Film

A Better Kind of Good

TOOTSIE, the 1982 Dustin Hoffman comedy in which a failing actor cross-dresses to win a part on a soap opera, is a lovely, problematic film (and just released in an excellent home edition from www.criterion.com). It’s controversial in some quarters for playing the idea of a man dressing as a woman for laughs: The joke is on any male-bodied person who challenges macho stereotypes. As when The Da Vinci Code attracted criticism for portraying a character with albinism as an insane assassin, like almost every other comparable movie has treated albinism, Tootsie represents a time when the extent of mainstream cinema’s engagement with what it thought constituted “trans” was to portray cross-dressing for laughs. But a cisgender straight character dressing up has little or nothing to do with the real stories of the “T” in LGBTQ.

Cinematic LGBTQ characters seem to evolve one step forward and a half back—beginning with their invisibility, then moving through psychopathy (the “evil queer” of Hitchcock’s Rope still shows up in The Lion King and The Avengers); martyrdom (Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain); safe best friends (The Prince of Tides and My Best Friend’s Wedding); and eventually redemption (Milk, the wonderful recent Pride). The evolution continues: George Carlin’s gay best friend caricature in The Prince of Tides was in good faith, but would not pass muster today. We’re shaking off the idea that LGBTQ characters can only be suffering or sassy.

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New & Noteworthy

Truth and Satire
The witty film satire Dear White People is a comic entry point into a serious, much-needed conversation about race relations on college campuses. The storylines of four African-American students at a prestigious university spotlight a culture of racism that is easily and dangerously concealed by academia’s progressive posture. dearwhitepeoplemovie.com

Folk Extravaganza
The album Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” recorded at a 2013 concert, features Punch Brothers, Joan Baez, The Avett Brothers, Gillian Welch, and others. The 34 tracks include a whiskey anthem and a classic hymn, a Vietnam War protest song and a farewell lament. Nonesuch

Well Versed
In Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections in the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, edited by Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani, more than 40 contributors offer personal essays on the Bible passages that challenge, confound, or delight them. Jericho Books

Making Food Fair
Those who feed America can’t always afford to feed their families, but they’re working to change that. The documentary Food Chains follows the lives of farm laborers, an invaluable and abused segment of our population, as they fight for fair wages by going straight to the top offenders: supermarkets. foodchainsfilm.com

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Will Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ Disappoint Christians? It Depends

Angelina Jolie with Louis Zamperini. Photo courtesy of Universal / RNS.
Angelina Jolie with Louis Zamperini. Photo courtesy of Universal / RNS.

Angelina Jolie’s highly anticipated film “Unbroken” features the true story of an Olympian and World War II veteran who was only able to extend forgiveness to his captors after he encountered Christianity.

The problem? The Christianity that is central to Louis Zamperini’s life is almost entirely absent from the film.

That could prove a disappointment to Christian viewers who read the best-seller by Lauren Hillenbrand that spawned the film, or who have been courted by the filmmakers to see the film, which opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

The question is whether Hollywood can lure faith-based audiences with a story that’s based on faith but doesn’t pay much attention to it, especially against the blockbuster biblical epic “Exodus,” which opens on Dec. 12.

‘The Red Tent:' A Bloody Tale with a Timely Twist

A scene from the new Lifetime series “The Red Tent.” Photo via Joey L. / Lifetim
A scene from the new Lifetime series “The Red Tent.” Photo via Joey L. / Lifetime / RNS.

In the beginning, there was “Noah.”

Coming up, there’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” an update of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic for this generation.

And that’s not all. On Dec. 7, Lifetime’s miniseries “The Red Tent” premieres.

God is smiling on Hollywood.

The adaptation of Anita Diamant’s blockbuster novel (and perennial reading group favorite) is an expansion and interpretation of the story of Dinah from the book of Genesis.

I have not seen “The Red Tent,” though I have read Diamant’s book. But its airing could not be more timely — the same week as Jewish congregations are reading the story of Dinah from the Torah.

There is something else that makes “The Red Tent” timely — tragically timely, in fact.

Jon Stewart's 'Rosewater' a Needed Depiction of Torture

 Image via Rosewater Facebook page.
Jon Stewart, first-time screenwriter and director. Image via Rosewater Facebook page.

When Jon Stewart took a hiatus from The Daily Show a little over a year ago to film Rosewater, I’ll admit, I, along with other loyal viewers, was intrigued but skeptical. I was already aware of the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-born journalist for Newsweek who’d been imprisoned and tortured by Iranian officials for nearly four months, detained in part because he’d sat for an interview with The Daily Show’s Jason Jones. But the rumors circulating that the film (based on Bahari’s memoir) would be partly comedic seemed … risky. Far be it from me to question Stewart’s satirical prowess, but films about political prisoners rarely leave room for laughter.

But of course, nobody needed to worry. Stewart’s penchant for pointing out the absurd is what makes Rosewater unique among films of its kind. Where movies like Hunger focus on the brutality of imprisonment (and rightly so), Rosewater’s goal is different. It sets out to explore the personality of people like Bahari’s jailers, the Kafkaesque nature of life in Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the creativity it takes to survive in such a setting.

In the film, Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) leaves London, and his pregnant wife, to cover Iran’s controversial 2009 presidential election. He meets and interviews Iranians working for Ahmadinejad’s campaign, as well as those subverting the system and working for change — one scene has Bahari led up to an apartment roof covered with contraband satellite dishes. When there are accusations of fraud after the elections, followed by widespread protests, Bahari is arrested as a foreign spy. He’s held in solitary confinement, and interrogated and tortured by a man known only as Rosewater (so named for the smell of his perfume).

While there are scenes of physical torture onscreen, the film doesn’t show them in graphic detail — to the point where it almost feels that Stewart isn’t going as deep with the subject matter as he could have. But it does something instead that feels far more important.

'The Theory of Everything,' Life's Greatest Questions, and Missed Opportunities

Via The Theory of Everything on Facebook

The new Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, presents the relationship between the famed physicist and his first wife, Jane, in beautiful display. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten described the underlying theme of the film such:

“If all of us were some kind of cosmic accident, what chance love? That’s the point at which science breaks down, and something else exists.”

That rift between the proofs and facts that drive Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) and the “something else” represented by the inspiring story at its center is one that reflects a larger conversation about faith, science, and the unknown that feels like it’s been a part of culture from the beginning of time (all puns aside). It’s unfortunate, then, that the film doesn’t take the opportunity to explore those discussions beyond the surface level.

A Culture War Misfire

LEFT BEHIND may be a soft target, but once seen, you may realize that it’s a soft target for anyone who has ever been on an airplane, seen what Nicolas Cage is capable of in Leaving Las Vegas, met a Muslim, or not been cryogenically frozen since the era when it was socially acceptable to treat people with dwarfism as punchlines.

It really is worse than most theatrically released movies—shot and edited like a political attack ad/music video mashup, written like a child’s Sunday school lesson, and then strangely denuded of almost anything that would make it identifiably Christian (teasing those who already believe, yet scared of alienating people who just want to see a cheesy disaster movie without heavy proselytization).

The people who made it aren’t bad people, of course. (I’m not sure anyone is, with the line between good and evil running through each human heart and all—although that’s another argument that wouldn’t make it into this film.) The producers are ideologically committed to advancing a message that they were indoctrinated into by an unthinking system—let’s call it the Christian Industrial Entertainment Complex. They’ve stumbled upon the money and basic skill to make movies. They think that what they’re doing is changing the world for the better, but that’s doubtful—it’s more likely just reinforcing the closed-set worldview of the CIEC’s pre-committed adherents. This isn’t new, so I’m not too concerned about one more example of bad art masquerading as religious experience.

