Film Review: 12 Strong

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12 Strong photos courtesy of Warner Brothers

12 Strong is a conundrum of a film. For what is presented on the screen, it accomplishes what is expected from a film about military combat. After setting the scene by introducing major characters and the nature and complexity of the conflict, there follows adrenalin-inducing, sensory assaulting sights, and sounds that seem to put the viewer in the combat zone. The film’s significance is enhanced by the fact that the film is based on a true story that until recently was known only vaguely by the public.

12 Strong is depicts the first response of the United States to the 9/11 attacks. The film tells or reminds viewers that only 2 months following the infamous terror attack, the United States struck back against those who planned, protected or condoned the strike that changed this nation. On the tip of the spear that struck into the heart of Afghanistan and the Taliban who had terrorized and murdered Afghans, as well as provided protection for al-Qaeda terrorists, were the Green Berets of the United States Army.

 

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Chris Hemsworth             Michael Shannon

Chris Hemsworth stars as Capt. Mitch Nelson, leader of the elite, 12 man Special Forces unit and Michael Shannon as Warrant Officer and Hal Spencer. Now declassified, the story of the mission is one of extreme bravery on the part of every member of the unit as well as the other units who vied to be the first American soldiers to enter the Taliban controlled area of Afghanistan. The mission before the unit was to be dropped into the remote mountains of Afghanistan, join up with members of the Northern Alliance of Afghans fighting against the Taliban and assist them by calling in airstrikes against Taliban forces.  Due to the lack planning time and the limited intelligence from the region, the unit was sent on the mission blind, knowing very little details about who they were joining up with or how the mission would be conducted.  One such element was that they would be the first American Servicemen in 80 years to ride horses into combat.

 

Shot in New Mexico, the film offers a hint at the rugged terrain, brutal weather conditions, and isolation of the team. The film also offers a glimpse into the initial challenges of serving with the Northern Alliance, which seemed at times to be an alliance in name only. It is here where the film’s action orientation fell short in conveying perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the actual mission.

12 strong 4The film would have benefitted from detailing and presenting more of the relationships established between the unit and their allied Afghan forces. After the screening I attended, there was a Q&A with the men Hemsworth’s and Shannon’s characters were based on, Captain, now Major Mark Nutsch and Chief Warrant Officer Bob Pennington. While covered in the film, the full story of the relationship between the members of the unit and the leaders and members of the Alliance group was stirring and added much to the film’s impact. Also, the cultural and political differences that Nutsch, Pennington, and all members of the team had to address and overcome were as vital to the success as any of the weaponry and tactics brought to the mission. As dauntingly impossible as the scope of the mission was, and as dangerous as the combat was as depicted, more details given to these relational and cultural requirements and accomplishments, at the expense of some of the combat sequences, would have reflected better the true and amazingly successful outcome of the mission.

In the Q&A Nutsch and Pennington talked about how they hoped the film conveyed the spirit and dedication of the Green Berets. This dedication includes care and concern not only for each other, or even American citizens, but also those with whom they fought and the Afghan people who were, and continue to be terrorized by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations in the country.

In addition to hearing from Major Nutsch and Chief Warrant Officer Pennington during the Q&A, I was also able to speak to them by phone.  In our conversation, they discussed many of the elements they would address at the screening.  Part of our discussion was the make-up and spirit of the unit. Given Special Forces units are smaller and stay together longer, the members grow to know each other better.  The age of the members also is older so 10 of the 12 were married and had families. The families also grow close and care for one another. Hearing the two Green Berets describe the closeness and reliance members of the unit, and the extended unit of the families, had for one another, I thought of the reliance and care members of faith communities offer, or are called to one another, and others.

12 strong 7At their best, faith communities are devoted to one another and care for each other, at times more than they care for themselves. Members of faith communities draw strength from one another, teach and when necessary offer accountability to one another. Another commonality between armed forces units and faith communities is the devotion to the mission. Once given an assignment, the successful completion of the mission becomes the primary if not singular focus for members of a military unit or squad. Such should be the case for faith communities. In units, there is neither room nor patience for thoughts, opinions, habits or other things that distract from completing the mission as assigned. Christian faith communities would do better to follow this example and put the mission of loving and serving Christ by making disciples, above all things.

