Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

2024

Unsung Hero (PG)

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Directed by: Richard L. Ramsey, Joel Smallbone
Starring: Daisy Betts
April 2024


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


David Smallbone (Joel Smallbone), an Australian music promoter, has had some success in bringing contemporary Christian bands from America to the land Down Under in the late 80s. Despite sound advice to the contrary, David turns down a “lesser act,” DeGarmo & Key, and signs a major deal to bring over emerging superstar Amy Grant for an extensive concert tour.

Then the nation suffers an economic downturn, resulting in Grant performing for crowds of hundreds rather than thousands. Since David’s name appears on the contract, he ends up losing his job and foreclosing on his beautiful home.

In an act of desperation, David takes a job in America and moves his wife, Helen (Daisy Betts), and six kids (with one in the oven) to Nashville, TN. Showing up to work on the first day, David learns that his position was given to someone else. Since his work visa prohibits him from getting another job, David resorts to doing landscaping work for cash with his older kids just to afford their unfurnished house. When David solicits work at a nearby mansion, guess who opens the door? Yep, you guessed it…Eddie DeGarmo!

Right off the bat, the movie gives us a poignant lesson in the dangers of pride. David considered it beneath him to bring DeGarmo’s band over to his country. Now he’s in DeGarmo’s country scrubbing his toilet bowl. How the mighty have fallen.

Pride rears its ugly head when David is shamed by generous neighbors and fellow churchgoers. He pushes them away right when his family needs them most, when child #7 arrives. David’s inability to find a job and provide for his family sends him into a state of debilitating depression.

In yet another act of pride, David shuns the advice of his loving father, James (Terry O’Quinn). During a phone conversation, David hangs up on his dad; an act that comes back to haunt him just days later when James unexpectedly dies.

Of course, this film isn’t about debased David, his long-suffering wife or his ever-encouraging dad, it’s about the Smallbone children—three of whom would grow up to become Grammy Award-winning performers.

They say kids are resilient, and this movie certainly proves that aphorism true. Without beds, batteries for toy robots or even much to eat (Ramen again?), the kids found ways to stay busy helping the family and somehow managed to have fun despite their limited means and humble circumstances. This spotlights the movie’s main theme, which is that the most important things in life are faith and family—an ethic exemplified by the Smallbone clan.

The most famous Smallbone is the eldest daughter, Rebecca St. James (Kirrilee Berger). Her younger brothers, Joel and Luke, are members of the group For King & Country. In an ironic feat of casting, Joel (who also co-wrote and co-directed the film) plays his father, who was about his age during the early 90s, when the movie is set.

There are many highlights in the film, including the two-hanky Christmas scene when neighbors show up with everything on the Smallbone’s wish list; furniture, washer and dryer, Christmas tree and presents.

The movie’s culminating moment comes when seventeen-year-old Rebecca auditions for DeGarmo, with her younger brothers singing background vocals (the tryout comes complete with edited home video footage projected onto a large screen by another of the Smallbone boys). Rebecca’s original song, “You Make Everything Beautiful,” has a lilting quality and a catchy, hum-all-day melody.

So, who’s the titular agency? Is it the unidentified benefactor who pays the Smallbone’s hospital bill after the birth of their youngest child? Or is it some unseen guiding hand that, through all their hardships, has been leading the Smallbone family to exactly where they need to be? Depends on what, or who, you believe. But there’s no mystery as to what the Smallbone family believes.

Unsung Hero is an inspirational, follow-your-dreams biopic that reminds us of the power of courage, kindness and perseverance.

And to honor God, country, family and all the other heroes in our lives.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

One Life (PG)

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Directed by: James Hawes
Starring: Anthony Hopkins
March 2024


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


One Life chronicles the extraordinary true story of Nicholas “Nicky” Winton (Johnny Flynn), a young stockbroker at a London bank, who rescued hundreds of children from the streets Prague on the eve of World War II.

