By Dr. Tom Snyder, Editor
The Christmas season is the best season for a lot of really great movies. This season, Disney’s wonderful animated work, FROZEN, is seeing some well-deserved accolades from both critics and moviegoers.
However, there is another movie this season that has not received the acclaim that it so richly deserves – BLACK NATIVITY, starring the super-talented Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Tyrese Gibson, and relative newcomer Jacob Latimore.
BLACK NATIVITY is a musical drama inspired by Langston Hughes’ play of the same name. It’s a brilliant, uplifting piece of filmmaking that highlights God’s Grace. It is entertaining, heart-rending, uplifting, amusing, and faith-filled.
The story follows Langston, a teenager living with his single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) in Baltimore. With Christmas right around the corner, Langston finds out he and his mother are being evicted from their house. Nowhere to go, his mother decides to send Langston over to his grandparents. For some reason, she stopped speaking to them right before Langston’s birth. Langston protests his mom’s decision because he doesn’t even know his grandparents, but she decides it’s the best thing to do.
Naima places Langston on a bus headed to Harlem, where her parents live. Upon arriving in downtown New York City, Langston is introduced to a harsher, more chaotic environment than understands. After his backpack gets stolen, Langston wanders into a fancy hotel looking for a phone where a wealthy guest confuses him for a thief, and Langston’s arrested. A tough looking black guy in the cell taunts and teases Langston.
Langston is released from jail into the custody of his grandfather, the Reverend Cobbs (Forest Whitaker). Already disappointed with how quickly his grandson got into trouble, the Reverend takes Langston home to the warm welcome of his grandmother, Aretha (Angela Bassett). Even though the Reverend is strict and a little rough around the edges, he and Aretha clearly love and miss their daughter, Naima, who still refuses to speak to them because of a past event. Langston tries to figure a way to get the money Naima and he need to pay the rent or find a new home in Baltimore. He’s willing to do almost anything to get it.
As the Reverend begins his annual Black Nativity musical program on Christmas Eve, Langston prepares his plan to get back home. Then, the reasons for his family’s separation starts to come to light and Langston’s motives begin to change.
BLACK NATIVITY is a moving, beautiful story that emphasizes Christian faith, family, and forgiveness. The cast does a wonderful job bringing life to their characters, including Jennifer Hudson as the mother, Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett as the grandparents, and Jacob Latimore as the Langston. The cast does really well with all the musical numbers, which reveal their individual character’s emotions. The whole thing is brilliantly written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, an actress who previously directed EVE’S BAYOU (1997) and TALK TO ME (2007).
The emotional high points come at the movie’s ending, which includes a musical dream sequence where Langston dreams of the Birth of Jesus talking place in Harlem as the church performers sing about God, Jesus, and the Nativity. The musical dream sequence is beautifully integrated with the theatricality of the church performance. It also makes a great transition for the movie’s climax, which resolves all the story’s conflicts in a beautiful, inspiring, and dramatically powerful way.
Best of all, however, BLACK NATIVITY has a really strong, uplifting message of Christian faith. Filled with Scripture, Gospel songs, and prayer, the movie calls for reconciliation among estranged family members. In the final moments, Langston sums up everything as he says, “It’s time to forgive, it’s time to be redeemed, and it’s time to come home.” This heartwarming important message about faith and family is at the heart of what Movieguide® is all about. It makes the ending of BLACK NATIVITY stand out among other Christmas movies, in a good way. There is a threat of violence in one scene and a couple “d” obscenities, however, so MOVIEGUIDE® advises a light caution for BLACK NATIVITY.
Otherwise, however, BLACK NATIVITY is not only one of the best movies of the year. It’s also one of the best, most heartfelt Christmas movies ever made, certainly in the last few years at the very least.
THE LAST DAYS ON MARS is a science-fiction thriller with a formulaic but well-executed plot, good screenplay writing and acting, an immersive environment, and some fantastic special effects, especially for a lower-budget movie. It’s a heart-racing thriller high in entertainment value but replete with negative elements.
