Abigail Cowen and Tom Lewis in Redeeming Love


Based on Francine Rivers' 1991 bestseller, director D.J. Caruso's historical Christian romance Redeeming Love is set in the 1860s, and had the technology existed back then, it could almost be mistaken for a big-screen PSA released in the 1860s. The short version of the experience is that it's a queasy morality fable about a fallen woman who, due to the love of a faultless man, ultimately discovers the grace of God and mends her wicked ways. The longer version is that this earnest, tacky, largely offensive trifle is – thanks to a handful of unexpectedly resonant performances – a lot less icky than it should have been. Damned actors. The good ones can make almost anything bearable.

With its opening title card trumpeting the Shakespeare line “All that glitters is not gold,” Caruso's shimmery drama spends the next 130 minutes demonstrating the truth of that statement. Set during the Gold Rush in the one-horse town of Pair-a-Dice (and the biblical references just get more egregious from there), Redeeming Love casts Abigail Cowen as Angel, the purdiest prostitute in the wild wild west. Sold into slavery after the death of her beloved mother (Nina Dobrev), Angel, as we learn through flashbacks, has recently escaped her life of forced sex work in Boston and has taken up a life of coerced sex work in California. Though cruelly treated by her brothel's owner (Famke Janssen), Angel is the star attraction amongst the local menfolk, and appears to have resignedly accepted her pitiful, inebriated fate. Until, that is, farmer Michael Hosea (Tom Lewis) comes to town.

Beginning with his name, as “Michael” is Hebraic for “gift from God” and Rivers' inspiration for her novel was purportedly the biblical Book of Hosea, this guy is a real piece of work. We first meet the 26-year-old cowpoke from 20 miles away when he's alone in a Pair-a-Dice chapel, wrapping up his prayer of thanks with an aw-shucks request for a bride who's interested in fishing and has a nice pair of legs. Literal moments later, Michael sees raven-haired Angel walking the street flanked by her vicious bodyguard (Brandon Auret), and God's message is clear: This gal is gonna be your wife. (Told that Angel is a prostitute, Michael looks to the heavens and says, “You do have a sense of humor.” At least someone in the movie does.) Over the next several days, Michael pays good money – twice her going rate! – to routinely visit Angel in her brothel not for sex, but to convince her to accept his proposal of marriage. The drunken, mystified young woman keeps laughing him off and refusing. But after Angel suffers a particularly brutal beating, Michael is right there to ask for her hand again, and, barely conscious, his unwilling beloved finally relents. When next we see her, Angel groggily wakes in the bed of Michael's farmstead cabin and, looking deeply confused, realizes she's wearing a wedding ring.

Let's stop here for a moment, shall we? Forget, if you can, that Michael has apparently unlimited financial resources even though he doesn't pan for gold and is never shown conducting any business. (Early on, Angel castigates Michael as a “poor dirt farmer,” and when we finally get to the man's tiny ranch, it does appear that dirt is the only thing he's farming.) Forget that sweet-faced Michael effectively behaves like an old-timey stalker or worse, using his money to continually gain access to Angel's room and clearly unwilling to accept that, even in the Old West, no means no. But even though she consents to be Michael's wife while lying bruised and bleeding, could anyone possibly believe that Angel was of sound mind when she acquiesced, especially when she later appears not to remember getting married? What on earth was that “ceremony” like? Conveniently, co-screenwriters Caruso and Rivers leave it to our imaginations, given that any rendering would no doubt make Michael look like a monster who took horrific advantage of a traumatized victim. Such a scene, however, would at least have given their subsequent relationship some context, and might have even toyed with Redeeming Love's notions of religious certainty and divine acceptance in complex and intriguing ways.

Abigail Cowen and Tom Lewis in Redeeming Love

Of course, that's not what happens here – not when we can instead get the “hilarity” of watching Angel struggle with fishin' and choppin' wood, and marvel at chaste Michael's patience and decorum as he reads his bible and refuses to even kiss his bride until God tells him it's okay. (When he's really horned up, Michael takes a chilly, fully-clothed dip in a nearby stream.) If you're familiar with Rivers' novel, or any of the books in the Nicholas Sparks canon, you can guess what happens next: true love will begrudgingly blossom; adversaries will be introduced, here arriving in the forms of Michael's shifty brother-in-law (Logan-Marshall Green) and Angel's Boston pimp (Eric Dane); faith will be tested and rewarded. And lord almighty how tiresome and borderline-repellant it all is. It's actually easy to imagine why, in literary form, this anti-bodice-ripper is so massively popular given the weighty themes blended with gross abuse and a supposedly swoony romance; it's The Prince of Tides in chaps. Yet it's also a complete crock that views a child forced into prostitution – someone who's later forced to continue in that path out of economic necessity – as someone who needs to be “redeemed,” and by no less a figure than a squeaky-clean male savior who has been made so saintly he barely qualifies as human. This Michael isn't a gift from God. He practically is God.

