“Inside Out” is All In

inside-out-pixar-one-sheetPixar Studio’s latest feature, Inside Out is a blast from the Studio’s celebrated past. For many years Pixar and I had a ritual, where in late winter I would start counting down the days to the traditional early summer release of that year’s film. Often during this period I would be questioning whether “they” had pushed the subject matter envelope too far. Is a film with a name they have to tell you how to pronounce and a story of a rat who wants to be a chef really going to work? Likewise, is a film about the world’s last functioning garbage robot, a film that is also virtually silent really going to be worthy of time and attention? And, will an odd-couple film about an old man and young boy who travel by a floating house really be worthy of an adventure to theater? After seeing each of these films, Ratatouille, Wall-e and Up I chastised myself doubting the company that had never disappointed.

Prior to the release of Cars 2 I suspended such questioning and for the first time was disappointed. Likewise Brave was, in my mind, ordinary at best. In the rollout of the Inside Out, I again had serious doubts as to whether this film would be meh or memorable?

Thankfully Inside Out has that old Pixar magic. I was fortunate enough to see it as it premiered at The Cannes Film Festival where the viewers are notorious for demonstrably expressing their negative opinions and reactions, often during the film. Inside Out was among the most well received films during the festival, and deservedly so.

While Pixar has always produced visually stunning films, what made their films truly special was that the stories spoke to both children and adults. Inside Out succeeds in this difficult challenge. Inside Out reflects what every child has experienced, emotional responses to the positive and negative experiences of life. Likewise, time and again, every parent has wondered, usually during an emotional explosion, what was going on in their child’s mind. Inside Out goes where few dare tread, the emotions of a child as she grows and works through the biggest of childhood challenges, moving from a happy home town to a vastly new and different place.

Inside Out EmotionsIn making the film, writer, director Pete Docter set out to examine human emotions. He does so by depicting five emotions as characters. Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, and Phillis Smith star as Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness who live and work in “Headquarters,” the mind of a girl named Riley, where they are responsible for keeping her functioning as she grows from an infant through adolescence. Thankfully, Joy is the primary emotion and is generally in control of Headquarters and Riley’s responses to life. As Riley grows, Joy’s main job becomes keeping Sadness from doing much of anything as everything she touches turns blue, literally and figuratively. While all the emotions have their turn at literally pressing Riley’s buttons, it is Sadness who Joy, and the others have to watch out for as her’s has the most impactful, long lasting touch.

The film moves quickly though Riley’s childhood showing her responses, and those of her parents as she grows from a newborn into a preteen. In addition to guiding her through incidents and everyday life, the emotions also play an important role in keeping her memories that will establish and maintain her core values, those elements that will shape and guide her the rest of her life.

Everything is going swimmingly in Riley’s life, and for the film’s characters as Riley is smart, friendly, and a successful hockey player. All of that changes when the family moves from idyllic Minnesota to San Francisco as her father chases his dream of leading a silicon startup company. As with most teens forced to move from a happy situation, nothing about the new city measures up. The new house, new friends, and even new family time and activities pale in comparison to “home.” It seems as if Riley’s personality, happiness, and even her hockey skills were left behind and replaced by awkwardness, uncertainty, isolation, and failure.

inside outFor the first time Joy and the other emotions seem helpless to control the situation and keep Riley, Riley. The once happily contented child is changing before her parent’s, and the emotions’ eyes. What once were her bedrock memories and foundational parts of her identity literally begin to crumble.

The second half of the film depicts Joy’s and Sadness’s struggle to get back into “Headquarters” after they are accidently moved to another part of Riley’s mind, all while Riley’s world seems to be falling apart. It is in this struggle that Joy, the other emotions, and the audience learn the important fact that all of one’s emotions have a purpose and are important.

While people would rather be joyful all the time, since there is no such thing as a perfect world, such is not possible. Yet, for many, it is hard to accept this reality as well as the consequence, that one cannot always be in a state of joy or happiness. As with disobedient children, and adults, where the cover up is often worse than the offense, the attempt to live in and or project to others, joy and happiness while in the midst of difficulty or despair, is often worse than the precipitating events of life’s challenges.

Too often individuals and families, fueled by societal expectations, seek to put on a good face regardless of the difficulties and challenges in life. To show sadness, anger, or fear is considered by many a weakness, or a burden to others, and is too often a societal “no-no.” Such airs also have negative consequences for individuals and families.