12 Strong is in wide release and is rated R for violence and language

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Darkest Hour: A Different Kind of Christmas Movie

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Photos Courtesy of Focus Features

Christmas is one of the most important seasons for the film industry. With schools out and adults taking days off, people go to movies. Christmas is the movie season for big-budget titles, possible Oscar contenders, as well as Christmas themed films. Darkest Hour is a big budget film with Oscar potential. It is also, a film that reflects themes of Christmas. While not a film that is set during the Christmas season or a film that tells the Christmas story, Darkest Hour speaks to hope faith, and the need for light, especially in dark times.
The blitzkrieg beginning of the Second World War, where Germany conquered nation after nation at speeds never before witnessed, seemed for all those opposing the Axis powers of totalitarianism, the darkest time in hundreds of years. In the spring of 1940, after taking over most of Europe, Germany was on the brink of capturing all of France, and much of a British expeditionary force.

Darkest Hour depicts the time western civilization was on the brink of destruction. The film begins with Parliament debating the fate of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after the German invasion of Norway, Belgium, and France. Members of Parliament, as well as much of Britain, were holding Chamberlain accountable for his policy of appeasement that produced the failed 1938 Munich Agreement, a treaty between Germany, Italy, and Britain, that allowed Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia on the promise they seek no more land.

Instead of Chamberlain’s claim that he had achieved “peace for our time,” the agreement had given Hitler time and opportunity to prepare for his complete takeover of Europe. After invading Poland on September 1, 1939, Hitler continued the assault on the Continent, and by May of 1940, Germany was poised to take over all of Europe and capture much of the almost 400,00 British troops that had been sent in a futile effort to defend France. With their backs to the Channel, the British army faced annihilation and capture, and the island nation faced the threat of a successful invasion by the Germans.

darkest hour 12In the midst of this, perhaps the darkest hour in the nation’s history, Winston Churchill, a fiery orator with a reputation for recklessness, replaced Chamberlain. Gary Oldman is rightly receiving Oscar attention for his transformational performance as Winston Churchill. Kristin Scott Thomas also gives a strong performance as Churchill’s wife Clementine, one of the few persons the bulldog PM turned to for strength and counsel.

Director Joe Wright accentuates the drama of the story with a liberal use of crane, overhead, and tracking shots. Viewers expecting the typical number of action sequences may be disappointed by the film’s pacing. There are several scenes that examine the doubts Churchill and others have for his plans to rescue the British troops in Dunkirk, and his refusal to seek further negotiations with Hitler through Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. But the patient viewer is rewarded with a depth greater than one finds in most action or war films.

Darkest Hour is an important film because it depicts one of the most crucial times in modern history. While the most casual student of history may know of this dark time, the film allows the viewer to feel a bit the reality of the darkness that was the evil and threat of fascism. Knowing the facts of history is not the same as knowing history. darkest hour 5Experiencing, even in the slightest way, the feeling of facing such darkness offers viewers a greater understanding of what Churchill, and all of Britain, went through in this pivotal time when Britain was the last dim light in a darkening world. Winston Churchill provided much of the energy and hope for that light through his determination and the power of his oratory. Darkest Hour also reminds viewers living through the current uncertain and dark times of terrorism, aggressive despots, as well as political and social division the necessity and importance of political courage, and placing the welfare of the nation above personal or political party interests.

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Much of the narrative of the Christian Faith is a story of conflict between light and dark. In the prologue to the Gospel of John, Jesus, the incarnate Word, is described as light and life, a light that the darkness of sin did not overcome. In the first Genesis creation account, God created light, declared it good and separated it from the darkness. This first Light was not the light of the sun but the even greater Light that was of God. In Scripture as well as art and other belief systems, light is associated with life, hope, and knowledge. That the incarnation of this, the Light that would inaugurate a new age and transform all of creation into the Kingdom of God, came into the world in the most humble manners is indicative of the power of this dim, by worldly stands, Light to overcome all darkness, including the darkness of sin.

holiday candlelight service or memorial vigil

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During the Christmas season when Christians belief the Kingdom of God was inaugurated, the hope of Jesus Christ is symbolized by candlelight. The highlight of Christmas Eve services for millions of Christians is holding candles up and enlightening a darkened sanctuary. In so doing followers are reminded that even the smallest light pierces the deepest darkness, and as children of that Light, followers are to take and uphold that Light even in the midst of the deepest darkest times and places in life.

Darkest Hour reflects and offers a worldly example of the Christian belief and power of righteous hope to triumph, even in the midst of seemingly overwhelming darkness.

Darkest Hour is rated PG-13.

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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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