Film Review “Whiplash”

blog whiplashWith the name “Whiplash” and the subject matter built around jazz music, particularly drums, one would expect a film that explodes from the screen and provides a beat that cannot be missed. That is just what one gets in this double time swing film, from the downbeat opening scene, to the kick drum finish. As I thought to myself, and heard from another viewer, who knew jazz drumming was so intense? Of course the answer is anyone who has ever picked up the sticks. So, in addition to being thoroughly entertaining and presenting questions as to when pushing a student or oneself crosses over into punishing, “Whiplash” pulls back the curtain into one of the most important and demanding positions in jazz music, sitting behind the kit. In doing all of this, “Whiplash” is also one of the best films of 2014.

“Whiplash” is a film for anyone who loves music, especially jazz of which there is an abundance. It is also a film for anyone who likes masterful whiplash 3 J.K. Simmons, as instructor and ensemble leader Terence Fletcher, offers one of the best acting performances of this or any other year, for which he has received Screen Actor’s Guild and Golden Globe Supporting Actor nominations. Much like Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lector, Simmons’s Terence Fletcher not only commands the screen when he is on it, his character fills the theater when he is not. This performance is as far away as one can imagine from his droopy-eyed and lovingly understanding father in “Juno.” Miles Teller also gives a compelling performance as a resiliant young drummer determined to achieve his lofty goals. Most importantly, “Whiplash” is a film for anyone who has considered for whom they strive to live for or please in life.

“Whiplash” is the story of Andrew Neiman a first year music student attending The Shaffer Music Conservatory the most prestigious music school in the nation. As with many, if not most jazz drummers Andrew hopes to join the pantheon of drumming greats such as drumming icon Buddy Rich. Success at Shaffer is the first and perhaps most important step in his journey, and success at Shaffer means joining the prime jazz ensemble. whiplash blog 2 Joining the top group means catching the eye and ear of the conservatory’s notoriously demanding ensemble leader Terence Fletcher. Andrew soon learns that catching the ear and winning approval from Fletcher is easier than keeping them as the driven instructor will stop at nothing, including intimidation, humiliation, manipulation, verbal and even physical abuse to get the best out of his students.

During the film the audience discovers that Andrew’s motivations to succeed are rooted in his childhood where his talent and desire to be a professional jazz drummer and musician are dismissed in favor of the lesser, division III athletic talents of his cousins who serve more as siblings in the close knit family. Andrew also desires professional greatness that his widowed father, an aspiring author who is forced to teach rather than live off his writing, never achieves. blog whiplash 4 As Andrew responds to the demands required to stay the primary drummer in the number one ensemble, he becomes more focused on practicing, improving, and pleasing Terence Fletcher to the point that he breaks up with his girlfriend, distances himself from his father and other friends. In Andrew’s mind he decides to dedicate his life to his music and career. In reality he gives his life to his teacher, and it seems never to be enough for his leader who makes Vince Lombardi look retiring.

After a climatic event in the final third of the film, Andrew and Terence meet in a jazz bar where Terence explains his techniques and motives. Earlier in the film Fletcher had told Andrew the story of band leader Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at the head of jazz legend Charlie Parker following a less than stellar solo. According to Fletcher it was the seminal moment that led to Parker becoming one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. It is also the event from which the instructor takes license for his teaching techniques. In the jazz bar, Fletcher further explains that too many people settle for mediocrity rather than strive and sacrifice for greatness. Borrowing from another music oriented film, one could say Fletcher believes that too many are satisfied to be Salieri rather than pushing to be Mozart.

