All Are In Need of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Beautiful day photo 11

Focus Features

The 2018 documentary film about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor is one of the finest films in recent years.  Even though it was not in the genre of Faith Films, its presentation of Fred Roger’s quiet, humble faith and his faithfully living out his discipleship call to present the love of God to others (the calling of people of all faiths) it was the most effective faith film I have seen. Additionally, given the anxiety, anger, and division of our time, the film’s depiction of Mr. Roger’s genuineness in caring for others and living a life of peace, Won’t You Be My Neighbor remains one of the most important films of our time.

Given this impact of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, I remember as I walked out of the theater being skeptical about the announced, upcoming biopic about Mr. Rogers, even if it was starring Tom Hanks. My thought was how could an actor, even as talented as Tom Hanks present Fred Rogers better than Fred Rogers?

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Sony TriStar

Walking out of the screening of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood I thought, Director Marielle Heller, writers Micah Fitzman-Blue and Noah Harpster, and Tom Hanks had threaded a very small needle as “Beautiful Day” was not only a very good film, it was a wonderful companion to Won’t You Be My Neighbor.  Although both films have commonality in their depiction of Mr. Rogers and his program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, when looking at both films together, “Neighbor” offers more of a macro, cultural perspective of Fred through his PBS Program, while “Beautiful Day” offers a micro view of the impact of Fred Rogers’s way of living on an individual. In so doing, it serves as a role model for living a peaceful, faithful, loving life.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based on the true story of the friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod who met when Junod was assigned to interview Fred Rogers for a series of stories on Heroes for Esquire Magazine. In the film, Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd Vogel, a character based on Junod. With a reputation as a top A Beautiful Day pic2investigative reporter, Vogel is resistant to accept the assignment to interview a man who is known for his sugar-sweet children’s TV program. Later, Vogel discovers that all of the other “Hero” subjects refused to allow him to interview them because of his reputation for attacking the subjects of his stories. Mr. Rogers not only agreed to allow Vogel to do the interview but Rogers sought him out.

The overarching theme for the film is the same as Fred’s iconic program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, having love for neighbors. Though unspoken, the ordained Presbyterian minister uses the definition of neighbor offered by Jesus. A neighbor is not just those who live next door or even those in the same family or community. A neighbor is any and every person. Rogers also follows the command in both the old and new testaments that one is commanded to love one’s neighbor as one loves themselves.

Beautiful day photo 7In order to be able to love a neighbor, one has to take time to see and get to know them. Where the other Heroes of the Esquire spread saw Vogel as an attack journalist who wrote with a laptop as well as a hatchet, Rogers saw Lloyd as someone living an angry, pain-filled life. Taking the time to literally read between the lines, Rogers saw in Lloyd someone who had life-wounds that were still raw. Upon recognizing this anger and injury, Mr. Rogers shared more than just information about himself with Vogel, he shared himself by establishing a relationship with Lloyd. As with any friendship, Fred took a risk in sharing who he was and what he believed. One of the most important depictions of “Beautiful Day” was Fred Rogers had the rare attribute that he was what he believed. And, what Fred believed was that all persons are special children of God who deserve to be loved and cared for, especially when they are wounded and even angry. For Fred, and all persons of faith, a difficult personality or situation does not release one from their duty to care for others and in doing so, share God’s peace.

beautiful day photo3In addition to a commitment to love one’s neighbors whether they be next door, family, friends, strangers, and even enemies, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood also depicts Fred Rogers’s living a peace-filled and peace-filling life. While many, including Lloyd, assume that the persona of Mister Rogers is a role for Fred Rogers, Lloyd and the audience discover that the man and the character are the same. Fred Rogers truly lives life at peace, even in the midst of a world that is so often in conflict. Put in a theological perspective, Fred lives a life of Shalom, peaceful wholeness even in the midst of tremendous conflict and uncertainty.

In the film, Rogers prays for his neighbors, and their loved ones, by name every day. Though unstated explicitly, the message conveyed is that spiritual disciplines such as prayer, scripture reading, and reflection, as well as serving others draws one closer to God. The closer then one is to God, the more apt one is to realize the certain, faithful presence of God. This certainty of God allows one to live peacefully even in the most uncertain circumstances.

beautiful day photo 12By risking and reaching out to someone he knew was struggling, Fred Rogers helped Lloyd Vogel (Tom Junod) live more peacefully and experience the beauty that is the neighborhood of God. “Beautiful Day” is for fans and those familiar with Fred Rogers as well as those who never once stopped by his neighborhood. As with those who watched PBS staple, all who watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood will be better off for it.  