Denying and struggling against the times that are other than joyous adds pressure to one’s life and can foster a cycle that results in increased unhappiness which then leads to greater pressure to remain or at least project joy or happiness that then yields even greater dissatisfaction and more pressure. Such denial of events and resulting emotions are also a fearful and non-faithful response to life’s trials and difficulty.

The Book of Ecclesiastes famously reminds readers that there are different seasons in life. There are times to sing, and dance and there are times to cry and mourn. There is a time to live and there is a time to die. Christ echoed this reality when he taught that there will be times when the sun shines and times when rain falls, and there will be times when the righteous will suffer and the unrighteous flourish. Even when living faithful, discipled lives, there are times one spends in the garden, on the cross, in the tomb, and a time for resurrection. Each of these times or seasons yields emotions that are important in living in and through the seasons.

The life example of Jesus shows a variety of emotions as he lives and ministers in the midst of different seasons. In reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s ministry, one senses Jesus experiencing joy in the midst of serving and ministering to the lost and forgotten people who had been pushed to the margins of society. Jesus demonstrated anger toward leaders who abused the privileged of their position and allowed profiteering in the Temple. Jesus was fearful in the garden and saddened when in the presence of Lazarus’s mourners. Christ did not avoid living in, and showing, his emotions in the midst of life and circumstances as he knew God was eternally present and faithful.

inside out 3Inside Out teaches children of all ages, including parents, that all of our emotions are important and have a place and function in living lives of meaning and fulfillment. In addition to teaching generally about the presence and purpose of emotions, Inside Out could be of useful tool in teaching children with autism or other developmentally delayed conditions that have difficulty recognizing and understanding the nuances of emotions in themselves and others. It is important for all to understand that emotions are a part of us, and when properly expressed and utilized, are tools given by God that equip us for living life in a broken world, and they are also signs of God’s faithfulness and eternal presence.
Inside Out is rated PG

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Cross+Roads Faith and Film Renewal Tour, Cannes: Film Review “Filiosophi Kopi”

kopi 6To some, coffee is just a carrier of caffeine that fuels a dulled mind and a tired body. To Coffee-philes, it is much more than that, it is one of the great joys of life. “Filosofi Kopi” is a film brewed for the latter group, though in reality, the message can be generalized to others as most people have some interest, hobby, or passion that generates joy and meaning in their life. For some it is coffee, for others it is wine, for others still it is cinema. The fact that for one person coffee is a commodity and for another it is a spiritual experience, or that films to some are movies and to others they are cinematic experiences simply indicates the diversity of interests and passions in the world.

Set in Indonesia, one of the largest coffee producers in the world, “Filosofi Kopi” is the story of Jody (Rio Dewanto) and Ben (Chicco Jerikho) two good friends in their 20’s whose lives have been complicated by past events and the actions of others, and who seek to rise above their present circumstances by opening and running a coffee shop.  While one wants to erase debt built up by his father, debt he soon learns was created to fund his education, the other wants to produce the finest coffee as a way to get past the traumatic disintegration of his coffee growing family.

kopi1The film opens with the revelation that the shop, Filosofi Kopi, is failing and, unless something changes soon, will close. There is a hint that some of the debt is owed to people who would do more than take ownership of the building. It is also evident early that the two partners have different agendas, business student Jody seeks to make the Filosofi Kopi profitable by expanding services such as offering WIFI and opening during the lunch hour, as well as cutting expenses by purchasing  cheaper, lower grade coffee beans. Coffee master Ben believes that it is coffee and only coffee that should, and will, make the shop successful, and therefore the shop should buy only the best beans. Ben also considers ancillary things such as WIFI a distraction from the “superior coffee experience” that he believes Filosofi Kopi, and he, provide.

As the two partners seem at a stalemate, in walks a businessman offering them a challenge as well as a life line. If they can brew the finest cup of coffee in Jakarta, as chosen by his wealthy client, they will earn enough money so as to buy down their debt and save their shop. So confident is Ben that he ups the issue, and money, by promising to pay the much larger amount should he fail, much to Jody’s desperate consternation.

kopi2After spending more money on very expensive coffee beans and two weeks finding the right blend, Ben and Jodi believe they have blended the perfect cup, and begin selling it with the name, “Ben’s Perfectooo!”  All is well until an international coffee grader, El (Julie Estelle) comes into the shop and has a less than overly impressed reaction.  El tells them where she has tasted the best coffee, a plantation some miles from Jakarta, and offers to take Jody and Ben to meet the grower and brewer. Hesitant to go initially, Ben becomes closed and distant as they travel and especially so when they taste the superior coffee.

kopi 3 It is during Ben’s return to a coffee plantation and encounter with a grower like his father where, through flashbacks, the backstory of Ben is revealed. As often has happened throughout Indonesia, Ben’s family suffers a tragedy as father is forced to give up growing coffee as the land is needed for producing Palm Tree oil, which is a far more profitable crop that has led to deforestation and the takeover of land used to grow coffee and other crops. Following the incident, Ben’s father transforms from the gentle coffee-plant whisperer into a volatile man whose reaction to Ben’s trying to continue his mastery of brewing coffee is shocking to the young boy.  It becomes evident that Ben traveled to Jakarta to escape his father. Eventually Ben decides to leave Jakarta and return to his home and to his father in an attempt to achieve some sense of closure to this life defining event.

Throughout the film the audience learns that to brew a cup of high quality coffee, care must be exorcised throughout the entire process. Care for the plant through proper and timely pruning of nonproductive branches so that the most nutrients can reach the bean.  Care must also be given in the picking of the bean so that they are at their proper and full, taste producing ripeness. Complete Sun drying is essential to prepare the beans for roasting. The roasting process must be timed so as to retain and craft the proper flavor. Coffee must be ground enough to release the taste but not so as to lose it during the brewing. And lastly the brewing must be at the correct temperature for the right amount of time so as to release, yet not lose, the full taste. All of these steps are important if one is to experience the perfect cup. If there is a break, or shortcut at any step the brew will be damaged and the taste impacted.

Ben’s life was producing a less than quality brew because he was damaged. His childhood trauma had injured the plant that was his life, and even through his life was producing fruit, it was less than it could or should be. Rather than going back, facing his trauma, and repairing that which had been lost by confronting his father and fears, Ben had tried to compensate by doubling down in other areas of his life. The reality that Ben knew about coffee but failed to realize in his living was unless he pruned the trauma from his life by addressing it, his cup that was his life would never be of the quality he desired or his father desired for him.

Whenever one has injury in life, damage to one’s spirit from the actions of others, poor personal decisions, or just random life events, one cannot wait the situation out. Though bodies may heal and to some degree spirits may return to functioning, if one does not address the pain, loss, or fear, one’s life will not be embody the fullness it could. As with non-productive growth on a coffee plant, fruitless growth that start through failure, trauma, disappointment, or other critical life events rob one of the spirit needed for a fuller and more meaningful life.

kopi 9aAs with the coffee grower, care of the plant that is one’s life is tedious work that cannot be rushed or mechanized. It can be painful, and in the short term draining, but it is the only way to ensure the health of plant that is one’s being and the only hope for producing fruit that yields fulfilment in and with life. While one can skip this process and still have fruit that is a life, and even some happiness, it will not be truly satisfying to the palate that is one’s hope in life.

As with Jacob in the Old Testament, we all have baggage that we try to leave behind. But like Jacob, our disappointments, loss, behavior, and fears, follow us through life. No matter how successful, wealthy or powerful one becomes, it is not until one faces one’s past, wrestles and struggles with one’s loss and fears that one can overcome and reclaim the life one was intended and desired by God to live. As with Jacob, we may come from this encounter changed, or even wounded, but we will, even in our change and wounds, be truly whole and empowered to live a more fulfilled life.

“Filosofi Kopi” was directed by Angga Dwimas Sasongko, has some adult language and depiction of violence. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States and other countries.

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Cross+Roads Renewal: Cannes

2015_Cannes_Film_Festival_posterUpon my first full day in the town of Cannes, France, I was reminded of a truth I often forget, sometimes it’s good to get lost. The day following my 29 hour trip to this sublime town, and after a long night of sleep followed by a couple of naps, I set out to explore the area. The first thing I found was of course the Palais Des Festivals, the home of the famous Cannes Film Festival and soon to be my home for ten days.

