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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Call of Beauty
WHEN WE THINK OF ART, we usually think of paintings, literature, or film: media that take us outside of ourselves and help us experience a time, place, feeling, or philosophy. Works of art have the potential to move us, sometimes profoundly.
What we don’t think of—not immediately, anyway—are video games. Games are artifacts of pop culture. At best, they’re fun, relatively benign distractions. At worst, they’re violent, desensitizing affairs promoting antisocial behavior. Video games are not, generally speaking, considered transformative or artistically ambitious.
But that might be changing. In recent years, developments in the gaming world covering everything from graphics to narrative structure are changing the low-culture perception of video games, with complex stories that challenge players and sometimes even help them consider the theological.
“Video games are this amazing reflection of how we see the world,” video game developer Ryan Green told Sojourners. “There’s a relationship between the player and the creator of the game that also reflects how we view God. You can see the hands of the designer at any given point.”
Letting love change you
Green and Numinous Games, the production company he co-founded with his wife, Amy, are at the forefront of this movement. They’re the creators behind That Dragon, Cancer, a game detailing the emotional and spiritual journeys of the Greens during their son Joel’s four-year battle with cancer, from which he died at age 5.
That Dragon, Cancer is an empathy game, a video game allowing players to interact and identify with a specific emotional or social experience, with the goal of making the player more sensitive to the issue it presents. In the case of That Dragon, Cancer, the Greens invite players to share their process of hope, doubt, and mourning through a series of interactive vignettes reflecting their experiences during Joel’s illness.
'The Lobster' Takes On One-Size-Fits-All Relationships
Domestic partnership as portrayed in The Lobster is a cold, clinical affair that has nothing to do with love, but everything to do with fear. In the Hotel, single people are kept separate from couples. Daily activities include shooting, with paper targets shaped like single people; and awkward, joyless dances that resemble awkward middle school formals. Random exotic critters, presumably former guests, wander in and out of the frame, a constant reminder of the fate that awaits the singles should they fail to find a match.
'Civil War' Shows Us What Happens When Teams Fail
As any Marvel’s Avengers appreciator can tell you, a staple focus of each story is on team dynamics. What does it take for a group of people with different agendas and backgrounds to effectively work together for good? How does a team find common ground, and account for each others’ strengths and weaknesses?
As anyone who’s lived in Christian community (or worked in social justice) knows, these ideas come up as much in everyday life as they do when taking down a supervillain. But what Marvel hasn’t looked at is the other side of intentional community — what happens when a team can’t work.
'Keanu' and the Black Nerd Action Hero
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have built successful comedy careers out of satirizing nerd culture and, as critic Wesley Morris so aptly put it in a 2015 essay, “locating what’s funny about race without losing what’s disturbing about racism.” When their popular Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele ended its five-season run last year, fans were disappointed, but bolstered by the hope of larger projects on the horizon. The first of these anticipated follow-ups, the kitten-centric action comedy Keanu, is now in theaters.
'The Invitation' Asks Its Characters to Dinner, and Us How We Deal With Our Pain
The true purpose of the dinner party, and the reality behind Will’s suspicions, is a slow-burning, tense tale that works best the less the viewer knows going in. Suffice it to say that several characters come to the film with emotional baggage, and while Eden and David’s apparent bliss seems to have cured them of their problems, the source of that bliss — and its results — aren’t exactly as advertised.
The Invitation presents audiences with characters trying to move on from terrible experiences. It also presents two different ways of approaching the healing process, and the failing of a community to support those in pain.
'Everybody Wants Some!!' Proves Male-Focused Comedies Can Promote Healthy Masculinity
Inspired by director Richard Linklater’s experiences in college, Everybody Wants Some!! is an exuberant exploration of the excitement and challenges that come with finding yourself in college. While the film’s overwhelmingly male focus may seem regressive at first blush (it definitely wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test), it notably succeeds in promoting a positive, healthy form of masculinity, in a cultural climate when many popular examples are anything but.
Ta-Nehisi Coates' 'Black Panther' a Smart Take on Classic Hero
The announcement that The Atlantic correspondent and Between the World and Me author Ta-Nehisi Coates was writing a Black Panther comic for Marvel felt like the kind of matchup that only happens in dreams. Created in 1966, Black Panther was comics’ first mainstream black superhero. Coates is not only a groundbreaking writer on issues of race in America, but also happens to be an avowed Marvel fan. Since last September, comics readers familiar with Coates’ work have been waiting for the finished product with bated breath.
