The Young Messiah: Interview with Director Cyrus Nowrasteh

During this advent season, 2017, my church is studying the book, “Faithful” by Rev. Adam Hamilton. “Faithful” examines the role of Joseph in the life of Jesus. This interview with Cyrus Nowrasteh, the Director of the film “The Young Messiah” touches on the life and place of Joseph within the life of Jesus as is depicted in the film. “The Young Messiah” may be viewed by DVD or on Google Play, and iTunes.

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Interview with Cyus Nowrasteh director of The Young Messiah, a film, based on the Anne Rice novel, Christ The Lord: Out of Egypt. The Young Messiah Opens March 11 and stars Adam Greaves-Neal as Jesus, Vincent Walsh as Joseph, and Sara Lazzaro as Mary.

cyrus 2All Photos Courtesy of Focus Features

The Young Messiah imagines a year in the life Jesus during the missing years of his life where there is no Biblical narrative, the time between his birth and Luke’s Gospel account of him as a 12 year old child teaching in the Jerusalem Temple. During this period the Holy Family had been forced into exile in Egypt in order to protect Jesus from Herod the Great who sought his life to the extent that he had murdered innocent children in the hopes of killing this new King. After Joseph was told of Herod’s death in a dream, the…

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Film Review: A Ghost Story

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Photos courtesy of A24 Films

Story telling has been at the heart of human communication since the development of language. Countless generations of people have gathered to share stories that entertain, inform, and offer insight into their condition.  One of the iconic story forms is the ghost story. Whether sitting around a campfire hoping to take advantage of one’s perceived vulnerability in sleeping outside amidst the chaos that comes out at night, or connecting with people in a darkened movie theater hoping to plant seeds in dreams to come, storytellers have long ghost story 14talked of those who may or may not be forgotten and are not really gone.

 

Writer /director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) reaches back to this iconic story form in his latest film, A Ghost Story. Although the subject of the film is a ghost, A Ghost Story is not a horror film that lives off the rush and excitement fueled by graphic violence or helpless, clueless people putting themselves in harm’s way. A Ghost Story is a film that examines life, love, loss, life amidst loss, and the power of nostalgia through the black, cutout eyes of a ghost.

A Ghost Story is also about time, the timeline covered in the film as well as the time Lowery takes in presenting the story. As with any well-crafted ghost story, the desired impact is achieved not just in the narrative, but in the setting and setup of the story.  Lowery’s desired impact for the viewer is not a chilling fright, but a contemplation of life, loss, and what we hold on to in life, and perhaps even beyond. While there is haunting, outside of one scene, it is the ghost who is haunted by people and memories rather than the people haunted by the ghost.

A Ghost Story has the feel of a mid-20th Century European film drama. As I watched the film I had the feeling I was watching an Ingmar Bergman examination of life and death, specifically, Wild Strawberries in which he examines life from the perspective of an older man, who  is a ghost of his former, youthful self and life.  In an interview with David Lowery I asked him if he had been a fan or student of European cinema. Lowery said he ghost story 13had studied the European masters as a youth and young adult and appreciated the minimalist approach to dramatic storytelling of Bergman and Federico Fellini and others.  As with the great European cinematic masters, Lowery uses shot selection, silence and the time afforded by extended scenes to allow the thoughts and experiences of the viewers to grow organically rather than presenting ideas to the viewers in prepackaged form through active dialogue and cinema-graphic busyness.

In the Q&A following the screening of the film in the Oak Cliff Film Festival, David indicated he wanted to examine the idea of nostalgia through the two Ghost characters. In my interview I followed up with this notion of the power of nostalgia. Lowery indicated that he had experienced the power of nostalgia when he was growing up as he kept things and encountered the power of holding on to times and places and resisting moving on in the changing seasons of life.

Like many things, an appreciation for the past, keeping memories alive in things can have its place, up to a point. When taken too far, nostalgia can have negative consequences. There is a difference between remembering the past and holding on to the past by hording memories and objects. Remembering the past is carrying the events, feelings, memories and relationships in the present and into the future. There is a point, however, when possessing memories moves into being possessed by memories. Clinging to the past inhibits one from going forward in the future, whether it is going forward to the next adventure, or stage in life, or moving on to a new life after suffering loss. Holding on to the past denies the hope, life, and healing the future holds.

