Because of Gracia: Standing up for Your Faith Against Anti-Christian Bigots

Timid undercover Christian, Chase Morgan, hides his faith at his high school, you know, like it’s supposed to be in our brave new world of secular regressive politics. When beautiful and bold Christian, Grace Davis, arrives as a new student, Chase becomes close friends and falls for her. But their experience of faith being suppressed by a double standard at their school, finds Grace standing up for God in her debate class, which challenges Chase to stand up, speak out and find his voice.

Okay, I have a love/hate relationship with the Christian movie genre. I don’t really care for them. But unlike cynical Hollywood “Christians” who condemn all Christian movies because of their own self-loathing “faith,” I actually see a place for the genre.

But to be honest, it takes a lot to get me to watch one. Because, usually they’re just so poorly written, poorly directed, and poorly acted, that I can’t get through the first ten minutes. My bias is that I was raised on Hollywood quality production values. So yes, the first hurdle you must overcome before you can be considered respect-worthy is the basics of good filmmaking.

But this I will say. Christian movies are getting better. And Because of Gracia is one of the best I’ve seen. This is not saying much, I will admit. Yes, there still needs to be work on the writing, directing and acting. But this movie was very watchable, and emotionally connective in a way others I have seen have not been.

Because of Gracia rang true to the human experience, especially for Christians.

Here’s how it does… Continue reading

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone: Quality Christian Movie That Entertains and Inspires

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I just saw an advance screener of The Resurrection of Gavin Stone.

I have to say, this was the first Christian movie I was actually interested in seeing since I can remember, based on the trailer.

Most Christian movies I can’t get past the first 10 minutes, because of the bad acting, writing, directing, and most of all, bad storytelling. The “Cringe Factor.” The Christian movie genre (and its audience) is hamstringed by its elevation of message over craft.

Not so, The Resurrection of Gavin Stone.

This movie delivers. It’s got decent acting, directing, and most of all, a good story.

Here is a tale about a Hollywood bad boy, who has to return to his hometown church to perform community service for his legal shenanigans, only to rediscover the integrity and values of character that he left behind.

Look, I admittedly do not care much for movies that are about church. Maybe I’m not a very “churchy” guy, or maybe Christian movies have ruined church stories for me with their sense of falseness. I don’t know which. Both?

But I do know that watching The Resurrection of Gavin Stone challenged me to reconsider my bias. It is a story about church culture that I truly enjoyed. It rang true, while having a sense of humor about itself. It made church life seem a part of real life experience, imperfect, yet forgiven. And it ultimately accomplished its goal of making that world of spiritual interest more desirable than the world of temptation around us.

And all without preachiness. (Thank you, Jesus!)

The movie has its flaws, but it has raised the bar of quality for the genre, and it deserves support. If you want better quality Christian movies, you need to see this in the theaters when it opens in January.

Well done. I have hope for Christian movies.

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OSCAR WATCH • The Grand Budapest Hotel: WTF? Quirky Soulless Unfunny Silliness.

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The story of… the story of… What is it the story of? Oh — the “adventures” of a legendary concierge in a fictional hotel between World Wars. I had to get that from IMDB cause it is not apparent watching this movie just what exactly is going on, and who cares?

I am a fan of Wes Anderson’s older work, and his quirkiness of characters and storylines. I mean, Bottle Rocket is one of my favorite indie films of all time. So I tried to like this movie. I really did.

Say the good first, Brian, say the good first.

I have one good thing to say about it. Every shot, every frame, is a beautiful painting of light, composition and color. Truly, every shot, every frame. It DESERVES the Oscar for cinematography.

But every other nomination — Really?

The rest of the movie is just long, boring, ridiculous convoluted episodes of unfunny silliness. It is full of verbose narration over an artificial acting style of quirky but soulless unsympathetic cartoon characters spewing pretentious literary dialogue in convoluted episodes of an uninteresting story.

Other than that, there’s just not much to say about it.

Gimme back my ninety minutes you stole from me, Mr. Anderson.
(spoken in the dialect of Agent Smith from The Matrix).

Identity Thief: A Parable About Restorative Justice, not Humanistic “Understanding”

Slapstick Comedy. Jason Bateman plays Sandy Patterson, a guy with an androgynous name, whose identity is stolen by Diana played by Melissa McCarthy in another state. When he goes on a trip to try to bring her back to his home state to clear his name, a wild road trip ensues that challenges Sandy and Diana to find out who they each really are.

This is a wildly implausible scenario with wildly implausible scenes and wildly implausible characters, but give it a break, it’s a comedy! So if you don’t demand that it must by hyper-realistic, you just might appreciate some of the morality tale that this is.

Sandy is set up as losing his reputation, his job, and possibly his future if he doesn’t go down to Florida and bring this woman back to his state, and get her to turn herself in. Diana is an obese woman who is a party animal and lives her life through other identities while trying to get anyone to love her. A ludicrous plot device is added to up the stakes and pace: Diana has killers after her because her thieving has gotten her in trouble with some crime kingpin. Like I said, everything about this story is wildly implausible, but it is a parable and that is the point of it, NOT realism. It is a very heartfelt buddy story that is an incarnation of the parable to Love Thy Neighbor, nay, to Love Thy Enemies.

The humor of it all lies in Diana’s obesity as an irony against her wild girl physical comedy. She is a one woman comedy machine when it comes to this character role. And Jason Bateman is my personal favorite straight man in all of movie comedydom. So I loved this couple that had wonderful chemistry in their journey toward self discovery.

SPOILER ALERT: Diana’s revelation is that she is an orphan who never knew her name (metaphor for identity) and that is why she was restless and lived through other people’s identities, trying to be loved or to find a family she never had. Now this could all be the typical humanistic, “we have to understand the criminal and realize that they’re just hurt people who hurt people.” But it is not, because this sensitive psychological appreciation of her pain is balanced by the moral choice she makes to take responsibility for her actions at the end. Thus, proving the dictum that we are not responsible for what happens to us, but we are responsible for how we respond to what happens to us.

But there is more to it than that, there is reconciliation and restoration.

Sandy, starts out detesting Diana, but eventually learns to care for her and they help each other out in various ways until the end. And Sandy’s problem is his lack of confidence that made him a chump all his life. Confidence that Diana has in overabundance. And his moral journey is also quite nice, as he turns and uses Diana’s skills to try to illegally burn his old boss who screwed him in the beginning. But ultimately, he pays for this as well. And then he also learns that Diana needs family and he brings her into his family instead of protecting himself, which redeems them both with hope and love.

But the ending shows these characters both swap redemptions as they both sacrifice their own selves at the end to save the other. This is a story that affirms personal responsibility and consequences for our actions, but is about more than justice, it is about mercy, and about reconciliation, which is restorative justice.

Despicable Me 2: Gru Supports Proposition 8 Traditional Marriage

Mediocre sequel to the brilliant original. Okay, it was hard to equal the original with its amazing storytelling and wonderful characters. And this one, I can’t say was captivating. Bad guy wants to destroy the world, blah blah blah.

But the reason to see it is for the most adorable cute little girl of any animated movie ever: Agnes and her excitable love shake, as well as the cuddly little minions.

One of the things I found surprising in this movie is that its theme is VERY traditional marriage at its core. As Gru, the villain turned good guy, has adopted the three little girls from the first picture, he loves them as a single parent and does the best he can for them.

But we see that it just isn’t enough, because the little girls like Agnes dream of having a mommy and what a mommy can give children. She writes a little poem about what a mommy brings and it breaks Gru’s heart that he can’t give that to her.

This of course leads to the humorous love interest between Gru and the young good girl agent, Lucy, who is a groupie of Gru’s tactics and brilliance, and willing to date him if he would only overcome his fear of rejection.

And of course, it all leads to marriage, as any good romantic and/or comedy should end in.

This marriage is depicted as clearly being the solution that the children needed for a full balanced life to grow up under.

Very simple and clear: Children need a mother and father, period.

However, the final musical piece at the end of the movie is the minions singing and dancing to YMCA, the classic hit that became a banner song for the gay movement.