The first installment of Coates’ run on Black Panther, titled A Nation Under Our Feet, hit comic stores this week, and it looks like we’re in for a suitably dramatic mix of politics, character, and plot.
The Faith, and Fear, of 'Midnight Special'
Taken purely as entertainment, Jeff Nichols’ film Midnight Special is a smart, tersely constructed sci-fi adventure in the vein of classics such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That it aspires to those heights alone (and it comes very close) makes it worth seeing. But what makes Midnight Special great is that it’s also a film about belief, or the desire to believe — one that advocates for sacrificial love over fear and control, and is content with asking more questions than it answers.
'Batman v. Superman' ... But Why?
On screen and on the page, superheroes have long offered insight into clashing ideas about justice and freedom. Should we work within the law to obtain justice, or go outside of it when conventional methods aren’t enough? Are courts and law enforcement the best judge of punishment? And what is the proper reaction when we’re faced with new, uncertain changes in our reality?
These are complex, important questions that, given the heightened political atmosphere these days, couldn’t be more timely. While Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ought to be just the place to discuss them, in the hands of director Zack Snyder and writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio, that opportunity is wasted.
'Weiner' Documentary Reveals Truth, In Ways the Politician Never Did
The last days of Weiner’s mayoral campaign devolve into farce, with anxious aides running around and the candidate’s interactions with voters getting more and more contentious. While watching the ship go down is entertaining, what makes the story so fascinating is the boldfaced dishonesty at its core. Weiner the man misses what Weiner the film understands about his predicament: that being made a fool by trusting in the wrong person is an awfully hard thing to forgive.
Inside America's Prison Industry
I was always going to make a film about prisons, but from the outside of the prison itself. I wanted to challenge the alienation we feel by seeing prisons simply as buildings we have no relationship to. I had originally thought I was just going to set it in one city. For example, when you look at the prison population in New York State, a lot of those prisoners come from a small section of neighborhoods, and I was originally thinking of setting the film in those places.
I ended up going on a longer journey, with a goal to disrupt the identity of these areas we think of as “free,” to reveal how deeply prisons influence our lives in all spaces.
True/False Film Festival Celebrates Story, Teaches Justice
The True/False film festival in Columbia, Mo., likes to bill itself as “different.” And it is — the intimate weekend-long documentary fest has a well-earned reputation as a place where anything can happen: Here you’ll find award-winning directors hobnobbing with writers and college students over brunch, and accountants and lawyers who transform themselves, Cinderella-style, into flamboyantly dressed volunteers. But Columbia’s festival is unique in another way, one that’s more important than simple aesthetics: True/False also focuses on the unifying power of story.
Over its 13 years of existence, the festival has been committed to promoting the idea that introducing audiences to stories wildly different from their own expands our understanding of the human experience.
Review: '13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi'
In marketing the film, Bay and the real-life men he portrays have stated that 13 Hours is not a political film. The goal, they say, is simply to show what happened, as it happened, and to recognize the courage and sacrifice of the people on the ground that day.
But it takes a more nuanced filmmaker than Bay (the creator of Bad Boys, Armageddon, and the Transformers films) to take an inherently political story like this one and truly make it free from bias. While 13 Hours doesn’t specifically call anyone out, or criticize (or endorse) the decisions of any particular leader or party, Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan mistake those qualities as the only ones required to make the film “non-political.”
‘Monstress,’ or How Not to Lose Yourself in Revenge
Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s new fantasy comic series Monstress approaches the topics of oppression and survival through one such richly imagined fantasy world. Inspired in part by Liu’s grandparents, survivors of the Japanese invasion of China during World War II, Monstress is a story about the difficulty of overcoming the pain of systemic oppression without losing yourself in rage, pain, and revenge
'Carol' and How Identity Is Bound Up With Relationship
Director Haynes and writer Phyllis Nagy (working from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt) understand that cinema, just like all forms of storytelling, is a window into someone else’s personal life. They tell the story of Therese and Carol’s relationship in such exquisitely realized detail, down even to the smallest carpet-fiber, that you almost feel as if you’re there yourself. When the world the characters inhabit feels so real, their experiences and emotions feel real, too — helped in large part by perfectly-pitched performances by Blanchett and Mara.
'The Big Short' a Scathing Indictment of Culture of Greed
In Matthew 6:24, Jesus reminds us that we cannot serve both God and money. Serving money above all else means that we pursue our own greed, usually at the expense of others’ well being. To serve God is to care for our brothers and sisters. To serve money is to forget that their problems exist.
