Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Movies (Page 1 of 7)

Who Is My Neighbor? The Movies…

Film is story, and story is powerful.

Film can be used as a tool of propaganda, as can any media, but as art it can illuminate. It can help us see what we would not otherwise see and sense what we might never otherwise experience. It can in a powerful way put our feet firmly in another’s shoes and help us see life through their eyes.

Over the past few days I’ve been trying to bring some focus to my own thoughts regarding the immigration and refugee responses being determined by my country. Perhaps they will soon come to a shape that I can share with grace. In the meantime, though, I would like to suggest some movies that might help us feel the issues more powerfully than argument ever could.

Film is never objective and neither are the suggestions below. Good movies can, without undo pontification, inform our empathic impulses in helpful and profound ways. These are movies that succeed in that. These are good movies touching upon current themes and encouraging sympathy and openness.

Regardless of one’s take on the issues before us, these are movies worth watching. They are well made, thoughtfully produced, and the themes are handled artistically without a heavy hand. I invite you to disengage from Facebook and Twitter for a couple of hours and enjoy one or two. I’d be interested (I think!) in what you think.

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Brooklyn – This is a sweet and delightful film chronicling an early 20th Century immigrant’s experience. The immigrant is Irish and so the story feels distant and far removed from the current debate. But perhaps it is not.

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The Lost Boys of Sudan – This and the next two deal with immigrants from Africa. This documentary touches upon the tens of thousands of children orphaned and forced to flee their home and enter East African refugee camps. The movie follows the story of a few who are granted resettlement in the United States.

The Good Lie – Reese Witherspoon stars in this drama touching upon the same issue – resettled Sudanese refugees. The refugee and the communities into which they are settled are both severely stressed by the process.

The Visitor – A touching story of a lonely widower whose broken heart is given a start toward healing by an encounter with undocumented African immigrants. It’s worth watching if only to see the Walking Dead’s Michonne play a sweet and defenseless character who decapitates no one.

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The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – This is an odd movie of friendship across borders, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones (and filmed on his ranch). With this one we enter the realm of immigration from Mexico. Viewers should know that this film earns its ‘R’ rating from a scene or two of sex.

Under the Same Moon – Perhaps it is sappy and sentimental, but given the family disruption and constant fear, this movie of a boy who crosses the border in search of his mother who crossed years earlier prompts the question of what would motivate one to make such drastic moves.

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Of Gods and Men – Finally, not related to immigration per se, this story of a difficult choice foisted upon the monks of a Trappist monastery in Algeria revisits the question once asked of Jesus, as do all these movies, really: “Who is my neighbor?” And that is the fundamental question really, isn’t it?

Deliver Us from Evil

Scott Derrickson is a thoughtful Christian filmmaker. This fascinating and frank interview (abbreviated in print – the video version is very much worth the time) challenges us to consider how Christians can make art that is both true and good. And though Derrickson has ventured into sci-fi and will tackle the (Marvel) comic book world with the soon to be released Doctor Strange, his preferred canvas is horror. Hence, this is one Christian director whose movies are not being screened for churches.

Deliver us from evilMy wife and I just watched Derrickson’s 2014 release Deliver Us from Evil. It is a police drama with, shall we say, a twist. Or two. Sargent Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) is a lapsed Catholic serving the Bronx. A string of inexplicably odd cases lead him into a relationship with a tough and hard drinking Jesuit priest, Father Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), who insists sainthood is not about being a moral exemplar but being a life giver. And that is what he proceeds to do. Without apology the priest speaks an honest faith into the life of the struggling cop, and it shakes him deeply.

We have been lead to believe that good theology and good apologetics are not to be found in a major Hollywood release. That is far less true than we might imagine. They are certainly found here. At one point, Sargent Sarchie is explaining why he has no room for God in his life. He says,

You see, Father, as we speak, every day, out there, someone’s getting hurt, ripped off, murdered, raped. Where’s God when all that’s happening? Hmm?

Father Mendoza is nonplussed by this. He responds:

In the hearts of people like you, who put a stop to it. I mean, we can talk all night about the problem of evil, but what about the problem of good? I mean, if there’s no God, if the world is just “survival of the fittest,” then why are all the men in this room willing to lay down their lives for total strangers? Hmm?