Moving toward the future, accepting and embracing the unknown, is an act of faith. Holding on to the past is a faith-deficient act of fear. There is a scene following the death Screen_Shot_2017-03-29_at_5_55_45_PMwhen the Ghost, wearing the sheet that covered the body, begins wondering halls of the hospital. As the Ghost moves unnoticed past people in the hallways a portal of light appears on a wall. As the Ghost halts and lingers, the portal closes. Persons of faith are likely to interpret this as the opening to heaven and everlasting life. As presented, the Ghost, in death as in life, has freedom of choice, to go forward or stay back. As in life, there are consequences for the choices made. For the Ghost, the consequence is remaining in the present, even as that present will soon turn into a future that will not include the Ghost who must instead remain in a present that has lost all meaning. As hope is something of the future, a present with no future is a present with no hope.

The Ghost’s hesitation was reminiscent to the hesitation of Israel to take the land Yahweh had promised to provide. Even after Yahweh had led them out of slavery the Israelites were fearful of going forward. They chose to live by the perceptions before them, a strong nation they could not conquer, rather than the promises offered to them by God. This halting, fearful reaction to the challenge ahead reflected their doubt that Yahweh could provide and protect them, even as God had just led them out of their Egyptian bondage. In response to halting, Yahweh forced them to wander in the wilderness, still caring for them, until they had faith that God could provide as God promised. Part of the promise of this new land was the belief in Yahweh’s desire and ability to provide. Lacking faith in God’s desire or ability to faithfully provide, even this new land would be one without promise had God allowed them to enter.

ghost story 12Though the previous life of the Ghost was not one of suffering and bondage as was that of the Israelites, the Ghost refused to embrace the new life, the new opportunity, and chose to stay in the past. While allowed the choice to remain in the past, the Ghost was not allowed to live in the past. Rather than participating in life, the Ghost could only observe the lives others lived. Such existing is not truly living. Part of living is experiencing the present and anticipating the future. Persons of faith live in the present, preparing for the future that God not only desires for them, but provides and accompanies them into, if they choose to live by faith and go rather than submit to fear and seek to remain behind.

What is true for persons of faith, the call to live by faith for the future and the decision whether to accept of reject this calling applies also to churches and communities of faith. Churches are also susceptible to clinging to the past out of fear rather than faithfully accepting God’s call to accept and embrace the future and ministry God desires for them.

ghost story 6The choice to present the Ghost as a sheet with blackened eyes not only plays off the iconic image of ghosts, it represents the condition of the deceased, or anyone, when life is ruled by fear rather than lived by faith. The Apostle Paul teaches that persons of faith see God, even if only through veil, or a glass darkly. Upon death and entering God’s Kingdom the veil is removed and one views God fully, face to face. In not proceeding forward, the Ghost now sees and experiences present life as past life, only now it is seen as well through a veil, the veil of death as represented by the sheet.

Persons as well as churches and communities of faith are not called to reside in the comfort of the known and experienced, but rather they are called to go forth toward that which is promised and only seen dimly, trusting in God’s faithfulness to accompany and deliver them. To do otherwise is to stay under the veil and cease to truly live. The Gospel as presented in Scripture, and the film, is God is patient, kind, loving, gracious and willing to wait for one to act in their time, just as we are called and must live in God’s time.

Regarding the visual elements of cinema, A Ghost Story is a simple little film-the Ghost is under a sheet with black eyes, there are no special effects, no haunting, nor shrieks nor even a large orchestral score.  When considering the story and themes, however, there is a deep reservoir of complex issues of life and living as well as life and death.  As such, some viewers who require continuous action or dialogue, steady plot movement, and desire not having to consider deeper issues of life may be put off by the pace, feel, and introspective nature of the film. Those viewers who do not require a film by the numbers experience and are open to introspection will savor this finely crafted film.

A Ghost Story is rated R and stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.

