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He Shall Feed His Flock: A Christian Reflects on Manchester by the Sea, by Esther O’Reilly

17 Jan

Several New Year’s roundups noted the plethora of faith-friendly films released in 2016, including more than one positive depiction of Christians from heavyweight Hollywood directors. Perhaps the two most notable were Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge and Martin Scorsese’s Silence (if you count the latter’s limited 2016 release). Gibson, drawing from life, and Scorsese, drawing from literature, presented full-bodied Christian characters that demanded to be taken seriously. They were neither caricatures nor cardboard cut-outs, but complex men putting skin in the game for their deepest convictions. Tim Gray at Variety also noted John Hurt’s portrayal of a wise priest in the biopic Jackie. It may seem pathetic to be grateful when Hollywood gives us a priest who is neither a megalomaniac nor a pedophile, but the change is still welcome.

Despite this good news, an effectual Christian presence was lacking in one Best Picture contender, ironically one of the films where it was most sorely needed. I’m speaking about Manchester By the Sea.

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The Sacramental Void in Evangelical Film, by Esther O’Reilly

27 Dec

One of the salient features of a particular kind of film marketed explicitly to evangelical Christians is the use of what Tyler Smith calls “the emblem.” Among other characteristics, it typifies what Tyler has classified under the umbrella of “Christian social drama” in his master’s thesis. Examples of this genre include movies like Fireproof, Courageous, War Room, God’s Not Dead, and Do You Believe. The form of the emblem varies from movie to movie, but consistently, there’s some monument or object that represents the characters’ commitment to family and faith.

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A Step to the Block, by Esther O’Reilly

7 Sep

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Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them. – T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

You can trace every wrinkle on her face. She speaks carefully, measuring each word. Every now and then, she strokes the necklace around her throat. Surrounded by nothing but the studio’s pitch blackness, she seems suspended timelessly in time and space. She looks ahead with now sightless eyes, her vision fixed on something we cannot see. Her words hang in the still air, unpunctuated by narration, music or sound effects. She is 105 years old. She is Brunhilde Pomsel, former stenographer for Dr. Joseph Goebbels.

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One Thing of Beauty, by Esther O’Reilly

2 Sep

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The Soloist is one of those movies that should have been Oscar-level big, yet somehow never cleared the bar with critics or fans. In the spirit of Rain Man, you had one big-name actor doing a single-note virtuoso savant impression (Jamie Foxx), while another big-name actor took the more nuanced role of the protagonist who grows and changes through his encounter with the savant (Robert Downey, Jr.). Plus, this too-good-to-be-true story of a homeless, schizophrenic Juilliard drop-out and the journalist who discovered him had the benefit of actually being true, albeit a little fictionalized. But Joe Wright’s jerky direction, coupled with a sometimes cryptic script that went out of its way to avoid hitting sentimental beats, left this would-be Oscar bait hanging without so much as a nomination. Yet, despite its flaws, it’s a movie that’s stuck with me ever since I first saw it.

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