It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours, 10 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 8-; Language 8; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5) 5

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never fail you nor forsake you.”

                                                        Hebrews 13:5

  ItsWondLife

This Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed film shows up on the small screen every December. And well it should, being such a sentimental classic that fits in perfectly with the Advent/Christmas season. Have you taken advantage of Frank Capra’s classic? (I ask this because one reader of sophisticated film tastes told me not so long ago that he had never watched the film because he feared that it would be too corny. I urged him to check it out for himself.) One year I looked through TV listings and found that one could view it over 30 times. Now we have it on DVD, with the possibility of showing it at any time and place.

Christmas is more the setting of the film than its theme, the story really being about a man finding that his true destiny is right where he is and what he is, a small town banker, rather than a traveler or adventurer in some distant and exotic place that he had dreamt of. Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey discovers that wealth is to be counted by the number of rich relationships one has, rather than by piles of money. Unfortunately his archenemy Potter, also a banker, but one who wants to control the life of Bedford Falls, never discovers this. The result is that Potter winds up all alone, whereas George is surrounded by family and friends, with his brother toasting him as “The richest man in town.”

For a meditation based on the film see my book Praying the Movies II (No. 22 “The Richest Man in Town,” pp.165-170).  Below are some more Scripture passages and a few questions that a group could use in exploring its themes and issues:

Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.
The LORD does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.

Proverbs 10:2-3

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

Mark 8:34-37

1)     Why do you think this film, which failed at the box office, has become so popular? How do you think its naïve concept of goodness speak to our cynical age?

2)     What seems to be its view of God and the cosmos?

3)     What is George Bailey’s dream? What gets in the way each time he sets out to follow it? How is each of these a call to duty for George? Would you say he has been faithful to duty? How could we say that George has followed a “cruciform” life style? At what points in the film do you see a “cross” for him to take up?

4)     What motivates Potter? How is he a taker, rather than a giver? Does he seem satisfied or happy? Will he ever be?

5)     How does Potter tempt George? Why do you think George almost gives in? Have you been tempted to work for someone or do something you do not feel right about because the reward is attractive?

6)     What wears George down? Have you felt that way at times?

7)     What do you think of Clarence as an angel? Not your Christmas pageant variety? How can he be seen as carrying to George the message of Galatians 6:9? Have you ever thought what the world might be missing if you had not been born? (Or have you been engaged in church or neighborhood so little that you really would not be missed? Sobering thought?)

8)    How is George’s brother’s toast to “the richest man in town” true to Scripture?

 This is an edited version of a review from the Fall 2005 Visual Parables.

The Christmas Candle (2013)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 40 min .

Our Advisories Violence -0; Language -0; Sex/Nudity –1.

Our star rating (1-5) 2.5

 You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:14-16

 It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.

            Hebrews 2:3b-4.

“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”

C.S. Lewis

ChurchServ

Christmas Eve in the Gladbury Church.
(c) 2012 EchoLight Studios

Based on popular author Max Lucado’s 2006 novel, director John Stephenson’s faith-based film is a Hallmark Channel type movie that is enjoyable, but not of classic quality. The production values are good (with some so-so special effects), many of the beautifully lit scenes, filled with Victorian Era-costumed characters fit for a Christmas card. The film also boasts the screen debut of the sensational singer Susan Boyle, who might not yet be comfortable as an actress, but can she ever sing!

The drama revolves around the old legend in the rural village of Gladbury that once every 25 years an angel blesses one of the candles made during the Christmas season by Edward Haddington (Sylvester McCoy) and his wife Bea (Lesley Manville). The customer who buys it and prays earnestly receives a miracle. Enter the Rev. David Richmond (Hans Matheson), whom we first see manning a Salvation Army soup and bread line in London. Lady Camdon, who has admired his preaching, invites him to be the rector of her estate church at Gladbury, but he puts her off. He has lost not only his wife and child to an illness, but also his belief in the miraculous, while clinging to the church’s teachings about helping the poor.

Of course, he does come, soon finding himself in conflict with the parishioners’ belief in the legend of the Christmas Candle. Even worse from their perspective, the progressive pastor wants to do away with candles altogether by installing electric lights in the church. How untraditional! Of course, his plans end in disaster, with only fellow skeptic Emily Barstow (Samantha Barks), with whom he has had a “meet cute” run in, supporting him. Matters become more complicated when candle makers Edward and Bea count the batch of Christmas candles they have made and discover one is missing. There is also Emily’s sick father and a pregnant woman trapped in a carriage during snowstorm. Lots of things that require a miracle to resolve matters, including the deficient faith of the pastor.

