Thursday, January 31, 2008


Okay, so I'm a sucker for Stallone.

I liked it.

Great soundtrack, good story, Rambo with his sullen, silent rage, and all the 50-caliber mayhem you could want.

I was particularly taken with the story and its portrayal of Christians. So often, Christians are simply stereotyped as either bigoted and shallow, or perverted and evil. Here, they're real people, with passion and compassion. They're shown interacting with the people: doctors dressing wounds and giving out medications; missionaries teaching the gospel - caught in the middle of a terribly difficult situation, where violence, sadly, has its place. The writer of Ecclesiastes said it well: "There is a time for war."

The soundtrack was one of the best - the visual beauty of the jungle and the river was captured well - reminded me of "Apocalypse Now" and "The Mosquito Coast."

The battle scene at the end - what we're all expecting - doesn't disappoint. Well choreographed, well filmed and edited, it's one of the best!

Is Stallone an actor?

Yes. I've never forgotten him in "Cop Land," one of Stallone's best performances. Here, in Rambo, Stallone, captures a character - troubled, alone, carrying huge demons of the soul, nonetheless, with a sense of justice and shreds of compassion. And like all beasts, here we see beauty taming him. The plot at this point might have gone south - a first kiss and then some steamy sex - but thankfully, the writers didn't go there. Rambo remains Rambo - a man looking at life from afar.

Stallone is criticized for this roll, but it touches a nerve in our spirit and tells a story lived by many. Veterans of war all carry some demons, but millions of human beings live lives of quiet desperation, never quite knowing who they are or where they're going, weighted down by some unnamed weight of rage.

In the end, we see him back in the US of A, on a country road by a weathered mailbox, and on it, the name Rambo. As the credits roll, we watch John walk the long driveway downhill to the farm where his father lives. How long has it been?

It's home for him.

And that's a good prayer ... for all the Rambos of our world - for they are many - to find home again ... if not literally, at least in their own soul and memories, or with a friend ... with God ... somewhere, somehow, to be reconciled and find peace.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Bucket List

Three cheers for sentiment.

Yes, it's a sentimental journey, a fairytale ... but loaded with insights, great scripting and fine, fine acting - Freeman and Nicholson are clearly enjoying one another, and they're at the top of their game.

The film takes seriously end-of-life issues (personal and family), but does so comedically, a feat hard to accomplish, so hats of to Rob Reiner for pulling it off - surely a testimony to his directorial skill.

I was surprised, as well, with the consummate skill by which the questions and practices of faith were handled - in Morgan Freeman's character and family - so matter-of-factly. Surely one of the best portrayals of faith I've seen in a major film, and a tribute to Justin Zackham, the writer as well as executive producer.

Panned by critics, I was expecting schlock ... instead, I saw a parable - "There once was two men, one rich and the other poor. They got sick, really sick, and ended up in the same hospital room."

It's a terrific film definitely worth seeing.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Jesus Camp

I’m a Christian and have been so all of my life. I’m a pastor and have been so for 40 years, a Presbyterian type. My social views are liberal; my faith, pietistic. As a friend put it, “You’re a liberal with a personal relationship to Jesus.”

It’s all been good, and it’s all been real, which is why “Jesus Camp” breaks my heart and frightens me.

It’s a chilling tour of an American underground. This is the way it is for millions of “evangelical” Christians – I hate to surrender the term “evangelical” to them, but it’s been so badly tainted by their ownership of it and the media’s use of it, that I guess it belongs to “them” now.

They have a misconstrued and an inaccurate view of American history and the role of religion. They believe in a Golden Age for America, and now it’s all been lost because of political and religious liberals, epitomized in two “evils” – abortion and homosexuality.

They possess an overwhelming sense of being right, and through their networks and megachurches, their sense of entitlement to the faith is reinforced constantly. With homeschooling and summer camps, they’ve isolated their young and fill them with a self-righteous spirit that sees the world “out there” as evil. As one mother put it, “there are only two kinds of people in the world, those who love Jesus and those who don’t.”

This kind of bi-polar thinking distorts everything. As H.L. Mencken put it: “For every hard question, there’s an easy answer. It’s just happens to be the wrong answer.”

This kind of Christianity thrives with “easy answers.” Admit but one nuance, one variation on a theme, and the house of cards collapses.

If you see this documentary, be sure to watch the deleted scene - Ted Haggard’s sermon. The man seems demented, or at least, utterly full of himself. He plays to the camera – like a dunce, a fool. I couldn’t believe just how silly – or manic - he seemed, yet he was pastor of a large church in Colorado Springs and a Presidential advisor.

When a young camper named Levi (a very bright young man) has a chance to meet Haggard, the boy is awed, but Haggard is cynical and dismissive of the youth, questioning him for “lack of content” and being young, he can work “the young thing” to build a crowd. Later on, he’d get the content. You could see the hurt in Levi’s eyes.

Thankfully, the wave of evangelical influence has crested; the house of cards is collapsing. Haggard is gone. Falwell and Kennedy are dead. Dobson is slipping to the margin. The new pastor of New Life Church is sounding different themes.

Technically, “Jesus Camp” succeeds in portraying Becky Fisher, the founder and preacher for the camp in Devil’s Lake (Ironic?), South Dakota, as a genuine person, with a coherent vision, utterly devoted to the children. Though Haggard appears to be a buffoon, and some of the parents ooze self-righteousness as if they’re on drugs of some sort, Becky Fisher comes across with her own kind of integrity and intelligence. She’s the real thing, for sure.

That’s what good documentary work is all about!

For a great review, see Steve Almond’s:

Steve writes from the perspective of Judaism, and one of the documentary makers, Grady, is Jewish.

They note in the interview what a fascinating relationship this form of Christianity has with the State of Israel and Judaism.

All in all, an important piece of work, a major contribution for anyone one who loves documentaries and a must-see for anyone who’s religious, especially Christians.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Anything Worth Seeing???

Anything worth seeing right now?

A wasteland out there.

I can wait.

P.S. I just got from Netflix: "Jesus Camp" and "Red River," a John Wayne Classic.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Can't believe "Atonement" won Golden Globes.

Convoluted, trick (not clever) ending, in need of editing, too long. Yes, good acting (see my earlier review), but not the best film of the year.

I loved "Juno," and it should be nominated.

But my vote goes to "No Country for Old Men" or "There Will be Blood."

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Great Debaters

Far better than I had anticipated.

I was expecting another "feel good" story - not that I dislike such stories. To the contrary, I love them.

It was clearly a "feel good" story about the little school that could, but so much more. The film conveys the utter cruelty of the Jim Crow laws and life in the south when an African American lived with the fear of lynching.

Rather than just a "feel good" story, we learn about the world in which greatness emerges, a world of terror and intimidation. My only caveat about the film occurs here - the interface between the story of racism in the deep south and the "feel good" part of them is a little ragged in places, but aside from this minor detraction, hats off to the folks who made the film.

The story of racism in American and in the deep south is a painful one, a story we're still living, a story not yet fully resolved.

Part of it's persistence is the simple convenience of having a cast system: "For even for the lowest white man, the most destitute and beaten down, there was always someone a little lower, someone on whom they could pick, someone to terrorize, someone to lynch and burn."

Here's a piece alluded to in the movie:

Lynching is the illegal execution of an accused person by a mob. The term lynching probably derived from the name of Charles Lynch (1736-96), a justice of the peace who administered rough justice in Virginia. Lynching was originally a system of punishment used by whites against African American slaves. However, whites who protested against this were also in danger of being lynched. On Novembe 7, 1837, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, editor of the Alton Observer was killed by a white mob after he had published articles criticizing lynching and advocating the abolition of slavery. It is estimated that between 1880 and 1920, an average of two African Americans a week were lynched.

A fine film, a dramatic story, a "feel good" film with a whole lot more.


A beautifully spare form of animation to tell a story of sorrow and hope.

While much of our thoughts are focused on Iraq with Iran a largely unknown "enemy," this fine animation reminds us that people are people - everyone wants to love and be loved, and everyone wants to be safe.

"Persepolis" is the story of a little girl in Iran, her parents liberals ... the struggle of this nation to define itself - is it a modern nation or a regressive Islamic state? The girls parents have hope, but the realities are anything but hopeful. Under the Shaw, life was difficult, but under the Islamic regime that took hold after the overthrow of the Shaw, life grew desperate and fearful.

And always the price paid by women!

The little girl is sent to school in Vienna - she speaks French, and when queried about her identity, she says, "French."

But, in time, she learns how to say, "Iranian."

She returns home, then finally to France as a young lady.

This finely done animation puts a "face" on a people, and that's the wonder of it - as long as a people remain "them," we can think horribly of them, do to them anything we please, but when a people acquire a face, a face no different than my face, your face - with the same kind of hope and hurts, we have to readjust our sentiments and our behavior.

I love animation, and this is one of the best - not lush, and for but a few scenes, black and white. In its simplicity, it conveys a powerful story.

Definitely a must see!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008



A jewel of a film ... one of the tightest scripts I've ever heard, delivered by right-on actors, each perfectly cast for their role.

Tender, entertaining, a message without sledgehammer.

Lots of genuine belly-laughs for me. I found myself getting into these fascinating characters: a bright 16-year old with the philosophical maturity of someone many years her age, her quite "boyfriend" - the father of her child - her father, at once tough and so profoundly loving, her stop-mother, her high school friends, the potentially adoptive parents, and a host of lesser characters who enrich the story at every point.

It reminds me a bit of "Lars and the Real Girl" - there is no greater love than that of a community standing by someone, and it takes a community to give full expression to the power of love.

Intended or not, the film offers thoughtful sex education and a fascinating "anti-abortion" message - I use quotes because abortion isn't condemned as some hideous affront to God and humanity, but as a choice to be made, and when given the opportunity, she chooses to go through the pregnancy and give the child up for adoption.

In one of the most tender moments I've ever seen, her father sits by her bedside, stroking her head after the delivery and says, "Someday, you'll be here on your own right."

Hats of to this father! And to everyone else in this fine film for making the best of it.

As John Wooden said, "Things turn out best for those who make the best of how things turn out."