THE LAST DAYS ON MARS takes place during the final 19 hours of a six-month expedition to Mars to search for and collect biological samples. Leading the group is astronauts Vince Campbell (Liev Schreiber) and Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas) and consists of eight highly-trained crew members.
One of the scientists, Kim (Olivia Williams), discovers microbial boring bacterial cells in the cavities of a few rock samples they’ve discovered. While attempting to gather more samples, another of the scientists, Marko (Goran Kostic) is swallowed into a hole in the ground, prompting Lauren (Yusra Warsama) to go after him, against the wishes of the crew, who presume him dead. When neither Marko nor Lauren return, the crew begins to worry. Eventually, Marko and Lauren return to the base, although they are humanoid and zombie-like, having been infected by a bacterial virus. These creatures attack the crewmembers and kill one, Harrington (Tom Cullen), who in turn becomes one of the creatures.
The crew leader, Brunel, is stabbed by one of the creatures and himself becomes infected with the bacterial virus. He slowly dies as he lays on a table, as the crew’s scientists trying injecting him with antibiotic fluids to counteract the virus. The antibiotic works for a while, but the virus develops a resistance. Realizing the virus can’t be stopped, the surviving crew desperately tries to find a way to contact mission control and escape.
After five of the eight crewpeople have been killed or infected with the virus, the remaining three (Campbell, Irwin, and Laine) race against the creatures, who are intelligent enough to follow their tracks and destroy their equipment. Irwin (Johnny Harris), crumbles under the weight of the situation, at times breaking into tears. He proves to be unstable and eventually deserts Campbell and Laine.
Campbell and Laine venture onward alone in hopes of securing communication with mission control and being rescued, pushed to the limits of human survival.
THE LAST DAYS ON MARS is a simple, formulaic sci-fi thriller with a predictable but well-executed plot and terrific acting. The writing is tight and moves along well. The biological and scientific details of the crew’s mission should prove interesting to some, and the rich cinematography and environments are satisfying to watch. For a movie without a large budget, it was executed and delivered very effectively.
THE LAST DAYS ON MARS doesn’t do much in terms of character development, and this was perhaps its weakest element. It contains a few elements worthy of exploration (Campbell has several flashbacks to an experience on another spaceship that aren’t fully explained), but favors more peril and suspenseful moments. The potential for expounding on a few relational elements was there, including moments where one character asks the other about the afterlife and whether a zombie still has elements of personhood, but the movie’s budget likely wouldn’t allow much movie time beyond 90 minutes.
The foul language in LAST DAYS ON MARS is intense and relentless, and the violence is also jarring at moments. The creatures are frightening, even for an adult, and the movie creates tension throughout its running time.
However, the movie is devoid of any strong Christian or biblical elements. At one point, one character mockingly speaks about “finding God and writing a song about it” when discussing the prospect of finding life on Mars. In another instance, Laine asks Vince whether he thinks there’s an element of human existence that continues after death, but he deflects the question, saying, “That’s above my pay grade.” In the movie’s final minutes, Vince has a vision where he seems to communicate with Laine (who has died by this point) from beyond the grave, although the movie’s lack of a Christian worldview would lean one to believe this is simply a neo-pagan or occult element.
THE LAST DAYS ON MARS has a few pro-family elements. In one scene, as Brunel is moments from death, he speaks longingly in tears about wanting his family to know he loves them. In another, Irwin (also in tears) speaks of longing to see his family again. Several crewmembers make sacrifices and take risks to ensure each other’s safety.
The violence in THE LAST DAYS ON MARS is not gratuitous and ongoing, but there are a few gruesome scenes (a man being drilled in the stomach is the most intense). There is also a general mood of dread throughout and few truly redemptive aspects in the THE LAST DAYS ON MARS, which would not sit well with many viewers.
The movie’s excessive obscene language is its predominant negative element, with almost constant obscenity as the characters endure perilous situations. These elements of violence and language warrant excessive for THE LAST DAYS ON MARS.
