Seeking Out Cinema's Hidden Gems

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

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.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The 90th Annual Academy Awards: Results and Reactions

"The Shape of Water" vs. "Three Billboards" – or Will They Have to Get Out for "Get Out"?

By Chris Sabga

Nothing was going to top the chaos and buzz of last year's Oscars, but the 90th annual Academy Awards felt like its age.
Before the Show

Jimmy, Warren, Faye, and That Mix-Up!

A year ago, I wrote:

To Jimmy Kimmel's credit, the lengthy ceremony raced by. This may be the most fun I've had watching the Oscars in years."

Part of that was because of last year's shocking "twisting ending," which became the "water cooler moment" of the broadcast.

"La La Land" was announced as Best Picture – and then it wasn't. In a stunning faux pas by presenters and "Bonnie and Clyde" stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, it turns out the wrong movie was named. (They were somehow mistakenly handed the envelope for Best Actress, which went to Emma Stone for "La La Land.") Their error was acknowledged – as the world collectively held their breath and gasped – and then the actual winner was announced: "Moonlight" scored Best Picture in one of the most surprising upsets in Oscar history.

Jimmy is back this year, and so are Warren and Faye – but I don't expect lightning to strike twice. If anything, I'm anticipating an even more by-the-books and controlled ceremony than usual, and that's really saying something considering how stuffy and rigid the Oscars normally are.

Any Potential Surprises?

The "safe money" seems to be on "The Shape of Water" or "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." But will the entrenched "business-as-usual older Oscar voters split the vote between the two projected front-runners, paving the way for another film entirely to reap the big reward? Could the Academy's efforts to recruit a younger and more diverse voting base end up "playing spoiler" and pushing ahead a movie like the wonderfully creative and buzz-worthy "Get Out" instead?

Full results are listed at the end.

The Oscar Ceremony

The Host: The opening monologue was more serious than usual. Only a few clever jokes broke up the unusually heavy atmosphere.

Between Parkland, #MeToo, and #TimesUp, there's not much to laugh about these days. As Kimmel said later on, "reality can be depressing."

Still, Jimmy is a natural and can easily do this for another ten years like Billy Crystal and Bob Hope before him.

Best Oscar Speeches: The speech by the winners of "Coco" about representation – people of all races, colors, and creeds needing to see themselves on screen – was possibly the first great one of the night.

Rachel Shenton and Chris Overton using sign language during their entire speech for "The Silent Child" was amazing – and quite fitting considering both the subject matter and star of their movie.

I loved Jordan Peele's speech for Best Original Screenplay. He talked about wanting to give up 20 times because he didn't think anyone would ever actually agree to let him bring "Get Out" to the screen. I'm glad he kept writing, because not only did he get to make his movie, he won the Oscar for it.

Frances McDormand – long overdue for an Oscar – made an impassioned plea for women's rights and equality. She mentioned the term "inclusion rider" in her speech. What does that mean? According to The Hollywood Reporter, she's asking for "requirements in contracts that provide for gender and racial diversity." I expect that to be the most talked about issue brought up at the Academy Awards, both within the industry and by the moviegoing public at large.

Best Presenters: Eva Marie Saint – who admitted she's older than Oscar – did such a classy job of recapping her career and presenting the award for Costume Design.

Taraji P. Henson positively beamed when she revealed that Mary J. Blige is the first person ever nominated for both Best Song and Best Supporting Actress in the same year.

Lupita Nyong'o and Kumail Nanjiani – two names people "have trouble pronouncing" – were funny, charming, and inspiring. They recounted their journey to the film industry as immigrants from Kenya (Lupita Nyong'o) and "Pakistan and Iowa (Kumail Nanjiani) – two places people in Hollywood can't find on a map."

Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph were hilarious. I love Tiffany Haddish!

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway made the most of their second chance. Their presentation was short but sweet.

I was hoping they would announce a winner that wasn't even nominated – a terrific punchline to last year's monumental mistake – but no one was willing to be that daring this year, much to the show's detriment.

Best Moments: Jimmy Kimmel announced that speeches wouldn't be interrupted by music this year. Instead, Lakeith Stanfield ran out and re-enacted a scene from "Get Out." Oscar winners whose speeches are too long, Kimmel said, will have to "get out." Cute!

The "Price is Right"- like jet ski contest for shortest speech – which was won by Costume Designer Mark Bridges.

Best Dressed: I don't usually care about this, but the timeless Rita Moreno was in the same dress tonight that she wore 55 years ago when she won the Oscar for "West Side Story" in 1962 – and she pulled it off spectacularly!

Biggest Surprise: None in the major categories. Both Documentary awards and the Live Action Short Film winners went against general projections. Otherwise, this was the most predictable Academy Awards in years.

Overall: There were a few good lines, and Kimmel is a comforting presence, but this year's ceremony felt too safe and stuffy. After last year's fiasco, it seemed everyone went out of their way to avoid making any mistakes at all. There were a few good zingers and moments, but almost everything was too buttoned up and restrained. The winners were predictable, and with an overabundance of musical acts, video tributes, and skits, the show was too long.

Full Results

Best Picture: "The Shape of Water"

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Gary Oldman, "Darkest Hour"

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Frances McDormand, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Sam Rockwell, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Allison Janney, "I, Tonya"

Best Director: Guillermo del Toro, "The Shape of Water"

Best Animated Feature: "Coco" – Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson

Best Adapted Screenplay: "Call Me by Your Name" – James Ivory

Best Original Screenplay: "Get Out" – Jordan Peele

Best Foreign Language Film: "A Fantastic Woman" (Chile)

Best Documentary Feature: "Icarus" – Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan

Best Original Song: "Remember Me" from "Coco" – Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez

Best Original Score: "The Shape of Water" – Alexandre Desplat

Best Cinematography: "Blade Runner 2049" – Roger Deakins

Film Editing: "Dunkirk" – Lee Smith

Costume Design: "Phantom Thread" – Mark Bridges

Makeup and Hairstyling: "Darkest Hour" – Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick

Production Design: "The Shape of Water" – Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

Sound Editing: "Dunkirk" – Alex Gibson, Richard King

Sound Mixing: "Dunkirk" – Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo

Visual Effects: "Blade Runner 2049" – John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer

Best Documentary Short: "Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405" – Frank Stiefel

Best Animated Short: "Dear Basketball" – Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant

Best Live Action Short: "The Silent Child" – Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton