Thursday, January 23, 2014

Discussional: American Hustle

What It's About: Irving Rosenfeld (played by Oscar nominee Christian Bale) is a conniving con artist who, with the help of lover/business partner Sydney Prosser (Oscar nominee Amy Adams), bilks hard-luck loan applicants out of non-refundable "application fees." But when they get busted by kinda sleezy FBI agent Richie DiMaso (yet another Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper), they agree to help Richie with a convoluted sting operation that came to be known as Abscam—one involving foreign sheikhs and borrowed money and mafioso and, oh yes, politicians: Lots and lots of them.

And we must not forget to mention Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence, who you'll not be surprised to learn is an Oscar nominee), who may not have much to do with the central premise but still helps makes American Hustle the rollicking farce that it is.

Some Thoughts: It's not often that I can watch Christian Bale in a movie and think to myself, "hey, I'm better looking than he is." Sure, we both might've lost some hair and gained some paunch, but I do at least avoid extravagant comb-overs and open, belly-baring Hawaiian shirts.

Perhaps Irving's comb-over is emblematic of the movie itself: Almost everyone in it has something to hide.

Irving and Sydney are in the business of hiding. They're American hustlers, after all: They must hide their true intentions and businesses and relationships and even identities (with Sydney going especially over-the-top, masquerading as an English noblewoman named "Lady Edith Greensley"). Richie hides, too—whether it's his identity during a sting operation or the fact that he curls his hair. Ordinary folks masquerade as sheikhs and mafia lawyers. Crooked politicians masquerade as honest statesmen. Rosalyn tries—rather unsuccessfully—to hide her own insecurities and affections and straight-plain craziness.

You could argue (and I think the film does) that Mayor Carmine Polito—one of the prime politicians caught in the sting—is one of American Hustle's most honest and honorable characters. Set aside that killer pompadour (I would've loved to have had hair like that back in my preschool, Elvis-loving days), and you've got a guy who really wants to do something good for his community. He figures that, to get something done right in this world of ours, you gotta go a little wrong.

And that sense of moral tension is what, I think, gives this movie some Best Picture bona fides. Historical farces filled with fake sheikhs and science ovens are all well and good, but you need a little heft to make the cut.

It's the sort of tension that folks who believe in a moral God and a fallen world struggle with all the time. We're all created by a perfect Creator, and so there's part of His design in all of us. But the world and everything in it is twisted, which means we all fall short—and we're sometimes pulled in unhealthy or immoral directions. There's a dichotomy at work in our souls—one Rosalyn nicely alludes to when she talks about perfume.

"Historically, the best perfumes in the world, they're all laced with something nasty and foul," she tells Polito's wife, Dolly. "Sweet and sour. Rotten and delicious. … Flowers, but with garbage."

And so it is with us. We want to be good, but we kinda gravitate to the bad, as well. We want to do the right thing—but we want to do our own thing, too.

And so that's the world we've built for ourselves. There's a lot of good in it, but there's a lot of garbage, too. And we've got to deal with both sides of that world if we want to get stuff done. Jesus got that, actually. "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves," he told his disciples. "Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."

But that's different than what most of us do—and what Carmine did—to get by. Most of us, instead of holding the paradox of the serpent and dove in our hand, we compromise. We allow ourselves to be a little bad for some unseen better purpose. And, as both Carmine and Richie discovers, that doesn't always work out so well.

There is a certain poetic justice at work here: Liars and schemers are caught through the lies and schemes of others. Justice, in a way, is served. But again, we're living in Rosalyn's perfume world, both rotten and delicious. We're not given a neat little ending, and what justice there is is meted out imperfectly. Happily ever after only happens in heaven and movies—and as this movie suggests, not always in the latter.


1. We've talked about how most of the characters here have something to hide. Truth is, though, most of us hide in one way or another. We wear masks in certain situations or slip on a slightly different identity with some people. Do you find yourself "hiding" at times? When?

2. Sydney reveals her true, non-English noblewoman identity to both Irving and Richie eventually. Who sees the real you?

3. "I believe that you should treat people the way that you want to be treated," Irving tells Carmine. "Didn't Jesus say that?" He did—or at least something close to that. It sets the table for Irving's betrayal of Carmine, and makes it all the more painful or Irving and the audience. Yes, Carmine was involved in bribing politicians, but the movie encourages us to sympathize with the mayor. Should we feel sorry for him?

4. Is there a hero in American Hustle? Who? Is there a villain? Who?

5. Have you ever done something right for the wrong reasons? Have you ever done something wrong for the right ones?

What the Bible Says:

"… everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived."
2 Timothy 3:12-13

"What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs."
Luke 12:3

Monday, January 20, 2014

Discussional: 12 Years a Slave

What It's About: Solomon Northup (Oscar nominee Chiwetel Eojiofor), a free man living in the pre-Civil War state of New York, is kidnapped, thrown in chains and sent south to be sold into slavery. His first owner, a man named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), seems kind enough (as far as slave owners go). But when Solomon attacks his abusive overseer, Ford sells Solomon to the truly monstrous Edwin Epps (nominee Michael Fassbender). He has the power to make life a living hell for the human beings he's bought, and he does just that, particularly for the proud and beautiful Patsey (nominee Lupita Nyong'o), whom he abuses in every imaginable way. It's a horrible, dehumanizing life for all involved: To survive, Solomon must hide his identity and education, all the while trying to find some way to return to his wife and children back home.

Some Thoughts: No one, I think, can watch 12 Years and not be impacted, even shocked, by what they see. We know, of course, that slavery's an evil institution, but this brings it home. It's tempting to shut your eyes and ears to some of what you see here.

And that, in itself, is a telling reaction, since in a way that's what our "good" slave owner Ford must've done for much of his life. A part of him knows that slavery is a wicked institution. He seems deeply disturbed by it at times, and does what he can to make it more humane. And yet, he accepts the institution's inherent awfulness as the cost of doing business, apparently.

I've read a great deal about America's founding fathers, most of whom owned slaves. Washington, Jefferson, Madison—all were slave owners uncomfortable with slavery. They saw the horrific irony of the country they were creating—a land built on liberty when its founders without even that essential right. And while some expressed the wish that slavery had never come to America, they didn't know how to get rid of it once it was here. For me, the movie helped shine a harsher, more tragic light on these national heroes: And while I believe that the good someone does isn't wiped clean by the bad, it's an important reminder of the lies we tell ourselves sometimes to excuse the bad—in both ourselves and others.

I was also really struck by how Christianity was used to undergird and often excuse people's behavior here. Ford sees faith as a comforting, civilizing agent for his slaves, and he offers a plantation-side message to his bought masses. But there's a tragic dissonance at work: Ford preaches about the children of Abraham as a slave woman sobs over her own lost children—mother and kids separated in the sale. Epps uses the Bible as justification for owning slaves and treating them so horribly. He quotes Luke 12:47: "And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes." "That's Scripture!" he bellows. And when Epps' plantation is struck with drought, Epps calls it a biblical plague: He knows he's not being punished for his own sins, and blames it instead on his slaves. "I bring 'em God's word, and heathens they are, they brung me God's scorn."

But faith is also shown, briefly, as a source of solace, hope and even humanity. Solomon and his fellow slaves sing "Roll, Jordan, Roll"—a song that speaks of the hope for a better life to come—together in a powerful moment of solidarity. And undergirding the entire movie is a sense that there is a higher law than the law of the land—one given by God, not man—and that as such, the institution of slavery is a sin.

We hear it from a visitor named Bass (Johnny Depp): "Laws change. Social systems crumble. Universal truths are constant. It is a fact, it is a plain fact that what is true and right is true and right for all. White and black alike."

We hear it from a woman named Mistress Shaw: "In his own time, the Good Lord will manage them all. The curse of the pharaohs was a poor example of what waits for the plantation class."

We hear it from Solomon himself: "Thou devil!" he tells Epps. "Sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice thou shalt answer for this sin!"

The message is obvious: Slavery is a sin, abhorred by God Himself. It is a universal truth, far above the powers of mortal man to change. 12 Years a Slave posits there is a morality in the universe misunderstood by the likes of Epps and Ford. And that, however you call it, points right to God.


1. Characters in 12 Years a Slave twist religion to serve their own ends. Can you think of times when certain people now have done that? Have you done that?

2. Was Epps a Christian?

3. At one point, Patsey asks Solomon to kill her, claiming that God would look on it not as a sin, but as a mercy. Do you think she's right?

4. The song "Roll, Jordan, Roll" is perhaps a nod to the comforting power of faith in times of great misery—even when it doesn't make that misery disappear. Have you gone through times when your faith comforted you?

Bible Verses

"But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
Amos 5:24 (a verse that gives "Roll, Jordan, Roll" perhaps extra resonance)

"He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
Micah 6:8

"Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness."
1 John 3:4

"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us."
Romans 8:18

"We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies."
2 Corinthians 4:8-10

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Looking for Truth at the Oscars

Gravity and American Hustle each snagged 10 Oscar nominations this morning, including for Best Picture. But they'll have to contend with seven other nominees for that top honor: 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Overall, it's a strong mix of movies (even with the sad, nay, horrible omission of Saving Mr. Banks) in a year that had more than its fair share of good ones. But that doesn't mean they're all great to sit back and watch with your sweetie and a bag of popcorn. 12 Years a Slave and its depiction of horrors is, at times, almost torture to sit through. The Wolf of Wall Street is as rough and foul a movie to be released in—well, maybe ever. American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, Her and Nebraska are all rated R for good reason, and many Christians won't see R-rated movies unless they have the words "passion" and "Christ" in the title.

There are lots of good reasons to skip harsh movies, of course, whatever their artistic merit. Plugged In (the ministry for which I work) exhorts people to be wary of the entertainment they consume, just like health-conscious folks might clear of trans-fats. Watching a lot of sex and violence and whatnot can be unhealthy, studies suggest. And if that's not enough rationale, we can point to Scripture—the oft-quoted Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

But should all of that preclude us from, or make us feel guilty for, watching the movies above? Not necessarily.

Many Christians take Phil. 4:8 to mean that we shouldn't expose ourselves to unpleasantness. If a movie contains elements that rub us the wrong way or make us feel uncomfortable or run counter to our faith, we should steer clear. And maybe they're right. I'm no theologian.

But when it comes to the art of storytelling (and movies, of course, are simply powerful visual stories), it seems to me like you often need to bring in some negative elements to bring forth the true, the right, the pure. The Bible itself is certainly no gigantic Hallmark card of inoffensiveness. It challenges us and sometimes shocks us. The people who wrote it lived in a harsh, brutal, sensuous and often unforgiving world. And so when I read Phil. 4:8, my eyes are pulled again and again to the beginning of the phrase.

Whatever is true.

"God's artistic choices should govern our own," writes N.D. Wilson in a fantastic online column for Christianity Today. "More than any other type of artist, Christian artists should be truth-lovers and truth-tellers. More than any other consumer, Christian readers … should be truth-seekers."

And so, I think, should Christian movie-watchers.

The movies selected as Best Picture nominees, by and large, hide truth inside their messy folds: artistic truth, emotional truth, spiritual truth. They touch a nerve. Most of them are not made to honor God. And yet, because of the truth embedded in each, they do in spite of themselves.

