Ways to Live Forever – A Review

In Ways to Live Forever, Sam Oliver McQueen (Robbie Kay) is an eleven-year-old child, terminally ill with leukemia.  Encouraged by his teacher, since Sam needs answers to the “questions nobody answers”, he complies a diary/scrapbook/video blog during the last two months of his life.  In that book, he includes stories, amusing facts, lists, and his own diary. One of the lists he makes gives the movieits structure. “List No. 3: Things that I want to do”.  So with the help of his best friend Felix Stranger (Alex Etel), an ill 13-year-old child, he embarks on a quest to do things like go up down escalators and do teenage things, like kiss a girl.

“Mrs. Willis told us about how works of art launch themselves into people’s hearts.  She told us we should write something about ourselves.” –Sam

With the help of his teacher, they conduct various experiments, Sam and Felix break world records (including the world’s smallest night club).  But the diary continues to return to Sam’s numerous lists of “questions nobody answers”, centering around wrestling with the questions about why kids have to die.  Questions about God, death, dying, the nature of pain, and suffering – questions that don’t really have answers, though we often comfort ourselves with platitudes, but are important to wrestle with nonetheless.  One of the first question people ask in the face of tragedies like this is “why?” And it is a perfectly reasonable question to ask: how could a good God allow such evil things to happen?  In fact, the question gains a more terrible weight in light of the fact that the laws of nature is so out of the control of humans, and the “evil” of nature can only be set at God’s doorstep.

Many children go through a phase where they become fixated on the idea of death.  As in the movie, My Sister’s Keeper, the prospect of dying forces us to face the stark reality that we’re all going to die we just never know when. Be it by disease, accident, age, or random crime, death adds gravitas to life. By thinking about death, we focus on what’s important in the time we have. It causes us to re-prioritize and make us realize what is really important. Yet in the living, we have to find a way to feel and navigate the pain of life in a fallen world without numbing ourselves from it.

“Who’s going to be interested in my story?” –Sam

Like in the movie Snowmen, Sam tries to find meaning and a sense of eternality by leaving his story behind as well as pursuing the breaking of world records.  Part of our soul yearns for immortality. Sometimes, it’s an issue of our self-worth, wanting to show that our lives meant something and that we made a difference or mattered while we were here. Thing is, as a relational being, not only do we find our meaning in our friendships and in our family, but our relationships have an eternal aspect to them. We can get caught up in wanting to do something big, something profound, only to realize that setting the world records wasn’t the point. As we go about our daily lives, we experience God moments, opportunities to create memories and touch other people’s lives. Where the doing the things that “matter” may be as simple as helping people through tough times and thus impacting the lives of lose around him. As we reflect on our life stories, when people talk about someone living, good life, it’s not what they think, but how they did it. Being a good friend leads to ripple effects and becomes truly profound.

“Somethings in life are perfect from start to finish, but you don’t know that until you’ve lived them.”  -Sam

Given the subject matter, there was no way Ways to Live Forever could avoid being a non-stop tear jerker, even if it didn’t push any of the manipulative buttons.  Yet, the movie maintains a kind of distance from the audience, as if knowing the sheer weight of the emotion of the story could crush the viewer.  It’s like it remains above the emotions to be more of an intellectual meditation on death.

Bilal’s Stand – A Review

“Game’s still the same”

Written and directed by Sultan Sharrief, Bilal’s Stand tells of Sharrief’s personal experience growing up as a Muslim (not Nation of Islam black Muslim, as the movie takes pains to note) high school senior and the choices he faces.   Bilal (Julian Gant), Sharrief’s proxy, works at his uncle’s (Nadir Ahmad) taxi stand, picking up fares when he’s not in school trying to maintain his grades in order to help his struggling family.  Despite the family’s expectation that he pick up the family business, school is his main hustle.  A letter of acceptance to the University of Michigan opens up a whole new world of possibilities and he scrambles to figure out a way to pay for it.  Including taking up the art of ice carving (“Black people ain’t got no business carving no ice!”) in order to win a scholarship. Soon he is forced to decide whether he will continue working at the Stand, risking being considered a sell-out and betraying his family, or take a chance to move on up … and out.

Bilal’s Stand has an amateurish yet authentic feel to it.  It is a community coordinated film project by students of Sharrief, made piecemeal over four years.  It mixes trained actors and actual figures from his life, such as his ice-carving coach (Charles G. Usztics).  As such, it has plenty of performances that are rough around the edges, to say the least.  The movie’s moralistic tone covers familiar territory as it builds its inspirational story.  He has to fight his neighborhood, the naysayers (teachers who expect/train him to fail), as well as his own family as Bilal’s mom (Angela G. King) demands that he stop thinking about attending college.

