Category: Family Movies & Television

BASED ON: Our Father Vince Kuna Has Issues With ‘First Man’

Ryan Gosling (left) as Neil Armstrong

The latest in a series by Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., USC film-school grad and producer-at-large at Family Theater Productions …

First Man screenplay written by Josh Singer and directed by Damien Chazelle. Based on First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, written by James R. Hansen

Neglecting the lineage of Neil Armstrong marked the first misstep (pun intended) of the filmmakers’ attempt to adapt the life of the famed astronaut.

Biographer James R. Hansen remarked that Neil absolutely insisted that his story begin centuries before, in the borderlands of Scotland and England. The “American Genesis” tale, as Armstrong termed it, led to his birth in our country’s heartland, the fine state of Ohio. It is no coincidence then, that the first moonwalker lays claim to a continent then Christian in heritage, and a community upbringing even more so.

The book’s opening chapter reminded me of the motto on my Spanish national soccer team warm-up jacket, “Plus Ultra.”  The national motto is a reversal of non terrae plus ultra (no further land beyond). Pre-Christian Spanish societies saw the Strait of Gibraltar as the edge of the known world. Following the Age of Exploration of Catholic Spain, King Charles V (also Holy Roman Emperor) adopted “further beyond” as his personal motto, in turn inspiring the astronauts of his day, the naval explorers who discovered the New World.

The film also makes no mention of Neil Armstrong’s military service in the Navy. He flew armed reconnaissance in the Korean War and once ejected from a damaged plane. I realize there’s only so much a filmmaker can reveal in a two-hour film, but Damien Chazelle’s omission makes for distracting storytelling. Before debarking for the Apollo 11 moon mission, Neil and his wife sit their boys down for a heavy-handed “Dad might not come back” talk. Wouldn’t this conversation have taken place awhile back, with the peril involved in any of the previous test missions?  The NASA Gemini programs were composed almost entirely of former military pilots. The pilots’ wives didn’t need a flight to the moon to initiate a conversation about the dangers of flight exploration.

The greatest flaw of the film adaptation, however, we find in the filmmaker’s unnecessary accretions. Neil (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) tragically lost the life of their two-year old daughter. By all accounts, including his own, Neil stoically attended the funeral and burial and never made another mention about it. This caused a strain in the marriage (the two eventually divorced), culminating in Janet’s disappointment that her husband did not include any trinket of their daughter’s in his Personal Preference Kit.

The movie can’t resist centering Neil’s internal struggle around this non-story, going as far as inventing an infant bracelet that Neil reaches into his PPK and tosses into a moon crater. We see a tear drop fall from the reflection of his helmet visor. Again, a little deference to Neil’s actual raising up would have inspired better characterization.

Statistically speaking, the small-town Midwest produces astronauts at a vastly disproportionate clip to the rest of the country. The correlation is not entirely clear, but I’d take a guess to say bitter, harsh Middle West winters provide the gusto for the cold, rational, on-the-spot decisiveness required of space travel. Instead, we suffer through an emotional tearfest at movie’s end. If this were the historical case, newspapers would have shouted “Extra, extra read all about it: Man weeps on Moon!”

After all, these were “steely-eyed missile men,” a compliment bandied about in 1960s NASA, meaning hardened test pilots who could keep their cool and think fast in emergencies. This mindset was on display in Apollo 13 and in the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (among the producers for that were Howard, along with Apollo 13 star Tom Hanks and producer Brian Grazer). Perhaps Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer didn’t extend themselves as much as the previous filmmakers did to understand the psychology of such men.

So, while the bulk of the film follows a similar path blazed by the Mercury missions in 1983’S The Right Stuff, Chazelle’s renders the Apollo subjects with the wrong constitution. Characterization aside, the film is not typically compelling as a space mission, either. Ron Howard creates much greater suspense in Apollo 13.

Maybe Howard made the smarter decision, to a pick a failed success mission where the astronauts bypassed their moon landing. Because when we arrive at the moon in First Man, it feels staged, like we never leave the green screen of the Hollywood stage at which it was shot. The real Neil Armstrong, facing the incredulity of moon-landing deniers, said the only thing harder to do than landing on the moon would be to realistically fabricate it. The Oscar winning director of La La Land proves just how difficult that task indeed is.

