REVIEW: News of the World

What does your current relationship with the news media look like? According to Gallup, most Americans don’t trust the mass media. Odds are, even if you do it’s not completely. Not only is trust an issue, but as we enter digital spaces it becomes easier and easier to build echo chambers. Essentially, echo chambers are “situations in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttal.” This concept has gained momentum as researchers have explored our relationship to social media and mass media, but, functionally, echo chambers have existed for much longer than Twitter. If that is news to you, then Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass have something to share with you, their new movie, News of the World.

Based on a 2016 Western novel by Paulette Jiles, NOTW follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) who, in a post-Civil War Texas, makes his living travelling town to town reading the news to anyone whose got a dime and wants to hear it. What Capt. Kidd is really offering these isolated Texas towns is an opportunity to step outside their echo chamber. Imagine what communities in the American South were like in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, or even before. Without news from the outside world, there would be a lot of opportunity to stew in the defeat and regret of the battles and continue to hold on to the narratives that brought the country to war in the first place.

Alongside Capt. Kidd, is Johanna, a young girl that was kidnapped and raised by the Kiowa tribe after her family was slaughtered. Kidd becomes responsible for transporting her across Texas to her extended family. Along the way he must learn to communicate with Johanna, who only speaks Kiowa and mostly thinks Kidd is kidnapping her again. As Kidd is offering the news from town to town, Johanna is offering him an opportunity for a second chance at life. The Captain got his rank from fighting for the confederacy in the war and that role left scars on his body, heart, and mind. Johanna’s presence challenges Kidd to reckon with his past and the current state of the world complete with folks hanging on to the confederacy and intense fear of indigenous people.

The Reconstruction Era is a fascinating backdrop that probably should be explored more in film. I wonder what echoes of that time still ring in present day America. It is in the exploration of that time period that this movie shines. There are moments when you can see the impact that the art of story has on a community. The simple act of reporting the news can build bridges to life beyond what the people can see in front of their faces. Perhaps my favorite sequence in the movie involves Kidd sharing with a struggling community the story of a mine accident in Pennsylvania. You can see him trying to bring these two very fractured parts of the country to some common ground and it changes people.

Greengrass is most known, and most commonly touted, for directing the heart-pounding action of the Bourne franchise. If you are expecting Hanks to take down his foes with some martial arts and a rolled-up copy of the “Houston Chronicle” you’re going to be disappointed. NOTW is a much slower, more methodical kind of action. Afterall, Kidd’s character in the book is 71 and Hanks plays him as someone who has more than a little bit of hitch in his giddy up. Did you know that Tom Hanks can act? Well, he can and is classic Hanks here. He’s warm and folksy with some of both Captain Phillips and Woody under his cowboy hat. Still, the film overall is telling a very complex story and may have benefitted from more focus on either the power of the news or the redemption of Capt. Kidd. It struggled to encapsulate both.

I can’t imagine this is going to be the flick that will keep the kids’ attention through the holiday, but the movie could act as that hardback history book we all bought our dads one Christmas or another. In the world of a thousand streaming services, maybe Hanks is creating a lane as the king of the dad movie. Our bright, white Air-Monarch-wearing public will probably find a lot to like in this old school Western, but for others it is interesting to contemplate how we absorb our news. Mass media might not be the answer, but echo chambers aren’t either. We have to keep building bridges and sharing our stories. That is ultimately the power that news and technology offers us, pictures into the lives and experiences of others. We have the ability to reach out across miles and miles of space and time to learn, care, and grow. If we don’t, then I’ve got some bad news for you, not a lot about our current world will ever change.

News of the World releases in select theaters on Christmas Day.

REVIEW: Soul

The number 42. That is the answer author Douglas Adams gives to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. What is the meaning of life? It’s a big question given a very simple answer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Would that it were so simple. Though many have tried over the eons, this question continues to baffle generation after generation. Now our up-and-coming millennials and Gen Z have an answer all their own, work. Barna Research Group found that among the top priorities of our next generations “Finishing my education” and “Starting  a career” topped the list. We are guiding our young people to assign their worth and value to the search for their purpose, passions, and work. What are they meant to do with their lives? What if their chosen path doesn’t provide for them and their families? What if they get into their career and hate it? No wonder anxiety about the future is also on the rise in these generations. It’s these massive questions of life, the universe, and everything that Disney and Pixar try to tackle in their new film, Soul.

Pixar Soul GIF

Soul centers around jazz musician and middle school music teacher, Joe Gardner, brought to life by Jamie Foxx. Joe is stuck in a cycle of chasing gigs around New York in a quest to be a professional musician. He’s been at the gig game for a while but is so laser focused on his passion that he even balks at the chance for a stable career at his middle school. Just when Joe thinks he has found his big break, a tragedy sends him into the soul realm where he faces the great beyond. In soul world, he discovers how human’s souls are crafted with their personality traits and passions. That’s when he meets 22 (not to be confused with 42) who is an unfinished soul in need of mentoring and just might be Joe’s ticket back to the real world.

In 22, voiced by the iconic Tina Fey, we get to explore all of the things that create our identities as people. Identity, aren’t we all on a never-ending quest to find ours? We so desperately want somebody, anybody, to tell us who we are and what we’re supposed to do. How many Buzz Feed quizzes can you take? We’re all a little of each Harry Potter character, aren’t we? How many different numbers on the Ennegram scale are you going to say, “That sounds like me”? These are complicated questions, but Pixar is used to diving into these deeper questions about how we work. Soul will undoubtedly receive many comparisons to Inside Out, and, much like Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore, they really could be sister projects. Where Inside Out was looking deep into human emotion and the role our emotions play, Soul is looking at humanity itself and the role we all play in society. Its looking at what does it actually mean to live. It is fascinating the way the film asks you to decipher the fine line between passion and vocation and between pursuing your dreams and stalling out.

