‘Father Stu’ Goes All In on Redemption

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Father Stu (CREDIT: Karen Ballard/Columbia Pictures)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz, Aaron Moten, Cody Fern, Malcolm McDowell

Director: Rosalind Ross

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: R for Not-Very-Priestly Language

Release Date: April 13, 2022 (Theaters)

Religion and certainty are a dangerous combination. That’s why my skepticism alarms go off whenever stereotypical “faith-based” films saunter in, what with their tendency to be so sure about themselves when it comes to metaphysical mysteries. But a more difficult struggle with Christianity is rife for compelling drama, which brings us to Father Stu. Based on the true story of a boxer who hangs up his gloves and heads to the seminary, it presents a complicated crossroads between these two extremes. The title character doesn’t do half-measures, so when he hears God calling, nobody can stand in his way. But within the certainty of his vocation, he recognizes and embodies the doubts that the faithful wrestle with every day.

Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) has plenty of reasons to reject the notion of a merciful deity. His brother died when they were kids, his dad (Mel Gibson) is an alcoholic deadbeat, and he’s getting a little too old for his boxing career to go anywhere promising. And when he first joins the Church, it’s not like his intentions are exactly pure, as he’s just trying to win over the woman he has a crush on (Teresa Ruiz). It’s actually tragedy that leads him to the collar, as a horrific motorcycle accident leaves him in a coma during which visions of the Virgin Mary suddenly steer him to a life of shepherding his flock. After he hustles his way into a seminary despite the skepticism of an image-conscious monsignor (Malcolm McDowell), he is felled once again, this time by a diagnosis of inclusion body myositis, a degenerative disease that will shut down his muscles just when he’s figured out what he wants to do with them.

What struck me most powerfully about Father Stu was its honesty about the contradictions inherent to a priestly life. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has certain rules and regulations, but they can easily get in the way of the message of redemption at the heart of the religion. And while priests are expected to take a vow of celibacy, that doesn’t take away their capacity for romance. They can choose not to act on these feelings, of course, but that doesn’t relieve them of the emotional fallout that remains in their past, and current, relationships. This is a thoroughly Catholic tale that will probably resonate most strongly with the already converted. Nevertheless, its plea for redemption is fully inclusive: it acknowledges the doubts worth having about religion, while remaining certain that its story needs to be told.

Father Stu is Recommended If You Like: A rousing homily

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Baptisms

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Daddy’s Home 2’ is Amiably, Almost Transcendently Sweet, Except When Its Nasty Side Mucks Things Up

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, John Lithgow, Mel Gibson, Linda Cardellini, Alessandra Ambrosio, John Cena

Director: Sean Anders

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Alarmingly Near-Lethal Accidents and the Budding Birds and Bees

Release Date: November 10, 2017

There is a principle in improv comedy that stresses avoiding introducing conflict too quickly, as arguments can be anathema to the performative harmony required by yes-and’ing. That same advice is not as often applied to a scripted narrative, as conflict is frequently the engine that drives the plot. But for a family-centric hangout comedy like Daddy’s Home 2, which derives its most humorous moments out of character-based foibles, it might actually be best to keep conflict to a minimum. For its first 30 minutes or so, this sequel easily bests its original by allowing its blended families to be mostly harmonious. But it cannot quite quit its nasty, mean-spirited streak. Still, there are enough moments that genuinely convey the magic of the holidays and the power of choosing love over frustration for this to mostly be a success.

When we first check back in on Brad (Will Ferrell) and Dusty (Mark Wahlberg), they’re the perfect picture of co-dadding. Whenever they are told that theirs is a strange arrangement between father and stepfather, they do not care, because they genuinely get along with each other now, despite their significant differences. But all is not 100% well, as the kids are not fans of swinging back and forth between two houses, especially on Christmas. The solution: one big holiday getaway with all the kids and all the parents, with Brad’s dad Don (John Lithgow) and Dusty’s dad Kurt (Mel Gibson) joining to add a few new wrinkles.

The juxtaposition between these two patriarchs is where DH2 derives most of its laughs. Don and Brad are unabashedly close, always greeting each other with a kiss on the lips. Dusty, meanwhile, resents Kurt for rarely showing up to be an adequate father and grandfather. These stark differences could lead to a bunch of cheap gags, but instead the interplay between this quartet remains mostly palatable, thanks to the sweet treatment of Don and Brad’s closeness, Kurt not being as much of a Neanderthal as the previews implied, and the film clearly presenting his absenteeism and macho bullshit as bad things. Plus, Brad and especially Don avoid being bullied by remaining confident in their identities and playfully acknowledging Dusty and Kurt’s different personal styles.

Thus why it is too bad that DH2 cannot trust itself to maintain this bonhomie. Every little disagreement and accident gets blown way out of proportion. Sure, even people who get along get on each other’s nerves every once in a while, but generally they do not turn into completely unrecognizable assholes, as they do in this film. There are plenty of funny moments of folks just goofing off, so there is no comedic need for all the shouting and chaos.

This over-the-top-tendency does not even touch on the moments of (unintentional?) pure horror, when mishaps with heavy machinery and weaponry result in main characters just a few inches away from death. A snow blower gets stuck in Christmas lights and flies around the house! An errant chainsaw nearly impales Brad! Don gets lost and is almost left facedown in the snow overnight! A shotgun accidentally fires, and the bullet grazes Kurt’s arm! Somehow all this madness leads to a genuinely heartwarming conclusion that almost makes all these extremes almost forgivable.

One particularly insightful scene represents what Daddy’s Home 2 is at its best and for a few minutes, places it among the upper tier of 2017’s cinematic offerings. It is telling that this film understands certain improv principles, as an outing at an improv show demonstrates the danger and revelations that can happen at a live comedy performance. Don has been taking improv classes, so Brad has volunteered him as an audience participant. A prompt for the scene hits a little close to home, exposing the secrets cracking away at his endlessly chipper façade. The wrenching agony on Lithgow’s face presents an actor at the top of his game, always giving his all no matter how silly or sentimental the material.

Daddy’s Home 2 is Recommended If You Like: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, The Other Guys, Anything with John Lithgow

Grade: 3 out of 5 Loaded Guns (Literal and Metaphorical)

This Is a Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge

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hacksaw_ridge_andrew_garfield

I don’t like war movies. I appreciate when they, like Hacksaw Ridge, are especially explicit about the bodily destruction, but then it just underscores how much war has existed and how much it continues to exist. It is somewhat heartening to see a conscientious objector like Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) focused on rescuing the rest of his platoon instead of killing, but his story just makes me wish he could be saving people from natural disasters instead and that the war had never happened in the first place. I’m not naively suggesting that war will just magically end if we want it to. What I’m getting at is: it is paradoxical to me to attempt to mentally process a well-made war film.

I give everyone involved making Hacksaw Ridge my appreciation but hope that it could have been for something else.