May 14, 2012

'God Bless America' . . . With a Bang

Bullet points from Bobcat Goldthwait’s new gunpowder black “comedy”

Satire is a loaded gun. In the hands of a skilled marksman, it is an effective weapon. When wielded by an amateur, it is dangerous.

When aimed by acclaimed filmmaking iconoclast Bobcat Goldthwait, well, everyone had better dive for cover.

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In his new black comedy God Bless America, now playing in limited theaters, Goldthwait wages a vigilante vendetta against the worst elements of the pop-modern American lifestyle. The title is pure irony, twisting the patriotic phrase to highlight the moral and cultural shallowness of our national consciousness. The film is a bleak and bloody fever-dream of suppressed rage. In the middle of the cultural carnage, however, lingers a profound question: What’s a thoughtful person to do when confronted with the banal insanity of a selfish and shallow culture?

Following Frank, a middle aged office drone recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and Roxy, an exuberant, bloodthirsty teenage girl, we witness a spree of trigger-happy murders that take us from the home of a spoiled Virginia Beach starlet to a massacre of the studio audience of an American Idol type game show. Along the way, Frank and Roxy leave a trail of corpses. Their victims include anyone unfortunate enough to merit the pair’s annoyance: snotty teens in a movie theater, a hate radio DJ, “anyone who wears crystals,” and even that guy who double parks in a full lot. They even target a preacher and his flock holding up protest signs that read “God Hates Jews” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”—a clear diss of Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church.

But as the body count rises into the high dozens, we see that Frank and Roxy are no different than their victims. Hypocritically, the pair objectifies objectifiers, mocks mockers, and silences the petty and banal with violence that is as shallow and superficial as it is brutal. As Frank and Roxy gun down the cast and audience of that Idol-ish show, we can’t help but feel that they are committing the ultimate indecency, the paramount rudeness. As they are riddled with bullets by a group of police, we see them receive the same “justice” they gave to others. Maybe more.

If their victims are petty, then Frank and Roxy are too—their vigilantism as lacking in class as the most banal of reality television idiocy. While this irony is clearly intentional, it does not save the film. Rather, it muddies its message. While memorable, the satire here is not carefully aimed. Instead, it seems like an extended rant, taking cultural potshots at anything and everything that a “decent person” (read “Bobcat Goldthwait”) would find annoying. It lacks the sharpness, the precision that leaves viewers feeling that they learned something about themselves.

I cannot recommend the viewing of Goldthwait’s film. Nor can I commend its raging polemic against the shallow end of our society. Satire should be a sniper rifle, not a shotgun, and there’s not enough left standing when this film’s smoke clears to justify the persistent, often cruel violence.

Still, I can appreciate Goldthwait’s dark vision of our common American problem. Sometimes it takes blood and bullets to highlight a tough truth. And the truth of our growing cultural bankruptcy is tough.

The real value of the film comes not from Frank and Roxy’s bloody “solution,” but in their eloquent indictment of the worst things in American culture. Their words are memorable, and we ought to listen carefully. (The following quotes come directly from the film.)

• With Frank, we Christians ought to react against the “‘oh no, you didn’t say that!’ generation, where a shocking comic has more weight than the truth.”

• Like him, we need to ask “why have a civilization anymore if we are no longer interested in being civilized?”

• Like him, we should hurt and weep that “nobody cares that they damage other people.”

• With him, we should be genuinely heartbroken that “we reward the shallowest, the dumbest, the meanest and the loudest. We no longer have any common sense or decency, no sense of shame. There’s no right or wrong. The worst qualities in people are looked up to, celebrated. . . . We’ve lost our kindness, lost our souls.”

Frank’s right. We have lost our souls.

But for me and my siblings in the family of Jesus, Frank and Roxy’s flipped fingers to these elements is not an option. We follow Jesus, who loved vastly beyond our definitions of merit, sense, or decency. He redeems our common foolishness, our deepest indecencies. We look to him for renewal.

Like Frank realizes, our bankrupt situation demands drastic action. But unlike his selfish and bloody methods, there is hope for healing and redemption through the work of Jesus and the growing life of the church. There’s a more redemptive solution than AK-47s in the hands of a sad man and a foul-mouthed little girl.

Paul Pastor is assistant editor for CT’s Church Management Team and Global Publishing initiatives. You can find him interacting with culture, creativity, and intentional living at his blog Sparks and Ashes.

May 1, 2012

'Broadway Is Having Its First Faith Moment'

With 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' 'Godspell,' and more, marketing ramps up for people of faith

"Jesus is cracking jokes, sharing parables and dying for our sins in three Broadway musicals this spring, while another six shows feature religious themes that are woven through dialogue and lyrics."

So reads the first paragraph of an interesting story in the New York Times about the unusually high number of Broadway productions that might appeal to a faith-based audience. Faith shows up overtly in such shows as “Leap of Faith,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Sister Act” and “Godspell,” and less so in shows like “Memphis,” “The Lion King,” “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.” And yes, even the controversial “Book of Mormon,” with all of its profanity, has a "faith element."

The article quotes Tom Allen of the marketing firm Allied Faith & Family, which targets the faith audience. Allen says that "Broadway is having its first faith moment," and that his firm -- and others -- are looking for effective ways to measure just how much people of faith are turning out for these productions. He has proposed a “faith-based discount” in order to track such sales, but so far, no production has taken him up on it. (The Chicago arm of Allied Faith & Family is testing the same idea, with a "faith discount" to Million Dollar Quartet, a show that includes some nods to faith, now playing at the Apollo Theater. Readers can save up to 35 percent on tickets by clicking here and then typing “FAITH” into the field marked “Promotions and Special Offers.”)

Is it working? Hard to tell . . . yet. Thomas Viertel, a producer on “Leap of Faith,” said the jury's still out, but he likes the idea. "Producers have never really tried to reach audiences of faith beyond the traditional sales to groups from synagogues and churches,” he told the Times. “I think there’s a whole new market out there. It can be risky to take the time to find it, though, because commercial productions need to bring in money fairly quickly to survive.” He added, “And not all religious shows will have wide appeal.”

April 23, 2012

Russell Crowe to Board the Ark

Academy Award winner to play Noah in Darren Aronofsky's film of the same name

Paramount Pictures and New Regency Productions announced Sunday that Russell Crowe has been cast as Noah in Darren Aronofsky's feature film of the same name, to be released March 28. 2014.

In a press release, Aronofsky thanked Paramount and Regency "for backing my team's work to breathe new life into the biblical epic. I rejoice that Russell Crowe will be by my side on this adventure. It's his immense talent that helps me to sleep at night. I look forward to being wowed by him every day."

The filmmakers promise "a close adaptation of the biblical story of Noah's Ark." The screenplay was written by Aronofsky and Ari Handel, and revised by John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo.)

April 20, 2012

Crabb, Grant Clean Up at Dove Awards

Named Male and Female Vocalist the Year, respectively; Jamie-Grace Best New Artist

Jason Crabb was named Artist of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year at Thursday night's 43rd Annual Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, held at Atlanta's historic Fox Theater. And Natalie Grant won her fifth Female Vocalist of the Year award, while hometown girl Jamie-Grace was named New Artist of the Year.

NEEDTOBREATHE won the Group of the Year award, and Laura Story's "Blessings" was named Song of the Year. Story also won Pop/Contemporary Album of the Year, which Switchfoot won Rock Album of the Year for Vice Verses. For a complete list of winners, click here.

The Dove Awards will air Tuesday, April 24, on GMC-TV.

April 17, 2012

What's Up, Docs? Yes, Lots of Them

The Full Frame Documentary Festival had an especially strong slate this year

Celebrating its 15th year, the Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham, North Carolina, provided a wide range of genres and choices, each a great film. Doc lovers were rewarded with an especially strong slate—fifty-seven films in all—of some of the best documentaries from around the world.

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Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles was the highlight of the festival. What begins as a somewhat light-hearted profile of time-share tycoon David Siegel and his third wife, Jackie, as they attempt to build the largest single family house under one roof in America, morphs (post 2009 global financial crisis) into a probing, disturbing examination of the American dream. More than simply a personal indictment of its wealthy subjects, the film chillingly shows the ways that the love of money alters us, sometimes so gradually that we do not realize it. Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Greenfield’s documentary is that it does not turn the Siegels into monsters. Because the dream they sold to average citizens—enjoy now, pay later—is so similar to the one they lived, the ways they justify their choices to themselves and try to deal with the consequences of an addiction to cheap money (i.e. easy credit) may sound uncomfortably familiar to many Americans.

Presidential election years usually bring a slate of political movies, and S. Leo Chiang’s Mr. Cao Goes to Washington is a riveting entry into that genre. Featuring seemingly unprecedented behind-the-scenes access, Chiang’s film follows first term Vietnamese-American Republican Joseph Cao as he defends his Congressional seat in an historically Democratic (and largely African-American) Louisiana district. Cao’s willingness to put personal convictions above party loyalties alternately alienates first his Republican donors, when he is the only Republican Congressman to vote in favor of Health Care Reform, and later his Democratic constituents, when he rejects the Senate version of the same bill for reinserting abortion funding. The film advertises itself as an examination of whether or not bi-partisanship is possible in a politically polarized age, but it is really about a more fundamental question: in a representative government, should an elected official vote with his constituents, his party, or his own conscience?

Two strikingly different films depict adolescents thrust into intensely competitive environments, facing long odds to try to attain a dream and build a life. David Redmon’s and Ashley Sabin’s Girl Model begins with a room full of girls in Siberia, most wearing only their underwear while “competing” for a chance to be discovered by a talent agent. As the happy winner is sent to Japan, ostensibly for two pre-arranged photo shoots, she—and we—get a crash course in the realities behind the dream of glamorous cover shoots and luxurious lifestyles. The documentary is intensely disturbing, and the filmmakers have had to answer charges from one subject unhappy with how she was portrayed
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While Girl Model left many in the audience angry at how adolescents are exploited, Bess Kargman’s First Position was the proverbial crowd pleaser. It profiles a half dozen competitors in Youth America Grand Prix, a prestigious global ballet competition culminating in scholarships and contracts with the most famous dance companies in the world. With lots of generous dance footage, the film is sure to interest ballet fans, but even those unfamiliar with the intricacies of classical dance will find themselves rooting for kids who have defied stereotypes by working and sacrificing for years in hopes that a few minutes on stage will change their lives forever.

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Under African Skies is part art-process documentary, part political history. Musician Paul Simon celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of his album Graceland by returning to South Africa where he had bucked a cultural embargo a quarter of a century earlier to record his career masterpiece and make what he considered an unassailable anti-apartheid statement. The documentary is at its most fascinating when Simon is willing to listen to those who still question his decision, thus showing how moral decisions, even with more than two decades of hindsight, are rarely cut-and-dried.

Macky Alston’s Love Free or Die evidences the director’s desire to, as he told Christianity Today, “humanize not just gays and lesbians but also Christians” by charitably representing the full range of responses within the Episcopal Church of America to its first openly gay bishop, Eugene Robinson. As the son of a Presbyterian minister who, for much of his life, had objections to same-sex unions, Alston sought to make a film that acknowledged Robinson’s courage without demonizing those who voted against him.

Finally, if there was one sure fire hit at the festival, it was Seth Keal’s CatCam, a short film about Jürgen Perthold, whose curiosity about what his adopted stray cat did all day prompted him to invent a micro-camera attached to Mr. Lee’s collar. The results are both strangely artistic and surprisingly emotional as a rare cat’s eye view of the world makes its owner rethink his relationship with the animal whose love he ultimately cannot resist.

Kenneth R. Morefield, a frequent contributor to CT Movies & TV, is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Volumes I & II) and the founder of 1More Film Blog.

April 13, 2012

Children's Music Done Right

Sandra McCracken and friends create a kids' album that's the epitome of excellence

My sons are now almost 21 and 19, so it's been a while since I've been in the market for children's music. But I've just listened to a new kids' album that's done with such style and excellence that I'd recommend it for music fans of any age. But by all means, if there are little ones in your circle, you'll definitely want this one for them.

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It's by a group of musicians who call themselves Rain for Roots, and the album, releasing May 15, is called Big Stories for Little Ones. The musicians -- Sandra McCracken, Flo Paris, Katy Bowser, and Ellie Holcomb -- are calling it "a collection of 10 new folk songs about classic Bible stories for young children," but they also add that the album is "for children and their grown-ups." Indeed. All lyrics are based on the poems of Sally-Lloyd Jones (author of The Jesus Storybook Bible.

Can't wait to hear it? Then check out the four-song preview sampler at NoiseTrade.

April 10, 2012

Film to Depict Lewis-Tolkien Friendship

'The Lion Awakes,' due in 2013, will tell how the latter led the former to Christianity

“Christian without being preachy,” is how Louis Markos describes his desire for The Lion Awakes, an upcoming film based on the screenplay he co-wrote about the friendship between C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and Lewis’s conversion to Christianity.

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Markos told Christianity Today that his hopes to help create a “Christian crossover” film motivated him and his partners to form their own production company, Three Agree Films, in order to maintain as much control over the making of the film, while also working with investors to raise the funds needed for a commercially viable movie. Citing the recent success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Walden Media’s Narnia films, and The King’s Speech (The Lion Awakes depicts Lewis’s wartime radio broadcasts that formed the foundation for Mere Christianity), Markos is confident that interest in Lewis and Tolkien is sufficient to draw both Christian and non-Christian audiences to the film.

The academic turned screenwriter borrowed a phrase from Lewis when he said he hoped the film would be faithful to the faith of its subject while stripping the “Christian” genre label of some of its “stained glass and Sunday school associations.” Markos said it was important to him to depict Lewis’s actual conversion experience, noting that previous works such as Shadowlands have tended to focus on the end of Lewis's life. He also said the film deals with Lewis’s interactions with famous atheist Bertrand Russell in order to emphasize Lewis’s work in apologetics and the effect of that work on the church.

Markos said that the most difficult change for him to make in the screenplay was cutting the character of Owen Barfield, who was influential in Lewis’s shift from atheism to theism. In later versions of the script, Tolkien’s character subsumes Barfield’s. In spite of such changes, Markos remains confident that Lewis scholars will recognize the core truth of the narrative and enjoy several “inside” references. Since much of the film takes place after Tolkien's The Hobbit has been published, lines of dialogue that prefigure what the audience knows is to come should be a source of delight for many familiar with Lewis's story.

Markos said he wants his project to remain true to Lewis’s and Tolkien’s friendship, as contemporary films that depict male friendship are increasingly rare.

Three Agree films is hoping for a 2013 release of The Lion Awakes to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death. Here's a "concept trailer" for the film:

Kenneth R. Morefield, a CT film critic, is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University and founder of 1More Film Blog.

April 5, 2012

A Christmas Carol . . . for Gays?

'Scrooge & Marley' billed as a 'modern-day variation' with 'a gay sensibility.'

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A Christmas Carol has already had many film adaptations over the years, including animated versions and even one with The Muppets (a quite awesome version, I might add!). But we're not sure what Charles Dickens would think of the upcoming adaptation called Scrooge & Marley, which filmmakers are billing as "a modern-day variation" on the story. "Recounted from a gay sensibility, with heart, comedy and music," they promise that the production brings "a fresh perspective that will appeal to audiences of every persuasion."

And if you're wondering, yes, Scrooge himself will be gay.

Two-time Emmy winner Bruce Vilanch, a writer, songwriter, and actor, and David Moretti (The Lair) head up the cast. Moretti said, "Christmas movies hold a very special place in my heart as I have a handful of favorites I've watched every single Christmas since I was a little boy. My hope is that Scrooge & Marley becomes that for the gay community. It's a sweet, classic story of redemption ... with a little glitter."

The film will be shot in Chicago next month. Richard Knight Jr. and Peter Neville will direct. Knight and Neville deliver their pitch for the film (and fundraising) here:



April 4, 2012

'It Would Be a Miracle of God'

'Salmon Fishing in the Yemen' expands, and its subtle faith angle gets highlighted

Several publicity and marketing firms have noted the faith elements in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which has expanded over recent weeks from just 18 theaters in early March to more than 500 this week.

Our review noted a subtle "faith vs. science" angle between a Yemeni sheikh and a British scientist. Most of that element is played out in this scene -- a clip made exclusively available to CT:


April 3, 2012

'War Horse,' 'We Bought a Zoo' hit DVD today

Oscar nominee and a family favorite now available for home viewing

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A couple of late 2011 releases are now available on DVD: War Horse, which was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, and We Bought a Zoo, which had no Oscar nods but was an inspiring true-story family film. The War Horse 4-disc combo pack (Blu-Ray, DVD and digital) has plenty of bonus material, including producer Kathleen Kennedy sharing photos she took during filming; a behind-the-scenes feature about the making of the movie, with director Steven Spielberg, the production team and cast; and "An Extra's Point Of View," an experience from the perspective of a "background artist."

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