The Postman

The Postman

It was Christmas Day 20 years ago when movie theaters across this great land opened their doors to Kevin Costner’s trinimatic masterpiece—The Postman. Yes, I just invented an adjective to describe this film, because inventing new words like “trinimatic” is one of the things I’ve had to do in order to properly survey and review this man’s career. I call The Postman a trinimatic masterpiece, not because it’s a great film, but because it took Costner the Producer, Costner the Actor, and Costner the Director in order to create it—a trinity if you will—three in one. What makes this even more interesting is the fact that, aside from being released on December 25th, it’s also a film with a very specific “messiah” themed allegory running through its many plot holes. It’s not a pure messianic theme. It’s very awkward, very clunky, and it contains some extremely odd story elements that I won’t go into here, but at its core, it has an undeniably obvious “Jesus” flavor to it all. There’s an unlikely hero, a dramatic villain (named General Bethlehem… not sure where to go with that), a ragtag band of disciples, Tom Petty playing himself (may he rest in peace), a mule, a revolution, and at the center of the whole shebang: a pregnant woman with an assault rifle. This movie recipe can work quite well if done with enough tact and cleverness—poor a glass of sci-fi, add a little Jesus, sprinkle in some good old fashioned American patriotism, stir until blended, and serve. The problem with the messianic theme in The Postman is that it’s much more cumbersome than it is clever. But I mean look, this movie is about a mailman who saves humanity by DELIVERING THE MAIL. They had to do something to make it interesting. Still, it’s a good recipe—and this storytelling pattern works pretty good with a variety of different genres.

Side-note: Someone should make a movie called “The Grillmaster,” about a guy who brings civilization back from post apocalyptic destruction by wandering from town to town instructing his disciples on how to properly make barbecue.

I don’t have much else to say about this one. I like to keep things as positive as I can, and the more I try to dig into this, the less positive it’s going to be. It’s clearly not the man’s best film. But at the end of the day, I really think Costner was trying to make a movie about hope. It may come across as pretentious and awkward, but I can’t fault the man for trying to inspire people with a little bit of hope. Know what I mean?

And with that…

We have finally arrived at our destination. We’ve reached the end of the line on this journey down the Costner Trail. I haven’t done these reviews in any specific order, and I’ve obviously only done a selection of Costner’s most notable films. Likewise, I didn’t plan on The Postman being the last film to review in this series, but this is just how it came together, as anti-climactic as it may be. There’s plenty more where this came from though, including a few more westerns, a few more sports dramas, a film with Ashton Kutcher called The Guardian that’s pretty decent—and there’s also 3000 Miles to Graceland where the two Wyatt Earps Costner and Kurt Russell joined forces to play the long lost gangster sons of Elvis Presley–I can’t in good conscious recommend that one, but I just wanted to point out that it exists. Thirteen Days is probably the best movie of his that I haven’t written about—it’s a very interesting look into the Cuban Missile Crisis in case you’re interested.

On a personal note, this whole endeavor has been a good writing exercise for me. I don’t really watch a lot of TV, unless someone recommends something to me. I generally prefer to watch movies. I like to watch at least one movie a week just to unwind a little bit. I also like to write, so writing something about the movies I watch is a great way for me to combine my hobbies I suppose. If you’ve kept up with my reviews, I really appreciate it. Thank you for reading my stuff.

In the words of Kevin Costner: “You just do the things that you love and see if other people can like them too.”

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp

Costner-athon Part Nine

This past week I went back to 1994 by way of 1881 for an arduous viewing of Costner’s sprawling epic on the legendary old west crime boss… sorry, I mean the legendary old west lawman known as Wyatt Earp.

Although a noble attempt was made to watch this as a teen when my parents rented it one time, I’d never actually seen it in its entirety before, and to tell you the truth, it never much interested me. There’s a few reasons for this; for starters, it clocks in at just over 3 hours, which isn’t a problem for a story that moves well and has a good rhythm—but Wyatt Earp is an extremely slow moving behemoth that at times engages one in their own epic struggle to stay fully awake. I did not need to see Wyatt Earp engaging in morning pillow talk with his lifetime collection of various sweethearts. I needed to see him chasing down bad guys, brooding darkly like Bruce Wayne over his terrible responsibilities, and riding like the fourth horseman of the apocalypse across the open prairie. This brings me to my second point—there was another movie about Wyatt Earp that came out only 6 months prior to Costner’s movie which shows him doing all the things just mentioned. Tombstone was not only a great film, but it was clearly the better of the two. It had a much more streamlined story, focused on a narrow section of Earp’s life instead of attempting to explain the entirety of his existence, and it sold the story with action sequences that were probably the best western style, carefully choreographed, and superbly filmed gunfights that had ever appeared in the movies up to that point. In Wyatt Earp, the infamous “gunfight at the OK Corral” is a confusing mess of closeups capturing quick snaps of men shooting guns followed by cutting quickly to closeups of other men falling down. In Tombstone it’s filmed with wide shots of the action that make it look like a dance performance—you can see where everyone is and you never lose track of what’s actually happening during the sequence. Tombstone was also first out of the gate, first to the finish line, and first to capture my imagination when my dad took the family to see it during the winter of ‘94. Lastly, in regards to why Costner’s version never really drew enough interest for me to watch it—our family had just gone on vacation to Arizona that Christmas break before, and I had actually walked through the streets of the real Tombstone—albeit the depressing leftover husk of a tourist trap that had been constructed amidst the bones of the original town. Even so, it was a memorable experience, especially walking through the cemetery connected to the old part of the town. All this to say, that in my mind at the time, watching the movie Tombstone was like the grand finale capping off the experience of seeing the place in person, and regardless of its historical inaccuracies and dramatic licensing, it cemented my perceptions of the characters. As far as I was concerned, Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer were Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. By the time Costner’s version of the story and characters hit theaters 6 months later I was too full. There was simply no room for it in the belly of my brain.

