Bad Faith: Christian Nationalism’s Unholy War on Democracy

Posted on April 24, 2024 at 5:31 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: News images of violence including January 6, 2021
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 26, 2024

This is a very scary movie, and the scariest part is that the people it is about will never see themselves in it. At less than 90 minutes, it can only touch the surface of some of the issues behind the undermining of democracy by a toxic stew of billionaires seeking less regulation and more tax cuts, white evangelicals who have been persuaded that a holy war will put a stop to whatever previously gave them a sense of cultural primacy, and power brokers who recognize that their views are in the minority and the only way they can get the authority they want is a combination of disinformation and voter suppression. But it does a very good job of documenting history that will surprise even the most sophisticated political observers.

For example, most people tend to think that abortion fueled the uprising of white evangelicals groups that had previously had very little interest in politics and did not tie voting to faith. But directors Stephen Ujlaki and Christopher Jacob Jones make it clear that abortion was not the precipitating factor. It was a few years before, the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) could deny tax-exempt status to schools with racially discriminatory policies. This struck at the heart of the evangelical groups led by people like Jerry Falwell, but they knew advocating for segregation was not a winning argument. They finally figured out that they could get the rank and file excited by using extremist language about reproductive health.

Later, attacks on various “woke” concepts like same-sex marriage, inclusion, and combatting climate change created opportunities for the wealthy to agitate the white evangelical base on their behalf.

This is a very traditional documentary, archival footage and experts. But the experts are exceptionally well chosen, starting with a blonde woman who begins by telling us that faith is the center of her life. We expect her to be one of the Christian nationalists the movie is about. Instead, she is a former official in the Trump-era Department of Homeland Security who, we see later, was aghast when President Trump refused to make the threat of domestic terrorism a priority. A minister whose faith leads him to support policies that help the poor and marginalized, another who was trained by a Christian nationalist group but left, and journalists and scholars with have deep knowledge in this area make some well-documented assessments. Longtime Republican consultant Steve Schmidt says what these people are working toward is Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale.” We learn about the “multi-facted operation of tremendous sophistication” used to spread mistrust and disinformation, funded by the ultra-wealthy and promoted by FOX and Sinclair Broadcasting, based on data mining of church rosters, not just of the names of members but of their most personal information and shared confidences.

But nothing is as chilling as the footage where we hear evangelical leaders and their political consultant counterparts say what they really think. They insist “America was founded as a Christian nation” (not true), that that concept of separation of church and state is not based in the Constitution but in a “stinkin’ letter” (Representative Lauren Boebert) (also not true), and that we need a “war” to impose a particular white Christian Protestant religion on everyone. And they answer a question many outside the white Christian evangelical world ask, why people of faith are so committed to Donald Trump, who promises to support them but whose life violates some of the values they say are essential; there are many in this group who do not want a man who follows Jesus. They want a chaos agent to undermine the most fundamental foundations of democracy, because democracy means majority rule and they know they cannot win that way.

Parents should know that this film includes discussions of bigotry, Christian nationalism, voter suppression, and abortion, with some footage of the insurrection on January 6, 2021.

Family discussion: What surprised you in this movie? Who did you find most trustworthy and why?

If you like this, try: “Slay the Dragon” (about gerrymandering), “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” “Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook,” “Answer the Call,” and other documentaries about attacks on democracy

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The Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Posted on November 16, 2023 at 5:45 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for largely bloodless child death and disturbing content
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and graphic peril and violence including teens murdering teens. Characters are shot, impaled, poisoned, bitten by snakes, and hung.
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2023

Copyright Sony 2023

The Hunger Games prequel is a villain origin story. The popular trilogy centered on rebel Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), in a dystopic world ruled by Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). Author Suzanne Collins was flipping channels one night and saw both sports events and news footage of the Iraq War. This inspired her idea of a future society where entertainment — and the fundamentals of a totalitarian society — rest on a television show with teenagers competing to the death like gladiators. The grotesquery of the competition is reflected in a perverted concept of the selection process as patriotic and the young competitors paraded in glamorous attire before the “games” begin.

Collins has said she was drawn to “the idea of an unjust war developing into a just war because of greed, xenophobia and longstanding hatreds.” With this new installment, we get a better look at how that happens, on both a structural level and a personal one. Young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), whose name harks back to the title character in a Shakespearean tragedy about a general who is a hero in battle but becomes resentful that he is not honored enough by his community and then loses his own honor. As this story begins, he is a senior at the country’s prestigious school, barely scraping by with his grandmother (Fionnula Flannagan) and cousin who is like a sister (Hunter Schafer as Tigris). He does his best to keep up appearances as he hopes to win the school’s lucrative top prize for academic achievement. But there is an announcement — the prize has been canceled. The games, in the 10th year and much less elaborate than the ones we know from the original trilogy, are losing their audience. And so the candidates for the prize will each be assigned a games contestant to “mentor.” The contestant who does best — that means “spectacle, not survival.” The mentor who wins will be the one whose contestant gets the most support from the audience.

At this point, Coriolanus is devoted to his family and a loyal friend. He meets his assigned contestant, Lucy Gray (“West Side Story’s” Rachel Zegler) and quickly shifts from wanting her to be spectacle to wanting her to survive. Lucy is the songbird of the title, a roots-style singer with spirit and a strong sense of community.

The “games” are nowhere near as flamboyantly extravagant as the ones we have seen in the earlier films, and it is intriguing to see the foreshadowing and origins of the familiar elements. Jason Schwartzman as oily weatherman/magician/emcee Lucky Flickerman is not as outrageous as Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket, but we can see the origins of the gulf between the “entertainment” and lethal in the tone of the events. Coriolanus himself is responsible for coming up with some of the most significant elements of the later games. Viola Davis has a lot of fun as mad, gene-splicing, snake-loving scientist Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Ms. Collins is quite the name-giver!) and Peter Dinklage shows us the terrible compromises of the school’s Dean, (another bonkers name) Casca Highbottom.

Fans of the series and the book will appreciate this faithful version, but others may find the relentless butchery outweighs the lessons about morality, trust, and resilience, leaving open the question of whether lethal gladiator games, even by proxy, are inevitably seen as entertainment.

Parents should know that this film includes intense and graphic violence including many murders with teenagers attacking other teenagers and military attacking civilians. Characters are shot, impaled, poisoned, bitten by snakes, and hung. The MPA’s “largely bloodless” rating is an inadequate description of the images, many of which are graphic and disturbing.

Family questions: Were there any indications in the early scenes that Coriolanus might turn out the way he did? Was he trustworthy? Why did he record Sejanus? What made Lucy Gray change her mind?

If you like this, try: the other “Hunger Games” movies and the books

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Landscape with Invisible Hand

Posted on August 17, 2023 at 11:30 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and brief violent content
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Suicide by gun
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2023

Wherever you think this is going, I can guarantee you will be surprised. Based on the book by National Book Award winner M.T. Anderson, “Landscape with Invisible Hand” is a story about the aftermath of an alien invasion of Earth, but not like one we’ve seen before. This is not about evil invaders like “War of the Worlds,” “The Tomorrow War,” “Independence Day,” or benign, wise aliens like “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “E.T.” These aliens, called vuvv, do not look like giant insects, robots, or humans. They look like a cross between a big slab of pink tofu and a rectangular sofa cushion, with two big front teeth. One character calls them “squishy coffee tables.” They communicate by scraping their flippers together and the rasping sounds are translated by little bluetooth speaker-like boxes.

Copyright MGM 2023

The movie takes place a few years after they have colonized the Earth and siphoned off its wealth and resources. We are brought up to date over the opening credits, with a theramin-influenced score that is a throwback to 50’s sci-fi. We see a series of drawings, labeled as though they are in a museum, with titles, dates, and identification of media. The first is a very young child’s portrait of his family, and then we see his skill grow over the years. There is a drawing of a family Christmas. There is a drawing of a bustling market. And then there is a drawing of the market after the arrival of the aliens. It is empty of food and customers.

The artist is Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk), a high school student who lives with his mother, Beth (Tiffany Haddish) and sister Natalie (Brooklynn MacKinzie). Like most adults who have not sold out to the vuvv, Beth is unemployed, but they still have their home, which makes them much better off than most people. Adam impulsively offers their basement to Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers of “Yellowstone”), a new classmate who has been living in the family car with her anxious father (Josh Hamilton) and surly brother Hunter (Michael Gandolfini). Chloe and Adam like each other, and that creates an opportunity.

The vuvv are curious about human culture, especially romance. They pay to watch it. So Chloe and Adam attach sensors to their foreheads and start racking up views and money. That does not go well, And then things really take a turn.

That turn is strange and it gets stranger, in smart and interesting and thought-provoking ways I will not spoil. It is refreshing especially in what is usually the slowest time of year for movies to see one that is willing to challenge the audience. That applies to the small details, from the design of the vcvvs and their settings to the mixture of humiliation and resentment in the male Marshes, the way some humans adjust their appearances to more closely resemble the vuvv, the difference between two characters, each seen only in a single brief scene calibrate their priorities about their interactions with the aliens. And its message about art and its significance to those who create it and those who observe it, comes through with great clarity.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language and a suicide by gun. It is offscreen but we see the blood splatter. There are some sexual references and brief underage drinking.

Family discussion: What parallels are there between the vuvv and historical colonizers? What does this movie say about the importance of art?

If you like this, try: The book by M.T. Anderson and the film “Upside Down”

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The Hater

Posted on March 17, 2022 at 12:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, vaping marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations, oblique reference to suicide
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 18, 2022

Copyright Verizon Entertainment 2022

Newcomer Joey Ally takes on the challenge of writing, directing, and starring in her first film, “The Hater,” the story of a far-left political speechwriter who ends up running in a Republican primary in her a right-wing community. She is better as a writer than a director and better as a director than an actor, but the screenplay is strong enough to overcome some rookie mistakes.

