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II. Movie Reviews (51–)

[90]  “The Mist” (2007)

by Mark Eckel

Note to Readers: FaithandLearningForum.com does not limit its movie reviews to recent releases.  It also reviews classic films, genre films, and thought-provoking films from the past that may have escaped the attention of our readers at the time. This 2007  film is reviewed by Mark Eckel.

How do humans respond when “normal” no longer exists? What is the essence of personal nature triggering what is good or evil within us?  Are humans basically good or inherently corrupt?  What previous experiences form our reaction to danger?  To what lengths are we prepared to go to for self-preservation?  Or will community turn to mob mentality and “every man for himself?”  Whatever the answers given to each question, no one really knows what personal beliefs will come to the surface in any confrontation.

Based on a novella by Stephen King The Mist is everything a science fiction thriller should be.  A small northeastern town is struck by a severe storm in the night.  The next day, a thick mist envelopes the community.  Unbeknown to anyone, a military experiment gone awry succeeds in opening another dimension in the universe.  Through the open door come a myriad of awful beasts intent on what they do best: eating flesh.  Forty some people have found shelter in a local supermarket.  It is here the tale is played out.

Prior relationships dictate how people interact.  Inside the store we find residents versus out-of-towners, white versus black, blue collar versus white collar, religious versus unbelievers, pragmatists versus idealists, soldiers versus civilians.  David Drayton (Thomas Jane) is at odds with an uncaring neighbor (Andre Braugher) little concerned for the damage a dead tree has caused Jane’s boathouse.  Smoothing over their differences for the moment, they find their way to town for supplies.  Once the menace begins, Mrs. Carmody (Oscar winner, Marcia Gay Harden) morphs from town “crazy” to apocalyptic preacher, hardening a growing group of followers against anything other than paranoia.

Frank Darabont (director of other King writings: The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) combines his impressive talents with a masthead of brilliant contributors to creature, animation, and special effects design.  I have not seen such a realistic depiction of other-worldly creatures on screen: period.

This past weekend I re-watched The Mist with a group of college students visiting with our daughter from Chicago.  They had asked if I would recommend something for them all to enjoy together.  I have not had such fun in a long time: people screamed, ranted, beat the air with their fists, and involuntarily stood up to register their shock.  They talked about the movie and their response to it all weekend long.

A good movie, a good director is honest from beginning to end causing conversation about their craft and their tale.  Placated by the normal “happy ending” in American films, it is the last scene which will drive viewers crazy in The Mist.  Frank Darabont is smiling somewhere right now.  I suspect he got out of his audience exactly what he wanted.  “What if?” is a fair question in science fiction.  The question makes one wonder if we don’t encounter the extraterrestrial, monsters, and the abnormal every day.

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[89]  “Swing Vote” (2008)

by Mark Eckel

Note to Readers: FaithandLearningForum.com does not limit its movie reviews to recent releases.  It also reviews classic films, genre films, and thought-provoking films from the past that may have escaped the attention of our readers at the time. This 2008  film is reviewed by Mark Eckel.

Kevin Costner surprises audiences, playing strong men whose lives are almost spent (Bull Durham, Open Range), yet renewed by one final, redeeming act. With one deciding vote, Costner now shows an equally expert performance of the under-whelmed, apathetic Bud in Swing Vote. With a divided country and a photo finish election, his ballet decides who will be the next leader of our country.  Given more opportunities than most, he concedes, Bud has done little with them; a condition he now regrets.  The gravity of picking the next president eludes Bud, but not his daughter Molly (played movingly by Madeline Carroll).  Molly drags her father through the necessary guilt hoops, connecting him to what is important.

The first ninety minutes involves the viewer in an above average comedy, full of Bud’s inept, pathetic habits.  But the crowning achievement of Swing Vote is that is skewers politicians, political double-mindedness, and sound-bite happy journalists.  Even the newswoman who is most admired requires repentance (Paula Patton).  Laugh-out-loud scenes suggest Democrats and Republicans are both in need of “heart” surgery.  The satirical outrages of campaign commercials which are in opposition to party platforms to win one vote seem eerily accurate.  Outside of the CNN, MSNBC overplay, with some not so innocent placard placements, the true nature of comedy is maintained: everyone gets nailed.  So careful was Costner in husbanding this film financially and philosophically that America’s current military concerns are absent.  Or perhaps that was a statement all its own.

After the winning first ninety minutes be prepared for twenty which are lost.  Why do directors insist on adding material that is looking for a movie?  Mare Winningham’s performance as the absent mother is wasted.  The seriousness of satire is unnecessarily interrupted by delving into a part of the characters’ lives that does not match the intention of the script.  Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane as seared conscience campaign managers do matter to the material, playing their parts with verve.  Kelsey Grammar and Dennis Hopper as president and hopeful, actually succeed in making us believe they are having second thoughts about first priorities.

Molly’s disgusted looks given to both party’s candidates make the message of Swing Vote clear: we have real problems believing any politician.  But we live in a country where everyone should be involved yet just over half of the electorate votes.  So Molly’s classroom report sets the tone for the film.  Practice citizenship.  Participate in the social contract.  Invest oneself in a cause.  Find solutions.  Reach out.  No matter one’s political preference or response any of America’s 21st century’s presidents, Swing Vote forces us back into the voting booth.

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[88]  “Doubt” (2008)

by Mark Eckel

Note to Readers: FaithandLearningForum.com does not limit its movie reviews to recent releases.  It also reviews classic films, genre films, and thought-provoking films from the past that may have escaped the attention of our readers at the time. This 2008  film is reviewed by Mark Eckel.

The Bells of St. Mary’s ring no more.  Half a century has passed since Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman demonstrated to audiences the redemptive nature of the Christian Church in the 1945 film.  John Patrick Shanley’s alternative perspective with the adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt, questions The Church by questioning its servants.  In an age where sex scandals have rocked reputations in the rectory, casting doubt instead of dispersions is certainly understood.  Yet, the movie invites discussion of even deeper questions: Is certainty a myth?  Is authority abusive?   Should justice be blind?  Does perception trump reality?  Answers to these questions may be as elusive as the film’s conclusion in the actions of individuals or governments.

Meryl Streep, arguably the best actress to ever walk any stage, plays the overpowering, overbearing Sister Aloysius Beauvier.  The nun strikes fear and (physical) pain into the young charges at her school as well as during Sunday morning mass.  Whether obsessed with the wrongful use of ballpoint pens or silence during meals until she alone rings the bell for interruption, Streep artfully directs the audience in their collective loathing of her character.  Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Brendan Flynn, a genial priest who captures the spirit of the progressive movement coming out of The Vatican in the early 1960’s.  The priest’s kindness juxtaposed with the sister’s austerity causes the barometric pressure to drop as warm and cold fronts collide.

A novice teacher in the parochial school (Amy Adams) seeds the brewing storm with her sincere yet superficial behavioral observation.  It seems Father Flynn befriends a young altar boy.  Impropriety is suggested.  The young nun brings her information to Sister Beauvier whose suspicions are raised more by rancor than reality.  Confrontation between the combatants leave more questions unanswered.  Add to this lack of assurance the absoluteness of the young man’s mother (played by Viola Davis, who supersedes all other performances in this picture).  When the nun reveals her notion of sexual misconduct by the priest, a Catholic mother’s categorical obeisance to her faith, her race, and her son’s future is perhaps the most shocking revelation in Doubt.

After Mother Teresa’s death, Newsweek dedicated a cover article to depict her doubts from, then, newly disclosed personal correspondence. Little noticed during her lifetime in the secular world, focus shifted to questions about her faith after death.  Perhaps it was this revelation that set up the last scene in the movie exposing the doubts encountered even by those most committed.  Surety is difficult in a generation nurtured by cynicism parlayed by the John Stewarts of the world.  If ever there was a need for evenhandedness in media, it is now.  However, Doubt should make the viewer re-examine their own personal beliefs based on insufficient evidence, perception, or group-think.  And all should hold the tension of their questions while they ring the bell for Truth.

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[87]  “Half Nelson” (2006)

by Mark Eckel

Note to Readers: FaithandLearningForum.com does not limit its movie reviews to recent releases.  It also reviews classic films, genre films, and thought-provoking films from the past that may have escaped the attention of our readers at the time. This 2006  film is reviewed by Mark Eckel.

Half Nelson teaches that change is inevitable and tension continuous in living life.  Ryan Gosling’s superb performance as an inner city high school history teacher addicted to drugs is a moving, sympathetic portrayal.  The shifting mood swings of a man attempting to pull himself from the gutter while trying to practice his craft, move the viewer with the performer.  Great sympathy and a greater desire for him to overcome, overcame me.

THiNKFilm has offered yet another independent film with a welcome cultural voice.  Other reviewers have offered that his method of teaching was “edgy,” “making his students to think for themselves.”  Having spent 25 years in the classroom I would take issue with such lavish praise of a life spinning out of control, trying desperately to find equilibrium within the school system.

Obtrusive, obnoxious directorial statements are the seeming out of place student oral reports on various American atrocities.  “Cherry picking” history out of context is reflective of the liberal-minded process.  Even those of us who support George W. Bush are sucker-punched by some half assed diatribe from the main actor while under the influence.  Whereas my conservative sensibilities were bullied a bit in this film, I overwhelmingly recommend it to anyone who need be reminded and/or moved to compassion for people who have trouble getting out of their own dependence on drugs.

For those of us who lived in and through addictive households, we feel the knife edge against the skin.  Not to be missed is the newcomer act of the year, Shareeka Epps.  A thirteen year old student and player for the teacher/coach has a myriad of her own problems: an absent father, brother in prison, mother pulling double shifts to make ends meet, and the on again, off again presence of a drug-dealing family friend.  The fight to remain upright is constant.  Yet, this young woman reaches out to her friend, Gosling’s character, keeping a secret and a secret vigil for him.  Key moments in the movie are the teacher inconsistently trying to explain to a class that right and wrong are both necessary in the universe after which he confronts the drug dealer to stay away from his student.  Important too are the scenes where the main characters are victorious, then defeated by their circumstances.

Unconditional love is rare in life.  To watch it lived out in front of us on film by mired, struggling humans sheds light and gives hope.  Sensitivity is born of adversity.  To watch Half Nelson is to glimpse both.

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[86]  “Let There Be Light” (2017)

by David Claerbaut

“Let There Be Light” is a polished, professional bit of cinema.  Bankrolled in part by Fox News heavyweight, Sean Hannity, it is the fictional story of Dr. Sol Harkins (ably played by Director Kevin Sorbo), “the world’s most famous atheist.” Harkins, a rather thinly disguised version of Richard Dawkins, is the author of the bestselling Aborting God. In one scene, Harkins debates a hopelessly overmatched clergyman (Gary Grubbs) with rudeness, interruptions, and scathing dismissal of all notions define. Cheered on by a Bill Maher-like audience, he tells his straw man opponent, “Don’t look for any meaning in life, because there isn’t any.” He goes on to say that if God is love, why did he allow his (Sol’s) child to die of cancer at eight.

Underneath his bravado, the divorced Harkins is suffering from that wrenching loss.  He medicates with “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” with his drug of choice being alcohol. The latter nearly takes his life, as Harkins smashes into a wall driving home from a party in honor of his book launch.  Clinically dead for 4 minutes, Harkins moves in the direction of light and sees his departed son, Davey, amid the illuminated heavenly brilliance.  Though he cannot reach Davey physically, he hears the latter say, “Let There Be Light.”

His ex-wife, Katy (played by scriptwriter and wife, Sam Sorbo) is ambivalent.  She carries a love for the self-destructive Sol, but given her Christian faith, detests his use of the family tragedy as a vehicle to sell a book advocating atheism. The near-death experience, however, is the axis on which the film turns.  While it is a hot story for a hungry media, his agent (Daniel Roebuck) and publicist (Donielle Artese) are concerned that Sol might undercut the message of his book by acknowledging the existence of God in the context of his other-worldly encounter with his son.  Ultimately, Harkins cannot conceal the experience and his book is dead.

From there we see Harkins come to terms with how his rejection of the faith was driven by the loss of his son, and more important, he comes to believe that his son (through his near-death experience) is actually behind a call to his return to faith.  We also see him reconnecting emotionally with his wife and alienated children (played by real-life offspring, Shane and Braeden Sorbo). The often difficult and clumsy road to reconciliation is realistically portrayed.  During the journey, Harkins meets with the highly unconventional Pastor Vinny, a former felon turned cleric (played by Michael Franzese, the actual son of a well-known mob figure).  Interestingly, Vinny, in a street-like brogue, emphasizes the empty tomb as the rational basis for faith.

Renewed in his faith, and reconciled and re-married to Katy in a ceremony featuring Dionne Warwick as the soloist, two new challenges emerge.  One involves Katy, who is found to have an aggressive, and likely terminal cancer.  The other centers around the couple’s desire to unite worldwide Christendom with a Christmas Eve light show.  It is here that Sean Hannity enters as himself, assisting the couple by publicizing the event and covering the massive display of light from around the globe on Christmas Eve.

I did not think I would like this film, especially given what I thought would be an over-the-top fictional base.  I really liked it. It was maudlin in spots and took a few hits from the critics on that note.  Hannity also drew some left jabs from critics for injecting himself into the drama. I thought he fit in well.  Interestingly, the reviews were more positive than negative overall, encouraging given the film’s obvious Christian motif.

The movie is really well-produced with first-rate camera work.  There are no dead spots and plenty of realistic twists and turns that both rivet attention and tug at the emotions during its 100 minutes.  It packs a powerful climactic wallop, such that tears flow among audience at its powerful finish.

Dr. David Claerbaut is the publisher of FaithandLearningForum.com.

[85]  “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

by Mark Eckel

Note to Readers: FaithandLearningForum.com does not limit its movie reviews to recent releases.  It also reviews classic films, genre films, and thought-provoking films from the past that may have escaped the attention of our readers at the time. This 2007  film is reviewed by Mark Eckel.

If this life is all there is, “we are all of us lookin out of the wrong end of the glass” (283).[1]The Coen brothers (Blood Simple, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing) marry their view of cinematography with Cormac McCarthy’s view of life in No Country for Old Men (Blood Meridian, The Road).  Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) leads the viewer with voiceover and dolorous character creation toward the naturalistic precipice where choice is religion.  Though not wanting to place his “soul at hazard” (4) the lawman knows that this extraordinary experience at the end of his career is the zenith of evil he has faced.

A hunter, ex-Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Joss Brolin), follows the blood trail of an animal he has shot to discover not a carcass, but corpses.  A drug deal gone bad has left a truck load of heroin and two million dollars in the hands of dead men.  Yet to discover “whatever you do in your life it will get back to you” (281), Moss chooses to take the money for himself.  Returning to the scene of the crime results in Moss leaving his own blood trail; the hunter now the hunted, encounters a true-to-life killing machine.

Chigurh’s (Javier Bardem playing the assassin) world philosophy mirrors his life- changing quarter flips: “I got here the same way the coin did” (258).  Roger Deakin’s camera angle of Chigurh’s hotel hallway walk is as bone-chilling an image as ever has been placed on screen.  Moss’s relentless nemesis charges that “every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing.  Somewhere you made a choice” (259).  Life is either one way or the other: “I only have one way to live…You can say that things could have turned out differently…They are not some other way. They are this way” (260).

Coen’s chose a mostly music-less approach to their script allowing the drama to create its own haunting melody.  A glaring exception is the mariachi band.  Awaking from a feint having lost much blood Moss is greeted with smiling, vivacious singers, whose music abruptly stops when they see his blood-stained shirt.  Similar to reality, the viewer is meant to know again that life is not happy amid ever-present violence.  Facial smiles are reserved for Chigurh’s maniacal killing sprees.  Like the scenery—the vast desert expanse of west Texas—life is portrayed as an arid walk through; a play performed on a bare stage.

Choosing to maintain McCarthy’s narrative on screen is a satisfying experience for readers.  Most pleasing to those who reflect on the big questions of life is the honesty of both writer and filmmaker.  A philosophy course might do justice to the book-film.  But in a view of life where choice is religion, “I just don’t know” peppers page and picture (e.g. 213, 228, 268, 283, and 296).  No Country for Old Men gives young men pause.

[1] Cormac McCarthy. 2005. No Country for Old Men. New York: Knopf.  Page numbers are referenced in parentheses.  In this reviewer’s opinion, the book should be read before the movie is seen.

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[84]  “Bella” (2006)

by Mark Eckel

Note to Readers: FaithandLearningForum.com does not limit its movie reviews to recent releases.  It also reviews classic films, genre films, and thought-provoking films from the past that may have escaped the attention of our readers at the time. This 2006  film is reviewed by Mark Eckel.

Past pain etches itself on the facial canvas where life has met death.  No words can prepare one in advance of seeing this film. Tenderness for life within the province of agonizing trauma is perhaps a fitting description.  It is important that in a review the ending not be “given away” in a movie such as Bella.  And yet, it is the ending that allows celebration of humanity in a way not generally seen on the big screen.

If one is in the mood for trite sentimentality, this is not the film to see.  Alejandro Gomez Monteverde’s directorial debut gives the viewer the gut-wrenching performances of Eduardo Verastegui (Jose) and Tammy Blanchard (Nina) who continue to live the results of awful experiences.  It cannot be said enough that soulful sorrow resides in every scene.  Verastegui’s full beard, present throughout most of the picture, is the physical presence that attempts to hide what his eyes cannot.

Working together in a restaurant operated by Jose’s brother Manny (Manny Perez, chewing up every scene he is in), Nina and Jose end up spending the day together as Manny’s Latin machismo gets the best of him, firing Nina for being late.  Jose is the head chef in the restaurant but leaves in a flight of compassion to follow Nina after she is released.  The viewer wonders what is so compelling that one person would leave his workplace for another to offer solace for a whole day.  There is a symbiotic relationship that exists between the two co-workers—an understanding that both Nina and the audience only understand in the end.

Flashbacks reinforce the impending conclusion.  Moviegoers are allowed to see slices of Jose’s past that have etched his present remorse in every muscle in his face.  It is perhaps Jose’s past that establishes his kindness in the present with his colleagues in the kitchen where he creates food people come from all over to taste.  In a sense, Jose has thrown himself into his work as penance for what no confessional can offer.  Clearly, Jose’s interest in people as people has blossomed from the blood-field of his personal history.

Jose’s family provides a cocoon for the two sojourners during their day together.  While mom and dad (wonderful, heartening performances by Angelica Aragon as Jose’s mother, and Jaime Tirelli as his father) berate their son for abandoning his brother, they love as parents should, without condescension or belligerence.  Nina’s conversation with Jose’s father is the story’s climax, pressing us to remember what is most important in life.

Shades of pain paint this story.  Yet it is the compassion that draws us, that compels our viewing.  The ending is both satisfying and abruptly obnoxious: be ready for it.  But one cannot help but celebrate the wonder of conscience and sacrifice through redemption whose cost cannot be counted, but whose life can be shared through Bella.

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[83]  “An American Carol” (2008)

by Mark Eckel

Note to Readers: FaithandLearningForum.com does not limit its movie reviews to recent releases.  It also reviews classic films, genre films, and thought-provoking films from the past that may have escaped the attention of our readers at the time. This 2008  film is reviewed by Mark Eckel.

Political conservatives unite!  In a not-so-subtle attempt to pillory Michael Moore, David Zucker (Airplane, Naked Gun) throws red meat to all the dogs of cultural warfare. Tired of anti-Christian tirades and conservative bashing from Hollywood elites, Zucker decided to direct a film taking on the tyrants of Tinseltown.  Imagine . . . The American military is elevated to a positive status.  Preservation of U. S. ideals and ideas is sacrosanct.  John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address is Marley’s ghost, rattling the chains of freedom to Michael’s cowardly Scrooge.  And, for once, Islamo-Fascists are shown to be who they are: small minded men who simply desire destruction and domination.  The terrorist leader (played with great a palm by Robert Davi) guides his bumbling companions through their various foiled plots: a reminder that we have done a good job stopping our enemies’ terrorist strikes.  One remembers after watching such a film, that America is a good place full of good people who do good things for others.

Political satire leaves political correctness in tatters.  A Broadway-esque number lampooning Left-leaning college professors’ tirades in U.S. classrooms scores points in every stanza.  The ludicrous nature of equating Islamic terrorism with supposed Christian “atrocities” is shown as utter foolishness via video-exposé.  “What If?” historical moments make their mark: anti-war viewpoints might have left us with continued slavery in the 21st century without the Civil War or an Islamic state in Hollywood.  “McCarthy-ism” does not exist, even though elites want to maintain a dead body in the coffin with the makeup of making more movies on the subject.  And ACLU zombies?!  Yes!

Various conservative and libertarian actors create laughable, laudable characters giving a point-of-view hardly ever heard from California.  Kelsey Grammar is General George Patton who marches Michael’s character through conservative basic training.  Jon Voight plays a somber General George Washington, giving a subdued performance in a movie full of hilarity.  A moving, lump-in-throat moment comes when the wreckage of The Twin Towers is revealed, with the words, “This is the dust of three thousand souls.”  Dennis Hopper, James Woods, Gail O’Grady, and other right-of-center luminaries enter the stage, adding their considerable conservative voices to the script.  Special mention must be given Trace Atkins as “the spirit of things yet to come.”  A gallery full of American servicemen serves as the backdrop for pro-American country music finale.

As in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol the American Scrooge Michael no-not Moore (Kevin Farley) reforms his treasonous ways by movie’s end.  Repenting of his aid to our enemies, Michael finds himself on the receiving end of liberal anger and back-patting American pride.  In truth, this is a bad movie.  I am NOT a fan of the Dumb and Dumber genre.  Yet I rented this film from my local video outlet to lend my dollars in economic support of one conservative voice in Hollywood.  So, here is to all those who spurn the current “black listing” of conservatives on the Left Coast.  May their tribe increase.  May their voice be heard.  May their love of country be our own.

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[82]  “An Unfinished Life” (2005)

by Mark Eckel

Note to Readers: FaithandLearningForum.com does not limit its movie reviews to recent releases.  It also reviews classic films, genre films, and thought-provoking films from the past that may have escaped the attention of our readers at the time. This 2005  film is reviewed by Mark Eckel.

What do we do with unseen pain? How do we adjust to cruelties we must bear alone? 

What toll does resentment take from a person’s willingness to take another step, to live another day?

Will we accept that the destination to life’s highway may take us down back roads before we come back to pavement again?  When will we learn lessons right in front of us, waiting for application?  Bearing with pain, coping with searing loss, Robert Redford’s movie explains how to live the rest of An Unfinished Life.

Director Lasse Hallstrom (whose films include What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Chocolat, and Cider House Rules) digs again beneath the surface, exposing the history of lives etched with fractured pain.  The story rides along sentimental rails,[1] allowing Hallstrom to bring the train to station with little effort.  Yet it is sometimes simple sentiment that lifts us.  The ending may be formulaic but which of us hopes the finale won’t apply to us?

Viewers who understand abusive relationships will identify with Jean (Jennifer Lopez) as she seeks to escape one set of harms by running back to embrace old injuries.  Einar (Robert Redford) is an unyielding flint of a man reopening past wounds daily to bath in their depressive spirits.

Moral center in the cast is Mitch (Morgan Freeman).  Freeman’s role reprises other “learned sage” credits (Robin Hood, Sum of All Fears, Seven, etc.)  Bearing physical scars which ripple through his body, Mitch is able to look beyond the pain to spiritual release.  The subtle inroads only a grandchild can manufacture are paved by child star talent Becca Gardner as Griff, Jean’s daughter.  One would flinch to call Einar’s ranch a “home” to this rag-tag crew of misfits.  Key to all relationships is that of Mitch with Einar.  The restrained, yet forceful Western code of personal involvement in another’s life slowly soothes a raging spirit.  It takes the intrusion of old hurts, however, to make the healing process complete.

Einar lives with regret.  While the town has learned to live with Einar, Einar has yet to learn how to live with himself.  Unable, unwilling to cross over his personal anger, he wallows in the memory of a past that cannot be changed.  Ritualistically, daily Einar sits by a graveside, speaking to “What if?” instead of “What is?”  Guilt crushes spirit and sinew under the Wyoming sun but forgiveness has universal healing properties.

Morgan Freeman delivers a line in another of his cinematic triumphs, The Shawshank Redemption, whose application serves well here: “Either get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”  Time will go on with or without us.  Human choice to overcome past pain is the only way to keep on living.

The lone question left to answer for the viewer is will we allow others to apply salve to places we cannot reach?

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[81]  “Locke” (2013)

by Mark Eckel

Note to Readers: FaithandLearningForum.com does not limit its movie reviews to recent releases.  It also reviews classic films, genre films, and thought-provoking films from the past that may have escaped the attention of our readers at the time. This 2013  film is reviewed by Mark Eckel.

Sometimes our choices are a reparation for the past.  It begins with a decision at a traffic light.

Truck horn blaring behind him, the light is green, his car blinker is set to turn left. In a sudden reversal, the dashboard arrow changes direction as does his life. Locke is a movie which will make everyone think twice before deciding which way to turn on the road of life.

Tom Hardy (“Bane” in The Dark Knight Rises) plays Ivan Locke, the only actor we see on screen. But there are two men present in the car. Locke makes a life-altering, job-abandoning, stability-destroying, marriage-ending moral choice, borne from how he was born. Locke has a running, one-sided tirade against his own father, absent but ever present. Locke is so injured, so embarrassed, so changed by his own bastard birth that he refuses to let it happen again. The decision many would make to cover up and cover over their own trespass is a decision Locke cannot make. Yet his choice on behalf of one, wrecks the lives of others. The choice is not made out of love or sentimentality. The choice is not made for greener pastures. The choice is not made out of spite, lust, or hatred. The choice is made as a reparation for the past.

Locke is a movie which turns upside-down the notion that our decisions in the present are always for a better future. The twisted threads of our own thinking are often woven on the loom of our past. Locke’s psychological pain has been written on his soul, now etched on the screen for us all to see. Locke is a “decent man,” “moral man,” “good man,” “the best man in England”—descriptors given by every one who knows him. He has treated others well. But Locke’s even-keeled nature has been swept along by an unseen current. Locke turns the rudder of his ship into the storm of agony from the anguish which has carried him this far.

It is no surprise that Locke works in concrete, the most temperamental of all building materials; something so fluid soon becomes set in stone, immovable. Now others will need to chip away the footprints he leaves behind. “Concrete footprints” and other indelible metaphors are written for the screen by Steven Knight, leaving permanent marks on our thinking. Knight is known for a wide range of scripts including Closed Circuit, Redemption, Dirty Pretty Things, and, perhaps, most surprisingly, Amazing Grace. His characters are given depth not always present in thinly drawn Hollywood performances. Tom Hardy’s superb acting is set up by Steven Knight’s skillful writing.

Tom Hardy’s brilliant portrayal of moral conviction is unlike any other I have witnessed. Life choices and decisions of character will be viewed in a different light after seeing Locke. We movie watchers will observe nothing more than a man, a car, and a road. But we are made to see that turn signals don’t always tell us where we’re going, but where we’ve been.

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[80]  “Fido” (2006)

by Mark Eckel

Note to Readers: FaithandLearningForum.com does not limit its movie reviews to recent releases.  It also reviews classic films, genre films, and thought-provoking films from the past that may have escaped the attention of our readers at the time. This 2006 film is reviewed by Mark Eckel.

In a cross between the social commentary of Pleasantville and any number of zombie thrillers such as Dawn of the Dead comes a satire that wants to remind viewers those we loathe may be better people than ourselves. A 1950’s idyllic setting paints a stark contrast between death and life.  While colors burst off the screen in costuming and set design, the mottled gray of “those among us” clearly marks the enemy.  Skin pigmentation (light versus dark) is a reminder of the need for ethnic equality.

In fact, there are so many jabs at western American culture “tongue in cheek” is a label worn thin.  Large corporations and the military are exposed for the awful products they supposedly produce.  Advertising through names (“Death” magazine instead of “Life”), Zomcom’s tagline (“life through containment”), and statuary (the creator of zombie collars is replicated in every public place) is a statement of veiled contempt.  Firearms are everywhere; users are shown to be inept.  The black and white movie-within-the movie montage to open the film is vintage (anti-)war propaganda.  A cold husband-father figure (played brilliantly by Dylan Baker) suggests the usual Hollywood statement about uncaring white males: in this case, a man who even had no clue he had impregnated his wife.  Beautiful Carrie-Ann Moss portrays the classic housewife who is trying to find love (with a zombie!) while trying to fit in with the pressures of suburban culture.  But it is the overbearing vision of fear-mongering that is the supposed villain.  “Why can’t we all just get along?” seeps into one’s subconscious.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I LOVED this movie!  What fun!  Connections to my childhood (I was born in 1957) were constantly revisited.  Even a classic bow to the television show Lassie appears!  The writing (screenplay by Robert Chomiak and Dennis Heaton) is sharp and witty.  The direction (Andrew Currie) plays along a perfect storyline.  The actors expertly carried each role.  What “child” in us would not love a “boy and his dog” movie?!  K’Sun Ray reminded me of Timmy and his collie.  And Billy Connolly expertly drew in the audience after we withdrew from his original acts of zombie carnage.  So well did Fido display a sense of caring and love, we ultimately drop every guard to welcome him into our family.

Would that it could be true.  I would love to live in a world where we could trust without reserve.  I would love to call everyone my brother and rip “enemy” from the dictionary.  I would long for the day where the need to protect oneself from those who want to kill me is no longer necessary.  I would love to think that tolerance could overcome all totalitarian dictatorships.  I would love to live in the movies rather than this world.

Yet, with all my concerns over plot assumptions and liberal caricatures of the West, I would recommend this comedy to anyone who enjoys life and the possibility that in the next life love truly conquers all.

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[79]  “Ira and Abby” (2006)

by Mark Eckel

Note to Readers: FaithandLearningForum.com does not limit its movie reviews to recent releases.  It also reviews classic films, genre films, and thought-provoking films from the past that may have escaped the attention of our readers at the time. This 2006 film is reviewed by Mark Eckel.

Why do we make things harder than they have to be?  Some people tend to be so introspective that they have trouble living life. Jennifer Westfeldt (also writer and producer) delivers Abby as the exact opposite: one who seemingly finds delight in every person and situation.  To the viewer, Abby is a “one-of-a-kind” loveable saint who communicates kindness to muggers and hugs checkout clerks at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.  Who wouldn’t love to love Abby?  Well, that would be Ira.

Chris Messina as Ira is a better introspective self-hater than Woody Allen.  His characterization sizzles on screen.  Tone and delivery create the self-absorbed Manhattenite.  For those who consistently second guess themselves, watching Messina act is like looking in the mirror.  Ira loves Abby, well, most of the time.  The movie’s plot and tension revolves around not “will they get together?” but “will they stay together?”

Two single people meet, discover true love, and are married within 24 hours.  Can it happen?  Why not?!  But then there are the parents, the past, and the psychiatrists.  Abby’s parents suggest the perfect marriage, imprinting their daughter with the possibility of marital fulfillment, until attraction becomes a distraction.  Ira’s parents’ “stick-it-out-as-a-role-model” philosophy is anything but wedded bliss obviously creating baggage for their son.  Abby has her own subtle deceptions (didn’t I mention my two ex-husbands?).  In contrast, Ira carries his own incompletion problems which surface again and again in psychotherapy.  Human foibles have never been both so funny and sad.

A strong subtext layers Ira & Abby: why do we depend on psychiatrists to resolve human issues?  Psychiatrists have their own problems, have their own agenda (read “psychological model”), and screw up just as much as the rest of us.  While everyone will comment on the final circle scene when all the characters converge in roundtable discussion, short takes throughout the film expose those flimsy layers.  From the bored to tears, twelve year veteran analyst of Ira’s unfinished life to Jason Alexander’s “how does that make you feel?” routine, to the deadpan delivery of Chris Parnell, one wonders if renting this DVD will mean a little less business for all those “shingles” hanging out there.

Multiple character bits—from the subway mugger to the ex-husbands—play as if they were leading roles.  The tartly repartee pops on screen.  Viewers will find themselves smiling in spite of themselves.  Fred Willard, Robert Klein, Judith Light, and Frances Conroy all deserve special attention as the couples’ parents, perfectly playing their roles.  Musical composition by Marcelo Zarvos exactly matches the direction of Robert Cary.

Can finding love be as easy as meeting to nuptials in 24 hours?  Can love overcome all the obstacles humans set for themselves?  Can people create relationships dependent upon talking with each other rather than psychotherapy?  Ira & Abby answers “yes.”

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[78]  “Into the Wild” (2007)

by Mark Eckel

Note to Readers: FaithandLearningForum.com does not limit its movie reviews to recent releases.  It also reviews classic films, genre films, and thought-provoking films from the past that may have escaped the attention of our readers at the time. This 2007 film is reviewed by Mark Eckel.

A solitary pursuit of life’s meaning by oneself is impossible.  If there is no greater statement being made about culture in the last two decades it is this: people need community and fellowship.  But it is the literary weight of Byron, Thoreau, and London that force an individualistic theme throughout Into the Wild.  While there is an honest portrayal of a young man’s deep seeded pain, it is a shame that Christopher McCandless’ unprepared life is honored.

Twenty three years is split into chapters, interspersed with childhood flashbacks, and a detailed account of Christopher’s life in Alaska.  Though the film is long (2.5 hours) exceptional direction through pacing is exercised judiciously by Sean Penn (The Crossing Guard, The Pledge).  Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) is an open wound inflicted by his parents, played graphically by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden.  McCandless realizes that he is a bastard child.  Sick of his parents’ materialistic arrogance, the young college graduate sets out to experience life without money, without connection.  Along the way, he meets various characters that laud his pursuits.  But it is the singular role played by octogenarian Hal Holbrook who wrenches every viewer’s emotions.  A man harboring his own disappointments speaks into this young life, attempting to save McCandless before the ill-fated Alaskan adventure.  Holbrook steals the show in the scene where he asks Christopher to be his grandson.

Ron (Holbrook) also utters the most important statement in the movie, even though the film is embedded with literary luminaries: “to forgive is to love.”  McCandless’ family disintegration forces him to find normalcy, stability.  But it is this great wisdom that prompts the viewer to consider themselves, their own circumstances, their families.

To celebrate a person and a way of life on screen is good.  However, to have the audience accept that this young person’s trek would have been possible apart from the physical, fiscal infrastructure readily available all around him, making his odyssey complete is a bit far fetched.  Innumerable hitchhiking rides, hotdogs on the river, shelters, and broken laws makes an anti-materialist’s life a bit insincere.  To accept Into the Wild as a radical statement against the status quo or American culture ignores the fact that McCandless was not living “off the grid” but on it.  Christopher’s pronouncements “I don’t need money; give me truth” and “if you want something in life, reach out and grab it” cannot be taken seriously or sustained.

Yet, the story itself sends important messages to a culture obsessed with material wealth and familial indifference: love others.  Too late did McCandless recognize that “happiness must be shared” (seemingly his last journalistic entry).  We cannot live alone.  People may be by themselves, but they are never apart from others.  Individualism in no way satisfies because it is impossible to be self-sufficient and independent on this earth, in this life.

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[77]  “10,000 B.C.” (2008)

by Mark Eckel

Note to Readers: FaithandLearningForum.com does not limit its movie reviews to recent releases.  It also reviews classic films, genre films, and thought-provoking films from the past that may have escaped the attention of our readers at the time. This 2008 film is reviewed by Mark Eckel.

Every human heart is imprinted with a story, the need for a savior. Whether one thinks of Homer’s The Odyssey or the Christian message of Jesus, certain ideas remain repetitive: an evil usurper, prophetic pronouncements, a journey, obstacles to overcome, a people to rescue.  All these baseline story elements appear in 10,000 B. C. Perhaps the reason the film came close to the magical one hundred million dollars in ticket sales (surely to be topped by DVD rentals) is because people inherently understand their own requirement.

Roland Emmerich best known for Independence Day rolls out another combination human-computer generated movie that big screen audiences love.  Like ID an evil empire exists only to subjugate other people.  A reluctant hero emerges from the enslaved people group.  Wonderfully awful ”prehistoric” creatures bedevil the brave one in his quest to bring back his tribe.  A veiled prophecy foretelling the future is a moving force behind the action scenes.  And in the end, evil is overthrown, families are reunited, the leading man becomes a leader, and gets the girl.

Cliff Curtis as Tic’Tic (Live Free or Die Hard) is perhaps the only person on screen that many will recognize; he establishes the proper mentor-protector role for his protégé, D’Leh.  World renowned Omar Sharif narrates the story, explaining the flow of events like an off-screen Homer.  Camilla Belle (When a Stranger Calls), the damsel in distress, Evolet and D’Leh, played by Steven Strait, are younger actors who rise to the occasion, playing an epic saga as if it were happening to them.

Mammoths, saber tooth tigers, and a strange, ravenous super-bird are computer created delights.  When the technological marvels are on screen, the room shakes with the properly compelling musical score (and enlivens a 110 minute film that could have been cut to 90 minutes, eliminating “dead spots”).  But the life-like imagery never seems inserted into the human world.  We fear for what seems to be an actual man-beast encounter.  Tucked into the storyline is D’Leh’s rescue of the tiger who refuses, like the fabled lion whose paw has a thorn extracted by a young man, to kill the being who has helped him.  Key to the prophecy of a savior, is the one whom the tiger does not touch.

When D’Leh encounters the international menace (whose Atlantis history is hinted at as the viewer sees the Egyptian-like pyramids being built) he begins to adopt Tic’Tic’s parable of a leader: instead of drawing a small circle around himself, concerning himself with only those closest to him, he draws a big circle around himself, becoming a multi-national hero.  Herein is the key to the film and to life itself: the story of a needed savior woven through every human heart.

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[76]  “Juno” (2007)

by Mark Eckel

Note to Readers: FaithandLearningForum.com does not limit its movie reviews to recent releases.  It also reviews classic films, genre films, and thought-provoking films from the past that may have escaped the attention of our readers at the time. This 2007 film is reviewed by Mark Eckel.

Authentic sensitivity meets ambiguous seriousness: life has meaning.  Juno’s confession of premarital sex and pregnancy is anything but a concession.  With fortitude and honesty little seen on screen, Juno makes a declaration of independence from current cultural pressure.  Displaying the wit of a comedienne, the wisdom of a sage, and the longsuffering of a protester, Juno communicates that no one will dissuade her from the quest to do what is right.

Add the following ingredients and mix thoroughly: Juno’s director’s (Jason Reitman) first film was the sarcastic Thank You For SmokingJuno’s star’s (Ellen Page) first film was the revenge-against-cyber-stalkers Hard Candy; Mateo Messina, in his first composer role, utilized Kimya Dawson’s tunes to capture the sweet spirit of the picture; Juno’s screenwriter (Diablo Cody) was once a stripper and phone-sex operator.  Such collaboration would seem a “goof” to most in Hollywood.  But like The Office, put together a group who cares for their craft and the results can be astounding.

Each person in their freshman or sophomore credits fused with the experience of John Malkovich as producer or character actors such as J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney (Juno’s pitch-perfect parents) create a film without parallel.  Michael Cera’s performance as Paulie Bleeker captures the clueless, caring spirit of a boyfriend caught in a situation he cannot fathom with a love he cannot relinquish.  Jason Bateman, as the potential adoptive father, portrays more adolescent behavior than Juno forcing the story toward a surprising yet fitting conclusion.

Planned Parenthood was surely outraged by the portrayal of a less than caring and still clueless response to a teenager “making a choice.”  The lone protester outside the clinic knows Juno from high school and can muster little retort to a possible abortion save “it has fingernails.”  This is all Juno need know.  Taking the baby to term, damn the response of all naysayers, is exactly what she believes to be right setting her on a course to seek adoptive parents.  Motivation for Juno’s ethical stance seems only to be inherent: something she knows to be right without preachment.

In Roman mythology “Juno” was queen of the gods.  Thought to be the guardian spirit of females, she would appear in statuary armed, dressed as a Roman legionnaire.  When the combativeness of Juno’s character is considered, the intentionality of the name may well speak to the plotline of the story.  Uninterested in publicly blaming her boyfriend-father, Juno stands publicly alone, though buttressed by kindhearted, honest parents.

Paulie’s training with the ever-present track team wins him the race where the finish line is the hospital.  The seasons of life, as does a nine month pregnancy, continue unabated.  Yet the final scene brings Juno to her beau broken free of monotony.  People may struggle with how to live; but life takes on new meaning as life is given meaning.

Rated PG-13 for sexual situations, mature subject matter, and language.

Mark Eckel wondered how Planned Parenthood responded to their depiction in Juno.

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[75]  “Race” (2016)

by David Claerbaut

“Race,” despite mixed reviews, is a gripping film.  It is a period piece centered around the running brilliance of sprinter, Jesse Owens, who was a one-person beacon of light at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  The story is intensely magnetic, but you had to be there.

Thanks to Stephen Hopkins, you are there—Nazi Germany.  And you can feel it.  But we get ahead of ourselves a bit.  In the early part of the film we see Owens (Stephan James), born of Alabama segregationist poverty, going to Ohio State University because of its renown in track under the demanding leadership of Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis).  Snyder has his personal demons, one of which is alcohol, but he does not lack for track acumen and the ability to spot talent.  Despite their occasional conflicts, Owens and Snyder mesh well in bringing the former to his athletic peak.

There are other matters along the way.  Owens has a pregnant girlfriend he gets around to marrying after a “slip” with a savvy woman he encounters at an out of town major track event.

The movie really picks up steam when the venue moves to Nazi Germany.  There we have the cloud of coming war, the emergence of Hitler’s regime, American ambivalence over participating in Berlin, and the behind the scenes machination of bigger-than-life Avery Brundage (brilliantly played by Jeremy Irons).  Add to that the drama of an African-American representing a heavily segregationist US before Hitler and his minions who declared Aryan supremacy, and you have a cone overflowing with ice cream.

It is right there that the critics seem to invade.  The reviews are surprisingly critical.  The character of Owens is not developed.  I think James caught the reticent young Owens very well.  There is also the knock that there are too many themes in the film to develop adequately.  Life happens, my friend.  If you lived in 1968 you would realize that reality can be that way.

It is a long film (134 minutes) but my usually limited attention span was minimally taxed.  The film does justice to the period and captures the look of the time wonderfully.  Though a film a whole family can see, it does not sacrifice a realistic engagement with the era and its issues.

Dr. David Claerbaut is the publisher of FaithandLearningForum.com.

[74]  “God’s Not Dead 2″ (2016)

by David Claerbaut

God’s Not Dead 2 is a sequel to the original God’s Not Dead movie. The film centers on a public high school history teacher and her public trial for “preaching” in the classroom. It is knee-deep in the “separation of church and state” snarl—something we regularly address in the world of faith and learning.

The teacher, Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart), answers a student’s question regarding Jesus in a “historical context.”  With that, the teacher is turned in to school officials and is directed to apologize for her answers and state she will not engage in such behavior in the future. Of course, Wesley does not recant her comments and is put on trial in civil court. Several other characters from the first God’s Not Dead film are involved in this tale, including David A.R. White (White has been in almost every “Christian” film produced in the last 10-15 years), who is in the role of a pastor.

It is interesting how the producers continued to weave the two stories together and the characters are both strong and believable. The role of Wesley’s father was played by 1950′s-60′s music icon, Pat Boone. His role was very limited, but somewhat effective.

The story really revolves around the public trial as the prosecutor once again aims to prove that God is dead! Ray Wise plays the attacking ACLU attorney—Pete Kane–to perfection; at times you could almost see Kane as Satan himself. Tom Endler (Jessie Metcalfe) is the scruffy, disheveled defense attorney who figures the case is lost most of the way through the trial. Endler, however, lands on a brilliant strategy on the final day of the trial. He shows up very “Clarence Darrow-ish” and calls Wesley to the witness stand as a “hostile witness.” Of course, the jury finds in favor of the teacher and once again we are shown that, well, God is not dead.

Directed by Harold Cronk of 10 West Studios and EMC productions, the film has quite a cast, including Robin Givens, the late Senator Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee, and author Lee Strobel.  Not surprisingly, the critics savaged the film—one reviewer uses the tired accusation of “preaching to the choir,” while another reviewer called it a bad and even immoral film.  Rotten Tomatoes found it rotten: “Every bit the proselytizing lecture promised by its title, God’s Not Dead 2 preaches ham-fistedly to its paranoid conservative choir.”

The audience saw it more favorably and the box office had to be happy with the results, a $7.6 MM rake in on the first weekend, good for 4th place among all films.

Although the film is not as strong as the original, it engages the “separation of church and state” debate well and prepares its viewers for what figures to be more God’s Not Dead films.

Dr. David Claerbaut is the publisher of FaithandLearningForum.com.

[73]  “Risen” (2016)

by David Claerbaut

“Risen” is a Christian film that offers the viewer a fresh angle on the resurrection.  It is told through the eyes of a Roman soldier in search of the body of Jesus.  Unlike other Christian films, this had a $20MM budget, flowing from the electronic womb of LD Entertainment, Affirm Films, a division of Sony.  It has been a money-maker, grossing $45MM worldwide in a matter of weeks.

Written and directed by veteran film maker Kevin Reynolds (of Fandango fame), the film stars Joseph Fiennes as Clavius, a Roman tribune, who is commissioned by Pontius Pilate to check into the rumor of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Obviously, finding the body would be the best way to put the rumor to rest, let alone quell a developing uprising in Jerusalem over the matter.

When Clavius cannot locate the body, he speaks with the disciples, and encounters Christ along the way.  Pilate, believing that Clavius has betrayed him sends a contingent of soldiers after Clavius and the disciples.  He assists the disciples in an escape from the Roman pursuers but along the way witnesses some unforgettable events—the healing of the leper and the ascension of Christ.

Critiquing films is not an exact science.  Whereas Rotten Tomatoes cites the performance of Fiennes as one of the strongest elements of the film, Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times accorded the movie but 2 stars, panning the work of Fiennes as stoic.

It is hard to get a fresh angle on the resurrection, but Reynolds found one by looking at it through the skeptical detective-like eyes of Roman official.  Clearly, Clavius has no stake in finding for the divinity of Christ, giving the film, and its message, more credibility.  This rather sophisticated approach suggests that the metamorphosis of Christian films continues.

That Christian cinema would become a major force in movie entertainment is a testimony of God’s mysterious ways—wildly beyond the scope of the imagination but a few years ago.  Who’d a thunk it?

Dr. David Claerbaut is the publisher of FaithandLearningForum.com.

[72]  “On the Waterfront” (1954)

by David Claerbaut

On the Waterfront was the winner of Best Picture in 1954, among its eight Academy Awards, generating nearly $10MM in revenue over a budget of less than a million dollars in a 1950s economy.  It is reviewed here because the film was released 63 years ago, meaning that legions of current movie-goers have never seen this epic.

If you are among that group, find it and watch it.  The film is a mesmerizing tale of corruption on the Brooklyn loading docks of the 1950s.  Written by Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run?) and directed by Elia Kazan, you cannot beat the cast—Marlin Brando, Lee J. Cobb, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Leif Erickson, Nehemiah Persoff and Martin Balsam, among others.

Johnny Friendly (Cobb) rules and exploits the longshoremen union to the extent of being behind the murders of possible government informants.  Terry Malloy (Brandon) knows about one of them, the brother of his love interest, Edie Doyle (Saint), and is torn with ambivalence.

Brando could not be better as the once young boxer who took a “fall” for his corrupt brother Charley (Steiger), the first mate to the evil Friendly. That decision transformed Malloy from a “contender” into a self-acknowledged “bum.”  This film noir is a morality tale of the highest order.  For the faith and learning viewer, the role of Father Barry (Malden) is compelling, as the priest calls out the dockworkers for their silence, claiming that when innocent people are murdered Christ is murdered once again.  Just dynamite stuff.

It is hard to say Brando dominates the film simply because of the excellence of the other cast members, but he plays the role of the conflicted Malloy with brilliance.  From his interactions with Edie to Fr. Barry, he oozes the stress of one gripped by a moral dilemma.  The finish is magnetic, ending in the demise of his corrupt brother, for whom blood ts thicker than the dirty water of ill-gotten cash.

The film has everything.  It does a first-rate job of laying out the plot in an understandable way, often not the case in underworld films.  Yet all the figures are three-dimensional as the incredibly well-constructed plot moves along.

Again, see this film if you have not yet done so.  Absent gratuitous sex and blatant violence, it holds the viewer’s attention for every one of its 108 minutes with its psychological and moral power. Athletes get better, and science keeps progressing, but there are no current films better than this one.

Dr. David Claerbaut is the publisher of FaithandLearningForum.com.

[71]  “Woodlawn” (2015)

by David Claerbaut

“Woodlawn” is rooted in an era in which government driven desegregation occurred in the South, most particularly Birmingham, Alabama’s Woodlawn High School. With the school a virtual tinder box of racial tension, Coach Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop) permits Hank Erwin (Sean Astin) to address his team. Erwin, who claims to be a sports chaplain, renders a message reminiscent of Peter’s address to the skeptics at Pentecost. It is a testimony of his experience at a revival meeting in which he encountered the life-changing power of the Gospel. Hank’s message has a transforming effect on the gun-toting, authoritarian coach, his team, the high school, and the larger Birmingham community.

Much of the story revolves around Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille), a superstar running back who is thrust into this racial cauldron via programmed desegregation. Nathan relies heavily on his faith, as he navigates his athletic celebrity through the shoals of racism and ever potential social chaos. He proves so skilled that he is actively recruited by the iconic Bear Bryant (Jon Voight) of Alabama, a school not known for its hospitality with respect to black students, and goes on to a storied career with Miami Dolphins.

There a plenty of powerful scenes in the film, including one in which Nathan declines to shake the hand of segregationist Governor George Wallace, and another in which the white Gerelds, who is baptized in a black church upon his born-again experience, engages in trash banter with the coach at Banks High, the team Woodlawn meets in 1974 at Alabama U’s Legion Field– before 42,000–in the climax of the film.

The cast is formidable—Astin, Voight, Sherry Shepherd, and C. Thomas Howell—and the acting first rate. Reviews were largely favorable and the film garnered nearly $15MM at the cashbox.

Despite its historical accuracy—with its effective, truly ‘70’s design and soundtrack–the movie is a bit tame, as the dreaded “N-word” is never heard during the 124 minutes. In addition, some of the events are a tad ambiguous or contain two-dimensional, racist characters. Nonetheless, it is faithful to the historical record, something period pieces often fail to be.

The transformative effect of the Gospel is clearly and realistically presented. Yet, for the Christian viewer, there is more: A reminder that faith is to lived out, put to work in the face of conflict, misunderstanding, and even danger.

Dr. David Claerbaut is the publisher of FaithandLearningForum.com.

[70]  “Trumbo” (2015)

by David Claerbaut

“Trumbo” is wonderfully historic film, treating the blacklisting practice during the anti-communism hysteria of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, from the standpoint of a single writer, Dalton Trumbo. Bryan Cranston is outstanding as the lead character, while Diane Lane and Helen Mirren turn in stellar performances as Cleo Fincher Trumbo and Hedda Hopper, respectively. One of the elements that gives this film real traction is that it draws in people like gossip columnist. Hopper, along with actors, including Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, and John Wayne, in addition to movie maker, Otto Preminger, and studio mogul, Louis B. Mayer. By casting a wide net, the film offers the viewer a wide angle view of the times and the components of the blacklist era.

Blacklisting was driven by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the McCarthy era, one characterized by fear and reactionary behavior. In the film, we see Trumbo and others being asked, “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Screenwriters were petrified as studio titans forced compliance with anti-communist questioning in the 1950’s.

The viewer sees Trumbo pay the price for this inquiry, as he is imprisoned for a year on the charge of contempt of Congress, with the Supreme Court unwilling to overturn the decision. Once out, he is living at a survival level in efforts to provide for his family in this pre-feminist, single-paycheck time.

Trumbo resorts to writing screenplays under fictitious names. He is successful to the extent that he wins an Oscar for “The Brave One,” using the name of Robert Rich. It took a full decade for Trumbo to emerge, when his real name was associated with such films as “Exodus” and “Spartacus.”

This is not a dispassionate, objective film. It is lined up on the side of those who lost careers during the “Commie hunt.” It is not entirely a lockdown, one-sided portrayal of a signal time in the history of this country. It does offer the viewer an ambivalent moral posture of the age, one that Trumbo characterized has having “bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides; and almost every individual involved, no matter where he stood, combined some or all of these antithetical qualities in his own person, in his own acts.”

For the faith and learning viewer this one is packed with probes for thought. Among them is the issue of freedom. Is the First Amendment truly operational in an age in which one can be imprisoned for aligning oneself with a Communist ideology? Given that one of the major concerns about Soviet Communism was its atheistic position, does this justify a supposedly Christian nation’s involvement in spying on its own citizens?

The answers are not as simple as they may seem. Indeed, the Soviet Union was as bent on world domination as Islamic groups are today and one of its principal methods involved governmental infiltration. Richard Nixon became famous outing Alger Hiss.

There is much grist to contemplate and debate, much “good and bad on both sides.”

Dr. David Claerbaut is the publisher of FaithandLearningForum.com.

[69]  “Spotlight” (2015)

by Steve Launer

“Spotlight’” is a mesmerizing story, featuring Michael Keaton and a strong cast. The beginning is set at the Boston Globe newspaper offices in 2001. Michael Keaton has a staff of 3 reporters that constitute an investigative team searching out stories under the headline “Spotlight.”

The newspaper has just gotten a new editor and he has a story he wants covered: What turns out to be a systematic cover up of sexual misconduct of priests with young boys in their churches, with the perpetrators reassigned to other locales. Keaton’s team is charged with digging into local Boston churches and the lives of priests that have been identified as child molesters. Their biggest obstruction is the heavy influence of the Catholic Church in Boston, a stronghold of the Roman Catholic Church. The local Boston Cardinal has been in place for many years and wields formidable political power within the city and the matter has been pushed “under the rug” for many years.

The team begins the investigation by trying to interview victims of the alleged abuse. Only two are willing to speak, and progress is stalled. At this point September 11, 2001 hits, the World Trade center is attacked along with the Pentagon, and the aircraft crashes in Pennsylvania. All newspaper efforts shift to cover the “911″ story for several months, and the investigation of sexual abuse is off the journalistic radar.

As Keaton’s team resumes the investigation of the church and clergy, they come across findings of another researcher on the abuse scandal. The statistics of this researcher show the problem not to be one of “one or two bad apples,” but a systemic cover up and reassignment of over 80 priests in the Boston area churches. The investigation now ramps up to include and target the leaders of the church along with local law enforcement and local lawyers.

In the end, Keaton is faced with the realization that 20 years earlier he had heard of this issue and had the opportunity to run with this story, but didn’t.

This was an eye opening movie based on actual events and people in Boston. It is excellently acted throughout with the cinematography true to the seasons and locations. There are many potential “take aways” for the faith and learning adherent. Here is one: This problem goes well beyond the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the Catholic Church has done much to prevent sexual misconduct among its clergy in the past decade or so, but the problem persists in both Protestant Catholic churches, a fact with which we are regularly confronted in the news.

“Spotlight” centered on a scandal in Boston in 2001; but there is reason to fear that it is something many other church denominations are and will continue to face in the future. The challenge is whether churches will speak the truth and confront this damning practice, or choose to look away, engage in what are nothing more than cover-ups, and “not talk about it,” in hopes of keeping the public reputation of their churches intact.

Steve Launer is an ordained Deacon in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, and an expert in men’s ministry.

[68]  “War Room” (2015)

by David Claerbaut

The Kendrick brothers really scored with this one. This movie, constructed on a sub-$4MM budget, figures to reel in $70MM. In addition, it was the top revenue film in its second week in the theaters.

Is this a sign that the occupant of the theater seat, rather than the church pew, needs to be our target as we move toward a genuine revival? There are indications that this may well be the case.

This is a well-made, well-acted film. The story is dominated by octogenarian prayer warrior, Miss Clara Williams (brilliantly played by Karen Abercrombie). The aged saint is filled with evangelical energy and boundless faith.

The object of her discipling efforts is Elizabeth Jordan, a 30-something lukewarm believer ensnared in a troubled marriage with her husband, Tony. (Priscilla Shirer, daughter of evangelist, Tony Evans, and former football star, T. C. Stallings render stellar performances as the troubled couple.) The viewer is taken along for the bumpy marital ride, one littered with arguments, cold shoulders, and near infidelity. Anyone who has seen marriages like this can attest to the realistic nature with which the Kendricks roll out this troubled alliance.

There are side plots as well, including economic fraud, a possible imprisonment, and the experiences of a small child—Danielle Jordan (impressively played by Alena Pitts) trapped in an unhappy household.

The film, while running 120 minutes, moves along nicely. The viewer’s mind will scarcely wander as the scenes shift quickly but effectively. The filming and camera shots are excellent, the close-ups catching demonstrative emotions. It does not hurt that the Jordans are strikingly attractive people.

A unique feature is that while this is an African-American film, it does not play on a tired racism theme.

The film took its usual beating from the secular critics, but also took a hit from a few Christian ones. The knock is that it is “preachy” and “Bible thumping,” particularly through the character of aged saint, Clara Williams. Well, it is preachy, but not distractingly so, and no more so than many non-Christian films that use characters to state an other than faith and learning worldview rather blatantly. We can go back to “Network” to see that. And last I checked, “Network” did rather well.

So has “War Room.” At the box office, where people vote with their dollars.

Dr. David Claerbaut is the publisher of FaithandLearningForum.com.

[67]  Ethics in Film:  Not “Can We?” but “Should We?”

by Mark Eckel

Michael Crichton’s question—“not Can We? But should we?”–summarize ethics.

I had been leading my classes through a mini-unit on medical ethics at the same time I was reading Jurassic Park. At appropriate moments, I read excerpts to the class. Crichton used a chaos scientist as the foil for his belief that experimentation has boundaries. Michael Crichton’s medical career brought new life to science fiction writing. He believed that science, like life, should have limitations.  His work inspires viewers to watch movies with their minds rather than their eyes.

Film watched with the mind, raises ethical questions. Genetic engineering comes to mind when watching the H.G. Wells classic, The Island of Dr. Moreau. In an attempt to create the perfect creature, a brilliant geneticist crosses human and animal DNA. The result of this unethical experimentation is brutish and cruel. H. G. Wells shows the results of human attempts to be God. Confronted by one of the “beast men” in a vexing, violent scene toward the end of the movie, the main character identifies the basic problem of control. With so many in charge, the question remains, who is “the number one God?” “Who will control the controllers?” is a perennial question, one which every generation must answer.

Night Falls on Manhattan (1998) presents the perfect caution for any discussion of ethics. The biblical principle of “the ideal and the real” is nowhere better summarized on screen. A “cut and dried” legal case launches the career of a district attorney. Discovery of unsavory, unethical details, however, costs the life of a “good” police officer. The final speech given by Andy Garcia’s character is an exact replica of the biblical teaching: in this corrupt world, nothing is totally pure or innocent.

An ex-CIA agent plies his trade to live in Ronin (1997). What he discovers is that no one can “go it alone”. Healing from a wound inflicted during a gun battle, Robert DeNiro’s character is taught a lesson from an older spy. Everyone serves something or someone outside of oneself. Transcendence, someone who is separate from, outside us, is exactly the point of Bob Dylan’s song “Ya’ Gotta’ Serve Somebody.” Ethics must have an external, eternal measure.

Woody Allen masterfully brought attention to the eternal issue surrounding ethics in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). An extra-marital affair leads a man to hire out the murder of his mistress. Packed with ethical discussion, Woody Allen identifies all the issues that surround the human dilemma of right and wrong. In a dream sequence, Martin Landau’s character interacts with his family around a dinner table about what values drive human action. Major philosophies and religious beliefs are all given voice in this exceptional five minute scene. One is left with the question, “What does my choice between right and wrong matter?”

Two different scientists address the question of right and wrong in Extreme Measures (1996). A doctor rounds up and kills homeless men to discover a cure for paralysis. His secret, yet undiscovered methods, bring notoriety until a fellow physician reveals the truth. Gene Hackman’s intentions are exposed in a debate between the two ethical arguments. My students were led to the utilitarian question, “If you could kill one man to discover the cure to cancer, wouldn’t you have to do that?”

Every day ethical questions form the frame for Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1995); the true story of television’s early quiz show format. Some participants in 1950’s television quiz shows knew the answers ahead of time. Ralph Fiennes’ character finds it easier and easier to get the answers before the questions are asked. The truth is found out and the cover-up ruins a man and his career. Students came to grips with the question, “What would we do with the pressure of fame and money pressing upon us?” While I would encourage viewing of the whole movie for thematic development, the scene when the son confesses to the father what he had done is powerful. The result of one’s ethical choices always affect more than just the individual.

No better movie to summarize the necessity of limitations on ethical choices than Gattaca (1997). Nine minutes into the film Ethan Hawke’s character discusses “genoism”: choosing the genetic makeup of children from inception, excluding those children who do not make the cut. We are brought face-to-face with the ultimate issue in medical or any kind of ethics, “Are we trying to play God?”

Should we or shouldn’t we? If “shoulds” and “oughts” exist, we are assuming there mustbe a boundary, and a limitation to our actions. Pictures can help us understand this. Movies can arrest attention, making us stop to consider “What will happen if I do.”

Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching movie engagement for 30 years to many students.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. 

[66]  “The Cokeville Miracle” (2015)

by David Claerbaut

“The Cokeville Miracle” is a true story of a grisly tale of an event in Cokeville, Wyoming, in 1986. A crazed man and his wife took over an elementary school armed with guns and a bomb. Over 100 students and staff were held ransom for $200MM. Although this is quite a terrorist story, but it is trumped by what can only be viewed as divine intervention. The bomb went off and only two people were blown away—the two captors. Even more of the story—and something the faith and learning community have interest in–surrounds the accounts of the children, who spoke openly of intense prayer amid what seemed certain death.

 

A key player in the movie is the Sheriff’s investigator, Ron Hartley (Jasen Wade). Struggling with his own faith, Hartley is confronted with anecdote after anecdote from the would-be victims on the power of faith and prayer, rather than mere recitations of the facts as they occurred.

T. C. Christensen’s film is not the first cinematic telling of this incredible incident. A made-for-TV movie, “To Save the Children,” starring heavyweights Robert Urich and Richard Thomas, hit the air in 1994. Christensen, however, takes a clever approach, neatly cutting the story in half. The first rolls out the facts. Here he reveals the wicked plot by the perpetrators (Nathan Stevens and Kymberly Mellen; Sarah Kent plays their daughter). The second focuses on Hartley’s startling spiritual findings as he encounters this community edifice of faith through the testimony of the children.

The event for which this town of 500 has become famous is compelling. Secular critics always have difficulty with films like this, ever searching for a flaw. The knock on this film is that it is a bit too pat—everyone come out OK at the end—making the spiritual message a bit too simple. There is, however, a counter to that. The facts are what they are. People of faith were spared and the consensus of these potential victims is that God intervened.

Dr. Claerbaut is the Publisher of FaithandLearningForum.com.

[65]  “Whiplash” (2014)

by David Claerbaut

J. K. Simmons can act. He of the annoying Farmers Insurance commercials is one versatile thespian. In fact, I simply do not know why he demeans his craft by shilling for Farmer’s, but that is not the focus of this review.

In this film, Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) is obsessed with musical perfection to the point of abusing his students in its quest. Drummer Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a first-year student at the elite Shaffer Conservatory in New York, is on the receiving end of Fletcher’s emotional lashings. Playing mind games with Nieman only intensifies the youth’s desire to excel, as he practices until his hands bleed and even breaks up with his girlfriend so he can focus exclusively on his craft.

After a former student of Fletcher dies, Andrew takes over as the drummer. On his way to a performance, however, Andrew is victim of a bus and car accident. Unable to play to the merciless Fletcher’s standards, Andrew is dismissed by the demanding conductor. Enraged, Andrew attacks Fletcher in front of the audience, and is expelled from Shaffer.

After his expulsion, Andrew discovers that the deceased student, openly mourned by Fletcher, committed suicide owing to the stress of trying to function under the tyrannical instructor. Andrew testifies anonymously to Fletcher’s toxic behavior in a lawsuit initiated by the students’ parents and Fletcher is fired.

Out of school, Andrew sees Fletcher on stage at a jazz club. A now seemingly repentant Fletcher acknowledges his excesses to Andrew and invites him to perform at a concert. But revenge is on the conductor’s mind. At the performance he lets Andrew know of his awareness of the drummer’s testimony against him and proceeds to humiliate him on stage.

So much for the plot. I will save the ending for you. It is powerful.

The film proved to be a whopper, raking in $33MM on a $3.3MM budget. Reviews were largely positive. Simmons was regaled for his performance, taking home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It was clearly a triumph for Director Damien Chazelle, who drew from his own experience of being in a highly competitive high school band.

For the faith and learning viewer, “Whiplash” provides a chilling insight into the consequences of obsession. Fletcher has worthy ideals, but they become his god, a false god that leads to the destruction of those in his wake. The quintessential unregenerate man, Fletcher is as cunning as the serpent in Genesis 3. The sociopathic abuser turns charm, expressions of sorrow, and even supposed penitence on at will when it serves his interests. Consumed by rage and revenge, he is frightening as he rages at those who do not reach is lofty standards, and sadistic as he plots revenge against Andrew for testifying to his cruelty.

Andrew, however, is also flawed. He buys into the false god of Fletcher’s, losing his relationship with his girlfriend and a bit of his own sanity upon being under the scourge of Fletcher.

This is one entertaining film. It is an emotional drama of the first order, one in which the tension in the relationships all but step out of screen, confronting the viewer. That in-your-face effect drives home the power of evil with maximum impact in an environment devoid of redemption.

Dr. Claerbaut’s recent book is What is True? It is available on Kindle.

[64]  “Selma” (2014)

by David Claerbaut

In Las Vegas, “Selma” was a much awaited film. The lines were long on opening night.

It did not come up short, receiving four Golden Globe and two Academy Award nominations.

The story focuses on Martin Luther King’s 1965 Civil Rights march in Selma, Alabama. Though some might feel that zeroing in on a single event in a single year does not do justice to the overall work of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, narrowing it this way gives the viewer the feeling of being there, intensifying the impact.

All the players are on stage in this one, King and the other members of his inner circle, Lyndon Johnson, George Wallace, Coretta Scott King. J. Edgar Hoover, and others—nearly 40 in all. The over two-hour drama carefully walks the viewer through the Selma experience. The goal of voter registration, the right to march, the concern over safety and backlash, and the eventual harrowing event are all present. The film is powerful and the viewer really gets a taste of the virulence of unleashed racism—the four African American children dying in an explosion at a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, for example–and the intense commitment of those who are all-in on their quest of justice.

There is little need to summarize the Selma march in this space, as many of those who lived in that era can remember it quite well, and those who did not need to see at least this film to get a sense of this critically important time in US history.

Those conversant with the era would give it rather high marks for its realism and faithfulness to the historical record, save the depiction of LBJ. The film has a real on-the-ground, real-time feel to it. The gritty presentation heightens the emotional wallop of what is already an incredibly taut event. LBJ, however, comes off as a reluctant supporter of King and his movement, hardly a fair portrayal of perhaps the most influential Civil Rights advocate ever to sit in the Oval Office. Such a miscasting is puzzling as there are plenty of available examples of true obstructionists. Beyond that, however, the film is fit material for students of US history who are visually rather than print oriented.

From a faith and learning standpoint, there is much here. Front and center is that the Civil Rights Movement was born in the Church and led by an ordained minister. It was rooted in a Christian community. Moreover, it got its continuing strength from the faith of its adherents and their trust in God’s will for their cause. It was a spiritual as well as political struggle. With over 400 verses in scripture, emphasizing God’s love for the poor, and 70 more about his concern from justice, King’s throng was on solid theological ground.

Interesting also is that it is King, the minister–not the many others, including contemporaries, who dismissed his faith and advocacy of non-violence—whose legacy is one of permanent honor and enduring import.

The movie is a testament to the power of being on the right side of a justice issue, and the courage that can come from faith in a noble cause.

Dr. Claerbaut’s recent book is What is True? It is available on Kindle.

[63]  “City That Never Sleeps” (1953)

by David Claerbaut

City that Never Sleeps (1953) is classic film noir, opening with a foggy vision of the 1950’s Chicago skyline amid loud, ominous-sounding music. The presence of a narrator, a common ‘50’s device, gives the opening a ring of force and authority.

In the opening scene, Johnny Kelly–a Chicago policemen from a family lineage of cops—adorned in his gray topcoat and fedora hat–walks into a Chicago nightclub and quickly engages a less than empathic exotic dancer, Sally “Angel Face” Connors (Mala Powers), in a serious conversation about his difficulties in leaving his marriage for her. Connors oozes eroticism in body language and facial expression.

Hayes Stewart (played by William Talman, he of Hamilton Burger fame on Perry Mason) is set up as Kelly’s adversary. A pickpocket turned nightclub magician.

Strapped for cash, a condition his nagging mother-in-law never tires of reminding him of, Kelly edges toward corruption. His wife, knowing nothing of her husband’s tryst with Angel Face, is worried about her husband’s changing conduct.

A corrupt attorney, Penrod Biddel (Edward Arnold), wants Kelly to round Stewart up and get him into Indiana where he is wanted for manslaughter. Biddel can then bail him out and have him in his clutches. Offering $5K, the devious Biddel strongarms Kelly to do it that night. It is tempting, as the cash opens an exit door from his marriage and an entrance door to a new life with Angel Face.

Johnny accepts the deal, because he needs the money himself, but also because hw needs to help his errant brother, aptly named Stubby, who is vulnerable to Penrod. With his regular partner out for the night, a Sgt. Joe accompanies Kelly on his shift. It is quite a night. Kelly helps deliver a baby, arrests a gambling ringleader, and is able to return the money to the victims of the con. All the while, Joe is filling Johnny’s ears with moralisms that have Kelly reassessing his life’s direction.

The plot moves on to Stewart and Biddel, eventuating in Biddel and Johnny’s policeman father being fatally shot by Stewart, and the latter perishing due to a fall on the el tracks, as he attempts to escape from Kelly.

With that, Johnny “comes to himself,” in a Prodigal Son sort of way, and makes a sober return to an honorable life.

Film noir is mesmerizing. The productions are often low budget and employ less than famous thespians (at the time), focusing more on gripping morality tales. The gray overhang, striking music, and clipped dialogue all suggest an ominous backdrop. Moreover, the moral boundary lines are painted in black and white. In this case, even the name, Angel Face, clearly suggests a duplicitous femme fatale. The depravity of the soul is played out starkly as characters become involved in greed, infidelity, and even murder. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad and the protagonist is often in a conflicted straddling moral polarities.

The genre reflects a simpler time, when moral absolutes held sway and there was a cultural consensus on what constituted good and evil. There were no abortion or same-sex marriage debates. In another sense, the genre is quite contemporary, as it brilliantly depicts how sins of deed are mere harvests of sinful desires and motives, and that deeds of evil have consequences emotionally as well as legally.

Dr. Claerbaut is the Publisher of FaithandLearningForum.com.

[62]  Breaching or Preaching

by Mark Eckel

I could not believe the historical revisionism I was watching in Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990). Reading political correctness back into a narrative from 150 years ago, one would think the culture of one group was pure while another culture came from hell itself. All the way through the film there was a clear subversion of history.

Pulpits are for Sunday morning. People expect to hear preaching on Sunday morning. They do not need to see the first and hear the second when I go to the movie theatre.

The heist film, The Italian Job (F. Gary Gray, 2003), offers a case in point. The movie, as one would expect, is fun and exciting. But three quarters of the way through, the script set up a pulpit and called in the preacher. In an offhanded, out-of-the-blue comment, it was stated that Christopher Columbus “wiped out America’s indigenous population.”

Oh come on! Give me a break! Go read the primary sources!” one is tempted to shout.

Again, expect pulpits and preaching in the sanctuary. Expect screens and stories in the theatre. The two should remain separate.

Hollywood has its own preachers. Noah (Darren Aronofsky, 2014) is one such sermon.

When a purportedly biblical movie begins with a “rite” which depends on a luminous, coiled snake skin, the faith and learning Christian should immediately begin to recoil. For example, much of the content twists the essence of the biblical account beginning not in Genesis 6 but in Genesis 3. . . . Our response to everything should go back to identify (1) God’s original intention in Genesis 1-2 and (2) human’s original corruption in Genesis 3-4. When we compare every notion and idea with these foundation stones, we can then turn to The Cornerstone, who will apply Heaven’s escape, beginning in Genesis 3:15 “and He will crush [Satan’s] head” (Romans16:20).

The movie is long, laborious, convoluted, an amalgam of the Bible, Kabbala, and paganism. Ultimately ‘The Creator’s’ wish for justice was overcome by ‘man’s mercy.’” Here again, Aronofsky was preaching. Noah was his pulpit.

Christians must be aware of Hollywood preaching but revel in Hollywood storytelling. Stories are compelling. Characters, words, and situations burrow inside one’s brain. Preaching propositional truth engages the mind, storytelling truth “breaches” the person. “Breaching” means that truth has assaulted one’s insides, the Trojan horse within the gates of a person’s life. “Breaching” persuades without twisting the intellectual arm. “Breaching” wins over without selling a product. Preaching confronts. “Breaching” convinces.

Melissa Leo convinces the viewer to feel for her character in Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008).  It compels the viewer to think of others, to consider what she would do in the same situation. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) questions human motivation through “breaching.” It evokes questions: What happens if I take what I want? How will I react if everything falls apart in the end? Where will my actions influence others?

These questions breach the city gates of the spirit.

The Perks of Being a Wall Flower (Stephen Chbosky, 2012) “breaches” the question of what it means to love one’s homosexual neighbor. Schindler’s List (Stephen Spielberg, 1993) rightfully makes the engaged viewer recoil, reiterating the importance of “Never again.” Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008) explains that justice may be gained best through sacrifice. We Were Soldiers (Randall Wallace, 2002) takes the viewer to the battlefield, compelling gratitude, and honoring all soldiers who die for their country. Charlie Chaplain’s Modern Times(1936) lacerates the conscience when work devolves into using people as producers.

Films tell stories and good ones will “breach.” Worship services are centered around preaching. Truth can be delivered both ways yet the two ways should be kept separate.

Movies have a mission. When one breaches the inner person, she may enter either the choir loft or the confessional, when the lights come up.

Dr. Mark Eckel teaches his students at Capital Seminary & Graduate School.

 

[61] “Do You Believe?” (2015)

by David Claerbaut

If you haven’t seen Do You Believe? I want you to see it.

This is quite a film. It opens with a pastor confronting his congregation with James 2:17: In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Hence the question: Do you believe? Do you really believe? Will you put your faith into action?

The movie has a soap opera quality to it in a good sense. It is filled with parallel stories of people in crisis. Some are believers, others are not. Some of the people intersect with some frequency and others do not. The stories, however, have muscle, a compelling sense of reality about them. We have an elderly couple who has lost a child and another younger couple unable to conceive. There is a rescue worker sued for sharing his faith with a dying accident victim, a war veteran afflicted with PTSD, a young woman about to give birth to an out of wedlock child, and a mother and daughter homeless. There is more, but you get the drift by now.

The cinematography is first-rate, the special effects real. Accident scenes, storms, and urban culture are in-your-face.

The cast is stellar, including Cybill Shepherd, Lee Majors, Ted McGinley, Mira Sorvino, and Sean Astin, among others.

I was impressed. I admire Christians who go beyond the faith community to make their mark in the mainstream, and do so with quality and competence. It is in the mainstream that we reach people with our faith. This film accomplishes that.

In virtually every case, for those depicted as believers, their faith is challenged. Whether it is in dealing with loss, an unjust legal system, deep personal disappointment, or fearful situations, the person is faced with a choice: Will he or she live in faith or abandon that worldview for one tinged by cynicism.

Some of the endings are happy; others are not. The film, however, makes its point.   Faith must be real. It must be the invisible foundation for life’s actions. And it makes it in an attention-grabbing and attention-holding fashion for 115 powerful minutes.

See this movie. Our next real spiritual revival may well originate from the movie theater rather than the pulpit. Producers Harold Cronk, Michael Scott, David A. R. White, and Russell Wolfe have done an admirable job of putting the Christian faith in front of millions of moviegoers without compromising its message or the quality of the cinematic product.

Dr. Claerbaut is the Publisher of www.faithandlearningforum.com.

[60] “Cabaret” (1972)

by David Claerbaut

I decided recently to watch and review the now classic and celebrated film, Cabaret. Watching this now well over 40 film, was much easier than reviewing it.

The movie has all the elements of life with minimal hope and faith.

A quick recap: Sally Bowles (brilliantly played by Liza Minnelli) is an American-born singer and dancer who is performing at a seedy German club called the Kit Kat. She is sustained by the illusion of eventual fame and wealth but is bedeviled by a serious drinking problem and multioiple character defects.

Central to the film is growing presence and momentum-gaining force of the Nazis with WWII looming. Early on, Sally encounters a sexually confused Englishman, Brian Roberts (Michael York), at her residence. Roberts is working on his PhD and teach English, but is currently broke. Their interaction puts Sally’s personality on display, as she projects a loud, bigger than life demeanor, replete with an unhealthy (alcohol and cigarettes) lifestyle. We also learn that her father, a diplomat, has been absent for much of her life, leaving a residue of rejection in her psyche

The introverted Brian is drawn to the brassy Sally, and eventually the two begin an affair. Ever on the lookout for wealth, Sally encounters one, Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem), at a laundrette. Soon the two are off in his luxury car with Max buying Sally perfume and a fur coat. This is quickly followed with a three-way connection that includes Brian–Max also buying Brian gifts—and they all get together at Max’s castle. It is all first class, as Max, currently in an open marriage, indulges them in luxury and sex, bedding both Brian and Sally without either knowing of the other’s dalliance.

The film has a soap operatic quality as there is an additional unrelated side plot, underscoring the dangerous anti-Semitic atmosphere of the time. Brian encourages an acquaintance, Fritz to propose to the affluent and Jewish Natalia, the object of his affections. Despite fearing rejection because of his lowly financial status, Fitz proposes only to be rejected because Natalia is Jewish and amid a very hostile political climate. Fitz then admits that he also is Jewish and the two marry. Ah, back to Sally, and now the wages of sin. With Max out of the country on “business,” Sally is pregnant and unsure of paternity. She considers abortion, but Brian urges they marry, assuring happiness can result despite what will be less than a wealthy lifestyle for Sally. He is less than convincing and Sally agrees to take his offer under advisement, realizing that having a child will all but end Sally’s dream of fame and wealth.

When Brian notices that Sally no longer has the fur coat it becomes clear that she used it for an abortion. He now sees her as she really is and the relationship is over. The two part amicably at the train station as Brian leaves for England and the movie concludes with Sally belting out the title song, “Cabaret,” in an ever-more ominous atmosphere of Nazi presence.

For the faith and learning viewer there is almost too much here. There is so much worldly denial present—a constant indulging in pleasure and release all under a canopy of political, personal, and spiritual hopelessness. The Nazis are coming, yet the people try to ignore it. There is Sally’s pipe dream of wealth with no evidence that it will be forthcoming. There is the infatuation for Brian, one that is not based on who Sally really is. There is the mirage of Max, seemingly giving but actually taking.

Sally and Brian both love illusions. She wealth, he a false image of Sally. Max loves objects of pleasure, as do so many of the patrons of the dreary Kit Kat. The abortion element is a disturbing reminder of the egocentric part of human nature. Sally will sacrifice life for the illusion of a better material life.

Cabaret is a sharply realistic film that is played out in a gray, overcast context. War and death and destruction are just outside the physical gates of these people’s lives, yet already very much in their souls and psyches. Like so many millions before and after, however, they decide to look away rather than confront the spiritual and social consequences of their Christ-less life choices.

Dr. David Claerbaut is the Publisher of faithandlearningforum.com

[59] Justice in Film

by Mark Eckel

Every emotion as a man, a father, and grandfather welled up within me. This man had to die.

The Call, starring Halle Barry, helps the viewer feel the action. A young woman has been kidnapped, spending the first half the movie in the trunk of a car, the second half in an underground asylum. Barry’s character is the only person connected to her as a 911 dispatcher through her cell phone. A psychotic, multiple-murderer is about to kill his next victim. The Call takes us through the waves of emotion flowing through the screen. One wants to cry out for justice.

Liam Neeson helps the viewer feel the injustice he felt all the way through Taken. One can identify with his father’s psyche, the compulsion to find and stop his daughter’s kidnappers before she was sold into Middle Eastern slavery. Neeson’s character had been trained in the finer arts of anti-terrorism. I can only wish to be so virile, so well-equipped in physical recompense.[1] I know the character’s response and the movie’s situations were improbable. But exaggerated does not mean fictitious. Fictional stories on screen occur to some degree every day. The stunts are fantastic, the violent displays are frenetic, the action is frantic.

If a story does not help you feel, the story does not work. Hitchcock ties us to his Lifeboat. We agonize with each member of the group. But in the end we are left to answer “What would I have done?” Rear Window turns voyeurism into a cry for help. We find ourselves talking to the screen again: “Watch out!” “Don’t go!” “He sees you!” Cape Fear makes us dread doing the right thing because the right thing might come back to kill us through the wrong man. Night of the Hunter makes us never want to let our children out of the house or talk to strangers. Running Scared makes us endure the chase, the solution, seemingly just out of reach.

Justice films are needed because we do not see enough justice in this life. Studying the justice of God is illustrated in the opening scene of Boondock Saints. Two Irishmen are praying during a worship service. Their prayers follow the impreccation of Moses, “When I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand takes hold on judgment, I will take vengeance upon my enemies” (Deuteronomy 32:41).[1] They rise from their kneeling benches, walk to the chapel front, and pay homage to Jesus’ statue. As they turn to walk up the aisle toward the exit, the padre begins his homily. The priest recounts the story of Kitty Genovese, stabbed to death in broad daylight in 1960’s New York City. Many heard her cries for help, but no one came to save her. The Catholic priest brings his sermon to application as he states, “We must all fear evil men but there is another kind of evil which we must fear most and that is the indifference of good men.” Outside the cathedral one Irishman turns to the other declaring, “I do believe the Mon-senior finally’s got the point.”

We are made to desire justice because we bear the image of The One who is the Just Judge. However, we struggle to restrain ourselves from revenge while we enact movement toward justice (Proverbs 20:22; Isaiah 58-59; Romans 12:17-21; Hebrews 10:30). Herein is the conundrum of films like Punisher or Law Abiding Citizen.  We like to see recompense in movies–the innocent cry for justice–knowing that the ultimate recompense is yet to come (Revelation 22:10-13, 15):

Criminals brought to justice in The Dark Knight or Boy Wonder.

Vengeance becomes justiceBraveheart or The Brave One

Standing up for others: Tears in the Sun or Machine Gun Preacher

Damsel in distress: Transporter or Cellular

Women protecting children: The Missing or Winter’s Bone

Fathers exacting recompense: Death Sentence or Edge of Darkness

Self-protection from abusers: Enough or Sleeping with the Enemy

Save the neighborhood: Harry Brown or Gran Torino

Awakening one’s conscience to do the right thing: 16 Blocks or The Patriot

We are reticent to tell others we like “justice movies” because we live in an age of niceness. But the world is not nice. Evil exits. It would be nice to think everything can be solved by human love, mercy, kindness, and generosity.  Only Jesus can establish peace for humans after His ultimate recompense.  We should be honest with ourselves.  We like to see the bad guys “get it in the end.”  It is a human response to evil, because we bear the image of The One who is just.

NOTES

[1] Recompense in First Testament teaching often has to do with proportionate justice. If someone steals or injures, depending on the situation, restitution or replacement is to take place (Exodus 21-22; Leviticus 24:17-21; Luke 19:1-10). Governmental force has been given by God to stop evildoers in the famous Romans 13 passage. There are important prerogatives given by James Turner Johnson in his chapter “The Right to Use Armed Force,” in Just War: Authority, Tradition & Practice.  I am using the word “recompense” in the Hebraic ideal of proportionate justice, not taking justice into one’s own hand.  Again, my point is not to suggest Hollywood films are exact replicas of biblical teaching on justice: they often are not.  However, they bear resemblance–just as do love stories–to the essence of God’s nature imprinted in us.

[2] Imprecatory Psalms, such as 109 or 137, outline very human and very troubling responses to evil this side of heaven.  Here are my “dirty dozen” responses to believers’ cries for justice now:

1. As poetry, The Psalms express emotion in poetic fashion. Personification, hyperbole, etc. are normal but hyberbolic responses to actual desires is normal in ancient Near Eastern expression.

2. As reality, The Psalms are expressions of humans in crisis, responding to injustice, cruelty, oppression, slander, betrayal, conspiracy, personal distress, etc.

3. As anticipation, If there is no justice after life, there can be no justice in this life. Short-term versus long-term response to injustice.

4. As severity, The Psalms express feelings beyond what many Westerners would consider “normal” in the 21st c.

5. As misery, The Psalms are expressions of serious rage, anger, grief, and fury against evildoers.

6. As parity, The Psalms are expressions of fairness, impartiality, and even-handedness based on God’s righteousness.

7. As right, Indignation is a proper, personal response to injustice. The only possible redemption available is the pure, unadulterated innocence of Jesus’ sacrifice.

8. As loyalty, The Psalms are expressions of a theocratic commitment to the Suzerain-vassal treaty where the king protects his subjects. Prayers to “break the arms of the wicked” (Ps 10:15) or “smash the teeth” (58:6) or “turn your wrath upon” (69:22-28) would not be an expression of personal revenge but of Eternal retribution promised by the suzerain (e.g. Deuteronomy 32:35-36).

9. As guarantee, The Psalms promise and predict what He will do (1:4 and 35:5; 35:8 and 9:15; 35:26 and 6:10).

10. As control, Imprecatory Psalms actually restrain the believer from physical violence, leaving the response of injustice to God.

11. As finality, The Psalms are expressions of God’s promise that evil and evil doers would be defeated and overthrown.

If the Jews cursed more bitterly than the Pagans this was, I think, at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously. For if we look at their railings we find they are usually agree not because these things have been done to them but because these things are manifestly wrong, are hateful to God as well as to the victim. C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (1958): 30.

12. As jealousy, The Psalms express God’s zeal for His people and His righteousness.

Dr. Mark Eckel is a student of film.  You will find more of his work in the “Film” section under the “Humanities” tab.

 [58] “The High” (2015)

by Mark Eckel

From the opening frenetic pace to the closing credits, Barry Walton’s, The High, is a master work of film making.

How could anyone do what these runners have done?

Not only have the modern day adventurers traversed two, 18,000 foot peaks in one run but they do so through a place known to the locals as “the pass of dead bodies.

The Native-American military said it couldn’t be done. The indigenous population wondered at the attempt Westerners were making to run 140 miles at such heights in three days. Dozens who signed up for the traverse declined after more research. Only three hardy souls ran the race.

Only one finished.

And Walton captures it all.

Viewers’ interests are maintained by quick cuts from dialogue to action to background to interviews. The night shots are haunting.

And I have to say, as a viewer, the whole documentary made me a bit squeamish.

When one participant recounts his thoughts as, “This is where I was going to die,” we in the theatre seats are glad we are sitting in the theatre seats.

How can human beings endure such tremendous obstacles?

Barren landscapes. Altitude sickness. Death on the trail.

And why? Why would anyone want to take these chances? According to all the participants, there is something about the human spirit . . . a desire to test human possibilities . . . to become, as one journalist recounts, “something akin to a 21st century explorer.”

But what captured my attention the most was the 30 minute “making of” DVD.

It turns out that Walton is the real marathoner.

Yes, athletes must maintain their level of physical abilities. Yes, they must traverse a formidable, imposing, death-defying feat of physical exertion. But it was Walton who spent four years of his life dedicated to the task of capturing the physical feat that took 3 days.

The preparation, planning, shortfall, physical limitations, financial impediments, sleep deprivation, “climatization” was truly what Walton refers to in the film as an act of “faith.” He had been rethinking his values in life. In his own words Walton “was in a place of searching for the right way.”

But what we discover is that Walton is just some guy, as he says, “with a little camera.”

So let me repeat: Barry Walton is the marathoner.

I loved the documentary. It was fabulous. I will never look at ultra-marathons the same way again.

But, I was very impressed by Walton’s commitment to see the project through to the end. As he repeats in the “making of” DVD, “Greatness cannot be achieved without struggle.”

What was true for the one-of-a-kind-athletes is also true for the documentary’s creative genius: Barry Walton.

You can get more on this film at www.thehighdoc.com.

Dr. Eckel is one of our main movie reviewers.  There is more on his warpandwoof.org website.

[57] “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)

by Mark Eckel

Sometimes our choices are a reparation for the past.

It begins with a decision at a traffic light.

Truck horn blaring behind him, the light is green, his car blinker is set to turn left. In a sudden reversal,the dashboard arrow changes direction as does his life. Locke is a movie which will make everyone think twice before deciding which way to turn on the road of life.

Tom Hardy (“Bane” in The Dark Knight Rises) plays Ivan Locke, the only actor we see on screen. But there are two men present in the car. Locke makes a life-altering, job-abandoning, stability-destroying, marriage-ending moral choice, borne from how he was born. Locke has a running, one-sided tirade against his own father, absent but ever present. Locke is so injured, so embarrassed, so changed by his own bastard birth that he refuses to let it happen again. The decision many would make to cover up and cover over their own trespass is a decision Locke cannot make. Yet his choice on behalf of one, wrecks the lives of others. The choice is not made out of love or sentimentality. The choice is not made for greener pastures. The choice is not made out of spite, lust, or hatred. The choice is made as a reparation for the past.

Locke is a movie which turns upside-down the notion that our decisions in the present are always for a better future. The twisted threads of our own thinking are often woven on the loom of our past. Locke’s psychological pain has been written on his soul, now etched on the screen for us all to see. Locke is a “decent man,” “moral man,” “good man,” “the best man in England”—descriptors given by everyone who knows him. He has treated others well. But Locke’s even-keeled nature has been swept along by an unseen current.Locke turns the rudder of his ship into the storm of agony from the anguish which has carried him this far.

It is no surprise that Locke works in concrete, the most temperamental of all building materials; something so fluid soon becomes set in stone, immovable. Now others will need to chip away the footprints he leaves behind. “Concrete footprints” and other indelible metaphors are written for the screen by Steven Knight, leaving permanent marks on our thinking. Knight is known for a wide range of scripts including Closed Circuit, Redemption, Dirty Pretty Things, and, perhaps, most surprisingly, Amazing Grace. His characters are given depth not always present in thinly drawn Hollywood performances. Tom Hardy’s superb acting is set up by Steven Knight’s skillful writing.

Tom Hardy’s brilliant portrayal of moral conviction is unlike any other I have witnessed. Life choices and decisions of character will be viewed in a different light after seeing Locke. We movie watchers will observe nothing more than a man, a car, and a road. But we are made to see that turn signals don’t always tell us where we’re going, but where we’ve been.

Rated R for language.

Dr. Eckel teaches at Capital Seminary & Graduate School in Washington, DC.

[56] “Grand Canyon” (1991)

by Mark Eckel

Point of view: everyone has one.

“Every Christian needs to see this movie.” We had said the words at the same time, turning in our theatre seats to face each other as the credits for Grand Canyon rolled back in 1991. Robin and I had just witnessed what every human knows: we are small and know there is something out there bigger than ourselves.

Grand Canyon (Lawrence Kasdan, 1991) concerns what controls life. Mack, Kevin Kline’s character, has just left a Laker’s game. tries to take a short cut, gets lost, and his car breaks down in gang territory. He waits for the tow truck after a phone call. Thugs drive by, seeing him as an easy mark. About to be brutalized, he is physically saved by the tow-truck driver. Waiting for his car repair, he listens to Simon, the driver (Danny Glover), give his philosophy of life. The scene opens with Glover’s and Kline’s characters sitting on a curb, talking. The metaphor of “the big shark” is used to portray the boys who wanted to do Kline’s character harm. But Simon is careful to place life in perspective. His trip to the Grand Canyon reminded him how small “we people are.” Simon’s perspective in life has forever altered his view of life.

Movies do us the service of either confirming our beliefs or showing us a different point of view. Our problem, however, is that we tend to believe unconsciously. At times, movies form our thinking. We begin to adopt and then adapt to current cultural thinking, instead of beginning with a Christian premise. When we watch Grand Canyon or any other movie we are both bringing our point of view and witnessing a point of view. We follow a pattern of thinking.

We make assumptions every day. Our assumptions dictate our daily life. We live unconsciously or consciously, but our assumptions drive our living.

We may have different assumptions, but we all have a view of the world

Our point of view drives our understanding of everything. Our point of view is built on metaphysical questions everyone asks–answers for which everyone is searching.

Reality: “What is real?”

God: “What is God?”

Humanity: “Who are we?”

Purpose: “Why are we here?”

Knowledge: “How do we know anything?”

Ethics: “What is right or wrong?”

History: “What happened in the past?”

Afterlife: “What happens when we die?”

Movies mirror—sometimes even present–a point of view, a statement of belief. Grand Canyon is an important film of the 1990’s in its statement about what controls life. According to Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, luck and chance dictate everything. The universe is random. Humans have little control. This last statement allows us to discuss true Truth.

Movies like Grand Canyon bring a viewpoint to seminal questions. The faith and learning response to films like Grand Canyon is to evaluate that point of view from a biblical standpoint.

Dr. Eckel is one of main movie reviewers and his website, WarpandWoof.org is filled with thought-provoking content.

[55] “The Jersey Boys” (2014)

by David Claerbaut

This Clint Eastwood product has gotten, at best, mixed reviews.

Not from this writer.

I really liked this movie.  It has much more than the average behind-the-scenes story of celebrity success.  It is authentic, entertaining, rich in plot and character development—the latter being in short supply among celebrity films.  Coming from near tenement roots near Newark, New Jersey (has any city in the US been the residential roots of more famous people per capita than Newark?), four streetcorner wannabe doo wop singers scratch their way to the top, amid victimization, character defects, bad associations, and even death.

An attempt to go the Brill Building route, being discovered by the hit-making writers and producers at that famous NYC address, did not bring instant success.  Often mistaken for being black due to their sound, the group performed at local clubs hoping to catch on.  Eventually, however, the “Four Lovers” became the “Four Seasons” and connected with legendary songwriter/producer/promoter, Bob Crewe, portrayed pejoratively as slick, exploitive, and overwhelmingly gay.  Crewe did little in the early going to help the four singers, using them mainly as backup artists in studio sessions.