Pixar Soul GIF 2

Many have tried to define such ambiguous terms like purpose and passion. Maybe you have a definition that works well for you. I often come back to Andy Crouch’s article on “The Three Callings.” Crouch focuses a lot on what it means to be an image bearer of God. The concept of the image of God as outlined in the very beginning of scripture and threaded throughout, is that if you are human, you have been made in God’s image. What’s so beautiful about that is that we are all so different yet somehow encompass this form together. That means God cares about the things that you care about! God cares about art, math, video games, music, engineering, fashion, microbiology, quantum physics, basket weaving, professional ping pong, etc. What’s so fun about Soul is that it invites you to examine the activities, the people, and the work that sparks your passion.

Pixar Soul GIF 3

Rarely has asking some of these bigger life questions been so much fun or looked so beautiful. Pixar, once again, pushes the boundaries on animation as they blend three-dimensional and two-dimensional art as well as mixing the abstract with that grounded in reality. You wouldn’t be wrong to expect other familiar Pixar traits as well such as cross-generational humor. Yes, they say the word “butt” to make the kids chuckle but there’s also a very classy “pizza rat” reference and a pointed jab at all of you megalomaniacs out there. Don’t be fooled by Soul skipping theaters and heading straight to streaming on Disney+ without Mulan’s premium fee. Disney is giving its subscribers a gift with this one. Our next generations need to watch and learn that there is grace in finding and pursuing their passions. They need to see what it looks like to pursue life outside of the work that defines them. It was as if they decided to animate Morgan Freeman’s famous line from The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy livin’ or get busy dying,” and I am absolutely here for it.

REVIEW: Burden

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…,” John writes in the first of his pastoral letters. This letter, in fact, has a lot to say about love. It continues, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Thankfully, John doesn’t stop there because while it’s nice to know that God is love, how does this love play out among us humans? He goes on to explain that that love is best expressed unconditionally and sacrificially pointing towards the example of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Love is costly. You may think, then, that such a costly act would be reserved for those closest to you, but The Bible leans further in to the unconditional.

Gospel authors like Luke recount the words of Jesus writing, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” These are passages that would prove challenging to Rev. David Kennedy of New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church in Laurens, South Carolina. Rev. Kennedy and his congregants and fellow black citizens of Laurens are confronted daily with their enemy. This is an enemy fueled by fear and expressive in its hate. This is an enemy that lynched Rev. Kennedy’s uncle. Laurens is a town that has been defined by white supremacy. Its name comes from a well-known 18th Century slave trader, and it is home to the infamous Redneck Shop, a monument to the town’s shared history with the KKK. The shop itself is housed in what was formerly a segregated movie theater.

Burden Forest Whitaker

Rev. Kennedy entered into the tension of his town armed with passages like those in John’s letters and the war he waged, with weapons of unconditional, sacrificial love, are the subject of the film, Burden, starring Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as the reverend. One of the main battlefields in Laurens, wasn’t in the street in front of the shop where many tense protests were held, but it took place in the heart and mind of a young man named Michael Burden played in the film by Garrett Hedlund. Burden fits the mold of many young men that have been indoctrinated by a white supremacist worldview.

In his local chapter of the Klan he found easy access to housing, work, resources, and drugs. The closest thing to love he had experienced came from the owner of the Redneck Shop. Burden rose to the rank of Grand Dragon, and, in a sign of respect, was given the deed to the shop. This was around the time Burden met his wife, Judith, who was also involved with the Klan but had already begun questioning their practices and worldview. This lead Burden away from the Klan and to the doorstep of Rev. Kennedy where he’d find an opportunity for love to be redefined.

Burden Garrett Hedlund Usher

The true story of Rev. Kennedy, Michael Burden, and the Redneck Shop is impossibly complex, and the film version makes it slightly more idyllic in order to tell a more concise story. Burden tells a beautiful story of pain turned to healing, of hate turned to love, and of hopelessness turned to redemption. Hopefully, the film does inspire people to practice perfect love in the face of fear. Hopefully, like another recent film, Skin, we begin to see a prevailing narrative that people’s hearts can change and that leaving white supremacy behind is possible. To truly appreciate the complexity of this story, though, it’s worth digging into the ongoing true story.

Rev David Kennedy

The real life Rev. Kennedy in front of the Redneck Shop.

Rev. Kennedy is still battling to remove the Klan’s presence from his town. Burden is now separated from his wife and re-associated with some of his former Klan family. White supremacy has an overwhelming hold on people and systems that are in our lives every day. The work of dismantling such a pervasive system is exhausting but made easier if we are motivated by a higher power. The initial success of Rev. Kennedy’s sacrificial love showcased in the film is a testament to what is possible if we heed Jesus’ words, but as the fight against white supremacy continues in the hearts of men, the streets of Laurens, and all over our country, its worth acknowledging that love is often a burden that gets a little lighter because Christ first loved us.

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” – 1 John 4:9-11

Taylor Swift and the struggles of white repentance

“My entire moral code has been based on the need to be perceived as good.”

So says Taylor Swift in the recent Netflix documentary about her career and the recording process of her latest album, Lover. The doc weaves in footage of her early career, but focuses primarily on her reflections of what shaped her as a young artist, and how she has been driven ever since. Swift has a remarkable and unparalleled career. Starting out as a 14-year-old in Nashville, she has always been in the public eye and grew up with her entire personhood on display. She has always written her own songs, and has logged 7 chart-topping studio albums, an unusual sustained success for any artist. Swift was coming of age along with her fans and leveraged social media in a way that was ground-breaking at the time, giving fans glimpses into her personal life and making them feel like they were her friends. A major part of her persona has been her accessibility and transparency, bringing herself into her songwriting and into her connections with fans. But that has come at a cost.