From a young age, Nicky’s mother, Babette “Babi” Winton (Helena Bonham Carter), instilled in him a desire to help those in need. This “If you see a need, lend a hand” mentality compelled Nicky to help the refugees in Prague. All told, his efforts led to the rescue of 669 children who were transported on eight trains—a ninth train, with over 200 children aboard, never arrived because Hitler’s invasion of Poland ignited World War II. The children from the failed mission, many of whom ended up in concentration camps, weighed heavily on Nicky’s conscience for the rest of his life.

Nicky’s nagging melancholia over the people he wasn’t able to save mirrors the titular character’s plight in
Schindler’s List (1993). In a haunting scene at the end of that film, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) laments the fact that he could’ve rescued more people; he calculates how many more lives could’ve been saved had he sold his watch and car. Despite the crushing weight of underachievement, both men secured a lasting legacy, namely the descendants of the people (largely Jewish) they saved.

Fifty years after the rescue effort, old Nicky (Anthony Hopkins) reflects on his earlier exploits, which are dramatized in a series of flashbacks. Nicky’s wife Grete (Lena Olin), tells him it’s time to let go of the past. While she’s away on a trip, Nicky drags dozens of file boxes from his study to the front yard, where he turns the mound of historical documents into a bonfire (an ironic twist on Nazi book burning).

The one item from the past Nicky just can’t bring himself to part with is a leather briefcase that contains a scrapbook of all the children he helped rescue. Nicky presents the scrapbook to a local London newspaper, but a decades-old account of Jewish children being rescued from another country fails to pique the editor’s interest.

When Nicky meets with a museum director, she says the scrapbook is too important for her collection, but asks if she can borrow it. That decision creates a chain of events that brings Nicky face-to-face with his legacy.

I must admit, I knew nothing about this film before I went to see it; Anthony Hopkins was on the poster and I’d gladly pay to hear him read binary code (formerly: from a telephone book) for two hours. A consummate craftsman, Hopkins is, in my estimation, the finest living actor on planet Earth. And, despite only appearing in about half the movie, the octogenarian delivers an authentic portrait of a man tormented by the lives he couldn’t save.

Bonham Carter is also impressive. Unfairly typecast for her off-kilter roles in many of Tim Burton’s films, Bonham Carter is a really good dramatic actress. Here, her “Not gonna’ take no for an answer” characterization is finely-calibrated—Babi’s assertiveness could’ve come off as bullying.

The rest of the cast, including Jonathan Pryce as Nicky’s long-time friend, Martin, and Romola Garai as the spirited leader of the refugee committee in Prague, is also excellent. Flynn has the movie’s most pivotal role as the younger version of Hopkins; fortunately, he’s up to the task and credibly, if not slavishly, mimics the speech and mannerisms of the veteran actor.

Despite a slow start, the story begins picking up steam when young Nicky visits Prague. The crosscutting between the movie’s two time periods helps sustain viewer interest; the mostly urgent, mission-driven scenes set in the late 30s serve as an appropriate counterbalance to the largely contemplative, character-driven scenes set in the late 80s.

Director James Hawes makes the most of his UK and Czech Republic locations, but never quite elevates the look of the film above its modest budget. Still, with a story (written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, based on the book
If It’s Not Impossible…: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton by Barbara Winton) this strong and performances this good, a bigger budget and more lavish production would’ve upstaged the film’s poignant message.

Though set decades in the past, the movie has more than just a little relevance to current events. With antisemitism on the rise and wars raging in Ukraine and Israel, this film is a timely reminder of the dangers of placating evil and vilifying any race or group of people.

One Life boasts tremendous performances and a riveting true story of courage in the face of unspeakable evil. It’s also a powerful reminder of how many people can be positively impacted by just one life.

Despite its disturbing themes and images,
One Life is an inspirational movie that should be seen by everyone…lest we forget the horrors of war and repeat the mistakes of the past.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Dune: Part Two (PG-13)

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Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothee Chalamet
March 2024


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Previously on Dune: Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson) set out across the deserts of Arrakis with Stilgar (Javier Bardem), Chani (Zendaya) and a host of nomadic Fremen.

