Tag Archives: Christianity

Calvary (2014)

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Calvary[ ˈkalv(ə)rē ]

 the hill outside Jerusalem on which Jesus was crucified.

The meaning of the title will become gradually more clear to you after viewing this film, which is directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother of Martin McDonagh, the critically acclaimed filmmaker of the well-received black comedies “Seven Psychopaths” and “In Bruges.” “Calvary” is something of a dark comedy too, though it is more soulful and melancholy than you might expect.

The plot concerns Father James (Brendan Gleeson, who played in John Michael’s previous effort, “The Guard,” and his brother’s film, “In Bruges”) an acerbic but well-meaning priest, widower, and father of a self-destructive adult daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly.) Fiona is fresh from a suicide attempt, and she and Father James are attempting to mend their broken relationship.

James tries to offer counsel to the locals of a small Irish village, whether they want it or not. Far from appreciating his much-needed advice, the townspeople spit bile in James’ direction, and are certainly quite weirdly sinister as a whole. Apparently the fallout between the general public and the Catholic Church is to be placed on Father James’ shoulders and his alone.

The story begins, quite literally, when Father James receives a death threat during confession from a man who was sexually abused by the clergy and believes that the act of killing a good priest will send a grander statement then that of killing a bad one. The speaker is quite direct; he is to meet his assassin at the seaside a week from then, but Father James does not act the way you might expect him to about this arrangement.

The plot unfolds a bit like a reverse mystery-thriller, with James knowing the killer’s identity but with us only finding it out at the climactic scene. And sometimes, the villagers seem a bit too malevolent, like something out of a horror movie. But as a whole, they’re very well-acted, with the exception of Owen Sharpe as gay gigolo Leo, who just needed to go away and get out of my sight. His voice alone was enough for me to request euthanasia from the person nearest-by.

Brendon Gleeson is an excellent actor though, and the movie is carried on his able shoulders. The relationship between him and his daughter seems real and touching. The movie has a lot to say about the declining relations between organized religion and the modern people, and the understandable anger and distrust that followed the Catholic sexual abuse scandals.

I recall a scene where Father James is walking down the road and strikes up a conversation with a young teen girl. Seething, her father pulls up in his vehicle and bawls his daughter out for speaking to this potential child-molester. Because he’s a priest or because he’s a man, I wonder? Either or, the scene has a lot of valid things to say about this jaded day and age.

“Calvary” is not my ‘new favorite movie’ or anything, not by a long shot, but I think the good outweighs the bad on this one. It’s very much a commentary on Ireland- the approach to Christ and Catholicism, the devastated wake of the troubles, and the financial disaster looming over this beautiful but impoverished country. Gleeson excels in the role he is given, and the film offers a few laughs as well as chilling commentary on this scapegoat’s journey and the audiences’ eventual realization perhaps the only person you can save is yourself, and sometimes not even that.

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It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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To be frank, the odds were very much against me liking this this film- the sometimes painfully old-fashioned values, the copious amount of sentimentality- but I have to say it just got to me. And that’s the mark of an effective movie isn’t it… it touches people who aren’t exactly it’s target audience. That said, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is timeless, earnest, and well-made in all respects. And it is certainly a movie that does not need a big budget makeover (keep on walking, Hollywood.)

George Bailey (James Stewart) is a good man, certainly not a perfect man, but a person who is basically devoted to the business of doing the right thing. You see, George wanted to go places- travel the world and become a renowned architect- but life had other plans, keeping him indefinitely in the one-horse town of Bedford Falls, where the corrupt moneylender Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is vying for power.

George marries his true love, Mary Hatch (Donna Reed,) but the drudgery of middle age and the upkeep of his father (Samuel S. Hinds)’s building and loaning business turn George depressed and bitter. On Christmas Eve, a crisis inadvertently caused by George’s slightly dim and hard-drinking Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) and his own personal woes leave George standing on the edge of a bridge, contemplating suicide.

A angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) stops George from throwing away his life and shows him the disaster that would have fallen upon everyone George knows if he hadn’t been born. The climax is bittersweet but life-affirming and touching. Some of the gender themes are woefully outdated (like the portrayal of the unmarried Mary Hatch in the George-less reality as a frumpy old maid  and a librarian, none the less!) but the general tone of the movie is good.

James Stewart does a great acting job in this, playing a well-developed ordinary guy with a challenging life and a good heart. Donna Reed backs Stewart up nicely in a supporting love-interest role. Some of the scenes are emotionally tough and so more effective (Bailey is not above occasional cruelty, even to his adoring wife.) The only real weakness I see present is the child actor’s performances; they seemed a little fake to me.