THE ULTIMATE LIFE DVD Giveaway!
For a limited time, Movieguide® is giving away a free DVD copy of THE ULTIMATE LIFE starring Peter Fonda and Bill Cobbs! THE ULTIMATE LIFE is a family-friendly drama depicting one man’s journey from poverty to riches and the lessons he learned along the way.
THE ULTIMATE LIFE is a well-made, fun, heartwarming sequel to the beloved movie THE ULTIMATE GIFT. Uplifting and fun, the movie gives a lot more background to THE ULTIMATE GIFT. It depicts how Jason’s grandfather developed his friendships, his business and the “Twelve Gifts” he passes onto Jason. The grandfather learns that success comes from hard work and being a leader of men. Most importantly, the movie teaches that family is the greatest legacy you leave behind when you leave this world. THE ULTIMATE LIFE has no objectionable content, though a brief battle scene might scare young children. Read the full review here. You can enter into the contest easily through Facebook or Twitter below.
PULLING STRINGS is a Mexican romantic comedy bringing together an American and Mexican from two different worlds. It’s an appealing movie with positive, heartwarming elements, but there is some negative content.
Rachel (Laura Ramsey) is a white woman working for the United States Embassy granting and/or denying visas to America. Alejandro (Jaime Camil) is a hardworking mariachi singer and single parent father.
The movie opens with Alejandro at his daughter Maria’s school, where he’s having a conference with Maria and the school board of nuns. They believe Alejandro isn’t the best example for Maria due to his night job as a mariachi. Alejandro begins to believe he’s not the best thing for Maria, despite their strong bond and love for each other. So, he decides to get her a visa to send Maria to her grandparents in America. However, Rachel denies him a visa and doesn’t even look at him as Alejandro tries to plead his case, hoping to give his daughter what he thinks would be a better life.
Rachel gets a promotion and will be moving to London, but before she leaves her boss Art (Tom Arnold) gives her one last duty. He entrusts her to pick up his laptop, full of highly confidential files and keep it safe until he returns from out-of-town business. Her best friend finally convinces Rachel to go out for drinks. It just so happens that the entertainment for the evening is Alejandro’s mariachi band, and he hopes that he can somehow convince her he must get the visa.
By the end of the evening, Rachel is asleep on a bus stop bench drunk, and Alejandro gets her a cab to take her home. She’s impossibly incoherent, so Alejandro cannot get her to go to her house, and he lets her sleep on his couch.
In the morning, Rachel realizes she doesn’t have her boss’ invaluable laptop, which Alejandro has hidden so he can pretend to help her find the laptop, and she will approve the visa for Maria. His plan is full of rerouted strategies, and the unexpected surprises such as Alejandro and Rachel falling in love. When Alejandro’s plan has a major backfire and is exposed, Rachel decides to leave his life forever, but in the end, love covers a multitude of mistakes and the couple reunites.
PULLING STRINGS is entertaining and funny. At times, the white subtitles are hard to read, but there’s a clear storyline. Alejandro is the main character who does learn an important life lesson and learns to live and love again, but it’s Rachel’s character that has the greatest transformation. She begins to trust and decides to let go of her “gypsy” life of wandering. The music is well done, and the mariachis don’t disappoint in vocals or musicianship. The songs are heart stirring. Rachel begins to see the real Alejandro through the music he writes and performs.
Caution is advised for older children for PULLING STRINGS, due to some foul language and a few instances of heavy kissing with one instance leading to implied premarital sex. This content mars the movie’s strong Christian, moral worldview, which stresses honesty, forgiveness, God, and love. Eventually, Alejandro has to ask forgiveness from Rachel for his dishonesty, which she eventually does. Also, many of the songs in PULLING STRINGS make reference to God, Heaven and love. In the opening, Alejandro attends a parent conference with his daughter Maria and the nuns of the school board at Maria’s private school. Ultimately, forgiveness and the value of honesty are the movie’s two major moral, redemptive themes.