Link to a discussion guide from Pop Theology on Patheos.com

http://poptheology.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/A-Ghost-Story-Guide.pdf

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Review: 13 Reasons Why

  Spoiler Alert

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Images: Paramount Television

I have not been as conflicted about a show as I am about the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, a series based on the novel “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher which details the reasons a high school student comments suicide. Initially cast in the starring role, Selena Gomez championed the project  as a co-producer.

Suicide is perhaps the most devastating event for a family and community. In addition to the grief over the sudden loss of a loved one or friend, there are also feelings of anger toward the deceased as well as guilt and tremendous self-examinations over “what I could have done.” Suicidal ideation is one of the most complex and difficult conditions to experience, treat and understand. The decision to end one’s life is usually the result of a blizzard of often competing emotions in response to life circumstances. Theses situations and resulting emotions can alter brain chemicals that lead to, or compounds the effects of depression which, over a period of time, leads to distorted perspectives of life and one’s situation.

The taking of one’s life is objectively illogical and the worst option available. However, subjectively, to someone who has borne the pain and weight of extended depression, and entered the tunnel where things that bring light to life and reasons to live have faded away, ending one’s life can be a logical action.  People often say that the deceased had so much to live for. While this is true, to them, it wasn’t their experience was not that truth.  Not only is there distortion regarding the reality of their life and the options available to them, persons who choose suicide often believe that those in their life will also be better off without them as the deceased will no longer be a burden.  All of these factors are compounded for teenagers whose brains, and therefore emotions and impulse control, are not fully developed.

13 reasons 113 Reasons Why is a story in which a high school junior, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) has killed herself, but rather than leaving a note, she left tapes in which she detailed the reasons behind her suicide. The tapes depict the behavior of 11 classmates whose treatment of her resulted directly or indirectly in her becoming the object of shame and ridicule in her school. Two other tapes are for two persons whose inactions prevented her from pulling out of the tunnel in which she saw suicide as the only option to find relief from the pain she was experiencing.

13 reasons why 2In the story, each of the 13 persons is directed to listen to all the tapes and then pass them on to the next person on the list. The  story begins with her friend, and on again off again object of her affection, Clay Jenson (Dylan Minnette) as he receives and begins listening to the tapes which are presented visually in flashback.

Producers of the program believe that the subject of teen suicide and many of the resulting triggers, bullying, peer, and family pressure are important subjects to present to teens, parents, and others. The devastation for Hannah’s parents, though present, is thought by many who are critical of the program to be understated. The heartbreak of Clay, who had hidden his true feelings for Hannah, is presented more effectively as he agonizingly listens to each tape.  Some of the impact of the effects of Hannah’s suicide on others is lost in the overly dramatic  presentation of the other persons on the tapes trying to conspire with one another to keep the reasons, and their involvement in the suicide secret. This portion of the series plays more like a mediocre detective show and takes away from the expressed desired effect of the program.

13 reasons why 5The program is more effective in informing parents, whose high school experience did not include the realities of cyber bullying, where there is no safe zone nor opportunities  to escape the harassment and shame.   Unlike the impact of rumors whispered from ear to ear,  in the cyber age, unflattering photos, taken casually, with little or no knowledge of the victim, can be distributed to everyone in the victim ’s community and circle of friends and classmates in an instant. Today, one surreptitious snapshot is the basis for digital rumors, the evidence of which is easily retrieved, replayed, and kept in the forefront of thoughts and conversations in a school or other community for days, weeks or even years. Explicit subject matter and instant availability of cyber bullying can lead to predatory actions including sexual assault, two of  which are presented in the series.

13 reasons why 313 Reasons Why can offer teachable moments, when adults/parents and teens watch it together. Teens can experience a reality of the devastating impact suicide has on families and communities. Parents can experience the unrelenting social pressure to avoid becoming a target and subject of bullying, and the unimaginable difficulty it is to have a target removed. The program shows the all too  common reality that, for many students, the chosen method of not having a target on yourself is to put one on someone else.  Where there are these and other benefits of communal viewing , that the program is 13 episodes makes watching the program with youth difficult, something requiring intentionality and, one of the other things around which there is incessant pressure, time.

One area of conversation that could be engaged as a part of watching the program with youth or adults is the place of faith in living  life. Resurrection hope and life is at the core of the Christian faith. While resurrection life includes the everlasting life in God’s Kingdom, it is something that is and should be a part of life here and now. Resurrection faith is that which helps one get through the valley moments in life. Belief that God raised Jesus from the dead and defeated the death of Good Friday offers persons of faith the Easter hope and assurance that God can help one overcome or endure the challenges of life here and now. If God could overcome death there is hope that even the most challenging periods of life can be endured and overcome. butterfly cross bannerThe resurrection demonstrates that in God transformation of life and circumstances are possible. Faith in God’s transforming grace and power can be a ray of light that cuts through the darkness that is depression and suicide ideation. This reality can be powerfully communicated when discussed in community or groups, and should be a part of a faith group’s viewing or discussion of the topics of the program. Parents and leaders should watch the entire series prior to deciding whether to watch with their youth or youth groups.

My primary concern about the series is for those teens who will watch the program in isolation and not have the benefit of sharing and processing with others. This concern would be for any program dealing with this topic. Teens that are in the midst of crisis, especially those who have distorted perceptions of their reality and have, or are at risk of developing suicidal thoughts, may misinterpret the actions of the characters and story plots and experience them as validation for their thoughts and perhaps plans. Offering to watch, or re-watch the program with teens who may watch, or already watched the program alone could be a way to help address such misperceptions.

One last observation. Hannah’s suicide depicted final episode. It is very graphic, and after spending 13 episodes getting to know Hannah, it is among the most difficult scenes I have viewed in some time.   Netflix has signed for another season of 13 Reasons Why.

The suggested rating is  TV-MA LSV, mature audiences for Language, Sexual situations, Violence. There are disclaimers for the episodes containing the graphic scenes.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide please call a local suicide hotline or call 800-273-8255  

 

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Oscar Best Picture Review

oscars-2My thoughts on the Academy Awards Best Picture nominations. At the top of my list is Fences. I thought it was by far the strongest ensemble with two great performances by Denzel and Viola. It is a story that speaks to the degenerating power of anger and frustration and he restorative power of love, grace, and forgiveness. Director Denzel Washington effectively stages and shoots the film to have the intimate and connected feel of the stage play it was based on.

 
lionMy second favorite was Lion. While I would have trimmed some from the second half, the first half was truly riveting. At times it was epic and vast, showing the Indian countryside and inner city of Calcutta, and at other times it was profoundly intimate. While Dev Patel gave a strong performance, Sunny Pawar, portraying the 5 year old Saroo who gets separated from his family by 1600 miles is one of the stronger child performance in recent years. The fact that it was a true story adds to the power and celebration of hope and love The film speaks to building awareness that 80,000 children in India go missing every year, most of whom end up in the sex trafficking industry.

 
oscars-9the third film is Hacksaw Ridge, which shows that Mel Gibson is truly a skilled filmmaker. Yes it’s brutal, but it would be a disservice to portray combat in any other way. As with Lion, the fact that it was a true story adds to the poignancy of the film. Showing a man stand up for his faith and belief even in the hell that is war is humbling. It’s not quite up to Saving Private Ryan, but it is close.

 
oscars-13Hell or High Water was an enjoyable and solidly written, directed, and acted film. It had the feel of a Coen  brothers film with impressive cinema photography of west Texas via New Mexico. The dialogue was top-notch as were the performances of the down the line cast members. “What don’t you want?”

 
oscars-6Manchester by the Sea took time in letting the story and plot unfold. Some might say too long, but it was effective. The point about not getting stuck in the mourning is important especially as it can be so difficult. Afflect’s subtle and minimalist performance, always a challenge to pull off, shows his wide range as an actor.

 
oscars-11Arrival has solid performances by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. The story has interesting nuances regarding the importance of communication and an unexpected ending that speaks to the joy of living life even in the midst or prospects of loss and pain.

 

 

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La La Land is a good, entertaining film and nod back to the great musicals of the old Hollywood studio system. While it is fluid and well shot, the quality of the singing and dancing is lacking in comparison to the great musicals of the past. For some the fact that the stars are not known for their singing and dancing or that the music is not as ornate as past musicals is a plus and gives the film an organic feel. For me, La la Land did not hold my attention near as much as Moulin Rouge which offered some of those same qualities but was significantly more dynamic.

 
oscars-7Moonlight has been described as symphonic in telling the story of a life in three chapters. There is power in the understated script and performances. There are certainly powerful and profound moments, but, as with Boyhood, those there was a lack of momentum carried  throughout the vignettes resulting in a film where the sum of the parts did not add up to a spectacular whole.

 

oscars-5Hidden Fences was a very good and profound story that did not translate into as profound and special film. While the three leads, Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae gave strong performances including Octavia’s Oscar nomination, the supporting cast did not provide the necessary intangibles to lift the film to the level of being something truly special.

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Review: Silence – Speaks Volumes

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Photos Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Many will categorize Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence as a faith film; it is better described as a film about faith. While “Faith Films” have been in vogue in the last four years or so, many of those films are so categorized because the subject matter has something to do with the Bible, church, or can in some way be described as spiritual. Silence is a film about faith because it examines what is it to live in, by, and even in spite of faith. Silence is also a film about faith because it is realistic in its portrayal about what it is to live by faith when faith is tested and the test results could be described as inconclusive. Faith by its very nature is ambiguous. Faith stands opposed to that which is known, proven, and definitively experienced. If it did not it would be fact instead of faith. In the “real world,” living by faith means living with ambiguity, wonder, and questions since the world of faith, regardless of what faith one lives by, is often opposed to the world of experience.

 

There is much ambiguity in Silence. There is also much suffering, and there is not a tidy bow at the end. While modern audiences of film are conditioned to expect happy endings, or at least happiness in the endings, in the real world, even the real world informed or lived through faith, happiness is usually encountered or experienced through the filter or veil of sadness and despair. Such is the experience of watching Silence.

silence-8Silence is based on the Shusaku Endo, 1966 historical novel of the same name. In the novel and film the main character is the Portuguese Jesuit missionary priest Fr. Sebastiao Rodrigues ( Andrew Garfield), a character Endo based on the 17th century Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Chiara. Fr Rodrigues and another priest, Fr Francisco Garupe ( Adam Driver) insist to their superior Fr. Alessandro Valignano ( Cerian Hinds) they be allowed to travel to Japan to find their teacher and mentor Fr. Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson) after they have received reports that after being tortured he committed apostasy during persecutions of Christians in Japan.

Though both priests have all the faith imaginable, neither of these the last two priests in Japan is prepared for what they encounter and experience after their arrival. Through their training and ministry, the priests have never experienced a realized, or lived faith such as silence-13that of the surviving, “hidden Christians” living on the islands of Japan. Although the priests  bring tangible reminders of God and the Church, crosses, Scripture, rosaries, and the Mass, in the eyes of the villagers they have brought God. The priests who wonder about God’s silence, are themselves God’s answering the prayers of the Japanese Christians. Yet even as they bring reminders of salvation in Christ, the priests, by their presence on any island or any village, bring danger to the Christians near them.

To fulfill their mission to find their mentor and teacher, the priests will eventually need to follow clues that lead them into the heart of Japan, and in so doing encounter the darkness that is the persecution of the Buddhist Inquisitor as well as their own fears, doubts and perceived silence of God.

The title of the film and novel refers to the silence Fr. Rodrigues observes and experiences God offers in light and of and response to suffering, even suffering for one’s faith. Most Christians accept that God speaks in some fashion to believers. If not a burning bush, believers may sense God communicating, either in real time, or after looking back on a time in life.  What is hardest is when God speaks, as God spoke to Elijah, in the sheer silence.

Watching in the enlightened and protected comfort of 21st century America, it might be difficult to understand the power of apostasy. After seeing persons suffer and die for not stepping on a small wooden carving of Christ the viewer may think to themselves, just step on the thing, its only a piece of wood; step on it and live to worship another day. These reactions intensify when stepping will save the life of others.  Seeing the agony many faced regardless of their decision to step or not, the viewer may wonder about the nature of apostasy.  What is it to commit apostasy? How does one commit apostasy? Is stepping on an image of Jesus, or spitting on a crucifix apostasy? How and why? Is rejecting the teaching of Jesus, not following the commandment of Jesus to love neighbors / enemies as one loves oneself likewise an apostasy? When one lives out of fear rather than faith and rejects an “other,” when one does not hunger and thirst for righteousness, or seeks to make peace, are they committing apostasy?  When one does not turn the other cheek, or give their cloak, or carry a persecutor’s sword an extra mile, are they committing apostasy?

silence-4Viewing Silence is a humbling experience. One is humbled by the faith of those depicted on the screen who have suffered beyond measure. One is then humbled by the reminder of all the millions through the centuries who suffered and were martyred for their faith.  I was humbled because prior to the screening I spoke with a clergy colleague and we discussed the challenges and difficulties of ministry today, where there is a rise in apathy and commitment within congregations and bureaucratic challenges and frustrations at the denominational level. Two minutes into the film, I felt shame at what I had just voiced. Were laity to watch the film, they may feel humbled at complaints and conversations they have had regarding worship wars, the color of carpeting, or not “being fed.”

Included in this film about faith is the question of pride and faith. The Priests are called to consider how pride in themselves could be a part of their faith. Is there a point where their actions cease being acts of faith to Christ and become acts of pride in themselves and their faith. At one point while torturing some villagers the Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) in an effort to coax Fr. Rodrigues tells him that “the price of your glory is their suffering.” Does, and if so at what point, pride in one’s faith tarnish or even dissolve one’s faith?

silence-3Some viewers may choose not to attend because of the heaviness of the film. It is heavy and while few would describe the film as escapist, if viewed with keen eyes and an open mind and spirit, Silence offers the opportunity for true escape. For the majority of viewers, the film will allow them to escape their troubles with the realization that what they currently consider suffering is perhaps more an inconvenience or disappointment. And if one is truly suffering, there can be comfort in knowing they are not alone, now nor through the ages, in their struggles.

silence-15Persons of faith who choose not to see the film will miss an opportunity to reflect upon what faith, suffering and apostasy is, and what they are not. They will also miss out on the reminder that the times they step on Christ or reject God, there is grace to hold them and for them to hold on to. As the final scene in the film indicates; like faith, grace, even the size of a mustard seed, is all that is needed.

Silence is a beautifully shot and powerfully acted film. The performances of each of the characters are beyond compelling. Scorsese masterfully integrates the natural elements of the story most notably the humbling power of the ocean, the cleansing and muddying effect of the rain, the cover and mystery fog and mist provide and inflict.  In every element of filmmaking, Martin Scorsese’s Silence speaks volumes.

Silence is rated PG-13

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Film Review: Fences

 

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Photos Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Fences is the long awaited screen adaptation of August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning play. After decades of rumors, and starts and stops, the African-American family drama set in the 1950’s and 60’s finally made its film debut this Christmas. Denzel Washington directs and stars as Troy Maxson, a “garbage man” who fought to make a life for his wife and son all the while struggling against the ghosts in his life, ghosts that made life so difficult for many or most African American males in the early twentieth century.

 

Troy Maxson is one of those characters that takes command of every scene as he depicts a man who by his personality and presence would be described as bigger than life. Were he in a different demographic, he would be the life of every party; as it is Troy is the center of every discussion of which he is a part. By sheer force of spirit, personality, or anger fueled resentment in response to the hand life has dealt Troy imposes himself as well as his thoughts and beliefs on those with whom he interacts.

fences-14Troy shines the brightest light or casts the darkest shadow to every gathering and conversation. Troy is known for his gift of gab and storytelling as well as his passion for baseball. His good, and perhaps only friend Bono tells Troy he “has some Uncle Remus in him,” as he has the ability and seeming compulsion to mythologize and spin any life event or experience. While blessed with talent reserved for only the best of the best baseball players of his time, Troy had the misfortune of barely missing out on the integration of the major leagues. The result of this loss for Troy (and so many others black baseball stars who never made the majors) is that the game that defines his life no longer brings joy, but rather renewed resentment. Each season, if not every game in each season, when he sees much lesser players succeed he is reminded of what could have been as well as what should have been.