Next I began exploring the town. Cannes is a wondrous mixture of extreme wealth and hardworking shop owners and workers. It’s also a mix of grand boulevards and tiny streets and alleyways. All along the boulevards are large restaurants and stores with names known around the world. If you stay on the bigger streets, you’re less likely to lose your way, more likely to run into well-known attractions, and certain of a very predictable experience. If, on the other hand, you turn onto a smaller street, or better yet, an alleyway, you’re in for a less predictable, but often more meaningful experience. Here, less often means more.FullSizeRender

I had this choice my first day exploring Cannes. While I was still hung-over from the grind of three flights, two layovers and one train ride, I was tempted to stick to the main streets, but in a breath of fresh energy and channeling my inner Robert Frost, I made a turn onto a less traveled path and was off on a beautiful stroll into the heart and soul of the city and people. I saw modest but beautiful apartments, which were obviously taken care of and beautified by very modest flower boxes and other IMG_5294small, personal touches. I also discovered small, family-owned cafes and ristorantes that were charming and intimate. In these streets I experienced peace, not just from the quiet, but from the genuineness of the area and the people.

I did get a bit lost but I found something special. This charming peace was in direct contrast to the preparations underway at the Palais and along the famous Le Croisette, the promenade that hugs the Cannes beach and is the address for the Ritz, IMG_5317and other famous hotels. Here, cranes were lifting giant cement planters and placing them along the street. One crane was even lifting 15 foot palm trees onto an upper balcony of one of the fancy hotels in order to temporarily give the space that “genuine” Mediterranean look and feel. While those trees will be gone within a fortnight, the real beauty of Cannes will remain in the small streets, paths, and modest apartments hidden from view but easy to find.

Upon reflecting on my choice to get lost, I was reminded of the film Up and Ellie, the wife of Carl Fredricksen, who from her earliest days had a great desire for adventure. In her words, “Adventure is out there!” but it’s usually not found on the path well-traveled. To always stay on the main roads and only see the famous landmarks makes one a tourist. By getting off the beaten path, trying something new and even unknown, one becomes more of an adventurer. I understand that traveling to the south of France is not exactly an adventure into the wilderness, but within this or any locale, one can still get lost and have wonderfully meaningful experiences. I made some wrong turns and had to backtrack a bit from time to time. But it’s that stroll that will stay with me long after the glamour of the landmarks have been packed away and the last grains of Cannes beach sand has been shaken from my sandals.

As it can be good to get lost when we travel, getting lost is also helpful in our spiritual journey. As with travel, faith can be prepackaged with set itineraries, timetables, and expectations. Certainly there is importance in encountering the faith landmarks, but one should resist the temptation to hit only the hotspots of faith, special occasions such as baptism, confirmation, and Christmas and Easter worship. Knowledge of scripture should not only include popular texts and uncritical reception of packaged lesson plans. Rather, one should linger among lesser known texts, contemplate the observations and teachings of others, and learn more about different traditions, both within and between faiths. Being open to and interested in what is not known or familiar–in teaching, traditions, and other experiences–is certainly not the safe way to journey, but it produces longer lasting faith experiences and spiritual growth and development.

Taking time to stroll down these off the beaten spiritual and theological paths adds to the richness of faith experience as well as an understanding of other expressions of faith. As always, learning about the customs and understandings of others builds upon and deepens one’s personal faith and spirituality. As with traveling, there will be times when we get a bit lost. We may not understand, agree with, enjoy, or even appreciate what we learn or encounter. We may not come away with all of our questions answered, but in thinking about these questions and pondering possible answers, we grow in our faith and broaden our spirit. Who wants to be a spiritual or faith tourist, when one can be a spiritual and faith adventurer? As Up reminds us, the spirit of adventure is out there! May we desire and follow such a spirit.

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Cross + Roads Faith and Film Festival Overview

imageAfter King David coveted and took Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a loyal soldier fighting the King’s battles, David tried and failed to cover up his offense. When that planned failed he had Uriah killed in a last gasp attempt to hide his sin. Knowing what happened, God sent the Prophet Nathan to pronounce judgement upon David. To do so, Nathan used a story to lift a mirror before King David so the King could see and convict himself of his sin.

Story based art forms such as music, literature, plays and film also serve as a mirror reflecting to society its brokenness and distance from God and God’s desires for humanity and all of creation. In addition film and other story forms offer prophetic words and visions of hope, grace, and new life within the brokenness.

In a macro sense society needs no reminder of its brokenness, but on the micro level film lifts up the specific, often subtle evidence of it’s brokenness as well as the glaring if sometimes underground shards of a humanity at its most depraved. Film also measures the pulse of society by projecting the burdens and fears as well as hopes, needs and dreams humanity and societies live with and express.

An Overview of humanity’s brokenness and longings of those directly victimized by such fracturing has been on display during the first 4 days of the Tribeca festival. Though there have been several themes thus far one that has been evident in multiple films is oppression and the struggle to escape. The Festival has shown oppression in several forms, oppression that is human trafficking: women, captured by false promises, isolated from family, moved between countries and sold repeatedly from one owner to another. There is also oppression that is prostitution: where women, made vulnerable by “life” are exploited by predators who spin webs camouflaged by attention, acceptance, and love that insnares rather than lifts up.

While there has been greater attention in recent years to the reality that human trafficking and slavery exists in first as well as second and third worlds, it is important that the reality of what has been going on under the radar of first world attention continues to be exposed and brought into the light where efforts to reduce or eliminate such tragedy can be launched and continued. Therefore while the reflection of oppression of individuals and groups is tragic and hard to watch, it also fosters a growing awareness of the problem and in so doing the first steps and hope of ending the practice.

image“Hyena,” written and directed by Gerard Johnson and starring Peter Ferdinando is a brutally gritty story of drugs, corrupt police, and East European human trafficking. Named after what is considered by most as the lowest, most vile and opportunistic animal on the African plain “Hyena” is a mixture of the “ultra violence” and disregard for human beings from “A Clockwork Orange” and the grimy 1970’s corrupted cop films such as “Serpico” and “The French Connection.” “Hyena” shows how little regard individuals and groups can have for persons outside their close knit families and communities. Whereas “Clockwork” was set sometime in the future and “Serpico” and “The French Connection” are true, 40 years old stories, “Hyena” shows that the future is now and we have not progressed, and perhaps have regressed, from the crime and corruption of 40 years ago.

image“Sunrise” depicts the plague of children, 100,000 primarily young girls, who go missing each year in India and are forced into prostitution and other forms of exploitation. “Sunrise” was written and directed by Partho Sen-Gupta, and stars Adil Hussain as Laksham Josi. Laksham is a social services police officer whose task is to investigate kidnappings even as his own daughter was kidnapped because he was late in picking her up from school. The film depicts the torturous life he endures as each case reminds him of his daughter’s disappearance. With very limited dialogue, past and present for Lakshman converge as he pursues a shadow through endless rain falling in the deepest dens of Mumbai’s seediest neighborhoods. At the less than happy ending the statistic of the 100,000 children kidnapped each year is captioned as well as a dedication for two children. As dark, literally and figuratively as a film can be, “Sunrise” shines a light on what is a problem of epic proportions and tremendous pain for all the families touched by it.

Paralleling the oppression track have been films with characters that showed bravery and determination to escape or fight for those victimized by oppressors.

image“Bleeding Heart”is directed and written by Diane Bell, and stars Jessica Beal as May, a yoga instructor dedicated to helping others find inner peace through yoga and meditation. “Bleeding Heart”shows the terror and tragedy that is the oppression of domestic abuse and prostitution. May’s peaceful life is disrupted when she searches and finds her lost half sister. As refined and tranquil as May is, Shiva (Zosia Mamet) is raw and revved up, always on guard from her explosively violent boyfriend and pimp. While urged to turn her back on her sister by her well off, adopted mother and her controlling, peacenik, zen boyfriend, May becomes more determined to stay connected to her sister even as her growing presence produces more conflict in her sister’s life and resistance by Shiva and her brutal boyfriend. May refuses to yield to the pressure and finds strength she never knew she had offering love Shiva never knew existed.

Other forms of bondage are those that come through grief, guilt, and the oft turned to remedy, drugs, that like the pimps and human traffickers, offer the hope of escape from pain only to lead to further suffering and helplessness.

image“Franny” stars Richard Gere as a philanthropist who is responsible for the accidental death of his two best friends who are also the parents of his college bound god-daughter Olivia (Dakota Fanning.) Following the accident, the film moves forward in time to portray an unkempt, Franny who has disconnected from most of his past activities and community. Then Olivia calls to tell him about her new husband and asks if Franny could get the fresh physician an interview at the children’s hospital where Franny remains chairman of the board. The call rejuvenates Franny who seems to pop back into his hyperactive positive personality and spontaneous ways of living. Empowered by prescription pain killers, the resurgence is masking Franny’s ongoing struggle with guilt and depression that continue to plagued him. “Franny” demonstrates the oppression guilt and the resulting depression can wield over individuals. While the conditions can be masked for a time they eventually become too much for even the strongest narcotics and are overcome by addressing and confronting the precipitating event(s) and accepting grace and forgiveness from others and oneself.