The film will appeal to some Christians who have never doubted the miraculous, but to others, as well as to the secular public, this will be one more example of religious propaganda. The film (produced by former Sen. Rick Santorum’s EchoLight Studios) is obviously on the side of the villagers who suspect that progress is bad, and who, were they Americans would prefer to sing “Give Me That Old Time Religion” to “God of Grace, and God of Glory.” This is not to defend the deficient rationalistic faith of the pastor who has reduced Christianity to doing good deeds for the poor—it certainly is not only this—but merely to observe that this simplistic film will convince no one. Far better to send a skeptic to C.S. Lewis’s little book Miracles. Among the book’s intriguing passages we find the following:

“Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible in so far as those laws are known. We have already seen that if you begin ruling out the supernatural you will perceive no miracles. We must now add that you will equally perceive no miracles until you believe that nature works according to regular laws. If you have not yet noticed that the sun always rises in the East you will see nothing miraculous about his rising one morning in the West.” (CS Lewis in Miracles, p. 75. For many more such observations on miracles click onto the book title. )

Nonetheless, for those concerned about “the real meaning of Christmas,” this film provides wholesome entertainment—if they can find it. With a small publicity budget, few theaters have picked up on it, so most potential viewers will have to rely on streaming video and DVDs.

The full review with discussion questions will be included in the January 2014 issue of Visual Parables, scheduled for posting early that month. To subscribe to the publication go to the Store. A year’s subscription will gain you access not just to this issue (which has far more features in it than just film reviews and guides), but also to issues as far back as Summer 2006. 

 

Midnight Clear (2006)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hours 42 min.

Our Content ratings (0-10): Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (0-5): 3.5

 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John 1:5

Store

The convenience store where many lives come together on a lonely Christmas Eve.                  (c) 2006 Lionsgate Films

This film, directed by Dallas Jenkins, not to be mistaken for the WW2 film A Midnight Clear, has an interesting history, in that writer Jerry B. Jenkins made a short film based on his short story. Then, when he met and became friends with actor Stephen Baldwin, he turned it into a feature film that movingly explores a number of lonely people on a Christmas Eve, some of whom are ready to give up on life. We meet first Lefty (Stephen Baldwin), so addicted to the bottle that he always shows up late to work. His alcoholism has already cost him his marriage, and on Christmas Eve his long-suffering boss tells him he can no longer put up with his slovenly work habits. Lefty, who is not really left-handed (the story of how he received his nick name is one of several light moments in the film), steals some tools and trades them for a gun.

Eva (K Callan) is an elderly widow no longer in contact with her grown children. As she goes about the day, calling her doctor about her pills, closing out her bank account, and later preparing a brew by soaking all the pills in a pan of hot water, we see that she is getting ready to leave this world.

When we first meet youth director Mitch (Mitchell Jarvis) he is complaining to his pastor about having to go out Christmas caroling with the youth group. The minister assures him that the mission will be good for him and the youth and for the parishioners. (We are not so sure of the latter when we hear the group’s off key, unenthusiastic singing!) Once we learn of his past we surmise that there is a deeper reason for his reluctance: Christmas Eve is the anniversary of the motorcycle accident with his best friend Rick. Whereas he walked away unscathed, Rick has been comatose in a nursing home ever since. When he encounters Mary he feels guilty because he cannot bring himself to visit his friend.

Mary (Mary Thornton) might as well as be a widow, her husband Rick being unable to recognize or communicate with her for a year. She faithfully visits him with their young son Jacob, telling him of their happenings and that she loves him. She is so saddened that only the pastor of her church visits Rick. The others feel too uncomfortable, not knowing what to say or do in his presence. Kirk (Kirk Woller) owns a gas station/convenience store. His dreams of doing well by store dried up when the city did not spread out to his somewhat lonely location. The unkempt condition of himself and his building are a reflection of his inward sense of loss. When Mary and Jacob arrive with a disabled car, he tells them that all the garages are closed. Shrugging off their problem at first, he then makes a decision that will affect the lives of all three of them. Also Lefty stops in, at first to shoplift a bottle of booze, and then he fingers the gun hidden in his pocket.

The actors, under Jenkins’ deft direction, keep the film from slipping into the bathos or saccharine sentimentality that beset most TV Christmas movies. This one rings true, highlighting how necessary it is that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” An excellent film for the group that wants an alternative to It’s a Wonderful Life.

For Reflection/Discussion

This definitely contains spoilers, so wait until you see the film before reading on.

1) There are five characters in the ensemble cast film: with which did you identify the closest? Why? Do any of the characters resemble someone whom you know?

2) How does Lefty show that addicted persons are their own worst enemy? Does he seem able to accept blame for what happens to him?

3) What is Eva preparing to do on Christmas Eve? What clues led you to surmise this? What is it that stops her?

4) When Lefty trades the stolen items for a gun, what did you think he planned to do with it? What passes through his mind as he sits that night in his car? Instead, was does it look like

he is about to do?

5) Why is Rick unable to visit the comatose Rick? How is he more concerned about himself than his friend?

6) What seems to keep Mary going, visiting her disabled husband faithfully? Why has she not been to church since the accident? Does this make you think about your own church and how its members support, or fail to, a family in dire need? Does your church have a program for training members and officers in a deaconate ministry?

7) What had been Kirk’s dream in regard to his station and store? Have any of your dreams met a similar fate? What can one do when the world goes in the opposite way in which you had planned and hoped?

8) What do you think of the pastor’s words to Mitch, especially when he says that there are some things that we do just because they are right, and not because we will derive some benefit from them?

9) There are many moments of grace in the film, but the sequences at Kirk’s store and in Eva’s home seem to be the greatest. How does Kirk become an agent of grace, leading Mary to become one too? Lefty and Eva? (Were you surprised to learn of the relationship between the latter two?)

10) Some might regard the concluding church scene a bit too simplistic or hopeful for these people with complex problems. What do you think? Given the subtle, spare handling of the various stories, do you think the filmmakers were really saying that everything is solved, or merely offering a glimmer of hope for some folk who still have a long struggle ahead of them? Where do you see God at work in this film?

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The Hunt (2012)

(“Jagten” in Danish & English)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 33 min.

Our ratings: V-5 ; L-5 ; S-5/N-1 .

Our star rating(1-5): 5

 My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction,
and my neighbors stand far off.

            Psalm 38.11

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Isaiah 53:3

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

James 3.5

LucTheoNchur

A confrontation with his best friend at a Christmas Eve Service is a highlight of this drama.
(c) 2012 Magnolia Pictures

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, who also wrote the screenplay with Tobias Lindholm, this film, set in a small Danish town, unfolds between the months leading up to Christmas, ending sometime in the following year at the beginning of hunting season. There is a crucial church scene on Christmas Eve that is a masterful combination of the Nativity and crucifixion, making this a marvelous film for people of faith to discuss.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a middle-aged schoolteacher frequently battling over his cell phone with his divorced wife about the custody of their teenaged son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom). Unhappy with his mother, the boy badly wants to live with Lucas. Although the messy divorce cost him his teaching position, Lucas has been able to find work at the local kindergarten where the children adore him. When he arrives they enjoy hiding and then attacking him en mass, clinging to his legs and arms, and piling atop him when he falls to the ground and plays ”dead.” One of the assistant teachers also adores him, the Polish immigrant Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), the two soon entering an affair initiated by her.

Lucas has a circle of hunting buddies with whom he enjoys drinking, though he is the one who stays sober enough to take the inebriated home. His best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) is one of these, the man’s wife Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing), gratefully appreciating this. In another scene Lucas rescues a friend from drowning when the man develops a cramp while swimming in a cold pond (it is November). Thus it is no wonder that Lucas is popular with adults as well as children.

Little Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), a kindergarten pupil and daughter of Theo and Agnes, develops a crush on Lucas, often showing up at his house so he can walk her home. During one of the pile-ups at kindergarten, he rebuffs her when she kisses him on the lips. Miffed by this, she repeats to head teacher Grethe (Susse Wold) some pornographic penis talk she has overheard on her older brother’s iPad.  She lies that Lucas exposed himself before her. Shocked at what she hears, Grethe, without informing him of all the details, including the child’s name, orders Lucas to take a leave while she brings up the matter with the other staff, with Theo and Agnes, and then that night, at a scheduled meeting with the all the parents.