That’s not to say it’s a bad film. It’s just nowhere near as good as its competition. And there was a great deal of competition between these two movies. Costner was originally signed on to play Wyatt Earp in the Tombstone movie, but he clashed with the director’s vision of sacrificing historical accuracy for greater cinematic pay-off. Unable to resolve their differences, Costner jumped ship and began production on his own version of the film with his friend Lawrence Kasdan as the principal screenwriter. As a result, the Costner version does really well at presenting Wyatt Earp, his brothers, their wives, and Doc Holliday as real people, more closely rooted in historical accounts. But the result is that Costner gives us a portrayal of the man that is about as exciting as reading a description of him in a history textbook. On the other hand, Dennis Quaid gives us a version of Doc Holliday that is absolutely magnificent and unique in its own right. It would have been the best version of Holliday to ever be put on film—if Val Kilmer hadn’t already sucked all the wind from the character by disappearing completely into the role and giving the best performance of his entire career. In terms of the best Doc Hollidays to be portrayed in the movies—there can be only one. And (I have to mention this as well), Tombstone has one more thing that Wyatt Earp does not—Sam Elliot—the ace up the sleeve of any proper movie about cowboys and the old west.

As a footnote to all this, sitting silently in the background, is the actual history. And firmly planted just beyond the shadow of the actual history, is the legend. Both Costner’s and Russell’s Earps are based mostly on that legend, even with Costner making greater attempts to cut a path more in line with the history. And the truth is, the fiction of Wyatt Earp, American Hero, is much more interesting than who the guy really was—maybe that’s unfortunate, but it’s what we Americans do with our old west legends. Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Clint Eastwood… all of them have had movies portraying them as legends who were much more grand, noble, and righteous than they ever could have been. The same is true of Wyatt Earp. We know a great deal more about him from documented historical accounts than what our collective cultural identity has chosen to remember. The truth is that the gunfight at the OK Corral was just one small engagement in a larger war for control of Arizona’s mining, gambling, and legal prostitution businesses at the time. The Earp brothers were in the process of building their own family empire on these endeavors when they ran smack dab into the established interests of the local citizen’s co-op known as the Cochise County Cowboys. At the center of their “disagreement” was money, politics, and women—the same things at the root of just about every disagreement since the dawn of civilization. Just to give you an idea of how crazy this was—at one point, before things got really heated, and tensions completely boiled over between the two groups—Wyatt attempted to run for county sheriff against Johnny Behan (the de facto political leader of the Cowboys), but decided to forfeit the race when Behan offered him a deal that would make him deputy sheriff and cut him into a percentage of the Cowboys’ earning pool. After Behan won the race he reneged on the deal, and Wyatt responded by running off with Behan’s fiancé Josephine. Then after all that happened, dudes began firing bullets at each other. Anyway, that’s just a little side note if you’re interested in history.

In conclusion… While I applaud Costner for his commitment to making the film he wanted to make, and sacrificing box office success in the process—I can’t, in good conscience recommend that anyone intentionally set aside three hours of their lives to watch this film. If you want to see the best movie on the subject, just watch Tombstone. If you want to know the real history, well then you have to do something radical and downright revolutionary in this day and age—read a book.


McFarland, USA

McFarland, USA

Something that I’ve found interesting about reviewing Costner’s filmography, and something I hadn’t thought about before entering into this endeavor, is how many of his films remind me of experiences I had while growing up. Sometimes it’s the subject matter that causes me to remember things from my childhood, and sometimes the movies are just a reminder of where I was when I first saw one of his films, and who I was with—either way, it’s been a really cathartic process—using his film career as a vehicle to process some of these old memories lying tucked away in the back rooms of my brain. I didn’t expect that to be the case with the movie I watched this past week. I had never seen McFarland, USA, and I honestly would have most likely overlooked it if a couple of friends had not given me a copy for my birthday (thank you, Jalen and Jordan). But true to form, this movie, which was only released a couple of years ago in 2015 still managed to stoke up some old memories.

You see, this particular Costner film showcases something that I’ve had a troubled personal relationship with throughout my life—running. I guess it all started back in the summer of ’91… well it probably started before that, but back in ’91 some buddies and I were hunkered down in a ditch next to State Road 75 in Coatesville, Indiana, arsenal of water balloons in hand, when without warning I was suddenly called upon to run for my life. I’m not sure who it was that landed a direct hit on the windshield of the passing Audi—but when we heard the tires screeching, and the sounds of a man exiting his vehicle with a slew of cuss words and phrases we had never dared to speak, the concept of trying to hide disappeared—running was the only option—running to avoid being murdered. Alas, to my eternal shame, I was the slowest that afternoon. Being the last to reach the perceived safety of my friend’s garage, and not quick enough to avoid the eyes of our pursuer, I gave away our position and put all of us in jeopardy. I won’t go into the details of what happened in that garage as violence ensued, but if it happened today that man would definitely have been arrested for assaulting and battering four minors. It honestly wasn’t that bad, but he did have two of us by our throats before we managed to reassure him that we were only throwing water balloons and not rocks. Eventually he calmed down, probably realized he would be in more trouble than we would be, and off he went. But we were all pretty shook up. We had suffered our first real defeat at the hands of a madman, and as we went home in shame that evening, it was my head that hung the lowest for being the reason we were caught. I wasn’t fast enough. Running wasn’t my thing. And I was reminded of this fact many times over the next several years, not by my friends, but by a rogues gallery of villains made up of rabid P.E. teachers, chowderheaded jocks, and draconian football coaches. (I know that not all gym teachers, jocks, and football coaches are bad people, but I certainly had to deal with some real jerks in my day). I was the ongoing butt of jokes for the duration of my entire 7th and 8th grade years—all because I was the last guy to finish running laps in gym class everyday. I was on display for the whole class to stare and laugh as I struggled to finish while they stood next to the bleachers and waited. It’s hard not to feel like a low-life in junior high when the entire class is laughing at you, and the teachers are encouraging them to do so. I guess I was just too young at the time to realize they were all morons. So I tried to do better. I even went out for the football team, pressured to do so by the coaches aforementioned, but I couldn’t handle the insane amount of running required during the practices, so—my failure was complete.

And then, a few years later, something really awesome happened to me—something life changing. During my Junior year of high school, my English teacher read some of my papers, noticed that I had a gift, and told me that whatever I chose to do in my life, writing was supposed to be a part of it. She didn’t just tell me that I was good at it—she told me I was the best in the whole class. And she helped me to see something about myself that I didn’t know was good. Every kid out there has something special, something good to offer the world—they just need a good teacher to see what it is, and tell them it’s ok to pursue it with everything they have… unless they’re a psychopath or a pervert, and in that case, maybe they need therapy or tranquilizers, I don’t know.

Now, if you’re still reading this, and I hope you are—you might be asking what this all has to do with McFarland, USA which is a sports film about a high school cross-country team that won the California state championship in 1987. The truth is, that’s only the description you’ll find on the back of the DVD case, or on the IMDb page. A passing first glance will give the impression that this is only another sports drama, but it’s not. This film has something much more rich to offer because it touches on an issue that many Americans seem to still be struggling with these days—cross cultural communication. Unfortunately, xenophobia is alive and well in these United States. I don’t understand why. Racism, nationalism, and the irrational fear and persecution of minorities and people from other countries and ethnic groups are clearly and openly condemned throughout the ENTIRE Bible. And in a country where the majority of people at least claim to be Christians, this type of behavior and these ways of thinking are irrational. But if you don’t read the Bible, and you just listen to the news, or to many Christians in this country, you would think the opposite is true. I don’t know all the reasons why Costner chose to be in this movie—he long ago reached the point in his career when he could make or be in whatever movie he wants to—but maybe it has something to do with what lies at the heart of this film. Costner has always been good at making movies which cut through the barriers of culture and ethnicity. Several of his movies do this. His co-stars are often people of different cultures than his own. In Robin Hood his best friend and fellow soldier is a Muslim warrior. In The Bodyguard he falls in love with a black woman. In Dances with Wolves he assimilates himself into the Lakota. In The Man of Steel he adopts alien Kal-El from the planet Krypton. In Message in a Bottle he becomes enamored with Forrest Gump’s wife. Wait… scratch that last one. You know what I mean.

In McFarland, USA Costner plays the role of Jim White, a real gym teacher and coach who moved his family into the predominantly hispanic and latino town of McFarland in the Central California Valley back in the late 80s. The film takes us through his journey of learning to understand and adapt to the fact that he and his family are the minorities in the town. It’s not an easy journey for them. The film doesn’t sugar coat this. It lays bare all the difficulties that arise when two different cultures have to learn how to live and work with each other. And it shows how beautiful this kind of thing can really be when humility and vulnerability take precedence over pride and ignorance. And as Jim White learns who his students really are, and what their lives are like, he begins to enter into their world. Once he does that, he’s able to find the things that make them special. It’s not just the ability to run quickly—it’s the ability to be relentless, to overcome difficulty, to spit in the face of adversity—and to do so without sacrificing their commitment to their families and friends. Like any good mentor, like any good coach—like my high school English teacher—he finds their gift, and he encourages them to throw everything they have behind it—body, mind, and soul.



Well, after last week’s foray into the dark world of JFK assassination conspiracies, I decided to keep it a bit lighter this week with a viewing of Waterworld. Released in 1995, almost a decade and a half into Costner’s movie career he finally reached his peak — and in the process went careening off the mountaintop in what could best be described as an atomic cannonball into the deep end of a 200 million dollar sea water tank — tank being the key word here. On record as the most expensive movie ever made at the time, Waterworld was a domestic box office disaster. Several months before it was released into theaters that summer, news reports were already decrying it as an inevitable flop; a shambling mess of cinematic production wrought with infighting between Kevin Costner and the director Kevin Reynolds, with a wildly overblown budget that smelled like the hubris of an actor and director who had no where else to go after winning the hand of Maid Marian, rescuing a tribe of Sioux from annihilation, becoming a Baseball prophet, putting Capone in the slammer, saving Whitney Houston from a stalker, and uncovering the plot to kill president Kennedy. I mean, what else can you do after all that?

Well, if your name is Kevin Costner, you can dump millions of your own money into recreating the Madmax franchise in the ocean, grow a pair of gills and webbed feet, blow up an army of chain-smoking numbskulls on jet skis, play it cool while Dennis Hopper calls you a “turd that won’t flush,” bungee jump from what looks like a hot air balloon straight out of the Flintstones, save a group of smug refugees from extinction by salt water, take crayons away from an orphaned 5 year old, and fall in love with Jeanne Tripplehorn before sailing off into the sunset like you just don’t care while on your way to make The Postman. The opening shot of the movie is Costner taking a whiz into a cup, running it through a make-shift chemistry set to give it some carbonation and then drinking it. Yes, folks, the first thing we see in this movie is Costner literally drinking his own urine. Is this a metaphor for the entire production of the film? No comment.

Critics gave Costner a lot of crap for this movie, for all the reasons just mentioned, but I don’t care — I think it’s awesome. Is it a brilliant film? Of course not. Is there anything in it to justify its ridiculous budget? Heavens no. Is this what happens when a man accumulates enough wealth and clout to put whatever he bloody well wants to on film? Heck yes it is. Is it pure 90s action extravaganza? Absolutely. In the same year that gave us Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, Sylvester Stallone as Judge Dredd, and Val Kilmer as the freaking Batman — Waterworld was right where it belonged, forever enshrined between Billy Madison and The Brady Bunch Movie, but inevitably eclipsed by such classics as the first Toy Story, Braveheart, and Apollo 13.

I’ve always had a soft spot for post apocalyptic dystopia… and Taco Bell. The two things go together quite remarkably. And like Taco Bell, which is great in small doses, but gastricly deadly when the object of overindulging, so these post apocalyptic movies and television shows have begun to leave a bad smell behind them nowadays. I apologize, that’s a really gross metaphor… I don’t know where I was going with that. The point is— I was lucky enough to see Waterworld when I was still a young guy, and back then, in the middle of the 90s, these types of stories still had happy endings for the most part. Waterworld, unlike many of the dystopian futures being conjured up in today’s market, still left us with some hope when the credits rolled. That’s good story-telling in my book. And beyond that, it’s just a really fun movie.



When I was about five years old, two things happened that drastically altered my innocent perception of the world at the time. The first thing was seeing President John F. Kennedy’s head exploding on the living room television set while getting ready to go to bed one night. I think I was probably too young for that. I had no idea what a Zapruder even was. The second thing was discovering my grandpa’s stack of Playboys during a game of hide-and-seek at my grandparents’ house. I was definitely too young for that experience. 1983 must have been a rough year for Mom and Dad. They had a lot of explaining to do that year. Their explanation about the magazines was pretty straightforward, though to be honest, after witnessing my mother unleash Hellfire on my grandfather, no explanation was really necessary. But the explanation they provided about the president getting whacked was not as clear. I remember Dad having to assure me—though I remained skeptical for awhile afterwards—that the president I had seen on the television was not the current president at the time. That president, he explained, was Ronald Reagan, and he had survived his shooting. Imagine my five year old brain trying to work this equation out while moping around the playground at recess as the other kids were chasing each other around like monkeys, and you’ll have a pretty accurate picture of my early grammar school days.

I obviously have no idea what it was like for those who lived through those times – not just the Kennedy assassination, but everything else from that era, the Vietnam War, the seemingly imminent threat of nuclear annihilation, the deep division in the country, the riots, the following assassinations of Dr. King and President Kennedy’s brother… but as a kid who gradually discovered these things from a considerable distance, and always through the foggy lens of other peoples’ differing views, it all sounded a lot like a very dark fairy tale—the kind you didn’t want to hear before going to bed at night. I knew I was supposed to learn something from it, that there was some kind of moral to the story, but I had no idea what it was, and no one else did either. My dad just told me it was a mystery, and that as much as we wanted to know what really happened to JFK, we probably never would. And he encouraged me not to think so much about it. So I didn’t. And when Oliver Stone’s 1991 film about the assassination was released it completely escaped my radar. As far as I knew, Kevin Costner was still just Robin Hood.

Then, about 10 years ago, while attending seminary, my brothers and I decided to unwind one evening with a viewing of JFK. I’m sure we had a pot of something on the stove, primed and ready, as we settled in for the three-hour duration of the film, but even so, the experience of seeing that movie wasn’t a relaxing one. It was exercise. It was a marathon of the mentally exhausting variety. Don’t get me wrong though. The film is brilliant; the work of a mad genius, and I’m pretty sure it accomplished exactly what Stone wanted it to accomplish – which as far as I can tell was to drudge up something from the nasty bog where United States History goes to die, and shine light on it in an effort to make people do that thing that we sometimes prefer not to do in these matters – think. And by the time I was done thinking, I was exhausted. The same was true this week when I watched it again. Stone and Costner didn’t just make a film about the determined lawyer in New Orleans named Jim Garrison who wanted to dig until he found the truth – they made a documentary of the crime, presented all the evidence, stated their case, and then used the film medium as a vehicle to get it where it needed to go so ordinary people could access it and make sense out of it. They succeeded in this. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the hypothesis, they did an excellent job in presenting it. The true brilliance of the movie is that you can’t separate the film from the historical account. They’re woven together in such a way that forces the viewer to examine the facts and consider the possible explanations in the same way the courtroom jury is doing in the third act of the movie. Wherever possible, Stone used real video and audio from the time period, along with painstakingly accurate recreations of incidents that were captured on film, including Abraham Zapruder’s home movie, and the news footage of Oswald’s murder. And to drive the intention of all this home, in the final courtroom scene, as Costner’s character is making his closing argument to the jury, he looks directly into the camera to deliver his final line, “it’s up to you.”

So what is the hypothesis of the film? If you haven’t seen it, or you don’t think you ever will, I’ll try and break it down for you as best I can. And there’s really two parts to the hypothesis. The first part deals with HOW Kennedy was assassinated, and takes a very simple and direct look at the forensic evidence – the Zapruder film which establishes the time frame and the exact place of the assassination, the number of shots that were fired, where they were fired from, the trajectory of the bullets, the autopsy photos, and other things of this nature. This is basically all the stuff that could not be faked, so if there was a conspiracy, the forensic evidence had to be cleaned up, wiped away, lost, or hidden from the public, and most of it was – even the Zapruder film was hidden from the public for many years after the assassination. An honest look at the HOW leads to one basic conclusion: that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have killed President Kennedy alone, even if he was the best sniper to have ever lived. Just to clarify: I’m not commenting on what I personally believe, I’m just relaying what the filmmakers have shown.

The second part of the film’s hypothesis is much more difficult to process. This deals with WHY Kennedy was killed. This is the realm where all the conspiracy theories come into play, and though there are many, the film focuses primarily on one. Most of the exposition for this theory is delivered by Donald Sutherland who shows up in the middle of the film as a sort of retired black ops agent with no name – his character delivers the goods to Costner who incorporates it into his investigation. The theory is as follows: John F. Kennedy was a very young man who inherited the presidency of the two old war horses before him, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. From the beginning, he was at odds with the Military Commanders in the Pentagon and the CIA. He failed to support their actions, fired many of them, and ultimately planned to keep the U.S. from fully committing to open war in Vietnam. None of that stuff is conjecture, and in fact, there’s a recent Ken Burns documentary available from PBS on the Vietnam War that is probably the most exhaustive work ever done on the subject. I watched some of the episodes before writing this review just to make sure I had somewhat of a grasp on what was going on. But it explains the troubled relationship between Kennedy’s White House and the rest of the government in 1962 and 1963. All of that is undisputed fact as far as I can tell. What isn’t provable, and where the film has obviously received the most criticism, is the theory that, because of the disagreements that Kennedy was having with the rest of the government, the CIA and the Pentagon decided to remove him from office via an invisible coup d’etat, for the purposes of putting Lyndon B. Johnson into office – a much more pliable president who was in agreement with the tide of power, rather than planting himself as a levy against it. The additional part of the theory is that Oswald was a very experienced spy, and black ops agent that the CIA commissioned to orchestrate the assassination, and once it was done, they sent Jack Ruby to kill him so no one would ever know. The best conspiracy theories, as they say, are the ones that can neither be proven or disproven.