Director Adam McKay’s new film The Big Short, about the events leading up to the 2008 economic collapse, is a scathing indictment of the culture of greed, shortsightedness, and self-interest that allowed millions of people to lose their jobs and homes. It’s a comedy, but one whose dark humor derives from a passionate sense of disappointment and anger.
'Firefly' and the Dignity of Humanity
Joss Whedon may not profess spiritual belief, but throughout his career, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Avengers and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., his work has fascinated believers. This may be, in part, because Whedon is a humanist, and his belief in respecting the dignity of all people is a common theme in his work. Whedon’s shows consistently emphasize compassion for people of all backgrounds and worldviews, even (especially) when his characters’ beliefs don’t match up.
The Power and the Story
GROWING UP, my pop culture heroes were all nerds. I gravitated toward the quippiest, smartest characters I could find; misunderstood geniuses with an arsenal of world-saving ideas and killer one-liners, who swaggered off awkwardly into the sunset, toting books the same way Clint Eastwood did his gun.
These characters are still important to me, but here’s the problem: Nearly all of them were men. In idolizing Ghostbusters’ Egon Spengler and Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcolm, I grew up thinking that, if I wanted to be like them, I had to reject all things girl. It took me a long time to realize I could be cool and smart and feminine.
Movies and TV teach us to love good guys and hate bad guys. But when heroes only look a certain way, says writer and Pepperdine University professor Craig Detweiler, we come to believe certain population groups are the only ones who can inhabit those roles. “Movies paint people in ... stark categories, and those categories transpose into everyday life,” Detweiler said in an interview with Sojourners. “If you only see one kind of hero, you only have one kind of heroic role model.”
A narrow definition of heroism is as much a race issue as a gender issue. Leslie Foster, a black filmmaker, says he’s often grappled with the impact popular culture has on what society deems normal.
“I’ve realized that it had an effect on what I found aesthetically attractive, and I’ve had to untangle that as an adult,” Foster told Sojourners. “I tell people to look at the makeup aisle, and see what colors get categorized as ‘nude.’ It’s always white.”
The power to change minds
The stories we encounter can reinforce or damage how we see ourselves, and how we categorize others. When done well, they can encourage understanding between different races, genders, or sexual orientations. Research into parasocial relationships (the feeling of emotional attachment to fictional characters) and intergroup contact theory (the idea that ethnically diverse social relationships decrease prejudice) has shown that good representations of these groups in TV and film positively affect viewers’ opinions of them.
On Release Week, 'Chi-Raq' Gun Commentary Is Grimly Relevant
Spike Lee didn’t plan Chi-Raq’s release to coincide with a year in which the number of mass shooting on record surpassed the number of days in the year thus far . Nobody could have expected that days before the film’s release, the shooting in San Bernadino, Calif., would push the gun debate to (another) boiling point, with cries for legislative action in addition to the frequent “thoughts and prayers” of politicians.
That most people are Chi-Raq with the shootings in California fresh in their minds is a coincidence — one which makes the film’s message all the more immediate.
Chi-Raq is a satirical drama, a modern retelling of the ancient Greek Lysistrata. In Lee’s version of the story, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris of Dear White People) is the girlfriend of Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), a rapper and gang leader on the south side of Chicago. He’s also in the midst of a war with Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), the leader of a rival gang. When a young girl in the neighborhood is killed by a stray bullet, Lysistrata rallies women affiliated on both sides of the gang war to demand peace by denying their men sex.
What starts as a protest becomes a movement, taking the city of Chicago and the world by storm.
'Brooklyn' and the Stories That Made America
There are many reasons to recommend Brooklyn — its relatable story for one, its glowing visuals and performances for another. But Brooklyn’s commendable qualities go far beyond this, including the amount of respect writer Nick Hornby and director John Crowley give the movie’s female protagonist. Brooklyn is a movie about hard choices, and for the most part, Eilis makes those choices on her own. At different points in the film, she’s caught between romantic relationships, and familial and personal obligations. But in none of these situations does it feel like her hand is forced. The movie lets us know early that Eilis can take care of herself, and she’s never forced to compromise on that point, though she easily could have been.
Although politics aren’t really on Brooklyn’s agenda, the film also carries an unintentional point on that score worth considering. At a time when the United States is anxious about welcoming refugees and immigrants, this film reminds us that our country is made up largely of immigrants — some who look like Eilis, but also many who don’t.