I sincerely hope the alleged ‘sequel’ to this movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Continued Story” is a hoax, though I also found out that there is TV remake called “It Happened One Christmas” featuring a female George Bailey. Both films are wrong-headed on every account. You don’t mess with the classics. I picture the quintessential modern-day remake to be directed by that Madea guy, starring the obligatory all-black cast (we’ve got to be inclusive now,) and featuring poo-poo and fart jokes. “Madea’s It’s a Wonderful Life.” Horrors.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is so effective to this day because George is not the perfect person, because no one is an ideal human being. He struggles with the moral crises and questions that plague everyone. He’s an everyman, but he comes up on top and keenly aware of his own worth, which is a happy ending anyone can root for. Because we all want to believe we matter, and “It’s a Wonderful Life” reinforces this belief.

Everyone shouls see “It’s a Wonderful Life” at least once in their lives, especially if they’re feeling down (though learning that George Bailey saves a whole town might make you feel worse, in retrospect.) It’s a classic for a reason, and it has a wonderful cast, though I’ll be damned if little Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) does annoy the bejeezus out of me (her high-pitched squeak of “Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets it’s wings!” is enough to give anyone pause.) But mostly, it is a timeless commentary on the beauty and fragility of the human condition.

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Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

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“Marcelo in the Real World” is a novel that, like it’s sweet but often bewilderingly naive protagonist, took time to grow on me. It gets points for offering a unique perspective on Autism Spectrum Disorders and a fair and balanced portrayal of Christianity. Marcelo Sandoval, a quiet and innocent Mexican-American 18-year-old, seems to have an Asperger’s Syndrome like condition which, on top of typical AS symptoms, causes him to hear ‘mental music’ that no one else can. Doctors can’t figure out why this happens. and Marcelo is an enigma to friends and family.

All Marcelo wants to do is stay at Patterson, his school for kids with special needs, and take care of the Hafflinger ponies that reside there. His plan for a sheltered and uneventful summer takes a detour, however, when his father, Arturo insists he work at his law firm over vacation. Marcelo complies only after pressure and is send to Sandoval & Holmes legal firm, where he begins to come face to face with some very unpleasant realities for the first time. These include manipulative and hedonistic Wendell Holmes and his bullying father Stephen, Arturo’s partner in crime. But what rattles him most is a picture of a severely disfigured teen that leads him to bitter realities about his father, the firm, and the ‘real world’ his dad wants so desperately for him to join.

Consistent with most AS patients, Marcelo has a special interest- in this case, religion. He also has an annoying habit of referring to himself in the third person, i.e. ‘Marcelo is scared’ or ‘Marcelo is hungry,’ which got some getting used to. A lot of the book focuses on Marcelo’s relationship with his attractive and sturdy co-worker Jasmine. As his sweet genuineness and her strength brings them closer together, Marcelo wonders if he is capable of passionate, sensual love. The other parts of the book are a mix of coming-of-age, theology, and a little bit of legal thriller.

At first, I had trouble of conceiving of a creature like Marcelo existing. In today’s voyeuristic, media obsessed, sex-crazed world, Marcelo is a soft-spoken, childlike, pure, all-around good guy. Wendell, on the other hand, is not someone who you’d like to be on the receiving end of when he wants his way. I felt protective of Marcelo (why can’t he take care of the ponies over the summer anyway?) but was simultaneously annoyed by him. He really did not have a clue about human err. He grows a lot as a character throughout the book, however. Over the course of that crazy summer, he becomes a man.

I found a little bit of the dialogue distractingly over-the-top, particularly at the beginning. In fact, at many ways Marcelo seems like the least self-centered, blunt, ‘autistic’ person in the firm. Everyone says exactly what they want to say, everyone gripes and gossips. Maybe this is really how the world works, but it seemed wrong to me. Jasmine is a character who I liked a bit better over the course of the novel too. Wendell was the only lead character who stayed the same throughout the book. Frankly, he needed to be slapped.

Marcelo’s voice is well-researched and genuine. He doesn’t seem like an Autistic Spectrum stereotype or a “Rain Man”-type character at all. Author Francisco X. Stork doesn’t make Autism define Marcelo and doesn’t make him a number-droning zombie, incapable of human feeling. Marcelo is only mildly on the spectrum, but honestly, you fear for him a little while reading this book. He’s so easily beguiled and taken advantage of that I myself wouldn’t want him walking the streets of Boston, Massachusetts by himself. It’s not that he’s stupid or defective, but his seemingly boundless naivete makes him such an easy target.

This is young adult fiction but it’s written in a such a way that anyone can enjoy it, and it’s not bogged down with a lot of psychobabble about Asperger’s (“House Rules” by Jodi Picoult comes to mind in the psychobabble department.) “Mindblind” by Jennifer Roy (a book about a brilliant fourteen-year-old Aspergian) would make a good companion read with this. It is a touching coming-of-age story in the same league as books such as “The Perks of Being A Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky.