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is rated PG for minimal mature language and one physical confrontation.

 

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Finding Jesus in Joker

joker 5

Warner Brothers

SPOILERS Included

Hidden in the darkness of themes, setting, and characters, Joker is a film that is both dense and nuanced in symbolism, message and its reflection of our times. Although it can be a challenge at times to watch, (it is a hard R )for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Joker has something to say to and about us and presents Christ’s Gospel in a unique way.

The aim of the film, set in 1981 Gotham City is to “pre-boot” the Joker character and part of the Batman franchise by providing background and insight into how Arthur Fleck became Joker. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur is one of both power and jokersubtlety. Fleck is a down on his luck clown for hire and wannabe comedian who is struggling against poverty, crime, the cruelty of others, as well as his and his mother’s mental illnesses. Arthur is just on the edge of functioning and his mother (Francis Conroy) is just over the edge.  For Arthur and his mother, if past and present are prologues, their future is utterly void of light and hope. As the story develops it is evident the majority of the Gotham’s citizens are “have-nots” and also succumbing to the downward pull of the city.

In the face of so many challenges and afflictions, one is tempted to compare Arthur to Job of the Old Testament. But even in this comparison, Arthur loses out as Job, prior to his afflictions, had a fulfilled and happy life, something Arthur has never enjoyed. The only respite Arthur has from his struggles is through his fantasy of being a successful comedian and being on the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) Show, Gotham’s version of Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show. Because Arthur is in almost every scene, the audience as well has little relief in witnessing the increasing struggles and decline Arthur experiences as he slowly transforms into Joker.

There are two cultural references in Joker that have the effect of characters “breaking the fourth wall” and addressing the audience, the Sinatra song “That’s Life” and Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film “Modern Times.” It’s hard to imagine a viewer not leaving the theater without having “That’s Life” playing as an earworm.  Given its repeated use and prominent placement, it is hard not to interpret it as Phillips’s comment on life both within and beyond the film. This statement is given more voice by Phillips’s inclusion of Modern Time. Like Arthur Fleck, and many of Gotham’s struggling class who are on the verge of rioting against “the Rich,” Chaplin’s “Tramp” struggled in Modern Times to adapt to life in the machine age where his purpose as a laborer and identity as a human being are stripped away resulting in a downward social and mental spiral.

joker 13In Joker, Chaplin’s Modern Times is shown as part of a High Society, Gala. The irony is hard to miss as “The Rich” of Gotham City gather in an exquisite theater, their laughter at the “Tramp” skating on the verge of disaster, set against the shouting of protestors whose anger is on the verge of boiling over into rage. Through these two references, Todd Phillips is stating “that’s life” in Gotham, as well as our modern times and place.

A major byproduct of our modern times, as well as Gotham, is garbage. Part of the setting for Joker is a garbage strike that has ratcheted up the misery for most of Gotham’s residents. Gotham’s garbage strike symbolizes the refusal of much of society to attend to the emotional refuse that is a consequence of our life in modern times. Rather than do the necessary work to remove our emotional baggage, it is easier to ignore it by wrapping it up and putting it on the curb outside our consciousness. In Joker, the consequences of garbage piling up in the streets are super-rats. For us, the consequence of internalizing fear, anger, and discontent is dysfunction, whether in the form of opiate and other drug use, mass shootings, or increasing tribal segregation.

One of the more controversial elements of the film is the depiction of mental illness. Some believe Joker depicts those with mental illness in stereotypical negative lights. While there is a long history of films depicting mental illness in false, harmful lights, Phillip’s portrayal is not of mental illness, but rather a reflection of the shameful way much of society views and treats persons with mental illness. Arthur voices this point when he observes in his journal “the worst part of having a mental illness is the world expects you to act as if you don’t have it.”

joker 2Through Arthur, Todd Phillips is lifting up the tendency in our modern time to blame individuals for their mental illness. Such culpability often results in individuals not seeking treatment, living under the stress of acting as if they do not have their illness and then being judged when their illness is manifest. This stress often magnifies the symptoms and maladaptive behavior resulting in a cycle of stress, flair-ups, judgment, and more stress.

Perhaps the darkest element of Joker is the lack of a hero and suggestion of hope. While it is easy to see Joker as the villain, Arthur’s accountability is more ambiguous, as is that of Gotham society. Arthur did not set out to be Joker, he wanted to be a clown and comedian, but he could not overcome the obstacles of poverty and physical and emotional abuse that caused or contributed to his mental illness.

Though he believed himself to be the only person who could save Gotham, Thomas Wayne, (Brett Cullen) the uber-wealthy industrialist and father of Bruce Wayne repeatedly failed Arthur when given the opportunity to intervene. Gotham society joker 10likewise failed to protect Arthur as a child or provide effective care and therapy for him as an adult. During one of his social work meetings Arthur tells his caseworker, “you don’t listen to me” to which his caseworker acknowledges such and then tells him their program has been cut and he is on his own to negotiate his plan of care.

In Chapter 6 of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches the actions or inactions of people lead to blessings or woes. Those who seek to live in, by, and for Christ and the Kingdom of God will receive blessings after their woes. Those who live in, by, and for worldly success will receive woes after their earthly blessings collapse. By offering woes of laughter and joker 15condemnation rather than blessings of concern and care to Arthur and others who are vulnerable and suffering, Wayne and all of Gotham experience the woes of their indifference through the rise of Joker and his disciples. Phillips concludes the film by punctuating this reality of woe with the reprise of “That’s Life.”

Ironically, it is in the presentation of the utterly woeful reality of life in Gotham and modern times where one finds Jesus in Joker. What all the money, power, and professed good intentions of the Thomas Waynes and other features of Gotham society cannot to, the humble love, grace, and power of Jesus can do.  The Good News in Joker is that in Christ we are not destined for Gotham; rather in Christ we are children of God assured of a place in God’s Kingdom where there are no woes, but only blessings upon blessings.

Joker is rated R for Language, and  Violence

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Up + 10

The signature moment of Up is the “Married Life” sequence where Ellie’s and Carl’s lives together are presented, from their exchanging “I do” to their saying “goodbye.” Functionally the montage establishes the narrative foundation and insight into Carl’s character and motivation that the rest of the film is built on. If this sequence does not work, the film does not work nor connect with the audience.

Echoing the feel and poignancy of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid and City Lights, “Married Life” is as effective a sequence as has ever been put on film. Cinematically the life stage vignettes connect seamlessly and the music signals, symbolizes, and connects Ellie’s and Carl’s emotions with those of the audience.

To add greater depth, “Married Life” shows the entire arc of a marriage beginning with the joy and excitement that comes with the possibilities of new beginnings as well as the joy that should be experienced in life’s routines and setbacks. The sequence also shares the sadness and grief experienced when life sojourns through the valleys of loss.

Obviously, there are limits to what can be depicted in 4:00 minutes, but “Married Life” shows the healthy way to journey through grief. First, it depicts the acceptance and grieving of loss. The sequence then shows continuing life’s journey and finding happiness and meaning in different, perhaps older purposes and goals in life.

As with any character-driven film, it is the connection between characters and between the characters and audience that determines the immediate success and any lasting impact of the film. “Married Life” cements the bond between Ellie and Carl and between them and the audience. As often happens in life, such bonds continue after death. With Ellie, it is her “spirit of adventure” that is felt by Carl and the audience throughout the rest of the film.

The “Married Life” sequence in Up enhances the film’s theme that “adventure is out there” and should be pursued, but it also reminds the viewer that the spirit of love is found within and should be nurtured and shared.

Click the link to view the “Married Life” sequence.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=9yjAFMNkCDo

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Rocketman Is a Sub-orbital Flight of Fantasy

via Rocketman Is a Sub-orbital Flight of Fantasy

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Rocketman Is a Sub-orbital Flight of Fantasy

As Elton John struggled with his identity through his early adult through middle age years, “Rocketman” wrestles with its genre and purpose. Is the film a celebration of the music of an iconic artist and pop-culture figure, or is it a story that offers greater insight into the man behind the costumes and eyeglasses. In trying to be both, each part, and the film as w whole is diminished.

Some people would prefer the former while others the latter. Perhaps a predictor of who would like which is those who enjoy Greatest Hits albums will likely leave Rocketman more satisfied than those who prefer the style concepts and story construction of individual albums.

Those desiring a celebration of music will likely respond to the film’s creative use of the music to reflect many of the emotions and struggles of the music icon’s celebrated and challenging life. However, impressive as the music and choreography are during these sequences, some will experience a disconnect. The songs and life situation they are connected to make it seem as if the songs were written about Elton’s life, when, as Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, they are more reflective of his life and experiences than his writing partner, friend and artistic brother.