One very interesting result of the film’s release in 1991 was the overwhelming public demand for the truth. The outcry was apparently so great that George Sr. signed into law the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which was to make all of the government’s documents on the assassination available to the public in 2017. If you’re following the current news, this is beginning to happen, at least in part – though “surprisingly” nothing of any real significance has been discovered. As of the date of this review, there are still a handful of the “most sensitive” documents waiting to be released by the President. If any of Oliver Stone’s theory were true, would they still have documents laying around 50 years later that could prove our government hasn’t been our government since 1963?

I guess, to sum up my honest thoughts about all this—not necessarily the JFK movie—but all the stuff it makes me think about, I have to go back to that part of myself that is still the little kid wandering around the edges of the school playground trying to figure things out for myself. The conclusion I couldn’t seem to find back then, just because I was too young, is the one that I accept now—that there used to be this mythical place called the United States of America. And at some point before I was alive, the king of this land was murdered in broad daylight with the whole country watching. And no one had a definite answer as to why he was killed… just conjectures, just fog, uncertainty, lies, smoke, and shadows. And on that day, because no one could stand up and tell the truth – the myth of America died along with him. And ever since then, we’ve been looking at ourselves, and seeing what is actually here, not the myth, but the reality. My generation, and the generations after us—we grew up in the reality, while being told about the myth. But the two things don’t match. So we’ve found our myths in other stories… in galaxies far far away, in cinematic universes, in books and in fairy tales about people and places that never existed.

And what about the reality of November 22, 1963? What really happened that day? The next guy took the throne and sent over 58,000 Americans to their deaths in an effort to stop a little country in southeast Asia from doing the same thing that our founding fathers did to the British Empire in the 1780s.

My Church History professor in seminary once said that, “given enough time, every institution eventually becomes the exact opposite of what it was originally intended to be.” I’ve pondered his quote many times in the years since I first heard him say it, mostly in an effort to convince myself that it’s not always true. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found any evidence that it’s not. The older I get, the more I read, the more I learn—the more it seems like that old professor knew what he was talking about.


The Untouchables

The Untouchables

The Costner film-of-the-week was The Untouchables, directed by Brian De Palma. That might mean something to you, and it might not, but as directors go, he’s a pretty good one. As far as I can tell this film was the linchpin in Kevin Costner’s successful movie career. He hadn’t really been much of a leading man before it was released in 1987, but after going toe-to-toe with James Bond and Vito Corleone it was clear that he had established himself enough to begin headlining his acting roles from there on out. The following year he would star in Bull Durham, and the year after that was when he did Field of Dreams.

Side note of the week: I’ve had a few requests/inquiries on Bull Durham, so I decided to blitzkrieg my way through it this week as well, and I’ve decided that, after having written an entire review on Field of Dreams which relates baseball to church, there is no way I can write a review on Bull Durham which, holy mackerel Andy, is a movie that relates baseball to sex!


What I found most interesting about The Untouchables is its place in the larger legend surrounding Prohibition era Chicago, Al Capone, and Eliot Ness. Back in 1957, just months before his memoirs were published, Ness died in relative obscurity, never seeing how popular his stories would become as they reverberated through the next 60 years in various forms. The book that Ness wrote was finished by a co-author who added a considerable amount of fictionalized material in order to make it more intriguing and entertaining. Because Ness wasn’t around to comment on (or refute) any of it, and because the book went on to sell over a million copies, eventually spawning two separate television adaptations, comic books, detective novels, cartoons, and this Costner film—the truth of what actually happened between the Federal Agent and the Notorious Gangster has gotten so woven together with the legend that it’s a futile endeavor to try unravelling them completely. The result is that we have been left with a good, old fashioned, morality tale about how a small team of outsider good guys takes down a powerful crime syndicate. It’s the Seven Samurai, it’s the Magnificent Seven, it’s the A-Team… it’s Frodo, Samwise, Meriadoc, and Peregrin; it’s Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael.

In De Palma’s iteration of the tale it’s the Federal Agent, the Nerdy Accountant, the Veteran City Cop, and the Skilled Rookie – played by a young Andy Garcia. The City Cop, Jim Malone is the anchor of the group, the standout performance, and it won Sean Connery his only, yet well deserved, Academy Award for the role. Something also has to be said about De Niro’s rather amazing performance as Al Capone. He plays the character like he was born to do so, unleashing his full range of bravado in only a few scenes, and yet it’s enough to make it feel as if he’s looming in the background of the entire movie. He’s fearless, foul, and full of himself in all the best ways.

With all that said, there’s no really deep metaphor here, nothing too terribly profound after digging around in the plot for awhile—at least I don’t think there is. And there doesn’t have to be. It’s a solid presentation of good guys versus bad guys, cops versus robbers, Costner versus Capone. Yet even so, there’s one really great gem that can be mined from the excavation of this film—the way it tells the story of the team coming together. Each member of the team is completely different, each one is inadequate by themselves, each one needs the others in order to overcome their own flaws and defeat their sworn enemy. It’s ironic, but also a stroke of genius, that it’s Capone who provides commentary on this during one of the film’s most memorable scenes…

What is that which gives me joy? Baseball! A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team. Teamwork… Looks, throws, catches, hustles. Part of one big team. Bats himself the live-long day, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and so on. If his team don’t field… what is he? You follow me? No one. Sunny day, the stands are full of fans. What does he have to say? I’m goin’ out there for myself. But… I get nowhere unless the team wins.

