Finding the Christmas Spirit
Call Me Claus is a simple made-for-cable-TV movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Nigel Hawthorne. Goldberg is Lucy Collins who is a successful TV producer for a shopping network. Lucy is searching for the perfect Santa Claus to bump up the ratings.
Nigel Hawthorne is Santa Claus (Nick). He is forced to search for a Santa Claus replacement. It turns out that every 200 years there is a new Santa Claus, and according to the Elf Board, the current Santa has to find a replacement. Hawthorne’s Nick has exhausted his list of potential new Santas. If he doesn’t find a new Santa by midnight on Christmas Eve, the world will come to an end. (Did I mention this was a made-for-cable-TV movie?) Read More
Since the early 1990’s the musical Rent has inspired and motivated people to see the world around them as they never have before; to see themselves in others.
A few months ago, one of the local high schools performed the rock musical Rent. Megan and I attended the show as a number of students in the musical were in my youth group. They had the audience sit on the stage, to be up close and personal; to be a part of the experience; to live in the story with the actors. It was so well received and popular that the school opened up the balcony at a reduced price to accommodate all the interest.
During the intermission, I overheard two women talking. One of them was expressing amazement that these high school students in 2014 had put together this 1996 Broadway musical about a time and issue that seemed to be so distant from high school students today. I thought to myself, this is what should be happening. Great art – in whatever form it takes – sparks conversation. Read More
It’s the unofficial sequel to Holiday Inn that became a Christmas classic.
Bing Crosby first sang Irving Berlin’s ballad about the holiday in the film Holiday Inn. The song, more so than the film, was well received. It was no surprise that the studio wanted to market the song as much as they could, so they began plans for a new film featuring this poplar song. It took almost a decade before the film became a reality. Fred Astaire, who co-starred with Crosby in Holiday Inn, was slated to join the film as Phil Davis. Astaire turned the role down, and it went to Danny Kaye, perhaps a better choice. Read More
“Baseball isn’t just about business. You should have fun, too.”
One of my fondest memories growing up is tossing a baseball in the yard with my dad. There were days when I would toss the ball against the large brick side of our house (and a few times hitting a window or two). These memories are what make movies like Million Dollar Arm a fun, family film. It reminds us of how baseball has planned a role in our lives and relationships. Million Dollar Arm has the potential to be one of those Disney family film classics. It’s compelling story that is graceful and kid-friendly.
Dolphin Tale was a surprise hit in the theaters in 2011. Enough of a surprise for the film makers to create a sequel to the family-friendly film. Dolphin Tale 2 continues the narrative of Winter, the brave dolphin whose incredible rescue and recovery (complete with a groundbreaking prosthetic tail), made her a symbol of hope and perseverance to many.
Mel Gibson is Max in George Miller’s cult classic that changed the scope of Australian cinema. In a flimsy plot, Max is a normal young man in the time and place when things are not as normal anymore. Set in the not-too-distance future, this somewhat apocalyptic wasteland is symbolic of the social decay. Max becomes a victim of this social decay more than once.
Under the direction of Jason Reitman and with a script by Diablo Cody, Juno breaks the mold of usual comedies. The film is so different from most films that there is very little doubt that it is something special. What begins as a somewhat screwball of a comedy turns out to be so much more. The characters are so well-developed that we come to love them in all of their screwballness. There is very little wonder that Roger Ebert said that Juno “is just about the best movie of the year.”
Ellen Page is Juno MacGuff. Page, 20 at the time, is brilliant, delivering Cody’s witting lines with class and style, all while making a theater full of people fall in love with her. Michael Cera is Paulie Bleeker, a tall, skinny, track runner, and Juno’s best friend. Juno convinces Paulie that they should experiment with sex. While Paulie is not as eager as Juno is, he complies and, of course, Juno gets pregnant. Teenage pregnancy is not usually a comedic moment. Reitman’s film, however, handles it with grace that portions of our society do not.
Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a young man who is living on the edges headed toward total self-destruction. During the day he is a janitor at MIT, at night he is partying at bars with his buddies, picking and getting into fights. While he reads everything and anything he can get his hands on, he hides that intelligence. He may not be a student at MIT or Harvard, but he has a brilliance that baffles the smartest MIT professors.
Mostly, Will Hunting is in pain. His childhood has been filled with abuse, neglect, and abandonment. He hides from that pain, while acting out in that pain. It leads him to being jailed after hitting a police officer during a fight on a black top basketball court. In the meantime, Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) has been searching for Will because Will is the only person on campus who has solved an unsolvable math problem.
On the outskirts of New Orleans lies a narrow piece of land known as Isle de Jean Charles. It is slowly disappearing into the Terrebonne Bay. It lies just outside the levees that protect New Orleans. This is the inspiration of the fictional Bathtub in Benh Zeitlin’s film Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The Bathtub is a Louisiana wilderness of poverty. The community struggles to survive the incoming storms, and just survive period. The Bathtub looks and feels post-apoloypatic. At first, as the film begins, it is hard to tell when and where the film is. Eventually we know that we are outside of New Orleans, with drilling rigs and oil refineries in the background.
Despite its rough appearance, Hushpuppy, the six-year-old heroine of the film, thinks the Bathtub is the “prettiest place on Earth.” Hushpuppy has a connection to the natural world. She picks up every animal she can, lifts it up to her ear, and listens to it. This is just one of the glimpses into Hushpuppy’s soul. A tender soul that is connected to more than just the natural, but to the spiritual as well. Hushpuppy has been described as a mystic, a person who seeks unity with the Holy. Hushpuppy does this through her connection through the natural world around her.
The Bathtub is her sanctuary.
Quvenzhané Wallis is the first-time actress who plays Hushpuppy and is beyond incredible. She was five when she was cast for the movie, and seven when filming was completed. So much of her is in the character of Hushpuppy to the point that Hushpuppy would not be Hushpuppy without Wallis. It is hard to believe this is her first time acting.
An unwanted storm is on the way to the Bathtub. Which is hard to believe, as it appears that the residents of the Bathtub already live in a post-storm world. Hushpuppy narrates much of the film with her six-year-old philosophy about the world. It is just one of the ways in which we get a glimpse at the world through the wide eyes of Hushpuppy. She knows just how big and powerful she is in this world, which is evident when she comes face-to-face with the mythical, giant, wild boars who escape from the melting glaciers. The boars, of course, are not real. They are a part of Hushpuppy’s imagination based on the climate change theory of her teacher’s: “Any day now, the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled . . . Y’all better learn to survive.”
When the hurricane force winds and rain arrive, Hushpuppy and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry, another first-time actor who is a baker in the Third Ward of New Orleans), do not leave the Bathtub despite the mandatory evacuation. (“Daddy says brave men don’t run from their place.”) Rescue workers come in and take them, and the other storm survivors, to a shelter on the other side of the levees. The levees become a symbol of the barrier between these two worlds.
While at the shelter, doctors discover that Wink has a terminal illness and is dying. It is another way in which Hushpuppy’s world is coming unraveled. The father-daughter relationship here is unique to their situation and environment. At times, they are more like partners, codependent upon one another. At other times, Wink is the disciplinarian, smacking Hushpuppy on the head when she does wrong. Most of the time Wink calls her, “Man,” suggesting an equality between them.
Despite all that Hushpuppy goes through – surviving a house fire, living without her mother, leading a group of orphaned children, and seeing her father ill – Hushpuppy takes up the challenge to repair the world.
Hushpuppy: I see that I’m a little piece of a big universe, and that makes things right.
Hushpuppy comes to understand that she is one part of the larger puzzle of what repairs the world. It doesn’t take much to convince us that the world is unraveling around us. We each are a part of the universe, and we each play a roll in making things right. This is what is means to be a part of the Body of Christ.
Just as Hushpuppy is a mystic, living in the mysteries of the Holy doing her part to make things right, the film carries the viewer into the mysteries of an unfolding world. One where suffering is a reality and answers to life’s problems are not as black and white as we would like them to be. One where, as Hushpuppy says, “depends on everything fitting together just right.”
Let’s get this out of the way. Disney’s Maleficent was no where as good as we were made to believe. The character of Maleficent has captured the imaginations for decades. The film goes from Once Upon a Time moments to more, darker Grimm moments. To finally see her in a live-action film was an opportunity to create an amazing film. However, the film, while good, is not amazing. In short, it could have been better – I had hoped it would be better.
Maleficent attempts to be an origin story of its title character, which seems to be the post-Wicked norm. The story begins with Maleficent as a young girl, complete with horns and wings. She is a peace-maker in her world. When the other creatures have disagreements, Maleficent (played by Angelia Jolie) finds resolution. There is a great concern when a human child is discovered in their world. Maleficent is the one who shows the child, a farm boy, grace, even though he was trying to steal a crystal. The two children become friends and as they grow into teenagers, the fairy and the human share a kiss – “true love’s first kiss.” At this moment, it is like any other Disney film.
But as the two get older, they grow apart. The boy stops visiting the forest. The boy, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), as an adult works for the king. He overhears the dying king promise his throne to the one who kills Maleficent. What was that about true love?
Stefan becomes a trickster as he woos Maleficent into his arms and then gives her a sleeping potion. While in a deep sleep, he cuts Maleficent’s wings off. He returns to the castle with the wings as his bounty to the dying king. And upon the king’s death, Stefan takes the throne.
The moment when Maleficent awakens to find that her wings – her freedom – has been torn from her, is possibly the most deeply disturbing scene while also the most captivating. Even though your gut tells you to turn away, you cannot take your eyes off the screen as Maleficent screams out in anger and sorrow. Something that was so precious to her and apart of her identity was violently taken from her while in a vulnerable state. The allusion to sexual violence may not be a mistake.
The assault transforms Maleficent into a villain. But this villain is not soulless. We have seen her extend grace to those who are different, welcoming all. While Maleficent literally gets darker, the grace in her soul never really escapes. That part of her never really leaves her. She places a curse on Stefan’s daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning). On the edge of the forest one day, Aurora encounters Maleficent and says, much to Maleficent’s dismay, that she knows who the fairy is.
Aurora: I know who you are.
Maleficent: Do you?
Aurora: You’re my Fairy Godmother!
Aurora senses that some being has been watching out for her during her childhood. She believes, and rightly so, that Maleficent is the being who has been doing so. Aurora, instead of seeing the evil villain all of us have come to see in Maleficent, sees a somewhat holy and innocent being who is filled with compassion and grace.
This isn’t quite the 1959 Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. But, this is one reason why Maleficent is fascinating. It is rich with themes about things not being quite what they seem, which I think may have attracted Jolie to the film. There is talk about evil throughout the film. Maleficent tells Aurora a time or two that there is a great evil in the land. She is, of course, talking about herself. She knows the evil that dwells within her. Yet, at the same time, Aurora sees the grace in Maleficent. The grace she cannot see in herself.
It raises the issue that films like The Dark Knight Rises rose before it. What is the face of evil? Is evil as black and white as we want it to be? (I don’t have answers to these, just want to raise the questions.)
Angelia Jolie is able to make us fear Maleficent, while also extending empathy. We connect with her conflicted feelings of doing what is right and doing what is wrong (Romans 7). And while at first she is pretending to go along with Aurora’s assumption that she is a godmother, she plays into the role. Aurora’s love for her is strong enough to melt away the rage, hate, and sorrow at being mutilated by someone who declared love for her. This is true love, love for another that knows no boundaries. It is not romantic in the classic Walt Disney sense. It is authentic and real. It is Christ-like love.
Once Maleficent realizes what she has done, placing a curse that can never be broken because true love does not exist, she feels remorse. She is responsible for Prince Philip coming to the castle to awaken Aurora from her deep sleep. Yet, the kiss does not work. Maleficent stands over the sleeping beauty’s bed and whispers an apology:
I will not ask you for forgiveness. What I have done is unforgivable. I was so lost in hatred and revenge. I never dreamed that I could love you so much. You stole what was left of my heart. And now I’ve lost you forever.
She kisses Aurora on the forehead, and the princess awakes. Like in Frozen, Disney boldly transforms what true love means, as well as the face of evil. It is a more realistic portrait of the human condition. We are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) who strive to resist evil, but often times fail. At the same time we are created in the image of the Creator, and as such we are grace-filled beings. We don’t need magic kisses from princesses and princes. No, the only “magic” we need is the Christ-like love we share with one another.