Ally plays Dorothy, as in Oz, who is fired in the film’s first few minutes after a viral video appears to show her burning a flag at a demonstration. She has to leave Washington to return to a place she could not wait to get away from, her home town in Texas. Her grandfather (Bruce Dern in grumpy mode) is not happy to see her, but she reminds him that she is half-owner of the house, and he lets her in.

She tries to find a job with a progressive candidate or cause, but no one wants her. Then she sees that there is a primary coming up, and her childhood nemesis, Brent Hart (Ian Harding), is running unopposed. His father is a Senator. He twice took the local high school football team to State. He is handsome and personable. The Democrat who will run against him is a woman who has already lost three times. There seems to be no way to beat him.

Unless.. .If Dorothy runs against Brent and defeats him and then withdraws, according to local rules the Republican party cannot nominate anyone else, and so the Democrat could win. So, she goes out to collect some signatures to get on the ballot. It does not go very well until she accidentally goes viral again, this time for defeating an armed robbery in a convenience store. She looks like a gunslinger, but really it was just muscle memory from color guard in high school.

Dorothy’s one-time high school friend (Meredith Hagner), whose husband is deployed in the military, opposes Brent because he plans to tear down the community center where she works. So, she signs on as Dorothy’s campaign manager. And Glenn (D’Angelo Lacy), Dorothy’s best friend and roommate from Washington, shows up for a Red State make-under. Off with the nose ring. On with clothes from her late grandmother, picked from boxes in the attic.

The best thing about the movie is its refusal to make any character one-dimensional or completely unsympathetic, especially when we find our own expectations challenged.

NOTE: I have a connection to this movie because my daughter, Rachel Apatoff, was the costume designer. Needless to say, the costumes, which are an essential element of the film, are brilliant.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language, discussion of abortion, and some drug use.

Family discussion: How did Dorothy shade the truth in her campaign comments? How did her father’s death affect her choices? Which character would you vote for?

If you like this, try: “Dick” and “In the Loop”

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Belfast

Posted on November 11, 2021 at 5:53 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-3 for strong language and some violence
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, mobs, sad death of a family member
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2021
Date Released to DVD: February 28, 2022

Copyright 2021 Focus

“Buddy! Buddy!” A boy is outside playing with his friends when he hears his mother is calling him home for dinner. He does not think anything of it except perhaps that it’s too bad the game has to stop or that he is hungry, but it is the kind of moment he will look back on as an adult as a moment of perfect safety and comfort, a time of feeling completely at home, supported by the family and the community, a feeling that the world makes sense. It is the kind of memory we come back to when we miss those feelings very much.

Sir Kenneth Branagh came back to those last golden moments of childhood, as many people did, during the Great Pause of the pandemic, when so many of us, even well past childhood, felt a new sense of uncertainty. And so he wrote and directed “Belfast,” based on those moments in his own life, when he was nine, and began to understand for the first time that the world can be a dangerous place.

He hears “Buddy! BUDDY!!” again, but this is not a “come home, where dinner is ready invitation from his mother. This is a sound of pure terror. Nine-year-old Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) lives on what was once a peaceful street in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but it has. become a center for unrest and violence due to The Troubles, the struggle between the Catholics and Protestants.

Branagh skillfully shows us the world through Buddy’s eyes, though we understand more than he does. Sometimes that is amusing. Sometimes it is heart-wrenching. Buddy’s parents are almost impossibly glamorous and beautiful, as we see through his idealized perspective, and because they are played by the gorgeous (and Irish) Jamie Dornan (Pa) and Caitriona Baize (Ma). Also in the family are grandparents played with asperity and a twinkle in the eye by Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds.

Gorgeous black and white cinematography gives the film the quality of a timeless memory and there are flashes of color when the family sees some Hollywood movies like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Another film we get a glimpse of is more to the point, “High Noon.” Buddy’s family loves their home. But The Troubles are forcing everyone to take sides. Pa, whose travel for business has added to the strain has been offered a much better-paying job in England.

Branagh expertly mingles humor and drama, shooting us what Buddy sees but does not fully understand and the way that he gives equal curiosity and weight to all of the new information he is learning and all of the new emotions that he is feeling, including some romantic sentiments about a pretty classmate. The very gifted Hill conveys the purity of these first-time experiences with great simplicity and open-heartedness. Buddy’s story (and Branagh’s) is of a very specific place and time but the bittersweet end of childhood and beginning of deeper understandings is universal and told here with tenderness and compassion.

Parents should know that this movie includes scenes of mob violence with peril and injuries and the very sad death of a family member. Characters drink and smoke and use strong language.

Family discussion: Did the family make the right decision? If you made a movie about your childhood, what story would you tell?

If you like this, try: “The Journey,” about the two men who negotiated a resolution of The Troubles and “The Commitments,” about young Irish musicians forming a music group

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