Considering all this, Redeeming Love should have been excruciating. It's the cast's fault that it isn't. My faint praise isn't necessarily directed at Michael portrayer Lewis, a cute kid who seems to have wandered in after his unsuccessful Huck Finn audition for a mid-size theme park. Yet starting with the early, wrenching flashback work of Dobrev and, as the younger Angel, the gifted Livi Birch, the majority of performances manage to be both convincing and, surprisingly, a whole lot uglier than Caruso's and Rivers' platitudes and Rogier Stoffers' twinkly cinematography would lead you to expect. (Generally speaking, this PG-13 outing is one of the rougher pro-faith dramas I've seen; in one particularly unpleasant sequence, it's strongly implied that Angel fellates her new brother-in-law.) His direction, overall, may be more hindrance than help, yet Caruso does a fine job with a number of supporting figures: Marshall-Green as a skeevy dude who turns legitimately heartbreaking; Auret refusing to soften his villainy even an inch; the wonderfully hard-edged Janssen, whose every movie appearance reminds you that the once-ubiquitous Famke Janssen should be in more movies nowadays. And thankfully, best of all is Abigail Cowen, who boasts a delicate fierceness reminiscent of Evan Rachel Wood's and almost makes you buy the narrative contrivances Angel is forced into. Smart, lovely, and defiantly bullshit-free, Cowen makes Redeeming Love a first-rate calling card for future employment, and while all that glitters may not be gold, her impassioned work handily deserves a medal of that hue.

Kaya Scodelario and Benjamin Walker in The King's Daughter


Nothing, and I mean nothing, about the fantasy adventure The King's Daughter is as interesting as its production history, given that principal photography on director Sean McNamara's feature was apparently completed in the spring of 2014. That's right: 2014. You remember that year, don't you? Back when Obama was halfway through his second term and Pharrell Williams debuted “Happy” and four-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand was four years away from winning her second? I can't fathom what confluence of events led to this lo-o-o-ong-shelved offering finally getting a cineplex release this past weekend. But even though the movie is boring as sin and hardly worth the advertising dough spent on it, I can't be altogether unhappy about the thing finally seeing the light of day. How many chances do we get, after all, to see Pierce Brosnan saunter around Versailles like Tim Curry in heels, or Fan Bingbing as a scaly sea creature who resembles the Uncanny Valley conductor of the Polar Express?

Evidently, McNamara's family-friendly saga based on Vonda M. McIntyre's 1997 novel The Moon & the Sun just endured one of the lowest-grossing weekends for a wide release in history, pandemic or no pandemic – maybe because audiences instinctively knew to shy away from any entertainment that cast Brosnan, in a Cowardly Lion wig, as a King Louis XIV who wants to steal a mermaid's life force for the benefit of France. I consequently feel no need to pile on, despite the movie being void of a single engaging sequence, despite every single character's arc being wholly predictable from his or her first appearance, and despite the visual effects whose fine-tuning reportedly caused the initial delay of the release … and really weren't worth the bother. (You kind of know what you're in for from the start, with Julie Andrews' gentle, mellifluous narration guaranteeing an experience that'll be indistinguishable from a nap.)

So let's keep this short. Kaya Scodelario has gorgeous big eyes that are just right for her lead's incessant expressions of wonder. Benjamin Walker, looking like a chubby nephew to Liam Neeson, does his best to act professional amidst the silliness. William Hurt has a decent-sized role, which is always a good thing – even when, as happens here, nothing good comes from it. The mermaid's unintelligible squeaks, coos, and trills are occasionally amusing. Her indoor aquarium, the locale for much of the picture, brought back warm memories of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. And the eternally awesome Rachel Griffiths is on hand, and plays … . Um-m-m-m … . A nun, I think? To be honest, wherever she was in the film, I didn't recognize her. Which makes Griffiths, hands down, The King's Daughter's luckiest participant – audience members included.



As the preceding reviews likely indicated, it was a grim weekend for new cineplex releases. But it was a pretty terrific weekend regarding a holdover release – at least for me, as I was able to catch up with writer/director Mamoru Hosoda's marvelously clever anime Belle that debuted locally and at Iowa City's FilmScene 10 days ago. Considering there was only one other patron joining me at my Davenport screening this past Friday, I'm not sure if a third week is in the cards for this adventurous, beautifully designed work. Yet if you're an anime fan, and even if you're not, I heartily recommend checking it out wherever and whenever you can, because few recent offerings have been quite so visually ravishing, and none before this one have had the imagination to suggest Disney's Beauty & the Beast by way of Free Guy.

A musically gifted 17-year-old with a tragic backstory, the film's Suzu Naito frequently escapes her life of misery and isolation by entering the wittily named world of U: a dizzying virtual reality where avatars can become online pop sensations, and where Suzu's crooning as the lavender-haired Belle makes her the subject of much offline speculation about her true identity. This is also the case for the U universe's short-tempered Dragon figure, a savage creature whose hidden sadness, Suzu correctly surmises, mirrors her own. I don't want to reveal more out of respect for Hosada's inventive and, in the end, deeply moving tale that goes in several directions you anticipate (Belle and her “Beast” enjoy a ballroom dance that's only a singing teapot away from Disney's rendition) and plenty more that you don't. (I, for one, didn't expect quite so much comedy derived from the lone member of the school's kayaking team and his crushing inability to ask a girl out.) Yet while I'll probably forever be just to the left of fully-on-board with this form of animation – all those static compositions and images of wide-mouthed hysteria tend to get on my nerves – I think I had more fun at Belle than at any anime since the heyday of Hayao Miyazaki. Its visuals are eye-popping, its narrative affecting, its bevy of original pop tunes surprisingly winning. And considering it's a Japanese entertainment, I didn't even have to feel guilty about catching the dubbed version rather than the subtitled one, as the vocals rarely match anime mouth movements in either presentation. It's a strategy I certainly don't recommend for, say, Drive My Car, but this was Belle – and I had a ball.

Saleh Karimai and Amir Jadidi in A Hero


Speaking of cinematic parties I came to late, I meant to trek to Iowa City a few weekends ago for the FilmScene arrival of A Hero by Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi, whose 2011 A Separation and 2016 The Salesman both won Oscars for Best Foreign-Language Film, and whose latest release was awarded the Grand Prix prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Needless to say, I wound up missing it. But as if to reward me for my regretful laziness, Prime Video began streaming the title this past weekend, and it's just as strong as Farhadi's and his new drama's reputations would imply – thematically rich, cleverly plotted, sensationally well-acted, and just intimate enough to play as effectively on your TV as it likely did in theaters. I'm not sure how most filmmakers feel about the ever-shrinking window between big- and small-screen debuts these days, but even though I'll always be in favor of getting more butts in auditorium seats, I have to admit I'm kind of loving the trend.

And I mostly loved A Hero, too, primarily for treating us to the rare movie protagonist whom you immediately like yet whose behavior increasingly makes that opinion questionable. Upon being released from prison for a two-day furlough (his rather Dickensian crime being lack of payment on a debt), the unfailingly polite Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is greeted by his girlfriend (Sahar Goldoost) with a surprise she recently stumbled onto: a lost purse containing 17 pieces of gold. They're worth enough that, if sold, the man could significantly pay off his debt and perhaps earn his full-time freedom. Yet for reasons either upstanding or ultimately mercenary, Rahim instead chooses to advertise the lost item, telling authorities that it was actually he who discovered the purse, and becoming a media sensation as a “noble” prisoner being unjustly incarcerated. Events become significantly more complicated from there, and by A Hero's finale, we're forced to reckon with the idea that this exemplar of kindness and honesty may be no hero at all.

I don't know if I've ever before seen a beatific smile employed to cagier effect than the one Jadidi gives us. Watching him shyly grin with kind, imploring eyes, you can't picture a devious bone in Rahim's body, and it's initially incredibly satisfying, in a Frank Capra way, to see the man treated with such respect after being long separated from his family, particularly his sad, stuttering son (the touching, naturalistic Saleh Karimai). We're given early clues, however, that Rahim's gallantry and ingenuousness may simply be facades, and that those whom the story carefully introduces – his creditor, his brother-in-law, a fellow prisoner – are actually far more alert to his character than we are. Although Farhadi's latest isn't precisely a thriller, it achieves thriller-esque fascination as stakes are raised and shoes are dropped, and what began as a quiet little domestic drama becomes downright riveting – a gradually unpeeled onion that, as with most onions, has the potential to make you cry. While there may be a few too many characters and peripheral plot points for comfort, A Hero is punchy and memorable, and Jadidi is truly spellbinding as an apparent simpleton who may be a secret genius. I would've liked to have seen the movie on a big screen. I'm delighted I saw it regardless.

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