American Gospel?

American Gospel: Christ Alone
Directed by Brandon Kimber
Transition Studios, 2018, 139 minutes

5 Stars

The documentary, “American Gospel: Christ Alone,” was first released in October 2018, and I’ve been meaning to see it ever since. I was recently made aware that the film is available on Netflix and watched it with my wife over the course of two evenings.

First off, the documentary establishes what the genuine Gospel is: salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. The film does an EXCELLENT job of contrasting the genuine Gospel with Roman Catholicism’s false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit. Grateful kudos to Kimber and all involved for their uncompromising stand.

The documentary continues to establish what the Gospel isn’t as it turns its attention to the increasingly popular word of faith, health and wealth, prosperity false gospel. Pentecostalism, with its claims of restoring the apostolic gifts of the Holy Spirit (tongues, healing, prophecy), had its beginnings in 1901 at the Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas. Pentecostalism spread and its practices eventually entered mainline Protestant denominations via the charismatic movement beginning in 1960. Pentecostals/charismatics emphasized subjective religious experiences. Key teachings that grew out of this movement are that God will heal all sicknesses (health) and that God will provide abundant material blessings (wealth) IF the suppliant has enough faith AND contributes sacrificially to the minister or church.

Prosperity gospel pastors, evangelists, and faith healers exploit people’s desire to be healthy and wealthy. This documentary exposes some of the biggest charlatans in the prosperity “industry” including Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, Bill Johnson, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, and Todd White. The film also points out that the prosperity gospelers have sought rapprochement and unity with Roman Catholicism via the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.

The defenders of the genuine Gospel of grace featured in this film include Paul Washer, Costi Hinn, Ray Comfort, Steven Lawson, Mike Gendron, Justin Peters, and John MacArthur.

This is a vitally important and masterful exposé of the word of faith, health and wealth, prosperity gospel sham and I highly recommend it to every believer. As I mentioned, it’s readily available on Netflix.

Postscript #1: The title of this documentary, “American Gospel: Christ Alone,” is confusing in its incongruity. The “American Gospel” portion alludes to the fact that the prosperity gospel has its roots in American Pentecostalism and is now being exported to all corners the world. The subtitle, “Christ Alone,” refers to the contrasting genuine Gospel. In general usage, a subtitle complements/clarifies the main title rather than contradicts it.

Postscript #2: Discerning viewers will note a couple of subtle dichotomies in this documentary. (1) Well known pastor, John Piper, is featured as one of the critics of the prosperity gospel, yet he embraces Pentecostal/charismatic practices; the wellspring of “health and wealth” theology. (2) Some of the featured defenders of the genuine Gospel include individuals identified as employees of RZIM – Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. In contrast to the warnings against ecumenism with Rome presented in this film, apologist, Ravi Zacharias (d. May 19, 2020), championed ecumenism with Roman Catholicism! I’ll be discussing more about Zacharias in an upcoming post.


My blogging friend, Bruce, had a concern about this post and I thought it would be helpful to post our exchange from his blog’s comments section. Thanks, Bruce!


Bruce: I noticed that you lumped all Pentecostals with the NAR and that is not necessarily true, this link refers: http://www.spiritoferror.org/2013/06/the-assemblies-of-god-and-the-nar/3246

Tom: Thanks, Bruce. I get it. As a cessationist, I am more apt to overlook/dismiss distinctions that a continuationist would not. I have read criticisms of this documentary from pro-prosperity, Arminian continuationists who note that all of the well-known spokespersons for the genuine Gospel in this documentary are Reformed. That’s fine with me as I lean towards Calvinism. The argument of the pro-prosperity Arminian continuationists is that the spokespersons in the documentary attack their views while harboring their own “heresies,” i.e., predestination. Glad you brought this up so we could present various views. As an ex-Catholic and a cessationist, I believe continuationists are in a bit of pickle when it comes to ecumenism with Rome. Catholic Charismatics (including tens of thousands of priests) who still hold to Rome’s false gospel and are not born-again according to the genuine Gospel manifest the requisite “gifts of the spirit.” Anti-ecumenical continuationists argue that the Catholic charismatics are manifesting counterfeit gifts, but you can see this is problematic.

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Eleventh Film: “East of Eden”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s eleventh film, “East of Eden.” The review below was first posted on April 11, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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East of Eden
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring James Dean, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, Richard Davalos, and Jo Van Fleet
Warner Brothers, 1955, 117 minutes

5 Stars

John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel, “East of Eden,” had been well-received by the public and director Elia Kazan used the last third of the book as the basis for his eleventh film.

Plot

In Salinas, California in 1917, aging rancher, Adam Trask (Massey), is determined to make his mark on the world before he dies by developing a process for shipping fresh, ice-packed lettuce to the East via railroad. His loving and dutiful son, Aron (Davalos), supports and encourages him in the endeavor, but his other son, Cal (Dean), continuously rebels against the father’s stern and “puritanical” authority. Cal has a change of heart and decides to help Adam with the lettuce venture, but he also learns his mother (Van Fleet) is not dead as Adam had told the boys, but has become the no-nonsense matron of a profitable brothel in nearby Monterey, information Cal initially keeps to himself. Cal becomes friendly with Aron’s girlfriend, Abra (Harris), who is beginning to chafe at the thought of marrying the “prudish” brother.

When Adam’s lettuce venture fails, Cal secretly borrows money from his mother and contracts a crop of beans, speculating that America’s entry into World War I will drive commodity prices sky-high, enabling him to recoup his father’s lost fortune. As Cal and Abra’s relationship grows warmer, tensions in Salinas reach a boiling point as America enters the war and the town folk take out their frustrations on a German immigrant. Pacifist Aron tries to intervene, but yelling and pushing turn to fisticuffs when Cal enters the melee. Brother then turns on brother.

Cal attempts to present his father with the investment profits after Aron preempts him by announcing he and Abra are engaged, much to her displeasure. Adam refuses the money, which he sees as war profiteering. Humiliated by the rejection, which he interprets as another demonstration of his father’s lack of love, Cal declares he hates Adam and brings Aron to Monterey to vengefully reveal to him the truth about their mother, knowing it will destroy him. Subsequently disillusioned and in a drunken stupor, Aron joins the army. Adam runs to the train station just as Aron’s train is leaving and suffers a stroke. Lying in bed, Adam is close to death. Abra pleads with him to express some love to Cal before it’s too late. Adam responds by asking Cal to take care of him rather than his condescending nurse. Feeling loved and accepted by his father for the first time, Cal sits down next to Adam’s bed.

Commentary

After the release of “East of Eden” Dean swiftly became an icon among young movie-goers as a symbol of teenage angst and rebellion. He would die in an automobile accident just six months after the film’s release. Julie Harris gives a wonderful performance. Kazan later gave her a great amount of credit for steadying the moody and mercurial Dean throughout the filming. The rest of the cast does a good job. Van Fleet won an Oscar for her portrayal, while Dean, Kazan, and screenwriter Paul Osborn were all nominated. Kazan specifically chose to dramatize the last third of Steinbeck’s novel because the conflict between father and son reminded him of his difficult relationship with his own overbearing father. I’ve had the Blu-ray version of “East of Eden” for quite a while, but I watched it for the first time only recently. It was a real pleasure watching this familiar movie in hi-def. This was Kazan’s first color film and it was also shot in wide-angle Cinemascope. Kazan and cinematographer Ted McCord took some successful risks and deliver an excellent film.

Additional thoughts from a believer

There are obviously many religious undertones in this film drawn very loosely from the Genesis narrative of Cain and Abel. Adam, the father, is a stern and pious Christian who wishes to impose his faith on his sons. Bible reading at the dinner table is a mandatory and joyless exercise. The message from atheists Steinbeck and Kazan is that what appears to be “good” (Adam and Aron) is not always good, and what appears to be “bad” (Cal) is not always bad. It’s no wonder the writer and director got it wrong. Too often we Christians present our faith as a joyless attempt to impose our morality on others. Better we should focus on spreading the Good News! of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone and humbly letting others know we are sinners saved by grace rather than taking the attitude of pious churchgoers looking down our noses at everyone else.

 

Aileen Wuornos: Monster?

Aileen Wuornos: Mind of a Monster
Arrow Media, 2020, 1 hr 24 min

4 Stars

Several weeks ago, I was doing my routine, bedtime channel surfing and came across the documentary, “Aileen Wuornos: Mind of a Monster,” on the ID, Investigation Discovery, cable channel.

I had done a lot of reading about Aileen “Lee” Wuornos many years ago, so I watched about 30 minutes of the documentary until I had to go to sleep. The next day, I watched the entire film from start to finish via on-demand.

For those of you who have never heard of Aileen Wuornos, she was America’s first female serial killer. It’s not a pleasant story. Wuornos (b. 1956) turned to prostitution as a teenager in Troy, Michigan. She moved down to Florida in 1976 where she continued “hustling.” Over a one-year period, from November, 1989 to November, 1990, she murdered and robbed seven of the many men who had picked her up as she solicited on the side of the highway. Florida police were finally able to track her down and made an arrest in January, 1991. She was eventually convicted on six counts of murder and was executed by lethal injection in October, 2002 at the age of 46.

How does a person become a serial killer? Wuornos was born into very challenging circumstances. Her mother was married at the age of 14 to an abusive sociopath who eventually committed suicide in prison. The single mother then abandoned Aileen and her older brother when the girl was four-years-old. The maternal grandparents adopted the two children, but both adults were hardcore alcoholics and the grandfather was chronically abusive. At the age of fourteen, Aileen was raped by one of her grandfather’s friends, became pregnant, and the baby was given up for adoption. The grandmother died in 1971 and shortly afterwards the grandfather threw Aileen out of the house at the age of fifteen. She supported herself on the streets for the next twenty years.

While Wuornos was in prison in Florida, a born-again woman reached out to her in friendship and became her legal guardian. Wuornos heard the Gospel. But the media circus that surrounded Aileen was a temptation. The guardian saw dollar signs and changed from an advocate into an opportunist who tried to cash-in on some of the media offers.

Wuornos was a deeply disturbed and violent person and deserved the death penalty for the seven, cold-blooded murders. But she wasn’t a monster. Yes, we’re all responsible for our actions, but Wuornos got her start in a snake pit. In her rambling death-row interviews, she talked about Jesus Christ and going to Heaven, but only God knows what happened to her soul.

This documentary provides an informative overview of the Wuornos case. Several of the detectives, lawyers, and prosecutors who were directly involved are interviewed. The spine of the story is the relationship of Wuornos and her childhood friend, Dawn Botkins, that improbably endured to the end.

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Tenth Film: “On the Waterfront”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s tenth and finest film, “On the Waterfront.” It was a pleasure, as always, to re-watch this landmark film for this redux series. The review below was first posted on March 21, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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On the Waterfront
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Rod Steiger
Columbia Pictures, 1954, 108 minutes

5 Stars

By 1954, Elia Kazan was recognized as one of America’s most important and influential film and theater directors. But he was also widely despised for having named the names of former fellow-communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952. Despised by most of his peers, Kazan threw his energy into his craft and created what would be the masterpiece of his career; “On the Waterfront.” Students of Kazan see in the director’s previous nine films his gradual ascent to “Waterfront” and in the nine films that follow, we can see his gradual decline.

Plot

A longshoreman and ex-boxer, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), is indirectly involved in the murder of a fellow longshoreman who was scheduled to testify at crime commission hearings on the dockworkers’ corrupt union. Terry’s brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger), is the right-hand man of the ruthless union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry becomes increasingly conflicted about his involvement in the murder, especially after he begins a relationship with Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the victim’s sister. When Terry is subpoenaed to testify against the union, he wavers. A Catholic priest, father Barry (Karl Malden), encourages Terry to do the right thing. Friendly murders Charlie because he can’t keep his brother in line. Terry finally testifies against Friendly, but is viewed disdainfully as a stool pigeon by his fellow longshoreman. Terry goes down to the docks to work, but is shunned by both the union bosses and the rank-and-file. He confronts Friendly and a fight ensues. Terry is beaten to a pulp by Friendly’s goons, but staggers to his feet with the help of Barry and triumphantly leads his fellow longshoremen back to work.

Commentary

Budd Schulberg based his screenplay on investigations into union corruption on the docks of New York City and New Jersey. Schulberg and Kazan were unable to interest Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox or the other studio heads in a movie about longshoremen so they turned to independent producer, Sam Spiegel. “Waterfront” was filmed in only five weeks and almost completely on-location in Hoboken, New Jersey on a shoestring budget. The film was enthusiastically embraced by the public. It was nominated for twelve Oscars and earned eight: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Brando), Supporting Actress (Saint in her film debut), Screenplay, Cinematography (Boris Kaufman), Art Direction, and Editing. Cobb, Malden, and Steiger had all been nominated for their performances as well. Leonard Bernstein’s inspirational nominated score should have won also. Waterfront has twice been voted by the American Film Institute as one of the 20 best American films ever made; #8 in 1998 and #19 in 2007.

Waterfront was a revelation to movie audiences in 1954. Most had never seen that level of realism in a film before. Brando’s performance in “Waterfront,” became the standard for American acting for decades. The rest of the method-trained main cast did an outstanding job and the film is remarkable for its use of many non-actors. Shulberg was able to get several of his ex-boxer friends bit parts in the film as realistic mobster muscle including Tony Galento, Tami Mauriello, Abe Simon, and Lee Oma. Brando’s and Steiger’s taxi cab scene is widely considered one of the most memorable moments of American cinema. Brando’s “I coulda’ been a contenda” was voted the third best movie quote ever by AFI in 2005.

Many viewed Terry’s testimony against the union in “Waterfront” as Schulberg’s and Kazan’s defense of their HUAC testimonies. There’s certainly parallels, but to what extent fiction mirrored fact will continue to be debated.

