TAKING CHANCE: An Invitation to Grieve

I wept throughout Taking Chance. This powerful film starring Kevin Bacon as a stoic Marine competed at the Sundance Film Festival last month. It premieres on HBO this Saturday night. Many of my students indicated they had never cried so much in one movie.  What made this requiem for an American soldier killed in Iraq so powerful?

Director Ross Katz collaborated with retired Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl on the simple story. It is about a Marine who chooses to escort a fallen soldier back to his hometown for a funeral. We never see even a photo of the dead soldier, 19 year-old Private First Class Chance Phelps. Taking Chance focuses instead upon the respect extended toward the casket by limo drivers, airline attendants and pilots. It is about people pausing to pay their respects to the departed. Taking Chance is an invitation to grieve.

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OSCAR RACE: Harvey vs. The Ram

Slumdog Millionaire will win the Academy Award for Best Picture. But what about the acting categories? Months ago, I championed two big performances in small movies. I was thrilled to see Melissa Leo nominated for Frozen River and Richard Jenkins honored for The Visitor. Both films are modest in scope but grand in their execution. They put a human face on the immigration issue, exploring lives on the margins, at the edges of the American dream. For independent films, it is a victory just to be nominated. So who will win the Oscar?

Best actor has become a two horse race: Harvey Milk vs. Randy the Ram. The Screen Actors Guild honored Sean Penn for his compassionate portrait of San Francisco supervisor, Harvey Milk. Mickey Rourke gave a poignant acceptance speech at the Golden Globes for his bruised and broken down role as The Wrestler. Both Oscar campaigns are fueled by the connections between reel life and real life.

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GRAMMYS: Mama Power!

In an effort to combat audience indifference, the Grammys pulled out a vast array of stunts. Artists threw twists into the most basic songs possible. From Jay-Z riffing on Coldplay’s “Lost” to the USC Marching band backing Radiohead’s “15 Steps,” the Grammys begged for our attention. U2 urged us to “Get On Our Boots,” to dance our troubles away. Memphis natives Al Green and Justin Timberlake rallied for “Let’s Stay Together,” an ironic substitute for a bruised Rihanna allegedly battered by her boyfriend, Chris Brown. A fruity Katy Perry went all Carmen Miranda for her faux outrageous hit, “I Kissed a Girl.”  But Katy's desperate bid for attention paled in comparison to a very pregnant M.I.A. channeling Mama Power.   The avalanche of performers threatened to overwhelm the original reason for the season: the awards themselves.

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City of the Angels Film Festival '09

In an era of blockbusters, who will champion the small, the smart, and the spiritual? I have the privilege of producing the City of the Angels Film Festival. We celebrate the most important, innovative, and inspiring independent films. We present the best films you’ve never seen (and maybe never even heard of!) from February 27th to March 1st at the Directors Guild in Hollywood.

The City of the Angels Film Festival arose from the ashes of the post-Rodney King uprising. I was a grad student at the time and remembered the haunting smell of smoke in the air. Los Angeles was burning. I joined with others in scooping up glass and hauling trash out of the ashes of South Central. But how to heal the significant racial divisions and strife in the city? Leaders from Fuller Seminary gathered with Hollywood insiders to suggest a way forward. We gathered around movies as a way to build bridges, to spark conversation, to envision a future for Los Angeles.

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Tags | Film

Sundance '09: A Proud Papa

The Sundance Film Festival is all about discovering new talent. It has launched the careers of the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Alison Anders, Robert Rodriquez, Kevin Smith, and Quentin Tarantino. Every year, a few lucky (and talented) filmmakers get an invitation to the ‘dance. Opportunities to participate in the Sundance Institute’s acclaimed workshops for writers and producers often follow. It is not a guaranteed ticket to a long career. But it is a significant boost in an industry where every contact matters.

Each year, thousands of filmmakers attempt to crash the party. More than 5000 short films were submitted to the 2009 festival. Less than 100 short films were chosen to screen in Park City. So imagine my sense of pride when two of my former students made the cut. Their riveting 22-minute film, Short Term 12, went even further. It won the prize as the Best Short film at Sundance 2009!

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Sweetness at Sundance

What an overwhelming week at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.   My brain was short-circuited after taking in fifteen devastating and delightful movies in five days.   The cinematic experiences are so rich, so intense, and so frequent, that you cannot process all the emotions bubbling up.