And now we’re back to baseball again.


The Bodyguard

The Bodyguard

This past week my Costner marathon took me to a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away… Just kidding. It only took me to 1992, but I actually had not seen this one before, and it was written by one of my favorite screenwriters – Lawrence Kasdan. At last count, Kasdan has written more Star Wars films than George Lucas, or anyone else for that matter, including my favorite The Empire Strikes Back. He was also the writer for one of my favorite westerns – Silverado – as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s quite a diverse collection of films in his trophy case, including The Bodyguard.

Like I said, I had never seen this movie before, though I was very aware of it because of its music which has immortalized five of Whitney Houston’s hit singles on what is still the best-selling film soundtrack of all time. If you were looking to set the mood for a romantic evening back in the 90s, or you were pining for a lost love – you didn’t have to look any further than Whitney’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” which was a remake of Dolly Parton’s original tune, yet arguably the best recorded version of the song. Side note: I was neither pining for lost love nor attempting to generate romance in 1992, as I had only recently discovered comic books… “two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I took the one less traveled by,” you might say. 

So anyway, unlike the previous Costner films I’ve reviewed so far, I went into this one with a fresh set of eyes, and a desire to finally see this movie which had eluded my view for so many years. And I was glad I did.

The plot is pretty straightforward. Whitney Houston dons the guise of a mega-famous singer named Rachel Marron who I would imagine isn’t that different from her real self at the time – when she was at the height of her career. Because of threats from an unknown stalker her manager hires Frank Farmer (Costner), a former secret service agent under the Reagan administration. What is not as straightforward as the plot, is the dynamic relationship between these two characters. There’s a lot of grit in the details of what ends up becoming the love story of two people who are as different as two people can be. They are complete opposites who journey together long enough to reach a place of complete trust with one another. Kasdan reverses the traditional order of the classic ‘Beauty and the Beast’ love story here by taking his characters first to a place of passionate romance, then to friendship, then to understanding, admiration, and trust. I’m not sure that it works quite as well on screen as the traditional avenue of trust, admiration, understanding, friendship, and then romance, but what does work is the complicated messiness of it all, the realness of the emotions spilling out of Costner and Houston, and the paradoxical beauty of two worlds colliding, smashing each other to pieces, and then being rebuilt into something new.

One of the things I really appreciate about older movies is that the Christological metaphors are usually not as subtle or as hidden as they often seem to be in newer films. That’s definitely the case with The Bodyguard. While the plot, as mentioned, is a non-traditional love story between two opposites, the wider meta-narrative is a compact declaration of one of the main themes in all of Scripture – best summed up by the Apostle Paul when he instructed the men he was addressing to, “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” If you suspect I might be reaching a little too hard for this metaphor, take note of the very end of the film which closes with the prayer of a priest holding up a cross and echoing a portion of the 23rd Psalm, “even though we may pass through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with us, guiding and protecting us.” Houston and Costner, having both grown up in the Baptist Church, knew exactly what movie they were making, and how timeless a story it really was.


Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams

It was the summer of 1987. All the stories about baseball seem to begin with reminiscing about what year it was, so I figure I’ll start with that. It was the summer of 1987, and the Hazelwood Hoosiers baseball team were celebrating their championship victory over the Pee Wee League. My dad was one of the coaches which makes it especially sentimental when I think back on it now. We had gone undefeated at 15-0 and quickly swept the tourney. Having reached the end of my three years in the league, and about to turn the grizzled old age of 10, there was nothing left for this right-fielder to achieve. So I decided to retire while I was at the peak of my career. For the next several years I just kicked back and enjoyed watching occasional games with my dad, or going to see the minor league Indianapolis Indians play at the old Bush Stadium from time to time. I even had a decent collection of cards and a Colorado Rockies cap. In a time when DVR recording wasn’t yet invented, the World Series always took precedence on our living room television set during evenings in the Fall. My memories of those times are all mingled together with campfires and the Charle Brown Halloween special. Even as I grew into my teenage years baseball was still magical.


Then The Strike happened. The Major League Baseball strike of August 1994 became the longest strike in MLB history, and it killed the postseason and the World Series – something that had not happened in 90 years. It was all about money of course… Millionaire players and millionaire owners were fighting over who was going to have just a little bit more. It was a disgusting display of greed that played out over months and laid bare an ugliness that had been festering below the surface of the game for some time I suppose. Eventually it was settled so everyone could go back to being millionaires again. But the damage had been done, and for me, there was no going back. When that summer was over, and the dust had settled, my love of baseball had been shattered. What was sacred had been profaned, trampled upon, and broken beyond repair. There was no longer any magic in it for me. Maybe I took it too personal, but I felt as if something had been stolen from me. That’s what greed does to things that are beautiful – it takes them away. It destroys them.

Then I saw The Sandlot one morning and a part of that magic found its way back into my heart. It was like uncovering an old treasure to discover that there were some movies out there about baseball that were somehow able to capture and contain the essence of the game – the purity that exists underneath when all the other stuff is pealed away. These films are idealizations of the values, history, and sentiments that baseball conjures up for us. There was one in particular that my 10th grade English teacher showed to us in class the year following the end of The Strike – Field of Dreams – and it is, perhaps, the purest and most elegant example of this.

Field of Dreams told me a story about what baseball really was at its core – not a sport – but a religious experience.