“On the Waterfront” was released as a Criterion Collection Blu-ray in 2013 with the following bonus features:

  • Commentary featuring authors Richard Schickel and Jeff Young
  • Conversation between filmmaker Martin Scorsese and critic Kent Jones
  • Elia Kazan: Outsider (1982), an hour-long documentary
  • Documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with scholar Leo Braudy, critic David Thomson, and others
  • Interview with actress Eva Marie Saint
  • Interview with director Elia Kazan from 2001
  • Contender, a 2001 documentary on the film’s most famous scene
  • Interview with longshoreman Thomas Hanley, an actor in the film
  • Interview with author James T. Fisher (On the Irish Waterfront) about the real-life people and places behind the film
  • Visual essay on Leonard Bernstein’s score

Trivia fact: Towards the end of the film, Terry stares past Edie to a large passenger ship moving down the Hudson River. The ship was the Andrea Doria, which would make international headlines when it sank in 1956 off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

Kazan mentioned in an interview that even audiences in the Midwest could relate to Terry the New Jersey longshoreman because everyone is searching for love and “redemption.” Yes, everyone has a spiritual emptiness that they try to fill with relationships, careers, entertainment, hobbies, education, empty religion, fitness workouts, food, drugs and alcohol, etc. But the only One who can truly fill that spiritual void and actually redeem us from the chains of sin and unworthiness is Jesus Christ, the Lord!

 

 

Next Up: “East of Eden” (1955)

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Ninth Film; “Man on a Tightrope”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s ninth film, “Man on a Tightrope.” I enjoyed re-watching the film for this re-review and appreciate it a bit more each time through. The review below was first posted on February 26, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

capture30Man on a Tightrope
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Fredric March, Terry Moore, Gloria Grahame, and Cameron Mitchell
Twentieth Century-Fox, 1953, 105 minutes

4 Stars

Following his friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952, director Elia Kazan’s reputation was under assault from both sides of the political spectrum. The New York and Hollywood Left were outraged that he had named names of former fellow-communists while the studio heads were concerned about the moviegoing public’s reaction to the news that their leading director was an ex-Red. Fox mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck, convinced Kazan to direct “Man on a Tightrope,” to demonstrate his loyalty to his country. The film was one of several anti-communist propaganda pieces released during the height of the Red Scare. Kazan reluctantly agreed to direct the film, but he made it clear in later interviews that it was definitely not one of his fondest projects.

Plot

Mild-mannered, Karel Cernik (Frederic March), and his broken-down circus struggle to survive in post-war, communist-controlled Czechoslovakia. The state security apparatchiks constantly harass Cernik and the circus looking for “irregularities” and “affronts to the people.” Cernik finally has enough and secretly plots the circus’s escape to West Germany, but the situation is complicated by his wife Zama’s (Gloria Grahame) disdain for him and her very public infidelity, and by his daughter Tereza’s (Terry Moore) attraction to a mysterious new roustabout, Joe Videk (Cameron Mitchell), a possible state spy. When Cernik senses the communists are close to discovering his plan, he sets things in motion and Zama suddenly has a newfound respect for her now-decisive husband. As the circus travels toward the border crossing, it’s revealed that Krofta (Richard Boone), Cernik’s foreman, is actually the state’s spy. Krofta is killed in a struggle, but manages to mortally wound Cernik. The circus successfully crosses the border into West Germany with the corpse of Cernik in tow.

Commentary

This film is based upon the true story of the Circus Brumbach, which escaped from East Germany to Bavaria in 1950. Kazan filmed on location in West Germany and actually used Circus Brumbach for the project. Frederic March had been on the Hollywood blacklist because of his Far Left sympathies, but Kazan used his influence to get him casted. Kazan balanced the playbill by casting the politically-Far Right actor, Adolphe Menjou, as one of the lead security apparatchiks. The pairing of 55-year-old March with 30-year-old, film noir femme fatale, Grahame is a stretch. When Zama goads Cirnik into slapping her and then smiles approvingly because her husband has finally displayed some “manly backbone,” today’s viewers will be quite shocked. Sorry, that won’t fly today. Alex D’Arcy as the cowardly lion tamer and the object of Zama’s unrequited affections provides some comedic relief. The romantic sub-plot involving Cam Mitchell and the constantly overwrought Terry Moore should have been left on the cutting room floor.

I like this movie a little bit more with each viewing. There’s no mistaking that it’s a Red Scare propaganda piece meant to reassure audiences regarding Kazan’s loyalties, but the film has some very good performances (March, Grahame, Menjou, Pat Henning, Paul Hartman) and it’s entertaining to watch how this rag tag (and I mean RAG TAG) circus manages the impossible of escaping to freedom right under the noses of the Czech communist security apparatus. Propaganda piece or not, Eastern Europeans endured unbelievably great hardship under Soviet-communist domination from 1945 until 1989. Liberals still hate Kazan (d. 2003) as the ultimate rat fink, but how were American communists and their sympathetic Leftist fellow travelers able to square their theoretical ideology with the deadly realities of Stalinism and the Iron Curtain?

Trivia alert: Don’t blink or you’ll miss a cameo from Fess “Davy Crockett” Parker as one of the U.S. border guards at the end of the film. Also, the elderly woman who plays Cernik’s mother was actually Mme. Brumbach, the great dame of the actual Circus Brumbach.

