ONCE, AGAIN

Romance is always in short supply.   Sometimes movies make love seem so simple that its stupid.  Or they will make relationships so tortuous that you wonder why bother.   How rare to discover a movie that depicts love as wistful, magical, and something more than physical attraction.   

If you buy only one movie as a stocking stuffer this season, make it ONCE.  (It arrives on DVD today!)  This is a heartfelt valentine to Dublin, to music, to love that crosses borders.   It snuck into the Sundance Film Festival on a miniscule budget and walked away as the Audience Award winner.   This captivating micro-movie played in art house theaters all summer--a surprise word-of-mouth hit.


You will fall for the dazzling singers at the center of this story.   Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova make beautiful music together.  Their duet in the back of a Dublin music store will linger with you for weeks.  FALLING SLOWLY is the most haunting song from a movie this year.  If there is any justice, any hope for the record business, then the Oscars will award this charming couple, the song of the year.   
Tags | Film

HAL HOLBROOK--GENTLEMAN

The best supporting actor of 2007 is Hal Holbrook in INTO THE WILD.   He conveys such warmth and generosity during his limited screentime opposite Emile Hirsch.   Holbrook brings a sense of stillness to a film about rambling experiences.   His character, Ron Franz, patiently teaches Christopher McCandless, the craft of leatherwork.   The belt that McCandless decorates documents his inspiring journey across America.   

Yet, Franz also receives a gift from McCandless.  They have both lost their families.   But the challenge is to keep walking, to scale heights, to embrace the life that remains.  They become fast friends right up to their poignant parting.   Holbrook's offer to adopt McCandless is so simple, direct and powerful.  It is a tangible demonstration of grace.   
How lovely then to see Hal Holbrook and his wife, Dixie Carter, yesterday at All Saints Church in Beverly Hills.   I brought my children over to meet him.  He was so gracious, bending over to look them in the eye and shake their hands.   At age 82, Holbrook has plenty to teach the next generation of actors about craft and comportment.   He was just as present with my kids as he was with Emile Hirsch--really in the moment.

CASUALTIES IN THE CULTURE WAR

My condolences go out to the families and friends of the victims in the latest Colorado shootings. How horrible to end a Christmas party or a Sunday morning service with a hail of bullets. Nothing could prepare us for such shocking disruptions. How painful to see young lives stopped short.

Reports indicate that the shooter had some mental imbalance. In 2002, Youth With a Mission had told Matthew Murray he could not join them on a mission trip to Bosnia. YWAM leaders at the Discipleship Training School recognized Matthew’s instability (even if they may not have been able to get him the psychological counseling and help he needed). Evidently, he had recently sent a series of threatening notes to YWAM. He also expressed his anger online at the Association of Former Pentecostals, “You Christians brought this on yourselves. All I want to do is kill and injure as many of you…as I can especially Christians who are to blame for most of the problems in the world.” Unfortunately, Matthew Murray was a product of the community he assaulted, having been home-schooled by what a neighbor described as a “very, very religious family.”

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ROMNEY'S FAITH or FAITH IN ROMNEY?

In the most important speech of his political life, Mitt Romney tried to thread the needle by affirming his Mormon roots, vowing to protect religious liberties, yet insisting his religious faith will not overly influence his policies.   How tough to rally conservative Republicans without alienating all important swing voters who practice a more Purple State of Mind.  Despite Mitt’s passionate delivery, it may prove easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a Mormon to get elected president.

Speaking in College Station, Texas, Romney looked as presidential as possible after an introduction by George H.W. Bush.   He embraced the mantle of John F. Kennedy in asking Americans to see him as a candidate who shares their mainstream values of “equality, service, and liberty.”  He rightly asked to judged as "an American running for president; I do not define my candidacy by my religion."   Just as JFK tried to dispel fears that he would take orders from the Pope, so Romney reassured potential voters that he wouldn’t be answering to Mormon elders in Salt Lake City.   But demonstrating the religious tenor of our times, Romney went much further than Kennedy in tying freedom to religion.   He vowed, “I won’t separate us from the God who gave us liberty.”    It was a vigorous, rigorous and even intellectual appeal.    In defending the public display of nativity scenes and menorahs during the holidays, Romney affirmed the literal place of religion in the American public square.  He also wrote off support of the far left in the general election by attacking the broadly defined bugaboo of “secularism”.

BILL VIOLA -- VIDEO MASTER

No song, painting or ceremony slows me down and sharpens my senses like a Bill Viola video installation.  His bracing work wakes me up and takes me to a different plane.   I vividly recall the dark spaces and hushed tones that accompanied his 1997 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art.   The Crossing (1996) combines the fundamental elements of fire and water to highlight the important life passages that define us.   Viola causes me to pay attention to my heartbeat, my breath, the fragile gift of life. 