Additionally, one of the film’s central performance pieces is the wonderfully choreographed and edited montage of Elton performing Pinball Wizard. While a hit and movie role for Elton I’m sure Pete Townsand hopes everyone remembers it is his and The Who’s mega-hit.

Those who are looking for experiential insight into the music, and men whose partnership created one of pop music’s preeminent catalogues, will likely be more disappointed in the film. Viewers will leave with only a cursory awareness that Reggie Dwight was considered a musical prodigy, that he came from a dysfunctional home where he was emotionally neglected save for love given to him by his grandmother, and he spent much of his life trying to fill that void. For fans and those familiar with Elton’s biography, this is not news.

Again the primary consequence of trying to be both a celebration of music and a biopic film, Rocketman is only able to cover the highlights of Elton’s life and music. Left out were the deeper cuts of music and nuanced insight into his life struggles and especially his recovery.

Most disappointing was the lack of any mention of Elton’s relationship with Ryan White, a teen from Indiana with hemophilia who contracted HIV through a blood transfusion in 1984

After being diagnosed and treated for AIDS, Ryan and his family were shunned by the School district, their church and many residents and businesses in the community. Upon hearing of their struggles Elton reached out to the family and developed a relationship with Ryan and his mother Jeanne. Elton was with Ryan when he died and sung one of his and Taupin’s earliest songs, Skyline Pigeon at Ryan’s 1990 funeral. Elton credits Ryan and Jeanne for helping inspire him to finally achieve and maintain sobriety.

At one point in the film, Elton seeks and receives solace from his younger self, Reggie Dwight. It is disappointing that film did not depict the actual comfort and strength Elton received from a child who experienced and overcame similar rejection and isolation that had such a traumatic impact on so much of Elton’s adult life. Also in a time when fear fueled anger toward “others” and those “different” is again on the rise, a reminder of the transformative courage and grace of Ryan White could perhaps have spoken to many.

From a technical standpoint the film stands out with treasure trove of exceptional cinematography, production design, editing, and hair & makeup. It goes without saying that costume design, much of which was modeled after Elton’s one of a kind costumes and sense of style was dynamic. Lastly the musical score, based on Elton’s songs, is naturally a tremendous strength.

Taron Egerton (Kingsmen: The Secret Service) resembles John in both look and singing without coming across as trying and for an exact imitation.

Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Fantastic Four) a bit more artificial in his presentation of the famously more reserve partner and lyricist Bernie Taupin.

Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) offers a convincing performance as seductively smooth and manipulating John Reid, Elton’s lover and business manager. As the One time manager for Queen, Reid was portrayed in both Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody (Aiden Gillen.)

Director Dexter Fletcher’s (Bohemian Rhapsody) direction is ambitious and at times audacious, but it’s hard to imagine subtlety in a biopic or musical celebration of Elton John and or his music.

In spite not reaching its intended orbit, watching Rocketman is an enjoyable experience, especially for those who experienced the music, the times, and the celebrated life of the former Reginald Kenneth Dwight.

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Review: Losers

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Photos Courtesy of Netflix

NFL coaching legend Vince Lombardi regretted his gospelizing the statement, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Had he the power he would have rather been known more for saying something along the lines of, “the commitment and dedication to winning is the only thing.” If he regretted the winning is the only thing quote, I suspect he would also amend his other famous quote, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”

Losers is a Netflix original series about “people who were good in the midst of losing. It is also a series that speaks truth to the power that is the winner OR loser mentality that has been woven into the tapestry of society.  The very title of the series is indicative of the way most of society labels those who fail to win. Depending on the nature of the loss, they are not people who lost, but they are losers. Such castigation of those who lose and the opposing adoration of those who win and are thus winners is evidence of the idolization of winning.  The eight stories in Losers state unequivocally that losing does not make one a loser, and indeed losing can help one win what is truly important, the peace that comes with a true understanding of what is winning and losing.

Each of the 25-40 minute episodes shines a light on people known best for losing, or as many would say, famous for being losers. The shining light, however, is not how they have merely coped with losing, being a loser, but how in losing they found redemption, meaning, and an appreciation for what is truly important in life.

losers 3To people of the Christian faith, each episode speaks to the nature and differences of the worldly life we were born in to and the Kingdom life to which we are called and into which we are baptized. As is repeated throughout Scripture, those who are considered losers, or that which is considered losing in the judgment of the world, are often winners in God’s criteria and Kingdom. This reality is repeated again and again in the teaching, life, and ministry of Jesus as well as Paul and others.