Thus, as James observed, the little tongue, or we should say the tongue of a little one, starts a fire that blazes out of control, ruining the reputation of a good and kind man. Only Nadja and Brunn (Lars Ranthe), the godfather of his son Marcus, stand by him—and of course, Marcus also, although his alarmed mother tries to break off the boy’s contact with his father. Also, little Klara, becoming aware that what she now calls “a stupid” remark has caused Lucas much pain, tries to see him, showing up at his door to ask if she can walk his faithful dog. He sends her back home, all too aware that her parents would be very upset at any further contact between them.

Klara recants her story, but Grethe and the others believing in the innate goodness of children will not accept this. Lucas is banned from the kindergarten and also from the local supermarket (even Marcus is ordered not to come back when he shops for his father—the boy refusing to stay away from his dad). The staff at the supermarket beats up Lucas when he keeps coming back demanding to buy groceries; someone hurls a rock through Lucas’s window, injuring him; and worst of all, his constant companion, his gentle dog loved by all the children is killed. The police do arrest and interrogate Lucas, but they have to release him. You will enjoy the reason because it is part of the group hysteria that seems to envelop most of the characters.

Although set in a modern Danish town, the story reminds me of the Massachusetts town of Salem in the 17th century. The Salem girls who initiate the mass hysteria are older than Klara and the effects of their delusions and lies about their neighbors being witches are far more deadly. At least the Danish authorities do not convict and hang Lucas, but the persecution he suffers is severe by 20th century standards. A likeable guy respected by all becomes in the eyes of almost everyone the ultimate outsider of the 21st century, a child molester. Lucas becomes so stressed out that he drives away Nadja when she tries to stand by him, and he even tells Bruun to leave him alone.

Matters come to an explosive head on Christmas Eve, just as much a cultural event centering on children in Denmark as it is on this side of the Atlantic. Most of the congregation has gathered for the service when Lucas shambles in, finding the only pew with room for him almost at the front of the sanctuary. The woman sitting there gets up and moves to another pew. All disapproving eyes are focused on the outcast, including Agnes and Theo. The pastor offers a warm welcome, and this time we gather that the “welcome to all” is not ceremonial—-after all, this is a small city and the pastor must know something of what has transpired. The kindergarten children have been formed into a choir, and as they file in we see the radiant little Klara. She spots Lucas and is obviously pleased.

As the children lead the people in a carol about the birth of the Child, the crucifixion of a good man stands in juxtaposition. Theo, fixing his gaze upon his erstwhile friend, remarks to Agnes, “I can see it in his face,” indicating that he now is aware of the innocence of the friend he has abandoned—at that moment I thought of the disciples at Gethsemane who during Jesus’ prayer could not stay awake to watch with him, and then ran away when their master was arrested. The anguished Lucas breaks down. Rising from his pew, he walks back toward Theo, and—.

I don’t know how much director Thomas Vinterberg knows of the church fathers who never sentimentalized Christmas, treating it as we do as a Hallmark moment to glorify children. They never separated the Nativity from Good Friday, often asking in their sermons and their writings, “Why did God become man in order to die?” Medieval artists also sometimes combined themes of Nativity and Crucifixion in their paintings. An artist in Cincinnati a few years ago did this in a mural that he created on the wall of the fellowship hall of his church, as you can see below.

There is in this film not only the Nativity and the crucifixion (of Lucas); there is also a type of resurrection. I will leave this for you to see, though this is perhaps not as convincing as the depiction of crucifixion, with Lucas obviously welcomed back into his circle of friends. I am not suggesting that Lucas is a complete Christ figure, as in such movies as Cool Hand Luke or Babette’s Feast, because Lucas does not seek crucifixion, it is imposed on him. In the four gospels Jesus is not just the victim, but also the victor who, apparently inspired by the Suffering Servant poem in Isaiah 52 & 53, voluntarily lays down his life. By no stretch of the imagination does Lucas, who is struggling just to get by with his life, seek out the opprobrium he suffers. His suffering is for himself, but it is still a type of crucifixion.

The film’s title comes from the next to the last scene depicting a ritual in which Marcus is now initiated into his father and Bruun’s group of male hunters, a sign of his “becoming a man.” The film ends on a jarring note, which calls into question what seems to be a movie “happy ending.” Maybe “all that ends well is well” doesn’t apply after all here.

A full review with a set of 12 discussion questions is in the Sep/Oct 2013 issue of Visual Parables, which can be purchased at the store, either as an individual issue or as part of an annual subscription.