As an apologetic approach that isn’t ground breaking, but Mendoza speaks as one who believes, but does so without being pushy or in any way condemning. A saint is a life giver.

The story is well told and engaging. The dialog is smart and the images well drawn. There is a good pace that keeps the viewer engaged. And so the film’s 28% Rotten Tomatoes rating is a surprise, but not inexplicable. Some reviewers fault him for his dependence on horror conventions. I can’t evaluate that. But I suspect that the fault most find and don’t speak is that Derrickson takes the reality of evil seriously. The demonic for him is not merely a convention of the genre; it is the reason the genre exists. Horror is the place to confront and expose and consider a reality that we in our churches prefer to dismiss and ignore and disbelieve. That he takes it seriously is something that some critics can’t comprehend.

I find his serious take a challenge. Unlike Sargent Sarchie, I don’t spend my days staring into the worst of human behavior, or what Father Mendoza calls ‘secondary’ evil. I need to be reminded of the reality of what he calls ‘primary’ evil. Therein lies the real enemy. Our senses only take in part of what is real. Our battle in this world is not against flesh and blood, and it is good to be reminded of that.

The NY Times movie reviews are always worth reading if only for their ratings info at the end. For this movie, we read

Deliver Us from Evilis rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) because it has gore and cursing and is disturbing as, you might say, hell.

Disturbing as hell, for sure. But encouraging, too, because, in the end, hell does not win.

Eddie’s Dad

Recently we watched a movie called Eddie the Eagle, a 2016 biopic about an unlikely Olympian ski-jumper, Michael “Eddie” Edwards. It was an okay movie, part Cool Runnings and part Rudy, both of which were better. This was okay for a Saturday night movie night. (If it matters to you, spoilers follow – but honestly, if you’ve seen either of the above movies, the ending has already been given away.)

Eddie the eagleEddie, as in all underdog sports movies, has a dream that seems unlikely, impossible, and foolish. And, again, as in all underdog sports movies, Eddie has a father (or a mother, if the protagonist is female, my daughter-in-law points out) who does not believe in him and reiterates throughout the film how disappointed he is in his son’s outlandish and impractical ambitions. Predictably, Eddie succeeds, opening the way to the dramatic and ostensibly emotional finish where Eddie’s dad meets Eddie at the airport after his triumph with “I’m Eddie’s Dad” embroidered on his sweater and “I’m proud of you, son” on his lips. And everyone goes, “Ahhhh.” Including me.

Until I thought about it.

Throughout the film this dad has ridiculed and derided his son incessantly. BUT, because the son is successful, he has now earned his father’s love and support. Really? This father who has never hugged his son now hugs him because he is a success. The father’s affection is linked to the son’s performance and, as my son would say, “That’s messed up.” What would have happened had Eddie returned a failure? What if Eddie’s dreams had crashed and burned? What then, when he would have needed love and acceptance and a hug even more? I hate to think.

I’m so grateful that a father’s genuine love is not dependent upon a son’s success. I’m so thankful for the love of a heavenly Father whose embrace is ready even when I severely fail. I’m comforted knowing that even if the dreams of this old and crusty sixty-year-old never materialize or if they end in smoke and flames, I have a Father who will still see me as his beloved son. And I don’t need to ski-jump to earn it.

Stranger Things

I like The Walking Dead (insofar as I can watch it for free and on my own time on Netflix and not have to pay for cable). Like any story, in this an imaginative world is created in which certain rules apply. In The Walking Dead those rules involve creatures that are dead, but not dead. They will eat you, but are slow. They are stupid, but deadly. There are ways that someone can become one of these creatures and the rules for infection are clear and consistent. At the same time, aspects of the natural order are in place with which we can identify. Gravity pulls things down. Gasoline explodes. People bleed.

Within that world, are placed genuine human beings. The value and fascination of fantasy or science fiction is the ability to place real people in contrived situations to see what that might reveal about human strength and character, weakness and brokenness. Within those worlds, we expect and accept oddities of nature. But we expect the humans to be real. It was therefore with some dismay in The Walking Dead that I watched Rick and his crew walking so hopefully and trustingly into The Sanctuary having had such a wretched time in Woodbury. It was too much for me to imagine that real people would be so gullible a second time. I can take zombies, but I expect gravity to always pull downward and for the people to be believable.

