Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Act of Valor

Rated PG. Our ratings: V -1; L -1; S/N -2. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.



Wise warriors are mightier than strong ones,
and those who have knowledge than those who have strength;
for by wise guidance you can wage your war,
and in abundance of counsellors there is victory .

Proverbs 23:5-6

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

When I first saw this engrossing film I thought that it would make a powerful recruiting tool for the Armed Services. Since then I have learned that that is exactly how Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh’s film began--it was as a seven-minute training film for the Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen. Seeing the dramatic possibilities in their footage, the partners expanded it with a fictional plot, but used the same actual SEALs rather than actors for members of the team.
This explains the authenticism of the combat sequences which take up most of the screen time--unlike actors, they needed no further training to use the high tech surveilance systems and weapons used in the film. These guys are the real thing. We are given in the opening segment showing the soldiers interacting with their wives and families just enough information--one of them is an eager expectant father--so that wecare for what happens to them in the intense firefights with terrorists and drug dealers. However, there are not enough deatils of any of the participants so that they emerge as full-blooded persons. As some critics have observed, this film is just a leg above a combat video game.
The civilians back home and the villains, who threaten Americans by sending via Mexico to the States 18 suicide bombers equipped with vests filled with ball bearings designed to kill hundreds of people at a time, are played by 7 actors. How the SEALs stake out and take out the latter makes for spell-binding viewing, though after the long sequence involving three connected missions--the rescue of a female CIA agent being tortured, the capture of the terrorist leader, and the pursuit of the suicide terrorists being smuggled into southern California--a viewer is left with plenty of questions to ponder.
The scope of the film is deliberately limited to the Navy Seals. Isn't it also important to see the larger picture of what are the reasons for terrorists hating the USA? The filmmakers claim no political agenda--they just want to honor our fighters who are risking their lives--but isn't leaving out the larger picture in itself an agenda, albeit an unconscious one? The film raises for people of faith other issues as well, including that of how one holds the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount in tension with combating terrorists. There is no easy answer to this and other questions such movies as this one raises. Do you see the danger that such films always pose the danger of inspiring viewers to become unthinking wavers of the flag?

For reflection/Discussion
1. If you have a favorite character, which one is it--and why? What qualities do the soldiers exhibit? Compare the way in which the soldiers and the villains are portrayed.
2. How does the film show the importance of team work? Note that one of the men refers, consciously or not, to the Ecclesiastes passage.
3. When one of the men sacrifices his life for the team, how did this bear out their commitment to one another?
4. Do you think we should see the larger picture, or are such films as this, focusing just on the valor of the combatants enough? Do you believe that it is important to try to understand the motives of terrorist, and if so, why? Or is it enough just to say "They attack us because they hate us, or hate democracy? Can you think of any reasons why some might hate us so passionately?
5. How can we avoid the mistakes of the Sixties and honor the troops, even while questioning the war(s) in which they fight?
6. Do you see ways of honoring Jesus' teachings in regard to enemies and our policy and use of violence in resisting the attacks of others? For instance, how did you feel, and what did you believe, concerning our President's announcing the death of Osama bin Laden?

Relativity Media

Monday, February 27, 2012

Joys and Disappointments at the 84th Oscars

Some observations by Edward McNulty

   \\


People of faith had good reasons to rejoice as the golden statues were handled out on Sunday, Feb. 26. Despite all the silliness over who was wearing whose gowns and the overly gushy compliments ladled out by the interviewers on the Red Carpet, what transpired inside the "Bankrupt Theater" (Billy Crystal's remark about the dropping of "Kodak" from the name of the Theater), the 84th Oscar Awards brought some surprises and lifted up some deserving films and performances. First, the reasons for joy.

The surprise for some was the choice of a foreign film with almost no dialogue as "Best Picture." In a recent article about the Oscar Nominations I wrote this about the film (the following capsule reviews are from my "Oscar Good News" article):
The Artist
Rated PG-13. Ecclesiastes 9:11-12; 1 Corinthians 13:4a
This blend of A Star is Born and Singing in the Rain is a delight to see, with no audible
dialogue until the end. Set in the late 20s when sound is being introduced to motion pictures, it
is the story of a fall of a silent film actor and the rise of the young actress whom he helped
break in to the profession. Themes of love, grace and the danger of pride are well developed.
The latter “preaches” well, with the pulpiteer pointing out how most of us prefer to be on the
giving end, but that at times we must become humble enough to admit that we need help, and
then to accept it.
The film earlier in the evening was given four other Oscars, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Score, and Best Costume.