“There’s the world that everyone sees on the outside, and the one I can see existing in me.” –Bilal

The film is held together by Bilal’s singular voice.  The narrative is fairly freewheeling though has the inventive energy of being told in a first person style.  To illustrate his worldview, the film … illustrates his worldview.  Animations are drawn over the live action to show how he sees the world versus what the audience sees, to mostly comic effect.

It’s all about perception.

While it is easy to demonize our “culture of violence” (from the atomization of nuclear families, to what passes for entertainment, and our glorification of guns), those things don’t address the individuals. Our young people often seem determined to sabotage themselves before they get started. Take, for example, the culture of disrespect. Sometimes, when all you have is your name and your rep, your pride becomes of critical (if not overwhelming) importance. Disrespect becomes an assault on one’s sense of being. Couple that mindset with a cultural affirmation of fighting to display toughness, anger or apathy at their general situation, and we have a perpetuating cycle.

“It’s not the world itself that matters but it’s the way people see the world that make it the way it is.” –Bilal

Maybe we–the people, the community–need to do to bear our share of the burden. I’m reminded of the two most important laws, echoing the law experts of Jesus’ day, are to love God and to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Yet we continue to fail to be good neighbors and keep looking for loopholes of “who is my neighbor?  We face a systemic problem and education is the only silver bullet we have, especially when combined with the dual values of moral and economic responsibility. We need to begin buying into a worldview that promotes dignity, work, marriage, family, and healthy community. We all have our roles as parents, leaders, church members, and, frankly, adults to point young people to a better way of living. We need to be giving our young people some reason to pursue a full way of living beyond the consuming and materialistic mentality they are being programmed with.

“The real world can be depressing sometimes, especially in Detroit.  So I choose to look past the surface and see things for how they really are.” –Bilal

Movies about middle class black families are rare enough, so I often rejoice in the stories when I see them.  Sometimes Bilal’s Stand can be a little too on point with its message of hope and education, nearly getting tripped up by its own earnestness (such as, while Bilal is internally debating whether his choices are selfish and a betrayal of the family/community, the movie stages a class discussion about “social mobility vs. community abandonment”).  Such heavy-handedness and noble intentions are leavened by the spirited scrip and strong voice.

Gant’s performance holds the film together and movies it along with a light bob.  The dialogue is witty and authentic.  And the movie itself has heart … a keeping it real aesthetic.

Café – A Review

There’s a writing exercise I like to do where I go to a mall, a train station, a coffee shop—anywhere there’s people—and make up stories for the folks I see there. Because everyone has a story, some wear their stories so you can read them just by the way they carry themselves, some it’s more fun to put a story on them. Either way, everyone has a story to tell … and everyone is an interesting story. Stories that connect with one another. That’s the premise of the movie Café.

A group of regulars frequent the local West Philly Grounds coffee shop in Philadelphia who we get to know by eavesdropping on their conversations. Ordinary folks: the baristas who work the coffee bar (Jennifer Love Hewitt, The Ghost Whisperer), the ever present writer who is working on his screenplay or “Great American Novel”, the computer geek, the couple engaging in the getting to know you dance, and the neighborhood troublemaker (Jamie Kennedy). A tragedy occurs which makes them realize just how connected they all are.

The movie has a quirky charm as it ambles along, but its power is in its writing. The conversations are so rich and real with such a rhythm to them that one can get fully absorbed in them. The characters are richly drawn and you find yourself rooting for each of them, heroes in their own stories, to triumph.

“I would create a virtual world, filled with beauty and opportunity. And everything and everyone in that world would ultimately be one. But they just didn’t know it.” –Ellie

While the coffeeshop may seem to be the nexus that connects the stories, the true nexus is Elly, a little girl only a couple of people notice. Elly—Elohim being the first name of God found in the Bible meaning “Creator, Mighty and Strong” (Genesis 17:7)—is the portrait of how God works in our lives. She’s like a computer programmer who built free will into the software and interacts with it, but without overly intruding or forcing herself onto the system, “talking back to whoever chooses to tune her in.” Knowing us intimately, having a personal relationship with us, and working through us to affect Her will. Always available and present, and at work in every moment in every part of reality, she finds the ordinary as intriguing as the extraordinary.

“I live in a state of endless possibility and limitless dimension.” –Elly

Café reminds us of several things. It’s easy to forget that God is available and accessible in all circumstances of life, even the mundane activities of daily living. Simply assuming that God is present and then living accordingly can greatly impact one’s life. We become formed by this simple yet profound discipline as we learn to appreciate every encounter, every circumstance, as an opportunity to know God. Life is about seeing God at work in the ordinary. Believing that this is a magic infused world, filled with wonder and mystery; that our every action has meaning and eternal consequence. This world is about finding your purpose and joining in the mission, using your gifts, to be a blessing to one another.

We’re reminded that we need to be in-the-moment relationship builders. Constantly making connections and being a part of people’s lives. Conversations need to be the end goal, listening and learning about people for their own sake. It becomes about building relationships and seeing where they go. That through relationships with one another, we create a strong and vital bond to weather the pain and tragedies of life, or, as Ellie points out, “there’s no more brilliant light than that which follows complete darkness.”

“When you can go either way, but you choose to do the right thing, there’s nothing more gratifying.” –Elly

Marc Erlbaum who is local to the area wrote the screenplay at West Philly’s Green Line Cafe (which is used for external shots). Writers, “noticing things that other people ignore,” are professional observers, trying to make life meaningful. Or at least poetic. If Donnie Darko had come from a spiritual bent rather than a science fiction one, it would have been Café. Or this is what the book The Shack might look like if it were made into a movie. Either way, it’s one of those movies where you get so wrapped up in it, you just hope it ends well so the experience can be fully rewarded. And while not having a perfect ending, Café is small (intimate the way independent movies can feel), filled with mystery, whimsy, and magic.

The Yankles – A Review

“The Bad News Jews?”

It was either that or a variation on A League of Their Own, the other movie The Yankles gets its inspiration from.  Charlie Jones (Brian Wimmer) is “the boozer who botched the ball,” having dropped the catch that would have sent his team, the Los Angeles Spirits, to the World Series.  After his third drunk driving conviction, he’s released from prison needing to do 192 hours of community service.  A group of Orthodox, Jewish yeshiva students have formed a baseball team called The Yankles.  They’re the only ones willing to give him a second chance.  “They” being the brother of Charlie’s former girlfriend, Elliot (Michael Buster) who once had a promising baseball career until he opted to join the yeshiva.  Much to the chagrin of his father (Don Most, Happy Days), with whom he has a strained relationship.

“I understand what drew him to it in the first place.  Community, history, spirituality.” –Deborah (Susanne Sutchy)

Easily a half hour too long, the movie especially takes too long to get going.  Thin on laughs and heavy on sentiment, The Yankles attempts to wring laughs out of the cultural differences, but “look how Jewish we are, but respect the culture” doesn’t translate into a lot of guffaws.  The Rebbe (Jesse Bennett) imbues every conversation, character, and aspect of the game with meaning, so much so that it stifles whatever natural laughs might accidently bubble up.  He teaches us the lessons rather than letting Charlie and Elliot naturally learn them.

“A good book is always a blessing.” –The Rebbe

At its heart, The Yankles is about the journey of redemption of Charlie.  Redemption is the story of God’s mission to restore. God unfolds His relational Word, in conversation, in Laws, in history, and, ultimately, in Christ. He seeks to rescue His people and usher in His kingdom, a new way of living.

“Some of us are happy right where we are.” –Frankie Dubs

It’s easy for us to get stuck in patterns of self-destruction, believing ourselves to be so broken as to be beyond redemption.  The thing is, brokenness can be redeemed. Real love risks and offers redemption and when loved well, we’re taught about God. In all of our brokenness and (self-) deception, in all of our brokenness and desperation, we can come before the Lord and be fully accepted. The Holy Spirit wants us to dine on truth.  That we’re an image bearer of God, a beautiful creation.  Yes, we’re sinners, but there’s conviction, repentance, and redemption from that.  And freedom.  Freedom from the chains of our addictions, our self-loathing, our self-protection, our “ugliness”.  We’re loved as we are for who we are.  We need to set aside the lies we’ve come to believe about ourselves (or that have been programmed into us by others)

Being fully human means to participate in the story, embracing all aspects of life, but living with the goal of loving everyone and everything with holiness and imagination. It should impact how we work, how we play, and how we relate to one another; finding our redemptive mission in continuing the work He began to reconcile all of creation to Him.