fences-7As Troy often says, the finest woman he knows is his wife Rose (Viola Davis) who requires all the strength of the “steel magnolia” she is so as to stand with, and when necessary, up to the force that is Troy. Because of her relationship with and proximity to Troy, Rose, more than anyone including Troy himself, must live out Maxson’s maxim for baseball, which provides Troy the setting and secrets to understanding life itself; “you got to take the crookeds with the straights.” When Troy is a “straight,” no one makes life more alive, and when he is a crooked, no one makes life more delicate or complicated. Throughout the film, Rose enjoys more “straights” as well as endures more “crookeds” than most persons would ever hope or expect.

In addition to opening a window into the lives of working-class African American families in the first half of the twentieth century, Fences also presents the contrasting choices everyone has to life’s challenges. Troy is never able to move past the hurt and pain he received from life. Whether it is abuse directed at him by his father or the racist society he grew up in, Troy lives by the survival lessons learned from those times, even though the times have changed. fences-3Troy believes it is his “duty” as a father to prepare his younger son Cory for life in the same world in which he grew up. Even though the world in the mid-1950’s to early 1960’s, far from perfect, it had and was continuing to change from Troy’s world in the 1920’s to 1940’s. In addition to what could be considered emotional abuse toward his son and wife, Troy believes his life challenges have entitled him to selfish indulgences. Though he knows his action is a betrayal, he also believes he is owed something in life, and when offered, he accepts it without ambivalence.

fences-5On the other end of the spectrum of choices in response to life’s challenges are Rose’s choices. Rather than responding to pain and anger by inflicting pain onto others and living off anger, Rose responds with grace and hope. As with Troy, Rose has had challenges and disappointments in life. Rose has fears associated with living continually on the financial edge. She worries about the world her son is about to face on his own.Yet, Rose chooses to look and live for the positives and possibilities in people and situations. Even when betrayed and asked to do the unimaginable, Rose seeks to find and model grace so as to bring beauty even into ugly circumstances. Rose matches and exceeds the selfishness of Troy with a selflessness that brings light into the darkest shadow cast by her husband.

In his ethical teachings, most notably his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks to these two ways of living. Rose’s actions are the epitome of the Kingdom of God and those who living blessed lives. She does hunger and suffers for righteousness, she is perpetually a peacemaker, she demonstrates to others what it is to be pure in heart, she is poor in the spirit that is ego and anger, and she is merciful. In life and in these and other ways of faithfulness, Rose is blessed. Some today might be critical of her decision not to leave her husband and thereby continue to expose herself and her son to the emotional abuse of Troy. However, the prospects of being able to provide a better life in that day and age would have been doubtful.

With the vast majority of the film taking place in and around the Maxson house, as well asFENCES the manner and delivery of the dialogue, Fences has the feel of a play rather than a film which suits this material very well. August Wilson is indeed credited as the screenwriter as Denzel Washington used a screenplay Wilson had written before his death in 2005. The setting, script, staging and performances allow viewers to fully experience the transformational arcs of Troy, whose decline and weakness emerge from his demonstrations of strength, and Rose whose growth and strength are unveiled through her Kingdom living by grace and meekness.
In addition to Washington and Davis, Stephen Henderson (Bono,) Russell Hornsby (Lyons,) and Mykelty Williamson (Gabriel) reprised their roles from the 2010 Broadway production. While the entire cast offers superb performances, Viola Davis provides a performance for the ages that is powerfully profound and vulnerable.

Fences is a powerful film that speaks to life; to the joys of friendship and family as well as living through disappointment, conflict, and the broken places in life. The intensity of the film, however, is well managed with depictions of humor and times of happiness and joy. Fences is rated PG-13 for language.

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Film Review: Collateral Beauty

imageOne can describe Collateral Beauty as a film that is powerful cubed.  It has powerful performances of a powerful subject that can have a powerful impact on viewers.  Collateral Beauty is a film about profound loss, pain, and the restorative power of love.  Viewers may have the temptation to skip the film so as not to be reminded of the pain that is a part of life. For some, it may take them back to a time and place of loss, or it may speak to those who, as of yet, have not experienced tragedy but realize and fear their vulnerability to being caught in its wake.  For those who have been through the tunnel that is tragedy and come out on the other side, the film offers reminders of the struggle as well as the reality that wholeness can be achieved even in the most broken of situations. For those still in the tunnel, the film offers hope that though not the same, a new life with joy and happiness is possible.

imageWill Smith stars as Howard, a founder, and CEO of a successful advertising firm who suffers perhaps the most feared and painful loss imaginable. Set three years following his loss, Howard is paralyzed by his mourning and is in danger of now losing his business. In the years since his loss, his only contribution to his firm is his spending days and weeks setting up elaborate domino designs which he then knocks over with but a push. Howard has stopped building and maintaining relationships in a business built on his talent and magnetism. While initially patient, clients are now moving on to other firms and the only out is a buyout offered by a larger agency.

imageThe only true connection to life Howard has is through his writing letters to those whom he believes are responsible for his pain, Love, Time, and Death. Howard’s friends and co-workers, Whit (Edward Norton,) Claire (Kate Winslet,) and Simon (Michael Pena) seek to reach Howard before it is too late by employing actors to personify these characters and connect with him so Howard can confront those whom he blames. The hope is that he will either snap out of his condition so he can close on the sale of his company or have him declared incompetent and be able to finish the buyout and avoid everyone losing everything.

imageAfter accepting the gig, Brigitte/Death (Helen Mirren,) Amy/Love (Keira Knightley,) and Raffi/Time (Jacob Latimor) read the letters Howard has written. After further debriefing from one of the friends, each approach Howard allowing him to confront them as well as hear from them about the full nature of the characters they are playing. As it turns out, Howard is not the only character who is experiencing trials of life. Because of some comedic moments and a broadening of focus, Collateral Beauty is not as intense, burdensome, or heavy as other films addressing loss. Will Smith’s 2006 The Pursuit of Happiness was much heavier and more difficult to watch.

In some ways, the film echoes Dickens’s A Christmas Carol by the presentation of the power of loss to change people and morph into anger which not only prohibits healing and becoming whole again, albeit with scars but also impacts and damages the lives of others.

Before the visitation of the three Christmas ghosts, Scrooge’s grief-fueled anger brought collateral damage to everyone with whom he had relationships or contact with, as well as those he did not. While not expressing the bitterness and mean-spiritedness of Ebeneezer, Howard’s failure to move through his mourning and his becoming paralyzed in his life and relationships had collateral damage to those with whom he had personal and business collateralrelationships. Howard’s preoccupation with the domino structures is symbolic of his life. With one action, an entire chain reaction of collateral destruction occurs. For Howard, this chain reaction following his loss is now taking down his business and impacting the lives of everyone in his life and business.

imageReversing the concept of collateral damage, damage or destruction that is beyond the intended target, is the complex idea that the film’s title and story lift up in a direct and powerful way. The idea that there can be beauty that comes out of loss and tragedy is central to Christian theology and experience of God.  The Apostle Paul teaches the Christians in Rome that in all things God works for good for those who love God, and that nothing in all creation, not even death, has more power than the power of God to love and for that love to be experienced. The collateral damage of humanity not trusting and turning away from God as illustrated in the story of Adam and Eve was that all creation was impacted and separated from God by sin.  The collateral beauty of that loss was the opportunity for God to demonstrate the unimaginable depth of God’s love for humanity and creation. The damage of the cross was the suffering and death of Jesus. The collateral beauty was the defeat of mortality, the offering, on an individual level, of forgiveness and reconciliation with God and life everlasting in God’s Kingdom.

As with almost every film, there are some things I would change in Collateral Beauty. However, it is a film that is worthy of viewing on both the level of entertainment as well as the message of hope and the power of love and life.

Collateral Beauty is rated PG-13.

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