Over the next several weeks, until the Oscars are announced March 2, I'm going to periodically post some mini-musings on the Best Picture nominees. I'm calling them "discussionals" (a mixture of devotionals and discussions) because, well, I like to make up words every once in a while. They'll be mainly a series of thoughts and questions and even a Bible verse or two—stuff that I found worth mulling over. As such, they'll be quite personal, written as much to work through my own thoughts as anything.

I won't promise to get through all the nominees. But hopefully, I'll get to most of them—in alphabetical order. They'll be mostly for folks who've actually seen the films already and, of course, shouldn't be taken as a reason to go see them. But I hope they'll be of some use.

Monday, January 6, 2014

These Are a Few of My Favorite Films

The Denver Film Critics Society (of which I'm a member) just unveiled their picks for the best movies/performances of 2013. Next week, Plugged In (which pays my bills) will announce its own picks for the "best" films of the year. No surprise that these two "best of" lists will look quite different. We Denver Film Critics judge films on artistry and quality, while we Plugged In reviewers are more concerned with a film's morality. Sure, American Hustle might be sharp and funny, but it's not the sort of thing folks would likely watch in small group.

To this miasma I add yet another list—a "best of" list for me. It doesn't set aside artistic quality, because I like good movies. It doesn't completely set aside my Plugged In hat, since I also like good movies (if you catch my drift). And it also, of course, reflects my own personal taste—how it made me feel. After all, watching movies, and even reviewing them, is an inherently subjective process. What we see and hear is not designed so much as to teach us as to move us—to laughter, to tears, to sheer terror. And what moves us differs greatly from person to person.

So with that said, here are 10 movies (in alphabetical order) that moved me this year.

12 Years a Slave: It's one of those movies that everyone should watch, even though you might never want to watch it again. 12 Years—based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sent to the pre-Civil War south—lays bare the evil of slavery, showing the scars of its victims and the corruption of its perpetrators. A raging Michael Fassbender is wickedly great as a tyrannical slave owner, using the Bible as justification for how he runs his plantation. Benedict Cumberbatch (who seems like he's in everything this year) exposes the lie of the "good" slave owner, who despite his best intentions feeds the diabolical system. "In his own time, the Good Lord will manage them all," we hear. "The curse of the pharaohs was a poor example of what waits for the plantation class." A fantastic, hard-to-watch classic.

August: Osage County: Think Grendel had a monstrous mother? The Beowulf creature doesn't have anything on Meryl Streep's Oklahoma beast, Violet Weston. Besieged by relatives after the suicide of Violet's long-suffering husband, Beverly, the drug-addled matriarch seems set on making everyone as miserable as she is—setting up a titanic clash of wills with her daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts). For Plugged In, I called this an Old Testament story of reaping the whirlwind—a tale in which lives are crushed and no one leaves Osage County without being bruised by the story's tornado. This is a dark, sometimes bitter comedy, but the performances—particularly by a gritty, angry Julia Roberts—are uniformly great.

Before Midnight: This is the third of a trio of movies filmed over 18 years—all directed by Richard Linklater and all starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The first two chronicled the curious romance of Jesse and Celine: The third finds the couple middle-aged and married now, but not happily so. Before Midnight is a delightful, painful cascade of dialogue showcasing a relationship falling apart. Batting eyelashes are replaced with terse retorts, languid kisses make room for long-held grievances. It's the most realistic picture I may have ever seen of an unraveling marriage and the frustrations that plague solid relationships from time to time. This is a movie that shows love—not the infatuation or romance or lust that movies sometimes mistake for love—as a darker, more complex thing, and wonders aloud whether it exists at all. But Before Midnight holds out a candle of possibility—a flicker of truth that Christians know particularly well: Sometimes, love can endure the darkest night. Sometimes it can be reborn.

The Conjuring: Almost every moment of this 2013 frightfest was a cliché. The old house, the possessions, the evil witch, the music boxes, the creepy puppets, the murdered dogs. None of that made The Conjuring any less terrifying. This flick creeped me out more than the two-year-old tomato I found in the back of the refrigerator (though the tomato and the demon Bathsheeba did look surprisingly similar). And if scares weren't enough, it was also an in-your-face exhortation to read your Bible—and read it right now before the monsters come. Sometimes, Christian-tinged movies give me nightmares for all the wrong sorts of reasons. But this one was meant to be scary.

Frozen: Oh, Disney, how I've missed you. For almost two decades, the Mouse House has played wallflower to sister studio Pixar—Sue Ellen O'Hara to Pixar's Scarlett. But Frozen may signal that the animation's grande dame may be ready for another turn on the dance floor. Sure, maybe this film isn't quite Beauty and the Beast. The music is more trendy than timeless, and I still the magic of 2-D animation. But the gags are funny, the story first-rate and the themes are simply wonderful. Back in the day, a Disney princess would need to be saved by a prince—perhaps with a tender kiss. This time 'round, it's these princesses themselves that do the lion's share of the saving. The result is magical—so magical that this is the only film on the list that I've actually cried during. Twice.  

Gravity: I've written so much on Gravity I'm loathe to bang out many more words on the subject. You can read what I said about Alfonso Cuarón's beautiful epic here or here or here, if you'd like. So let me just offer one stray, perhaps slightly nonsensical thought—that the universe we see in Gravity may give us a very small glimmer of God, maybe. After all, both are beautiful, terrifying, completely incomprehensible in so many ways. And yet, there's a familiar spot of it that we call home. It gives us warmth and sustenance, provides everything that we need in the way that we need it. It feels like it was made for us. And when we, like Ryan, become overwhelmed with how big everything is and how small we are, we focus our attention on that spot of home, and do whatever we can to get back there.   

Philomena: With the help of a caustic journalist, a woman struggles to reunite with her son—a child she was forced to abandon 50 years before. It's perhaps the most understated movie on this list: Star Judy Dench does not float through space, nor is she possessed by demons, nor does she sing with any snowmen. But Dench does offer us a measured, moving performance of an old lady who was woefully misused by her church but still loves her God all the same—and in keeping with His wishes, shows the capacity to forgive.

Saving Mr. Banks: It's a clash of storytelling titans—P.L. Travers, the caustic creator of the beloved Mary Poppins, and Walt Disney, the animation impresario who wants to bring Poppins into his own fold. This gloriously acted period piece delves deeply into the redemptive power of storytelling: How we can, through the alchemy of language, twist what was or is into what should've been or could be. For me, the film had a whiff of the great Christian wit G.K. Chesterton, who often talked about the power of story. Some critics have noted that Saving Mr. Banks twists its own facts: Travers detested Disney's Mary Poppins and certainly would've hated this retelling of how it came to be. Which makes this movie, I suppose, a meta-narrative of itself.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: I don't know how much this charming Ben Stiller movie had to do with James Thurber's original short story. I don't know what so many critics have against this film (hovering right now at 50% on All I know is that, when I left the theater, I was practically ready to ask my son if he'd want company on a cross-country roadtrip to Brooklyn. Granted, Walter Mitty doesn't have anything to do with Brooklyn (though it is set at the old Life magazine, based in New York). But it does have everything to do with shedding our fears and worries to embrace life at its fullest and most frightening—a timely message always, but especially timely today when so many of us can fall into our own virtual lives.

The Way Way Back: Almost everyone has forgotten about this summer sleeper. But I couldn't. The Way Way Back, about a 14-year-old boy (Duncan) with a life-changing summer job, is a funny, poignant coming-of-age story that shows what a family should look like--and it sometimes doesn't bear much resemblance to the folks raising you. Steve Carell is fantastically caddish as Duncan's overbearing would-be stepfather. Sam Rockwell makes a great bad boss. And Liam James plays Duncan with just the right amount of awkward insecurity. The Way Way Back shows what a world of difference that a little bit of love and confidence can do for you.