The film opens with Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella standing in the middle of his Iowa cornfield hearing a voice. You probably already know what the voice said to him. It’s been echoing in my mind all week. “If you build it, he will come.” Sometimes, my mind likes to play puzzles and alter the words for me, so I end up hearing things like, “if you put it in the fridge, it will get cold,” or, “if you do the laundry now, you don’t have to do it tomorrow,” and my personal favorite, “if you let the dog poo in the park when no one is looking, you don’t have to pick it up.” But anyway, I’m getting off track a little bit. Back to Field of Dreams… It’s interesting to note that the morning after Ray first hears “the voice” he walks into the kitchen to discover that his daughter is watching an old black and white movie. We catch a brief glimpse of James Stewart from 1950, insisting that he’s talking to an invisible six foot rabbit named Harvey. Ray shuts the movie off, insisting to his daughter that it’s no laughing matter to hear something invisible talking to you. Eventually Ray has a vision that instructs him to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield. He proceeds to do so with the support of his wife and daughter, provoking the ire of the townsfolk and his brother-in-law in the process. Once completed, the field becomes a sanctuary in which players of the past come to find redemption and peace. You can interpret all this in many ways I suppose, but I like to think of Ray as a prophet of sorts, listening to the voice of God and obediently carrying out his instructions. The Bible is full of people hearing God’s voice, doing what He says even though it sounds crazy, and causing the people who are watching on the sidelines to lose their minds. As Ray says during the opening monologue, “Until I heard the voice, I’d never done a crazy thing in my whole life.” Along the way he hears a few other things from “the voice,” and it leads him to find James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster – both playing the roles of aging acolytes in search of redemption themselves.

The beauty of the allegory here is that it’s not just in the film – it’s in baseball itself – and the movie is just a parable that’s showing us what has always been there. The ball field is like a church building. There’s the stands, the outfield, the infield, and there’s home base. These all mirror the essential parts of temples going back to ancient times. Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem once had an outer court, an inner court, and a Holy Place – and a Most Holy Place. Many of our churches today have a parking lot, a foyer, a sanctuary, and a communion table and baptistry at the center. In these places of worship, as on the ball field, people, friends, and families from the community gather together to participate in the same experience. There’s a structure to it all. There’s a rhythm. There is a set of rules that have been agreed upon – and there are guidelines that have been handed down to us from previous generations to show us how to follow them. There are emblems that give meaning, focus, form, and provide function for what is happening. In baseball we call these emblems the ball, the bat, the bases, the gloves. In the Church they are the Cross on the wall, the trays that hold the Communion Bread, the cups that contain the juice. Everyone has their place. Everyone has their own position to play. Everyone participates in some way. There’s the pitcher, the catcher, the batter, the basemen, the shortstop, the outfielders, the coaches, and the Ump. No one messes with the Ump. Even the spectators who aren’t directly playing in the game are invested in its outcome. There’s an energy to it all, an invisible force that pulls everyone together and puts them all on the same page for a few hours or so. It’s a spiritual experience. In its purest form there is no competition – only camaraderie, fellowship, and sharing time together – that’s the original intent anyway. It’s not really a game. It’s a sacred dance of worship. And in these sacred places, in the midst of the experience, encapsulated by memories, is an awareness of our connection to those who were here before us – those who shared time together and observed the rituals faithfully… those who found redemption on the field.

Like Ray Kinsella with his baseball field, we participate in our rituals as a means of re-connecting with our Father as well. And we do it to try and better understand what redemption really is, what it means, and how it will, in the end, take us all back to home base.

Sunkmanitu Tanka Owaci

Sunkmanitu Tanka Owaci

This past week I continued my Kevin Costner-athon by devoting a couple of evenings to Dances with Wolves. It took me two nights to finish it because I decided to watch the extended version which is nearly four hours long, and my couch is as old as this movie – so it can only accommodate my rear for two hours at a time before I go numb in the hindquarters. That’s probably more information than you need, but oh well. Regardless, the two-night viewing time was worth every minute. There is a shorter version of it, but I highly recommend going the extra mile for this one – it adds a great deal of information and rounds out the main characters quite nicely. And the movie has been around for 27 years, so if you’re really planning to watch it, you’re probably a bit of a film nerd like myself anyway, and in that case, why not watch the longer version?

I don’t know where to begin with this film, so I’ll just launch in with the statement that it’s a masterpiece all around, in every way, in every sense of the word. It absolutely deserves every one of the 7 Academy Awards it was given back in its day.

Ok, with that out of the way…

The simple truth is that they do not create movies in this way anymore. It was filmed just prior to the revolution that made the use of computer generated images a viable option in film-making, which means if it was being made today, the scenes where they’re riding horses alongside stampedes of buffalo would be done by computers and graphic artists who are sitting comfortably in cushioned chairs, sipping iced cafe breves – rather than by insane camera jockeys in the back of pickup trucks that are bouncing along the prairie at top speed to capture live video of an actual heard of beasts being corralled by dudes wearing loin cloths.

The way this movie was filmed is complimented by the attention that was given to meticulous authenticity. It’s in everything you see; from the weapons, to the clothing, to the council fires in the chief’s lodge – it’s all an accurate depiction of the Lakota Sioux in the late 1800s. It’s also in everything you hear. Pretty Shield, the wife of Chief Ten Bears, was played by Doris Leader Charge (1930-2001), a Lakota woman who lived her entire life on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. She was also a professor of Lakota language at Sinte Gleska University, and her life’s work has been elegantly preserved in the authentic Lakota being spoken in the film. Without her influence on Costner and presence on the set, Dances with Wolves would have been an entirely different movie.

Costner, who also directed the film, plays Lieutenant John Dunbar, a Civil War veteran who is sent alone into Indian territory and takes up residence at an abandoned fort on the frontier. The story takes you slowly through the transformation that happens as he gradually leaves behind his native culture and adopts the life of the Sioux. A note on symbolism: the closer that Dunbar gets to making friends with the wolf Two Socks, the closer he gets to becoming more like one of the Lakota. The less said about the details of his death as a United States soldier and his resurrection as a Sioux warrior the better. Nothing I can say will capture the beauty of how the story is told.