I was especially pleased with the selection of Undefeated for "Best Documentary Feature," having received the screener disc last week and finding so many rich scenes of a high school football coach imparting to his players life lessons of perseverance, faith, and hope. (See my review either at http://visualparables.blogspot.com/  or a version for subscribers that includes discussion questions at visualparables.net.)

Actor/Director George Clooney's excellent The Descendents, won just a single Award, but a significant one, "Best Original Screenplay," garnered by screenwriters, Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash. Here is my capsule review showing why people of faith should see it.
The Descendants
Rated R. Matthew 18:2; Psalm 24:1-2.
Grace, responsibility to the land, and family reconciliation—director Alexander Payne's film, set in Hawaii has all this and more. (See an earlier blog for the "more.") George Clooney's character exercises such restraint at two key moments in the film that the would be a good example to use when preaching on the kenosis passage in Philippians 2, or any time one is dealing with Jesus “emptying himself.

One of my favorite films of the year won four Awards, but mainly in the technical area--Best Art Direction, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Visual Effects. I was hoping the Martin Scorcese would get the nod for "Best Director." My thoughts on Hugo:
Hugo
Rated PG. Psalm 82:3-4; Isaiah 11:6d
An orphaned boy secretly living above the concourse of a Parisian train station during the
1930s discovers his purpose in life—to fix a complicated automaton left by his father and,
ultimately, a broken man.

The flawed but still wonderful The Help was honored by the awarding of "Best Supporting Actress" to Octavia Spencer for playing the delightfully feisty maid Minny Jackson, who put the you know what into the pie given to her racist employer. My take on this:
The Help
Rated PG-13. Psalm 146:7b-9; Proverbs 31:8.
This civil rights era story set in Jackson Mississippi affirms the importance of sisterhood and of
the support of the church (that is, the part of the church faithful to the gospel, the black church) for the black maids and the white writer in exposing racism in the domestic workplace. Be sure to check out Lawrence Dunbar's poem “We Wear the Mask” for use in a study session or sermon in which you deal with this film. Feminists will love the sisterhood that grows among the women.

And then there is, of course, Meryl Streep, up for what, as I recall, her 17th Oscar nomination. I also regard her as the greatest actress of our generation, and though Iron Lady is not one of my favorite films because of its subject matter, her skill and hard work at impersonating the subject of the film deserves the recognition it has received from the Academy. However, as I say below, her win also was a disappointment.

And thus let's begin with this disappointment--that Viola Davis was passed over for the "Best Actress" award. Her performance as the quite and patient maid Aibileen Clark was one of the most memorable of a string of great performances--remember her in Doubt as the desperate and loving mother who saw a possibly pedophile priest as a life saver for her son, picked-upon because he was gay ? We can only hope that she will secure more roles that will convince Academy voters what a great actress she is.

Another disappointment was that Demian Biehir, who played the sacrificing father in A Better Life was passed over for "Best Actor." Even though understandable in that this was his first nomination and that the film was relegated largely to the art house circuit, still I wish the voters had surprised us by choosing him, and bringing to a wider audience such a richly rewarding film about an illegal immigrant in southern California who gives up so much to give his teenaged son "a better life." Given the bitter divide in our nation over the subject of illegal immigration, this film can remind both sides that there are human lives at stake in the outcome of the conflict.

Three films that fit into my category of the "Entirely Passed Over" are  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part2; and Tree of Life. The first is a wonderful quest/journey film in which a grieving and guilt ridden boy is trying to connect with his father who perished in one of the Twin Towers:
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.  Isaiah. 66:13, Matthew 5:4
This powerful post 9/11 story about grieving 11 year-old Oskar begins on the day when the planes brought the Twin Towers down. The boy does not answer the phone when his father, trapped high up in one of the Towers, calls home, so there is a measure of guilt in Oskar's obsessive search later to find what a key he finds in his father's closet might fit. A year later his search takes him to all the boroughs of Manhattan where he meets an assortment of people with their own needs. He soon is accompanied by the mute old man living across the street in a room he rents from the boy's Grandmother. The boy, who might be on the edge of Asperity’s, is portrayed by newcomer Thomas Horn who even overshadows the great cast of veterans—Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, and Max von Sydow. An extremely good and close to the heart movie!

The Harry Potter film is perhaps the best of the series, one suffused with themes from Christian theology, interestingly enough summed up by the villain when he and Harry finally meet face to face, "Harry Potter, the boy who lived... come to die." I wish it could have won at least one of the technical awards. However, I am consoled not only by the fact that so many fans have already seen it, but that many of these folk will be returning to it again and again through the years.