Swift is exceptionally successful but largely because she is a perfectionist who struggles with anxiety, disordered eating, loneliness, and the belief that to be good one must be flawless. To be in the public eye means to be criticized, and Swift internalized negative feedback into believing that if she tried harder and became better, she would find the acceptance and approval she longed for. She talks candidly about the performance treadmill she was perpetually on, trying to conform to what others wanted her to be so that she could finally feel that she was enough.

In the past two years she has tried to confront the constraints she was allowing to be placed upon her. That has included becoming more politically active around causes she cares about and speaking out about sexual harassment and assault. In the doc we watch her share a public Instagram post about the 2018 mid-term Senate race in Tennessee (her home state), which was a major risk for her. The moment when she hits “share” on her Instagram account is one of deep anxiety and dread, knowing what would come next. She received intense backlash as well as death threats and the potential for physical harm.

These themes are where Miss Americana turns from being about Taylor Swift specifically to being about what it means to be a young woman in society. Speaking for young white women at least, we are socialized to be agreeable and approval-seeking. To accommodate the needs and comfort of others regardless of what we are experiencing. To conform to the expectations of others, particularly men, and not be contentious or opinionated. We are taught that we should strive for perfection. Perfection in attaining impossible body and beauty ideals, and perfection in our studies and careers. We should not attempt something unless we know we can complete it with excellence and are wracked with shame and embarrassment over every perceived failure. If the ideal is to be “good”, then anything that makes us feel “bad” is to be avoided at all costs.

t swift

I believe these dynamics have contributed significantly to white feminism’s failure to partner authentically with women of color. It should be named first that in various stages of the women’s movement, women of color have intentionally been excluded for no other reason than prejudice and selfishness. That needs to be named and contended with, along with multiple other factors. For now, and in this area, I think the way white women are socialized is blocking our current ability to move forward in a healthier and more equitable way. Because to join with women of color has to start with admitting failure and flaws. It has to involve pressing into the ways that we have lived in blindness and being willing to make mistakes as we move towards understanding. We have to admit that we are not perfect, and from there we have to take risks that will make some angry and offended.

I had to wrestle with this firsthand when I moved to Memphis, TN three years ago from the Northeast. Before moving I would have described myself as concerned about racial reconciliation and issues of justice. I had a strong Biblical conviction that God is concerned with the poor and marginalized, and that as Christians we are called to enter into those same concerns. But it wasn’t until I came to the Deep South that all my blindness and selfishness and disbelief were exposed. I had no idea the extent to which racism has corrupted our society, and my unintentional role in perpetuating it. And as a result, I spent the first year in this new city in a perpetual state of anxiety. Every day I was realizing new things about the on-going impact of systemic racism, and every day I felt like a failure and a “bad” person. As a white woman, that triggered all my defensiveness and instinctive need to preserve my identity as a “good” person and to downplay and dismiss and withdraw. There was an intense war waging within me, one that could have easily derailed me and prompted me to give up.

That is a war we will all have to face if we are serious about addressing the failures and exclusions of white feminism. Because the truth is, we have failed, and we have been doing it wrong. We have been staying in what is comfortable and known. We have taken some genuine risks to address toxic patterns in society but have stopped short of acknowledging where we have contributed to patterns of systemic inequality. We have kept others at a distance in order to prevent confronting things that could make us feel inadequate. And that has kept us prisoners to fear, anxiety, and lies. We are more concerned with being perceived as good than we are about doing what is right.

If we are to move forward, we need to cling to Jesus who promises that the truth sets us free. Who promises that He is not surprised by our sin and failure, but offers us mercy and forgiveness. Who gives us the Holy Spirit to rewire and change us from the inside out. In my journey of contending with racism, the Lord was able to work out more than my prejudice and biases. I was finally giving God room to deal with my idols of approval and perfection, and finding freedom in embracing my weakness in order to step into humility and equity. I have been profoundly blessed and changed by Memphis, and Jesus has used this place to disciple me and transform me. That would never have happened if I had not made my peace with being imperfect. It is time for us to seek the Spirit’s help in releasing our need to be perfect and repent at the foot of the cross, knowing that renewal and hope are waiting for us.

 

Resources for next steps: If racial equity is something that you want to pursue more, here are two simple places to start.

  • Bryan Stevenson – This podcast interview with the lawyer and author of Just Mercy is a beautiful exposition on why it is important to still be talking about the history of race in America. Stevenson is a Christian and his faith is a clear motivator in the way he talks about racial healing with hope and purpose
  • White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White by Daniel Hill. From IVP, this is a faith-based discussion of white culture and seven stages to expect on your own path to cultural awakening.

 

Heather’s Top Ten Movies of 2019

This year I was drawn to movies that tried new things or told stories I hadn’t seen before. There ended up being multiple autobiographical films in the bunch, reflecting writers/directors going to places of vulnerability and authenticity. I have always loved the way movies can help us make sense of our stories or enter into the experience of others. All of these do just that.

10. Endgame

I had my issues with Endgame, which I wrote about. But I also think Marvel accomplished something really difficult, which was to create a (mostly) satisfying finale to an intricate and beloved franchise. The expectations were incredibly high, and they delivered. I’ll write more about the Marvel saga in my top ten of the decade, but for now Endgame deserves some recognition.