Stranger ThingsRecently many of my most trusted friends have been raving about Stranger Things, a Netflix Original production set in a fictional small town in 1983. It has inklings of Stephen King and ET and Goonies all working around the search for a boy who has disappeared. I have seen 6 of the 8 episodes, and risking minor plot spoilers, I must confess that my disappointment in the show has to do with what feels like unreal human decision making and actions. In saying this, I mean no disrespect to my dear friends, and perhaps I’m missing something important. Perhaps we simply have different tolerances for the suspension of disbelief. This one crosses mine.

I can accept monsters from other dimensions. I can accept the idea of telekinesis and telepathy. I can even accept, if pushed, that a 12 year old boy is able to keep a homeless girl hidden in the basement of his house for a week without his family having any clue of her presence.

It is harder to accept that chief of police Jim Hopper would actually CHOOSE to break into the national laboratory, AND that he would be successful, AND that he would get out alive. Even harder is to believe that Nancy, a teenaged girl, in the dark and misty woods where a dying deer has just mysteriously disappeared into a creepy, gooey hole in a tree, would without her friend Jonathan by her side, crawl into the creepy, gooey hole in the tree in the dark and misty woods. Sorry. A real person would not do that.

I will finish the show. I love mystery and I love the people who have loved this show. I want to find out how it ends (hoping that in fact it DOES end after the eighth episode). But I’m saddened when creative people are careless with the rules which make their characters real.

People (Not) Like Us

There is great joy in being a follower of Christ. And yet, the more I study the Gospel of Luke the more I am reminded that to be serious in such discipleship will occasion moments of great tension. The Kingdom Jesus brings is different in many key ways from the worlds in which we have been immersed. It should not surprise us, therefore, that his words can bring DIScomfort as easily as comfort.

In Luke 14, for example, Jesus attempts to remove the blinders from a man who had hosted a dinner party.

“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)

My wife and I like to think of ourselves as hospitable. But, if I’m honest, I must say that it is HARDER for me to be hospitable to those unlike me. And what is hard, I often avoid. I live with that tension.

I was reminded of the call toward those not like us in the comments from a friend who was reflecting on the movie Spotlight which I’ve referenced here, here, and here. She challenges us to the uncomfortable task of loving, listening to, and trying to understand those different from us, particularly those damaged by abuse and other forms of injustice. Her comments (shared in part here, and with permission) encourage reflection.

They need our love and our support and the only way they are going to have it is when we aren’t afraid to confront the elephant in the room [abuse]. Unfortunately, it’s easier to close our eyes and disassociate from everything that makes us uncomfortable. And I realize this is part of human nature. But I also believe that often so called non-Christians stand up for far more than those of us who call ourselves Christian. We get so focused on historical facts of the church and we are quick to debate theology but we change the subject and refuse to discuss the real issues at hand. We don’t want to discuss abuse, depression, addictions, family issues, or things that aren’t ‘churchy’. This drives people towards hopelessness for where else can they go? We tend to shy away from people that we view as weird or different, and although we claim to love everyone and be grace filled, we avoid those with big issues.

Christians just want to play it safe, to stay in the comfort zone where everything is peachy and…happy all the day. The reality is that there are some not so wonderful things transpiring under our very noses, marriages that are falling apart, children who are hurting because of a divided family, people who contemplate suicide or those that have addictions, people who have been victims of sexual and domestic abuse. We call ourselves family, and promise to stand beside them, to be a ‘hope’ to the community. So, why not discuss it? I think if we got more comfortable with transparency, and tried to get to know the story of those that may be different, we would see an extremely positive affect on our communities.

As one who finds it easier to close my eyes to everything that makes me uncomfortable I need, and am grateful for, these words.

Caveat

Several years ago, the movie buzz was all about the Christopher Nolan film Inception. The positive talk was so great that when I finally saw it, I was disappointed. The law of overly hyped expectations kicked in and what was probably a very good movie fell short of my expectations and felt unsatisfactory.

So, I understand how a movie loving friend of mind who went this week to see Midnight Special upon my recommendation came away dissatisfied. I had unreasonably raised his expectations.

So, for any future viewers, keep in mind that it’s really not all that good. You may in fact be wasting your time and money. There’s nothing special about it after all. In fact the 17% of Rotten Tomatoes reviewers who did not like it are probably right.

There. That should do.

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Kudos to those who correctly identified the movie that was mentioned but unnamed in Monday’s post. It was, as several of you guessed, O Brother, Where Art Thou.

Buried Cinematic Gems

In early 2001, my teen-aged son and I went to see a movie just then getting its wide release. It was showing in the Hollywood 20 Theaters in Sarasota, in the smallest of the building’s theaters. He and I were among the few in attendance. The movie had not been marketed much at all. Few knew much about it, most had never heard of it. I wanted to go because of something I had heard about the music, but I knew nothing about the movie itself. My son went just because that was what we did.

We left the theater thinking that we had just seen one of the funniest, oddest, most entertaining, and most intriguing movies we had ever seen. It went on to gross $45 million and to be nominated for two Oscars, but on that weekend, people were drawn to other fare.

On a recent Friday my wife and I went to see a movie we had long been waiting to see. While others were enjoying Jungle Book or mindlessly considering the dawn of justice in Batman V. Superman (yes, my bias is showing), we had our own private viewing of Midnight Special. This movie is part thriller, part Sci-fi, part drama, and full of life. It is thoroughly entertaining and, like all movies by Jeff Nichols, sufficiently ambiguous to demand a second viewing, something we’ll gladly give. Plotwise, the most that can be safely said is that a father who has kidnapped his 8 year-old son is pursued by a religious cult and the US Government toward a magnificently creative and mystifying showdown. Along the way, the movie explores issues of belief and reality that encourage conversation afterword.
Midnight Special
But we were two of four in a 190 seat theater.

That was Friday. For Saturday’s normal ‘Pizza and Movie Night’ in our house I had picked up from Redbox a movie called Brooklyn. Though nominated for three Oscars, including best picture, many people have not heard of it. There is no super-hero in the title and it is neither a sequel or a prequel. It is a romance, yes, but it is more. What struck our family as we watched it was that the customary romance plot lines never appeared. It felt REAL. There is a beauty to watching and identifying with emotional and cultural struggle in characters about whom we begin to care. Art takes us into the experience of another, or others as a class, and we can feel what they feel in ways that nothing else can. Brooklyn does this.
Brooklyn
These were gems that don’t get enough attention. I will still see the blockbusters. If there is a Star Wars or super-hero or dystopia movie, my wife and current teen-aged son will not let me miss it. And they can be fun. But it would be sad at the same time to miss these buried cinematic gems.

[Three cheers for any who can correctly identify the un-named movie which introduced this post!]

Roman Catholic Response to Spotlight

Steven Greydanus (decentfilms.com) is a film reviewer whose point of view I greatly respect. I commend him to you. He is also a Roman Catholic. His take on Spotlight (a movie we’ve discussed here and here) as a Roman Catholic is worth noting.

Recently, this was posted to Twitter by a Father Kevin Cusick:

Spotlight places in @DecentFilms top 10: I found it a bit shallow on abuse cause, superficial in treatment of Church

Greydanus (@DecentFilms), over several tweets, responded with this:

FWIW, Catholic response to #Spotlight has been positive. http://bit.ly/1RNfhC7

As with any historical film, one can take issue with Spotlight on individual points (I do).

It’s important to recognize that Spotlight presents subjective experiences/opinions of characters…

…who helped expose abuse/coverup. Sadly, these journalists etc. were mostly alienated from the Church…

…because church leaders and others in the Church didn’t take responsibility for cleaning up our own house.

If church leaders had done their job, we would control the narrative. They didn’t and we don’t.

Despite their anti-Church animus, the [Boston] Globe reporters did us a service. The film is their story, not ours.

His full review is here.