Fletcher imparts to Andrew and the audience his belief that the worst two words in the English language are “good enough.” The more talent and potential a musician had, the more Fletcher believed it was his duty to push, manipulate, and even abuse into greatness. The ending of the film leaves it up to the audience to decide if Andrew succeeds or fails and if successful, whether it was worth the price he paid. It is also left up to the audience to decide whether Fletcher pushes or punishes and whether he does it to find the next Charlie Parker for altruistic, for the love of the student or jazz, or selfish, ego driven whiplash2

After his father inquires about his motivations for putting up with the torment of Terence Fletcher, Andrew states that he is is determined to please or prove himself to his teacher, because doing so could help him achieve his personal goals and ultimately please himself. Christians must also decide for whom one lives and seeks to satisfy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously described discipleship as “dying to oneself” so one could then live for God. For the disciple, part of dying to oneself is caring more for pleasing and honoring God than pleasing or honoring anyone else, including oneself.

Jesus teaches in Matthew 25 and Luke 19 the importance of applying oneself to the best of one’s ability. God gives abilities and it honors God when such talent is developed and applied. God does not expect more than one can deliver, but God expects one to seek out to be the best one can be. Disciples are to devote their lives to serving God by developing and using the gifts and grace God has given them, and then be content with a life lived pleasing God rather than others including oneself. Contentment, while not often seen by Western societies as virtuous is portrayed in scripture as a fruit of discipleship. Philippians, I Timothy, and Hebrews teach of the importance of being content with one’s circumstances and life, something possible if one is living for God.

“Whiplash” is rated R for intensity and very strong, abusive language.

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Film Review “The Theory Of Everything”

thoryThe jigsaw puzzle piece is a fitting symbol for marriage, with each person being a different shape as determined by their interests, talents, beliefs and personalities. When two people with complementary shapes find one another, they are best able to connect together. These connections help the couples hold together as they journey through life. “The Theory of Everything” is a film about connection, the connections of love, loyalty and determination.
Based on Jane Hawking’s memoir, Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen Hawking, “The Theory of Everything” depicts the life and love story of Jane and Stephen Hawking.

theory 2Beginning in 1963 while both were pursuing Ph.Ds. the calm, cool, beautiful, devout Christian Jane met the awkward, eccentric, brilliant and avowed atheist Stephen Hawking, and despite the efforts of others, became enamored and soon fell in love with one another. Just as their love was blooming, Stephen received the devastating news that the increasingly persistent neurological issues he had been hiding were the result of ALS and he was given a life expectancy of two years of complete physical decline. Despite his best efforts to isolate himself from those near him, Jane overpowered his fear and ignored the advice of others by refusing to fade away from his life. The two married and set about what they thought would be a short, challenging life together where every day was to be cherished and each new obstacle met with determined love and creativity.

theory 3Beset with physical challenges and routines that no one who has not been exposed to such a condition can hope to imagine, the two found a way to live, have and raise three children, and support Stephen’s groundbreaking physics research into the nature of time. As the two years that they thought they might have stretched into five, then ten, then fifteen, the challenges and pressures of increasing responsibilities as parents, partners, and Stephen’s growing fame, combined with his relentless physical decline, compound through the years, straining and wearing the jigsaw connection of their marriage.

Eddie Redmayne gives and extraordinarily nuanced performance as he depicts Hawking’s gradual decline from an active 21 year old graduate student into a man in his 50s who is unable to speak and only able to move his finger and eyebrows. Redmayne’s ability to convey humor and other emotions from the twitch of his eyebrows mirrors those of Hawking whom he met him in preparing for the role. Felicity Jones also offers a subtly strong performance as she conveys the compounding effect of the growing pressure and demands required of Jane as she serves as the sole caregiver to her declining husband and mother to her three normally rambunctious children. James Marsh’s direction is light and restrained, allowing the story to evolve through the character’s performances and the use of home-movie style flash forwards in time. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay paces the story effectively with humor and tenderness as the weight of Hawking’s disability increasingly applies pressure to the characters, story, and viewers.

In the fifth chapter of his letter to the Christians in Rome, the Apostle Paul speaks to the nature of suffering for the sake of Christ and his ministry, teaching that suffering produces endurance, which in turn produces character that yields hope which does not disappoint. Hebrews 12 also addresses the need for perseverance in running the race of life in faith. “The Theory of Everything” shows the unimaginable levels that can be achieved through faith and perseverance. While Stephen had great faith in his intellect, Jane had faith in the power and faithfulness of God to give her strength to endure and overcome. With Stephen willing to try, and Jane willing to support sacrificially, and both willing to risk, they were able to achieve success beyond anyone’s imagination. Yet, overcoming tremendous obstacles rarely occurs in a vacuum, and if that is the sole focus of an individual or a family system, the costs are paid elsewhere.

When living in such challenging circumstances, the temptation is often to focus solely on the special ability or need of oneself or one in the family system while allowing other individuals or relationships to bear the brunt of the burden. theory 5 In family systems this usually yields an identified individual, patient, who acts out against the pressure placed upon them as resources and attention are focused elsewhere, or relationships drift apart as the individuals are worn down from the demands and pressures that are not addressed and relieved through respite and care of oneself. While the film calls everyone to risk and persevere through all challenges so as to live up to one’s potential and calling, care must be given along the way. Neither Paul, nor Jesus were able to persevere on their own as both saw to their needs by seeking and finding renewal and strength through prayer and time with God. When one, even with strong faith, goes it alone, the great likelihood is that they will break and or change significantly.

In addition to being a parable of scriptural teaching, the film speaks directly to the issue of faith. From the beginning, Hawking makes an issue out of Jane’s faith in God and his faith in science, or more specifically, his faith in his theory of the universe being explainable in one ultimate equation. Persons of faith will probably find themselves debating Hawking’s notions and statements to Jane about her faith. Mine for instance were where in his equation or theory would he place love, the sacrificial love of Jane that drives her determination to care and support him through his challenges which allowed him to make his discoveries? Where in his equation is courage? Though initially lacking in Stephen, Jane demonstrated courage that empowered her to enter into a relationship she knew would be unimaginably difficult and, she thought, end shortly in his death? Lastly, why was his notion, that one equation could explain everything in the universe, and that such be worked out by a human, more explainable than the belief in a creator who created all there is in the universe?

Persons whose faith, like Hawkings, is strictly in science would doubtlessly be asking similar questions to the faith claims by Jane. In the film, there is no question about living by and through faith, the question is what does one have faith in?

Some have criticized the film because of the lack of attention to the scientific component. While the science is addressed from a distance and in general terms, this is not a film about science nor is it a film about Stephen Hawking. It is a film about the relationship between Jane and Stephen. As such it is a film about love, determination, faith, loyalty and their power to overcome tremendous adversity. It is also a warning to combine such with humility and attend to self-awareness and self-care.

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“Lifehood:’56-Up’ and the ‘Up’ Series”

56 upRichard Linklater has received deserved accolades as the writer and director for “Boyhood,” a film 12 years in the making that chronicled the life of a family. Filming 3 to 5 days every year for 12 years, the characters change in real-time as the story develops through screen-time. In addition to the characters showing their ages, the story was sculpted effectively to include changes in the world and society during the time of filming. I highly recommended the film if you have yet to see it.

While not a narrative feature, the “Up” series of films offers a similar insight into the lives of its cast as they progress through childhood, youth, young adult, middle age, and are now looking toward retirement. “56 Up” is a 2012 film 49 years in the making. Combining interviews from each of the 8 films in the series, “56 Up” offers both “street level” and “10,000 foot” views of the lives of the series’ participants. “Seven UP” was a British documentary shown on ITV in 1964. Based on the Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” the film follows a group of 14 children from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. The hypothesis of the 1964 film was that a child’s future was generally predetermined by the social class they were born into. Every seven years since, there has been an update showing the original children as they have grown into youth and adulthood.

56 up1 Michael Apted, a researcher for the original show in 1964 and director for each of the subsequent 7 episodes, effectively moves in and out of the current and previous interviews of each character to show how the individuals have changed and grown through their lives. Using the abundance of previous interviews, Apted allows the characters the opportunity to do what many or most folks have wished for at some time, their older selves being able to speak with their younger selves, and visa-versa. Through pinpoint editing, the characters often seem like they are conversing with each other through time.