9. Frozen 2

The music is still pretty good, the cast receives some welcome additions, sisterhood remains strong, but Frozen 2 is about much more than that. At its heart, this installment is about the treatment of indigenous peoples and confronting our past. It’s about interrogating the narratives we’ve been given about who is in power and why. About reexamining relational dynamics and shared history. About willingness to make sacrificial changes in order to resolve deep wrongs. And about not being able to move forward until we tell the truth about history. Frozen 2 was much edgier than I expected, and much more impactful as a result. Disney still fell short in some of the voice casting, not matching the ethnicity of the characters with that of their voice actors. But they also took some better steps to incorporate and honor the input of Scandinavian indigenous artists and historians. All in all, putting forward some important lessons for the next generation.

8. Waves

What is it like to be young and reckless? How does it feel to be at once invincible and also deeply fragile? How do we process the impact our actions have on others? How do we move towards forgiveness? Waves is a family drama that beautifully explores these questions. Helmed by a stunning cast, the family navigates the volatility of their teenaged son’s dating relationship, multiple forms of loss, anger and rebuilding. The first half is frenetic and chaotic, embodying recklessness, anger and fear. The second half is quiet, withdrawn, cautious. It’s a look at what can break a family and what can hold them together.

7. Queen and Slim

On the surface this movie is about police violence against unarmed black people, but it quickly becomes an exploration of the breadth of the black community. From the emerging creative powerhouse of Lena Waithe, this first screenplay takes the catalyst of a police shooting and uses it to launch a complex story about survival, community, vulnerability, protest, and nuance. As the title characters (played deftly by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith) go on the run, they must learn to trust each other and observe the complexity of the black community’s response to their situation. It has generated mixed reactions from audiences, but it is undoubtedly unique and poignant.

(Content warning: the film contains an explicit sex scene. The encounter is tender and is used in the story to convey healthy vulnerability and trust. However it will not be appropriate for all viewers.)

honey boy

6. Honey Boy

I have seen a willingness and I believe a level of courage in Millennials to confront our past traumas and work towards emotional/mental health. That often includes processing the trauma of one’s parents, both theirs and the ones they have inflicted. Honey Boy does this is an unprecedentedly vulnerable way, with writer and star Shia LaBoef playing his own father. In a semi-autobiographical take on his own experiences, the story is set during what very much resembles the Even Stevens era, overlaid with his young adult stay in rehab. Young LaBoef is playing heartrendingly by Noah Jupe and the young adult version by Lucas Hedges (who, can we just acknowledge somehow ends up in all indie darlings?!) LaBoef literally steps into his father’s shoes and his perspective, embodying all his toxicity and abusive behavior, all his volatility and unrealized dreams. It is an emotional and disturbing story. It is also a brave exploration of the humanity of our parents. LaBoef demonstrates unflinching honesty combined with generosity towards his emotionally broken father and his isolated childhood self. That is the journey of healing, honesty and generosity. Honesty to name that which was deeply damaging, and generosity to also name the ways we all do the best we can with what we’re given at the time. We get to be witnesses to LaBoef’s process of healing, and we might be inspired to keep engaging our own healing along the way.

5. Little Women

First of all, there’s very little I can say that hasn’t already been said by Be Kind Rewind in her excellent video comparing the 4 primary iterations of this beloved classic (contains spoilers). But I loved Greta Gerwig’s adaptation! The book is split into two parts, following the March sisters as children/teens and then as young women. Gerwig splits the timeline in the film to place events side by side rather than strictly chronologically. This will be startling for some who are used to the previous adaptations, but it lends more depth and insight into why their lives and decisions develop as they do. The scenes of childhood are shot with a golden glow, while the more challenging and somber adulthood scenes have a colder and flintier feel. Gerwig taps into the angst so many young people feel about becoming adults and leaving behind the carefree ways of youth. We get to watch Jo experience that same transition and navigate her process of owning her life and her future and her art and her place in the world. It is a much-needed window into the difficulties of young adulthood and also the rewards of taking risks and pursuing meaningful relationships as an adult.

Gerwig clearly has a deep respect for the source material and the life and work of Louisa May Alcott. She blends more elements of Alcott’s real story into Jo’s arc, which was already semi-autobiographical. Alcott was an abolitionist (her family participated in the Underground Railroad and she even met Frederick Douglass), and she remained unmarried. Those themes are subtly worked into the film, giving it a more robust reflection of the original author and allowing Alcott to express what she was unable to during her own cultural/societal time. Gerwig also totally reimagines Amy, retaining her childishness in early life but allowing her character to demonstrate more complexity and purpose. Florence Pugh plays her perfectly, and nearly steals the whole movie which is quite a feat considering the already all-star cast. The relationships between the sisters take on new warmth and vibrancy in this version, their interactions are bursting with life and love. It is a lovely coming-of-age story that will inspire both men and women to take hold of the things that matter most and engage life with courage and hope.

parasite

4. Parasite

Let’s take a minute to talk about how South Korean filmmakers are creating some dynamite movies! From the twisty and insightful Burning last year (available on Netflix, check the content guide for viewer discretion) to this year’s stunning festival favorite, Parasite, South Korea is asking big questions about class, income inequality and the role of Millennials in society. Parasite works best if you don’t know much about it, so I’ll let the film speak for itself. Suffice it to say that it’s a drama/heist/thriller genre-bender about a poor family and a wealthy family, how their lives intersect, and how social class impacts the ways we live and treat one another. Ivan wrote about its unexpected parallels to Downton Abbey, check out his review and don’t miss this wild work of storytelling.

3. The Last Black Man in San Fransisco

I wrote extensively about why this film is so powerful in my review earlier in the summer. This is a semi-autobiographical story about a young black man in San Fransisco who is wrestling with themes of ownership, belonging, home, gentrification, and what it means to be part of a place. It is beautifully filmed and acted, and stuck with me long after the credits rolled. It had a relatively short theatrical release so check it out streaming on Amazon Prime.

the-farewell-movie

2. The Farewell

What started as a This American Life episode became a powerful film about family and culture. Written and directed by LuLu Wang, (also semi-autobiographical) The Farewell follows a young first generation Chinese-American woman (played wonderfully in a dramatic turn by Awkwafina) who travels back to China with her parents to visit her grandmother who has just been diagnosed with cancer. The thing is, her grandmother doesn’t know about her diagnosis and it is Chinese tradition not to tell her. The family all knows and invent a reason to all gather and, unbeknownst to her, give her their last goodbyes. The film is an exploration of the experience of being bicultural, trying to find out where you fit and what you want to embrace and what you want to reject. It’s about the loneliness and potential isolation of being separated from your family in a new culture. It’s about family and the ways we carry one another’s burdens. It’s about seeing the value in what initially feels foreign but is driven by a deep commitment to connection and selflessness. Now available to rent or buy, make sure to check this one out.

1. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I was reluctant to see this one. I LOVED the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor and had a hard time believing anything could top it. But director Marielle Heller proved me wrong. Rather than broadly being about Mr. Rogers, Beautiful Day draws from Fred’s real life friendship with journalist Tom Junod which began when Junod interviewed him for an Esquire profile in 1998. You MUST read this incredible piece which moved me to tears multiple times, and the follow-up that he wrote this summer in advance of the release of the movie. Junod was a man struggling with anger and bitterness, and Mr. Rogers changed him forever. The film follows their meeting and the ways that Fred chose Tom to be his friend (renamed Lloyd Vogel for the movie) and entered his life. The film is loosely formatted like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and Tom Hanks does a wonderful job of capturing Fred’s personality and aura. Heller has said in interviews that one of her hardest jobs as director was to get the actors to slow down to Fred’s pace of life. His conversation and relating were so slow and deliberate, making whoever was in front of him feel important. Hanks translates the look of delight that would come to Fred’s face so easily anytime a person did something that was significant to them and that they wanted to share. But the movie is not just about Mr. Rogers, but about the impact of who he was and the way he lived. To learn to process our anger and hurt so that we can move towards forgiveness and healing. (As he said, “If it’s mentionable then it’s manageable.”) To live with intentionality and compassion is to effect the people around you for the better. And I think Mr. Rogers would be the first to say that’s something all of us can do.

 

REVIEW: The Two Popes

Comedian John Mulaney hosted Saturday Night Live earlier this year and joked about the idea of his Jewish wife converting to Catholicism, “How would I even have that conversation? What, do you come home with a brochure, and you’re like, ‘Hey, honey, allow me to tell you about an exciting not-new organization. Don’t Google us!’”

And so the joke has gone for many years now, especially since the early 2000’s due to the string of articles from The Boston Globe’s investigative journalism team. The Catholic church has a marred reputation that has been rooted in scandal and the unimaginable trauma of thousands of victims. Even more recently, a 2018 investigation conducted across the dioceses in Pennsylvania revealed 1,000 victims involving 300 priests in that state alone. There are big questions about the health and future of this global organization. Netflix and Oscar nominated director Fernando Meirelles are asking those questions in their new film, The Two Popes.

The Two Popes Anthony Hopkins

In the film, Meirelles and The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten imagine several conversations between Pope Benedict XVI and, then, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio who would go on to be Pope Francis. The conversations in the movie, that are shot with an almost documentary style, are based on some meetings that did take place between the two figureheads, but they are also based on a huge cultural turning point within the church.

The Vatican needed more than a change in leadership, though that did happen when Benedict renounced his position and Francis was elected. They needed more than a return to charity and service, though Francis has made it a focus. They also needed more than addressing issues like climate change and sexuality, though Francis has shown incredible compassion in those arenas. What the Catholic church needed was something far more powerful, repentance. The church needed to clean house at the top and clean house in their hearts. Confession is, ultimately, what Two Popes is about.

Two Popes Jonathan Pryce GIF

Whether they are protestant or catholic, church leaders are supposed to reflect Christ to those they serve. The Apostle Paul calls them “ambassadors” for Christ. The goal is that as someone meets you and experiences your love and service they are, in a way, meeting Jesus. How can you be anything but grieved, then, by the idea that, for thousands, Christ was an abuser? That grief is painted all over Jonathan Pryce’s face as he portrays Cardinal Bergoglio. The whole film is a delicate, nuanced dance between the two popes and Pryce’s dance partner is the legendary Sir Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict.

The two popes take jabs at each other’s stances on doctrine, tradition, and the direction of the church. Their conversations disturb the birds in the gardens of the Pope’s summer estate and echo against the painted walls of the Sistine Chapel. Hopkins’ Benedict snorts and scowls with guarded fear that Bergoglio desires to see the whole institution torn down. The Cardinal pleads and cries with desperate urgency that the culture Benedict has created is driving people out of the pews. They both are wrestling with being a part of something that has caused so much harm and become the butt of the world’s joke.

The Two Popes Jonathan Pryce

When the film shows you the global scale of the Catholic church or takes you into the mysterious election process, when you see the thousands of people gathered to stare at a chimney, it is easy to feel the authority the Pope has. Both Benedict and Bergoglio brought great authority into these conversations. They had served for decades. Benedict very much had his mind set on the past while Bergoglio had his feet planted and eyes focused on the future.

Jesus has the greatest authority in the universe. Being Christ-like takes authority, but they get absolutely nowhere by swinging their experience and knowledge back and forth. Being Christ-like also takes profound vulnerability. Jesus could heal the leper and make the blind man see but at the end of the day he hung on the cross exposed to the world. To end the stalemate in the film, that’s exactly where the two popes have to go, to the cross. The third act of the film is one of vulnerability and confession.

While watching the film, I found myself laughing at the joke. That’s all we can do with our pain sometimes, right? Laugh at it. Take away its power by making it a joke, and the pomp and the arrogance of this ancient tradition played right into the comedy. By the end, though, as these two men are baring their souls to one another, my eyes were on the cross and the reconciliation I’ve seen in my own life. I’m not sure if the world will ever forgive the Catholic church for their grave injustices, but I do know one way to find forgiveness is to ask for it.

REVIEW: A Hidden Life

There is a lot of flashy, star-studded content about World War II out there. Rightfully so. It was an era when the world stood up together against a very obvious and treacherous evil. The conflict begs to be adapted again and again. Just this year, Jojo Rabbit approached the time period with humor and heart and Amazon Prime’s sci-fi series Man in the High Castle, that depicts how the world might have been different if the Axis Powers won, entered its final season. Over the years, audiences have followed Patton, banded with brothers, and saved Private Ryan through tons of explosive battles and even more explosive Tom Hanks performances. Now, into the catalog of World War II fare, comes the quiet and contemplative A Hidden Life.

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Director Terrence Malik has been to WWII before with the fondly remembered The Thin Red Line, but this time he avoids the traditional trenched and barb-wired battlefield. That often-used setting is traded in for the Sound of Music-esque Austrian countryside. Malik adapted this story from the personal letters between farmers Franz and Fani Jägerstätter. He uses his signature style of frenetic edits and wide-angle lenses to pull the audience into this family’s quiet opposition to Hitler’s regime.

As the story winds tighter and tighter, Fani and Franz share these letters that are so rich with faith and love. Austria has never looked so lush with deep greens and bright blues, but soon it becomes a frigid, isolating prison. All I could think of were those infamous sweeping shots of Julie Andrews spinning while taking in fresh air and music from the hills. In A Hidden Life, Fani claws with her bare hands screaming her suffering into those same blades of grass as their village ostracizes her. Franz, eventually, finds himself behind actual bars locked away from any color at all. The world has left them both pale, cold, and empty. Yet they reach out to each other with warm, comforting blankets of scripture. This is where they find their freedom.

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In order to do what Franz and Fani did, you would have to have a foundational belief that nothing on this Earth can take away the freedom we have in Christ. They deeply loved each other, their life in the rolling hills, and their beautifully precocious daughters, but, once their consciences flare in the face of true evil, they have to put their hope in an eternal good. Friends, neighbors, family, priests and lawyers tell them that they could compromise a little and be set free. To that Franz replies that he’s already free.

Another frequent appeal to get Franz and Fani to give in is that no one will ever know the stance they took. What they are doing won’t change the course of the war or send the population of Austria into revolt. If Franz doesn’t give in he will die just as he lived, quietly. What an interesting question for today. What makes a protest worth it?

What comes to mind for you when you think about modern social activism? Much of our social activism is criticized today because so much of it takes place online. On the surface, it often feels like the ability to post online or, as many call it, to hide behind a keyboard, doesn’t cost the tweeter anything. If only we could ask journalist Jamal Khashoggi if posting his opinions came with a cost. Even though the face of modern day social activism is a tiny blue bird on our phones, there are so many people behind those birds screaming to be heard and often dying silently in the dark. But they continue to tweet. Why?

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Franz Jägerstätter (played beautifully and stoically by August Diehl in the film) couldn’t compromise. His beliefs planted him and his family firmly into the ground where he made his stand. Fani Jägerstätter (played with intense strength by Valerie Pachner) couldn’t ask her husband to pledge allegiance to evil even if it would bring him home. Even if their protest came with a cost, the cost of their very souls was greater and, they believed, the reward on the other side of righteous suffering, on this plane of existence or the next, was even greater still.

It had to be a challenge to tell the story of a family stoically making a stance. World War II has a lot of flashy stories to tell, but this is a very bleak and colorless one. Yet, Malik tells it in vibrant colors with a style that gives this small protest a grand scale. There isn’t a beach to be stormed or a rousing high note to be sung, but there is an incredible internal battle taking place not just on this farm in Austria but in the hearts of every person confronted with how to respond to true evil. Malik gives you time between the breaths of levity and punches of grief to ask that question of yourself. What is the cost of making a stand and what is the cost of not?

REVIEW: Parasite

Tens of millions of television viewers recently rejoiced at the big screen return of a silver screen favorite. For four years, fans just couldn’t wait to once again walk down that gravel path to Downton Abbey. It’s a classic story of a society in transition and the ways progress affects or stifles characters throughout the different classes. Downton’s following were swept up in the romance of the extravagant traditions of the upstairs family and rooted wholeheartedly as the downstairs characters attempted to climb their way out to various success.

In all honesty, the film installment of Downton Abbey served more as a special episode of the show than it did a movie that might make awards moves, but a similar story is already being dubbed one of the year’s best! Imagine if Downton Abbey was set in modern day South Korea and helmed by one of world cinema’s most creative filmmakers. Well, that’s what you get in the genre bending heist-suspense-thriller-horror-political-comedy, Parasite.

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There are many reasons that Parasite is getting its praise. The movie excels in the major components to any movie: acting, writing, editing, sound, cinematography, etc. What makes it so uniquely special, though, is the vision and voice of its director. It is almost always hard to say what genre Ho is playing with in any given movie, and he often covered several. What’s more important is what he’s trying to say and how he’s using the medium to say it.

Like Downton, Ho often focuses on themes of class, exploitation, and society’s woes. In Snowpiercer, he depicts a future where the survivors of a global freeze are confined to a moving train with each car representing different class positons. In Okja, Ho tells the tale of the daughter of a lower-class farmer who raises and then must protect a genetically engineered future pig. Most would say these are strange movies, but there really is something unique and gripping about Ho’s vision. They manage to be weird without being inaccessible. They manage to have a dark edge but with a light of life. They exist in fictional universes but somehow evoke extremely real feelings. With Parasite, though, he’s doing something a little different. It features characters, a setting, and a premise that’s fairly normal. Yet, in perfect Ho fashion, the film manages to be anything but.