“The slightest act can have the greatest of consequences.” –The Rebbe

If we DO, it should be from the overflow of what Christ has done for you. If we DO, it should be us working out what it means to join in God’s mission to reconcile the world back to Him. If we DO, it should be from the wellspring of love. There’s no searching for redemption in our acts of service. There is only thinking of others as more important that yourself and serving them.

“We can be like that again.” –Charlie

Where The Yankles trips up is when the movie decides it’s more important for it to drive its lessons home than let the story unfold.  It struggles to find its sense of rhythm, often not knowing which character to follow, following various characters in a scattershot fashion.  Filmmakers David R. Brooks (Director and co-writer) – together with Zev Brooks (co-writer and co-producer) deliver an earnest movie, heavy on the sweetness though not entirely without its charm.

The Space Between – A Review

I’m in an interracial marriage.  One of the things that struck my wife was how different the world looked and treated us once we were married.  Suddenly she experienced and saw prejudice, where before our stories were joined, she had the option to not see it, much less be the object of it.  The coming together of two very stories and the journey they go on is the theme of The Space Between.

Melissa Leo (Conviction, Homicide:  Life on the Streets) plays Montine McLeod, a hard-drinking flight attendant carrying around a lot of pain and existing on the edge of burnout.  A ten year old Pakistani-American boy, Omar Hassan (newcomer, Anthony Keyvan) tests as a genius and is offered a full scholarship to a special school in Los Angeles and has to fly from his New York City home to there … on the morning of September 11th, 2001.  When the plane they are traveling on is grounded in Texas, Montine chooses to drive him cross country to return home.

The movie sets itself on the strong shoulders of Melissa Leo.  She has a lot of material to work with, between the tragedies she carries around with her, the drinking, her dissatisfaction with her job, and her own mother dying.  Anthony Keyvan isn’t asked to do too much and his performance isn’t especially nuanced.  Then again, his role doesn’t exactly allow for much other than for him to be an oddly distant good boy who stands in for everyone to look at as “The Other.”  Their road trip is fairly standard, as is the thawing of their relationship, but it’s as if writer/director Travis Fine didn’t trust his audience to not get his message.  So the emotional resonance the movie strives to evoke plays out almost as manipulation.

“See, we’re stuck together whether we like it or not.” –Montine

Reminiscent of the movie Crash, the movie points to two things: reality is relationships and we live lives of overlapping stories. If this movie is about anything, it is about how prejudice keeps us from seeing the people around us as they are.  At some point, we, as a people, “lost our frame of reference.” Our lost frame of reference, our fallen-ness, has led to broken relationships and a downward spiral of anger, fear, eventuating in death.  As Billy explains “some people think that God created the earth and everything that happens after that is just chance.  Others would say that things happen because of man’s free will.  Sometimes we make good choices, sometimes we make bad choices.  But I think there’s some mystery to it cause there’s some things that happen in this world that we just can’t fully understand.”

“Sometimes things happen in life that are painful to deal with.” –Montine

We live in a multi-cultural world, whether we want to call it a melting pot, tossed salad, or whatever new paradigm we choose to live under. We don’t often get the humiliation of going through life always being treated as a suspect, guilty until proven innocent. We don’t often get the humiliation of casual victimization. We don’t often get how our reactions to those constant humiliations fuel our anger and further hatred leading to tragic consequences or can even lead to a binding moment of shared commonality.  A journey of shared pain.

When people no longer tell or listen to others’ stories, they become locked in their provincial mindset, cultural ghettos of their own making. In fact, when people become so removed from another’s story, they become compelled to destroy those (other’s) stories for they suggest other ways of living. Their stories become a threat.  What we can’t afford to do is let one story keep us from participating in other stories.

“Some of the most important moments in your life happen when you’re not even looking.” –Montine

The Space Between is a quiet character study of great depth and treads in the waters of powerful emotions.  Though it’s not flawless and sometimes a little heavy handed;  its soundtrack alone is like being beat with a message stick.  Even if that wasn’t the case, the movie would likely find some resistance if only because the material is so on point.

It’s difficult for people who live within one story to relate to the lives of those in another and it requires work to be a part of one another’s story.  For some, the events of September 11th are still too fresh to think about.  Those of us not in New York may never fully understand the trauma and nightmare of those events and don’t have to live with those scars or memories.  But anyone who has had their sense of safety and security shattered can relate, as we’re all thrown together by pain and tragedy.