Seeking Out Cinema's Hidden Gems

Reviews - All | Reviews - Silver Screen Surprises | Features | Contact

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The 91st Annual Academy Awards: Nominations, Surprises, Snubs

Crazy Rich Snubs

By Chris Sabga

As I've done for the past several years, I will go through the nominees and then analyze what I feel are the "Silver Screen Surprises" for each of the main categories.

Which nominations – and snubs – surprised me? 

And the Oscar goes to...

Best Picture

"Black Panther"
"Bohemian Rhapsody"
"The Favourite"
"Green Book"
"A Star Is Born"

Surprises: I expected "Crazy Rich Asians" to be nominated for Best Picture, but not only did it fail to make an appearance in this category, it was completely shut out of the Oscars in general. What happened?

There was minor intrigue about whether "Black Panther" would actually get a Best Picture nomination after a "Most Popular Movie" Oscar was briefly considered – seemingly for this movie – only to be scrapped after massive backlash.

Will this be a three-way contest between "Black Panther," "BlacKkKlansman," and "Green Book" – or will "Roma" sweep in and spoil their chances?

"Roma's" inclusion is a huge victory for Netflix – and streaming in general – as the film received only a tiny theatrical release and was seen by most viewers at home. Theater owners have reason to be worried.

Lead Actor

Christian Bale, "Vice"
Bradley Cooper, "A Star Is Born"
Willem Dafoe, "At Eternity's Gate"
Rami Malek, "Bohemian Rhapsody"
Viggo Mortensen, "Green Book"

Surprises: This is possibly the least surprising of all the categories, but the actual winner might be a surprise in what is sure to be a tightly-contested race.

There was no chance in hell of Steve Carell scoring a nomination for "Welcome to Marwen" – a movie disliked by both viewers and critics (except me) – but he did the impossible and turned a very strange character into a sympathetic one. I think history will judge his performance kindly.

Lead Actress

Yalitza Aparicio, "Roma"
Glenn Close, "The Wife"
Lady Gaga, "A Star Is Born"
Olivia Colman, "The Favourite"
Melissa McCarthy, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

Surprises: Not that I expected it, but Elsie Fisher was superb in "Eighth Grade" and more than deserved a nomination. Then again, I can understand the hang-up about not wanting to ruin a child actor's life by giving her too much too soon. That would be even worse than middle school.

Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali, "Green Book"
Adam Driver, "BlackKKlansman"
Sam Elliott, "A Star Is Born"
Richard E. Grant, "Can You Ever Forgive Me"
Sam Rockwell, "Vice"

Surprises: Sam Elliott wasn't expecting to be nominated, so I wasn't expecting it either.

Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, "Vice"
Marina de Tavira, "Roma"
Regina King, "If Beale Street Could Talk"
Emma Stone, "The Favourite"
Rachel Weisz, "The Favourite"

Surprises: Meryl Streep wasn't nominated for "Mary Poppins Returns." She's always nominated. Okay, I'm only kidding – somewhat!

As I mentioned above, "Crazy Rich Asians" is nowhere to be found this year. At the very least, Michelle Yeoh should have had this category sewn up.


Spike Lee, "BlacKkKlansman"
Pawel Pawlikowski, "Cold War"
Yorgos Lanthimos, "The Favourite"
Alfonso Cuarón, "Roma"
Adam McKay, "Vice"

Surprises: Bradley Cooper was widely expected to be among the nominees in this category for "A Star is Born," but I guess a star wasn't born in this case.

Animated Feature

"Incredibles 2"
"Isle of Dogs"
"Ralph Breaks the Internet"
"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"

Surprises: Don't be surprised when "Spider-Man" wins.

I'm not sure "Welcome to Marwen" would even be eligible for this category considering that it has live action sequences too, but I personally found the animation impressive.

Original Screenplay

"First Reformed"
"Green Book"
"The Favourite"

Surprises: Bo Burnham was robbed – I guess the writing in "Eighth Grade" wasn't "flashy" enough for the Academy?

Best Documentary Feature

"Free Solo"
"Hale County This Morning, This Evening"
"Minding the Gap"
"Of Fathers and Sons"

Surprises: It's not a good day in the neighborhood, as the Mr. Rogers documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" was surprisingly snubbed.

Other thoughts: Kevin Hart was originally scheduled to host the ceremony, until he stepped down after old homophobic jokes of his surfaced. No one replaced him. Why? Probably because it's a thankless job with very little upside, especially with the way ratings have steadily declined over the years. The show is a slog to watch at the best of times, so how will it work without a host to break up the monotony? Kevin Hart would have done a good job, but he botched his "apology" tour with a series of clumsy foot-in-mouth non-apologies and justifications. Not even Ellen's endorsement could save him. The question now becomes, who will save us from four-and-a-half hours of self-congratulatory mind-numbing boredom.

The rest of the categories and nominees are: 

Adapted Screenplay

"The Ballad of Buster Scruggs"
"Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
"If Beale Street Could Talk"
"A Star Is Born"

Animated Short

"Animal Behaviour"
"Late Afternoon"
"One Small Step"


"Cold War"
"The Favourite"
"Never Look Away"
"A Star Is Born"

Best Documentary Short Subject

"Black Sheep"
"End Game"
"A Night at the Garden"
"Period. End of Sentence."

Best Live Action Short Film


Best Foreign Language Film

"Cold War"
"Never Look Away"

Film Editing

"Bohemian Rhapsody"
"Green Book"
"The Favourite"

Sound Editing

"A Quiet Place"
"Black Panther"
"Bohemian Rhapsody"
"First Man"

Sound Mixing

"Black Panther"
"Bohemian Rhapsody"
"First Man"
"A Star Is Born"

Production Design

"Black Panther"
"The Favourite"
"First Man"
"Mary Poppins Returns"

Original Score

"Black Panther"
"If Beale Street Could Talk"
"Isle of Dogs"
"Mary Poppins Returns"

Original Song

"All The Stars" from "Black Panther"
"I'll Fight" from "RBG"
"Shallow" from "A Star Is Born
"The Place Where Lost Things Go" from "Mary Poppins Returns"
"When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings" from "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs"

Makeup and Hair

"Mary Queen of Scots"

Costume Design

"The Ballad of Buster Scruggs"
"Black Panther"
"The Favourite"
"Mary Poppins Returns"
"Mary Queen of Scots"

Visual Effects

"Avengers: Infinity War"
"Christopher Robin"
"First Man"
"Ready Player One"
"Solo: A Star Wars Story"

Monday, January 7, 2019

Review: Welcome to Marwen

The (Second) Life and Art of Mark Hogencamp

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: December 21st, 2018 – U.S. • Rating: PG-13 • Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama • Running Time: 116 minutes • Director: Robert Zemeckis • Writers: Robert Zemeckis, Caroline Thompson • Cast: Steve Carell, Merritt Wever, Leslie Mann, Falk Hentschel, Matt O'Leary, Patrick Roccas, Alexander Lowe, Eiza González, Leslie Zemeckis, Gwendoline Christie, Stefanie von Pfetten, Janelle Monáe, Neil Jackson

"I decided I'm not going to lie in my second life. I always tell the truth and tell people who I am, because why should I be afraid to tell you who I am?"

– Mark Hogencamp (from his book Welcome to Marwencol)

"Welcome to Marwen" is a weird movie. Not just original (which it certainly is) and not just unique (although it also is), but weird. But then, art is often weird, and so too are artists. 

Mark Hogencamp was a cross-dressing alcoholic nearly killed outside a bar for talking about wearing women's shoes and left brain-damaged and amnesiac after the attack. It's a role that could possibly have only been played by Steve Carell. In almost any other actor's hands, Hogencamp's odd/unique/weird/fill-in-the-blank personality traits would have dominated the performance – but Carell focuses on the humanity and sweetness inherent in the real-life Hogencamp. 

