2016-06-30
It happens this way every year: between mid-August and mid-September, filmland is a desert landscape. The summer blockbusters have already exploded onto the scene and faded into memory; the "serious" films that will be touted for awards are waiting in the wings. All of which gives me time to clean up the files of a few films now out, and a couple companions to them which are already on video.

Reviews In This Article
'Stardust'
'Pan's Labyrinth'
'Milarepa'
'Facing the Giants'
'Underdog'


 Stardust

stardustI was hesitant to take the family to see this fantasy/adventure film. It has a PG-13 rating, which can mean many things, and the trailers I'd seen positioned it as a romance—which doesn't sell to my kids. However, bottom line: it's a wonderful, fun film that I wish we'd seen sooner. The whole family loved it, as did their various friends brought along for the ride.


Stardust has something for everyone: sly humor, sword fights, flying pirates, double-crossing villains, and, of course, two central characters who know neither their true identities nor their true loves, until nearly too late.

Far too many fantasy films these days feel labored and paint-by-the numbers, but Stardust brings something new to the table. It's stylish and witty, and although you know from the beginning who the true king of Stormhold is, the journey to the coronation is fun and unexpected.

Charlie Cox and Clair Danes make a dashing couple (she plays a star with magical powers wanted by everyone; he is the unknown heir); Ricky Gervais and Robert De Niro are excellent comic relief; Michelle Pfeiffer is once again a gorgeous body hiding a wicked heart. The actors who play the evil princes are not gone once they're done in by their plotting brothers—they become a strange chorus of witty corpses. As for the PG-13, there is some (very little) cursing, implied sexual activity, a cross-dressing pirate, and cartoon violence. The special effects are spectacular. If you still have a chance to catch this one on the big screen, go for it.


 Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth This Oscar-winner, now available on DVD, is an odd thing. It's a fantasy film about a young girl that is not for children. The mother of the heroine has married a fascist captain in Spain in 1944. The film itself depicts brutal violence (dwells on it, actually), but is ultimately about the triumph of love and the human spirit over hatred and tyranny. It would be a terrifying film for children, as the captain feels no compunction about bashing a farmer's face in, and the life of the girl's pregnant mother hangs precariously on the girl's own magical intervention. (Also, it has subtitles, which kills it for my kids right there.)


So this is a fantasy film for grown-ups, more specifically, for the child in each of us, who wants to be emboldened, who wants to feel we have the power to stand up against evil and make a difference. It is ultimately a beautiful, sad, and triumphant movie. The visuals are lush, especially in the fantasy world into which the girl escapes. Again, see it on as large a screen as possible, but do see it—when the kids are not around.

 Milarepa

Milarepa Milarepa is one of the most beloved saints in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This film tells the story of the first half of his life. When his wealthy father dies, the care of his money and family is left to the father's brother, Milarepa's uncle. Unfortunately, the aunt and uncle take the fortune for themselves and treat Milarepa's family as slaves. When his mother demands his rightful inheritance, the uncle refuses and the village sides with them. His mother, bent on revenge, sends him to a sorcerer to learn how to exact revenge, which he does. However, through this experience, he realizes revenge is futile and guilt-inducing.

There is a genre of story called hagiography which is a biography of a saint, told with (stilting) reverence. This film fits squarely into this category. It's made by Neten Chokling, himself a Tibetan lama. It's filmed in the stunningly gorgeous Spiti Valley on the Tibetan/Indian border, using many monks in the cast and crew.

In real life, Milarepa said many wise and profound things. Few of them are in this film (this is about the unwise half of his life). The film is lushly beautiful, the Tibetan music is haunting, and much of the movie is people slowly traveling from place to place, and saying exactly what they mean in short declarative sentences. If you're in the mood for an hour and a half of contemplation on the early life of a Tibetan saint, this is the film for you. If you're looking for drama (the subtitle is "Magician. Murderer. Saint.") you'll need to keep looking. Milarepa also has subtitles, and won't hold the attention of anyone under 18 who is not notably contemplative. As hagiography, it's fine.

 Facing the Giants

Facing the Giants Another overtly religious movie, Facing the Giants is currently out on DVD. It's the story of a football coach at a private southern Christian school whose losing team (indeed, the whole school) experiences revival and kicks butt all the way to the state championships.

Apparently, no one has a lukewarm reaction to this film. Either you love it, are troubled by it, are perplexed by it, or find it unintentionally amusing. I can understand all four points of view.

Love it: It's easy to see how 20th century American Evangelical Christians can dearly love this film. It is, after all, a feature film in which characters talk like they do, quote Bible verses to solve problems, and believe God can work miracles and reverse the worst situations. There's also some great football, and the whole thing has a "Rocky" feel to it. If this is your culture, you're home.

Troubled by it: This response comes, surprisingly enough, from Christians who feel the message of the film is that no matter how bad your problems are, if you turn them over to God, every single problem will come out with the happy ending for which you pray. You'll get a raise. Someone will replace your old car. Your team will win. Your infertile marriage will be blessed with (multiple) children. Get a grip, they say. God doesn't work this way. (Whereas the viewers in category 1 will undoubtedly respond with examples in which God has done all those things, although maybe not all at once—this is Hollywood, after all.)

Perplexed: These are the folks who don't speak Evangelical. They want to "get it," but they don't. I personally don't think anyone joins the club (or is "saved") by seeing a film in which everyone in the club speaks a language they don't. (I will note that even the churchgoing kids who were at our house while I was screening the movie were clearly perplexed that school would let out for the afternoon so that knots of students could meet on the football field to hug, cry, and pray their way through a spontaneous revival.)

Find it unintentionally amusing: A lot of people seem to think the movie isn't well made, the acting is laughable, the dialog stilted, the constant references to God, humorous. Given that the film was written, directed, and starring one man, (a feat that should be attempted by very few who aren't Orson Welles, or at least Woody Allen) and acted by many members of his church congregation, it wasn't that bad. For example, the whole "way is narrow that leads to a field goal and the path is wide that leads to an offsides kick" speech was actually meant to be funny, although I'm not sure people who don't speak Evangelical could have made the distinction.

So, if you suspect you're in group one, rent it, have the youth group over, make popcorn, have a great time. If not, try Chariots of Fire.

Underdog

Underdog Believe it or not, this is also a "split decision" film. If you're a serious filmgoer, and remember the 60s cartoon as a counterculture statement on society and the status quo, forget this film. If, however, you are either under 13 or generally amiable, you'll probably enjoy—nay, even love—this live-action Underdog.

I personally got a kick out of watching Peter Dinklage playing the perverse underside of his saintly gypsy in Lassie by taking on the completely unredeemable villain Simon Barsinister. (Like Cruella DeVil, he finds you can run from your name, but you can't hide.) If you're looking for well-paced, taut filmmaking, this isn't it. But if you'll be happy with the backstory on how a normal beagle starts flying, fighting villains, and chooses to talk in rhyming couplets on purpose, there are worse ways to spend a rainy afternoon.
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