Spotlight

In their engaging, sad, and highly personal reflection on sexual abuse in the evangelical church, Marci Preheim and Sarah Taras comment:

If abuse requires silence, deception, and wordsmithing to flourish, then the way to kill it is to bring it into the light.

I can’t tell from reading their post whether that was an intentional or accidental reference to the recent Best Picture Oscar winner Spotlight, but it certainly made me think of it.

Spotlight2For some time my friend and fellow pastor Mike had urged me to see Spotlight. I resisted mainly because I was certain that my movie-going partner, my wife, would not want to see it. I think, though, as well, that a part of me just does not want to be made to feel uncomfortable. And that, for sure, is a problem that is shared by too many.

I was surprised to discover that my wife, in fact, WANTED to see the movie, and we were both glad we did. Spotlight is far and away one of the best movies I’ve seen in quite some time.

In the first place, it is simply a well told story. It follows the journalistic efforts that uncovered the scope of the sex-abuse scandal in Boston telling that story with energy and passion. The film is well paced, sustaining interest from the beginning until the end. Unlike many movies, I did not stop to consider the time. I was engaged the full length of the film.

The movie was written and directed by Tom McCarthy who has been a favorite of mine for a long time. (If you’ve not seen The Visitor, put that one on your list, as well.) This movie is his best.

I was particularly impressed with the acting of Mark Ruffalo. His “it could have been me” speech about 3/4 of the way through was one of the best sustained monologues that I can recall having seen.Spotlight1

The topic is handled deftly and without making it solely a problem of the Catholic Church. That’s important because the abuse of children and the protection of the abusers is NOT a Catholic issue. It may have found a home there, and the sheer size of the church magnifies the scale of the problem, but this is shamefully a problem in Protestant churches as well as the article referenced at the beginning makes clear. The value of a spotlight is that the hidden things must be brought to light, and the light must never be shut off, no matter how uncomfortable we are with what it exposes.

The film is honest enough to say that it was not simply the church that allowed this to go on for so long. There is a human complacency that settles upon us all. We don’t like boats that are rocking, and we don’t want to be the ones doing the rocking. Blame is spread far enough to make us all look deeply at the issues of which we are even now aware, but don’t want to engage. Abuse? Abortion? Poverty? Sexual slavery and trafficking?

It is so often easier, to our shame, to simply close our eyes.

The movie forces us to open our eyes, but is never heavy handed in doing so. One leaves the theater strangely hopeful and blessed for having spent the time.

Spotlight is not likely to be in theaters much longer. If you have not seen it, and cannot see it in theaters, it is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Wit and Wisdom

Watching the deeply moving movie Wit several years ago made me deeply appreciative of the work that nurses do. Among other things, the film reminds us that the most direct connection between medical care and the patient is the nurse. Her (or his) skill and compassion makes a world of difference in how illness and death is experienced.

After it was over, I had to call my daughter, a nurse, and thank her for what she did. (Further thoughts on that first viewing here.)

20696006I recently finished reading Being Mortal by surgeon, professor, speaker, writer, husband, and father (a man with way more time than the rest of us) Atul Gawande. It is a deeply personal, well-written, and engagingly thoughtful book, subtitled “Medicine and What Matters in the End”. Gawande leads us through the tangled web of issues that confront us when we consider death and what leads up to it. I read it as a pastor but found that it would be a worthy read for any who expect that someday they might, you know, die.

I especially appreciated the tour that Gawande gives of the line, the very thin and often imperceptible line, between decisions that prolong life and those that simply postpone death.

If the hero of Wit is the nurse, the heroic role in Being Mortal is played by hospice. Hospice nurses and doctors navigate that line between life and death with greater insight and often a better hold on reality than the rest of us. In my experience, and that of Gawande, they humanize experiences that others make clinical. And they do it well. In thirty years of ministry when I’ve been in the presence of death, I’ve always found the presence of hospice to be deeply comforting and an indispensable blessing.

And so, when I finished reading Being Mortal, I had to, once again, pass on my appreciation to my daughter who is, to be precise, a hospice nurse.

The point for readers here is not my daughter, as it is for me. The point is to watch the movie, to read the book, and to be pointedly grateful for those you know whose work and calling bring them to the side of those who need them when, in life and death, they need a humanizing touch.

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