From its earliest days, films have depicted people and the lives they live. December 28th 1895 is considered the birthday of cinema as Luis and Auguste Lumière first projected a moving image onto a screen, a train pulling into the station in La Ciotat France. The image was captured by the Lumieres when they placed their Cinématographe, a device that both recorded and projected images, next to the tracks and recorded a train pulling up to the platform. Since then, showing the lives of people, whether in documentary or dramatic form, has been the driving force behind Cinema.

In his film 1917, writer/director Sam Mendes takes the audience back in time as he shows people struggling through a horrendous place and time, the Western Front during World War 1.  1917 depicts two British infantrymen given a most dangerous mission, to work their way beyond the trenches through “no man’s land,” into and through territory the Germans had just evacuated yet was likely still populated by pockets of enemy soldiers, and deliver a message to save 1600 men from a German ambush. Although the story is about the two men on a dangerous mission, there is a third person on the journey, the viewer. Mendes’s goal in the film is to expose the audience to the experience of one of the most brutal and tragic events of the 20th Century, “The Great War.”

To increase the sense of the viewer’s being there, Mendes uses a series of very long, single-shot sequences that give the feeling that the film is taking place in real-time. Other directors have sought to make films to appear as one shot, but none have attempted it on such a grand scale. While the Lumière brothers set up their static camera on the La Ciotat train platform, Mendes snakes his camera through the trenches, battlefield, bombed-out farm, and war-torn city, showing the viewers where the war was fought and where soldiers and non-combatants lived and died.  Although the energy of the film is experienced in the combat sequences, Mendes offers glimpses into the other experiences of war, the downtime boredom, hunger, and human connections that arise when people of different lives, cultures, families, and nations are thrown together.

While Mendes is rightly receiving praise, and awards (Golden Globe Winner for Best Direction) much of the weight of the film rests on the shoulders of the two leading characters, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal  Schofield (George MacKay.) Regardless of the technical wizardry, masterful sets, planning, and direction, the success of the film depends mostly on the ability of Chapman and Schofield to grab the audience’s attention and keep it for the entirety of the two-hour film.

MacKay and Chapman deliver powerful performances conveying an array of emotions including cynicism forged in the fog of battle and the mistakes of command, courage amidst fear, tender generosity within utter brutality, and determination to fulfill the mission and keep a promise.  While both actors more than accomplish this, MacKay should be in conversations for best actor awards. Colin Firth (General Erinmore) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Col. Mackenzie) lead a large supporting cast, who given the fluid nature of the film, appear briefly in single scenes. Claire Duburcq, as the only woman in the cast, offers a touching performance as a young woman trapped by the fighting in what was once her home town.

Another masterful accomplishment in 1917 is the production design (Dennis Gassner) and staging. The moment Blake and Schofield go over the wall of the trench into no man’s land they enter a world as alien as another planet, and they take the viewers with them.  All around is death, whether it be the bomb craters, tangled, flesh-hungry barbed wire, human and equine corpses, or the foraging rats which, although alive, represent death.  Death also lingers beyond no man’s land, but it is mixed with the signs of life and nature that seem to mockingly remind the combatants and viewer of the goodness and beauty of life that used to flourish.

In bad diction to the visual feel, Thomas Newman’s beautifully haunting score effectively mirrors and enhances the drama and emotional peaks and valleys throughout the film. The inclusion of a soldier’s (Jos Slovick) mournful offering of “Wayfaring Stranger” prior to a battle articulates the feelings, fear, and place of those consigned to face the ultimate manifestation of human brokenness.

Viewers familiar with the war film genre will recognize elements of other war films. Echoing Paul in the World War 1 Film All Quiet on the Western Front, Schofield shares how the war has changed him and more importantly, his experience of home. There is also the tension of urban combat where the enemy could be around every turn and in every bombed-out window as shown in Full Metal Jacket and American Sniper among others. There are the surreal sensory experiences that accompany the transformation of a typical town into a monstrous battle jungle, and humanity into a beastly caricature depicted in Apocalypse Now.  From Saving Private Ryan there is going forward on a seemingly impossible mission as well as the intimate nature that can accompany the life and death struggle of hand to hand combat. The extended tracking shots also recall the film signature of Stanley Kubrick in his World War 1 masterpiece, Paths of Glory as well as the earlier mentioned Full Metal Jacket.

