January 9, 2017

MOVIES: "SILENCE"


SEVERAL SPOILERS BELOW--BUT WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS FILM!

The new Scorsese film, "Silence," based on the 1966 historical novel (with the same title) by Japanese Catholic, Shûsaku Endô, is a worthy and nuanced take on: missionary activity, Christianity, the priesthood, the sacraments, religious persecution, torture, suffering, the suffering of God and the God of suffering. I read the haunting novel several years ago, and I'm sure the ending is what sticks with everyone: the conundrum of an ultimatum that does not allow YOU to suffer for your Faith, but rather makes OTHERS suffer for YOUR Faith until YOU renounce God (or "apostatize," making you an "apostate"). And actually, it doesn't even matter if those made to suffer for you are your fellow Christians or not: human beings will suffer greatly because of YOUR profession of faith.

The main way (among others) that Christians had to denounce Christ and faith in Christ was to step on His image.

AN APOSTATE PRIEST?

Now, perhaps the above information was a bit of a SPOILER for you. If so, I apologize. But it casts a back-shadow over the whole story and is actually its premise. Two young Portuguese Jesuits (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) go to Japan to find their older mentor-priest (Liam Neeson) who, it is rumored, has apostatized. They meet up with secret Japanese Christians along the way and minister to them. For these young, idealistic and fervent men, the glory of martyrdom is straightforward and clear cut. They refuse to believe their spiritual father has abandoned Christ and are convinced it's simply the slander of Japanese officials. They can't imagine the choice and the crossroad before them--they will tread the exact same excruciating path their beloved mentor trod.

JUDAS

Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) is a Christian who denied Christ out of weakness, and we can tell right away that he's going to be trouble, a kind of Judas figure that can't be trusted. However, just like the rest of this rich tale, he is not going to be a typical tragic Judas figure. In fact, he's even a bit of comic relief. At no point are we directed to judge anyone--only to keep putting ourselves in the midst of these troubled times and in the place of these troubled souls. Jesus Himself is presented in the film as a compatriot, a com-passionate-er ("to suffer with"), a Savior, a model, a friend--not a judge.

THE PERFECT WAY TO SUFFOCATE CHRISTIANITY?

Japan is spoken of as a "swamp" by the missionaries and the Japanese themselves. A swamp that drowned Christianity (Christianity had flourished in the time of Francis Xavier and immediately after, until the Japanese officials not only instituted a crushing and murderous persecution, but forced priests to make the terrible decision.) But. #1 Christianity survived (albeit in small numbers) and was reintroduced in later centuries. #2 If the Japanese officials had found the perfect way to kill Christianity, why was this tactic not used everywhere in the world that opposes Christianity or opposes anything else for that matter? Surely this is not the first time oppressors realized that threatening someone's family/friends works way better than threatening the person themselves! So, on one hand, I think it's a false conundrum. What I used to think was the absolute death knell of faith (when I first read "Silence") is just another dastardly trick.

JESUS NEVER PROMISED US A ROSE GARDEN.
QUITE THE OPPOSITE.

What does "silence" mean? The silence of God in the face of human suffering. In the face of prayers that seem to spiral out into a void. The silence of the lack of God's intervention in affairs both human and divine. But here we must be careful of demanding God to fulfill promises He never made. Tell me where/when Jesus ever promised a life free of suffering to His followers or anyone else? Where did Jesus promise us long life or even tomorrow? This is all wishful thinking on our part. Instead, Jesus promised us the exact opposite: persecution, death, hatred, the exact same treatment He received. "God is not a rescuer, He's a Redeemer" (my friend, Fr. Michael D'Cruz, OFM, 60 years a priest). Still want to be a Christian? "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life" (John 6:68).

PLAYING DEVIL'S ADVOCATE

But just to play devil's advocate here: was outward apostasy the only choice? What if the priests had refused to publicly "deny" Christ and had to continue to listen/watch as the Christians (who had already apostatized and would only be relieved by the priests' forfeiture) were tortured? (And we know the Japanese officials were true to their word and ceased the torture as soon as the priests capitulated.) Surely this was still a choice--but not a "Christian" one? Christ/Christianity does not believe in avoiding suffering at any cost, but neither does it accept suffering that can be avoided--even at great cost--out of compassion. And yet--might the Japanese officials have believed if the priests "stood firm"? Or would they have thought the priests and their God cruel beyond words--crueler than themselves? Or would it have made no difference either way? Did not the early Roman martyrs face similar choices? Who did the priests really need to witness to: God? Themselves? The Japanese officials? The Japanese Christians? Christian Europe? History? The future? All the above? God is merciful, certainly, but what of: "...if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He will also deny us..." (2 Timothy 2:12)? Is our profession of faith the one thing we must never give up in this world no matter what?

BIG SPOILER ALERT: In the film, Jesus imaginatively begins to answer (so much for "silence"). He soothingly says: "Go ahead. Trample Me. That's what I came for: to be trampled on." I don't know if I'm the only one who thought this--but those could be the very words of Satan. A deception of Satan. 

MASS APOSTASY

Apostasy was THE great unforgivable (in many Christian leaders' eyes) sin of early Christian times. Many who apostatized were not readmitted to the Church after persecutions died down, and a controversy over how to deal with apostates raged. "Silence" just made me think how easily we apostatize today! Without even any serious threats! How we are actually living in times of such weak faith and mass apostasy--without people even realizing what they're doing. It's almost like we act as though we're living in an illusion where nothing really matters, nothing is really real and there are no real consequences to our actions or inaction. But such are our New-Age-tinged, relativistic times that tell us there is no immutable objective truth to be sought, known or adhered to. Let alone God.

FRANZ JAGERSTATTER

Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, "the only Austrian to stand up to Hitler," was told that because he wanted to do his precious little conscience, his wife and three daughters were going to suffer. Although he wasn't faced with the clear, horrorful choice of the Portuguese Jesuits, he nevertheless stated: "I don't think that just because a man has a family he is dispensed from doing his conscience." Wow. Let that sink in. We all have someone to protect. During the time of the Maccabees, the mother of the seven martyr-sons was told to dissuade her sons from death, but she did nothing of the kind and instead encouraged them to give up their bodies and limbs to the One who gave them and could restore them. And the old Jewish man was told to pretend to eat pork and save his life, but he said: "What kind of an example will that give to the young?" I know this is all so harsh. I'm just sayin. (Incidentally, Jagerstatter was decapitated by the Nazis--face up--and nothing bad happened to his family.)

MERCY

If you think I think I'm strong? I am not. I have a pain tolerance of zero. And I am a totally chicken- and lily-livered in the face of any intimation of any kind of bodily harm. Without some kind of extraordinary grace of God, I would cave in, oh, the first 4 seconds of torture. What would I have done in the priests' situation? I don't know. And so, we must all throw ourselves on God's mercy. At all moments. This is definitely a film about mercy.

PEASANTS AND HEAVEN

The Christians are all peasants who have come to see themselves as beloved sons and daughters of the Father. "Christianity brought love." They are no longer animals and slaves. Not only that, there is a "paradise" awaiting them. Are they fools? Only if it's not true. So Christianity is the religion of the poor? Yes. The poor in spirit. And guess what. We're all going to die. Rich and poor alike. As the non-denoms and fundys and Evangelicals like to ask: "Do you know where you're going?" It's kind of an important question.

PEASANTS AND PRIESTS

The padres are not seen as gods to the Christian peasants, but they understand very clearly that the sacraments (God working through matter) come through these chosen men. Sometimes they seem to have more faith in the priesthood than the priests themselves. How often the priests are edified by their great faith! Let's remember that these valiant Christians really did exist. Thousands were killed for their faith. And who are we to judge their faith? Maybe it is simpler and truer and purer than our own. If anything--these Christians could stand in judgment of the faith (or lack thereof) of us Christians of today.

A DISCUSSION FILM

There is so much in this non-tedious 2 hours and 41 minutes film that we could and should talk about for days. It's not that it's jam-packed, it's just that the very nature of God, faith, culture, Christianity and suffering are all glaring, blaring, blazing themes, and they all come together in one big package--of necessity. My head is still spinning. In a good way. And, on top of it all, many of us watching this film are looking at our Euro-centric forebears in the Faith who had a deeper, more tactile, more immediate, more vibrant, more black and white, more urgent sense of salvation than we soft, 21st-century, relativistic, dualistic (separating body and soul), abstracting postmoderns can even begin to muster a concept of. One would hope that we ahistorical folks are able at least to realize what a different mindset people had at this time in history (both the European Christians and the Japanese Buddhists). "Freedom of religion" as we understand it today was largely unheard of in the 17th century.

PARTING SHOTS

What does Scorsese think? What does Scorsese believe? I think he tipped his hand in the closing scene and the brief text-epilogue-dedication. I would rather the film have been without both.


OTHER STUFF:

--Garfield was good. Perhaps a bit too perky and hopeful and not anguished enough. Driver was also good, but wasn't given many lines or much of a part, really.
The Japanese actors are P-H-E-N-O-M-E-N-A-L.

--The cinematography was not really lush, certainly nowhere near as lush as "Kundun." "Silence" is a dire human drama that can't afford to get lost in beauteous nature. There is no great horrific gore-fest here (that Scorsese could have done so well). Rather we get lost in the faith of the people, not their pain.

--Evil is not "beautiful." It is glamorous. And no one needs be "worthy" to be called evil as though evil is an actual good or substance. It is only a lack. Evil is the great illusion that will be done away with.

--Bishop Barron's even-more-spoilery-than-my-review-review (I agree with his critique in part): https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/scorseses-silence-and-the-seaside-martyrs/5360
Before the film came out, friends of mine were worried that the message would be: "See? Capitulation and dissembling and complying is ALWAYS better than suffering: one's own or someone else's." But that wasn't quite the message, especially when we see in the film plenty of Japanese being killed for the Faith outright with no complex dilemmas involved.... I do agree that the heroes put forth here are the "simple" Japanese faithful. But when we get to the other side, we'll see whether or not they were so "simple." Maybe just "stalwart"? At any rate, we know for a fact that they are saints. Martyr-saints.

Bishop Barron draws an interesting parallel with today's persecution: the privatization of the Faith. A Faith which is increasingly being restricted from being Catholically operative in the public sphere or in works of charity such as education, healthcare, etc. The Catholic Church increasingly cannot actually require that her institutions be Catholic any more. She "must" operate according to the "progressive" mores and policies of an "enlightened" society.

--Good, brief overview of book and film: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silence_(novel)

--"America Magazine" interview with Martin Scorsese: http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/creating-silence

--A historian friend of mine has this to say:
"Cristóvão Ferreira, the priest (Liam Neeson) in , actually recanted his denial of Christ & died a Christian martyr"
"A simple Google search reveals that historically there have been sources revealing that witnesses reported his conversion at the end of his life and subsequent martydom. The book 'Silence' is historical fiction. There is controversy regarding this real priest. Unfortunately Scorsese and his priest consultant James Martin SJ chose the negative interpretation. The Japanese author admitted that he hypothesized what could have happened not what did happen. We need a Catholic historian to write a review based on historical analysis.

I think Endo did nothing wrong because he presented it as fiction. Scorsese conflates the history and the fiction by focusing on a real person without a disclaimer, without a note in the beginning that this is based on a novel. It is not fair to include a real historical person in a film yet not acknowledge that the ending is fictional. It saddens me that Scorsese neglected to include even the possibility based on historical accounts that Fr. Ferreira may have returned to the Church and died as a martyr.

The beautiful part of the film was the coverage of the martyrs. Very moving. It's too bad the ending had to be so negative. Jesus would never say deny me and trample on me. He said if we deny him, he will deny us. Of course he is merciful to we who do things out of fear but this film glorifies apostasy and doubt."

--My 90 second audio review:

December 18, 2016

MOVIES: "MANCHESTER BY THE SEA"


DON'T WATCH ANY TRAILERS!
YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING BEFOREHAND.

Kenneth Lonergan, writer-director of the Oscar-buzzy, Amazon Studios' "Manchester By the Sea," is a playwright, and his films reflect that: minute detail to human discourse and a wallowing in emotionally-charged depths. Lonergan's mother is Jewish and his father is Irish--and I'm going to assume he was brought up Irish-Catholic because MBS really nails that milieu. Although from New York City, Lonergan wholeheartedly enters the Boston experience (as do the actors with their mostly accurate Boston accents, inflections and attitudes). Michelle Williams, in particular, grasps the cadence and projects the air of a native--consummate actress that she is.

FULL OF THE BOSTON BAKED BEANS

Why dwell on the writer-director? Because the nature of this still, little, indie-feeling tragicomedy points back to the writer at all moments. We're not used to such exposed, realistic dialogue--not delivered in hyper-reality or with perfectly polished forethought--where people constantly talk through each other and cut each other's sentences off. Nor are we used to this true-to-life, regional Bostonspeak (phrases like "skip it," "wicked retahdid," and "f***ing morons" constantly bandied about). There is a very distinctive way that people joke around in Boston, especially guys when they get together, and MBS puts it on full--but naturalistic--display. There's a certain Boston look in the eye, carriage, a certain set of face that shines through with flying colors here. And now, the story.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor in Boston. He's asocial and shut down. (People who know nothing about the story are better off, as his backstory is oh-so-gradually revealed through constant and seamless flashbacks.) There is an underlying hilarity to everything this thinly-but-well-drawn character says or does, even though we don't know why he is the way he is yet. This is great, lean writing and acting. My guess is the first scenes were actually shot first because it takes a while for the pace to materialize and it's a mite too slow and staring in the beginning.

MYSTERIES

We begin to piece together that Lee and his brother, Joe (a winning Kyle Chandler), grew up in Manchester By the Sea, a coastal town about 30 miles north of Boston. They spent significant time together on a fishing boat, and we see Lee messing around with Joe's son, Patrick, between whom there is obvious affection. So what changed it all? All I'm going to say is that Joe had a bad heart, and tragedy ensues. Lee is called back to Manchester to be his nephew's legal guardian. But why did Lee leave in the first place? Why is he now so different from the lovable goofball we saw on the boat? Where are the women (are there any wives or mothers or girlfriends in Lee or Joe's lives)? Why did Joe choose Lee to look after his son?

THIS IS LIFE. THIS IS DEATH.

Patrick's life is in instant upheaval, needless to say. But, like so many Millennials/Gen Z-ers today who carry heavy burdens, he keeps it all together on the outside, hardly showing any grief. Yet when something normal, natural and human touches him, it's psychologized, it's "wrong," it can't be owned or felt or lived, it must be distanced, categorized, controlled and manipulated. He's on two sports teams, has two girlfriends and is in a band. Patrick is played by the seasoned Lucas Hedges (also from NYC, he hails from a grand old Christian family and more recently an arts family. Lucas is clearly enjoying himself in this role for which he is more than suited). Patrick carries himself with the air of an aristocrat or an operator or just a quintessential entitled young American. Any which way, he's going to be fine. It's Lee we're worried about. Now that he's back in Manchester, people gawk and whisper. He never wanted to come back. He's forced to face old ghosts.

MBS is a story about life's worst tragedies and death hanging over everything. Lee sometimes drinks and fights away his sorrows. We are laughing constantly at the humor in just about every scene, despite the ever-present Cross. Often, our characters even appreciate the humor with us. But it's easier for us to observe than for them to endure. I also cried several times as did my packed theater.
There were a few false notes of reactions, or rather non-reactions. Even though the grief was stuffed down, I found myself thinking a few times: no one would say that, act like that, react like that (including minor characters).

TEEN SEX IN THE AGE OF THE HOLLOW MAN

My one grievance with the film is the persistently cavalier attitude toward teenage sex (realistic as that may be)."'Cuz no one's getting hurt, right? 'Cuz the body and sex are meaningless, right? And we'd better establish that in our tender years, right?" The adults are such a failure here, including the aged adults in my theater, whom, I venture, for the most part did NOT treat sex this way as youths. "But we've gotta be hip and yuk it up, right? And condoms solve all sexual and relationship problems, right? And no one will ever, ever, ever get pregnant if you use condoms, right? 'Cuz times have changed and this is how it is now and we just have to accept it 'cuz no harm is being done and we were silly NOT to have random sex in our bedrooms at home when we were teens and the kids are just having fun and it's just so funny, right?" We have really, really, really failed young people. THEOLOGY. OF. THE. BODY.

 GRATEFUL

The soundtrack choices are unique. Lots of classical music, opera, chamber music and a few sung jazz pieces. But it works.

In the end, the actors are not being precious and precocious and the film is not "insisting upon itself." You will enter the film without realizing it and find it hard to get out of it when the credits roll, but you will be thankful for the continuum of family in your life, such as they are.

OTHER STUFF:

--There could easily have been many more F-bombs, but they were judiciously placed. :)

--Casey is great. I heard it stated recently: "Ben (Affleck) is a movie star. Casey is an actor." He has that unnerving looking straight past the camera and not blinking mojo--felt keenly in a soap-opera-close-up-no-quick-cut-aways film like MBS.

--Lee was unhappy. Miserable. But still alive. That's heroism.

--Sooooo Boston: driving angry, mumbling and talking in bunches, honed brevity of speech and interactions when the occasion is momentous and calls for more,  overreacting to every little thing, talking too loudly, dropping the "g" on every "ing" word....

--Dear People Behind Me in Theater Who Think Movie-Going Is a Time for Catching Up with Friends,
Go. To. A. Coffee. Shop. Silence during contemplative movies is for just that: CONTEMPLATION. Stop talking and let the film sink into your soul instead of slipping off the surface of your contact lenses.
(We need silent theaters like silent cars on commuter trains.)

--The (non-graphic) teen sex scenes made me realize something: How young it starts (with the tacit aid of parents/adults). What starts? The shallow, callous, trite, mechanical, uncaring, male-centric, banal, reductionist, utilitarian, hedonistic, consumeristic, functional, subhuman approach to that part of our lives where we give and receive love and life at the deepest level and which is all tied up with God who is Love and Life and Desire and all tied up with our destiny and our vocation and getting us to heaven.

--Casey Affleck looks and sounds like JFK sometimes. 

--Casey's eyes are incredibly, incredibly emotive. All the acting is right there and in his hunched over comportment and gait.

--Several brilliant, lengthy, wordless sequences (at least one in slo-mo) that convey so much. (Kind of like the "Up" infertility and death of wife sequence.)

--"I can't beat it."

--"You know Catholics are Christians, right?"

--In the end, this is a buddy movie: Lee and Patrick.

--One of the quietest, simplest endings to a film.


December 6, 2016

VIDEO OF DAUGHTERS OF ST. PAUL CHRISTMAS CONCERT CHOIR 2016!


To follow us around the USA on social media: #singingnuntour

Keep up with Christmas Choir Concert Tour! NEXT UP: St. Louis, Cleveland, Boston!


I am the hippie nun at the very end: 


November 13, 2016

MOVIES: "DON'T BREATHE"



DO NOT WATCH THE TRAILER! GIVES TOO MUCH AWAY!

"Don't Breathe" is a much ballyhooed suspense-thriller from 38-year-old Uruguayan horror-meister, Fede Alvarez, that I was very eager to see. I don't do straight-up horror/slasher films, but I could tell that "Don't Breathe" had more of the air of a thriller, and I wasn't wrong. It's certainly a great little film, but not anything new or game-changing. I was only disappointed because of all the hype. It's engaging but not riveting. Curiously, the film begins with a chilling and intriguing scene of an older man dragging the body of a young blonde woman down the middle of suburban street in broad daylight. Why is the movie giving all this away? How is it possible that the neighbors wouldn't notice? Just you wait.

DETROIT

Set in a depressed Detroit (a delicious setting that serves the film well and is almost a character itself), three young people have become experts at breaking and entering. They take only high-end goods, clothes and jewelry, never cash. What's their secret? The fresh-faced Alex (Dylan Minnette) has a Dad that works for a security company. Alex has access to keys, passwords and remotes that turn alarms off and on. He seems to be the most well-off and middle-class of the squad. So why is he living a life of crime? Could it be that he's sweet on "Rocky" (Jane Levy) the hard-luck blonde whose mother is a true bottom-feeding, white trash trainwreck (a fact that is brought out deftly in just one scene of Rocky's home life)? The ringleader is a manically grinning, streetwise "Money" (Daniel Zovatto) who is also Rocky's boyfriend. There are subtle layers of tension and circles of conflict. Alex is the one who knows the extent of the illegalities of each of their potential actions, and constantly reminds them in the moment. Alex is the film's kind of naive anti-conscience.

UNDERDOGS ALL

The trio plan their last heist. They target a blind veteran (Stephen Lang) who lives alone, but somewhere in his run-down house is cash from a large settlement he got when his young daughter was run over by a car. Rocky urges them to forego their "no cash" rule so that she can make good on her plan and promise to her little sister to flee their miserable life and go to California. So we have an underdog city, at least two underdog ruffians, and an underdog, disabled soldier (the thieves overcome their hesitation about robbing him by saying: "He's probably not a saint"). Marvelous storytelling stakes.

AMORAL, SORT OF

When I read the synopsis of "Don't Breathe" before watching the movie, it seemed it might be a bit of a revenge fantasy, a bit of a "teach 'em a lesson" morality play, but it's actually quite relativistic and amoral. Each character is their own judge and jury. They will decide what's right, where the boundaries are, what justifies what and who will be punished and how. (It made me thank God that God is mercy!) And yes--there's even some God talk. I won't do a spoiler, but a character is made to say a variation on Dostoevsky's famous:  “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted."

The blind veteran character was not a total bogeyman. He wasn't all-knowing and didn't have the house booby-trapped as I had suspected. He seemed somewhat vulnerable, even as his senses of hearing and smell and military training overrode his blindness, to the point that he could trap three young people in his house and hunt them down. He has a gun and knows how to kill with his bare hands. The playing field is further evened when the blind man douses the lights. The filmmakers then use a wonderful kind of grayscale lens or some other technology so that we can actually see the action (unlike so much "dark digital" TV and film where we are truly in the dark and can't see a darn thing). Our young anti-heroes even advance toward their hunter--as blind as he is.

MORE, PLEASE!

The tale is told with just a handful of characters; hint: more than four. That's all I'm going to say.
"Don't Breathe" is being called a horror film, but there's really very little horror or gore. There are, however, enough twists in what seems like a straightforward story, and a very unexpected ending. So many times the film seems to end, our burglars seem safe, they seem like they're going to escape--but of course, they don't. I was never utterly terrified or jumping in my seat, but we must, must, must know how this ends.


"Don't Breathe" is an 88-minute, solid thriller that left me wanting more. The uneasy, unresolved ending leaves room for a sequel. Because horror-suspense films shouldn't have happy endings now, should they?


November 8, 2016

5 MUST-HAVE BOOKS FOR "CATHOLICS & MEDIA"!


The media vision, strategy & spirituality
of Blessed Fr. James Alberione--the priest who loved our media world.

Prayers for the media, communications culture & new evangelization
written by Blessed Fr. James Alberione, "the first apostle of the new evangelization."--John Paul II

Put Media Literacy Education together with our Catholic Faith!
Teach kids critical thinking skills & media discernment skills!

Put Media Literacy Education together with our Catholic Faith!
Teach teens critical thinking skills & media discernment skills!

Porn is an addiction. We have all the brain science.
There is life after porn. It may be the toughest fight of your life, but you can & must do it.
For yourself. Porn must be tackled on the physical/chemical/addiction level,
the spiritual/sacramental level & the human/character/formation level. God will help you.



October 28, 2016

MOVIES: "HACKSAW RIDGE"



Mel Gibson has done it again. "Hacksaw Ridge" is the cinematic event of 2016-2017. "HR" is the true story of Private Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist from Virginia who enlists in World War II, but--as a conscientious objector--staunchly refuses to bear arms. Literally. He won't even touch a gun, let alone go through the required rifle training. His dream is to be a medic and save lives.

CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION

Desmond Doss is the only c.o. to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Why? He saved 50-75 lives of the wounded on the battlefield when the orders were to retreat. One of the taglines for the film is: "One man stayed behind." Andrew Garfield, who plays Doss, effortlessly inhabits this simple, guileless, fearless country boy (as evidenced by actual interview footage with Doss at the end of the film).

The movie begins with showing us exactly who this young man is, from childhood on. We enter deeply into his family dynamic (World War I veteran father who has turned to alcohol and domestic violence). Despite their dysfunction, God and religion are a living, breathing reality in the Doss family. As a man of faith himself, Gibson can depict this with non-ironic authenticity.

COWARDICE?

Act Two is the strange dilemma of a brave young man--thought to be a coward by his comrades and superiors--navigating the heart of the U.S. Army as a pacifist. Due to the uniqueness of his situation and a series of miscommunications, Doss faces spending the war in a military prison before he ever sees action. His salvation is the U.S. Constitution, at a time in U.S. history when it was actually honored and upheld (yes, that's cynicism you are noting in my tone).

Act Three is sheer, all-out war.

IT'S ALL PERSONAL

Although a grand-scale film, it never, ever loses the small, personal, human scale. In fact, it's all about that. So much so that it could be called a film that subscribes to a "personalist" philosophy. "HR" has it all: history, humor, romance, principles, honor, conflict, moral conundrums. The love story is sweet and surprising: a mini-primer by the gracious "greatest generation" on how it's done. Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) loves Desmond because he "isn't like the others." Smart women love men who know who they are, who can stand on their own two feet, who live by their convictions. Not just convictions: their convictions.

The casting is dead on. The actors embrace a 40's vibe in unison. The soundtrack/score is engulfing. The writing/dialogue is sterling. And on top of all these accolades, this is just good old-fashioned movie-making with the added arsenal of today's digital wizardry. However, it really looks and feels like it was shot on film. "HR" must be seen on the big screen. I repeat: must be seen on the big screen.

Drawbacks? Negatives? The first few minutes of the film begin with some shaky, hokey, on-the-nose exposition, but it quickly disperses. Vince Vaughn is hilarious as the nickname-slewing Sarge, but he also plays his role with a kind of John Wayne/Tom Hanks softness that unrealistically mitigates the utter desperation of the situation.

GLORIFICATION OF WAR?

My main question going into this film (as with all war films) was: Does it glorify war? My answer is no, but that will depend on the viewer, of course. "HR" is a gorefest (typical of Gibson, anyway)--but that's exactly what war is: especially this difficult, impossible arena of "Hacksaw Ridge." We are exposed to spurting arteries, heads blown off, living legless torsos, maggot and rat-ridden corpses, men-turned-grotesque-monsters shrieking  all the way to their hideous deaths. Why was "Hacksaw Ridge" so vital? It was the path to Okinawa.

For me, war was shown to be "sufficiently" horrific and hellish in "HR." But I don't know how someone who has endured war or played a steady stream of military videogames will see it. Are we all inured? "HR" will definitely draw parallels to "Saving Private Ryan." The insane din, the whizzing bullets, the never-ending nightmare of healthy young men instantly turned into bloody parcels of meat. The men we get to know so well being picked off one by one. However, the carnage is much more incessant and much more extreme in "HR"--not for the faint of heart.

GOD IS REAL. MIRACLES HAPPEN. DEAL WITH IT.

My second question going into the film was: Is our hero going to be some Bible-toting, Bible-quoting mystic who miraculously dodges bullets and grenades because he's praying and relying on the Word of God and Psalms of protection? The answer is no and yes. "Grace perfects nature and doesn't replace it." The grace of God builds on nature. God and us working together. ALL is gift, including Doss' natural "mountain goat" litheness and cool-headed courage. BUT. There is also such a thing as the miraculous. God intervening directly. We shouldn't let our eagerness to pander to "objective" rationality and "facts" make us deniers of a greater Reality. What Doss accomplished was nothing short of miraculous. And he tells us so: "I just kept asking God: Give me one more, Lord," as he went back again and again UNARMED AND UNDER FIRE to bring the injured to safety.

MUST-SEE FILM

Excellent justifications for use of force are presented--not only the promoting of nonviolent action. All the hard questions are dealt with. "Hacksaw Ridge" is a magnificent film that will take its rightful place in the annals of war movies. This is a very important film for young men to see (in life, men in particular find themselves faced with the question of when to use physical force and when not to). Men, young and old, need to know that there also exists ultimate bravery, heroism and daring--apart from violence, destruction and devastation. The valor of peace can exist even in the midst of war.

OTHER STUFF:

--Mel was born in the USA. When Mel was 12, his father moved him and his brothers to Australia to avoid them being drafted into the Vietnam War. It's interesting to see how many war movies Mel has been involved in, starting with the stellar and tragic "Gallipoli." Perhaps Mel is working out something very personal in these films.

--This is definitely a film about fathers and sons. But also about women and men.

--The "Coming Attraction" trailers in my theater included several "fun" and even "funny" violent action films. Followed by a PSA about PTSD and suicide in the lives of Wounded Warriors.

--Mom to Desmond about his father: "He doesn't hate us. He hates himself."

--I'm not particularly an Andrew Garfield fan, but he's good at playing Americans. (Also good in "99 Homes.")

--Desmond Doss was not standing in judgment of anyone but himself. The only person we can truly judge.

--The men don't have the faith of Doss. But they had faith in his faith because they saw it in action.

--Every time I see a WW2 film I repeat to myself: "These are men before Kinsey, men before porn." Two must-see films on this: "Out of the Darkness" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMueTE_mokQ  "The Kinsey Syndrome--How One Man Destroyed the Morality of America" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQyl4YR-aQw





October 13, 2016

MOVIES: "PRICELESS"



I'm debating whether or not to do a teensy little spoiler of the new Christian film "Priceless." The marketing for the film readily gives this juicy tidbit away, but on the other hand, it would be effective if those who come to the theater know nothing. But on the other hand, who goes to a movie not knowing the first thing about it? But on the other hand (wait--that's three hands), this is a review, and I must divulge the subject of the film: human trafficking. The title, of course, is apt. It's a line of dialogue as well as a prominent theme in the film. Human beings are priceless.

The human beings trafficked here are women: two sisters, one underage, who have been duped into believing they are being hired for legitimate jobs in the USA. Our main character, James, a trucker down on his luck (deceased wife, adored six-year-old daughter taken from him by Social Services), unknowingly transports human cargo, making "deliveries" of the locked trucks he shuttles. How could he not know? The women may have been told to be absolutely silent by their handler (whom they think is helping them), as they eat, sleep and presumably defecate in the roomy holding cell on wheels.

BASED ON "TRUE STORIES"

"Priceless" is based on a true story--how true these characters and their actions are is not specified, but we know that what we are seeing is, tragically, exactly what happens to countless individuals: duped, trapped and enslaved in various ways from various countries, including the USA itself. The two young women here are being forced into sexual slavery (prostitution). As the story unfolds, the truth of what he has been hauling and his complicity begins to haunt James and he wants to "make things right." Reversing the damage will not be so easy, and in the end will require him to put his life on the line. James was "once a good man," now in need of redemption himself. He teams up with Dale, an older man who won't say why the women's plight means so much to him (but we can guess right off the bat).

The exposition is gradual and creative, but the palpable danger could have been heightened exponentially in the hands of the right director. Actually, this could have been a tremendous film in the hands of the right director. All the components are there! As I have pointed out before in my reviews, movies like "Priceless" suffer from the same "Christian film" malaise: a hesitance to really go for it. To be a little more gritty. And to employ all the bells and whistles in today's filmmaking toolkit. Much of the acting was superb ("James" was just fair, and camera conscious, IMHO)--the two women and the pimp in particular were outstanding (with some outstanding "gritty" scenes), but the incredibly slow Southern pace and preaching bouts mar the story.

RAISING AWARENESS

What's great about this film is, first of all, tackling this subject matter to raise awareness. For those completely ignorant of how trafficking works, it paints a realistic portrait. Also, there is so much emphasis on human dignity, with some great accompanying dialogue, I would think that anyone who has been abused in any way, women who have let themselves be used (there's a scene with a prostitute who is doing this by "choice"), will be schooled in their worth, as well as see screen examples of good men who honor women. Men who have ever participated in or facilitated prostitution in any way will be given pause, as the character of these kind of men is on full display, and the question implied is: It's not the women that are "cheap"--are these men worth anything? "Priceless" is a love letter to women everywhere.

BREAKING DRAMATIC TENSION

Often in this kind of indie film (Christian or otherwise), there are good sequences and scenes and a coherent story, but it winds up feeling episodic  because the action doesn't flow due to a lack of attention to transitions, and thus the dramatic tension is broken over and over. "Priceless" also suffers from several on-the-nose voiceover and "reflection" scenes ("Now here's what's going on spiritually, folks!") which could have been worked into the action itself. I might add here that "Hotel Rwanda" suffered egregiously from this constant breaking of dramatic tension that left us not feeling apprehensive at all--like there was no slaughter going on right outside the walls. For a much better feature film on Rwanda, see  "Beyond These Gates." But I digress.

There is one huge "save-the-day" coincidence toward the end (coincidences are a no-no in film in general, and never allowed at the end).

GOING THERE

There is heroism on the part of Antonia, the older of the two sisters, and she is the one who introduces God into the picture. In spite of her suffering, she has faith while James does not. The Godtalk is cogent, strong and believable coming from the lips of a Mexican woman and a cowboy-hatted gent, but it doesn't feel like they're really talking to each other, but proselytizing us, the audience. Maybe that can't be helped in filmmaking today where we are so used to God being verboten. Movie Godtalk can make even us believers cynical (because He sticks out like a sore thumb when you're not used to Him being there)!

There are no easy solutions to the dilemma of rescuing both women. Don't look for neat endings and quick conversions! But ultimately, the film really does "go there" when we see what it takes to deal with the ruthless who have no respect for human life.

OTHER STUFF:

--This film is in the same vein, ilk and pace of the following "Christian films": "October Baby," "Mom's Night Out," "Old Fashioned" (the first and last of which I found a lot of good stuff in). I don't put the Kendrick Brothers' films here because they are a cut above.

--Am I being extra-harsh on "Christian" films? No. It's just that poor or uneven production values in a film are completely distracting from the "good bits" (as the British say). Movies need to entice you to suspend disbelief, to "just go with it" because we know we're in good hands and won't be continuously jarred and have to work incredibly hard to keep suspending disbelief, to give the film "another chance," to sit back, relax and be given a vicarious experience. Uneven quality filmmaking keeps "taking us out of the film": a mortal sin in my Screenwriting studies at UCLA.

--Thanks to the filmmakers for raising awareness of this egregious and pressing issue.




October 4, 2016

MOVIES: "DENIAL"



A new film aptly entitled "Denial"--about a famous Holocaust-denial court case--is a jewel. I hope it will be used in classrooms. I will be doing some SPOILERS in this review in order to pick apart the storyline, as well as the reality of dealing with Holocaust deniers.

Rachel Weisz plays professor, historian and author, Deborah E. Lipstadt, and carries the film with grace, warmth and humanity. Her character is a woman of pluck, intelligence, veracity and determination. Weisz, a Londoner, masters an endearing and flawless New York City accent.
This script could have been a tedious "talkie" with impassioned speeches and recountings of the horrors of the extermination camps, but although it refrained, "the suffering was heard." Good filmcraft.

DEBUNKING THE DEBUNKERS

Lipstadt is a professor who has dedicated herself to debunking those who try to debunk the Final Solution (the wholesale, systematic slaughter of Europe's Jews by Hitler and Nazi Germany during World War II). In one of her books, she cites Dr. David Irving (Timothy Spall), a vicious, megalomaniac historian who falsifies history in order to paint an alternate world where the Holocaust never happened. The karmic question (posed by Lipstadt to her students) at the beginning of the film is: "How do we know that the Holocaust happened? How do we know what really happened? Where is the proof? How strong is the proof?" Immediately, we see the consequences and importance of these queries: How do we know anything happened? How can we be sure of history? Who gets to be the keepers and framers of history?

GUILTY TILL PROVEN INNOCENT

Dr. Irving shows up (with his own videographer) at a talk given by Lipstadt. He begins heckling, challenging and pulling flamboyant stunts to discredit her. Dr. Irving is removed by security because Lipstadt's policy is to never debate those who deny history. She will debate those who have different opinions about why and how events took place, but not THAT they took place. She will not debate FACTS. But Irving (who is British) goes on the offensive and sues her (in the British court system) for libel. He alleges that she has tarnished his professional career and he is now treated like a pariah because of her accusations. And here's where it gets even more strangely intriguing. In the British system, if you are sued for libel, YOU must prove that you are innocent, not the other way around! 

STRATEGY, STRATEGY, STRATEGY

Lipstadt hires a crack team of British lawyers, but still has difficulty wrapping her head around this "guilty till proven innocent" reversal. The one thing she wants to do is get on the stand herself and testify. She wants to put Holocaust survivors on the stand to tell their stories. Her legal team forbids both. She is to sit there, tight-lipped, and let them handle it. It's the only way she's going to win. It's a strategy. Jesus Himself told us: "Be as clever as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). "Denial" may remind you of the English lawyer, St. Thomas More, in "Man for All Seasons," as he uses his knowledge of the law to protect himself.

Lipstadt's legal eagles know the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of British law. At times these high-powered barristers (and solicitors) appear to her to be cold and uncaring, but nothing could be further from the truth. Shrewdly, they don't want the Holocaust to be put on trial, only Dr. Irving. They don't want the survivors to be humiliated. They want to "starve" Irving so he can't put on his usual circus.

Lipstadt feels the weight of her duty to history, the Jewish community and the survivors themselves. She can't blow this. She can't lose. But victory needs come through some decidedly un-American and un-Deborah tactics.

THE BANALITY OF EVIL

There are lighter moments in the film that don't feel like perfunctory "comic relief" to offset an egregious topic. They are natural flourishes proceeding from the personalities and the contrasts of the conflict at hand. The camerawork is standard and gets out of the way for the most part. The film includes a visit to Auschwitz by Lipstadt and her legal crew. I've seen quite a bit of footage of Auschwitz through the years, but this is like an organic documentary-within-a-feature-film, focused on a few aspects of that hellish place, cinematically "breaking the fourth wall." Well done.

If you're afraid this is an "intelligent" film, um, it's definitely smart, but it's also witty and chuckle-worthy. I challenge you to step up your game. Educate your mind. A fellow New Englander--who, with me, deplores the ever-increasing anti-intellectualism of the USA--always quotes to me (borrowing from the UNCF): "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

FREE SPEECH

I went into the film wondering about free speech issues. How can we legislate about those who choose to wackily deny reality without taking away the right to free speech (although free speech always has its limits)? And now with social media--how could we ever control trolls? Do we even want to? How exactly do you classify "hate speech" when virtually any opinion is categorized thus today? The answer in the film is rather simple: "Free speech? Yes. But you will be held accountable for your lies" and your willfull denial and manipulation of facts. And then, astoundingly in the film (something my philosophy professor at a boss, orthodox Catholic college drilled into us): "Not all opinions are equal."

WHO'S IN CHARGE OF HISTORY?

I did NOT remember this 2000 trial in the news, so I wasn't sure of the outcome of the film. For those of you who don't remember it either, I won't do a spoiler here. Let me conclude this review with these two thoughts: Who's in charge of history? We all are. When will the Jews "stop talking about the Holocaust" (although it hasn't even been 100 years and survivors are still alive)? Never, I hope. Remembering the Shoah benefits the dignity of all humankind.

OTHER STUFF:

-- General Eisenhower ordered the liberated concentration camps to be filmed and photographed because he knew that people would have a hard time believing the depths of depravity and cruelty the Allied Forces were witnessing firsthand, and the enormous number of lives lost. So why would anyone deny the Holocaust happened? Why would someone taunt Holocaust survivors as frauds (as Irving did)? Anti-Semitism, certainly. Nazi sympathies, certainly. Sensationalism and outrageously making a name for oneself by doing the forbidden and profiting off the grief and pain of others, certainly. But theologically speaking? I've always maintained--and I'm not alone--that hatred of Jews (just because they're Jews) is hatred of God. The Jews are God's first incarnation in the world. As my Scripture prof used to say: "God needs a body in the world. His Chosen People were His first indwelling in the world." Or, as I reply to Jewish people I meet who think it's pompous to go around calling themselves the Chosen People: "If you're not chosen, neither are we" (since Christianity is a continuum of salvation history). As Jesus told the Samaritan woman: "Salvation is from the Jews."

--I didn't think Rachel Weisz was much of an actress toward the beginning of her career. She has really grown and is now a fine one.

--There are different kinds of speech. Deborah E. Lipstadt was good at "teaching" speech, "lecturing" speech, "writing" speech. But she was not good at British legal speech. It's OK to specialize.

--When one of Lipstadt's lawyers refuses to shake hands with Irving at the end, I believe he did so because to Irving, this was all a game. And it's not.

--Why is the British system like this (with regard to libel)? Perhaps a leftover from the governing notions of the "divine right of kings"?

--Like many true bigots, Irving was not limited to anti-Semitism. He had other virulent prejudices.

--Seeing the wild- and evil-eyed Irving portrayed by Spall, just reminded me that right now, there is immense BS and evil being planned for the world. Some people dedicate their whole lives to BS and evil. Better we beware and be aware. And dedicate our lives to the true, good and beautiful in earnest.



October 3, 2016

VOCATION DISCERNMENT RETREAT -- CANADA




Thanks for all your prayers! Please keep 'em coming!
(Often there's even more light AFTER the retreat!)



September 15, 2016

September 14, 2016

HIDDEN NETFLIX GEMS!


Looking for something truly entertaining and engaging on Netflix? Here are a few hidden and not-so-hidden gems. (I will continuing adding "finds" to the bottom of this post periodically.)


DOCTOR FOSTER -- This sobering BBC mini-series  has adultery as its main plot. Dr. Foster is the cheated on wife and MD. The maelstrom of emotions and reactions ring truer than true. The seriousness  of the marriage bond stands in stark contrast to cavalier excuses and "arrangements." Without God or religion ever being mentioned, the innate sacredness of marriage (as well as the utter expectation and demand of fidelity) speaks for itself.

LOCKED IN (2010) -- This little American indie film revolving around a car accident has a big twist ending. It's also about adultery, with the best argument for taking personal responsibility I may have ever witnessed in a film. A few portions of the film's execution are a bit under par, but when it's right on, it's right on--and the cumulative, overall effect is winning.

THE DRIVER -- (British mini-series) A taxi driver--whose marriage is faltering--takes on some extra work for extra money, but the men are gangsters and he finds himself in deep.