Sundance reflected the many moods found at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.   Plenty of the premieres dealt with sobering realities, from civil war in the Congo to security issues in Iraq.   But a surprising number of films found hope amidst overwhelming circumstances.   From schools in Harlem to the hillsides of Mongolia, the 2009 Sundance program offered a lightness of being that departed from previous editions.   Several films were downright sweet.    You can see video snippets from our week captured by Bill Kinnon and Jason Smart at the Windrider Forum.


The Sundance Film Festival is always full of surprises.  Some are snappy like Little Miss Sunshine or silly like Napoleon Dynamite.  Others are serious like An Inconvenient Truth.  A surprising number of Sundance movies are deeply spiritual.   They range from the dark comedy of Adam’s Apples to the heartfelt drama of Save Me.  

For five years, I’ve taken a group of students to Sundance in search of transcendent moments.  We call our gathering the Windrider Forum.   At the 2008 fest, we were surprised by the sublime charms of Henry Poole is Here.  Yet, like many independent films, it experienced a quiet death at the box office.   I kickoff off the 2009 edition of Sundance with a tribute to this overlooked gem, starring Luke Wilson.


Last Spring, barnstorming across America with my atheist college roommate and our dialogical documentary Purple State of Mind, we felt a bit like presidential candidates. We engaged in heated debates on college campuses. We stopped by churches and synagogues to rally the faithful. We answered phone calls on local radio shows. While Barack and Hillary were swiping at each other, John Marks and I were taking heat from animated audiences.

Skeptics wondered why John seemed so negative, almost acting like a bully. Christians wondered why I took so much abuse from John without punching back. Both sides were disappointed that their representative failed to defend their side with more authority. The crowds wanted a bloody boxing match. Instead, we offered a perverse bit of peace, love and understanding. Tired of the gridlock created by the culture wars, we offered a different way of being, advocating active listening, promoting a purple state of mind.

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When I was Austin, Texas screening my movie Purple State of Mind at the Alamo Drafthouse, my friends at The Work of the People grabbed a few minutes with me outside.    They produce the smartest and snappiest and most gut punching videos for churches around the world.  Nobody creates resources for worship with more originality and verve.   

Ever the provocateur, filmmaker extraordinaire Travis Reed launched a few loaded questions my way.   No planning, no prep, just spontaneous riffing.   His camera rocked and rolled across an array of issues.   Fifteen minutes later, our conversation had concluded.  

And yet, through the miraculous power of editing, Travis turned those fifteen minutes into three potent short pieces about the danger of televangelists, how to 


Gran Torino is simple but smart. Most of the plot unfolds in a leisurely and predictable manner. Critics have described it as “Dirty Harry gets old and cranky.” It is easy (and foolish) to dismiss the elderly as irrelevant or immigrants as ignorant. It is also foolish to underestimate the dramatic power of Gran Torino. Younger moviegoers desperately need the initiation rites and religious ruminations offered by the 78-year old director (and star!), Clint Eastwood.

Gran Torino continues Eastwood’s cinematic dance with the Catholic Church. In Mystic River (2003), an entire community wrestled with unsettling secrets. The movie poster announced the theme: “We bury our sins, we wash them clean.” In Million Dollar Baby (2004), Eastwood’s washed up boxer, Frankie Dunn, engages in an ongoing ethical debate with a priest in his local parish. It served as a timely commentary upon the controversy surrounding Teri Schiavo and her right to live (or die). Eastwood leans into messy, ethical dilemmas, both acknowledging and challenging church teaching. (For more on both of these haunting films, see my new book, Into the Dark).

Eastwood wrestles with mortality in Gran Torino. We first see Korean war veteran Walt Kowalksi at his wife’s funeral. A young priest piles on platitudes that fail to move Walt. Afterwards, the earnest and inexperienced Father Janovich fulfills her dying wish, inviting Walt to confession. But Kowalski can’t imagine confiding in a person who doesn’t deserve his respect. The burden on Walt’s soul feels far too substantial for such a lightweight cleric.

Amidst substantive spiritual questions, Gran Torino offers plenty of lacerating laughs. The cantankerous Kowalski spews racist comments toward his Hmong neighbors that violate all notions of political correctness. Such blatant bigotry is rarely heard in our public entertainments. Yet, first-time screenwriter Nick Schenk revels in Walt’s rough edges. Gran Torino violates all kinds of conventional wisdom in Hollywood, pitting a lonely, irascible widower against a family of immigrants. Eastwood dares to cast unknown actors like Bee Vang in crucial roles. And yet, Gran Torino works as a litany of sacrifice. Only Eastwood’s considerable leverage could get such a modest and miraculous film made.

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Craig Detweiler, PhD is a filmmaker, author and professor. He directs the Reel Spirituality Institute for the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary.