movies

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

As most occupants of Planet Earth know, last year's "Avengers: Infinity War" ended with the genocidal demigod Thanos using six "infinity stones" to erase half of all life in the universe.

It would have been logical to assume the sequel, "Avengers: Endgame" would start with lots of funerals, with pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and other shepherds working overtime to answer tough, ancient questions.

That assumption would be wrong.

"People are mourning, but they're going to therapy and support groups," said film critic Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com, also a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. "What we don't see are grieving people in church or even at funerals. … We don't hear anyone asking, 'Where is God in all of this?' "

It's rare to hear the theological term "theodicy" in movies, but people who frequent multiplexes often hear characters suffer tragic losses and then ask, "Why did God let this happen?" The American Heritage Dictionary defines "theodicy" as a "vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil."

This God-shaped hole at a pivotal moment in the "Avengers" series offers a window into the soul of the Marvel Comics universe and the minds of executives who shaped most of the 22 movies in this giant pop-culture mythology, said Greydanus.

"We are talking about a major fail, and not just from an artistic point of view," he said. "This shows a stunted view of how most people on Earth live their lives. Even people who are not religious tend to cry out and ask the big spiritual questions when faced with tragedy and loss. That's part of what it means to be human."

Not that many consumers are complaining. In it's first 11 days, "Avengers: Endgame" pulled in $2.19 billion at the global box office -- the fastest a film has reached $2 billion. Many insiders now assume it will eventually break the $3 billion barrier, passing the current No. 1 movie, the environmental-fantasy epic "Avatar," at $2.78 billion.

Truth is, global-market realities now affect how many blockbusters handle explicitly religious and even vaguely spiritual questions.

The mass-media holy wars surrounding that 'Unplanned' movie about abortion

The mass-media holy wars surrounding that 'Unplanned' movie about abortion

If "Unplanned" was an ordinary movie, its creators would be busy right now studying second-week box office numbers while starting negotiations with the digital giants that stream products to the masses.

But this has never been an ordinary movie, which is why it's an important test case for religious believers trying to bend Hollywood's unwritten rules about religion and hot-button moral issues.

Backed by a company called Pure Flix, "Unplanned" was filmed in secret in Oklahoma, using the code name "Redeemed" in an attempt to postpone controversy. The filmmakers behind "God's Not Dead" and similar Christian-market projects had a $6 million budget for their take on the story of Abby Johnson, a young Planned Parenthood executive who in 2009 quit to join the protestors outside her own clinic in Bryan, Texas.

Mainstream entertainment's powers that be have made it clear that the images and themes in "Unplanned" are not acceptable, said Cary Solomon, who wrote and directed the film with Chuck Konzelman.

"We offered them money for TV advertising and they turned us down. Now Netflix doesn't want us," said Solomon, earlier this week. "We've made a good movie and people want to see it. … We'll be getting close to $20 million at the box office in another week or so. Why won't some of these companies let people see our movie?"

Most of the "Unplanned" press coverage has focused on the marketplace controversies swirling around the film, as opposed to the film itself. One of the best summaries of the fine details in the drama about this drama ran as a column in The Washington Post.

"They gave the movie an "R" rating -- which meant the trailer could only run before R-rated movies and no one younger than 17 under could see it without a parent's permission," noted Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. "A half-dozen major music labels refused producers' requests to license music for the film. Many major television networks except Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network refused to run ads promoting it. Then, curiously, the movie's Twitter account was suspended through no fault of its own during opening weekend. … Tens of thousands of users (myself included) mysteriously found themselves involuntarily removed from the account's followers and/or unable to follow it in the first place.

"Get the feeling someone doesn't want you to see Unplanned?"

Holiday mystery to ponder -- Where are all the Hanukkah movies?

Holiday mystery to ponder -- Where are all the Hanukkah movies?

In the last decade or two, cable television's holiday-movie season has expanded to the point that it starts soon after Labor Day and weeks before Thanksgiving arrives.

Many titles are classics: "White Christmas," "A Christmas Story," "Miracle on 34th Street," "Home Alone" and the grandfather of them all, near the end of the season, "It's a Wonderful Life."

Alas, then there's "Bad Santa," "The 12 Dogs of Christmas," "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," "Silent Night, Deadly Night," "Jingle All the Way" and way, way too many others to count.

Occasionally, TV executives add something strange -- like "The Nativity Story."

Consumers who pay attention may note an intriguing gap in this "holiday" entertainment blitz. To be blunt: Where are the Hanukkah movies?

Yes, there is comedian Adam Sandler's "Eight Crazy Nights," which critic Michael Arbeiter once called "a travesty." Writing at Bustle.com, Arbeiter stretched to create a holidays essentials list for Jewish viewers with titles such as "The Producers," "Barton Fink," "Annie Hall," "An American Tail" or even -- "bite the bullet," he said -- "Scrooged," "Muppet Christmas Carol" or another take on "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens.