WISH YOU WERE HERE -- Once again, the theme in this Australian film is adultery, but the surrounding tragedy is just as big: a tragic death in a group of friends. Everyone is in pain, everyone is suffering, and rather than abandoning each other, they are trying to work it out. We need more films that show us possibilities of conflict resolution--without easy answers or deus ex machina solutions. The ever-excellent Joel Edgerton stars.

RECTIFY -- This series, set in the American "Christ-haunted" South, is about a young man convicted of murder who spends a good portion of his life in prison, and not just prison: solitary confinement. He is now middle-aged and has been released due to his sister's tireless efforts to exonerate him. But solitary confinement has broken him in different ways, and he knows it. His return to his extended family (we follow quite a few characters) is a mixed blessing for him and for them. The question still remains: Is he guilty? But the whodunnit suspense takes a backseat to the complicated family dynamics. "Rectify" is a study in human dignity. We are all connected. Each person--still deeply marked by the incident of so many years ago and its fallout--strives to  respect the dignity of the others, but sometimes, that's an almost impossible feat.

THE FROZEN  -- Not to be confused with the wretched, ubiquitous "FROZEN," this little pro-life horror movie takes place in the aftermath of a snowmobile accident in an isolated wilderness. The only two characters are a couple whose romantic relationship is in question. The days come and go with the same mounting terror of walking in circles in the snow and never leaving the camp. And what about those noises? And that shadowy figure? The writer-director of this film returned to his Catholic Faith and went on to direct "Full of Grace," the film on the last days of the Blessed Virgin Mary on earth.

GEORGE GENTLY -- (episodes) Have a penchant for good British detective  stories? George Gently is an old school boxer, old school cop and old school gentleman all rolled into one. He's paired with a cocky young mop-top officer who could pass for the sixth Beatle (it's the 1960's). Humanity and graciousness never go out of style.

STRANGER THINGS -- (series) Here's a series for (almost ) the whole family. Pre-teens could definitely handle it. Old fashioned, skin-tingling, mysterious fun, reminiscent of 1980's filmmaking. "Stranger Things" isn't perfect, but it's got a lot of good stuff. Four do-or-die friends (pre-teen boys) play a game of Dungeons and Dragons (uh-oh, problematic in itself) that comes to life, or rather coincides with a top-secret government experiment going on in their neighborhood. It's a bit of sci-fi meets supernatural thriller meets buddy movie meets John Hughes.

The series starts off with a lot of bad language, taking the name of the Lord in vain: "Jesus!"--especially awful when kids say it. You can teach your kids to respond aloud: "May He always be praised!" whenever they hear it), a teen sexual encounter (that goes awry), dysfunctional family dynamics (except for the fierce motherlove of Joyce, played by an Emmy-deserving Winona Ryder) including one useless and one abandoning father (but there are other good male role models).

So why am I recommending this? There are amazing portrayals of keeping promises, friendship, sacrifice, and in the end, all kinds of people stepping up the plate to love and do the right thing. The adults work together, the teens work together and the kids work together. Families are reunited. As always, discussions with your kids about the media they watch will be in order here.

PSYCH -- (series) Simply put, I would make my kids watch this show. Two childhood friends: Sean and "Gus" (one white, one black) now solve crimes together. One pretends to be psychic, but it's really his keen powers of observation working overtime (powers drilled into him by his cop father). The show always starts with the boys as kids, with Sean usually learning a lesson from his Dad that he then applies to a present-day crime. His relationship with his father can be antagonistic at times, but it's clear they really love each other deeply. Sean and Gus'  rapid-fire banter and escapades are consistently hilarious, and they've created their own in-show tropes. The conceit is that these two have never grown up (especially Sean) and will be friends for life through thick and thin. They have their own code of honor and chivalry. The show is sweet, charming, laugh-out-loud funny, wholesome and upbeat, and displays a genuine sense of humor that shines like the sun in a too often out-of-ideas, tired, negative, depraved Hollywood.

PORTLANDIA -- (series) The rubber-faced Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live and Carrie Brownstein, frontwoman from the girrrl band Sleater-Kinney, team up for sketch comedy set in Portland, Oregon, as a send up of that quirky city. There are always fresh new skits, but characters are constantly reprised and there are running themes and stories as well (e.g., the mayor of Portland and the side-splitting feminist bookstore). The deadpan humor is always self-deprecating and never vicious. Once in a great while there's something risque, but not terribly explicit. Fred and Carrie keep it classy. "Portlandia" could potentially be for pre-teens/teens also. After Season 5-ish, it gets a little bit more sexually themed. Amorally so.

GONE -- Amanda Seyfried stars in this tense thriller about a young woman who was abducted and escaped her abducter, but no one believers her. Now her sister is missing and she's convinced her stalker has returned. 

THE GOOD SON -- Elijah Wood and Macauley Caulkin are cousins. But one of them is a "bad seed." Psychopathy can start young....

THE CODE -- (Australian) Two young adult brothers--one an investigative reporter trying to solve a case, one on the autism spectrum trying to live an independent life--go through thick and thin together. The beautiful, brotherly devotion is palpable.

FATHER BROWN -- (British, episodes) Based on G. K. Chesterton's written series, the worldy-wise, gentle and kind Fr. Brown has one goal: to save people. Ultimately save them. He always tells them at the critical point some variation of: "Confess!" "It's not too late!" "You can save yourself!" "There is hope and redemption for you!" "I only care about your soul!"

HAPPY VALLEY -- (British mini-series) A lady cop is one tough grandmother. She's raising her deceased daughter's son whose Dad is her archenemy (she blames him for her daughter's death) and definitely one bad cookie.

GLITCH -- (Australian mini-series) 6 people return from the dead--but they're not zombies, they're in perfect health. A fascinating look at life, death, mortality. Catholic overtones. But it's not what you think, not facile, not about a second chance or making things right. Or is it?

BLACK MIRROR -- This brilliant British set of self-contained episodes play out like Ray Bradbury short stories. They're set in a uber-wired-and-tech-connected-not-too-distant-future that doesn't really look like sci fi. It looks like us. Us on steroids. Some episodes are not for the faint-hearted and are pretty intense. And prescient.
NOSEDIVE--social status is strictly determined by how many "likes" everyone gets on social media. Every single encounter with another person in real life must be immediately rated. Your continually fluctuating rating will determine what kind of promotion you will get work, what kind of rental car you will get, etc. "Niceness" is highly sought.
PLAY TEST--A nice enough slacker-dude needs the cash being a video game tester will provide. But this is an augmented reality game. About your deepest fears. It involves a "mild, reversible" medical procedure.
SHUT UP AND DANCE--The most disturbing and yet realistic of the three episodes I've seen ("sextortion" is a real thing: you are recorded via your webcam--did you know your light need not go on for someone to record you?). Random people have been video-ed doing sexual acts or seeking unfaithful sexual encounters online. "They" now control each person's life through blackmail. The deep, deep shame (and other consequences) of having their contacts (this is the actually the worst) and cyberspace (strangers) see and know what they have done is too much to even bear thinking about. The blackmailed are slaves. [This is truly fascinating from a Theology of the Body POV. Would it be the end of the world to be exposed? Only one of the acts is not a sexual act but a racist one. But anyone watching this episode has to ask: Wow. What if my hidden acts were revealed? Would I bow to pressure to hide them? It made me think: Will the Last Judgment be like this? Or will we feel OK with "being known" because it is all in God's light and God is mercy?