Two other themes prevalent in PULLING STRINGS are finally articulated by an old wise man Alejandro and Rachel encounter in a bar. He tells Alejandro to stop being afraid, and Rachel to stop running. The decisions they make as the story develops point back to these two themes. By the resolution of PULLING STRINGS, both characters have matured to overcome their issues. For Alejandro, he no longer fears not being able to care for Maria, and Rachel finally stops running and settles down.
Spiritually speaking, PULLING STRINGS resolves nicely as the inner challenges of Alejandro and Rachel are not so different. When we are people without God or faith, we often allow our fears and perceived inadequacies to put us on the run so we don’t have to be responsible, or risk failure, or let others get close to our heart. However, God’s love is always there to point us to His hope and a place of healing and wholeness. His perfect love is what casts out all fear (1John 4:18) and draws us into His love.
THE ULTIMATE LIFE is a well-made, fun, and heartwarming sequel to the beloved movie THE ULTIMATE GIFT. It picks up where the first movie left off.
Jason Stevens is trying to balance his new life as a billionaire with his relationship with Alexia. Jason feels ready to marry, but his girlfriend feels called to serve at a mission clinic in Haiti. With his greedy extended family trying to sue him, Jason gets distracted from Alexia’s wants and needs. She decides to go to Haiti, leaving Jason to sort out his priorities.
With no one else to turn to, Jason visits Hamilton for advice. The calm and collected Hamilton explains that Jason’s grandfather, Red Stevens, faced a similar struggle when he became wealthy. Hamilton gives Jason his grandfather’s journal, in which Red recorded his rise from poverty to wealth.
Red wrote in his journal about his family’s level of poverty in the 1940s. With his father barely able to put food on the table, Red vowed he’d be rich one day. At 15, he ran away from home and finds work at a Texas ranch where he not only proves himself as a hard worker but also as an entrepreneur. His plans to travel to California are paused when he meets a beautiful girl named Hanna. Their bond develops, but she declares she won’t see him unless he attends school. So he does.
Years pass. Red and Hanna get married, and Red begins his quest for riches by drilling for oil on Texas farmland. With help from friends, Red’s dream empire begins to develop, but his family grows more distant every day. It takes a tragedy for Red to fully realize the harm he’s doing to those closest to him.
THE ULTIMATE LIFE is a well-made, fun and heartwarming sequel to the beloved movie THE ULTIMATE GIFT. Though the quality doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, the story engages with positive values and uplifting messages that families will appreciate. The movie gives much more background to THE ULTIMATE GIFT, showing how Red developed his friendships, his business and the “Twelve Gifts” he passes onto Jason.
The strong Biblical worldview upholds values like capitalism. Red learns that success comes from hard work and being a leader of men. He also earns success rather than taking it away from a wealthy person. Most importantly, the movie teaches that family is the greatest legacy you leave behind. THE ULTIMATE LIFE has no objectionable content, though a light battle scene might frighten young children.
DESPICABLE ME 2 is one of the funniest, laugh-out-loud, hilarious, best conceived, well-plotted, most enjoyable movies ever. Good triumphs in the end. To get there, Gru and his companions make some silly mistakes that make for some brilliant comedy.
Gru, a reformed bad guy, has decided he loves his three adopted daughters, and he’s going to try to go straight by making jellies and jams. Things are just not working out, however. The jellies and jams, however, are awful. Dr. Nefario can’t stand being good and gets another offer to join another villain. Even worse, there’s a new villain who stole an entire arctic laboratory where a new formula converts sweet little animals into horrible monsters.
A top secret international organization can’t stop the new villain, so they decide to recruit Gru. After all, who can stop a villain better than another villain? The MI-6 type organization is called the Anti-Villain League or AVL. They send one of their new agents, Lucy, to recruit Gru. Lucy, like Lucille Ball in I LOVE LUCY, is excessive in all her aspects of being a cunning secret agent. She drops Gru with a lipstick taser, hauls him off in her submarine car to an underwater facility run by AVL’s leader, Mr. Ramsbottom, whom Gru calls Sheepsbottom.
