bull). This is farm country and it’s as alien from Sugar’s circumstances as you could possibly get.

The Higgins’ granddaughter Anne (Porterfield) takes a shine to Sugar, but she like her grandparents are Evangelical Christians and as much as she likes him, it’s his soul she’s more concerned with. Sugar also has friends on the ballclub, fellow Dominican Jorge (Rufino) and Brad (Holland), a whiz-bang prospect who already has grad school at Stanford lined up if baseball doesn’t work out for him.

Sugar has no such prospects; it’s either baseball or nothing. At first, he tears up the league but as the summer wears on, Sugar begins to fall prey to the physical toll of the game. As his frustration mounts, he begins to wonder if his major league dream is just the fantasy of a naïve young man or truly his destiny to achieve.

This sounds a lot like every other sports underdog movie you’ll ever see, but almost immediately you’ll begin to discover it’s not anything like that. For one thing, this isn’t about baseball; it’s about life. One of the coaches tells Sugar early on “life gives you many opportunities; baseball gives you just one” and he’s right about that. This is a move about opportunity and what you do with them.

This is the first major role for Soto and he makes the most of it. You get the impression that this might very well be the role he’s remembered for and if that’s the case it’s not a bad legacy to leave behind. Sugar is quiet and sweet-natured but he has a breaking point. He gets angry, frustrated and weak. He makes mistakes and he does things he knows he shouldn’t do, but like most of us, does them anyway.

I’m told that the nuts and bolts of the story are very accurate; camps like the one depicted here are commonplace in the Dominican and the portrayal of the minor league system is just as correct.

Again, this isn’t about baseball. It’s about making choices. It’s about making the most about opportunities. It’s about friendships and rivalries and romances and mentoring. It’s about life, and that’s a movie worth seeing always.

WHY RENT THIS: A realistic and moving look at the dreams and aspirations of a Dominican baseball player.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pace drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language and a little sexuality. Nothing more gratuitous than you might find on the average HBO show.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Kansas City Knights aren’t a real major league baseball team (the Kansas City Royals are the name of the MLB team); the nickname is a nod to The Natural in which Roy Hobbs played for the New York Knights.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interesting featurette on baseball in the Dominican.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Losers