“Man on a Tightrope” is one of three of Kazan’s nineteen films still not available as a single DVD. However, it is available on Amazon video streaming and as one of the fifteen films in The Elia Kazan Collection DVD box set. No commentary or any other bonus features were included with the DVD.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

I thank the Lord I live in a (still) free country although individual freedoms have been gradually eroding here for quite some time. But spiritual freedom in Jesus Christ trumps political freedom every time. The world could never comprehend it, but the apostle Paul, bound in a Roman prison prior to his execution, was the spiritually free man while the Roman emperor (Nero?) was the actual prisoner – to sin. Praise the Lord Jesus Christ for leading believers out of darkness to eternal life!

 

 

Next up: Kazan’s masterpiece, “On the Waterfront”

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Eighth Film; “Viva Zapata!”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s eighth film, “Viva Zapata!” This movie has always been one of my least-favorite of Kazan’s nineteen projects, but as I re-watched it for this re-review, I actually developed a new appreciation, until I got to the ham-fisted ending. The review below was first posted on February 18, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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Viva Zapata!
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Marlon Brando, Jean Peters, and Anthony Quinn
Twentieth Century-Fox, 1952, 113 minutes

3 Stars

By 1952, director Elia Kazan had achieved extraordinary artistic and commercial success on Broadway and in Hollywood. But the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Washington D.C. was also interested in Kazan because he had been a member of the American Communist Party from 1934 to 1936 and his films advocated social progressivism. Perhaps in deference to increasing pressure from HUAC, Kazan made “Viva Zapata,” a salute to the revolutionary proletariat, but also a veiled indictment of Stalinism. “Viva Zapata” was released in February 1952 and Kazan was called to appear before HUAC in April when he testified as a friendly witness, naming names of fellow communists and earning the undying wrath of liberals. Kazan’s following two films, “Man On A Tightrope” (1953) and “On The Waterfront” (1954), also attacked Stalinism and attempted to justify his HUAC friendly testimony.

Plot

A group of Mexican peasants petitions right-wing dictator, President Diaz, for land reform. The patronizing Diaz notes the insolence of one particular individual, Emilio Zapata (Marlon Brando). Zapata grows in stature as a leader of the people with his spirited brother, Eufemio (Anthony Quinn), at his side. His peasant army joins in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to overthrow Diaz and install liberal reformer, Francisco Madero, as president. As Zapata’s fame and influence rises, he marries Josefa (Jean Peters), the daughter of a rich merchant. Impatient with the well-meaning but befuddled Madero, Zapata continues the fight for agrarian reform. Madero is felled in a coup led by General Huerta. Zapata and the the other rebel generals eventually drive Huerta into exile. Zapata is appointed president of Mexico, but quickly resigns in frustration. Mexico’s new rulers, former leftist revolutionaries, hunt down Zapata, eventually killing him in an ambush. Journalist, Fernando Aguirre (Joseph Wiseman), a shadowy figure and former adviser to Zapata and the other revolutionary leaders, has a hand in Zapata’s death.

Commentary

Unfortunately, acclaimed novelist John Steinbeck’s script does not flow easily. You’ll need a scorecard to keep track of all of the politicos and los comandantes. First, the bad guy is Diaz. Then it’s Madero. Then Huerta. Then Carranza. Ay, caramba! We know from later interviews with Kazan that the Aguirre character was meant to represent unscrupulous Stalinism, but the average viewer would never make that connection on their own. Zapata and his revolutionary compadres are romanticized a great deal by Kazan. The last reel is as hokey as it gets with the peasant rebels denying Zapata’s death and his white horse galloping off into the sunset. One hundred years after the Revolution, Mexico continues to struggle politically and economically. Brando, Peters, and Quinn turn in fine performances with Quinn winning a supporting Oscar. As a trivia note, Jean Peters was the second wife of the eccentric Howard Hughes. Also, revolutionary, Pancho Villa, is portrayed by Alan Reed who would eventually end up as the voice of Fred Flintstone. The “Viva Zapata” Blu-ray was released in 2013, but offers no commentary or special features other than the trailer.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

Perhaps the most truthful moment of this film is when Zapata has ascended to the presidency and a group of peasants present him with their grievances. Zapata angrily takes down the name of the most insolent peasant just as as Diaz had taken down his name several years before. The oppressed become the oppressors. The hearts of men are desperately wicked.

People look to their nation, government, and society for their identity and fulfillment. While God’s Word says Christians are to be law-abiding citizens so as to be a good testimony to our unbelieving neighbors, our primary citizenship is in Heaven. We are ambassadors and emissaries for our Heavenly King as we journey through this world. Real freedom and fulfillment come through rebirth and identity in Jesus Christ, not through nations, governments, political parties, or revolution.

 

On deck: “Man on a Tightrope” (1953)

Inside the Vatican – Worldly grandeur but no Gospel

Inside the Vatican
Oxford Films, 2019, 1h 54m
Originally broadcast on PBS April 28, 2020

1 Star

(Note re: single star: While the production standards of this documentary are quite high, the false “spirituality” it promotes is deadly)

I noticed an advertisement for this 2-hour, PBS documentary, but wasn’t able to watch the entire production the night it was broadcast on April 28th. I’m pretty strict about my “lights out at 10 p.m.” policy. However, I was able to watch the entire documentary the following day via the PBS website (see link at bottom).

Evangelical Vatican-watchers will find this “inside look” at the Vatican somewhat interesting as well as grievous and disturbing. The Vatican, of course, is the home of the pope and the central administration headquarters of the Roman Catholic church, with a population of 800 residents and 4600 employees working within the walls of this 120 acre, city-state (roughly the size of Central Park in NYC).

The filmmakers focus on several of the Vatican departments and individual employees including members of the following:

  • Diplomatic corps
  • Ushers aka “sediari” or chair-bearers
  • Choir
  • Preservation/maintenance workers aka “sanpietrini”
  • Groundskeepers
  • Social Media
  • Language translators
  • Security

Interspersed with these examinations of the Vatican’s various working departments are adulatory segments devoted to pope Francis. The pope is portrayed as a high-minded, progressive reformer (an admiring journalist says he’s no less than a “radical”) determined to neutralize the conservative and traditionalist opposition within the church. We see Francis as the enemy of clerical privilege; Francis as the protector of children from predatory priests; Francis as the champion of the planet’s environment; Francis as the benefactor and sponsor of immigrants, the homeless, and the incarcerated.

This documentary is a Francis “puff piece” on a grand scale. A couple of Francis’s conservative Catholic opponents are interviewed (a journalist and the founder of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute), but they’re merely a few gnats in this very pro-Francis ointment. Many conservative and traditionalist Catholics rue the day that Francis was elected pope and pray for a quick end to his tenure. Francis views his doctrine-bending reforms as pragmatic necessity in order to maintain the church as a relevant world institution while conservatives view his reforms as heterodoxy and even heresy. The film points out that Francis has been busy “stacking the deck” by appointing like-minded cardinals to ensure the next pope shares his progressive views.

Some off-the-cuff observations while watching this documentary:

  • There’s plenty of “impressive” pageantry and ceremony at the grandiose Vatican, but the genuine Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone is nowhere in sight. The Roman Catholic church teaches a false gospel of salvation via sacramental grace and merit.
  • In close to two hours of watching this documentary, with all of its recorded religious pageantry and spectacle, I did not hear the name of Jesus Christ mentioned one time. Jesus Christ and His apostles would have had nothing to do with this grand-scale pomp and ostentatiousness. This documentary doesn’t delve into church history, but the Roman bishops adopted the Caesarean imperial model including the pursuit of wealth, territory, and political control. The regal trappings of the papacy outdid those of European monarchs. “But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” – Acts 3:6.
  • One of the featured personalities, Mark Spyropoulos, a lead vocalist in the Sistine Chapel Choir, reluctantly admits on camera that he’s an agnostic. The chorister speaks for hundreds of millions of “cultural Catholics.” For those Catholics who say that they do “believe” in God, what they actually believe in is their obligation to merit their salvation, as their institutional church teaches.

“For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” – Romans 10:2-4

I would recommend this documentary only to evangelicals who are curious to see the worldliness of the Roman Catholic religion.

https://www.pbs.org/video/inside-the-vatican-o0uz0h/

Video availability expires 5/26/20.

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Seventh Film; “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s seventh film, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” As I re-watched “Streetcar” for this post, I thought about how viewers have been ambivalently fascinated and repulsed by this story for seventy years.

The review below was first posted on February 11, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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[Mitch confronts Blanche after he learns of her scandalous past.]
Mitch: I thought you were straight.
Blanche: Straight? What’s straight? A line can be straight or a street. But the heart of a human being?

A Streetcar Named Desire
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter
Warner Brothers, 1951, 122 minutes

5 Stars

By the late 1940s, Elia Kazan was widely acknowledged as one of the nation’s premier directors, both on Broadway and in Hollywood. Kazan had successfully staged Tennessee Williams’ play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which had a Broadway run of two years and had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948. When plans were being made to adapt the play to film, Williams pressed upon a reluctant Kazan to direct.

Plot

Completely out of other options, a frazzled Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter) and brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), in their ramshackle apartment in the seedy French Quarter. The aristocratic and genteel Blanche is both repulsed by and attracted to the animalistic Stanley. A relationship soon blossoms between Blanche and Mitch (Karl Malden), one of Stanley’s few well-mannered friends. Increasingly annoyed by her condescending airs, Stanley learns of Blanche’s disreputable past and ends her relationship with his friend. Without any hope, Blanche is driven to madness and taken away to an asylum.

Commentary

Movie theater audiences were stunned by “Streetcar.” Williams’ dark portrayal of humanity was definitely not typical Hollywood fare. And what about Brando’s performance? Audiences had never seen anything so brutally raw and realistic on the screen prior to this. “Streetcar” was nominated for twelve Oscars and three of the leads (Leigh, Malden, and Hunter) would win. Brando’s method-acting performance was just too shocking in 1951 to garner official recognition. But with “Streetcar,” Brando and Kazan had revolutionized acting and the American film industry. Kazan shot the film in much the same way the play was staged, with most of the action taking place in the Kowalskis’ decrepit two-room flat, but he added some on-location scenes shot at a bowling alley, a factory, and the New Orleans train station. Harold Stradling’s cinematography is excellent as is Alex North’s jazzy score. The American Film Institute twice selected “Streetcar” as one of the fifty-best American movies ever made (#45 in 1998, #47 in 2007).

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

Many books and articles have been written about the meaning of Williams’ lyrical “Streetcar.” The characters aren’t meant to be actual people, rather they’re symbolic of humanity. Here we see the perennial conflict between “civilization” with its art, education, ceremonial religion, and social courtesies versus the baser instincts of dog-eat-dog survival. Yet, the refined Blanche is not all she pretends to be and Stanley is more than happy to confront her hypocrisy.

“Streetcar” was considered to be somewhat scandalous back in 1951, although it wouldn’t cause even a ripple on today’s prime-time television. As a believer in Jesus Christ, I’m a big fan of this film. Why? Because it shows people as they really are; sinners and hypocrites. Underneath the pretense. Without the sugar coating. Williams and Kazan don’t give you the Gospel in this movie, but they rub your nose in man’s “inhumanity” and sinfulness. I’ve read that the stunned audience stood and applauded the Broadway play premier for thirty minutes after the final curtain went down. But why were they applauding? Williams was holding up a mirror and showing them exactly who and what they were without Jesus Christ.

Blanche was desperately searching for a “safe harbor.” Without Jesus Christ, where do we go? Who will take us in? To whom can we turn?

Thank you, Jesus.

 

 

Next up: Kazan’s eighth film, “Viva Zapata!”

Just one look, back, at the Hollies

It’s time for a little pandemic lockdown frivolity!

The Hollies: Look Through Any Window, 1963-1975
Eagle Rock Entertainment, 2011, 120 minutes

4 Stars

I’ve told the story several times about how I became a fan of Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and sometimes Young) back in 1969 at the age of thirteen. I liked the group so much that I delved into the back catalogs of the members’ previous bands; David Crosby’s Byrds and Steve Stills’ (and Neil Young’s) Buffalo Springfield. To each their own, but of the three amigos, I liked Graham Nash’s songs the least. They were way too heavy on the saccharine for my taste. But being the nerdy completist that I was, I also lightly delved into the back catalog of Nash’s previous band, the Hollies.

During this COVID-19 quarantine, I was looking to fill some time and stumbled across this documentary on Amazon and decided to queue it up on the turntable for a spin for nostalgia’s sake.

Graham Nash and Allan Clarke grew up as grammar school mates in Manchester, England and both had a talent for singing. With the rise of rock and roll, the pair aspired to forming their own band. The duo founded the Hollies in 1962, and after several personnel changes, they cemented their hit-making line-up in 1966 with Clarke as the lead vocalist and frontman, Nash on rhythm guitar (barely) and vocals, Tony Hicks on lead guitar and vocals, Bernie Calvert on bass guitar, and Bobby Elliot on drums. The band had phenomenal success in the U.K.  – 18 Top Ten singles – and to a lesser degree, in the States (6 Top Ten). The Hollies were especially noted for their unique vocal blend with Nash’s high harmonies nicely complementing Clarke’s tenor lead and Hicks rounding out the bottom.

Like the Beatles and most of the other bands that were part of the early years of the British Invasion (1964-1967), the Hollies were strictly a pop band that played songs with simple melodies and simple lyrics for their teeny bopper audiences. But whereas the Beatles and others progressed into more sophisticated musical forms, the Hollies largely stayed in their bubble-gum lane. A frustrated Nash prodded the group to expand their horizons, resulting in the slightly-adventurous albums, “Evolution” (1967) and “Butterfly” (1967), but the increasing tensions caused him to finally part with the band in 1968 and begin his tenure with CSN&Y.

This documentary traces the history of the Hollies from their start to their less-successful, post-Nash years. There’s interesting interviews with Nash, Clarke, Hicks, and Elliot. Twenty-two song performances are included in the video. Some are live and some are lip-synched. The only criticism I have of this documentary is that each song is played in its entirety. Many of the lesser-known songs should have been sampled and the interview segments expanded.