As the movie begins, the viewer is thrust into the middle of a World War II dogfight. However, it quickly becomes apparent that something is amiss. It's clearly Carell flying the plane, but he looks like a doll! And the aircraft looks like something from a model kit. The background seems kind of artificial as well. 

Welcome to Marwen.

Marwen is a fictional WWII-era town in Belgium comprised solely of dolls and the miniature locations built to host them. It's the brainchild of artist and photographer Mark Hogencamp and the home of the heroic Hogie – the doll that serves as his alter-ego. Also residing there are several Nazi soldiers who are repeatedly killed and come back to life like characters respawning in a video game, the Women of Marwen who oppose them every step of the way, and the enigmatic Deja Thoris – the Belgian Witch of Marwen.

Are you still reading this?

Yeah, it's easy to see why "Welcome to Marwen" sharply divided critics and didn't light up the box office, but certain viewers will certainly find a lot to like here. I was one of them, for reasons I'll get into later in this review.

In actuality, Hogencamp's visual art and storytelling are conveyed through stunning still photographs of the dolls he customizes and the models and sets he painstakingly builds. In the film, they're brought to life through a series of ambitious animated sequences. Interspersed throughout are scenes of Hogencamp's bleaker reality, where it becomes clear that every character in Marwen is based on someone he knows (Janelle Monáe of "Hidden Figures" appears in one such dual role, and his real-life attackers take the form of Nazi officers in Marwen). 

Roberta (Merritt Wever) is the owner of the hobby shop in town Mark uses to build Marwen. She has clearly taken an interest in him, but the feeling is either not noticed or mutual. Then a new neighbor moves across the street – Nicol "without the e" (Leslie Mann) – who Hogencamp is instantly smitten with. It isn't long before she becomes Marwen's newest resident.

Readers of the book Welcome to Marwencol and viewers of the documentary "Marwencol" will notice several major changes typical of a "based on a true story" Hollywood production, but I was able experience "Welcome to Marwen" on its own terms because I saw the first film and read the book after.

Director Robert Zemeckis (probably best known for "Back to the Future" and "Forrest Gump") does an outstanding job of portraying Mark Hogencamp's fictional world through animation, just as Hogencamp himself does through his artistic photography. Creative types will tell you that there's a whole world living inside their heads – which only comes out through their writing, drawing, painting, photography, or whatever their preferred art form happens to be. "Welcome to Marwen" brings that process to life. It's not a perfect movie or one I could ever blindly recommend, but if you consider yourself a creative person, "Marwen" will probably speak to you.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Review: The Samuel Project

Art. History. Life.

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 5th, 2018 – U.S. • Rating: PG-13 • Genre: Drama • Running Time: 93 minutes • Director: Marc Fusco • Writers: Marc Fusco, Chris Neighbors, Steve Weinberger • Cast: Hal Linden, Ryan Ochoa, Michael B. Silver, Mateo Arias, Philippe Bowgen, Catherine Siggins, Callie Gilbert, Pia Thrasher, Trina Kaplan, Dylan James Weinberger, Malina Moye, Liza Lapira

"You're a lucky kid."

That's what Samuel Bergman (the great Hal Linden of "Barney Miller" fame) tells his 17-year-old grandson, Eli (Ryan Ochoa). 

The teenager retorts that "old people" – "adults," he quickly corrects himself – always say that.

In this case, it's true. But Grandpa isn't talking.
A surprise letter leads to an unexpected meeting between Samuel and a dear old friend of his named Uma (Trina Kaplan). 

Eli is full of questions:

– Who is this woman?

– How does Samuel know German?

– What is the story behind the teenage girl and the bandaged boy in the photograph Eli saw?

Questions without answers, because Grandpa still isn't talking. 

It would end up being Samuel's last meeting with Uma.

Not even Matzo Ball Soup – courtesy of a surprise nighttime visit from Eli – is enough to get the old man to open up. Some things are too tough to talk about.

The reason for the soup and the visit: Samuel doesn't show up for work that morning. He runs a successful dry-cleaning business in San Diego. One of Samuel's employees has been there eight years and says his boss has never missed a day of work in all that time. Samuel is the best in town, according to his customers – even if he can't ever seem to remove a stain from the butcher's apron. The butcher's name is Vartan (Ken Davitian), and he comes around to the store not only to have his clothes cleaned, but also to exchange constant verbal jabs with Samuel and continue their seemingly never-ending chess game on a board set up behind the counter. 

Meanwhile, Eli wants to be an artist – much to the chagrin of his father, Robert (Michael B. Silver), who is still struggling to pay the bills even with a "real job." Robert's advice: go to community college, get a degree in a stable profession, and be an artist on the weekend. But Eli has to be an artist now because he has been assigned a "historia" project in Mr. Turner's (Philippe Bowgen) media class. The winning entry gets a scholarship to art school, which Eli desperately needs because he doesn't have his father's support – financial or otherwise. Samuel doesn't quite understand his grandson's "doodles" either, but he's fascinated that people can actually make a living doing that.

For the project, Eli pairs up with Kasim (Mateo Arias), a brooding musician who is being pressured into working at his father's butcher shop. (Free Matzo Ball soup to anyone who can figure out which character Kasim is related to.) Even Eli – reflecting his own father's dream-crushing negativity – thinks Kasim's future is as a butcher. (Another free bowl of Matzo Ball Soup if you can figure out what – and who – Eli and Kassim's project will be about.)

The way to a man's heart is usually through his stomach, but as we saw with Eli's offer of Matzo Ball Soup, that doesn't work with Samuel. In this case, the way to a man's heart is through is through free employment. Eli offers to work at the dry-cleaning store before and after school without pay if Samuel will open up to him. That story – about a young boy whose entire family was torn away from him in the blink of an eye by the Nazis, the teenage girl who rescued him from a gunshot wound inflicted by her own father, and his eventual journey to America all alone – becomes the basis for both Eli's project and the movie itself. 

"The Samuel Project" works because all of the characters come across as real people. Their interactions feel natural. There's a certain "lived-in" quality to everything we see in the movie. Much of that has to be credited to masterful veteran actor Hal Linden, whose "Barney Miller" is still considered one of the most realistic cop characters and shows ever put to film – but his Samuel Bergman is a worthy successor several decades later. Young Ryan Ochoa is every bit as good as his experienced co-star and has a bright future ahead of him if this movie is any indication. The teacher, Mr. Turner, is played nicely by Philippe Bowgen – with the sharp, sarcastic edge of a jaded instructor who still cares about and encourages the students willing to put in the time and effort. Ken Davitian, as the butcher, is an entertaining presence who adds just the right touch of lightness to his scenes. Mateo Arias does the same as Eli's project partner, Kasim. 

There are no major surprises in "The Samuel Project," but there don't need to be. It shines because it shows all of those little moments that come with living a life. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Review: Crazy Rich Asians

A Crazy Rich Cinematic Experience

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: August 15th, 2018 – U.S. • Rating: PG-13 • Genre: Comedy, Romance • Running Time: 121 minutes • Director: Jon M. Chu • Writers: Peter Chiarelli (screenplay), Adele Lim (screenplay), Kevin Kwan (novel) • Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Michelle Yeoh

Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy takes girl to Singapore meet his parents and attend a wedding. Boy neglects to tell girl he's from one of the richest and most famous families in all of Asia. (Boy uses girl's Netflix password instead of having his own account, so how could she possibly know?)

That's the tantalizing premise behind "Crazy Rich Asians." 

Much has been made of the fact that this is the first American film since "The Joy Luck Club" in 1993 to feature an all-Asian cast. It's a historic and long overdue development. But let's face it: anything historic doesn't always sound like very much fun. Rest assured, that isn't a problem here. This movie is a pure joy to watch from beginning to end.

Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, "Fresh Off the Boat") has no idea what she's in for when her boyfriend, Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding in his first film role), invites her to Singapore. Nick Young is a household name in Singapore. Before he even finishes telling his mother he's bringing Rachel with him, everyone in the family – and everyone in Singapore – knows her name too. That's how much status the Young family has.

As Rachel experiences for the first time the overwhelming opulence and extreme extravagance the Youngs are accustomed to, so too does the audience. Watching "Crazy Rich Asians" is like going on an all-expenses-paid vacation to Singapore that you could otherwise never afford. You'll meet memorable characters, in breathtaking locales, wearing gorgeous outfits, eating mouth-watering food – be sure to grab a bite before the film, or you'll be ravenously hungry long before the credits roll! The Royal Wedding seems humble compared to the Young Wedding.

But if I'm making "Crazy Rich Asians" sound like a glorified travel program or reality show, nothing could be further from the truth. The movie wouldn't work if it was only a surface-level look at the glitz, glamour, and excesses of a wealthy and well-known family. 

One of the main themes in the film is the perceived differences between people who are Chinese from those who are Chinese-American. Children of immigrants from any country or culture can relate. 

There are also differences between the "old money" Youngs and other families in Singapore. While the Goh clan is presented as wacky and played for laughs, they are also unapologetically themselves and instantly warm, inviting, and accepting of Rachel and everyone else they meet. (Awkwafina – whose over-the-top character is described in the movie as an "Asian Ellen" – and "The Hangover's" Mr. Chow, Ken Jeong, play two members of the outrageous Goh family.) 

Meanwhile, the matriarch of the Young family, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, in an Oscar-worthy performance), is cold, distant, and critical of her "chosen one" son's American girlfriend. And she is far from the only one at the wedding who is unhappy about Rachel's presence. 

However, not everyone shares those views. Astrid (Gemma Chan) and Oliver ("Superstore's" Nico Santos) are happy for Nick and Rachel. Astrid is a particularly fascinating character, as she'll think nothing of dropping over a million dollars on ridiculous pearl earrings, yet isn't presented as a spoiled snob. 

Also interesting and perhaps unexpected: the Youngs are a Christian family – there's an early scene of a Bible Club meeting, and the wedding takes place inside a church – which is notable, because Chinese characters are usually depicted as followers of more traditionally-Eastern religions. (However, it should be noted that the characters in the Amy Tan book The Joy Luck Club are also Christian – they attend a Chinese-Baptist Church. I'm not sure if this carries over to the film adaptation, which I haven't seen.) 

But none of that would matter if we didn't care about these people – and we do, thanks to stellar performances by all involved. Constance Wu admirably anchors the movie, serving as the audience's proxy into this unimaginable other world of loud luxury. Henry Golding is incredibly impressive in his first film role – no doubt an instant star-making performance. And if there's any justice in the world, Michelle Yeoh's name will be on the Oscar ballot. 

Beneath a flashy veneer, "Crazy Rich Asians" expertly explores issues of family, culture, finance, and happiness. But it's still a whole lotta fun! This is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable films of the year.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Review: 350 Days

Pro Wrestling from Every Angle

By Chris Sabga

"350 Days" refers to the amount of time the average professional wrestler spent on the road and away from his family. Driving many miles, working through multiple injuries, and combating loneliness, fatigue, and problems at home, they wrestled every night of the week and "twice on Sundays." The highlight of their day was often those few minutes inside the ring. But that wasn't the only thing they had to look forward to! After the matches, they had instant access to drugs, alcohol, and willing women known as "ring rats."