Image: Courtesy Universal Pictures/DreamWorks

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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NBA Star Steph Curry Signs on as Executive Producer on DeVon Franklin’s Faith Film ‘Breakthrough’

Steph Curry

Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry has signed a deal to become an executive producer on Breakthrough, a faith- and fact-based film starring Chrissy Metz of NBC’s This Is Us.

Breakthrough is based on the book, The Impossible, written by Joyce Smith. As reported here previously (before the film changed titles from The Impossible to Breakthrough), Metz plays Smith, a mother whose adopted son, John, fell through the ice and was declared legally dead. But, an hour later, after his mother’s fervent prayers, the 14-year-old boy came back to life. Topher Grace also stars as a pastor. Already filmed in Canada, the movie, launched by Christian producer DeVon Franklin (The Star), is set to come out in April.

Chrissy Metz

Curry recently launched a production company, Unanimous Media, which has an overall film/TV deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment. As the Hollywood Reporter learned exclusively, Curry, a devout Christian, was attracted to Breakthrough because he’s also interested in producing family-suitable and faith-friendly projects.

From the Hollywood Reporter:

“John’s story is nothing short of incredible,” said Curry in a statement to THR. “It’s a story about the power of prayer and perseverance and one I immediately connected to. After reading the script, I knew I wanted to be a part of bringing it to life onscreen.”

DeVon Franklin, who focuses on faith-based projects and produced Breakthrough, said Curry was moved by the true-life story and the movie “checks all his boxes: faith, true story, family and sports.” Curry and Franklin had a meeting on general movie projects and Franklin pitched him Breakthrough, the movie he was working at the time. Franklin gave him the script, which Curry read almost immediately; 24 hours later the basketball star was ready to get involved.

Curry and his co-founders at Unanimous, Jeron Smith and Erick Peyton, gave overall notes on themes tackled in the movie as well detailed notes on a couple of key scenes. They also gave editorial notes on the basketball scenes and helped license some of the imagery in the film.

Curry will also lend his high profile to the marketing of the film as the release draws nearer.

Images: Wikimedia Commons

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter and YouTube.

CBS News: Dr. Phil Lands Faith-Based Drama; Garth Brooks at Notre Dame

Garth Brooks (L); Dr. Phil McGraw (R)

TV personality and psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw and son Jay McGraw, via their Stage 29 Productions banner, have sold the faith-based medical drama Chaplain to CBS.


Written by [Nick] Weiss and [Isaac] Laskin, Chaplain centers around a talented, scientifically minded ICU doctor and her free-thinking, faith-oriented brother[, who] clash over the best approach to the business of saving lives when he is hired as chaplain at her hospital.

Weiss executive produces with McCarthy, while Laskin is co-executive producer.

Well, gosh, we’d hope that a hospital chaplain would be “faith-oriented,” at the very least.

The duo has also sold a legal drama called Melanie. Both projects are coming from CBS TV Studios, where Stage 29 has an existing deal.

In other CBS news, country singer Garth Brooks will be at the center of Garth: Live at Notre Dame, set to air on Dec. 2, during the pre-Christmas season on CBS. To be taped tomorrow, Oct. 20, at the University of Notre Dame’s legendary football stadium, it marks the first standalone concert in the facility’s 88-year history. According to the South Bend Tribune, the 84,000+ tickets went on sale in mid-September and sold out in two hours.

Brooks has put out Christmas albums, but despite the December airdate, there’s no indication in the CBS release of any holiday music being included.

Incidentally, Notre Dame was founded by the Congregation of Holy Cross, the same order in which Family Theater Productions’ founder, Venerable Patrick Peyton, was ordained a priest, and of which FTP remains a vital part.

Images: Wikimedia Commons

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter and YouTube.