Part of the problem is that many American Jews -- secular and religious -- have a complex relationship with Hanukkah, the eight-day "Festival of Lights" which this year begins at sundown on Sunday, Dec. 2. For starters, many are offended by all efforts to turn this relatively minor holiday into a "Jewish Christmas." Is it really necessary to create copycat "carols" like "On the First Day of Hanukkah," "I'm Dreaming of a Bright Menorah" and "Maccabees are Coming to Town"?

Meanwhile, some rabbis are not all that comfortable with some "militaristic" themes woven into the Hanukkah story, said veteran religion writer Mark Pinsky of Orlando, Fla., author of "The Gospel According to The Simpsons" and "A Jew among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed." Hanukkah isn't a season that leads to easy sermons, he said.

Hanukkah centers on events in 165 B.C., when Jewish rebels led by a family known as the Maccabees defeated their Greek and Syrian rulers. The familiar rite of lighting menorah candles – one on the first night, increasing to eight – is based on a miracle linked with this victory. According to tradition, when the defiled temple was recaptured it contained only one container of pure lamp oil. This one-day supply is said to have burned for eight days.

A December dilemma: Why turn this holiday into a big deal?

Trying to bring the rest of the 'Unbroken' story to the screen, altar call and all

Trying to bring the rest of the 'Unbroken' story to the screen, altar call and all

The lanky young evangelist from North Carolina was starting to attract media attention by the end of his 1949 tent revival in Los Angeles -- which means that professionals recorded his sermons.

So historians know exactly what the Rev. Billy Graham said during the sermons that changed Louis Zamperini's life. And because of author Laura Hillenbrand's 75-plus interviews with the Olympian and World War II bombardier, millions of readers know what happened inside his heart during the altar call.

In her 2010 bestseller "Unbroken," she wrote: "Why, Graham asked, is God silent when good men suffer? He began his answer by asking his audience to consider the evening sky. … 'I see the stars and can see the footprints of God. … I think to myself, my father, my heavenly father, hung them there with a flaming fingertip and holds them there with the power of his omnipotent hand … and he's not to busy running the whole universe to count the hairs on my head and see a sparrow when it falls, because God is interested in me.' "

Zamperini flashed back to his 47 days in a lifeboat after crashing in the Pacific, including the moment when he stared at the heavens and whispered: "If you will save me, I will serve you forever." Stunned, he tried to flee the tent, but Graham said: "You can leave while I'm preaching, but not now. … Every head bowed, every eye closed."

There's no way around the fact that this was the moment when Zamperini escaped his demons, said Matt Baer, producer of the 2014 movie "Unbroken" and of the new "Unbroken: Path to Redemption."

"At the end of the day, this is a true story," said Baer. Thus, they needed to show Graham in the pulpit and Zamperini on his knees, because "this was Lou's life. This was what happened. We had to show -- in a cinematic fashion -- that this is when his life changed."

This does, however, create a problem for a Hollywood moviemaker. The 2014 film directed by Angelina Jolie contained the camera-friendly scenes in which Zamperini competed in the Olympics, encountered Adolf Hitler, fought sharks in the Pacific and triumphed after brutal standoffs with prison-camp commander Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe.

The movie "Unbroken" ended with Zamperini coming home. That's where "Unbroken: Path to Redemption" begins, with a broken hero trying to wash away Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder nightmares with bottle after bottle of beer and whiskey.

That strange sermonette that Chris Pratt tricked MTV viewers into swallowing

That strange sermonette that Chris Pratt tricked MTV viewers into swallowing

Everyone knows what the angelic nanny Mary Poppins meant when she sang:  "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."

Hollywood superstar Chris Pratt put a different spin on that during the recent MTV Movie & TV Awards. After receiving the Generation Award, he told fans to "listen up," because he was speaking "as your elder." Then he recited what CNN called his "Nine Rules for Living."

It was a strange set of commandments -- part potty humor, part youth-pastor sermon. But Rule No. 4 said this: "When giving a dog medicine, put the medicine in a little piece of hamburger and they won't even know they're eating medicine."

That's what Pratt was doing. The megastar of Guardians of the Galaxy and the Jurassic Park reboots followed the MTV rules and used some mildly off-color humor -- like how to poop at a party without smelling up the bathroom. These MTV celebrity-fests are known for their racy fashion statements and crude language.

That humor was Pratt's "hamburger." What caused a tsunami of Internet clicks was his "medicine," speaking as an out-of-the-closet Hollywood Christian.

Rule No. 2 proclaimed: "You have a soul. Be careful with it."

Rule No. 6 was rather personal: "God is real. God loves you. God wants the best for you. Believe that, I do."

Rule No. 8 was just as blunt: "Learn to pray. It's easy, and it's so good for your soul."

There was more to this drama than the rare chance to hear a "Hollywood A-lister tell people to pray," noted film critic Titus Techera of the Claremont Institute. Pratt was trying to turn celebrity worship upside down.

Madeleine L'Engle: Yes, there are essential faith elements in 'A Wrinkle In Time'

Madeleine L'Engle: Yes, there are essential faith elements in 'A Wrinkle In Time'

When her children were young, author Madeleine L'Engle used to take them on nighttime visits to the top of Mohawk Mountain, not far from the family's 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse.