Consequently, I was thrilled to meet Bill Viola and his partner, Kira Perov, at the American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego.  He received the AAR's first "RELIGION AND THE ARTS AWARD" for his transcendent videos.   
Viola introduced his latest installation for the Venice Biennale, Ocean Without a Shore (2007).   While he considers his calling, "Making the wordless equal to the wordful," his acknowledged that most of his art comes from texts, like the poetry of Ibn al' Arabi.   Ocean Without a Shore brings ghosts to life in a deconsecrated church in Venice.   What begins as a grainy, incorporeal form slowly takes on a vibrant, high definition appearance.  

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN LIVES

I happened to be in New York City on the same day that the Broadway stagehands' strike ended.  The usual onslaught of tourists had canceled their trips. So I walked up to the box office of the Hilton Theater two hours before showtime and scored orchestra seats in the eighth row for Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.   

What a kick!  This broad comedy snapped me back to childhood, when no one provided more belly laughs, more consistently than Mel Brooks.   The Broadway musical version retains all the off-color jokes and smuttiness featured in the classic film.   It is like a trip back to vaudeville with much better special effects.   Directed by Susan Stroman after her triumph with The Producers, Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein had our audience howling and singing along, especially during the Monster's rousing rendition of Puttin' on the Ritz.   
Tags | Film

unCHRISTIAN

I’m reading the tragic and provocative book, UNCHRISTIAN. Gabe Lyons from the Fermi Project commissioned David McKinnaman from the Barna Group to figure out why Christianity has such a negative cultural perception. Why do most people consider Christians judgmental, hypocritical and hateful? 

The results of their important, three-year study coincide with my reasons for making my feature documentary, PURPLE STATE OF MIND. In fact, we both started on our projects around the same time.   They offer the facts to support the feelings that informed PURPLE STATE OF MIND.

Just as Christians were reveling in new found power, we were also losing the far more important battle of public perception. Whatever ‘victories’ we’ve had in the political arena are far outweighed by the revulsion that has followed–particularly amongst the next generation.

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LARS AND THE REAL GIRL blows up expectations

As awards season and year-end 'best' lists start to arise, one of the smallest films of 2007 continues to occupy a huge place in my cinematic memory.   Take a lonely, conflicted young man in a frozen Midwest setting.   Add an anatomically correct, blow-up doll named Bianca.   Put them both in a chaste church setting.   And somehow, the creators of Lars and The Real Girl produce one of the sweetest, most transcendent films of the year.

Lars and the Real Girl is a sheer delight.  Like the gentle character Lars Lindstrom, it is rare, refreshing and deserving of special attention.   This modest movie needs to be savored and nurtured.   At first it may appear off-putting, but patient viewers will be rewarded with a sweet satisfaction.
Tags | Film

WAR/DANCE

Yesterday, the 'short list' of 15 contenders for the Academy Award for Best Documentary were announced.   I'm cheering for my favorite doc from 2007, WAR/DANCE.  It documents the tragic civil war in Uganda introduced by the grassroots film, Invisible Children.  But within horrible circumstances, War/Dance finds hard won hope.

War/Dance documents the dire situation facing war refugees in Northern Uganda. Over two million members of the Acholi tribe have been exiled from their homelands because of the ill-named Lord’s Resistance Army. WAR/DANCE follows the stories of three children amidst the 60,000 refugees gathered at a “displacement camp.” It is set against the backdrop of a national music competition, where war orphans from Patongo Primary School hope to compete. Produced by Shine Global to raise awareness and funds for the refugees, WAR/DANCE celebrates the power of music and dance to overcome the most overwhelming conditions.

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Tags | Film

WHAT WOULD JESUS BUY?

The white suit, the bottle blonde hair, and the booming voice echo the worst of televangelist excess. Reverend Billy has the cadence we’ve come to expect. His congregation sways and moves with every word. But instead of passing the plate, Reverend Billy implores his followers to “Stop Shopping Now.” And the only demon he wants to cast out is rampant consumerism.

What Would Jesus Buy? is a smart and savage satire. Like the Reverend Billy, it keeps viewers off balance. Are we watching performance art that mocks religion? Or are we following the struggles of a nascent church? The answer is, “Yes.” What Would Jesus Buy? challenges, disturbs and energizes. It makes me long for Christmas and question my spending. It gets into your wallet and into your head.
Tags | Film
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About
Craig Detweiler, PhD is a filmmaker, author and professor. He directs the Reel Spirituality Institute for the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary.