Category: Movies

Not because it’s right, but because it’s trending

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Photo: Bob Beecher

I was on the phone with a publicist for a movie production taking place in Texas.

“This is big,” she said. “Oprah has reviewed our script, decided she likes it, so the film will be produced by The Weinstein Company.”

Back when this conversation took place, The Weinstein Company was nothing more than a “W” logo that flashed on the screen at the beginning of a movie trailer or at the end of the movie credits. I didn’t know who they were or what they did. I did know who Oprah was, and I thought it was really cool that she had taken on this particular project.

There’s a lot with which I disagree with Oprah. I think her daytime TV talk show is overly emotional. Her politics lean left, mine lean way right. I still haven’t forgiven her for thrusting Dr. Phil upon us. Then again, I can blame the Texas beef industry for that. Had they never sued her over her show on “Mad Cow” disease, she’d have never gone to court in Amarillo, and would have never met Dr. Phil.

On the other hand, I have to respect a woman who went from absolute poverty to the billionaire she is today. She accomplished her success through hard work, good decisions, and by creating a product that, even if I don’t like it, is adored by millions.

Still, her speech at the Golden Globes the other night went all over me. While I agree with the message she spoke, I wondered how she must have felt delivering the message.

I don’t think Oprah engaged in inappropriate behavior with Harvey Weinstein. She has too much dignity and class. I don’t think she knowingly helped him, or was complicit in any specific encounter he had. She has a moral compass.

Yet, everyone in Hollywood, Oprah included, knew what Harvey Weinstein was. Go back and look at the Seth McFarlane joke on YouTube. Read or watch the jokes about the entertainment industry, and how Hollywood execs, including Weinstein, behaved themselves. What was going on was common knowledge, and had even become the punchline of a twisted cultural joke.

So, when she stood on stage and proclaimed that a new day was coming when powerful men would no longer be able to prey on young ladies, I couldn’t help but think, “Why haven’t you said anything before now?”

As long as getting along with Harvey Weinstein was good business, Oprah did it. Now that Weinstein has been revealed to be the pervert that he is, good business dictates criticism of him and the entertainment industry that allowed him to thrive.

But that’s all it is. Good business. Oprah’s speech, and the “Time’s Up” pins worn to the Golden Globes amount to nothing more than a social media post designed to get page views because the right hashtag was used. And therein lies the problem.

Our culture has become one of “hashtag activism.” You don’t actually do anything, you just post about it, and people congratulate you on your compassion for being able to type 140-280 characters.

When you log onto Facebook, look in the right-hand margin. You’ll notice a few topics that Facebook says is trending. On Twitter, that list is to the left. Make any post, add a hashtag that aligns with the word or phrase that is trending, and presto! Page views, comments, likes and shares.

When Weinstein’s accusers came out, the #MeToo hashtag began to trend. When that happened, accusations came out against multiple Hollywood celebrities and executives. Justice for sexual harassment victims trended, which is why Hollywood added the #TimesUp pins, and Oprah gave her speech. They are merely following the social trend.

Next year, this will all be forgotten, and another social cause, environmental cause, or political cause will take its place. Hopefully, more will have been accomplished than a few elite personalities going viral on social media.

In the meantime, Oprah can bring about a lot of healing, to her industry and reputation, by apologizing for her associations with Weinstein and vowing to create an entertainment industry where young ladies will be able to sell their talents, not their bodies.

Why we love Star Wars

Star_Wars_The_Last_JediMovies succeed at the box office due to effective marketing campaigns. Movie franchises, like Star Wars, the Hunger Games, or Jurassic Park, thrive because they either (a) mirror our lives or (b) speak into our human nature on a deep level.

Jurassic Park thrives because, in addition to capturing our imaginations through the resurrection of the dinosaurs, it poses the question as to whether man has the ability to create life, species, and whether we can overcome the natural order set forth by our Creator. Spoiler alert: We fail every single time.

The Hunger Games succeeded because it captured man’s natural desire to be free, the fact that hope never completely dies, and the lengths to which man will fight to win his freedom. All of that was embodied in the main character, Katniss Everdeen, who struggled through poverty, oppression, imprisonment, torture, and PTSD to lead a rebellion against a powerful overlord who subjugated everyone. Most who watched that series could identify with Katniss on some level, which is why the series succeeded.

The success of both of those franchises, however, pales in comparison to the success of the Star Wars franchise, which has become the definitive movie franchise for three generations due to the fact that it speaks into virtually every aspect of our lives, from our family life, to our professional life, to our philosophical life. Star Wars touches on family drama and pain, captures the plight of characters who are trying to overcome their station in life, and poses the bigger questions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

On this level, Star Wars speaks to our entire persona. We are all trying to make our way in this world, battling the elements of opposition as we try to climb the corporate ladder, move into the next tax bracket, or obtain the next level of education. While we fight those battles, we deal with issues at home. We struggle to repair or maintain relationships with our parents, to make our marriages work, to give our kids positive direction, and to keep from losing touch with those closest to us.