The series has not been without critics, the most critical being the participants themselves. Most or all speak about their hesitancy to continue, and some have skipped one or more of the films in the series. Similar to Linklater, Apted filmed each subject for about a week every seven years. The characters are critical in saying that seven years of living cannot be truly captured in seven days of filming. One subject made the astute connection that the film does not effectively show him as an individual, but does present a life lived out.

Another question is what, if any, effect the film had on the lives and decisions of the subjects. Would they have made the same decisions if their decisions and actions in life were not going to be documented? While this question occurred to me and some others who have seen the series, given that the subjects lived less than perfect lives, it seems unlikely.

The hypothesis of the project, that the position into which persons are born into determines generally where and how they live their lives, is for the most part confirmed as most of the participants stayed within the broad social settings of their birth. The major exception being Nick Hitchon who was raised on a farm, educated in a one room school yet eventually studied nuclear physics at Oxford and became a university professor in the United States. What is not born out from the hypothesis is a difference societal placement has on one’s happiness and contentment in life. After watching “56 Up” the feeling is that each participant lived their lives well within the duality that is one’s life, the life given through circumstance and the life shaped though choice. While looking at the “street view” provided in specific episodes, viewers see mistakes and misfortunes, yet looking at the “10,000 foot view” offered through the this latest film, viewers see individuals who are content with their current situation and life arc.

Watching many films of the series and especially “56 Up”, I was reminded of Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount against worrying, “Do not worry about life…” not fearing the future, but living in the present. Even in the midst of the difficult times through which the participants journeyed, they have come through those times and lived their life well.56 up2 This teaching is exemplified most through Neil Hughes who perhaps has had the most difficulties in life, going through times of homelessness and struggling with mental illness all of which were documented and discussed in the series. Eventually, Neil found an unconventional niche in life through local politics and by faithfully serving as a Lay servant in the Church of England.

“56 Up” is a living example of scriptural teaching on peace and contentment that speaks to those who too often are weighed down by the worries and concerns brought forth by life’s challenges. The lives of the participants echo the words of the psalmist, “Be still and know that I am God,” Psalm 46:10. They also show the truth of scripture such as Hebrews 13:5, “keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, I will never leave your or forsake you.” For most people, as with each of the subjects, the dreams of childhood rarely come true, but, if one lives at peace in the moment rather than vainly in the past or solely for the future, one’s life can be a life of contentment, and happiness.

“56 Up” and all of the films in the “Up” series are available on Netflix and DVD.

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In Case You Missed It Film Review Series: “War Photographer”

Originally posted on "Scattershooting":

With the recent murder of foreign correspondent James Foley we are reminded the danger war correspondents accept in their determination to report on wars and conflicts and in so doing share the suffering these bring to so many. I have reposted a review of a film that captures the heart of those who risk their lives to tell these important stories.

Watch “war photographer” here

“war photograper” is a powerful 2001film that takes viewers on a journey into the belly of hate and cruelty that are war and extreme poverty zones. James Nachtwey is perhaps the most influential war photographer of his generation. With a 25 plus year career documenting the effects of conflicts throughout the world, Nachtwey is the Lou Gehrig of war photographers, the “iron horse” in a profession known for high burnout and casualty rates. From Palestine to Kosovo, to Indonesia to Ground Zero, James Nachtwey has…

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Of Voice and Verse

Although the genesis and perhaps lion’s share of credit for the power in this inspiring scene from “Dead Poets Society” belongs with screenwriter Tom Schulman, it is the understated yet determined passion in Robin Williams’s delivery that carries the power and meaning of the words through the mind and plants it in the heart and spirit of the viewer. In this scene, if even for a moment, the window of wonder of many closed minds was opened to the intangible universe that is art, poetry, and thinking.

In my studies and life experiences I believe they could easily change the subject from poetry, to theology, literature, history, politics, sociology or any other thought and reflection based discipline. The fact that persons such as J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. could dare to propose a standardized assessment of poetry or determine the worth of a poem is, as completely demonstrated by Williams’s Mr. Keating, beyond imagination. Such an attempt to standardize something as immeasurable as poetry is a veiled attempt to control perception and thereby limit thought. The veil of such measure is removed later in the film when the school’s headmaster tells the young impassioned teacher to constrain free thinking on the part of the students, for to do otherwise is dangerous.

Unfortunately, some sixty years from the film’s setting, we seem to be pasting Mr. Prichard’s introduction back into the text that is society. There is a reemergence of fear, fear of allowing people the freedom to think and make decisions which is fostering a growing command of conformity in how to think, live and be. More and more in groups and greater segments of society, there is one way to believe if one is faithful, one way to vote if one is patriotic, and one group to associate with if one is loyal to one’s faith, country, state or civic group. Increasingly if one thinks outside social lines, thinks beyond the accepted standards of what is determined to be correct, then one is wrong and, at best, tagged as suspicious or, at worst, banished from the community or group.

One need look no further than Christ to see the that model of faith, discipleship and spiritual leadership is diversity and freedom to think and apply faithful discernment. Among the Apostles were a zealot, a tax collector, and others that would likely be considered mainstream or regular Joe fishermen. The last Apostle called by Christ after his crucifixion was even a fanatic Pharisee. Each of the Apostles, sent to be and build the body of Christ, had unique perspectives and manners of living faithfully as a disciple. As a United Methodist I need look no further than John Wesley who taught and preached that one is to read and study scripture, pray, and think for one’s self in gathering discernment as one journeys the sanctification path toward perfection.

Certainly in the midst of diverse and independent thinking there will be ideas and beliefs that are incorrect or unwarranted by scripture and social mores. Not every idea, thought or practice is correct or appropriate. Such missteps are where the community comes in to offer guidance in correcting false or incorrect assumptions or acumen. Rather than limiting thoughtful exploration of ideas and beliefs, the community is to offer correction through loving teaching and example when errors of perception and discernment are made.

Increasingly, communities, churches, denominations, political or social groups follow the opposite order and limit thought and expression first. Labeling and banishment of those who think outside guidelines has replaced loving correction of incorrect thought and actions, and increased mistrust of, and skepticism toward, the idea of community. While such a reversed order is more streamlined and safer because it carries fewer unknowns, it also is more constraining, less relational, and as such less loving; and is a tide that carries away passion and life. As Keating teaches “words and ideas can change the world,” but such ideas as Whitmann writes grow from the voices and verses we each add to the “powerful play” that is life and community. Without the freedom to think and act; without the freedom to receive loving praise, or when necessary gracious correction, passion dies in the lifeless, blank stare inducing recitation of what is deemed correct or great.

So to those who seek to limit freedom to think and explore by mandating conformity, I say “Be gone J. Evans Pritchard!”

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Film Reveiw: “CALVARY”

Film Reveiw: "CALVARY".

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Film Reveiw: “CALVARY”

calvary picAny film entitled “CALVARY” whose subject is the travails of a good man trying to be a good priest by ministering to challenging people in a difficult time will carry the weight of significant expectations. In discussing the title, writer / director John Michael McDonagh speaks to the dual meaning of the word, that Calvary is both the place where Christ was crucified as well as a burden one must bear or a difficult time one must endure. “CALVARY” carries such weight and shares the burden of both meanings with the audience. With a cast of small town, quirky Irish characters and exceptionally witty dialogue there is a significant comedic component to the film, but it is by no means a comedy or even a dark comedy.

“Calvary” is a heavy film that examines life, faith, discipleship, community and the Church in a compelling, thought provoking way. The film pulls the viewer in and shares the weight in the first seconds of the pre-credits opening scene when a Roman Catholic priest, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), calvary pic 2discovers during confession that one of his flock was sexually abused for 5 years by a now diseased priest, and that person will exact revenge by murdering Father James in one week. The voice states that he is killing Father James, not because he is a bad priest but because he is a good priest, and his death will make bigger news.