‘Romero’: Re-Released Film About a Bishop Who Becomes a Martyr and Saint

Raul Julia as Archbishop Oscar Romero

Transformation is possible. People can learn to see the world and the issues of their times in new ways. This is one of the great insights of the recently re-released Collector’s Edition of Romero from Paulist Productions. This was just in time for the October 14, 2018, canonization of Archbishop Romero.

Oscar Romero (played by Raul Julia) had been a middle-of-the-road, make-no-waves priest and bishop in the hot political environment of El Salvador. For this reason, he was a “safe choice” when they needed someone to be the Archbishop of San Salvador. A few ruling families tightly controlled the land and economy of the country. There was a communist guerilla movement, the FMLN, but there was also a growing protest movement from within the Church. Poor people were being kidnapped and killed or conscripted into militia groups. Many priests and religious called attention to these disappearances. One of them was Father Rutilio Grande, S.J (played by Richard Jordan). Grande’s protests lead to his assassination by a government death squad.

It was his death and the torture of several other priests that was a turning point for Archbishop Romero. He began to listen carefully and observe the plight of the people, especially the poor.This changed him. He began to see how the poor were caught between the rebels and the government militias. He saw the damage violence was doing to the people (everyone), the country and even the Church.

Father David Guffey, C.S.C., attends a screening of “Romero”

Romero started preaching boldly for an end to violence, for peaceful resolutions to address injustices and conflicts. As his public words grew more direct, he became a target. They accused him of being a communist (he was not). Eventually, in March of 1980, he was shot while saying Mass. Romero is revered as a beloved martyr. This prayerful, quiet, bookish man was transformed into a voice for peace, for respect for life and for justice.

At the time of his Beatification, Pope Francis wrote about Archbishop Romero:

In times of difficult coexistence, Archbishop Romero knew how to lead, defend and protect his flock, remaining faithful to the Gospel and in communion with the whole Church. His ministry was distinguished by particular attention to the most poor and marginalized. And at the moment of his death, while he celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of love and reconciliation, he received the grace to identify himself fully with the One who gave his life for his sheep.

Last week, Father Tom Gibbons, C.S.P., of Paulist Productions, presented a copy of the film to Pope Francis in Rome.

Father Tom Gibbons, C.S.P. (left) and Father Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., give Pope Francis a copy of “Romero.”

The newly released film, Romero: Collector’s Edition, is available on DVD and download. It’s entertaining and, though it is 30 years old, seems relevant given the news from around the world today. It stands as one of the great saint movies of all time.

Images: Courtesy Paulist Productions, Family Theater Productions

Father David Guffey, C.S.C., is the Head of Production for Family Theater Productions.

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BASED ON: ‘Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer’ and the Book That Preceded It


Earl Billings as Dr. Kermit Gosnell

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, reviews the new true-crime procedural film Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, released Oct. 12, and the book that preceded it, Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer — both were based on grand-jury testimony, news reports and trial transcripts.

Married couple Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney produced the film Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, basing it on a book of a similar title. The style of filmmaking follows the book closely, a verbatim account of Philadelphia abortionist, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, convicted of grisly murders at his decrepit abortion clinic.

(Note: While the film discusses grisly and horrific crimes, it is not gory or sensationalized. There is no sex or overt violence. Its PG-13 rating refers to adult themes and things more implied than shown. That said, it’s probably not suitable for anyone under its stated age range.)

The book and film rely on police reports, grand-jury testimony, the court stenographer and interviews with Gosnell himself (subsequent to his conviction). The account of Gosnell’s misdeeds left me speechless as the crimes were unraveled in 2010; the movie elicits the same response now. One illustration of the banality: Gosnell felt it appropriate to gleefully play classical music on his grand piano as Feds search his home, following a more recent search of his clinic which uncovered jarred baby parts from previous abortions.

The verbatim approach follows a rarely utilized adaptation style most famously realized in The Passion of Joan of Arc.  Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, this silent film’s source material was based entirely on St. Joan of Arc’s heresy trial transcript. The stark, silent format that 1920s technology demanded actually worked to the film’s advantage. The back-and-forth interrogation between the saint and her inquisitors needed no embellishment from a screenwriter. The story speaks for itself. An innocent young woman dies at the hands of an overweening religious tribunal. The viewer, then has the opportunity to respond to St. Joan’s witness or not.