Dune: Part Two picks up where the first film left off, with Paul and Lady Jessica learning the ways of the Fremen culture. One by one, Paul fulfills each part of an ancient prophecy, and though he’s reticent to accept such a mantle, the Fremen people revere him as their messiah (“Lisan al Gaib”). Things are also looking up for Lady Jessica, who becomes the new Reverend Mother for the Bene Gesserit sisterhood.

Meanwhile, the nefarious members of House Harkonnen are scheming to control all spice (mélange) production on arid Arrakis. When Rabban (Dave Bautista) fails to rout the Fremen, who are blowing up Harkonnen harvesters and spice depots with terrorist-style sneak attacks, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) commissions his brash nephew, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (Austin Butler), to find and destroy the Fremen stronghold to get spice production back on schedule.

When Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken) and his daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh) arrive at Arrakeen, the major city on Arrakis, the board is set for a catastrophic battle between the Emperor’s Sardaukar soldiers, the Harkonnen army and the Fremen freedom fighters (and let’s not forget the giant sandworms).

So, who wins the massive melee? Do Paul and Chani tie the knot? Does Paul get revenge for the murder of his father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac)?

Well, you don’t expect me to ruin everything do you? (Of course, if you’ve read Frank Herbert’s titular tome, you already know the answers to these questions.)

As you’ve probably guessed from the title, this is the second movie based on Herbert’s sci-fi masterwork, which was first published in 1965. With the smashing success of the first
Dune (2021), this sequel was all but assured. But does Part Two live up to the previous film?

Some of my main criticisms of the first film were that it’s expansive sets and gigantic ships made the characters seem insignificant by comparison and that the many frenetic ground battles felt impersonal since we really knew nothing about the soldiers charging into the fray. In
Part Two, director Denis Villeneuve corrects these complaints by utilizing more closeups of the characters (especially the comely Irulan/Pugh) and by thrusting characters we’ve come to know (Paul, Stilgar and Chani) into the cataclysmic conflagrations. Villeneuve flips the script in several other key ways in the sequel.

For instance, much of the first film took place in and around Arrakeen (indoors). In this movie, most of the action transpires in the planet’s deserts (outdoors). In a similar vein, the first
Dune focused on the Atreides family, while Part Two centers on the Fremen people (and Paul and Lady Jessica’s rise among their ranks).

Another contrast is that the first film’s narrative was infused with Machiavellian machinations (a few instances remain here, like when Baron Harkonnen plots his nephew’s demise, or when Princess Irulan manipulates her father into saving Paul’s life), while this film is more concerned with the Fremen culture and how they seek to become “one with the desert.” In essence, the political intrigue of the first film yields to the religious fervor of the second film.

The new cast members shine, especially Pugh and Butler. Walken, however, seems weak and doesn’t have the bearing of a galactic ruler. Bautista, who reprises his role as the Harkonnen henchman, continues to be underserved. In a paper-thin characterization, Rabban does little more than bark orders (“Kill them all!” and “Strike!”) and take out his frustrations on unsuspecting servants (a la Vader). Disappointing.

For all its divergences with the first
Dune, this film shares some similarities as well. The movie’s design elements (ships, costumes, weapons, etc.) are all finely-crafted. Also, as with the former film, Part Two boasts some gorgeous sets and captures some stunning desert vistas.

Since
Dune won six Academy Awards (for Best Cinematography, Editing, Score, Visual Effects, Production Design and Sound), the sequel seems poised to match or supersede that statuette haul.

At nearly 3 hours in length,
Dune: Part Two is a protracted yarn that skillfully builds to the climactic battle, but disappoints with an abrupt ending.

The sequel is more intimate, yet less epic than the first film. Ironic!

Though this movie wraps up Herbert’s first book, will this be the last
Dune adventure to grace theaters? Not if Villeneuve has any say in the matter. He’s expressed interest in adapting Herbert’s Dune Messiah for the big screen.

So, is a trilogy in the offing?

Keep your ear to the sand.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4