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'Dear White People:' A Satire of Injustice

A poster for 'Dear White People.' Image courtesy dearwhitepeoplemovie.com.
A poster for 'Dear White People.' Image courtesy dearwhitepeoplemovie.com.

It might be tempting for some viewers to see Dear White People as over-the-top. To see some of its characters as caricatures, or the offensive party that makes up its climax — with white students dressed in blackface — as unrealistic. But it’s not. For evidence, you only need to look as far as the credits, which show photos from similar events at other schools across the country. And when the president of Winchester claims that “racism is over in America,” it doesn’t sound too different from Bill O’Reilly’s similar claim on The Daily Show just last week.

Dear White People is clever, loving, angry satire. It’s a multi-faceted exploration of race in a time when such portrayals are needed, like peroxide on a deep cut. The film sometimes falters in its process, but delivers the goods when it matters most. The fact that it comes so stingingly close to reality is stunning. It’s funny. It’s sad.

Cooking Up Meaning

CHEF IS A small-budget film with an all-star cast and artful storytelling. Jon Favreau, who also directed Iron Man, stars in his own film as a head chef named Carl Casper at an acclaimed restaurant in Los Angeles. Casper is left in a vocational tailspin after a scathing review and a public meltdown. He loses his inspiration and finds himself in an existential crisis.

In Chef Casper’s quest to recover his culinary mojo, he takes a trip to Miami and buys a used food truck. The film plays on the power of relationships in a messy, winding, but authentic path. Chef Casper’s community—his ex-wife, his son, and his best friend—are invited into the one thing Casper loves to do, demonstrating how community, at its best, can propel us on the way we should go.

Each truck stop on the journey back to California fills Chef Casper with new vision and adds distinctive ingredients. He makes his way to once again bring beauty and flourishing back to his street corner of the world.

My small group at church watched Chef together and bonded over it. We explored themes of vocation—how we can contribute to flourishing through the distinctive things “we’re good at.” And how activism isn’t just about waving the proverbial picket sign; it also can be about loving what we do with great friends.

Highlighting these conversations and convergences with Hollywood and life are vital for my own work. The congregation I serve in East Harlem consists mainly of nonprofit professionals, educators, and human service workers—convincing these folks about shalom and justice is not usually a challenge. What they hunger for is guidance in cultivating meaning through the crises and mundaneness of life and work.

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Boomtown Stories

HIGHBROW FILM criticism and fanboy comment pages alike often manifest as if their purpose is to make snarky points about who knows how much about what. Whether in an academic journal or on Reddit, film criticism can either get the point or be the point. We can either convince ourselves that we exist to show the world how smart we (think we) are—or to facilitate a conversation about the purpose of art that’s spacious enough to stimulate both the heart and the mind.

The lack of clarity about such purpose means that it has to be continually reasserted, so here goes: The purpose of art is to help us live better. I contend that this is the primary evaluative lens through which we should watch. Of course aesthetics, craft, and content matter, but how I watch films depends at least as much on the notion that art emerges from a human creative impulse that is at its best directed at the common good.

The protagonist of the new documentary The Overnighters has made a similar shift in consciousness regarding his own vocation. North Dakota pastor Jay Reinke understands that the purpose of church isn’t far different from that of art, and he opens his building to economically disenfranchised folk trying to find a job in the oil boom, letting them stay overnight despite local suspicions. It’s a manifestation of Christian vocation mingled with lightly ringing alarm bells—the pastor appears to be a Lone Ranger, not collaborating with supportive church leaders or members; the jobs are in an environmentally degrading industry—and a picture of community service that seems at once miraculous and exhausting.

Pastor Reinke is a theologically conservative figure with a heart of gold and an inner life subject to the repression of the very tradition whose ministry credentials he stewards. Once revealed, it’s not hard to imagine why he feels so much compassion for people who find themselves otherwise marginalized.

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