Given the intimacy and real-time presentation of 1917, the viewer feels perhaps the most difficult part of surviving combat, leaving behind those who fall. What is the most personal and solemn occasion in life is often hardly noticed on the battlefield. When death comes in wave after wave there is little, if any time to mourn the loss nor sanctify the place of the fallen. Combat does not allow for such luxuries as another fight seems always to be calling.

The film is dedicated to Alfred Mendes, Sam Mendes’s grandfather who served in the war as a Lance Corporal in the British Army. Unlike most veterans, he shared his stories and experiences with this family. Through the film, Mendes preserves the memory of this tragic conflagration, the suffering and sacrifice of combatants, family, and civilians. Perhaps it also calls viewers to give pause to the thought of war as a way to settle national and cultural disputes.

1917 is worthy of Best Picture consideration.

Faith Connection:

1917 calls persons of the Jewish and Christian faiths to truly consider the Ten Commandments, especially of not killing, coveting, or worshipping false gods such as material wealth and worldly power. Additionally, the film challenges Christians to consider as authoritative the teaching, and command of Christ to love even one’s enemies and return love for insult and injury.

Although Jesus included no exclusions to this teaching and His life example, too often His followers dismiss them as aspirational, something not possible in the “real” world. While it is easy to label this teaching as unrealistic in the what is less noted is how following these central instructions could prevent escalation of social or political tension into combat.

There is no greater example of such escalation of conflict into combat into conflagration than the First World War. Of course the Armistice of 11/11/1918 was only a 21 year pause to the decimation that was Second World War. This escalation cycle continued through the Cold War and the proxy-wars that continue to this day.

1917 serves serves as a suggestion that, in the midst of the repeated failure of the ways of the “real” world, it might be time to give the Way of Christ a try.

1917 is rated R and opened in wide release December 12.


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Little Women

little women 5Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved book Little Women deserves the accolades and overwhelmingly positive reviews it has received. There is probably no greater challenge in filmmaking than adapting beloved literary works. Typically there have already been film adaptations as well as the original book against which the film will be measured on both artistic and emotional levels.

For devotees of the original work, there is typically a love-hate relationship to filmed adaptations; they appreciate the validation that their beloved book merited a film version but they hate the surgery to the story that film length and budget usually require. More subtly, adapting from one medium to another, literature to stage, film, or visa-versa, necessitates a degree of translation as each medium is experienced and processed by the audience in different ways.

When done well, adaptations of classic stories present the essence of the original story’s themes, which typically reflect the author’s world view and life experiences, seasoned by the modern artist’s life experience and worldview. Gerwig’s adaptation of the Alcott novel falls into the well-done category. The affinity Greta feels toward Alcott is obvious no doubt because she also faced and overcome the challenges of being a female attempting to break into a male-dominated industry.

Little women 8Set during the American Civil War, Little Women is a story of family love, hope in the face of challenges, and the power of community to support, nurture and overcome life’s trials. Led by the untiring matriarch Marmee, the March family endures anxiety of the absence of the father who went to war as well as the day to day financial challenges of a family now without a primary source of income. In the midst of these and other challenges, the sisters maintain their close bonds. In addition to their commitment to each other, the family learns through their mother to respond to the call to serve others who are less fortunate and equipped to endure hardship and want. Marmee models that serving does not begin until the service and giving are sacrificial. Even when such service calls to them to make greater than anticipated sacrifices, including the ultimate sacrifice, they retain their spirit and refrain from sliding into bitterness and anger that accompanies loss and grief.

In the March family, particularly the 4 sisters, there is a spirit of living life to the fullest. Individual differences of personality, as well as strengths and weaknesses, are seen as more complementary and necessary to the family than clashing and distinguished for the individuals. While competition and conflict that bends some of the relationships are unavoidable between four sisters, the March sisters do not allow such to break the family bond of love and devotion.