This probably will not be so for Terrence Malik's wonderful film, the least seen of the nine films nominated for "Best Picture" because his non-narrative style is difficult for many film goers to fathom. However, as the most theological of all of last year's films, I wish it could have received more than just a nomination. Those of us who did appreciate this complex, theological film will just have to keep trying to convince our friends that they need to see it.
The Tree of Life
Rated PG-13. Job 38:4-7; Matthew 5:45b
Terence Malick's film can be seen as a visual meditation on the Job passage, the text of which
we see on the screen at the beginning of the film. Departing from the usual narrative structure,
the film includes scenes of a family living in Texas in the Fifties, with the themes of law and
grace of great beauty. The director even inserts the creation of the universe from the Big Bang
through the dinosaurs, and a family reunion beyond this life. The mother as “grace” and the
father “as law” lend themselves to a discussion of some of the themes of Paul in Galatians and
Romans.

How did you feel at the end of the Awards broadcast--besides sleepy, that is? Perhaps like myself, you felt a mixture of joy and disappointment. Those of you who are preachers, teachers, and youth leaders will find rich treasures in all of the above films. And now, begins the Oscar watch for 2012. Will the delightful, currently showing, Big Miracle be noticed by members of the Academy--and by people of faith.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

UNDEFEATED

Rated PG-13  Running time: 113 minutes 


Coach Bill Courtney and O.C. Brown
(c) 2011 The Weinstein Company


Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; 
the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit.
Ecclessiastes 7:8

Few documentaries have touched me and drawn me in as deeply as Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin's film about the 2009 season of the urban high school football team The Manassas Tigers. And I am not a football fan. The film begins with shots of boarded up and crumbling houses with weed-choked yards. This is North Memphis where the closing of the Firestone tire plant in the 1980s brought blight and devastation to the area. Thus Manassas High School had fallen onto hard times.  Forced to cut back in all areas, the budget cuts have hit the football program especially hard. The team plays with poor equipment and practices on a field that is barely better than one of the vacant lots in the area. Worst of all, in order to have any money for the program, the high school has been accepting payments ($3000 a game) to come and be the “Visitors” at Homecoming games at well off high schools, thus insuring the latter a sure-fire victory. It has been years since the Tigers have won a game.

The documentary, shot during the 2009 season, focuses upon volunteer Coach (yes, that's how bad the budget situation is!) Bill Courtney and three of his players―left tackle O.C. Brown,  junior linebacker Chavis Daniels, and right tackle Montrail “Money” Brown.

Once a football coach and then a successful co-owner of a lumber yard, for reasons not specified, Coach Courtney left his lumber yard position and has been coach since 2004.  Despite his efforts, the team has never won a game. Now at the beginning of a new season he has hopes for a better year with three better than usual players. O.C. is big and fast on his feet, able to break through an opposing line.  Chavis, back from serving over a year in a juvenile detention center, has a temper problem, but also great skill. So does the undersize “Money,” the only one of the three who earns such good grades that he is looking to attend college, if he can secure a scholarship.

Coach Courtney is blunt with his boys, often lapsing into swearing when a student does something stupid―such as Chavis getting into fights with fellow teammates. But that he cares for the boys we see time after time, as when Chavis is suspended for his fighting and Coach goes to the sullen boy's home to talk him into not quitting the team.

There are shown just just enough of the game plays to see how the players are improving, and especially in regard to their learning to play as a team. Many ups and downs are filmed, such as Money's injury that sidelines him for several weeks. The camera follows him into the doctor's consultation room where the boy is crushed by the news that he cannot play. And then, when he turns 18, and there is one more game to play, he must make the decision whether he feels strong enough to risk the barely healed ankle. There is a powerfully moment when Coach and his volunteer assistant bring news that one of their friends is willing to pay for all of Money's college expenses. As Coach and boy hug it is impossible to say which of them has more tears running down their cheeks.

Some will resent that Coach Courtney and his volunteer are all white, and the players are all black,  but it would be sad if this prevents anyone from appreciating this true life story. If ever there is a man who deserves to be honored, it is Bill Courtney, a man who saw a need in his community (his lumber yard is about a mile from the school), and stepped in to meet it. To stay with the team through almost five years of defeats, and then to go to such great lengths to keep the discouraged players from dropping out, must have taken an enormous amount of energy and perseverance not to quit himself. He is an example of what he means when he observes early in the film, “Football does not build character. Football reveals character.”  Bill Courtney is also a man of faith, as we see when he leads the team in a pre-game prayer―and a mature faith at that. There is no hint that God is on their side, just a plea that all play their best and that no one on either side be injured.

The ending is bittersweet, both for the team, and the decision that Coach Courtney makes, but in a way it makes this a better film. I don't know how good the other Oscar-nominated documentaries are, but this is the one I am rooting for. Do not miss this film!

Albert Nobbs



The Morrison's Hotel staff, with Albert Nobbs standing to our right
behind Mrs. Mrs. Baker, the proprietress.
© 2011 Roadside Attractions


How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
Psalm 13:1-2a

Those who enjoy movies off the beaten path will relish this version of a play based on a short story by George Moore. The character giving his name to the title is a meek but impeccable waiter at Morrison's Hotel in 1898 Dublin, Ireland. As the film begins Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), the proprietress of the hotel, has assembled the staff and greets each guest, by name or by groups as they are seated at their usual tables. Among them is a nobleman and his frivolous companions. The class lines are as rigidly observed here as they are in London.

Glenn Close, with cropped hair and heavily made up, is marvelous as Albert. The other staff members think he is odd, but none suspect the he is a she. None, that is, until Hubert Page is engaged to repaint one of the rooms and Mrs. Baker insists, despite Albert's objections, to bunk him for the night with Albert. Albert is almost too terrified to get into the same bed, and when she/he does, cannot relax in a half undressed state. Causing a disturbance that arouses the sleeping man, her sex becomes obvious. Albert implores him not to give her away, and he agrees. The next day Hubert makes an equally startling revelation to her, the nature of which you can guess by my telling you that it is Janet McTeer who plays Hubert.

Later Albert visits Hubert because the latter has told how he has married and is living happily with his Cathleen (Bronagh Gallagher). During this visit Albert shares her story of being orphaned, gang raped, and discovering that a waiter could make decent wages, dresses as a man for the first time. Cathleen listens at the door but continues to treat Albert with kindness.

Albert now dares to dream of a life beyond his closet-bound present, his goal being to add to the stash of cash hidden beneath a floorboard of his room so that he can afford to buy a run-down shop and turn it into a tobacco shot and apartment. He even dares to think that he might find a companion similar to Cathleen in Helen (Mia Wasikowska), the flirty hotel maid who scarcely pays any attention to him. She is interested in Joe (Aaron Johnson), the new man hired to fix and attend to the decrepit boiler. The two become a pair, but after Albert asks Helen to take a walk with him, Joe encourages her. He wants her to wheedle whatever she can from Albert, beginning with candy, but then progressing to clothing and money. Joe promises Helen that if they can obtain enough, he will include her in his dream to emigrate to America.

Thus the film becomes sort of an Irish Upstairs/Downstairs, or maybe, better, Angela's Ashes, though this film is more of a dark comedy than the earlier one. Had not most churches of the time been as blind to the plight of the lower class as the hotel guests were, Albert might well have turned to the Psalms for relief. She has lived in tense misery for so long that she cannot even remember her given name when Hubert asks her.

Perhaps the only glorious moments in Albert's life is when she returns to visit Hubert, and the pair don dresses and walk together on the nearby beach. Glenn Close runs along the shore, the camera angle such that we see just part of her body, giving the appearance that she is flying. For one brief moment she is freed from pretending and fulfills Hubert's words, “Albert, you don't have to be anybody but who you are.”

As the story develops, with Albert's relationship with Helen deteriorating, we realize that this is the high point in Albert's lonely existence. The bittersweet resolution of the story is sweetened a little in that Hubert is brought back to the hotel, this time to paint all of the rooms. His last words to a fearful Helen as he holds her baby, “We can't let that happen, can we?” add to the dark film a note of grace and hope. The circumstances of this I will leave to you to discover. Glenn Close who starred in the stage drama version of this film almost 30 years ago, has worked for a long time to bring the story to the screen. We are in her debt, and it is fitting that she has been nominated for an Oscar for her beautifully crafted portrayal of one of Christ's “the least of these...” who seldom received any of the mercies the Master said were their due.

T. Artist


Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V - 2; L -1; S/N-3 . Running time: 1 hour 40 min.


(c) 2011 The Weinstein Company

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls 
 Ecclesiastes 9:11-12

Love is patient; love is kind...
1 Corinthians 13:4a

Francis of Assisi is said to have instructed his followers, “Preach the gospel always; use words if you must.” Filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius apparently feels that way about sound,  the characters expressing their emotions and thoughts though facial expressions, gestures, and an occasional interspersed title card. Only at the conclusion do we actually hear a word spoken, and then not by the lovers. This is a daring venture for a modern filmmaker, attempted only by one who is self assured and skillful in his craft.