Clarke retired from the band in 2000 and Hicks and Elliot soldier on as the Hollies with journeymen filling the slots. The Hollies were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.

The Hollies’ 18 U.K. Top Ten singles:

  • 1963 – Stay
  • 1964 – Just One Look – Here I Go Again – We’re Through
  • 1965 – Yes I Will – I’m Alive – Look Through Any Window
  • 1966 – I Can’t Let Go – Bus Stop – Stop, Stop, Stop
  • 1967 – On A Carousel – Carrie-Anne
  • 1968 – Jennifer Eccles
  • 1969 – Sorry Suzanne – He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother
  • 1970 – I Can’t Tell The Bottom From The Top
  • 1974 – The Air That I Breathe
  • 1988 – He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother (re-release)

Three “shoulda been Top Tens”: One of my favorite Hollies songs, “Dear Eloise” (1967), wasn’t released as a single in the U.K. and only made it to #50 in the U.S. Although it performed only modestly in the U.K. (#32), “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” (1971) was a huge #2 hit in the U.S.  The excellent “Long Dark Road” (1972) was released only in the U.S. and peaked at a disappointing #26.

Postscript: As the documentary ends and the closing credits roll, an excellent 1971 rendition of the Hollies singing “Amazing Grace” a capella plays in the background.

Throwback Thursday: “Spotlight” exposes predatory priests and cover-up

Welcome to this week’s “Throwback Thursday” installment. Today, we’re going to revisit a post that was originally published back on November 27, 2015 and has been completely revised.

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Prior to 2002, sporadic reports of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests had been relegated to the back pages of newspapers, if reported at all. But in 2001-2002, the “spotlight” investigative journalism team of the Boston Globe uncovered large scale clerical sexual abuse within the archdiocese of Boston as well as the systematic cover-up by cardinal Bernard Law and other diocesan administrators. The film, “Spotlight” (2015), depicts the efforts of the newspaper team to bring the truth to light despite opposition from all sides.

Spotlight
Directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, and Stanley Tucci
Open Road Films, 2015, 129 minutes

5 Stars

Plot

It’s 2001 and the Boston Globe’s newly-hired editor (Schreiber) directs Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton) and his three-person, crack investigative team to dig into the possibility that the Boston archdiocese hierarchy has been covering up for priest sexual abusers. One of the journalists, Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), contacts a lawyer (Tucci) who has been advocating for multiple victims of priest abuse, although with little success up to that point. The team gets to work and begins to uncover the enormity of clerical abuse within the archdiocese. They begin with a list of twenty pedophile priests, which eventually grows to ninety. Circumstantial evidence shows cardinal Law repeatedly transferred abusive priests within the archdiocese. There’s also evidence that public safety and court officials cooperated with the church hierarchy in keeping the abuse “problem” under wraps. Robby and the spotlight investigative team eventually unearth hard documentation proving Law’s enablement of the abusers and the systematic cover-up. The Globe begins publishing a series of articles on the scandal in early-2002. The movie’s epilogue states that cardinal Law (d. 2017) resigned his office in 2002 and was immediately transferred to Rome and that a total of 249 priests and brothers in the Boston archdiocese were eventually credibly accused of abuse (as of 2015).

Comments

“Spotlight” is admittedly a tough movie to sit through because of its tragic and sordid subject matter. The story is well-written, although somewhat difficult to follow because of the preponderance of names that are mentioned by necessity. It’s tough to tell the “players” without a scorecard. I saw this film at the theater when it was originally released in 2015, but I was able to follow along much better when I watched it the second time via Amazon streaming in April 2020. The cast does an excellent job, especially the spotlight team members, Keaton, Ruffalo, and McAdams. In 2016, “Spotlight” was nominated for six Oscars (including nominations for Ruffalo and McAdams for their supporting roles) and won Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Many theater-goers didn’t want to deal with the film’s controversial subject material. “Spotlight” was the second-lowest domestically grossing film to win Best Picture in the past four decades.

I’m so grateful this film was produced and the public got to see the sordid story of the widespread abuse by priests and the systematic cover-up by church officials. Starting in Boston, the breadth of this scandal has been revealed to be nationwide and worldwide with similar circumstances of abuse and hierarchical cover-up. In the last two years, the scandal turned into a tsunami with abuse being exposed in the highest offices of the church. Multiple states have lifted statutes of limitations allowing survivors to sue their dioceses several decades after the abuse was committed. To date, 21 dioceses in the U.S. have filed for bankruptcy to protect their assets from survivors.

In one scene, Ruffalo’s character angrily rails against the totally corrupt church for destroying his “faith.” The faith that’s represented is misplaced. Roman Catholics need to repent of their sin and accept Jesus Christ as their Savior by faith alone and then ask the Lord to lead them to an evangelical church in their area that preaches the Gospel without compromise.