The group eventually recorded “Sherry” for Vee-Jay records.  Crewe loved the sound and arranged a deal between Vee-Jay and his production company.  The rest is Gold Record history.  The hits, as they say, kept on coming.  No surprise when one realizes the singular talents of lead singer Frankie Valli (Francesco Castelluccio) and fellow performer, Bob Gaudio, who wrote what seems like an endless string of hits.

As the group rockets its way to the top, enjoying the sexual and financial perks of celebrity, it gets deeply ensnarled with the mob, watches relationships crash, and family life disintegrate.  Eventually, the Seasons disband as the mafia-connected trouble-making Tommy DeVito leaves in disgrace and Nick Massi burns out from the drama.

While the Four Seasons were no longer, the best two “seasons,” Valli and Gaudio remained and the pair find their way back to the top.  Ultimately, the group reunites in 1990 as they are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The movie is very strong on authenticity.  The storyline is minimally embellished and the 50’s motif—from the housing to the Jersey diners–is very well captured.  Each of the four take turns doing narrations throughout the film, enabling the viewer to keep up with the story and the emotions underlying it.  This latter device is highly effective, given the multiple subplots and period piece nature of the film.

The acting is first rate and the music is dynamite.  The critics rapped John Lloyd Young’s depiction of Valli as—in a word—weak.  He is attacked as not bringing enough energy to the role.  Young’s performance is contained, but it needs to be.  Valli’s story is at the center of the film and his success is often presented in the context of personal pain.  That pain comes through convincingly, as do Valli’s personal values of loyalty and nurture.  A more hyper style would be at the cost of capturing the depth of his character.

Erich Bergen is convincing as Bob Gaudio and Vincent Piazza plays the “greaser” role of Tommy DeVito very well, while Michael Lomenda provides a gradient of common sense and sanity through the character of Nick Massi.  Christopher Walken grabs the viewer’s attention as the mafia don.

The language is excessively rough in spots, but for the faith and learning Christian, a morality tale lies just below the surface.  In the Paul Schrader tradition, evil is realistically presented, but not without showing the harvest it reaps.  The wages of sin become death–literally and figuratively–throughout the film and the viewer can see how one could well “gain the whole world” and lose one’s soul.

Dr. Claerbaut is the Founder of www.faithandlearningforum.com.

[54] The Projector’s Light Can Reflect Light from Heaven

by Mark Eckel

Hollywood Video had been my apologetic-evangelistic headquarters for years. Relationships developed there turned into friendships which turned into opportunities for the gospel.  Because of our common interest, my thoughts were always wrapped around and through film.  One manager had been “taught something about the rapture” when he was a kid and asked my point of view on the horror genre which made him uneasy about his future.  We talked for half an hour.  He listened attentively to my interconnection between Revelation and Hollywood.   I stood outside the store one afternoon as another manager smoked her lunch asking me questions about my beliefs.  When I told her that I saw my beliefs within the films she rented, her amazement was palpable.  “Why don’t you write reviews for the store?”

So I did.  In fact, for some time, they kept a folder on the counter labeled “Dr. Eckel’s Reviews” for people who had questions about various films.  None of my reviews contained John 3:16, but every one of my reviews encouraged people to look in a spiritual direction.

Casual conversations at the video store inevitably led to the question “Have you seen ___?”  Many of us reference movies, because the action on screen often replicates action on the street.  What we see in our own relationships, we see retold through actors.  Our hopes and dreams, our fantasies and realities, our non-fiction and science-fiction, our love stories, and justice tales all point back to thoughts, emotions, and actions we live every day.  Movies of all kinds depend on truth and sometimes teach truth, evidenced in a few one-sentence reviews.

Love Actually and About Time advise us love is not only possible but beneficial.

Snitch asks “What would you do to save your son?” 

Toy Story 3 tells young and old that friendship depends on commitment to people and place.

Gimme Shelter prompts us not to forget, not to ignore, not to neglect those who cannot help themselves. 

Thor, Avengers, and Superman superhero movies invigorate us toward good but still leave us thinking, “I need outside help.” 

The Family Man reminds us choices depend not on external attraction but internal change.

Fruitville Station shouts unconscious prejudice consciously kills.

Planes, Cars, or Monsters Inc. teach the same lessons at 5 or 55: living necessitates dreams, friends, and acceptance.

The Internship shows teamwork is imperative, pride comes before a fall, and asks “Can I accept how I was made?”

Insidious scares us, yet make us crave an understanding of the spirit world, knowing there is something else out there. 

Europa Reportengages our thrill of discovery and our horror of discovering something we did not want to find.

The Ultimate Giftcould lead us to The Ultimate Life causing our lives to be a gift to others.

The Butler or 12 Years a Slave shout that justice will never be out of date.

Tyler Perry’s Madea movies leave us in stitches while pointing out the frayed threads of life.

Captain Phillipsshow us the face of leadership staring in the face of uncertainty and death.

Enough Said asks, “Do we allow other peoples’ perspectives to become our own?”

Prisoners. Any father who loves his children will feel every anguished moment of this film. 

All is LostWe enter a life, near the end of a life, where life becomes more precious since life is all we have.

Thin Ice Comeuppance equals just desserts and the dessert is not always sweet.

One day when I entered the store with one-page review.  I asked the new worker behind the counter for the manager.  “She’s out.  Can I give her a message?”  Afraid that the piece of paper would be misplaced by someone I didn’t know, I offered to wait.  She asked with great hesitation, “Is that one of your reviews?”  I didn’t know her but she knew me.  “I sure would like to read it.  I promise to place it in the folder when I’m finished.”  She handled the review as if she had just received the Holy Grail.

My search is not for “the grail” but for true Truth.  Movies still move me.  I am not alone.  Movie makers take in hundreds of millions each year. Netflix, Redbox, and Amazon Prime are all indicative of the same idea: people love to watch movies at home.  Like most people I have my favorite movies, movie genres, and movie actors.  But when someone asks “Wanna’ see a movie?” my first response is “Sure!” because like many I like lots of different kinds of movies.

My prayer for you is that you find encouragement knowing that the ideas you see in film are rooted in The Ideal found in Heaven. I hope you find exhortation believing that movies drive us to “ought” and “should” because a Standard for Righteousness exists. And I hope you find satisfaction enjoying the Good in life because The Good God made all things.

Dr. Mark Eckel’s next book, When the Lights Go Down: Movie Review as Christian Practice, comes out the Fall of 2014.

[53]  “God’s Not Dead” (2014)

by Steve Launer

This film certainly fits into the faith and learning community. It is a Daniel-in-the-lion’s den tale with the lions taking the form of atheistic forces in secular academe.

A college freshman registers for his first semester classes and is questioned by the upperclassman entering the freshman’s information. The upperclassman notices the freshman’s cross necklace and Christian rock band T-shirt. He advises the younger student to make a change in his choice of Philosophy classes and instructor, as he will find it hostile to his faith. The freshman argues that if he makes any change it will disrupt his entire schedule, and keeps the class selection originally requested.

Day one of philosophy class begins with the instructor explaining the significance of a series of names of famous philosophers presented on a white board, along with the meanings of “atheist;” “anti-theist;” and “theist.” He tells the class since all of the cited philosophers profess atheism or ant-theism, the class can skip the portion of the course content devoted to the discussion of the existence of God. He passes out blank sheets of paper to the class and tells each to write three words on the paper: “God is dead.”  By complying almost 30% of the students’ grade will be a passing one. The intrepid freshman, however, refuses to comply with the instructor’s directive.

By not complying, the freshman is required to defend his theistic position.  What follows is a classic “Faith vs. Atheism” confrontation. The freshman has 3 class sessions in which to defend his position, that there IS a God, and convince the entire class of that assertion. The instructor acts as a prosecuting attorney to the freshman’s apologetic. I suspect this type of action—though less overt–is all too common in the secular university system.

Several underlying and intertwined story lines continue under the overarching theme of standing up for what one believes, among them is living the faith all the time, not just when in the secure company of those not hostile to the Gospel.

This is a genuine feel-good movie for the Christian audience and, albeit predictable, one with a powerful never-back-down message.

The final session of the philosophy class comes down to a scene reminiscent of the Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson confrontation in “A Few Good Men.” The freshman student presses the instructor as to whether he is simply angry at God, rather than truly dismissive of God’s existence. When the instructor breaks and admits that he is indeed mad at God, the freshman’s question seals the argument: How can you be mad at someone who doesn’t exist?  With that, the entire class chooses the student’s position.

As the story concludes, the instructor experiences a change of heart and goes in search of his former girlfriend who is attending a Christian music concert, only to be killed in a hit-and-run driver before reaching her.

Not surprisingly, this Christian film, directed by Harold Cronk, with a cast that includes Dean Cain and Kevin Sorbo, has been clobbered by the secular critics while heartily endorsed by a wide range of Catholic and Protestant Christian organizations.  It has done rather nicely at the box office.

In any case, this film is indeed in the wheelhouse of faith and learning thinking.  It reveals the anti-Christian bias in secular academe, but more important, unmasks what so often is at the bottom of the professing atheist’s thinking—a desire not to believe more than a genuine lack of belief.  Though some might find the ending a bit contrived, even that reminds the viewer of the uncertainty of life.

Above all, the film presents the viewer with an implied question: Would she risk persecution and possible loss of status to take the stand for Christ we are compelled to take?

Steve Launer is a Men’s Ministry Specialist from Las Vegas.

[52]  “Heaven is for Real” (2014)

by David Claerbaut

This is quite a movie and I hope it has some impact on our movie-viewing culture.  “Heaven is for Real” is based on the book of the same name.  It recounts the experience of Colton Burpo, who at four years old claimed to have experienced heaven while undergoing emergency surgery.

The story surrounds the skepticism of the youngster’s church members, a group for which his father, Todd (Greg Kinnear), is pastor.  What emerges is the question as to whether people really believe what they profess to believe: the existence of a Godly-ordained afterlife.  One member was disturbed by the pastor’s interest in Colton’s experience, feeling that heaven and hell are often metaphors used to control people.

Hence, much of the resides in Todd’s wrestling with whether his son’s heavenly experience was, in fact, real–and once that was established for him–his struggles with his wife (Kelly Reilly) and church in believing as well.

The issue is clinched for the Burpos when Colton mentions people and events of which he became aware (a miscarried sister and a great-grandfather who died 30 years previous) during his visit to heaven, things of which he would have had no prior knowledge.

The resistance to Rev. Burpo and the impact of his son’s experience were so great that the church leadership considered whether he should continue as pastor.  Eventually the matter gets huge media play and all the facts are presented at a heavily-attended church service.

The film starts very slowly.  It takes about 20 minutes and plenty of popcorn to endure the slow start.  Once the plot is set, however, things move along nicely.  The film is very effective in displaying the understandably cynical reception such a story would have, even in this Bible-respecting Nebraskan community.  Rev. Burpo also visits a professor at the University of Nebraska, to get an academic take on his son’s experience, one—not surprisingly—filled with polite skepticism.

The acting is very strong and the story comes off as genuine.  As one might expect, the critics are generally divided along the fault line of faith.  No surprise there.  For the faith-and-learning viewer, a possible criticism might be a sort of universalistic message—heaven is well presented, but there is really no suggestion of the existence of hell.  That critique, however, is a bit unfair as the youngster experienced only heaven, and Burpo’s church is very orthodox in its beliefs.  A larger point of consideration could well be why so many believers seem to live only in the context of this world, rather than with an eternal perspective.

Dr. Claerbaut is the Founder of www.faithandlearningforum.com.

[51]  “Draft Day” (2014)

by David Claerbaut

Money must be getting tight around the Costner household.  That can be the only reason he would accept this script for his thespian skills.  That Kevin Costner, who has created a quality niche for himself as the central figure in very realistic sports films, would appear in this silly attempt at a movie, is a head-scratcher.  Clearly, the film was trotted out on the eve of the National Football League draft in hopes that year-round football addicts would happily pony up their bucks to get a their fix via cinema.  And you would have to be an addict to appreciate this trash.

The story has Costner playing the beleaguered General Manager of the hapless Cleveland Browns football team. Costner, who got the job because of the lionized status of his late father, has to choose the perfect players to insure a winning season or he will lose his job.

Costner has his sights set on a defensive back as his first round choice, but there is a “star” quarterback available and his new coach, Denis Leary—completely unbelievable in the role– wants the QB. The team owner also wants the star quarterback, but Costner is the one making the decision. Also working in the front office is Costner’s pregnant girlfriend, Jennifer Garner, who next to the aging stud, Costner, might be better cast as his daughter.  Garner is in charge of contracts and finances regarding salary caps, presumably when she isn’t warming the sheets with Costner.  Mercifully, we are spared any May-December sex scenes.

From there the movie becomes wholly unreal.  Costner barters away three years of #1 draft choices to garner the QB.  But wait?  We are not done.  Costner then pulls the shocker.  He selects the defensive back, the player he could have had without trading anyone. But there’s still more.  The wizardly GM deftly maneuvers his way through a maze of clever phone negotiations with other GMs, only to come out better than had he not made the preposterous trade.

Now everyone is happy.  The Cleveland owner, his head coach, and I suppose his girlfriend, although no nuptials are in sight.

This film is a zero for the faith and learning community.  In fact, it is a zero for anyone.   You might want to put that empty popcorn bag over your head as you leave the theater, so that those at the ticket counter will not know you were suckered into paying to see this turkey.

Dr. Claerbaut is the Founder of www.faithandlearningforum.com.

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