Secondhand Lions, Star Trek VI and The Navigator

by Steven Greydanus | Source:
Secondhand Lions (2003)
Like last year’s hit Holes, Secondhand Lions features an awkward adolescent boy (Haley Joel Osment) stranded in an inhospitable, dusty locale with intimidating authority figures, in this case two crusty great-uncles (Robert Duvall and Michael Caine) who, like Holes’s Mr. Sir, are alarmingly fond of firearms. Both films also feature romance and action in an exotic, possibly doubtful back-story, and efforts to find a hidden treasure.

Pleasant and entertaining, Secondhand Lions isn’t as demanding or satisfying as the superior Holes. The film gestures at moral lessons it never quite fleshes out, and what should have been a key plot point is relegated to a tacked-on coda.

What carries the film despite these weaknesses is strong performances, appealing relationships, tongue-in-cheek serial-cliffhanger style flashbacks of derring-do, a couple of subversively funny subplots involving money-hungry relatives and traveling salesmen, and good-hearted themes about responsibility, growing up, and old age.

The film’s heart is in the right place, though its head could use some straightening out. In one woolly-headed exchange, Duvall tells Osment that things like the importance of honor and virtue and the triumph of good over evil are worth believing in, whether or not they’re true. Weakened by sentimentality, Lions is a decent but flawed film that could have been better.

Content advisory: Stylized action violence and brief menace; mild profanity and a fleeting crass remark.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
The original Trek crew’s real last hurrah, The Undiscovered Country is a rousing sendoff for Kirk, Spock, and Bones, and a fitting transition from the original series’ Cold-War milieu to the Next Generation age of engagement.

The Soviet Union was collapsing as production began on the film, in which for the first time Federation leaders, notably Spock (Leonard Nimoy) are beginning to look at the Klingon Empire as something other than a threat and an enemy. A Chernobyl-like catastrophe on a Klingon moon, a Gorbachev-like Klingon chancellor, and a Gulag-like prison planet are among real-world parallels.

Old-guard Federation hard-liner Kirk (William Shatner) is stunned when Spock nominates him to lead the envoy to the Klingons, but Spock explains in a surreal line: “There is an old Vulcan expression: Only Nixon can go to China.” (Similarly, in a line echoing Cold-War cultural posturing, Chancellor Gorkon remarks after quoting Shakespeare that the Bard is best appreciated “in the original Klingon”!)

Not everyone wants peace, of course—Christopher Plummer is great as a warlike Klingon general—and unexpected violence brings dire political repercussions. Steps toward peace are taken, yet as writer David Bezanson notes, “pacifism doesn’t carry the day—the peace is born out of necessity and forged by warriors.”

Content advisory: Some menace, fisticuffs, and sci-fi combat violence; wry humor involving strong drink; brief objectionable language.

The Navigator (1924)
Buster Keaton’s most popular vehicle in his own day, and said to be Keaton’s favorite of his own films, The Navigator isn’t as sophisticated and satisfying as his best work (e.g., The General), but it’s still brilliant slapstick comedy, with a rousing third act and a slam-bang climax.

In a familiar Keatonesque setup, the star plays a spoiled rich twit who seeks solace from a rejected marriage proposal in a long sea voyage. Then—through a complicated convergence of plot points involving rival factions of international spies, the sale of a cruise ship, and a mixup of pier numbers—Keaton and his intended (Kathryn McGuire) find themselves stranded on an otherwise deserted ocean liner, fending for themselves for the first time. (It’s a mark of the film’s naivete that, once the boat is adrift, the spy subplot is abandoned!)

Comic highlights include a virtuoso exercise in comic timing in which the hero and heroine, unaware of each other’s presence, wander the ship looking for another soul; their subsequent struggles to make breakfast; and Buster’s battles with a recalcitrant deck chair. Then the ship runs aground near an island, and Buster must battle swordfish on the ocean floor and cannibals assailing the ship. The final gag, when all seems lost, is a doozy. Fine family viewing.

Content advisory: Menace from spies and stereotyped island native “cannibals.”

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