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Parasite follows one of the downstairs families of South Korea. They live in a subterranean apartment where they fold pizza boxes for grocery money and huddle into the highest corners for just a taste of nearby WiFi. Fortunes change when the son is hired as a tutor by a very upstairs family and from there Ho takes his audience through somewhat of a genre obstacle course. This is just not a film you can stay ahead of. There’s no typical roadmap to follow through its narrative. In the year of our Lord 2019, that is such a rare gift.

What you will feel throughout the film is Ho’s ability to reach into your body and spark a reaction. It’s a visual medium but he orchestrates a sensory experience that you can smell and feel. It’s beyond the visceral feeling of texture and stretches into your involuntary bodily reactions to make you feel what the characters are feeling. At times, I was relaxed and confident. Ten minutes later I was suspicious and nervous. A few seconds pass and I’m breathless and shaking, and as it continues I’m uncontrollably sad.

I was exhausted. Ho wants you to feel what it is like to be those downstairs people trying to climb. It is reminiscent of another incredible film recently released from South Korea, Chang-Dong Lee’s Burning. Both films highlight a younger generation of South Koreans experiencing an ever expanding gap in the classes, and both films do so by focusing on what the lives of the lower class are truly worth. They explore the highs and lows of a life lived at the bottom of the stairs.

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The downstairs family gets so close to the life of the upstairs family, but it is all an illusion. What is a minor inconvenience to our upstairs characters, alters the life of everyone in the downstairs community. At the peak of their maneuvering to ascend into greater flourishing, the downstairs family feel a small measure of control and power only to have their schemes descend into pure chaos. The upstairs family maintained power the entire time. Our protagonists were only ever one squish or slap away from losing connection to resources and a better life. Thus is the life of a parasite.

*I’d love to say more, but I don’t want to ruin the experience. Snowpiercer, Okja, and Burning are all currently streaming on Netflix and including Parasite should all be watched with viewer discretion as ratings vary. But they should be watched!

REVIEW: Jojo Rabbit

There is nothing funny about the Holocaust or the Hitler Youth or any of our current expressions of white supremacy. And yet, in the midst of the great divisions we feel in our world today, comes Jojo Rabbit, a satirical comedy from Taika Waititi who is known for comedy bangers like What We Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok.  He’s also known for pulling out the comedy in tragedy like he does in the acclaimed Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This is what he does with Jojo. Waititi tackles a horrific subject through comedy hoping that the laughs will keep our eyes locked on something we often turn a blind eye to.

Jojo is a young German boy who goes away to Hitler Youth camp as World War II is coming to an end. Even in the world of young Nazis in bloom, it’s impossible to escape the clichés of youth. Jojo is starving for acceptance, eager to prove his masculinity, and regularly bullied by the older boys. These are just distractions, though, because Jojo is there to learn how to be the best Nazi he can be. He’s swimming in a pool of indoctrination and sponging up every drop. This is a lot of pressure for little Jojo, but he finds strength in his imaginary friend, a version of Hitler formed in his young mind played by the film’s New Zealander director.

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In the role, Waititi gets to pinpoint the absurdity of hate. He’s not just playing Hitler, he is playing the personification of Jojo’s learned racism and fascism. He is Jojo’s sinful nature and he, along with the film as a whole, is brilliant. Calling out the senselessness of white supremacy is easy. People do it all the time on Twitter with short, jabby quips accompanied by the perfect animated GIFs of Kermit the frog sipping tea. Waititi doesn’t leave us with an impactful jab, though. With Jojo Rabbit, he offers a solution, because a quarter of the way through the film something unexpected happens.

In order to talk about some of the power of Jojo Rabbit, we’ve got to dig into spoiler territory. I’m going to spoil a major plot point, but I promise, even if you know it, there are plenty of twists and turns in the film. It is an important point to help draw out the film’s larger themes and, might just be a selling point if you haven’t seen it and you really should! Regardless, if you want to go into Jojo blind, stop reading now and come back!

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Circumstances lead to Jojo being forced to stay home from camp where he discovers a young Jewish woman hiding in the walls. Jojo is terrified. He’s chilled to the bone, his veins streaming with the power of an irrational fear of the other. This fear was implanted in him by the counselors at camp and the national pride in the air. It is a fear that could only exist and be made stronger by Jews being an absolute mystery. As long as Jojo doesn’t come in contact with an actual Jew, he can maintain the picture of a hellish demon that has been fashioned in his mind. But then there is Elsa, played with such power by Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie. She’s thin from eating scraps, and dirty from hiding in the walls, but she is human and Jojo is now locked in the house with her. Proximity will now slowly, but surly, dismantle fear.

This is why Christ dined with sinners, touched lepers, and pushed his disciples into Gentile communities. Fear and hatred can create seemingly insurmountable distance between people, but that vitriol can only survive as long as that distance in maintained. What do you mean that a Samaritan can be good? How can it be that Paul, the ultimate Jewish leader who sparked such violence towards the Gentiles, would be their pied piper of salvation? Fear feeds on the unknown, and the best way to combat that is by making the unknown known. Being locked in proximity to Elsa gives Jojo a chance to see she doesn’t have horns, her heart is actually kind, and yes, she does bleed the same color red. It can be simple or easy for us to let go of distance and separation, but the problem is that fear and hate don’t so easily let go of us.