Philadelphia and federal law enforcement, city prosecutors, a journalist blogger and later, filmmakers, faced Gosnell’s brutal crimes in their verbatim form. They all played parts in not shirking from this evil, but instead exposed it in all its gruesome literalism and brutality.

Most suspiciously absent from the expose was (ironically enough) the institution most entrusted with uncovering truth and exposing lies … the mainstream media. As documented in the film and book, one journalist blogger snapped a photo of any empty journalist gallery and posted it to social media. A lay Twitter campaign publicly shamed traditional media outlets into sending their journalists to cover the trial. I would posit blame at human knuckleheadedness and typical shying-away from admitting some conspiratorial media blackout, but recent events might prove me wrong.

The book’s release immediately made it a bestseller, but the New York Times initially refused to place it on its list, despite empirical book sales demonstrating otherwise. Perhaps, more jaw-dropping was National Public Radio’s denial of the filmmakers’ attempt to pay for ad spots referring to Gosnell as an abortion doctor, even though the radio station’s own previous scant reporting on the case used the very same title.

I prefer themes subtly massaged into the media I both consume and produce. After all, our own Savior spoke through parables, metaphors and good ole-fashioned stories. When confronted with evil so depraved, there’s something to be said about lifting high the Cross and exposing evil in all its lurid detail. Does one respond with facing evil head on and administering justice, or retreat back into a bed of lies, blanketed by sins of omission?

Image: Courtesy Hat Tip Films

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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BASED ON: Netflix’s ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,’ and the Book That Inspired It

The latest in a series by Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., USC film-school grad and producer-at-large at Family Theater Productions …

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, screenplay by Don Roos, directed by Mike Newell based on a novel of the same title written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

The Netflix original movie tells the story of the German occupation of the Channel Island of Guernsey during WWII and the ways in which the tiny island community copes with their situation. In some ways, they’re creative in their predicament: one small band forms a reading group, of sorts. In other ways, occupation becomes a veritable prison for the inhabitants and boredom ensues, evidenced by the serving of potato-peel pies as the culinary staple of choice.

The novel executes the story by way of written letters between the main characters. After the conclusion of the war, Juliet Ashton (played by the lovely Lily James of Downton Abbey fame) hears of the underground literary society and begins a written dialogue with the former members, in hopes of impressing her publisher in London. The entire novel then, alternates in these back and forth letters between her and the society. When she arrives at the island at novel’s mid-point, correspondence in this same letter form continues between her and her publisher, Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode).

The novel’s chosen medium is essentially personal narration for nearly 300 pages — it’s like reading dialogue the entire time, without there actually existing a line of dialogue. It makes for a tedious read to say the least. To borrow language from the translation field, I’m glad the filmmakers decided not to adapt this using formal equivalence. For had the film told the story entirely through letters, as the novel did, it would have required tremendous amounts of voiceover … a smart choice only if Terrence Malick directs your film.

Don Roos’ best adaptation technique is to write the story more in real time — Juliet interviews the islanders on past events, and her poking and prodding create the effect of an engaging procedural. Juliet soon uncovers the central tension between society members. They provide cover for Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay, also from Downton Abbey) who mothered an out-of-wedlock daughter with one of the German officers.

Reading these events in the novel’s letters format produced what I would call a “settled effect.” Since the letters reference a past sin, the only thing left to do on the other side of its committal is to offer forgiveness. With the filmmakers’ adaptation choice to dispense with most of the letter writing, the morality takes on a more immediate effect. When Juliet first learns of Elizabeth cavorting with the Germans, an innkeepers’ judgmental quip on the whole indiscretion takes on a more considerable bite.

A wise screenwriting professor once told me when adapting material, try to answer the question: “What is the one thing the story is about?” The filmmakers accomplished that in capably updating this story of mercy and forgiveness. Discerning the “form” through which the novel tells the story, and determining whether or not that suited the big screen, was an even better question the filmmakers answered.

Image: Courtesy Netflix

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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