The Apostle (1997)

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There aren’t a lot of balanced portrayals of Christianity in popular culture. A few really hit you in the head with how wretched and faithless you are. Mostly, though, modern media concerning Christians are vicious and mean-spirited. The storylines in “Saved!” and “True Blood” come to mind. Mostly people try to make you feel bad for being Christian or bad for being an atheist, with very little middle ground. Here’s where “The Apostle” comes in to blow you away. “The Apostle,” Robert Duvall’s pet project about a Pentecostal preacher fleeing the law, played by Duvall himself, is nothing if not balanced.

Sonny (Duvall) is a man with a fire in his soul and a burning desire to spread the word of God. He truly wants to make the world a better place with his faith. He’s also a liar, a adulterer, and finally, maybe even a killer as he beats his wife’s lover into a coma and hits the road. He’s pushy, dominating, and hypocritical, but the thing is the film never stoops to demeaning or ridiculing this man or his passion for the gospel. He is who he is, and this movie is okay with that, without becoming jokey or judgmental.

“The Apostle” is, above all, a character study, as Sonny flees to a small Southern town and starts his own congregation. This is neither the story of how Sonny redeems himself and inspires many or the sad tale of how a backwards preacher-man hoodwinks the townspeople. It’s complicated and tricky, just like life. All the actors do a wonderful job here, and Duvall picks ordinary-looking people to play many of the roles. This is the South as it should be portrayed more often- not ass-backwards and evil, but not glossy and idyllic either. There is racism, there is poverty, but there is also a unity between the people.

Sonny starts romancing a lady named Toosie (Miranda RIchardson,) who doesn’t know quite what to make of the preacher. Although he never physically hurts to or forces her to do anything she doesn’t want to do, there’s a demanding vibe to the relationship, and we can’t help thinking she could do better. Sonny misses what he’s left behind (his kids, his mother,) but is excited for a brand-new future. Will Sonny find the solace he’s been looking for?

This is quite an extraordinary movie. It’s very thought provoking and is appropriate for teens to watch and discuss with their parents, although adolescents might have a short attention span for this kind of film. The scene at the beginning of the movie with the car crash is amazing and, in my opinion, the most powerful scene in the movie. The climax goes on a bit too long, but that is a minor quibble among the many positive attributes the film has. I consider this a Christian-friendly movie that primarily appeals to skeptics, but above all, it is fair-minded and intelligent. An overlooked gem!

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Paradise Faith (2012)

What’s impressive and surprising about “Paradise: Faith” is how it takes a sensational premise (a lonely woman with an erotic fixation with Jesus) and does not use it for cheap shock value or as a vicious attack on Catholicism. In fact, it’s not really tawdry or sleazy at all- it, like it’s desperate heroine, just is. I have not seen the first movie in the trilogy, the thematically linked “Paradise: Love,” but after this movie I probably will.

Instead of building contempt and hatred for it’s fanatically religious protagonist, it develops it so that we feel a mix of curiosity and pity for strange, pious Anna-Maria (excellently played by Maria Hofstätter,) but never disgust or rage. She needs her faith desperately, as a human being needs food or oxygen.

A single woman in her mid-50’s, Anna-Maria works as a X-Ray Technician and spends her summers proselytizing the neighbors and no doubt making herself quite unpopular in her town in Austria. Anna-Maria is painfully sexually repressed and endures self-inflicted punishments for her unchaste thoughts. She fancies Jesus quite a bit and finds herself attracted to his gentle strength and kindness.

Everything abruptly changes when Anna Maria’s Arabic, paraplegic husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh) returns after a long, unexplained absence. Saleh is quite good too, developing his character from merely an annoyance to a cruel misogynist who spits on Anna Maria and mocks her passionate devotion to God. Nabil wants Anna Maria to ‘fulfill her duties as a wife’ and make love to him, but Anna Maria’s only love now is God.

What follows is a battle of wills- between the fanatical Anna Maria and the stubborn Nabil. No love and friendship comes out of this conflict- only violence and bitterness. Meanwhile Anna Maria copes with her impending crisis of faith and her complex feelings for her savior.

“Paradise: Faith” is similar to the films of Michael Haneke in style- cold, unbiased, virtually devoid of music and littered with long takes. It interested me quite a bit. I hate the dumbing-down of the Christian in Hollywood, as even the craziest is a human being with complex motivations and belief system.

The film doesn’t give us a pat ending or anyone worth cheering for, and that’s just fine- Anna Maria is greeted with mixed reactions from her herd of endangered souls. No one wins, no one ‘proves her wrong,’ and there are no revelations or messages except for this- crazy-devout religion can be a temporary aid for something deeper- unbearable loneliness, repression or isolation. Sometimes someone who seems proselytizing or arrogant is simply lonelier.