After a birthday party for Agnes goes wrong, where Gru is embarrassed that he must dress up as a fairy princess because the actress he hired failed to show, Gru decides to join AVL. Lucy and Gru stake out the Paradise Mall by starting a bake shop. Every character in the mall is a potential villain, but Gru gets a glimpse of one of them and believes he may be El Macho, the most macho villain of all time, who everyone thought was dead years ago.
The plot thickens when: someone kidnaps Gru’s minions and starts to inject them with the formula, turning them into monsters; Gru gets distracted from his mission because his oldest daughter, Margo, falls in love with the owner of the salsa shop’s son; and, Lucy and Gru, who started hating each other, develop an attraction to one another.
Can Gru rescue the minions? Will he ever settle down and get married?
DESPICABLE ME 2 is laugh-out-loud funny. Yet, it has incredible cuteness and heart. Every form of villainy is refuted, family is affirmed, doing the right thing is affirmed, and good triumphs over evil. The three little girls Margo, Edith, and Agnes are delightful. They are the most real cartoon girls ever imagined. The minions break out in song, which is intelligibly unintelligible. Some of the songs are big hits translated into minion language.
There are too many good things to say about DESPICABLE ME 2. However, it should be noted there’s cartoon upper body nudity when El Macho shows off his hairy chest and the minions where various costumes, and there’s a fart gun. These are typical Loony Toon funny moments that are transcended by all the good values and the heart and soul of the movie.
DESPICABLE ME 2 would be five, six, seven, or eight stars if MOVIEGUIDE(r) ratings went that high. Little children may find some of it scary, but ages five and up will find it delightful.
By Stephen Poppe, Contributing Writer
It’s a low-point in American television indeed when I find myself turning to the comforting blue hue of the television guide station for relaxation. At least, I can be confident that it won’t denigrate my political beliefs or openly mock me as an ignorant conservative with some ridiculous caricature. In this TV culture which enjoys portraying Tea Party supporters as backwoods hicks and finds humor in repeatedly portraying Republicans as fat, white old men while ignoring ongoing scandals because of the political orientation of the current administration in the White House, I’m finding it harder and harder to watch television without repeatedly finding offense in the portrayal of the those who hold conservative values.
The latest culprit of this type of infuriating propaganda is NBC’s hit comedy PARKS AND RECREATION. A sitcom set in the background of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, the program follows a cast of bureaucrats working in the town’s Parks and Recreation department led by Amy Poehler, who plays a passionate, yet quirky Gov’t official named Leslie Knope, and Nick Offerman, who plays Ron Swanson, a libertarian anti-government official. An over the top idealist, Leslie is the quirky heroine of the story who battles government inefficiencies, takes on corrupt politicians, and with impressive subtlety and in spite of her obvious lack of bureaucratic competence, gets the audience to buy in to her as the defender of “proper government.”
While some might argue that any type of analysis done about PARKS AND RECREATION is an over-allocation of brain power for a show that still appreciates fart jokes, the program’s politically motivated undertones are another example of how subtle messages tucked away in humorous little packages are eating away at the core principles of the conservative message in America. Never was this more evident than in a recent PARKS AND RECREATION episode titled “Article Two,” where Leslie’s agenda to clean up “racist” aspects of the towns “archaic” constitution was derailed by a tradition loving, libertarian character played by Patton Oswalt. A few examples of the fictional laws that brought about this effort was a law against women raising their voice to men, a statute confining menstruating women to their bathtubs, and property seizure rights by white men from Indians. This is obviously fictional and humorous, but perhaps not so innocent as it seems.
The storyline’s intent is truly revealed when the opponent of these glaringly necessary changes is revealed as the staunch conservative played by Oswalt. He goes on to defend the inherency of the “Pawnee Charter” by filibustering Leslie’s attempt repeal these laws. Void of any real logic, his argument appeals to the traditionalist by claiming the Charter “shall not be changed, not today, not ever.” While the episode was entertaining, one can’t help but compare his backward approach to progress with the ongoing national debate about conserving the principles of the United States Constitution held by the Tea Party, Republicans, Libertarians, or whatever name one chooses to give the conservative base. The subtle narrative being implanted by this little exchange is that constitutionalists are opposed to progress as a principal and are too entrenched in archaic ideas to embrace “progress,” even when it’s so desperately needed. Alone, this caricature might be passed off as a mere misrepresentation. However, when combined with a similar portrayal of conservatives in other forums such as SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, Jon Stewart program on Comedy Central, and other programs, one begins to understand the shaping of a national narrative that is not only openly anti-conservative but also opposed to the constitutional principles that helped America defeat the national socialists leading Germany and Japan in World War II and the Soviet Union’s socialist oppression of Eastern Europe.
How did we get here? The power in such politically correct messages is only truly realized when received by the largely ignorant masses who, whipped into obedience by a government-controlled and dumbed-down education system, seem to lack the ability to think critically on their own. Sadly, this is an increasingly legitimate problem, and accurately describes the masses of America today. For example, a recent study by the ICPMA (International Center for Media and Public Agenda) revealed that an increasingly large percentage of the Generation X, Y, and Z demographic are getting their news through social media, and news parodies such as Jon Stewart and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. This not only reflects the inability of the public to distinguish fact from opinion. It also illustrates the incredible power that the mass media in America has in shaping the national narrative on key social issues. Thus, by default, a small number of extreme liberal minds in key media positions begin to shape the minds and worldview of millions.
Where does America go from here? Many of the keys to this culture war lies in creating a conservative base in Hollywood to challenge the industry’s inaccurate portrayal of conservatives. From there, the debate will need to be taken into our communities, forcing Americans to then understand the views of their parties fighting for their votes instead of relying on propaganda videos around election time.
America is what it is because its citizens were informed and emboldened by their principles and, therefore, were willing to challenge the status quo. To stay true to that blueprint, America requires an informed populace.
So, while we may laugh and enjoy shows like SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and PARKS AND RECREATION, one might smile a little less knowing that millions of people are absorbing the jokes and false caricatures as representations of reality. In order to make intelligent decisions and better choices when they vote, Americans will have to be ever more vigilant to ferret out the facts from the leftist fiction that too often makes its way into the deluge of information and entertainment called TV.
SHARK TANK is a Reality TV show that highlights the great freedom and opportunity of the entrepreneurial American system. People of ordinary stature from all over the United States come to pitch their ideas to raise money from five successful entrepreneurs who made it themselves on their own.
SHARK TANK is an inspiration to all those who have the American dream. In Episode 4.20, the sharks not only confront some interesting, unique out of the box ideas but also show how their previous investments have succeeded.
One unique idea was for a foam drop stop that you put between the seat and your car to prevent you from losing your keys or your change. A simple but brilliant idea got a lot of discussions from the sharks, especially how do you make money back from a previously funded idea was a way of identifying and killing bed bugs, which has now taken off across the country. One idea was to market lionfish as a food because lionfish imported from the Pacific are destroying the eco-system of the Atlantic. None of the sharks bit, because capturing the lionfish was too hard.
The most exciting idea was from a young lady, named Lani Lazzari, who came up with a cosmetic called Simple Sugars when she was a young girl with extreme eczema. Her cosmetics help people with skin problems, but can’t be billed or marketed for their medical benefits. Now, as a teenager, Lani wants to expand her business. Mark Cuban said his children suffer from eczema, and Lani landed a shark. Better than that, she said she wants to tell every teenager how to be a great entrepreneur. She was an inspiration. After the show, Lani reportedly did $600,000 in business for Simple Sugars.
MOVIEGUIDE® gives out an award for free enterprise. For too many years, the entertainment industry, which thrives on free enterprise, created stories attacking free enterprise. SHARK TANK, DUCK DYNATSY, and a few other shows are showing the benefits of free enterprise. To show how free enterprise works, SHARK TANK is must viewing.