While these films do not provide the escape from life’s daily grind and problems that comedies and action adventure genres offer, they do offer a glimpse into humanity and the tears in society’s physical, ethical, and spiritual fabric that fosters oppression in all its forms. In so doing such films can echo the prophetic teachings, the lamentations of the Psalms, and the corrective teaching of Christ, by casting light into darkness, naming sins, offering hope,and yielding the first steps to healing the brokenness.

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Cross + Roads: Renewal Tour- Tribeca Film Festival

Cross Roads Faith and Film Renewal: Day 1

After arriving in NYC and settling in my hotel, I ventured out to get my bearings. While here I was hoping to run into a friend I have known for over 25 years. I wasn’t sure my friend would be in town or if I would have time to get together. As this was a free night, I looked up and found my friend in town and available.

It turns out that my friend has aged better than me, gained a new wrinkle or two, but is still wonderfully fresh and profound. Given how familiar we had been in years past, I wondered how the reunion would go, whether there would be new areas of thought and discussion. As it turned out I needed not to have wondered.

After our meeting, it occurred to me that while most others used my friend’s nick name, I have always preferred and used the full name. To me this friend lives light years beyond a nick name. (The same goes for my daughter.)

Yes, to most, my friend is Les Miz, but to me “Les Miserables” is the only appropriate title. I have seen “Les Miserables” several times in Dallas, as well as in London, the movie, and have watched both anniversary concerts countless times. But to see it on Broadway was still a missing jewel in my theater crown.

As I had heard, the intimacy of the Broadway theaters added greatly to the connection to the performance. Away from the cavern that is the Dallas venue where I had seen it, and even the nose bleed seats from the London theater, my seats at the Imperial Theater, and the new staging, offered me deeper access into this profound story.  Though I have thought it before, what struck me this meeting, was the contrast, and the implications of such between Jean Valjean and his nemesis Javert.

Prisoner 24601 and Javert

If you don’t know the story, or havent seen the show or film, run to see it,or if necessary read the book. Jean Valjean is the protagonist who is released from a pre-revolutionary French jail after serving 19 years for stealing bread for his starving niece. Unable to find work as a paroled felon, Jean steals silver from the only person to show him mercy, a Roman Catholic Bishop. After Jean Valjean is caught with the stolen silver the Bishop backs up Jean’s lie that the silver had been a gift from the Bishop, thus sparing Jean a life sentence wearing chains in the living hell and death that was a French prison. Such grace convicts and converts Jean Valjean, who pledges to use the mercy to change and dedicate his life to something greater.  image

Jean goes on to become a local mayor and successful businessman who employs many people who, without his efforts and leadership, would be among the shows namesakes, the miserable ones. One such employee is a single mother Fantine who was used and abandoned by the father of her daughter Cosette, who is living with the unscrupulous innkeeper, the Master of the house and mistress Thenardier. Fantine is thrownout of Jean Valjean’s employment because of jealousy by others, and she quickly becomes one of the miserables.

Throughout the show Jean Valjean runs into his former jailer, Inspector Javert who is obsessed with keeping order by enforcing the letter of the law, and capturing the parole breaking prisoner 24601 aka Jean Valjean. Upon finding out the mayor’s true identity, 24601, he relentlessly tracks him down, caring not that Jean Valjean employs hundreds and is seeking to rescue Cosette from the greedy abusive clutches of the Trenardiers.

During the climax of the show’s action, a rebellion led by students seeking political and economic freedom, Javert is captured spying on the students who in turn give him over to Jean Valjean to do with as he wants. Rather than exacting revenge for his behavior during and following his imprisonment, Jean Valjean shows mercy on Javert by allowing him to escape. After his release, Javert becomes even more determined to capture 24601, who’s mercy is something he simply cannot understand.

In Javert’s world God only loves and blesses those who are righteous through complete imageadherence to the law. Javert cannot accept the grace offered from one he considers completely beneath him. To Javert, grace has no place, only righteousness and right action. Once one breaks the law, one is always broken. There is no being made whole, even after serving one’s sentence. Eventually the grace becomes too much of a burden and he ends his life, stunningly in the new staging.