Growing up as a PK, I shared with my minister father my method of rating sermons was how long one remembered them. Hopefully they were at least parking lot sermons, and preferably lunch or even dinner sermons, meaning one at least got out of the Church or to lunch before they faded from thought. Especially good sermons were overnighters where one thought about them that night or even longer. Because of the weighty subject, hauntingly beautiful photography, a supremely textured script, and impeccable acting performances, “Calvary” is not only an overnighter, but an all-nighter.

The first of the major themes is the state of the Church. Set in Ireland amidst the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church there, the film projects the impact of the scandal. The Church is seen by many there as feckless at best, and at worst a hypocritical, greedy institution whose sole concern is for increasing its wealth, status, and control of others. This range of attitudes is reflected in the various persons of the small town where the film is set.

Aiden Gillen as acerbic atheist Dr. Frank Harte

Aiden Gillen as acerbic atheist Dr. Frank Harte

The town’s people unload their feelings that range from cautious skepticism, to mildly veiled hostility. All the characters are shown receiving the Eucharist at the beginning of the film, however this scene is used more to introduce the characters rather than indicate a level of faith or religiosity. The true feelings of the people towards the institution and perhaps God are displayed in their treatment of the Father James which range from cynical sparring to the ultimate threat of physical harm depicted in the opening scene.

While “CALVARY” is located in Ireland during the post-sexual abuse scandal of the Roman Catholic Church, it does not have an anti-Catholic feel, and does have a word to say to the greater Church. Even for the protestant church in another country, “CALVARY” is a canary in the coalmine, a harbinger of the impact of becoming irrelevant. Whether disconnect comes as the result of scandal, schism, in-fighting or any other sense of detachment, the people whom the church serves will reject and turn against the mission of the Church when there is a perceived countenance of hypocrisy, when the walk of the church is misaligned with its Word.

Father James, and through him the audience, realizes in his Gethsemane moment, when he must decide to flee or face the danger, that the worst thing is not the antagonism of those hurt by the failure of a person or the institution; rather it is the complete loss of an awareness of what is right and proper, holy and unholy. It is worse when someone is “un-respectful” or unaware than those who are purposely disrespectful and combative. If the church surrenders its place and mission, antagonism and hostility toward it will cease but the individuals and society will be much worse off.

Though not a lawyer in the 1930’s American South, Father James walks in the same shoes as Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” James is caught in the middle of upholding what is right against the onslaught of a community who rejects righteousness and rejects him for striving for righteousness, which holds them accountable for their failure. He also refuses to compromise to those who would buy out his integrity, and their guilt, through significant financial gifts.

Like Atticus, James sees not just the actions of his antagonists, but the humanity behind their pain fueled actions. Even though they belittle, oppose, and threaten him, he knows they need him and the ministry Christ called him to offer. It is this nature of ordained ministry that is a second major theme.

calvary pic 6Writer/director John Michael McDonagh captures the prophetic weight of ordained ministry. Journeying with people during their difficult times, opening oneself to experience suffering through the travails of others is sharing the weight of their brokenness and that of the world. Most clergy know this is part of accepting the call to ordained ministry. When, in addition, one must share the added weight of anger, fear, resentment of the people projected on the Church or God, and perhaps the failure of the institutional church to provide support, the weight becomes cavalry, a burden that when not processed grinds and wears the bearer down.

Given the title and subject it is obvious that Fr. James is a figure of Christ, and as the film is set from one Sunday through the next, James’s experiences will reflect some of the experiences of Jesus during his last week. Gleeson’s masterfully nuanced performance reflects the growing weight and burden Father James takes on as he carries the cross through the course of the film, his holy week.

Director / Writer John Michael McDonagh

Director / Writer John Michael McDonagh

“CALVARY” is a very good film. It is a film that captures the realities of a world that is fallen and rejects the very faith it needs and it shows the challenges of faithfully ministering to those burdened by the brokenness of sin.

“Calvary” is rated “R” for adult language and content and one instance of graphic violence.

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