In addition to serving others as an act of discipleship, the film effectively presents Alcott’s overriding theme that individuals are to live their lives rather than live out the roles and expectations others place upon them. Though not stated, the film presents the  Biblical understanding that individuals have their specific talents and interests and each person should live into the passion and calling given to them by God.

little women 6Saoirse Ronan makes the perfect Jo as she commands full attention whenever she is on screen, and even sometimes when she is not. Saoirse does not take all the oxygen in her scenes, she is the oxygen. Florence Pugh also offers a strong performance as Amy, the artist sister and, as Aunt March (Meryl Streep) christens her, the family’s “only hope” to marry well and assure the family’s financial and social status. Eliza Scanlen depicts the fragile Beth with the right amount of delicacy and vulnerable innocence. Emma Watson is functional if a bit young as older sister Meg. Laura Dern shows appropriate strength and miracle worker talents as Marmee, the mother and chief cat-herder of the rambunctious four sisters.   The supporting cast, led by Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, and Bob Odenkirk are, unsurprisingly, strong and greatly add to the nuance and depth of the story.

The cinematography is exquisite as is the costuming. Gerwig was committed to recreating the look and feel of the time period in the film and spent time researching in the Metropolitan Museum where she received ideas from portraits and paintings from the time period.

One criticism of the film is that it is can be difficult to distinguish the different times when the film flashes backward and forward in time. While the use of this technique adds texture to the telling of the story, it can also be a source of confusion, particularly for those unfamiliar with the story and characters. Casting others to portray the sisters in their younger years or some other visual clue would have helped avoid confusion, especially toward the beginning of the film.

Little Women is on many best films of 2019 lists and has received many nominations including Golden Globe nominations for Saoirse Ronan for Best Actress in a Drama. The film is rated PG and is appropriate for older elementary-aged children an older.


Relative Scripture for discussion:

Matthew 25:34-40  Serving the least of God’s children.

I Corinthians 12:4-26  One Body with many members and talents.

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Review: A Hidden Life

a hidden life 8For those who imagine what would have happened if the SS monsters chasing The Von Trapp family in The Sound of Music had captured them in the Abbey’s graveyard, Terrence Malick’s latest virtuosic film, A Hidden Life offers a possible answer, if Captain Von Trapp had stuck to his convictions.

Winner of the Ecumenical Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival, A Hidden Life is based on the true story of Franz Jäggerstätter, (August Diehl) an Austrian farmer, WWII conscientious objector, and Christian martyr. After receiving mandated military training, Jäggerstätter refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Adolph Hitler, as was required of everyone serving in the German Armed forces. Though he offered to serve the nation that absorbed his homeland as a non-combatant medic, to the German High Command he was a traitor because he refused to pledge loyalty, not to a nation, but to the leader of that nation.

a hidden life 13Although filmed in the Dolomite Mountains of Italy, A Hidden Life depicts the lush pastoral countryside and village of St. Radegund Austria, the home of Franz, his wife Franziska (Valarie Pachner) and his young daughters. Malick does not let any of the indescribable beauty of the Alps go to waste. Cinematographer Jörg Widmer captures the area in such a way that the viewer has the sense they are at one with the landscape and therefore experience a greater connection to the story and film. With but a bit of imagination, the viewer feels both the flowing beauty and peace of the setting.

a hidden life 15The viewer might also experience the simple, communal, and peaceful life of St. Radegund as presented at the beginning of the film.  Initially, the community was close nit as families cared for and worked with one another to make a life together and help supply food and dairy products for the nation. This bucolic life and sense of community, however, falls victim to the Anschluss of Austria into Germany on March 12th, 1938 and the beginning of World War II.

Unlike most war films that show the massive destruction war inflicts on cities, towns, and homes, St. Radegund is spared from the physical destruction of the war, but it does not escape the destruction of the sense of community that made it such a special place for the inhabiting families. As if to symbolize human responsibility for the horrific destruction of war, the preservation of the pristine, natural beauty of St. Radegund and the surrounding region makes the human ugliness of the war stand out even more.

A hidden life 5As he did with the scenery, the director also focuses on the characters. In contrast to the vastness of the pastures and mountains, Malick frequently photographs the individuals in tight shots, seemingly violating personal space boundaries. Such intimacy in shot selection symbolizes the personal nature and effects of the characters’ decisions and actions. The technique also pulls the viewer further into the narrative, making them more of a witness than a distant, disconnected observer.