As Jesus teaches in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s sermon on the Plain, those who are blessed in God’s kingdom are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who suffer for righteousness, ie losers in the estimation of worldly standards and standard bearers.  Likewise, Jesus warns against acquiring and storing earthly riches, the notoriety, and fame that comes with winning, because they are all susceptible to degradation and loss, versus Kingdom blessings that are not at risk of loss or decline.

Jesus warns against the love of and devotion to winning in worldly terms such that one loses that which is truly desirable and meaning filled. The devotion and sole focus to win and the prize of notoriety that comes with it can instead lead to loss of that which is truly important, namely, life, and the peace and joy of love for and of others. Running through each episode is the teaching of Paul that in losing, as in all things, God seeks to work for good.

Jean Van de VeldeFor each of the subjects, losing was not what they desired or thought to be good. But in each, losing opened them to experiences ultimately more meaningful and satisfying than the temporary enjoyment and notoriety that winning would have brought them. One example of such is the story of French Golfer Jean van de Velde, who after losing a three-shot lead on the final hole of the 1999 Open Championship (British Open) and along with that the honor of having his name inscribed on the famous Claret Jug. Instead, he ended up having his name inscribed on the hearts of many of the young French golfers he later inspired and coached, as well as the lives of children he impacted through his work with UNICEF. Had he won the Open, it is less likely he would have been able to devote attention and time to these causes.

Many of these teachings in scripture, especially Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and Plain, are met with a, “yes that would be nice, but“ mentality.  Losers answers worldly skepticism regarding the application of Kingdom teaching and ways in our time and place.

While all eight episodes are compelling and reflect redemption and character that can be experienced and developed in loss and struggle.  The five episodes listed below may most easily resonate for sermons or small group discussions.

The Miscast Champion:  Heavyweight boxer Michael Bentt unexpectedly wins the championship, but a knockout loss in his first title defense changes his life and helps him find his passion and purpose. (24 Mins)  Biblical Connection: Peter and failures and Redemption, The impossibility of serving two masters,  Matthew 6: 24

Judgment: French skater Surya Bonaly’s struggles with winning an Olympic medal and World Championship as well as acceptance because of her color and skating style. 37mins  Biblical Connection: Blessings and Woes Luke 6:22-26, Matthew 5:1-11

Aliy: Sled dog musher Aliy Zirkle spent years attempting to win the Iditarod Championship, yet after several close finishes, she has yet to win. Her determination and fortitude are also tested after a harrowing experience in one race.  33 mins    Biblical Connection:  Forgive Enemies Luke 6:27-36, Matthew 5:43-48,  Forgetting what lies behind or ahead and pressing on to the goal  Philippians 3, Perseverance in running the race, Hebrews 12,

Black Jack: Jack Ryan was a legendary basketball player on the street courts throughout New York City. He was also someone who sabotaged repeated opportunities for college and pro careers. Through perseverance and a final opportunity, he is able to make a life in basketball and impact the lives of many children.  33 mins   Biblical Connection:  Prodigal Son Parable, Luke 15:11

The 72nd Hole:  The heartbreak and peace for Jean van de Velde following an epic loss on the final hole of the 1999 Open Championship.   28 mins    Biblical Connection:  Teachings concerning treasure  Matthew 6:19-21

Losers Rating: TV-MA for language.

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Ike’s Farewell Resonates Powerfully Now

img_3401This 16-minute speech is President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation. As supreme allied commander in Europe during World War 2, Dwight Eisenhower bore as heavy a responsibility as anyone in the 20th Century. This, one of his final acts after 50 years of service to the nation is very much worth the time to watch.

With the 1960 election, much of the nation desired to pass the torch of leadership to the rising generation. Many at the time considered Eisenhower a sleepy, out of touch grandfather, whose time had passed. Though far from a great communicator, what he lacked as an orator, Dwight Eisenhower more than made up for with his vision.

img_3400Known as the “Military Industrial Complex” speech, President Eisenhower’s farewell address goes far beyond that issue in addressing the challenges the nation would, and we now face. Central to his call is the place of statesmanship and the need for balanced cooperation between the private and public sphears. He also challenged the nation to resist the temptation to use fear as a tool of governing and put the needs of the nation above personal and partisan benefit.  Perhaps he was not in touch with the time of Camelot, but this speech shows Eisenhower was very much in touch with the challenges facing our nation through the ages.

 

 

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