This documentary assembles a who's who of great names to discuss the professional wrestling lifestyle from every perspective:

Tito Santana • "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff • Greg "The Hammer" Valentine • Bret "The Hitman" Hart • Wendi Richter • George "The Animal" Steele • Don Fargo • "Superstar" Billy Graham • Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka • Bruce Allen (Promoter) • JJ Dillon • Ox Baker • The Masked Superstar (Bill Eadie) • Lanny Poffo • Abdullah the Butcher • "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase • Gangrel • Angelo "King Kong" Mosca • Farmer Pete • The Wolfman (Willie Farkas) • Howard Jerome • "Butcher" Paul Vachon • Angelo Savoldi • Stan Hansen • Gino Caruso • Ricky Johnson • Doink the Clown (Ray Apollo) • Lex Luger • Paul Lazenby • Slick (Ken Johnson) • Davey O'Hannon • "Pretty Boy" Larry Sharpe • Ric Drasin • "Cowboy" Johnny Mantell • "Bushwhacker" Luke Williams • Gene LeBell • Don Leo Jonathan • Marty Jannetty • Nikolai Volkoff

Filmed over five years, a staggering number of wrestlers were interviewed for "350 Days." Several of them are no longer with us.

The movie often switches from the silly to the surreal to the sublime, sometimes in the same scene.

One of the highlights: footage featuring the "crazed" Ox Baker preparing a meal in his own kitchen. Was it entirely necessary to include five full minutes of this? Possibly not. But I can't lie: I wouldn't have been in the least bit disappointed if the rest of the film consisted of cooking lessons from Ox Baker.

Here's a picture of Ox Baker, in case you need a visual aid:

This alone would have make Ox Baker a star again – it's a shame he didn't live to see it.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, there's a touching segment with "Superstar" Billy Graham (not the preacher) discussing his health issues. Known for his outrageous catchphrases, such as "the man of the hour, the man with the power, too sweet to be sour," Graham puts aside the bluster of his bombastic character to discuss his battles with Hepatitis C and the young lady who died, which allowed him to live by receiving her liver.

However, Abdullah the Butcher has been accused of infecting other wrestlers with Hepatitis C (not Graham) by using an old razor blade to draw blood in matches – a common, if barbaric, practice in wrestling – but the movie completely ignores his irresponsible, reckless, negligent, and potentially murderous actions. A similar blind eye is also turned to "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka, who allegedly beat his girlfriend to death in 1983. (He was arrested and indicted in 2015, 32 years later. He died in 2017.)

At first, I was distracted by these omissions. The endearing scene of a loving, nurturing "Superfly" feeding and petting adorable farm animals takes on an almost dreamlike quality. People are complicated! But I can also partly understand why the filmmakers decided to shy away from spotlighting such shocking stories. The darker side of these wrestlers' personal live might have overshadowed the rest of the film and obscured the overall purpose of the documentary.

Despite that, there is still plenty of bad behavior to go around.

Bret "The Hitman" Hart spent his entire career portraying a virtuous "Canadian hero." The revelations in "350 Days" won't be surprising to anyone who read his voluminous almost-600-page tome, Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling. But for the average fan, this film will definitely expose a different side of "The Hitman." Anyone who has listened to any recent Bret Hart interviews will already know that he's honest to a fault (potentially the result of a stroke he suffered in 2002). Here, his "Canadian hero" persona is laid bare. In one startling speech, he practically endorses cocaine by fondly reminiscing about the drug while going out of his way to point out that it did not impair him. He claimed to retain everything he ever learned from veteran wrestlers during those powdery bonding sessions. Later, he concedes that drug testing has been good for the industry. "The Hitman" also makes no apologies – and has no regrets – for indulging in extramarital affairs during his career. He said he made many friendships that way. Wrestling is indeed a hard life – as this documentary points out – but coming from the mouth of Bret Hart, you would think he was a combat veteran who served in two World Wars. Then again, "The Hitman" has always taken himself very seriously – as demonstrated in another excellent wrestling documentary, 1998's "Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows."

What makes the movie so fascinating is the often contradictory opinions expressed by different wrestlers on a wide variety of topics. For example, one common belief expressed in the film is that the wrestling business ruins marriages. Lanny Poffo, however, is quick to dispel that notion.

"350 Days" is a revealing look at the human beings behind the wrestling personas. "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff expresses regrets about placing wrestling and money ahead of his family and laments that he can barely move his arm after years of abusing his body in the wrestling ring. "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka somehow come across as calm, clear, and coherent – a far cry from one of his wild "Superfly" wrestling promos that were nearly impossible to decipher – while "Rocker" Marty Jannetty is sadly almost unintelligible.

The sheer breadth of wrestlers interviewed in "350 Days" is ultimately what gives this documentary its considerable depth. 

Friday, June 1, 2018

Review: Bipolar Rock 'N' Roller

How Mauro Ranallo Became the Most Trusted Voice in Wrestling, Boxing, and MMA

By Chris Sabga

"Mamma Mia!"

That is Mauro Ranallo's catchphrase and rallying cry. When he unleashes it in the middle of a heated wrestling match, you know he's excited about the action in the ring. He's bouncing with energy, and taking the fans right along with him.

Listening to Mauro's creative commentary and infectious enthusiasm, it would be easy to mistake him for a happy-go-lucky guy who is always smiling and full of joy. In reality, every day is an exhausting mental and emotional struggle for Mauro Ranallo.

Showtime's "Bipolar Rock 'N' Roller" takes a hard look at Mauro's battle with bipolar disorder. The documentary's depiction of the disease is as raw and real as it gets. No attempt is made to ease the audience into it or smooth out the rough edges. The film is intentionally uncomfortable.

We've all heard stories about people drifting aimlessly through their 20s. Mauro Ranallo's circumstances during those years were far more serious and dire. He spent his entire 20s in and out of mental institutions. His first breaking point came after the sudden shock of his best friend's death at the all-too-young age of 19. For Mauro, it was like losing a brother.

Among the tragedies, there are also many triumphs. Early footage of a teenage Mauro as a heel (bad guy) motormouth for a local wrestling show in Vancouver is great fun to watch. In general, combat sports – pro wrestling, boxing, and mixed martial arts – would become a safe haven for Mauro Ranallo.

Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor was a "dream match" between a boxer and an MMA fighter that fans of both sports clamored for and debated endlessly. Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa was a slow-burning, smoldering, bitter rivalry between former tag team partners that diehard wrestling fan couldn't wait to see. Mauro Ranallo was the voice of both.

Mauro Ranallo's bombastic commentary style is often the subject of discussion. His love of language and steady stream of pop culture references are two of his unmistakable trademarks. The reason: merely "calling the fight" is anathema to Mauro, as we see in one scene where he berates himself for doing too much paint-by-numbers play-by-play during one event. His goal, he explains, is always to be a storyteller and entertainer. Through tireless research and copious notes, he constantly strives to be as creative as possible.

Bipolar disorder used to be referred to as manic depression, and it's obvious that the "manic" side aids his commentary at times. WWE released footage of Mauro's "priceless reactions" during the Gargano-Ciampa match. He can barely sit still.

Treatment for bipolar disorder is covered at length in the documentary, including – surprisingly – marijuana, which Mauro freely admits is his medication of choice. His reasoning make sense: When he would ask doctors how or why certain pills, doses, and combinations worked, they were often unsure. Because he had no way of knowing exactly what he was putting into his body or what it would do to him, he felt more comfortable treating his mental illness with marijuana.