Maria Hofstätter is just perfect as Anna Maria, and you can completely believe that she is this person, who she plays with total sincerity. It is interesting to see her try to ‘save’ the souls of her fellow man, and the way they react to what could be interpreted as a attempt to connect or or just pure  patronization. An essential art-house film for fans of the genre.

Buddy Boy (1999)

Buddy Boy, Mark Hanlon’s debut, is a haunting and potent film about dead end lives that provokes more questions than answers but remains bizarrely interesting throughout.

The film provides a look into the surrealistic existence of emotionally stunted, stuttering misfit Francis (Aidan Gillen), who lives with his trollish invalid stepmother (actual amputee Susan Tyrrell), in a squalid apartment.

Suffering from overwhelming guilt concerning his sexuality, his religion, and himself, he goes to confession monthly, admitting every impure thought and indiscretion. The contrast between faith and the id is revealed in the opening, which presents the viewer with a montage of religious imagery followed by Francis, uh… pleasuring himself to a pair of voluptuous breasts in a magazine.

Like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, this is the high point of his day, which soon descends into woeful monotony. He finds a new pasttime in spying on his attractive neighbor Gloria (Emmanuelle Seigner, controversial Polish director Roman Polanski’s wife) through a hole in his apartment.

Then they meet. Gloria is strangely attracted to Francis, which would be unfeasible if she weren’t clearly lonely and desperate too. She tells him she is a vegan, a word he doesn’t understand, but he catches on. According to her, she doesn’t care what he eats, but then she buys him a “Meat Is Murder” t-shirt, which is a mixed message if I ever saw one. This further accentuates the character’s conflicting beliefs and desires.

Gloria is pretty and nice, too nice, and Francis begins believing irrational things about her pastimes, focusing on her eating habits. Meanwhile he becomes increasingly psychotic (?) and has a falling out with God. Is Francis going insane? Or is meat back on the menu? Buddy Boy is an enigma — although declared a religious allegory by IMDB users it at times seems to be making a statement against Christianity.

In fact Francis spends so much time obsessing about his masturbating, sinning ways that the viewer wishes the poor guy would just snap out of it. The movie is a triumph of atmosphere — the bleakness and decay of Francis and Sal’s apartment is palpable, while Gloria’s big-windowed, pleasingly green abode seems to spell change for the troubled young man.

The problem, it seems, is the vast contrast in acting styles between Aidan Gillen (Francis) and Susan Tyrrell (his stepmom, Sal). Gillen, from the GLBTQ show Queer as Folk (which I haven’t seen), plays his character sensitively and gently, as a fundamentally benevolent albeit strange outcast damaged by trauma and psychosis. Susan Tyrrell plays his abusive stepmom more like a SNL skit. Maybe her broad performance is the fault of the material.

When an actress’ character is scripted to beat a plumber over the head with her artificial leg (one of the stranger scenes in this story), maybe there isn’t much room for subtlety. Buddy Boy, nevertheless, is an intriguing first feature and a fascinating story.

It walks a fine line between being campy and profound, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I like the humanization of Francis, a character who might be written off as a scummy voyeur, or worse, as white trash. It raises interesting questions, contains twists, and transports you, which is something films should accomplish, but rarely do.

Tyrannosaur (2011)

Emotionally devastating and rewarding, a study of desperate individuals with seemingly nothing to lose, “Tyrannosaur” is one to put on your watch list. Now. Featuring electrifying performances from Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, and the criminally underused Eddie Marsan, it is as riveting as it is disturbing and shocking.

Joseph (Peter Mullan) is a man seething with rage and contempt. When we first see him, he is leaving a bar after a fight. Irritated suddenly by the whining of his dog, tied up outside, he gives it a fatal kick in the ribs.

Joseph seems to have this effect on everyone who crosses his path, and he certainly seems incapable of any lasting change, but that doesn’t stop kind Christian charity shop worker Hannah (Olivia Coleman) from trying to help, to Joseph’s great puzzlement.


Hannah, despite her soft and motherly exterior, has a heapful of s**t going on at home. Heartbreakingly unable to have children, she is also saddled with the world’s biggest d**k as a husband – James (Eddie Marsan,) who abuses her in every way possible.

How these two lonely souls find each other is the subject of this discomforting drama, which to me is the most genuinely distressing film since Simon Rumley’s “The Living and the Dead.” “Tyrannosaur” thrives on that stark realism we’ve come to expect from the Brits, but goes deeper than most Brit flicks, let alone American films.

I was in one state of distress or another throughout the film. The violence can be upsetting, especially if you are an animal lover, but don’t let a couple of scenes prevent you from watching what is most certainly one of the best British films of the last ten years.

Writer/director Paddy Constantine (actor/co-writer of the also great “Dead Man’s Shoes”) touches his characters with a little something extra, refraining from turning them into dim-witted caricatures. You get something from this film that you don’t get very often- the feeling that you have watched a truly great movie. And how great is that? Recommended.