So the best I can figure is that they must have realized that in order to make the story work they had to incorporate traditional marriage for the storyline. But being Hollywood storytellers, they were either instructed by the gay mafia, or from their own left-wing guilt, gave a nod to the gay community with the song as if to say, “We’re sorry we had to tell a story supporting traditional mother and father, but we still support gays!”

Quartet: Growing Old Sucks $#!%!

Is all we have to look forward to in our twilight years, the hope for a one last curtain call? This was a cute, whimsical, and serious movie all rolled into one with some wonderful characters, drawn out boring singing scenes, and a depressing ending that is supposed to be uplifting.

In this story about a retirement home for accomplished musicians, all the old folks are preparing to perform a concert for Verdi’s birthday. But trouble happens when a diva, played elegantly by the wonderful Maggie Smith, arrives and stirs up past hurts with her ex-husband who also lives there and has been trying to avoid her for the rest of his life.

I like movies that make me examine my life and make me question whether or not I am investing in what really matters. Therefore, I like movies about death and movies about people facing the end of their life. But this one didn’t deliver in the usual way. It pretty much backfired.

Here’s why:

First of all, Billy Connolly is the lovable comic relief of the ladies man who still can’t stop hitting on the young working women at the retirement home. But you get the sense that he was a desperate bid to bring some life to an otherwise drab bunch of old cranks, half wits and babblers. Now, you would think that would not be the case, because some of the characters are dramatic and others cute and eccentric, and they all had successful careers as musicians, and singers, which was supposed to have given them a life well lived. So the idea of a group of such people preparing for a concert to reprise their yesteryears would make one think it is a good high concept. Unfortunately, there were too many indulgent scenes of showing the singers and musicians practicing that it just got boring and FAST FORWARDSVILLE, baby. I think the director, Dustin Hoffman, suffered from his actor’s perspective of thinking we want to see the real life ex-musical artists he cast bathing in their younger glories and singing pretty well on screen. Not me. I want a good story.

But I don’t want to be too hard on this movie, because the main theme of a divorced couple finding forgiveness at the end of life for past infidelity had a note of grace and hopefulness, especially at the ending.

But the problem for me was that all the forgetfulness, all the declining body functions, all the cute and mindless or silly babbling people, and all the reminiscing and fantasizing about the good old days when they were somebody that surrounded the few people with their wits just made getting old look entirely undesirable and dreadful.

But isn’t that what you want, Brian? Didn’t I say that I like movies that make me examine my life, yada yada? Well, not if the hope that is presented is an illusory and fleeting recap of the humanist attempt to find meaning in what ultimately has no meaning. And that is what this movie lacked for me: Transcendence. It tries to find hope in a hopeless situation, and in so doing distracts us from our real need.

Rather than finding some hope in the midst of a sad reality in this story, I didn’t find any because apart from that forgiveness moment of husband and wife, the big context of the movie’s big theme was summed up in the ending shot after their also-boring performance of the Verdi concert. The people we saw struggling through their age issues end up with a “glorious” slo mo curtain call of happiness after their performance of a song together, giving one the impression that they ended well or that they were ending their life with a joyful curtain call so to speak.

But this is not satisfying because it is shallow and empty.

I am sorry, but the revelation of a life lived by seeking to be loved through performance, and glorying over great songs or experiences or moments of singing is precisely that flaw that needs to be redeemed, not reinforced. It is the delusion of all artists and entertainers, of which I am both, so I know of what I speak. At the end of my life, I know that I am not going to look back on my life and consider all the art I did and how great it made me feel and try to rekindle older fleeting moments of vanity and chasing after the wind. Because I know that all of it will turn to dust. I am not going to be thinking of any of that. I know I am going to be thinking did I know and walk with my Creator? Did I give my life away to others? Did I invest my life in the truth that transcends our muddled and painful existence? If there is nothing beyond this existence then all the performance is a delusion of denial to keep us from facing the truth that none of it has lasting effect. It will mock us at our death. It will not be a curtain call, it will be a Satanic horror movie where reality is the opposite of our delusions and it will damn us.

