The Good Class: Television’s Best Show Takes Us to School, This Time Literally

Posted on November 22, 2019 at 8:04 am

“The Good Place” is my favorite show, and I love the way it grapples with the deepest questions of existence in a sophisticated and nuanced but remarkably accessible (and funny and endearing) way. What does it mean to be a good person? Why should we try to be good? What do we owe each other? I watch every week, then listen to the terrific podcast with Marc Evan Jackson (who plays Sean, the head demon), then watch the episode again to catch the details they discuss. The podcast features actors, behind-the-scenes people like writers, producers, special effects, set, and costume designers, and you might even hear a real expert on moral philosophy.

And so of course the has become a text, with “The Good Class” being taught at Notre Dame. I love the description of the answers they got to the application for admission and the comments from “Good Place” creator Mike Shur.

The Good Class, at least, provides one place where people convene every week to talk about what they just saw.

“ the idea of what it means to watch and debate television like this together. To use television as a vehicle. It’s hard to talk about ethical issues these days. It’s hard to have a common language that’s not hyper politicized or hyper reductive,” Sullivan says. “We need cultural questions like this to do some of the 2,400-year-old work on our souls.”

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Breakthrough

Posted on April 16, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content including peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, serious accident, critical medical condition
Diversity Issues: Theme of trans-racial adoption
Date Released to Theaters: April 17, 2019
Date Released to DVD: July 15, 2019

Copyright 2019 20th Century Fox
Breakthrough,” a Christian faith-based story based on a teenager’s remarkable recovery after falling through the ice into a frozen river. It asks but does not pretend to try to answer the big question: If we believe that divine intervention saved this boy, then where is the divine intervention for so many tragedies? Why him? Why not little children and beloved family members? He was not especially good or devout. What does it mean?

The movie also makes it clear that a very large community contributed to the boy’s recovery. Whether they were divinely inspired or not, they played an essential role. Nevertheless, this movie, the last to be issued from the now-Disney-owned Fox division producing Christian faith-based films, is preaching to the choir. It is likely to deliver what they are looking for, but it is unlikely to reach a broader audience as entertainment or as testimony. Even with a strong cast and a dramatic rescue, this movie is not created for or intended for those who are not already on board with the idea of a very devout family experiencing a miracle. Those who are will find this a touching, inspiring story well told and well performed.

Joyce and Brian Smith (“This is Us” star Chrissy Metz and Josh Lucas) live in a comfortable suburban home with their teenage son John (Marcel Ruiz), a student at the local Christian private school and star of the school’s basketball team. He is starting to have some teenage broodiness, beginning to deal with being adopted. He loves his parents but feels the loss of the people he never knew who gave him up. When his teacher assigns an oral report on family history, he does not even try.

And then one day he and two of his friends decide to play tag on a frozen river. The ice cracks, and they fall through. Agonizing minutes tick by as rescue workers try to grab John, who has sunk unto the water. Tommy Shine (Mike Colter of “Girls Trip” and “Luke Cage”) hears someone say, “Go back.” Later, no one who was present will say that he said or even heard those words.

John is trapped for 15 minutes and, once he is at the hospital, has no pulse for nearly half an hour. All the medical indicators are that he is past hope. But his mother insists he will come back, and she prays “boldly” — something she had just recently said she was not sure she understood in a Bible study group.

Joyce has some lessons to learn. She has been prideful and judgmental. She has not been careful about her own health and that makes it harder for her to help her family. But Jason (Topher Grace), the new preacher she dismissed as too secular (he brings in a Christian rock band and wears jeans on the pulpit when he uses “The Bachelor” as a kind of parable) turns out to be a true minister. He tells her he cannot change the outcome, but he can walk there with her.

We may not agree on why John recovers. This cast makes us glad and relieved that he does, even if the story veers into smugness that undermines its message.

Parents should know that the story concerns a very serious accident involving teenagers and critical medical conditions.

Family discussion: Why didn’t John want to do the report about his family? Why was it hard for Joyce to trust Jason, and how did that change?

If you like this, try: “Miracles from Heaven”

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Pope Francis — A Man of His Word

Posted on May 18, 2018 at 7:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material including images of suffering
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Images of tragic circumstances including illness and oppression
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 18, 2018
Date Released to DVD: December 3, 2018
Copyright 2018 Focus Features

Wim Wenders’ unabashedly admiring documentary about Pope Francis is an intriguing and inspiring look at the man who is breaking a number of precedents in the Holy See. He is the first pope from South America after 265 predecessors, mostly from Italy. He is the first Jesuit, an order known for scholarship who “seek to find God in all things.” And he was the first to choose the name Francis, after the 16th century saint who was devoted to animals and nature.

He is unaffected, explaining that he wants to live very simply. He speaks to audiences and to us via the camera with candor and sincerity on topics ranging from the environment to interfaith understanding to the “three T’s” he says should be the foundations of our lives: in English, they are work (for dignity and contribution to the community — “to imitate God with your hands by creating”), land (to support sustainable resources), and roof (home, family).

Wenders interweaves a re-enactment of moments in the life of St. Francis to show parallels with his namesake. But the heart of the movie is seeing His Holiness interact with the crowds of people who are palpably moved by him. Visiting an American prison, he reminds the inmates that the very first man to become a saint was a prisoner like them. And then, in an act of infinite tenderness, he washes and kisses prisoners’ feet. A girl asks him why he has renounced wealth. He tells her that poverty around the world is a scandal, and “we must all become a little bit poorer…poverty is central to the gospel.” We can see the lugubrious faces of some of the Vatican priests and cardinals, looking as though this is not a welcome interpretation. Later, visiting his home country of Argentina, the crowd almost ecstatic with pride, he reminds them of a local expression: “You can always add water to the beans.”

One of the most striking scenes in the film has images of environmental damage projected onto the outside of St. Peter’s Basilica. “The poorest of the poor is Mother Earth. We have plundered her.” And he reminds us that it is the poorest of the poor who suffer first and most from environmental degradation.

His Holiness appears before the United States Congress and goes to Jerusalem to meet with rabbis and imams. He sits alone in a cell at the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem. He speaks movingly to groups and to us about the importance of listening. He misses the connection of taking confession. He says smiles are “the flower of the heart” and speaks of the importance of of having a sense of humor. He tells us the prayer of St. Thomas More he says every morning that always makes him smile.

“An artist is an apostle of beauty,” he tells us. Wenders has taken that to heart and created a film that gives us a rare chance to hear directly from a man whose devotion and compassion will inspire anyone.

Parents should know that this film includes some footage of suffering, including illness, poverty, and abuse.

Family discussion: How do the “three T’s” appear in your life? Why is listening especially important to Pope Francis?

If you like this, try: “The Letters” and “Nuns on the Bus”

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The Best Show on Network Television is The Good Place

Posted on February 5, 2018 at 11:17 pm

Copyright 2017 Fremulon
My favorite network television series is “The Good Place,” which had one of the all-time great twists at the end of the first season and has just completed its even-better second season. Everyone in it is superb, from experienced actors Kristen Bell and Ted Danson to newcomers Jameela Jamil (in her first professional acting role), Manny Jacinto, William Jackson Harper (you can see him on “The Electric Company” and in the movie “Paterson”), and D’Arcy Carden.

While we wait impatiently for the third season (that last episode opened up some very intriguing possibilities), here are some thoughtful takes on the show.

In the New York Times, James Poniewozik writes about the series’ refreshing optimism, contrary to the trend of the past few years toward antiheroes.

He says it “avoided falling into easy moralizing by committing to the idea that becoming good is hard work,” including “a running crash course in remedial ethics, with the most madcap name-dropping of the greats of moral thought since Monty Python’s ‘Bruces’ Philosophers Song.’…orality is not something you have; it’s something you do. It’s a muscle that requires exercise. The show shares with dramas like “Breaking Bad” the belief that being good is hard. But it doesn’t believe that being good is futile.”

At Vulture, Josef Adalian writes about the connection between “The Good Place” and “Lost.”

“The Good Place” showrunner Michael Schur says he asked to be set up on a “playdate” with “Lost’s” Damon Lindelof.

The thing that Damon did for me, which I was very grateful for, the greatest thing anyone any writer can do for another writer, which is to say, “Here are, like, 12 pitfalls you’re about to fall into,” which is exactly what I needed. I needed a person who is conversant in the language of science fiction or genre writing, which I am not, to say to me, “Here are some things that are gonna happen that are dangerous. Here’s what’s gonna happen, here’s how to avoid it.” So that was a huge part of how I operated going forward.

He also reveals some details inspired by or in tribute to Lindelof.

My friend and fellow critic Jen Chaney, a big fan of both shows, really drilled down on the connections for Vulture.

There are so many things that make ‘The Good Place’ a rich and delightful experience: the performances delivered by its talented cast, its constant use of inspired puns, the fact that it has created an entire new genre of comedy known as Jacksonville Jaguars Humor. But from the very beginning, ever since creator Mike Schur said that he was partly inspired by ‘Lost’ when he set out to make this series, it has been fascinating to watch the ways in which ‘The Good Place’ uses that ABC series as a touchstone. Some of the parallels between the two shows are obvious. When “The Good Place” began, it was about a group of people who landed in an unknown place and had to learn the rules that governed it while also making their own rules in order to survive, if “survive” is a word that can be used within the context of the afterlife. That’s exactly what happened to the survivors who crashed on the island in “Lost.”

“The Good Place” may just inspire fans to try to be a bit better themselves, and not just to avoid The Bad Place. It might even inspire a few to try some moral philosophy, though if they have been watching the show they have already learned that too much thinking about ethical dilemmas can also be a problem. I guess for the answer to that one, we’ll have to wait for Season Three.

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The Women’s Balcony

Posted on May 19, 2017 at 1:11 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, some characters injured, one severely
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 19, 2017

Israel’s biggest box-office hit of 2016, “The Women’s Balcony,” is a warm-hearted film about a close-knit Orthodox community living in blissful harmony until their synagogue literally collapses in the middle of a bar mitzvah. The rabbi’s wife is critically injured and the rabbi becomes depressed and foggy-minded. The men of the congregation are grateful when a charismatic rabbinical student known as Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush), offers to help, bringing along his friends to conduct services and raise money to rebuild the temple. But he proves to be a very divisive figure when he urges the congregation to become more strictly observant, suggesting the men give their wives headscarves to cover their hair. The showdown comes when he tells the women that rebuilding the balcony, where the women sit separate from the men during services, will have to come after the creation of a new torah scroll. The women do not agree.

The details of the setting are fascinating, and while unfamiliar to many in American audiences, the elements of an Orthodox Jewish life are presented in a comfortable, respectful, natural manner. The film is immensely charming in its depiction of the quiet, gentle humanity of the community and the way their commitment to Judaism is reflected in every aspect of their lives. Evelin Hagoel is a stand-out as Etie, a grandmother who leads the rebellion and Yafit Asulin is radiant as a shy young woman who finds love. This is an endearing comedy with some thoughtful insights about the way we find and keep finding the sustaining force of grace in our lives.

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