Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson, depicts the story of  how U.S. soldier/medic Desmond Doss became a conscientious objector serving in World War II. Doss is portrayed by actor Andrew Garfield who was nominated for a 2017 Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. In the movie, Doss endures criticism from his fellow soldiers for avoiding what they perceive as justified and necessary violence.

The cast of Hacksaw Ridge includes Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Luke Bracey, Vince Vaughn, and Sam Worthington, and though the film’s battle scenes are less grandiose than the ones in Braveheart the film tells its story well. Hugo Weaving plays the role of a war-torn father, Luke Bracey portrays a soldier embracing his job as a warrior, Teresa Palmer plays the love of Desmond’s life, and Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughn act as Doss’s superiors. What the film lacks in majestic cinematography it makes up for in character development and raw depictions of combat. Nothing is lost in the storytelling.

Initially the movie relies heavily on storytelling and the plot surrounding Doss’s upbringing and journey to becoming a conscientious objector, but as seems to be Director Mel Gibson’s style, the eventual battle scenes are gruesome and uncensored. When Doss finally reaches the battle at Okinawa, the shock of war mixes with his determination find and save wounded soldiers. The endurance of this man’s faith fuels his heroic actions on the battlefield.

The movie’s events are based upon the true story of Desmond Doss. Doss was a part of a group tasked with scaling a steep-faced ridge to drive Japanese soldiers out of their positions. Following a day in which the group suffered many fallen soldiers and were forced to retreat down the ridge, Doss remained and searched for those soldiers who were left behind.

In the film, Doss despairs and complains that he cannot hear the voice of his God. One can imagine this was a common feeling among soldiers serving in World War II. In this dramatic moment, Doss (Garfield) hears and responds to the voices of injured soldiers crying out for help.

This film provides a good basis for the discussion of the justification of war and a persons role in it. Murder is among the most consequential crimes imaginable, but warriors are celebrated for their killings and often garner more attention for a higher tally of kills. Some people may despise this film for its passivity while admiring a film like American Sniper for its decisiveness. Others may despise all war, and take a position of pacifism. Questions of the feasibility of avoiding all war or the implications of embracing its role in the world may arise. Regardless of one’s position in the discussion it’s clear that there is something valuable to be learned from these debates.

Hacksaw Ridge is a story of a man holding to his convictions. The man endured hard circumstances, hurting no one through his direct actions while achieving something great in the process. Everyone should be able to celebrate that.

 

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

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Written by Trevor Noah, Born a Crime is a memoir of what it was like for Noah to grow up as the son of a white man and a black woman in Apartheid South Africa. From the absence of his biological father to the oppression of his step-father, from the faith of his mother to the skepticism of his own mind, and from the streets of Soweto to the streets of Hillbrow, Born a Crime gives the listener a glance into the societal inequality of Apartheid South Africa and personal struggles of the people who lived through it. Trevor Noah takes the reader on a humorous and educational journey through the times and places of his upbringing.

There are some audio-book performances that immediately distract from the content of the book due to overzealous or unconvincing voice acting, but Born a Crime is not such a book. Noah performs the book well, impersonating influential figures from his childhood and painting pictures well enough to naturally give the listener a good imaginative visual of the scene. While narrative books may naturally be much easier to read/perform than books heavy in dialogue, Trevor Noah’s narrative and dialogue performance is fluid reflecting his skills as a comedian and long-established relationships with the people he impersonates.

One of the people he impersonates is his mother, the overwhelming co-star of the book. Her strength and convictions bleed through the audio, and as the story develops the listener is subjected to more and more astounding moments from this woman’s life. The bond that develops between Noah and his mother speaks to the listener as the listener allows, and culminates in a shockingly amazing story from Patricia Noah’s life. Whether or not the reader identifies more with the faithful and joyful Patricia or the skeptical and comedic Trevor, both equally stubborn, the bond between these two is deep enough to impress on the reader a sense of gratitude and affection for those who he or she holds closest in life. That may be what most makes Born a Crime worth a listen.

Blood Diamond

 

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Blood Diamond is one of those beautiful movies that can be hard to watch. As a fictional story centered based on true events of exploitation of people for the sake of finding and selling diamonds, the film is often uncomfortable. It’s a reminder of where selfishness, greed, and a capitalism-at-any-cost ideology can lead a person or organization. It’s a reminder of racism, fear, and abuse of power. It’s a reminder of the world’s sins.

