Abby Olcese (@abbyolcese) has been many things — a campus ministry leader at the University of Kansas, an English teacher in Prague, and an advertising assistant at Sojourners. These days, she’s a freelance writer based in Kansas.
Raised on a diet of Narnia, Bob Dylan records and Terry Gilliam movies, Abby is drawn to the weird, the nerdy, and the profoundly artsy corners of popular culture. She loves sharing this knowledge with others by writing about interesting new releases as well as lesser-known gems.
Abby is also passionate about the intersection of faith, social responsibility, and culture. She believes in the power of art to spark important conversations, inspire social change, and help people to better understand life in the kingdom of God.
When she’s not watching movies or writing things down, you can usually find Abby reading comic books or perusing the selection at her local record store.
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‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’...Well, Sort Of
THE HYMN “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” is one of my favorites in the Episcopal tradition, usually sung on All Saints Day. It concludes with the line, “For the saints of God are just folk like me / And I mean to be one, too.” It’s a reminder of the people in our lives—living and otherwise—who are everyday saints, not canonized but important in our formation.
In Dick Johnson Is Dead, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson celebrates her father, one such everyday saint. Dick isn’t actually dead, but he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. How much of his life remains isn’t certain, but Johnson is determined to show him just how well he’s loved by trying to rid him of some of his fear of death.
Johnson does this in a darkly funny way that’s true to her dad’s mischievous streak: She collaborates with him on a series of staged scenes depicting his death from a variety of accidents. Dick is crushed by an air conditioner, falls down stairs, is hit by a construction worker’s nail-filled board, and more. “Everyone dies,” Johnson reminds us, even the people we love the most.
Praying for the Earth in a 1991 Sci-Fi Odyssey
MIDWAY THROUGH THE second half of Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World, the movie’s narrator, Eugene (Sam Neill), plays music with a group of characters in an Australian village. Eugene is on piano, his friend David (David Gulpilil) plays the didgeridoo, a German private investigator (Rüdiger Vogler) wails on a harmonica, and a French bank robber (Chick Ortega) plays drums while they wait anxiously for news about the destruction of a nuclear satellite, which, we’re told, would bring about Armageddon.
Eugene reflects on the journey that’s led the group here and realizes this communal moment of joy in the face of fear is its apex. He calls it “a prayer for the wounded earth.” In many ways, this 1991 global sci-fi odyssey, recently released in a director’s cut by the Criterion Collection, feels like exactly that. It’s a prayer for not only its fictional future earth but the self-involved world we live in now, a world drunk on idealized images of ourselves.
‘Knives Out’ Offers a Merciless Skewering of White Privilege
RIAN JOHNSON'S FILM Knives Out wastes no time setting up the murder mystery that powers its plot. In the very first scene, famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found in the library of his mansion, his throat cut. Harlan’s family is shocked. His Latina caretaker, Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s closest confidant, is devastated. The police think it’s a suicide. Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) thinks otherwise.
The mystery of Harlan’s death may be the plot of Knives Out, but as the story progresses, it’s clear that the film is actually about something else.
Bootstrapping—the idea that one can achieve success purely through hard work and determination—is touted in most areas of public life, from business to education to politics. White Americans particularly love to claim that we’ve risen from tough circumstances while making it harder for less-advantaged populations to do just that.
In Knives Out, the bootstrapping myth is everywhere. Harlan’s children are proud that their dad built a publishing empire. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) tells Blanc that she, too, created her own business from the ground up. But, of course, those stories aren’t the whole truth. Linda would be nowhere without the hefty loan she got from her father. Harlan himself may have worked hard for his success, but as a white man, there’s no doubt his path was easier than it would have been for others.
How to Be Christian in a Time of Bigotry
TERRENCE MALICK HAS long been associated with spirituality. The director’s philosophy background, poetic style, and love of nature results in art that urges viewers to engage deeply with the world: Ask difficult questions, doubt, and believe.
But A Hidden Life, Malick’s latest, may be the most faith-oriented film yet from the director of The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line. Through the story of World War II-era martyr Franz Jägerstätter, Malick explores what it means to wrestle with Christian conscience during rising xenophobia and violence. Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl) was an Austrian farmer executed for refusing to swear loyalty to Hitler. For Malick’s purposes, he becomes an audience surrogate as he encounters his community’s reactions to the Third Reich, and later a Christ figure.
Malick spends significant time establishing the beauty of Jägerstätter’s life before the war. We’re given glimpses of his village and farm, witness romantic moments with his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), and fall in love with them and their home.
'Just Mercy' Brings Criminal Justice Reform to the Big Screen
To Kill a Mockingbird and Just Mercy have notable parallels and important divergences: Like Atticus, Stevenson is defending a wrongfully accused black man from a racist community. But this time, there’s no white savior, and Stevenson isn’t going to lose the case.
'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' Is a Parable on Love
The new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood thankfully avoids giving us a Fred Rogers biopic, one that hits rote beats that show us how Rogers grew into the saintly human we welcomed into our homes. Instead, it provides a kind of parable of the love and forgiveness and empathy that Rogers preached, one in which Rogers himself happens to feature significantly.
Horror is a Smarter, More Diverse Genre Than You Think
“I love the truth I find in dark films.”
In a 2003 speech titled “A Filmmaker’s Progress,” Sinister and Doctor Strange filmmaker Scott Derrickson, a Christian, made this statement in reference to spiritual and moral themes in his work. It’s an interesting idea to consider, not only because tales of terror get more popular this time of year, but also because Derrickson does most of his work in horror, a genre that doesn’t often get positive associations with faith.
Horror is typically considered exploitative, good for nothing more than the basest forms of gratuitousness that cinema can offer. But in fact horror is a smarter, more diverse genre than it’s given credit for. It is one of the best cinematic vehicles for social commentary.