I write about this very Ecclesiastes-like theme of angst and the despair of meaninglessness in my novel, Gilgamesh Immortal, a retelling of the Gilgamesh epic retold within the context of a Biblical worldview. We must be honest with the despair of reality and the meaninglessness of a worldview without ultimate transcendence, a worldview without God, and only then can we begin to find the truth that transcends that reality to bring meaning and purpose to our hollow humanistic lives.

Monsters University: Nerds, Outcasts, Oddballs (Like Me) Kick Butt

For anyone who has ever felt like they don’t belong, like they’re an outcast, or that they aren’t in the in crowd or that they don’t have that something special that others seem to have, or that they must be weird or an oddball and feel alone in a crowd – which pretty much describes me, which is why I loved this story.

The long awaited sequel to Monsters, Inc from 2001, brings back Billy Crystal and John Goodman in their roles as Mike and Sullivan, two lovable monsters seeking to be the best at scaring little children. This is an origin story about how they first met in college, that is Monsters University, and became the unlikely team that we saw in the original.

Though not as fresh as the original, and a little slow at the start, Pixar still does it right with this one by placing this story of identity, self-worth, individualism and team spirit into the fun environment of a university that gives degrees to monsters on scaring the real world.

We see that Mike has struggled all his life with simply not being scary. And yet that is all he wants to be. He is the typical nerd monster in grade school that everyone teases and laughs at. But he finds a way to make it into Monsters University, where he meets Sullivan, the monster with a pedigree of scariness, but a troublemaking slouch who doesn’t follow the rules, doesn’t try hard enough, and gets stuck with the Losers because of his irresponsibility.

So when they become roommates at the fraternity, OK (Oozma Kappa), which consists of nerds and outcasts, and an old guy going back to school, they begin in conflict because Sullivan sees they are all losers, but Mike believes if they try hard enough, they can all win the big Scare Contest of fraternities, and whoever wins, the entire frat or sorority gets to be included in the Scare Program, the elite degree that sends a lot of monsters to become quality scarers of children.

Needless to say, the nerds want to be accepted by the “in crowd,” who mocks them, Sullivan struggles with being a failure to live up to his family name by being with a bunch of losers, and Mike is the eternal optimist who believes that if everyone works hard enough, we can all achieve our dreams.

This is a wonderful story about appreciating the special value of each person as we discover that even the nerds and outcasts of the world have talents or special qualities that make them valuable people in the world. And it also deals with the issue of acceptance of those whom we deem “losers” because they can be among the most kind or giving people. But also, it is a journey for Sully who discovers quality people are more important than “cool people,” and he is just as frail with his own securities and fears as anyone else in the world. And Mike learns that you can’t always achieve what you want just by hard work, but you can apply your special skills in a way that achieves a special result anyway.

Both Mike and Sully learn that being a part of a team is more important than being a celebrity individual as they both fight to be the team leader (and therefore derail their success), until they learn to use their talents together. In fact, at the big climax, Mike, who seems to be cursed with the inability to EVER BE SCARY (the little monster is so lovable), finally learns to use his passionate book knowledge and study of scaring to help orchestrate Sully’s natural scaring skills to end up creating the biggest scare in the history of the University. Together, Mike uses his brains, and Sullivan his brawn to be the successful team they could not be alone.

So there is a lot of great heartwarming stuff about the value of being a team player and the selfishness of our individualistic “celebrity” culture mindset. The monsters don’t start “winning” until they embrace their specialness and utilize what talents they DO have as a team to accomplish their goal. And everyone has specialness, even the nerdiest nerds and the dorkiest dorks. And that is what results in success. But it doesn’t wrap up too easily or without some pain – just like real life.

SPOILER: One particularly poignant plot element is that Oozma Kappa does not win the tournament because of cheating by Sully, who wanted to help Mike. BUT, we see that they quit the school and work their way up at Monsters Inc. from the mailroom department to be the Scarers they are in Monsters Inc. This is a wonderful positive rejection of our bigoted “higher education” society that breeds the monstrous lie of the Enlightenment that Education is Salvation: Everyone needs a college education to make it in this world. But the fact is that entrepreneurs with passion who don’t fit in with that world of college (Like Bill Gates, AHEM) can achieve great things through their passionate pursuit and dedication to excellence and hard work.

For the Losers in all of us, this is a must see.

Silver Linings Playbook

Everybody’s mentally ill! A dysfunctional romantic comedy about Pat (Bradley Cooper in his usual flexible acting excellence) is home from the mental hospital after 8 months. He was sent there because he had a hostile outburst beating up his wife’s adulterous partner after catching them at home. Pat is delusional in that he thinks he can fix his marriage and his wife will return to him. But when he meets brutally honest Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence is phenomenal), who goes sexually promiscuous crazy after her beloved husband died, he gets sidetracked into discovering what is reality, and it ain’t what he thought.

This is all about how funny mental illness can be. Of course, I’m being facetious, because the mental illness becomes a hook for the storytellers to have fun with the ironic contrast of honest crazy people versus the delusionary dishonesty of normal people. In the real world, this stuff is not funny, but movies are not the real world, they are parables using a fictional world to make us see ourselves through different eyes and therefore learn something about ourselves.

There’s certainly room for some to see this as the dysfunctional Hollywood worldview of reality that is so jaded and cynical that it must have antiheroes and dysfunction to be entertained because the storytellers are themselves nihilists who are numb to hope and goodness. You know, the juvenile pseudo-philosophizing of “how do we know WE are not the insane and the insane are the normal?”

But I think that is too simplistic. Because this is in the end a very traditional love story in terms of discovering one’s selfishness and learning to love the person who cares for you, not the fantasy you’ve created of someone else. It is about facing reality and giving up false pictures of the world in our minds. It does have that element of showing how some of the people in the “normal world,” like Pat’s OCD gambling father, and his doting mother, and best friend and wife are as mentally screwed up or unhappy as any inmate. It also shows a certain insanity that is a part of sports fans (“Fan-atics”). The family’s father is an Eagles fan who has superstitious religious like behavior he lives out in his devotion. But that craziness is also on display in many fans who paint themselves up and get in fights at the sports arena without reason – just like the neurosis and explosions in the asylum. Let’s be honest, there really are things in “normal life” that are acceptable, but are in fact crazy.

And here is what I like about that. There is an element of honesty in Pat and his love interest, Tiffany, that is not in the “normal” people around them. Their frankness, their lack of social filters in saying inappropriate, but truthful statements in public, their open misery and inability to play the game of being happy or normal when they are not, are all reflections of an honesty of facing their flaws that is the beginning of a fully human life.

I could not help but see this movie as a metaphor for Christian faith – not the movie’s intent, but in my own triggered thoughts. I believe that the more one gets closer to God, the more one sees how bad in our soul we really are. How inherently selfish, but in clever secret ways that make us look “normal.” It’s like the closer you get to God, the more screwed up you see that you are, and the less willing you are to try to deny it, so the more honest you become in confessing it. But also, the more vulnerable and trusting in God that you are because you consider yourself more and more helpless and unable to be that “good person” that everyone aspires to be, but no one truly is. This does lead to some changed behavior of course, but it does not get rid of the “diagnosis.”

And that looks crazy to the world. To the world, that’s low self-esteem, that’s neurotic negativity or “fear religion” or “worm theology.” They think that it hampers our human potential. I mean, after all, if a religion is healthy, it should result in us seeing ourselves as basically good, which would make us become better people with positive thoughts, right?

Wrong. The belief in humanity’s inherent goodness is the delusion of the “normal world” with all its facades and games of cover up. This unwillingness to face the truth is the worst sort of dishonesty, it’s lying to ourselves and it is the true insanity. It creates the very self-righteousness that such people accuse Christians of being. It is not the Christian who sees himself as increasingly sinful before a holy God that is crazy and self-righteous, it is the fool who nestles in his normality of innate human goodness.

Before you can live fully human you must face the tragic honest reality that everybody’s “mentally ill.”

The Hangover

The story of a group of four friends going to Vegas for a bachelor’s party. When they wake up the next day, they don’t remember what happened and they can’t find the groom, who is due to his wedding in 24 hours. It’s a male juvenile comedy about immature guys getting in trouble and out of it. It’s theme is an affirmation of the much repeated cliché in the movie, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” In comparison with movies like Wedding Crashers, or Knocked Up, (also gross our comedies) which mock male immature juvenility and affirm taking responsibility, The Hangover celebrates it. Because they were inadvertently slipped Ruffies (the date rape drug that causes memory loss), the guys are not portrayed as being entirely responsible for all the wild, criminal and immoral things they did during the evening. Mike Tyson, the famous boxer criminal, is portrayed as cool, even heroic, especially when he slaps a high five for the guys stealing a cop car. The three friends receive their share of beatings from criminal types, but it is all portrayed as undeserving, since they “didn’t know what they were doing” on the drug. There are jokes of endangering a baby they have to carry along with them. There are ultimately no consequences for their behavior as they get back in time for the wedding, and the groom tells his bride at the ceremony that “as long as we are married, I will never do anything like this to you again.” But the final moment shows the guys looking over pictures they took on a newly discovered camera of their night, all acting as if their orgy of debauchery was just good fun to be hidden in the memory. One of the guys, an uptight emasculated man, engaged to a controlling female monster hypocrite gets up the courage to take charge of his life and break his engagement because of his experience in unwittingly marrying a stripper/prostitute (while on the drug). He then decides to go back to take the prostitute out for dinner, because she is portrayed as more authentic and fun-loving. This movie is not a morality tale about growing up, it is an affirmation of male stereotypes and a celebration of juvenility, immorality and immaturity.

The Devil Wears Prada

Comedy. An unfashionable girl gets a job with the Queen of the fashion industry and is educated in the ways of outer beauty. A thoroughly enjoyable moral tale about fashion as a metaphor for life. Anne Hathaway is brilliant as the neophyte thrust in over her head and Meryl Streep is even more brilliant as the Devil herself. What I liked about this story is that it was pretty fair to the fashion industry, even while critiquing it. That is, the moral was of course that you should be yourself and not some fake façade of nouveau, but it gave the devil her due as well. That is, one scene was the most brilliant in the film is where Ann chuckles at the pettiness and apparent irrelvence of the designer’s design choices. Meryl stops and turns it back on her by describing to Anne, the origins and development of the poor taste turquoise blue in the sweater Anne is wearing, all the way up to the point where Anne buys it in a half price bin, thinking she is making her own choice, without being aware that the entire fashion industry dictated her options to her right down to what she is wearing. It was one of those moments where you say the villain is not all that wrong, though she may be an extreme. Favorite line in the movie, Anne questions Meryl about the legitimacy of the fashion world, and Meryl says to her, “Don’t be ridiculous, everyone wants to be us.” There is a particularly poignant punch to that line that hit me about our culture. That is the entire world of advertising/marketing/fashion simply works because everyone DOES want to be the impossible unattainable icon. Fashion is the deity of perfection which we all desire or are drawn to, whether we know it or not.

What I did not like about the movie is that a triangle is set up between Anne and her current boyfriend, a nobody nothing student of some kind, and a writer of the fashion world that is hitting on Anne. Well, the boyfriend is set up as the guy who represents conviction and the world she left but should have stayed with and the fashion writer represents the false world of temptation into emptiness. And yet, I thought the boyfriend as a loser and undesirable non-convictional man. So, I think their moral was not quite incarnate in that character as depicted. Another failing I think is that Anne sleeps with the fashion guy and then leaves him for the boyfriend, as if that liason did not affect her spirit at all. This was dishonest. Something that The Breakup storytellers were more observant about. In the Breakup, they break up but never sleep with anyone else because the storytellers realize that that changes you in a permanent way and alters the hope for true reconciliation. Not that reconciliation is impossible, but surely that the relationship loses the true unity that it had. Sex is sacramental. It changes you and your relationships forever. It takes a piece of you and loses it to another person. To deny that is dishonest.