Some would say that Mauro Ranallo succeeded despite bipolar disorder, while others would argue that his greatest successes may very well be because of the disease. Both are true and neither are true. It's more complicated than that. What cannot be debated, however, is the common denominator in both of those statements: his success. Because "Bipolar Rock 'N Roller" never sugarcoats Mauro Ranallo's struggles or minimizes the realities of mental illness, his success story ultimately serves as a message of hope.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Review: I Can Only Imagine

The True Story of the Man Behind the Music

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: March 16th, 2018 – U.S.
Rating: PG
Genre: Drama, Family, Biography
Running Time: 110 minutes
Directors: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin
Writers: Alex Cramer (story), 
Jon Erwin, Brent McCorkle
Cast: J. Michael Finley, Brody Rose, 
Madeline Carroll, Trace Adkins, 
Cloris Leachman, Dennis Quaid

"I Can Only Imagine" by Bart Millard and his band MercyMe is the bestselling Christian song of all-time. It attained Triple Platinum status, with over 2.5 million in sales, and became a massive crossover hit that reached secular audiences as well.

The film of the same name tells the true story of Bart Millard and how the song came to be.

Growing up, Millard (played as a boy by Brody Rose, in a heartbreaking performance) is abused by his dad, Arthur (Dennis Quaid), whose only facial expression is a deep scowl of disapproval and discontent. He actively discourages his son from following his musical dreams. "Dreams don't pay the bills," he lectures. "Nothing good comes from them. All it does is keeping you from knowing what is real."

His mother, Adele (Tanya Clarke), and his "Memaw" (Cloris Leachman) try their best to look out for him. Adele sends her son to a week-long Christian camp, where he meets Shannon (Taegen Burns), who has been harboring a secret crush on him. It's the best week of his life. But everything changes for the worse when he comes back home.

Left alone to fend for himself, Bart (J. Michael Finley) eventually abandons his music to play football – because it's the only thing he and his father can find common ground on. An injury leads Bart to the one extracurricular activity in school that's still open: Glee Club. There, he meets a teacher (Priscilla C. Shirer) who encourages and nurtures his musical talent.

Through it all, Shannon (now played by Madeline Carroll, who you may remember from "Swing Vote" and "Flipped") has remained by his side.

After high school, he leaves town and forms a band – MercyMe – whose name comes from an expression his "Memaw" used. To get their big break, they need to impress Brickell (the always solid Trace Adkins). Bart is full of himself but Brickell brings him back down to earth. "I don't think you found your song, found your soul," he cautions. Until Bart can tap into something's real, he advises, MercyMe will never truly succeed.

Bart's troubles – with his music and girlfriend – send him on a soul-searching journey back home, back to the father who abused him. But his dad is no longer the same man. There's now a Bible by his bedside and a ticking clock on his lifespan.

Through those trials and tribulations, Bart puts pen to paper and writes "I Can Only Imagine." It eventually reaches the hands of beloved Christian singer Amy Grant (Nicole DuPort), whose angelic voice lifted Bart up during some very tough times in his life. What happens next is probably unheard of in both the music and entertainment industries at large.

Because of Bart Millard's beliefs, "I Can Only Imagine" is considered a Christian movie. But it doesn't make the same mistakes most religious films do. 99% of movies that call themselves "Christian" focus first and foremost on religion, at the expense of story and character. They're heavy-handed, preachy, unrealistic, and intelligence-insulting. They don't operate in the real world. "I Can Only Imagine" works because it's about people who are Christian instead of being a blunt manifesto on Christianity itself. Like the song that inspired it, the film version of "I Can Only Imagine" will be able to cross over and appeal to audiences from all walks of life. Many Christian films are too narrow in scope to be enjoyed by anyone other than priests, nuns, and pastors – and even they're probably secretly rolling their eyes at the majority of the genre. I can only imagine most of them used a few unholy words to describe what cockamamie drivel "God's Not Dead" was. (I'm a fan of David A.R. White, who produces and acts in those movies, but he can do so much better.) If their ultimate goal is to reach more people with their message, they're failing miserably by playing only to their own base and no one else. "I Can Only Imagine" avoids the same pitfalls.

Bart Millard claims it took him only ten minutes to write the song that would launch his career, but as the movie says and shows, it really took him a lifetime. Whether it was "God's hand," life's random but always unpredictable circumstances, or both, the process that led to the creation of "I Can Only Imagine" is a fascinating one to watch unfold onscreen.