The simple tale of a silent movie star declining, while the young actress, whom he helped get started, rising with the advent of sound is totally engrossing. The plot is a blend of A Star is Born and Singing in the Rain, set as it is in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is box officg king of silent movies in Hollywood in 1927. He willingly helps young Peppy get her start in his new film, even suggesting placing a beauty mark just above her lip. He scorns the introduction of sound, declaring that audiences come to see him, not to hear him. How wrong he is, for soon studio chief Al Zimmer (John Goodman) is changing his mind about sound when George's movie bombs on the same opening night that Pepi's sound film is a huge success.

Soon George is out of work, starting his long slide into obscure poverty fueled by the despair that drives him to drink. A series of headlines in Variety show Peppy's ascent to stardom as George sinks even further into despair and the thought of suicide. Peppy is  aware of this, and unknown to him sends her staff to buy up just about everything at the auction at which the debt-ridden George has been forced to sell most of his furnishings, even the huge oil portrait of him that once dominated his living room. She continues to try to help George, one of her films opening at a theater called “Guardian Angel” (or it might have been the name of the film).

The story is simple and moving, and those who have seen either  Star is Born or Singing in the Rain will wonder and worry about George's fate. The film is so skillfully made that the over-used word “masterpiece” is not Hollywood hype this time. The crisp black and white photography, along with the older, narrower screen size, the the style of the opening credits, as well as the music, take us back to the distant past. Especially effective is the opening sequence when the camera takes us into one of the movie palaces of that era, George's movie unfolds anccompanied by a large symphony orchestra that matches the music to the pace, action, and mood of the scene. Those unfamiliar with so-called “silent” movies will quickly learn that the old movies were never really silent, that theater staff always had the script and musical score, or musical cues, intended to accompany the picture. Smaller theaters might have had just a small band, or a piano player, but the old movies were never totally silent.

This is a film that older children can enjoy as well as the adults, both enjoying the charming antics of George's faithful little dog, Uggie. People of faith will love the stars with their expressive faces, and especiallyB√©r√©nice Bejo's  Peppy Miller who becomes such a wonderful agent of grace.

Red Tails

A Film Review by Edward McNulty

       (c) 2012 20th Century Fox


Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 5 min.

Commit your way to the Lord;
  trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
  and the justice of your cause like the noonday. 
          Psalm 37:5-6

Largely financed by George Lucas, this fact-based but fictional story of the Tuskegee Airmen chronicles just part of the fight on the ground required for the African American pilots to get the right to fight in the sky. It skips most of the ground battles against the racist Army heirarchy fought back in the US, so well told in the HBO filmThe Tuskegee Airmen, although Clarence Howard is shown as the Washington-bound black officer who fights the military bureaucracy and prejudiced congressmen for his squadron's right to fly and fight. (The HBO film depicts well Eleanor Roosevelt's role in making sure that the black squadron would receive a green light.)

This film focuses instead on the action in the skies where the pilots protected the B-17 bombers flying over Germany. The Germans had been able to lure away the fighters piloted by whites that were supposed to protect the bombers that the bomber attrition rate had climbed to an alarming rate. Ordered to stay with the bombers rather than engaging in dogfights, the Tuskegee pilots gave far better protection, and yet still managed to shoot down a great many enemy planes. The Airmen, the tails of their fighters painted red,  performed so well that the once prejudiced bomber crews changed their views concerning African American pilots’ skills. (One wonders whether any of those white flyers ever questioned racist practices after the war when they returned home.)

The film succeeds far better as an action film than as one exploring the depths of racism. The computer generated aerial combat scenes overshadow the shallow dramatic ones, almost turning what could have been a sociological film into a comic book action movie. Indeed, with its stereotypical characters—there is the pipe smoking commander; a hot shot pilot who loves to show off his flying skills, a can-do maintenance man able to patch up a damaged plane overnight; a pilot with a drinking problem, a religious pilot with his picture of “Black Jesus” taped to his control panel, and a snarling Nazi airman whom we cannot wait to see going down in flames. There is a bit of flag-waving, so that the film reminded me a lot of those I enjoyed as a boy, films such as God Is My Co-Pilot and Flying Fortress. In such films here is never any doubt that God is on the side of Americans killing Germans, nor is there any qualm raised about thethousands of civilian deaths caused by our massive bombing attacks.

Cuba Gooding, Jr., who plays the desk-bound major in charge of the squadron also starred in the far better 1995 film mentioned above. To discover the enormity of the racial barrier faced by the squadron at its very inception I urge you to see it. In Red Tails, when one pilot enters into a liaison with a local Italian beauty, there is not a ripple of criticism from her family or from the Air Force brass. This romantic interlude might have been added out of concern for women viewers, but it brings into question the filmmakers' hold on the reality of the times. Despite this and other shortcomings, the film does a service by bringing to a mass audience a little known episode in the long march toward racial equality.