Diamonds are only one of the many resources exploited from developing nations in recent history, and in the materialistic cultures of many European and North American nations, films like Blood Diamond can make viewers feel cornered and uncomfortable. Awareness without opportunities for action can turn a temporary sense of consumer guilt into numbness. The tradition of a diamond engagement ring remains, but rings do not typically reveal if  they originated from a nation in conflict bolstered by diamond-trade. The attractiveness of a chocolate bar or cheap t-shirt might be lessened if it included a label stating “made with child-labor”, but though “fair-trade” products are available, there are no such negative labels revealing the problem-products. Gas stations are unlikely to label their petrol with a list of values or policies of the leaders or nations that furnished the oil, and the latest cell phone typically does not come with an update on the company’s sources of coltan or other minerals.

It’s a familiar story in Africa – a European nation steeped in a history of exploitation of people and/or resources grants self-government to a former colony or protectorate, and that colony or protectorate descends into a civil war in which people are dismembered, raped, murdered, &/or enslaved as soldiers, workers, or sex slaves. All-the-while developing nations knowingly or unknowingly fund the conflicts through buying products (e.g. diamonds, oil, tires, cell-phone parts, etc.) from and selling weapons to the warring nation. This “familiar story” is painting with a broad brush, and should not be taken as a simple narrative applying to most African nations. The intricacies of these conflicts are accompanied by the complexities of their causes, and it can be difficult to tease out the influence of imperialism and colonialism on these conflicts. However, to deny the historical context and continuing influence of colonialism and imperialism on these conflicts is naive.

Blood Diamond portrays characters that are not naive to the wrongs of their environments. A man seeking to unite his family, a smuggler seeking to utilize his environment to his advantage, and a reporter seeking to expose corruption all come to witness the terrible atrocities and injustices of their surroundings. Familial love, wealth and safety/stability, and the beneficence of humanity are some of the different motivators at play in the film’s characters. As these characters collide the audience is treated to background details of each character that help explain their motives. Like their environment, these characters are complicated and not easy to understand at first glance.

It’s a theme of the film that some of the characters are trying to escape the troubles of the continent. Sometimes called “the dark continent”, the people of Africa continue to deal with a history of oppression at hands of richer nations and more powerful people. But, with good character development, quality acting, and beautifully orchestrated scores this film packs a redemptive message for its characters and its continent.

Like the history of Africa, the history of an individual is complex. To create the best understanding of a person, one must dig into the messy experiences, perceptions, and events of the person’s past. True understanding of a situation reveals a history of fear provoking violence, whether or not that fear is justified. Ethnic, tribal, and general societal relationships can be so continuously flawed that people are tempted to surrender to despair, harden their hearts, and accept the narrative of racism, social injustice, and abuse of power.

But, reconciliation and redemption can change the course of a life, a people, or a nation. The fight for peace, solidarity, and justice may never be completed. One of the beautiful burdens of life is that there’s always something to work towards. Reconciliation and redemption are constant goals, and it’s lovely to see them reflected in Zwick’s Blood Diamond.

The Hungering Dark

 

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In The Hungering Dark, Buechner (1) Intentionally reads and reflects on the words of the Bible, (2) enters into a discussion of love that may catalyze some important philosophical questions (3) uses curious wording that may be referencing atheism and the theory of evolution, and (4) openly questions aspects of the Christian zeitgeist.

(1) It’s apparent from his detailed reflections on various verses that the man has spent a great deal of time reading the Bible.

  • The Gospels and select other passages may be most read among Christians today, but Buechner pulls verses from the books of Psalms, Daniel, Isaiah, Job, Genesis, and Songs of Solomon as well as the Gospels. He finds such depth in these verses that, when combined with other literature and his own experience, he is able to write down pages of thoughts inspired by a few sentences of scripture. He also differentiates Greek words for love without estranging his less studied readers.

(2) Buechner’s comparison and contrast of “eros” and “agape” love is enlightening for relational understanding, but it is also a good springboard for a conversation about the philosophy of morals.

  • In Chapter 9, “The Two Loves”, Buechner writes about love of in the context of human and divine relationship. He mentions that in relationships people are likely to get hurt and they are unlikely to predict when or where that hurt will occur. Whether romanticism or the illusion of foresight, individuals mostly fail to predict the inevitable pains of human relationships. As he goes on to talk of sacrificial love he intentionally or unintentionally may be pointing to what seems like a philosophical difference between many believers and unbelievers. Whatever religion one adheres to, there seem to be more faith-based statements among believers than among unbelievers. Believers usually profess to some beliefs that are hard to justify through a solely Consequentialist or Utilitarian thought process, but unbelievers may more easily justify their beliefs through a Utilitarian thought-process. When Buechner emphasizes the difficulties of predicting the onset of pain in romantic relationships his words parallel a problem of consequential ethics. Humanity has yet to discover a way to consistently and accurately predict the future. Buechner’s words help him to make his point that eros and agape are more similar than they are different, but in the process his words present a hard question to the idea that morality is solely a matter of consequence, especially for our finite species.

(3) Buechner seems to have given some serious reflection to the beliefs of atheism and perhaps, the theory of evolution.

  • In Chapter 7, “The Sign by the Highway”, Buechner writes poetically, not scientifically, about humanity’s ape-likeness. It’s unclear if he’s agreeing that humans are the distant cousins of apes, and that’s not the focus of his statement. Still, his choice of words may shift some readers towards thoughts of evolutionary biology.
  • In the first chapter, “The Face in the Sky”, Buechner aptly points out the lack of significance of the birth of Jesus to nonbelievers. However, nonbelievers may sharply disagree with Buechner’s later generalization that the manger scene must only be a source of sorrow for those who do not believe in the gospel. A disagreement from nonbelievers could be that life is sweeter and time more savory without the promise of an afterlife. Nonbelievers might also enjoy traditional aspects of religion (e.g. the nativity scene, hymns, or the teachings of Jesus) similarly to the way society enjoys Santa or the tooth fairy.
  • At the end of “The Sign by the Highway” Buechner echoes Pascal’s Wager. He also writes that it’s a good kind of amazing that people still believe in God. Ultimately, Buechner’s argument in “The Hungering Dark” is for belief in God, but Buechner seems to express some understanding of those who elect for the alternative.

(4) Though he argues for belief, Buechner openly questions many Christian attitudes.

  • In chapter 4, “A Sprig of Hope”, Buechner asserts that there is a tendency to treat more difficult parts of the Bible as fairy tales in order to cover for a judgment in those passages. Buechner is making the point that the stories of the Bible are often treated with a selective bias among believers, who may often pick and choose what stories to ignore, focus on, or tell with a certain sort of glaze or adornment. Interestingly, Buechner illustrates his point with mention of the Vietnam War which was still raging when the book was published. He goes on to illuminate the increased significance of some regularly sugar-coated Bible stories when these stories are read for what they are. Why would Christians try to sugar-coat scripture or God? In the end it may hurt more than help.

If this book was a river it would flow towards a cleft in a waterfall, on one side of the cleft would be intentional faith, hope for eternity, and pursuit of unconditional love and on the other side of the cleft would be strictly objective human reason, self-determination of meaning/purpose, and conditional love. There are other great themes in this book like connectedness in “Confusion of Face” & “Pontifex”, vocation & mission in “The Calling of Voices” & “The Killing of Time”, love in “The Two Loves” & “The Wedding at Cana”, joy in “The Monkey-God”, and hope in “The Rider”, but this book is mostly about questioning faith and keeping it. Regardless of one’s choice for or against faith and for people who have experienced or are experiencing this struggle, The Hungering Dark is still relevant and worth a read.

Pride and Prejudice

 

 

 

There have been many film adaptations of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. The 2005 version was directed by Joe Wright and stars Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen among other notable actors (e.g. Rosamund Pike, Donald Sutherland, and Carey Mulligan). The cinematography, like the dialogue, is detailed in its depth and storytelling. The camera captures scenery both broadly and narrowly. Whether shooting in a small room or seeking to capture a rolling landscape, the camera shots provide plenty of beauty and detail to keep the viewer engaged.

The dialogue is rich. The quips and quick-witted conversations can be difficult to keep up with at times, but the words that each character speaks are not spent idly. An overbearing mother, overwhelmed father, and underwhelming minister complement the storytelling with their humor and drama while the main characters fight their battles for love.

This movie has little to say about the excessive economic inequality evident throughout the film, but it does have something to say about relationships. In a world that approaches romantic relationships much differently based upon the culture that one is born into, it’s refreshing to see a movie that mixes the restraint of some cultures that practice arranged marriages with the openness of other cultures that encourage exploration prior to commitment. In Pride and Prejudice, there is more focus on the intellectual and emotional dynamics rather than the physical affection between the characters. This makes for a movie more concerned with character and kindness and less concerned with the erotic side of love.

This is not to say that the movie neglects the importance of physical love. There are points in the film where the gravity of the absence or presence of touch is aptly displayed. A touch of the hand under the right circumstances, like a well-taken picture or a memorable smell, can communicate a message with more clarity and feeling than a well-written letter. Similarly, the absence of touch under the right circumstances can create more longing than there would be if that touch had been given.

Messages and moments like those make this version of Pride and Prejudice worth more than one viewing. The movie holds within it reminders to be gentle, kind, and considerate. There are lessons in pursuing humility while being wary of first impressions. All-the-while the viewer is treated to melodious scores and well-crafted cinematography. While viewers craving a less conservative love story may be disappointed by the old-English romance, those who appreciate the subtle words and actions that catalyze the beginnings of a committed relationship are likely to enjoy this film.