Just when the disciples were starting to warm up to the idea of the Gospel being for everyone, even the Gentiles, here comes Peter gripped with fear. In Galatians, Paul catches Peter engaging in conduct that “was not in step with the truth of the gospel,” and he is furious. Paul had been working tirelessly to close the distance between these people groups and Peter was driving the wedge again. Peter’s fear wasn’t letting go, and neither does Jojo’s. The more Elsa makes him smile, imaginary Hitler begins to frown. Waititi’s Fuhrer begins acting less like a cartoon character and more like the man of the news reels and propaganda.

Jojo Rabbit depicts the fight for a young boy’s very soul, and, in many ways, the fight for ours as well. Every laugh is followed by a cringe of reality knowing how many adorable little kids, and Jojo actor Roman Griffin Davis is adorable, have been, and are being, turned into monsters with time-tested methods. It is an absurd film, but one that is going to pull you through a gallery of tears. There are tears of laughter, tears of sadness, tears of pain, and tears of great, personal conviction. The film asks what devils of ignorance and fear are living in your own heart while it walks a very fine line between making fun of the hypocrisy and making light of the horrors. This line, however, is walked with a hope that maybe one day we can make hate a figment of our imagination.

 

 

 

Joker: Should We Sympathize with Evil?

It’s been out for two weeks, and Joker has already sparked a season’s worth of controversy. It won the highest prize at the Venice Film Festival, Joaquin Phoenix is getting widespread praise for his leading performance, and it has an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. All great accolades which should indicate this film is a must-see.

Joker is a stand-alone story loosely set in the DC Comics universe, an anomaly these days as seemingly every new action movie hopes to launch a franchise. It is an origin story of sorts for Batman’s most popular nemesis, The Joker. This is already a bold departure from comic book canon as The Joker notoriously lacks a personal history. A characteristic played upon so well by Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, who asks others throughout the movie, “Do you want to know how I got these scars?”, always telling a different story to each person. He is a shadow, unknown, unpredictable, unscrupulous.

But director Todd Phillips takes his Joker in an altogether different direction. We follow Arthur Fleck, a middle-aged down-and-out clown with a history of mental illness. He works thankless jobs and gets beat up by street kids. His social worker is apathetic and ineffective. He has to care for his invalid mother. He has a chronic, uncontrollable laugh that makes social situations painfully awkward. And then the city budget for social services gets cut and he can no longer get his much-needed prescriptions. He is a person who has been beaten down by life and forgotten by the system. As a result, he turns to increasingly erratic and brutal acts of violence.

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This is what I found so problematic about Joker. It gives evil a sympathetic back-story. Arthur kills multiple people throughout the film, with additional situations alluding to possible violence that occurs off-screen. But all of his victims to some extent “had it coming.” None of them are innocent bystanders, his killings all have some form of reason behind them. Perhaps they did not deserve to die, but the audience can understand why Arthur acts as he does. And in many ways this takes Arthur off the hook. He is a product of the system. He is a product of chronic mistreatment. He is a product of isolation. He is a product of the true villain: Society.

But if we give evil a sympathetic back-story, it is no longer evil. It is no longer purely malicious and destructive, it is simply a reaction to forces outside one’s control. This may be one reason why the Bible is conspicuously silent on the origin of evil. We have plenty of lore about Satan, everyone has a different story about his downfall, very little of which is actually rooted in scripture. He is the true Joker, a force of decay seeking to tear down the structures of society with no aim other than to cause chaos. As Alfred so sagely puts it in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” As God’s true opposite, Satan embodies everything that God is not: deceit, selfishness, isolation, hatred, shame, bitterness, injustice, destruction, etc. And that is what Satan seeks to propagate in God’s world. How evil came to be is irrelevant because it does not change the nature of what it is. It is inherently and purposefully negative in every way. It is not a product of other forces, it is the force.

So it is a dangerous game to justify the unjustifiable. To humanize the inhumane. To make evil a victim rather than expose him for a victimizer. There is a reason that Satan is called the Deceiver. Jesus says his native language is lies (John 8). Joker is just one more product of a Deceiver who would convince us that he is not so bad after all. One who would fabricate a sympathetic origin-story to make his villainy less villainous in an effort to convince our culture that there is no absolute evil, just a lot of misunderstandings and bad breaks. That our biggest problem is Society and not the presence of sin in the world and in our hearts.

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It’s not a surprise that Joker is theologically flawed, but it’s also thematically flawed. While Phoenix’s lead performance is indeed mesmerizing, it is for little good purpose. The way the story is told perpetuates the flagrantly toxic narrative that white men only resort to violence as a result of mental health issues, thereby exonerating them of personal responsibility or plain malfeasance. The film also portrays a narrative that mental health treatment is useless and mental health professionals have nothing helpful to offer. What a bleak, hopeless picture it could also potentially paint for those who struggle with their mental health. No one will help you, you are all alone, and you may as well give in to the negative thoughts.

If that wasn’t enough, Phillips treats his female characters poorly, making them weak and incompetent victims of Arthur’s outbreaks. His strong female cast are wasted in roles that do nothing with their talent. In its most extreme interpretation, Joker also glorifies acts of violence and glamorizes them as “starting a movement.” By the end of the film, Arthur feels a sense of power and belonging through receiving a positive public response to his actions. All of these messages have the potential to impact individuals and audiences in a dangerous and harmful way.

Perhaps Phillips wanted to draw attention to a broken economic system. Perhaps he wanted to confront America with our neglect of the poor and unwell. But what he produced is a shoddy and cynical story. One that runs the risk of perpetuating the things it claims to indict, and one that allows evil to wear a mask of decency. We do not move forward as a society by continuing cycles of violence. We do not move forward by creating so many anti-heroes that we never unmask our true villains. That can only be done by naming evil for what it is, and turning away from it. Change doesn’t happen by disguising evil in the garb of artistic cinematography and art-house performance. That is not true to the character, and is just another clumsily cloaked lie passing for insight.