As his village experiences and gives into the first winds of war, Franz seeks to stand against the gale. After first opposing the annexation of his country, Franz then opposes the brutality German fascism inflicted upon the Jewish population in Austria and others who were designated “different.” As the majority of St. Radegund favored the annexation of their country and village into Germany Franz also opposes the marginalization and antipathy of life-long friends against him, his wife, and even his children. Lastly, Franz Jäggerstätter has to decide whether to maintain his beliefs or surrender to pleas and even taunts from others for him to go against his beliefs and swear an oath to Hitler.

While he consults the village priest, for whom he served as an assistant in the village’s church, as well as the area Bishop, Franz has to decide for himself whether he will a hidden life 14adhere to his belief, or declare, if only in words, the allegiance. For Franz, this decision amounts to whether he will remain righteous or oppose God’s desire for him. Despite all he has to lose, and the impact of his decision upon his family, Franz decides righteousness and responsibility to God surpasses all other calls and responsibilities in life.

In the twelfth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus enters Jerusalem. Very soon after he entered the capital city on what is now celebrated as Palm Sunday, Jesus received word from two of his disciples that there were some Greeks who wanted to meet him. As with many others in the city, they heard that Jesus had raised Lazarus from his grave four days after he had died and been buried (Ch. 11.) Upon hearing this request, and perhaps within earshot of the others wanting to meet the One who could restore life to the dead, Jesus spoke about his future as well as the future and expectation for those who would follow Him:  25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

For most people watching the A Hidden Life, this teaching of Jesus calls them to give up comforts, habits or fears that keep them from living a righteous life of faith in Jesus rather than the perceived protection and comfort of worldly power and authority.  Although there are people today for whom this passage is a matter of life and death, for most viewing the film it is a matter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s teaching to die to oneself, by putting to death personal desires and distractions that lead one away from God.

a hidden life 10Franz Jäggerstätter took John 12:25-26 and other teaching and life examples of Jesus and early followers with most seriousness as he believed that to swear an oath, if only in word, to Adolph Hitler was to join the Peter by the campfire when the Apostle denied his Lord. For Franz, the issue was less about losing his salvation than about betraying his creator and redeemer. Though he became known for his struggle and sacrifice, the title of the film acknowledges Franz was not alone in his decision. Through the centuries there have been many hidden lives chosen righteousness over life in this world.

a hidden life 16Throughout the film, Franz resisted offering judgment against those who had given their loyalty to Hitler. It was a personal matter and decision.  For Franz, his resistance mattered because he believed it mattered. In his heart, he believed that to offer his loyalty to Hitler was to take it from Jesus. If others did not agree with his belief, Franz withheld judgment. This refusal to judge others extended beyond the screen and into the theater. It is difficult to imagine anyone could watch the film without asking, “What would I do?”  As the viewer asks and considers this question while watching Franz wrestle with his dilemma, one senses Franz would call the viewer not to do what he is doing, but to do what the viewer, after intentional discernment, believes God desires them to do.

While the film may not judge those who believe righteousness would not prevent them from offering a hollow, disingenuous allegiance to worldly leaders and then work to serve their God in others ways, one does feel the film offers judgment against those who do what they know is wrong for convenience or safety’s sake.  As A Hidden Life is released in a time when there is much discord and challenges for citizens and leaders to consider their beliefs and actions in accordance with cherished principles and laws, the actions of Franz Jäggerstätter challenge and call individuals and nations to genuinely consider what is righteous and then hold fast to their discernment and conscience.

A hidden life 6Although he has a devoted following, Terrence Malick is not every film lover’s cup of tea. As much as any working director, viewers either take or leave Malick’s films, and A Hidden Life, will prove to be no exception. Whether it is the challenging nature of the story or the slowly evolving, three-plus hours length, there will be many for whom this bell will not toll. But for those who appreciate or savor deeply personal storytelling, superb Oscar-worthy acting, and unsurpassable cinematic beauty, A Hidden Life is not a film to miss.

A Hidden Life Opens on December 13th 2019 and is rated PG-13

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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?


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


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.


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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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