Jean Valjean and Javert echo two other characters from a famous story, Saul and Paul. Saul is the passionately legalistic persecutor of Christians in the earliest days of the Church. A pharisee, his duty in his eyes is to protect and prosecute the law of Moses with no remorse for those who do not live by the letter of the Law. For Saul, there is no spirit of the Law. Following his encounter with the resurrected Jesus while traveling to Damascus to capture and prosecute followers of the Way of Christ, Saul becomes Paul and refocuses his passion and dedication to proclaiming the truth of the Gospel. This truth is grace, received as a gift from God through faith. As the blindness fell from Paul’s eyes when struck blind by Christ on the Damascus road, he saw that the way of faith and serving God was through receiving Grace, and in response, serving God by being the instrument of love and grace to others.

imageAs Paul taught and lived, and Javert tragically never discovers, the law is impotent in being a mechanism for salvation and life. Whereas grace, when recognized and received, inspires and empowers one to live increasingly righteous, or as John Wesley preached, sanctified lives. Receiving grace, and in response living righteously, affords life, both now when chained by the brokeness of the world and consequences of one’s failures, and offers the promise to life with the communion of saints “where chains will never bind.”

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Review: “Killing Jesus”

killing jesus 2When considering The National Geographic Channel’s latest offering In “The Killing” series based on the books by Bill O’Reilly, I was reminded of a certain Spaghetti Western film.

The Good: The presentation of Jesus was refreshingly genuine, personal, and ethnic. Rather than the stale, stiff, Eurocentric casting and presentation of Jesus, Muslim Haaz Sleiman depicts Jesus as a man who exhibits genuine emotions including a sense of humor and a true connection with the people to whom he ministers. In contrast to many other presentations of Jesus as distant and disconnected, Haaz’s Jesus is the Word who truly became flesh, living among us, as us.

The Bad: In contrast to the casting and acting of Haaz, Stephen Moyer’s casting and presentation of Pilate, and Tamsin Egerton’s presentation of Pilate’s wife Claudia, is forced and out of place. Additionally, in stark contrast to most of the scenes and dialogue of Jesus, the scenes depicting life in Pilate’s house and Herod Antipas’s family is cheesy, having more of the feel of a late night offering from Cinemax rather than a serious narrative of the life and death of Christ.

The Ugly: The inaccuracies of scriptural accounts are startling and confusing. While one expects some speculation of non-canonical filler material, especially a project that is presented as a “truth revealed,” what is not expected, nor should be tolerated are changes to events narrated in the Gospels. In “Killing Jesus” there are too many major changes to Scriptural accounts and actions.

As depicted in “Killing Jesus” there was no divine expression, no voice or indication of the Holy Spirit to Jesus or those witnessing his baptism. Unlike Gospel accounts the baptism was indeed private, with only Jesus and John participating. In contrast to the presentation in the film, there is no indication that the woman accused of adultery in John’s Gospel had been found guilty by a high court, but rather was about to be stoned by a mob without a trial. The Gospels narrate that it was Pilate’s guards who put the crown of thorns on Jesus and mocked him, not Herod’s palace guards as is presented in the film. In Matthew’s Gospel, Judas returned the 30 pieces of silver to the Temple, or in Acts purchased a field. “Killing Jesus” depicts Judas using the money to purchase from a shepherd boy the rope with which he hangs himself. The boy then uses the money to purchase white horse.

At best these and other changes to the Gospel accounts are distracting to people who know the story and at worst, become the story to people unfamiliar with the texts. Though some may consider such changes as minor or not important, students of Scripture, as well as literature and film, know that there is meaning behind every element, action and word. To make such changes is to altar the meaning of th story.

Overall “Killing Jesus” is a mixture of mistaken use of scripture and a script that contains many eye rolling, cringe worthy lines and scenes, sprinkled with occasional poignant depictions of a fully fleshed Son of God. Had Mr. O’Reilly reviewed this film at the beginning of his career when he was a movie and entertainment critic, I cannot see that he would have given this film anything but a very poor review.

One final mystery is the fact that this flawed film stands in contrast to the usually stellar, fact based and accurate programming on the National Geographic Channel.

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Film Review: “McFarland, USA”

blog mcfarland 3As February is traditionally one of the worst times of the year for movie releases, my expectations were rather low when I attended a screening of “McFarland, USA,” a biopic about a California cross country track coach starring Kevin Costner. At some point during the first half I found myself thinking the film has a chance. By the end of the story I had admitted my surprise and reminded myself that one should never judge a film by its release date. By the very end of the film, following the conclusion of the narrative, it hit me how special “McFarland USA” is.

While it is a good film, it is not necessarily great. There are no truly memorable scenes that will transcend the run of the film. The performances are solid but not standout, as is the direction. But, what stands out, what is special, is the story. Whether by design or lucky chance, the lack of outstanding achievements in typical elements of film, direction, acting, and even writing, allow the superb story to stand out. What one takes away from this film is the powerful teaching and life lessons that is the story of Jim White and the McFarland High School Cross Country Team.

Set in 1987, the film begins with Coach Jim White, (Kevin Costner) taking his Boise Idaho High School football team to the locker room after a very poor performance. Before the halftime is over Coach White would be out of a job, again, as we later learn. In the following scene we learn the family is driving to California, to the only place in the country he could find a job. After White arrives he discovers this is also a place where the only true expectation is just showing up.

McFarland California is a town known as the garden of the country, not because it is a place of beauty, but because it is the place where much of the country’s produce is grown and harvested. In the 1980’s the town was over 90% Hispanic with the vast majority doing the back breaking work of picking the food that others will eat without thinking who went through what to provide it.

Watching the Whites move into one of the many very modest homes, by some of the viewer’s standards, one reads the minds of the family members, that McFarland California might have had glory in the past, but it had little in the present and less coming from the future. blog mcfarland 7Before the first box is unpacked, the game plan is set for the family; Coach White will stay only as long, or as little, as it takes until he can re-launch his coaching and teaching career. At one point, while trying to make his house look a little better, he refuses to buy a shade tree because it will take five years to grow to a suitable height, and Coach White will be long gone by then. Why should he plant and nurture something that someone else will sit under and enjoy.

Coach White soon discovers that the high school is in no better shape than his home, except instead of being bare of furnishings and anything beyond utility, McFarland High is bare of hope and therefore expectations other than to get through the day, the week, the month, and finally the year.

Where Coach White refused to see the point of planting a tree, the coach in him could not help planting the seeds of thinking bigger and beyond the confines of the low place McFarland California had had fallen and seemed destined to remain. blog mcfarland 5After losing the assistant football coaching job of the High School, White was left to teach science, coach P.E., and notice that the community, while not populated with football players, was populated by kids who could run and run and run. They did so not out of desire, but out of necessity. The kids would rise before dawn, pick several hours, and then run to school. For many of the kids in the community, running was a way of life and a way of making ends meet.

As Coach White noticed this, he also heard that cross country was being recognized as a high school sport and the first state championship would be held later that year. Fielding a team, and then pushing them to compete against schools that had competed as club sports became his mission, and eventually would become the hope that much of the community needed. It would not be an easy task. blog mcfarland 2Unlike his previous experiences as a football coach in football crazy communities where Coach White never had to sell his sport to students or parents, in McFarland he had to convince kids and parents that the sport was worth the effort, worth the time away from the fields, and the prospects of a college scholarship worth the dream. To do this Coach White became a part of the community, by going to the kids’ homes, sharing meals with their families, and tasting the work of their world as a picker.

In the Prologue to the Gospel of John the incarnation of God in Christ is described, “and the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” The Word of God, the Son, took on our flesh and literally “pitched his tent among us.” Jesus did not come into the world to be like us and be near us. He came to be one of us and to live with us, experiencing life as we live it. In counseling terms God did not come in the form of Jesus to sympathize with us, but to empathize with us. Through the incarnation, the Word became real flesh and blood that would bleed, suffer, and die so that we, and all creation, helpless before death, could have the opportunity and the hope, to live.

blog mcfarland 6By choosing to pitch his tent in McFarland rather than just bide his time, Coach White, and the entire “Blanco” family became a part of the community of McFarland, and in so doing, received and instilled the idea to look beyond the very limited expectations of the past and present, and instead, look, dream, and hope for a future beyond. In so doing they served as a spark that helped restore life to a school and community. Go see this film.

Another connection with Scripture is the calling of disciples by Jesus. As with the disciples answering Christ’s call to follow him, there was a financial impact on the students’families when they answered the call to run cross country. As the disciples left homes and families who depended on them, the kids gave up time when they could be picking and earning money for their families. Yet, the kids were called to something bigger and in their answering the call, they, like the disicples, brought hope and new life to others.

Note: McFarland USA” should be required viewing for anyone thinking about ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. It is an example and challenge to pitch one’s tent wherever one is appointed, and resist the temptation to wonder how long do I need to stay, when an appointment is not one you would not have chosen. Instead, claim the calling to find the ministry that can be, that needs to be offered wherever one is. Actually, the above applies to laity as well and the general ministry all have through baptism.

“McFarland USA” is rated PG.

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