'The Farewell' and the Moral Complexities of a 'Good Lie'
The film challenges Western beliefs about familial and individual responsibility, as well as the often-unrecognized personal sacrifices we make for the ones we love.
Thirty Years of “Doing the Right Thing”
“Always do the right thing.”
“I got it. I’m gone.”
DA MAYOR (Ossie Davis) and Mookie (Spike Lee) share this exchange in Lee’s film Do the Right Thing, which turns 30 this summer. Three decades on, Lee’s masterpiece on racism and community still stands out for its trailblazing voice. Lee, and the film that blasted him into broad public consciousness, continue to inspire powerful work by filmmakers of color, including Dear White People, Get Out, and The Hate U Give.
It’s undeniable that Do the Right Thing’s bold style and perspective are what helped it become iconic. Its depiction of the police killing of black men also remains powerful and, as it turned out, prescient. The film almost seems to have predicted events that unfolded 25 years later following the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others.
Coming of Age in the Snake-Handling Church: Q&A with the Team Behind 'Them That Follow'
Co-directors and writers Dan Madison Savage and Britt Poulton made Them That Follow out of a shared interest in religious communities, their long-term effects on the people raised in them, and encouraging empathy toward misunderstood population groups. Sojourners spoke with the filmmakers and star Thomas Mann about how those motivations manifest in the film, and how movies can help build our capacity for empathy.
Comic Book Myths Have a Place in Spiritual Growth
Myth-making is something the creative forces at Cave Pictures Publishing, a new comics publisher, are fascinated by. The publisher aims to use the medium’s possibilities in ways that bring together faith-oriented audiences who may be new to comics, and long-time fans of the medium looking for thematic depth. Wylde, a western-themed horror comic, is currently available on ComiXology. The Light Princess, an adaptation of the George MacDonald fairy tale, arrives in February.
'The Hate U Give' Is Exhausting Because It Should Be
For these characters, and for many black people in America, this is the way life is. Thomas’ novel won a plethora of praise and awards after its 2017 release for combining the social realities of life as a young black woman in contemporary America with a heartfelt coming-of-age narrative that resonated with a diverse array of readers. George Tillman Jr.’s film adaptation of the book, out now, admirably walks that same line. From every aspect, the film shows great respect for its source material, with an excellent script and stunning cast who clearly care about the story they’re telling.
'The Front Runner' Dulls Its Own Message by Refusing to Commit to a Perspective
To his credit, Reitman tries to humanize the characters on all sides of the issue, in an attempt to cast some shades of gray. It’s an admirable idea, but the lack of commitment to a particular perspective sinks the film. It also goes pretty easy on Hart, and one gets the sense that Reitman and his co-writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson (themselves experienced both in running campaigns and political reporting) seem to think it’s a real shame that media scandal tanked a campaign that could have done some real good. That may be, but it’s impossible to ignore that if Hart had stuck closer to the morals he claimed, there wouldn’t have been a scandal to report. Whatever good qualities he may have had, he’s just as guilty as the people who brought him down
'Monsters and Men' Takes a Multifaceted Approach to Police Brutality
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film Monsters and Men is part of an interesting moment in popular culture. It’s one of four films this year to address the relationship between law enforcement and people of color. It’s also one of two movies playing at this years Toronto International Film Festival that deal directly with Black Lives Matter and the killing of black men by police officers.
Women Rally for More Inclusion at Toronto Film Festival
In that vein, the festival has made public strides to provide a platform for the issues faced by women in film, and to work toward promoting change. Thirty four percent of the films at this year’s festival come from female directors. As an organization, TIFF has made a five-year commitment to increasing opportunities for women in film by creating mentorships, skills development opportunities, and education initiatives. They’ve even expanded that commitment to women working in the media, with a push to invite female critics and reporters — as well as people of color — to cover the festival
'Standing on the Shoulders of the Sidney Poitiers and Spike Lees'
Sojourners spoke to Washington and Harrison about the dialogues the film encourages, what they learned while preparing for their roles, and how those experiences inform the actors’ perspectives on racial injustice and the relationship between police and people of color.
How Artists Are Using Comics to Tell Bible Stories
These comic book creators, and others like them, are drafting complicated, compelling narratives of Christianity that cut across today's expected divisions. Writers and artists who grew up with Christian backgrounds are finding inspiration in the stories and characters who marked them early on, and re-examining them with questioning minds.
‘Eighth Grade’ Reminds Us Of Our Need To Be Understood
Most of us who managed to survive middle school regard it as the most awkward time in our lives, when we cared deeply about how others see us, but were just as deeply unsure of how we saw ourselves. Eighth Grade uses that to tell a story about perception, one which applies to adults as much as it does to 13-year-olds. Burnham’s film explores how we want to be perceived by others, the harsh ways we perceive ourselves, and the way we’re perceived by those who see us fully, and love us unconditionally.
'Sorry to Bother You' Is Trippy Satire That Is Not Far From Reality
There’s a lot going on thematically in Sorry to Bother You. Cash has to deal with the indignity of trading success for being his authentic self. As an artist, Detroit also struggles with selling out —she, too, has a “white voice,” but instead of selling a product, she’s using it to sell herself. The news media covering the RegalView strike is addicted to easily-repeated clips rather than the whole story, as when a protester who throws a can of cola at Cash becomes famous when the incident goes viral. Our willingness to laugh at rather than empathize with the struggles of others is also displayed through a popular game show called “I Got the S**t Kicked Out of Me,” where contestants get beaten up and dunked in excrement.
The Enduring Kindness of Mister Rogers
Yes, goodness and altruism in others may seem rare. But the importance of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? lies in showing us that it’s not impossible, and may be easier to generate than we think.