My love and appreciation for this movie is, admittedly, the result of a great personal bias. It’s definitely in my top 10 favorite films. I think it’s true for all of us, that the movies we love the most are the ones that hit us deeply in the personal areas of the heart. That’s why I love this movie too. It was a movie my parents took me to see in the theater when I was 11 years old. I still remember blushing and my mom telling me not to look at the screen during the love scene (which is pretty innocuous by today’s standards), and I also remember my dad laughing out loud when Kevin Costner showed his bare ass. I don’t know why that’s funny, but I laughed when I saw it too this time. Like father like son, I guess. On a more somber note, it’s a movie my grandmother loved and spoke highly of with tears in her eyes. I really miss her, and I wish I could go back and talk to her about it now. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I connect with the parts of the story that deal with transformation and cultural metamorphosis. My heart and soul have inextricably tied it to experiences in my own life (both past and present) that reflect elements in the narrative. I obviously don’t know what it was really like to live back in those times. I don’t know what it’s like to be a soldier, or to have a wife, or to be shot at, or to wonder if my race is going to be wiped out by oppression and greed. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a teepee, get my water from a river, and cook every meal I eat over a fire. I don’t know what any of those things are like. But what I do know is how scary, how awesome, and how beautiful life can become when you leave behind everything you know as safe and familiar and comfortable, and pray that the strangers you meet will accept and love you, and make you feel like you belong with them. And I know what it’s like to have that prayer answered.


Kevin Costner: Prince of Robin Hoods

Kevin Costner: Prince of Robin Hoods

With Summer movie nights coming to an end, I’ve turned my attention toward revisiting the back catalog that’s been sitting quietly on my DVD shelf. I was able to get a good head start on these a couple of months ago when I decided to watch an old favorite from my adolescent years – Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. In the late 80s and early 90s Kevin Costner had a solid string of movies that have stood the test of time, and I’ve been working my way through them, but I thought it was fitting to make this first review about my favorite Costner classic. It’s definitely not his best movie, but it occupies a place of importance in my personal experience of exploring and enjoying the art of film.

The Summer of 1991 was in full swing by the time Robin Hood hit theaters during the middle of that June. I was fresh out of grade school, with Jr. High still a couple of months away (this was back when Summer vacation actually lasted for, you know, the Summer), and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but those were the good ‘ole days. I remember seeing Robin Hood in the theater quite vividly because it was one of the last years that my parents took my sister and I on our annual vacation to visit friends who lived in Chesapeake, Ohio. So one afternoon, we made our way across the Ohio river to Huntington, West Virginia to see Robin Hood in the old Keith-Albee Theatre – the same place I had watched Michael Keaton become Batman two years earlier. And, incidentally, this was the same place where I would enjoy several movies as a college student a decade later.

The character and legend of Robin Hood was already quite developed in my mind by that time thanks to the animated Disney version that had come out in the 70s. My sister and I had a VHS copy that was probably close to being worn out. So Kevin Costner had a lot to accomplish if he was going to surpass Brian Bedford’s cartoon fox as the gold standard of Robin Hoods. And I’m happy to say that he met and exceeded my expectations. Even though he became the distinguished version of the English outlaw in my imagination, that old animated version is still my favorite Disney cartoon overall. But this new version of the Robin Hood myth had everything a 12 year old boy could want. It had characters that were serious, humor and comic relief that was never forced, a love story at its core, and booby traps – lots of booby traps – in the forrest. Growing up next to a sizable patch of woods, hidden from all manner of adult supervision, meant I could utilize what I had seen in the movie as I developed and honed my own booby-trap-making skills. I got pretty good at it too. ::::long, peaceful sigh of remembrance::::

Re-watching the film, all these years later, I think it still holds up as a good, fun, 90s action movie with a great deal of heart. It’s no masterpiece of cinema, by any means, but it hits that nostalgia button dead center. It has a supporting cast that’s nearly unrivaled in any movie from the time period. Marian, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio isn’t a completely helpless damsel in distress as Maid Marian was in her previous incarnations, and even though she does fill that role loosely, she also brings a great deal of energy and strength to the character. She doesn’t take crap from anyone. There’s also Christian Slater, donning the role of a Will Scarlett that is much more developed than any other version of the character. Young Professor Snape plays the role of the vile Sheriff of Nottingham (RIP Alan Rickman), and this movie is worth seeing for his character alone. He’s over-the-top, nasty, and humorously deranged the way a proper 90s villain should be. Not only does he kill Robin’s father, worship the devil, and attempt to force Marian into marrying him – but he also calls off Christmas in the process! And last, but not least, there’s Morgan Freeman, a little bit younger, and a little more stern in his role as Azeem Edin Bashir Al Bakir – the Muslim companion and friend of Robin Hood. It’s interesting to note that his character is not only the most likable, but also the moral compass for the others. The story has Robin Hood’s name on it, but if you ask me, Azeem is the real hero. He leaves his homeland to go to a place where he’s the only black person in a country that has sent armies to wage war against his fellow Muslims (the film takes place just after the 3rd Crusade). He stands out as a bastion of moral fortitude, refusing even to drink with the other “merry men.” He also devotes himself completely to the struggle against tyranny, challenges Robin to make sure his motives are pure, humbly accepts insults from Friar Tuck, and in his spare time successfully delivers a baby, produces rudimentary gun powder, trains the Sherwood Forrest outlaws in swordplay, and saves Robin’s life. He never calls Robin by name, but instead refers to him only as “the Christian.” He does this lovingly, and sincerely, subtly reminding Robin (and we the viewers) that there is something more to find within the identity of this outlaw – an outlaw whose enemies are protected and nurtured by a corrupt religious establishment, who struggles for those who are living in poverty, injustice, and oppression, and who (as Bryan Adams’ closing song indicates in proper 90s power ballad fashion) would die for his bride to be. It’s a small reminder that there is something more to this very old story, something important woven into the fabric of this tale that has been handed down through generations and retold for the last 700 years – something, dare I say, spiritual.

And… if that isn’t enough to get you to watch (or re-watch) Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – the last few minutes contain the best surprise cameo in any 90s film.