movies

‘Left Behind’ and ‘The Good Lie’ Face Off During Hollywood’s Year of Faith-Based Films

“Left Behind” movie poster, photo courtesy of Stoney Lake Entertainment/RNS.

Two new movies that aim to attract a faith-based crowd join a glut of biblical films for 2014, testing the limits of Hollywood’s appetite for religion.

The two films, “The Good Lie” and “Left Behind,” both opening Oct. 3, reflect two different filmmaking strategies: One is geared for a wider audience that could attract Christians, while the other produces a movie clearly made for the Christian base.

With a number of films targeting a faith audience this year, it’s unclear whether Hollywood is oversaturating the market with faith-based films — a revolutionary idea 10 years after Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” shocked the industry by raking in $611.9 million worldwide.

“The Good Lie,” starring Reese Witherspoon helping four young “Lost Boys” from Sudan adjust to life in the U.S., has underlying faith themes. The refugees rely on their faith as they try to leave homeland strife behind, and Witherspoon’s character works closely with a faith-based agency to place refugees with families.

Are We the United States of Dystopia? The Politics of 'The Giver'

Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges star in “The Giver.” Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company

This Friday, a movie version of the classic novel “The Giver” opens in theaters with an impressive cast, including Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges. “The Giver,” originally written by Lois Lowry, explores a seemingly perfect world where all conflicts have been resolved and annoyances — such as bad weather and adolescent “stirrings” — have been eradicated, allowing this culture to achieve a beautiful state of “sameness.”

As you can imagine, this utopian society is not so utopian. “The Giver” focuses on young Jonas, who has been selected for a daunting task: to serve as society’s sole proprietor of memory and emotion. Jonas learns about pain and sadness, but also experiences beautiful colors, a thrilling sleigh ride and ultimately learns to feel love. In other words, Jonas learns what it means to be human — and that his world may not be so perfect after all.

“The Giver” is the latest in a wave of dystopian stories that have washed over America in recent years. From this summer’s “Purge” sequel and “Under the Dome” to the latest “Hunger Games” movie (due out in November), people can’t get enough of these apocalyptic fantasies, in which seemingly perfect worlds turn horrific.

Why such an appetite for dystopian stories now?

Philip Seymour Hoffman's Invaluable Gift: Revealing Our Humanity

Philip Seymour Hoffman at a football game in 2011, Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com

Philip Seymour Hoffman at a football game in 2011, Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com

Tom Junod of Esquire wrote an insightful piece about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman titled “ Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Final Secret: The cost of holding up a mirror to those who could barely stand to look at themselves .” The whole article is worth reading, but these words are especially important:

"There was no actor, in our time, who more ably suggested that each of us is the sum of our secrets … no actor who better let us know what he knew, which is that when each of us returns alone to our room, all bets are off. He used his approachability to play people who are unacceptable, especially to themselves; indeed, his whole career might be construed as a pre-emptive plea for forgiveness to those with the unfortunate job of cleaning up what he — and we — might leave behind."

In his roles, Hoffman played unacceptable, despicable, and broken characters. In other words, he played our cultural scapegoats. But the beauty of Hoffman’s work is that he humanized our scapegoats. Of course, his characters were unacceptable because they were guilty of being repellent jerks, underserving of love or sympathy, which is exactly why they made good scapegoats. The function of a scapegoat is to unite us in hatred against them, so the scapegoat who seems to us to be completely guilty, like a cartoon villain, the better sense of unity we can form against them. The best scapegoat is one who even agrees with us about just how terrible he is. As Junod writes, Hoffman “used his approachability to play people who are unacceptable, especially to themselves.”

The Prophets of Sundance

Dick Staub is author of “About You: Fully Human and Fully Alive.” Photo by Karen Mason-Blair. Via RNS.

In days of old, God used a burning bush to get Moses’ attention. Today’s prophets are often the truth-telling artists, singers, songwriters, and filmmakers whose modern version of “Thus sayeth the Lord” bursts forth in a stunning, sensual explosion of sight, sound, and touch.

They get our attention, and their prophetic word is visceral. It often goes beneath the rational radar and it can disturb more than it comforts. The annual Sundance Film Festival is like a tribe huddled around a campfire listening to the stories. These stories function like burning bushes, as prophetic calls to action. These films are meant not just to be watched, but to change us and, through us, to change the world.

Here are some of the messages I heard at Sundance 2014.

Gareth Higgins on Peace, Politics, and Our Nation's 'Cinematic States'

Courtesy of Burnside Books

'Cinematic States' explores fifty films that help define something about each state. Courtesy of Burnside Books

Lots of people like movies; Gareth Higgins loves movies. But the founding director of the Wild Goose Festival and long-time peace activist engages popular culture with a different eye than most of us. And he’s used that keen eye for deeper meaning to create his latest book.

I asked Gareth about his new book on American film, his peace work, and what it’s like considering American culture both as an insider and as a non-native. Here’s what he had to say.

‘Gravity’ and the Unanswered Questions of Unbelief

Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in  'Gravity.' Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in 'Gravity.' Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Reviews of the new hit movie Gravity note that it’s an unusually fine science fiction film. What they don’t mention is that the main character represents an increasingly common theme in American religion: The spiritual “none of the above.”

Yes, the special effects are splendid. And I’ll take the word of astronauts who say the visuals capture amazingly well what it’s like to work in the microgravity of near-Earth orbit.

But there are moments where spiritual and philosophical themes take center stage.

(Spoiler alert: I’ll give no more away than I’ve seen in most reviews, but if you really want to know nothing about the movie, see it first.)

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