"There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.…" Luke 12:2, Matthew 10: 26, Mark 4:22


THE GOOD NEIGHBOR -- Two callous young men pull an elaborate and invasive stunt on their grouchy old neighbor. Things are not always what they seem even with 24-hour surveillance. Also, James Caan.




August 28, 2016

MOVIES: "BEN-HUR" (2016 RE-MAKE)

(Don't watch the trailers. There are no good ones. Don't do the film justice.
But if you must, watch this one: Only Halfway Decent Ben-Hur Trailer)

The latest big screen "Ben-Hur" is a fresh take on the beloved 1880 historical fiction novel: "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" by Lew Wallace, that deftly and intricately weaves the story of Judah Ben-Hur into the Gospel account of Jesus. However, this re-make sadly limps in the faith department, which, of course, is the punchline of the whole shebang. With that, I am signaling that I assume you know the story and so shall be dropping SPOILERS in this review. 

ROME CANNOT BE TRUSTED

Judah is from a wealthy Jewish family living in Jerusalem along with his adopted brother, Messala Severus, a pagan Roman. At the beginning of the movie, they are best of friends and both avid horsemen (foreshadowing the famous chariot race between them at the end of the film). Messala leaves the family to join the Roman army. He wants to marry Judah's sister, but he feels he has lived off the charity of Judah's family long enough, and wants to build his own life and fortune first.
Enmity between the Jewish Zealots and the Roman legions is heating up. Judah, a friend of Rome, openly opposes the rabble-rousers and believes in "keeping the peace," even at cost of Jewish freedom. Judah truly lives what he believes, doesn't want to see harm come to either side, and takes active measures to calm animosities. But his flaw was in trusting Rome too much. When he and his family are mistakenly taken for Zealots and arrested, he loses everything and winds up a galley slave. In his absence, Esther, his wife, becomes a follower of Jesus.

CINEMATOGRAPHY ON POINT

The cinematography is impressive from the get-go. The film wastes no time in back story, but plunges us into the hoof and heart pounding antics of Judah and Messala. Familiar characters like Pontius Pilate and Dismas pop up here and there, reminding us of the destiny that Judah is poised and privileged to be a part of. Certain scenes could have been a little more gritty (although this version is much more gritty than the Charlton Heston version), particularly when Judah becomes a galley slave and then escapes and is afloat on the sea (he could've/should've been more beefy/burned). Morgan Freeman--who despite his overused narrator's voice, and in my opinion, tired old ways of almost non-acting, not trying any more--puts in a solid performance as Ilderim, the wealthy horse owner. Ilderim's role is rather major to the story's turning, and Freeman accomplishes the task with aplomb.

SOME FLAWS

A few shoddy oversights mar the film throughout: at times the everyday hair (especially the women's) and everyday garb is almost indistinguishable from twenty-first century styles (think Eileen Fisher). I also question whether Jewish women went about with their hair uncovered as a matter of course. It's darn distracting, as are the moments (quite a few) when the filmmakers evidently couldn't figure out how to have characters "find" each other again, serendipitously meet up, etc. What happens is a character will just emerge from "stage left": "Hi!" Also very distracting. Esther's role is extremely one-dimensional, and the actress plays it thus. If you're looking for the red-hot romance of Charlton Heston and Haya Harareet...forget it.

In general, the acting is good, but not great. However, in the hands of a director who milked some of the well set up scenes (and epic scenery) for every ounce of danger and tension, it could have been much better. However, I cannot say this of the final chariot race which is the centerpiece and masterpiece.

The best fleshed-out character? Rome itself. The character of the Romans is constantly bandied about and three-dimensionally depicted. I felt that the "worthy nemesis" (Rome) needed a "worthy protagonist" (Jesus, and Judah's eventual following of him) which the film did not deliver. There were some noble attempts, but it needed to be much stronger. Jesus' unexplained: "Love your enemies" in the face of the "might makes right" of Rome was screaming for so much more "showing" of how socially transformative Christian charity is--even at its birth. God's love needed teeth (ideally in the depiction of Judah's character arc)--teeth that were a match for Rome's violence. I don't think the film succeeded here. Judah's mother and sister were not even cured by the blood of Jesus from the Cross (as in the 1959 "Ben-Hur"), but by rain running off the Cross.

"ALMOST"

In some overall ways, this "Ben-Hur" is an "almost" film. It's "almost" a great re-make. Except for the chariot race which succeeds in every way. (And I'm all for remakes: Let's see what you can do. Give us your perspective. What are your new insights? Can you best  the original? Show us what you've got.)

After two hours of building a well-paced drama, the end is a mad dash to neatly wrap things up in a blatantly inconsistent way. The end needed to take its time. Even though in first century Palestine (and elsewhere for that matter) religion and belief in God/gods was assumed, we do not observe Judah nor Messala doing very much existential seeking. There is hardly any religion/Godtalk. Then, suddenly, at the end, Jesus' Crucifixion and forgiveness is understood and assimilated. Judah (and Esther) had brief and meaningful encounters with Jesus prior to Calvary, but for the message of Jesus to rather immediately coalesce with our characters' hearts and wipe out years of horrific betrayal, abuse, and bloodshed did not ring true to me in the least.

After her "conversion," Esther talks and acts a bit like a West Coast Jesus Freak from the 60's and 70's, and the Christianspeak sounds like 80's posters, T-shirts and mugs. The lines/scenes of faith at the end are executed with almost robotic, "let's get this over with"-ness. I remember the final scenes also wrapping up rather quickly in the Charlton Heston version of "Ben-Hur," but it was done much more organically, synergetically, artfully, believably, and movingly. The current "Ben-Hur" makes faith and charity almost seem a simplistic, fundamentalist, but at the same time tenuous anchor in a storm. The pivotal reconciliation scene between Judah and Messala was laughably lame, and it could have been so much better! This film was well done in most respects and then it dropped the ball when it came to crafting genuine and authentic human experiences of redemption.

This version of "Ben-Hur" is an exciting, even riveting at times, quasi-biblical adventure, but it falls flat when it matters most. I've just re-watched the movie-musical "Les Mis," and couldn't help comparing the two. One is a CGI tour-de-force with fine action sequences. The other goes to the depths of human pathos and convinces us that misery and death will not have the last word, as it shimmers with divine hope.

OLDIE BUT GOODIE

Should you watch the Charlton Heston "Ben-Hur" again or for the first time? Yes! The eleven Academy Award winner (including "Best Picture," 1959) has aged well. Particularly poignant is the love story between Judah and Esther. True chemistry and passion! The chariot race changed filmmaking forever, did not have the benefit of CGI, and stuntmen lost their lives for it. Prepare to be astounded. And for true film buffs, there's even a silent 1925 black and white version available on the 4-disc collector's edition.

Due to the gorey violence and many CGI horses getting realistically destroyed, "Ben-Hur" 2016 is not for the kiddos.

OTHER STUFF:

--The galley slave really made me think of the consequence/curse of Adam's Fall: toil will become exceedingly difficult for men (as will bearing life become exceedingly difficult for women).

-- "They will invite you to their games to watch others suffer so you'll forget what you have lost."

--"They want blood. They're all Romans now."

--"The compassion that Jesus offers them is more dangerous than all the Zealots combined."