This multi-generational family story is laid against a back-drop of intergalactic battles, space ships, and planetary conquests.

In an interview after he sold the franchise to Disney, George Lucas said, “Star Wars isn’t about space ships and aliens, it’s about family.”

Those who understand that statement will understand Star Wars that much better. The franchise follows the plight of a single family, the children of Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala, as they learn their family history and fight to keep the galaxy free. Skywalker was overcome with rage and a desire to rule the galaxy, so Amidala took her two twins and hid them in separate places with friends and family.

Their circumstantial reunification and new-found purpose became the first Star Wars Trilogy, Episodes 4-6. In order to explain that trilogy, Episodes 1-3 were later released (for better or worse) in the 1990s. Now, we’re working on the third trilogy, which will follow the plight of the third generation of Skywalkers.

You see the family drama at work when Darth Vader is reunited with his son, Luke Skywalker, as well as when Hans Solo and Leia pine for their wayward son, Kylo Ren. Rey is trying to solve the mystery of who her family is, and why they left her on a desert planet, and Finn is the orphaned former Stormtrooper who’s searching for belonging.

You see the quest for betterment as Hans Solo continues his career as a smuggler, as inn-keepers and bar owners struggle to stay in business, or when Rey seeks Jedi training.

And then there’s the forbidden love between Anakin and Padme. Those two had to defy all customs and protocol in order to be together.

The issues that these characters deal with are issues we can all relate to. We’ve had family struggles. We’ve experienced lost love. Our kids have turned on us. We struggle to overcome, and we often feel like we get caught up in world affairs beyond our control.

And that’s why we love Star Wars. We see a little bit of ourselves in those characters, and so we root for them. We rejoice with them, we cry with them, and we die (figuratively speaking) with them.

Right now, critics and fans are debating whether “The Last Jedi” lives up to the hype. If it turns my life into another sci-fi thriller, it most certainly will.

The Lost Art of Leisure

16708472_10211627013496723_1898660107827657514_n“The world went and got itself into a big ole hurry,” wrote Brooks Hatlin to his former cellmates at Shawshank prison in the movie, The Shawshank Redemption. Brooks had served a 50 year sentence in Shawshank before being paroled in 1954.

While the pace of life in 1954 seems like a leisurely dream today, it moved at a breakneck speed for those accustomed to the pace of life in 1904, like Brooks.

The more time passes, the faster the pace of life. It’s not your imagination, and it’s not the effect of age. Life is really more hectic today than it was in 1954, or 1984, heck, even 2004.

The fast pace of life today would surprise futurists of the 1960s, who predicted that computer technology and automation systems would reduce Americans’ workloads, resulting in more time for leisure. Instead, computer technology and automation systems led to large scale layoffs. While those laid-off workers ultimately found new work in a growing economy, the fact remains that automation didn’t cut down on workload, but rather increased the demands that employers placed on workers.

It’s a far-cry from the world envisioned by Walter Cronkite on his 1967 CBS News special which looked forward to life in 2001. Instead of a life of leisure, Americans are spending one of the most prosperous and technologically advanced periods in world history trying to keep up with rising demands.

Lost in all this is the art of leisure. In time past, workers had weekends off. Fathers took their kids fishing, or to their Little League baseball games. Extended families gathered for cookouts in the back yard, weekend trips were taken, and nobody batted an eye when you took your annual two-week road-trip vacation.

Offices observed all the national holidays, and life really slowed down around Christmas, with many companies offering paid time off between Christmas and New Year’s.

All of that has gone by the wayside. Vacations are now four-day adventures in resorts, hotels, cruises, or the ever-so-popular “stay-cation,” where you take time off, but never leave the house.

At one time stores were closed on Sundays. Today, they remain open. Retailers open on Thanksgiving to get an early start to the Christmas shopping season.

All of this has built into a perfect storm where Americans not only face ridiculous expectations at work, but also live their off-time in a frenzy, trying to accomplish as much as possible in as little time as possible, all while neglecting to rest.

During a recent interview with Michael P. Foley, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Christianity, I asked what we could do as Americans to defend and preserve Christmas traditions. Foley said that we can preserve and defend Christmas simply by taking the time off and enjoying the holiday. He noted that we used to take Christmas off, as well as every Sunday, for leisure, adding that God gave us one day of rest per week.

He said if we truly want to preserve Christmas, we should observe it by taking the time off and enjoying that time with our families. Obviously, if you are in the military or are a first responder, this may not be an option. For those of us who have this option, however, we should take it.

It’s time that we all stop and take a look at what’s important in life. Look at your commitments, prioritize what’s most important to you, then budget your time and money accordingly. As you do this, set aside time for leisure. Take a day a week where you have no commitments, where you take a day to do nothing. Go fishing. Play a board game with the kids. Go to the local park. Take leisure.

Doing so doesn’t make you lazy. It brings you into harmony with God’s plan, which offers a day of rest every week, and periodic rest throughout the year. As Psalm 127:2 says, “He giveth his beloved sleep.”

Pixar has us coo-coo for Coco

Coco_(2017_film)_posterToy Story. Finding Nemo. Cars. Up. Wall-E. Iconic Pixar movies that defined the childhood of a generation, and gave parents precious memories with their kids. These films moved us in theaters, and babysat our children once released to home video.

With each classic Pixar released, it was hard to imagine that a better film could be made. Then, without fail, Pixar’s next movie would elevate the theatrical experience to the next level. Their latest release, Coco, is no different.

The film centers around Miguel, a 12 year old boy growing up in Mexico who dreams of being a famous musician, even though his family forbids music after his great-great grandfather abandoned the family to pursue a music career. Miguel idolizes Ernesto de la Cruz, a popular film/music star of the early 20th who died years earlier in a tragic stage accident. De la Cruz hailed from Miguel’s hometown, furthering the young boy’s fantasy that one day he could be as famous as the Mexican film/music icon.

Through a series of sordid events, Miguel comes to believe that he is the great-great grandson of De la Cruz, and when the local talent show begins at the town plaza, he tries to borrow De la Cruz’ guitar from his grave site. That decision sets off a chain reaction that lands Miguel in the Land of the Dead during the Mexican holiday of Dia de Muertos, the one day the dead can return to the land of the living to visit their descendants.

The adventure sees Miguel reunited with his ancestors, separated from his ancestors, and reunited with De la Cruz, where he learns what is truly important to him. His adventure changes the Land of the Dead, as well as the Land of the Living forever.

Coco is Pixar’s best movie yet, because it touches people of all backgrounds. There are characters with which kids, adults, and seniors can identify. If I could have taken my dog, there would have been a character for her. The movie relates to career successes, sacrifices for family, hopes, dreams and fears. There’s not one part of the human spirit, save for a connection to God, that this film doesn’t touch.

The movie experience was so uplifting that I stayed and watched the credits.

Among the many themes found in the movie, the one that really stood out to me was the need to be remembered. According to the movie, (and Mexican legend), on Dia de Muertos, the dead are able to return to the land of the living to visit their descendants provided that those descendants post a picture of them on an ofrenda, and remember them. This ofrenda also includes things the dead ancestor enjoyed during life, like food, or musical instruments.

Those in the Land of the Dead whose families do not post pictures or ofrendas to them are denied entry into the Land of the Living, and are stuck in the Land of the Dead without family or friends.

If no one on earth remembered you, then you also vanished from the Land of the Dead into non-existence. Therefore, it was important to each resident of the Dead to be remembered, and to have their family post an ofrenda in their honor.

Families in Mexico still celebrate this holiday. It speaks to the natural fear of death, the wish for an eternal existence postmortem, and the need to be remembered. It is on these aspects of the human existence that Coco spoke the most clearly. Coco also addressed our desire to remember our loved ones fondly who have passed on before us.

One of the most difficult things to deal with in life is death. It’s hard to face our own mortality, and it is hard to deal with the loss of a close friend or family member. Dia de Muertos is a way Mexican residents have learned to cope with the loss.

However, scripture tells us that we can all have an eternal resurrection if we know Jesus Christ as our personal savior. Scripture also foretells of a day described by African American preachers in the South as “That glad gettin’ up morning.”

1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 says:

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.

The day is coming when the Lord will reunite us with our loved ones. Moreover, we will be reunited with the Lord Himself.

These promises are made to all who repent and trust Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Have you made that decision? If you have, then the biggest and best family reunion ever planned is coming your way.

Take heart. This life is merely a preparation for the next. Live accordingly.

Because America enjoys a good train wreck

Let’s be honest. America loves a good train wreck.

You may have heard of Amy Winehouse, but have you ever listened to her music? Most who read this know of Winehouse, fewer can recite her lyrics.

You never heard of Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian before their sex-films were made public. Tommy Lee’s fame extended beyond his days with Motley Crue as his rocky relationship with Pamela Anderson kept his image on the front of tabloid publications everywhere.

While Lindsey Lohan had a good acting career as a child, most of her press coverage came as a result of her meltdown as she transitioned into adulthood.

These, and other celebrities plagued by personal calamities spawned gossip column articles, magazine covers, reality shows and movies of the week. So, it should come as no surprise that a movie detailing the saga of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in the run up to the 1994 Olympics will hit theaters on Dec. 8.

