Father Stu

This was a film that was not on my radar, and although it features two actors I have enjoyed immensely over the years, I had no plans to see it. Other members of the family however think differently and so we went to Saturday afternoon screening, with several people behind us who were advancing in age a bit faster than I, and we all enjoyed an inspiring story for a couple of hours. I doubt that I will ever see this again, but there was nothing wrong with it, it just was very obvious what it was. 

Mark Wahlberg plays Stuart Long, a ne’er do well boxer who at an age when most boxers have already retired, decides that he can make it in the movies and he heads to California to be a star. As a recruiting film for the Catholic faith, this is an interesting story of how a man finds his calling through adversity. Stu is not a religious zealot, but a man changed by the world he encounters and the spiritual feeling he gets in recovering from a major trauma. The juxtaposition of Stu’s life before and after this experience, is the stuff that these kinds of inspirational movies thrive on. This just happens to be a grittier, down and dirty story when it comes to Stu’s language and behavior. The charm that let him skip through life early on, slipping past the disasters his family lived through, is not enough to get him what he thinks he wants. His spiritual choice has to come from a different place and this story tries to show that to us, warts and all.

Catholic dogma on redemption and baptism are heavily interspersed with the biographical elements of Father Stu’s story after he has come to a realization of his calling. For dramatic purposes, the story includes another acolyte with doubts about his calling, and some unflattering economic assessment by the church itself.  I can’t say how accurate Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Stu’s long absent father is, but Gibson and Wahlberg are very good together and Jackie Weaver as Stu’s conflicted mother is both infuriating and endearing. I was pleased to see Malcolm McDowell in a non-sinister role, I always enjoy seeing him on screen. 

The only flaw in the film is that it is not very surprising. It is sincere in it’s message and it wants to be inspirational. I found it admirable but I was rarely moved by the events in Father Stu’s life, I was mostly just interested in what was happening at the moment. If a movie like this does not grab your heart, it is not doing completely what it intends. I wanted to understand more about the paths that Stu was following, but the film is so tied into the biopic structure, that I never felt involved with the spiritual elements the way I should have been. 

As a drama with some comedic elements, it worked well enough that I was glad I saw it. As a spiritual film designed for an Easter Holiday emotional magnet, it missed the mark. I’m glad there there are Father Stu characters in the world and that these stories get told, for the faithful it may be enough, but for the audience, we need a little more. 

Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson and his cast and crew, deliver what I want in a movie in this amazing true story of a conscientious objector who shows more courage than seems humanly possible. That World War Two is still ripe with stories to tell, more than seventy years after it ended should not be a surprise. Sixteen million Americans had a part to play in the conflict at one point or another, so there have got to be many stories still to tell. Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss certainly deserves to have his story told and boy what a story it is. War is the ultimate location for violent conflict to be depicted, and there is certainly no shortage of violence here. Before the crux of the story appears however, we have the background to get through and a love story to tell.

Andrew Garfield has been a successful young actor in prestige pictures like “The Social Network” and in popcorn films like the rebooted “Spiderman” series. Based on the results so far, he should stick to the dramas and skip comic book films for a while. His earnest face and sweet voice seem made for a film like this. He portrays a kid who comes from a hardscrabble family background but one who is steeped in religious beliefs. After some strong experiences with violence himself, he moves to a true pacifist belief system, rooted in his Seventh Day Adventist dogma. Desmond Doss comes across as a naive but incredibly sincere waif who is confronting the greatest upheaval in violence in human history, with little more than a smile and an aw shucks attitude.  That this film and the story it depicts don’t get laughed at is a credit to the script and the actor who plays the part. Gibson does not over do the religious themes but he does give Doss the chance to express how deeply his faith motivates him, well before he becomes battle tested. That is why his accomplishment is all the more credible to us (in spite of the fact that is is based in reality). There is only one moment of histrionics when Doss punches a wall in frustration. The rest of his determined approach is shown through his willingness to fight on without using violence. to be able to make what he sees as a moral contribution to the war on his side.

 

Earlier this year, Teresa Palmer was not that memorable in “Lights Out” , she is much more believable as a 1940s nurse who catches the eye of our hero than she was as the tattooed rebel in the ghost story. She and Garfield form a strong emotional backbone that helps justify our interest in his character and how he manages to cope in the face of overwhelming violence. I imagine there were a great many men who fought in the war who manged to get through the traumas they saw by keeping the hope of love alive in their hearts. Although Doss had a contentious relationship with his father, there is also a family at home that wants him to be safe as well. The personal sacrifice that his mentally scarred father makes to allow Desmond to serve was one of the noble elements of the film. I don’t know how accurate it was but I can say how effective it was in the movie. Hugo Weaving gets a chance to play a flawed man who  is driven by his tragic experiences in the Great War.  It is not a large character part in the film but it may be the most real person Weaving has ever played in a movie and he was wonderful. There is a line of dialogue that he speaks which will cause a shudder of fear and pride at the same moment.

Flavor of the month eight years ago, Sam Worthington, finally shows that he is an actor as well as a face. Every moment he was on screen reminded me of character actor Ed Lauter, and that is a good thing my friends. Vince Vaughn is maybe a little harder to accept because of roles he has played in the past, but I was able to see past the face and recognize a solid performance in a part that is still a great deal of cliche. All of the other actors seem credible and the usual diversity of characters shows up on the screen, but it never feels like it is a stereotypical WWII film. Gibson has directed bloody action/battle sequences before. There are many shots here that will match “Saving Private Ryan” for brutal honesty and cinematic shock. Anyone tempted to think that they go on for too long should remember that the real events went days and offered no opportunity for a soft drink or a bathroom break. The battle of Okinawa as shown here was hard fought and vicious. That the result helped end the war and Americans managed to return home and lead decent lives is also miraculous.

Frankly, I have said it before on numerous occasions in these posts, I am a sentimentalist who wants to be moved by the stories I see in the theater. This story and the film makers moved me in the way I think a film should. They tell an ennobling story with craftsmanship and passion. The actors convince me that I am glimpsing something proximate to the events being depicted. I leave the theater buoyed by the fact that in the world, there are people who have stories like this and there are film makers who can tell these kind of stories. When this film is the subject of awards speculation in a future post, maybe I will spend more time talking about technique. Right now I am simply grateful once again to the greatest generation and satisfied that the talent behind this film have done them credit.