I, Tonya chronicles the life of Tonya Harding leading up to the incident where a hit man hired by her bodyguard struck Nancy Kerrigan above the knee, bruising her thigh and taking her out of the USA National Competition.

The movie chronicles the abuse she endured at the hands of her mother, her dysfunctional relationship with Jeff Gillooly, her struggle to rise to the top of the figure-skating world, the attack on Kerrigan and the fallout thereafter.

Previews of the movie show a jaded Harding character, played by Margot Robbie, struggling through life in the brash fashion that got her labeled as “white trash” back in the 1990s. The depiction of Harding in news reports, TV shows, made-for-TV movies and reality shows in the aftermath of the attack on Kerrigan is one of an unsophisticated white trash girl who somehow stumbled into the talent to make the world figure-skating stage.

The goal of each of these depictions is not necessarily to tell her side of the story, nor is it to tell Nancy’s side, but rather to present another train wreck for America’s entertainment. Judging by the trailers for I, Tonya, this next film promises to be no different.

The saga of Tonya Harding speaks to a blemish on America’s culture at large. The culture is content to thrust a person like Harding into the national spotlight for our amusement, with no regard given for her personal healing and well-being. We laugh at her failure, poke fun at her rural impoverished upbringing, mock her tears, and think of ways we could have done it better.

Such a cultural mentality is not only a shame, but falls into a category of evil described in Romans 1:31-32, “Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.”

Tonya Harding was a mess. I’d like to see a revived, redeemed and stronger Tonya emerge. But the fact that we are willing to sit back and find amusement in her demise places us in the same category as those who carried out the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. And folks, that’s not where you want to be on Judgment Day.

Charly’s attempt to engage culture

Over the past two decades, Christians and churches have sought to engage popular culture through music, movies and even through news media sites like The Stream.

Following the observation that movies bear more influence on American culture than the pulpit, the Kendrick Brothers and Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., produced a series of movies that gave us box office hits like “Fireproof” and “Courageous.” The movies, flanked by correlating Bible study curriculum for churches and small-groups, were tools in reaching many.

These efforts have led to the conversion and discipleship of many nominal church goers and fence riders, however, cracking the shell of the culture at large presents a challenge. While individuals are being reached through these efforts, the public at large is not.

My proof? In 1986, Top Gun was a box office smash. Americans lined up around the corner to see Maverick pursue his quest of graduating at the top of his Top Gun class. The movie, which featured many action scenes featuring the F-14 Tomcats and F-15 Eagles, wooed many young men into joining the Navy under the auspices of becoming fighter pilots.

Recruiters, seeing the opportunity, set up recruiting booths outside movie theaters, signing young men who were excited about the opportunity to fly the F-15 into hostile air to intercept Russian Migs. A cultural phenomenon was born.

Historically, the only time a Christian movie has generated a large-scale response was following the release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” A heart-felt and detailed depiction of the Gospel is bound to elicit a reaction. No doubt about that. However, aside from the anecdotal stories of the criminal who confessed to a crime for which someone else was convicted, there was no shift in American culture. A large number of professed conversions came from that movie, but America’s culture still trended toward unGodliness.

If the purpose of Christian movies is to create conversions, or to call marginal Christians back to faith, then those movies are accomplishing the goal. However, if Christian movies are designed to sway the culture at large, we are missing the mark. And, until this week, I’ve wondered why.

Sunday night, my wife and I enjoyed some “date time,” where we sit down and watch a movie via Amazon Prime or Hulu. We found a romance movie called “Charly,” about a New York woman who visits family in Salt Lake City and meets a young Mormon, and the two fall in love. Charly convinces Sam, the young Mormon, to be more spontaneous. Sam leads Charly to convert to Mormonism.

The plot was good, the acting was good. The depictions of family and the importance thereof were good. What turned me off to the movie was when the film would unabashedly preach Mormonism. There’d be a Sunday School scene non-germane to the plot. The main character would try to preach it to his love interest. Those scenes disrupted the plot, and raised my antenna. I spent the rest of the movie looking for the Mormon innuendos.

Now, I mean no disrespect to my Mormon friends, but as a Baptist pastor, I have several, deep, theological differences with the Mormon religion. Having those differences brought to the forefront of my mind, I began to wonder if non-believers had the same reaction to Christian films as I was having to “Charly.”

Are Christian filmmakers hindering their influence on the culture by inserting outright Christian preaching into Christian movies? I don’t know, and I have no complaints.

However, as we produce Christian movies, let’s set our purpose before writing our script. Are we looking to influence society to adopt our values? Or are we looking for mass conversions. If mass conversions are the goal, then by all means, insert explicit Bible teachings. Do a movie about the Gospel, like “The Passion of the Christ.”

However, if the goal is to influence societal values, maybe embedding Christian values into the plot is a better way to go.