The goal was to glimpse the mystery of God.

"If you need one image of God, then go outside on a clear night and look straight up at the stars. That's about as good as I can do," L'Engle told me, in 1989 during a two-hour interview before some Denver lectures.

The wonders of science and heavenly light are at the heart of her classic novel "A Wrinkle In Time." However, she said she knew that she needed to include some specifics to clarify her central message -- without clubbing young readers over the head.

"It's a work of fiction, not theology. I didn't write it expecting to get challenged on every last detail," she said.

However, she was willing to state one fact for the record, offering a variation on a quote she repeated through the years. Yes, she loved stargazing, she said, but ultimately, "I can understand God only as he is revealed in the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth.”

L'Engle died in 2007 at the age of 88, after publishing 60 works of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry and prayers. Her work is back in the news because of debates about Disney's $103-million version of "A Wrinkle In Time," which removed the book's religious images and biblical quotes.

At the time of the 1989 interview, L'Engle was already involved in talks about bringing "A Wrinkle In Time" to movie theaters -- a process that led to a low-budget, made-for-TV flop in 2004. That film downplayed her Christian imagery, as well.

It would be hard, explained L'Engle, to grasp this book's cosmic war between life and death, good and evil, darkness and light without two crucial passages.

The flames outside Waco, the FBI, David Koresh and the mysteries of Bible prophecy

The flames outside Waco, the FBI, David Koresh and the mysteries of Bible prophecy

The recording tape was rolling on Feb. 28, 1993, when Branch Davidian leader David Koresh called Larry Lynch at the McLennan County sheriff's office.

In the background, gunfire continued as Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents raided the 77-acre Mount Carmel complex near Waco. Koresh was wounded early in a two-hour firefight in which four agents and six civilians died.

Koresh kept talking about Bible prophecies. Lynch kept interrupting, trying to get him to pay attention and help stop the fighting.

"All right, we can talk theology," Lynch said, frustrated. "But right now …"

Koresh fired back: "No, this is life. This is life and death! … Theology … is life and death!"

For Koresh, everything hinged on Book of Revelation texts about the Seven Seals and "the Lamb," a mysterious figure who would open those seals in the Last Days.

That was the infamous Branch Davidian drama summed up in one tense exchange, according to the creators of the six-part Paramount Network miniseries "Waco," which runs through Feb. 28. The complex community inside the compound -- including some believers who debated with Koresh -- kept trying to tell FBI leaders and their handpicked experts why they were doing what they were doing and why they believed what they believed.

In the end, federal officials saw everything through a "cult" lens.

"Something dehumanizing happens when you start using the word 'cult,' " said John Erick Dowdle, who with his brother Drew spent four years creating the miniseries. "No matter what happened, no matter what anybody said, the FBI people thought it was just a matter of time before they would kill themselves."

Yes, those Star Wars theology wars are heating up -- again

Yes, those Star Wars theology wars are heating up -- again

Debates about "Star Wars" theology have come a long way since the first "Star Wars generation" children asked: "Is the Force the same thing as God?"

Later, kids viewing the second George Lucas trilogy faced the puzzling Nativity story of Anakin Skywalker. The future Darth Vader was conceived by bloodstream midi-chlorians -- the essence of life -- acting in union with the Force? His mother explained: "There is no father."

Now the middle film in the new trilogy -- "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" -- has believers debating whether the mythology created by Lucas has evolved into something more polemical, political and commercial, all at the same time. The big question: Can those who loved the early films trust Disney to protect the true faith?

From the beginning, it was clear Lucas was blending the comparative religion scholarship of Joseph "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" Campbell with dashes of Arthurian legend, samurai epics and Flash Gordon. At the heart of it all was the "monomyth" of Luke Skywalker and his epic spiritual quest, noted Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

"A young man (typically) is summoned out of the comfort of his domestic life and compelled to go on a dangerous adventure," argued Barron, at his "Word on Fire" website. "In the process, he comes to realize and conquer his weakness, to face down enemies, and finally to commune with the deep spiritual powers that are at play in the cosmos. … Usually, as a preparation for his mission, he is trained by a spiritual master."

Some of these themes remain in "The Last Jedi," noted Barron, and it's obvious that Rey is a young heroine on her own quest. The problem, argued the bishop, is what has happened to Luke Skywalker and the rest of the ensemble. The old myths and archetypes have been buried in "an aggressively feminist ideology."

Old-school journalism values ended up leading Lee Strobel to God

Old-school journalism values ended up leading Lee Strobel to God

Reporter Lee Strobel was investigating the story of his life and he knew it.

As legal-affairs editor at The Chicago Tribune, he had covered plenty of hot-button issues -- like abortion rights -- that required him to wrestle with the views of people on the "other side." Strobel knew what he believed, as an atheist committed to abortion rights and other liberal causes. But he knew -- as a journalist -- that he had a job to do.

"I grew up in the era of old-school journalism, when you really had to try be balanced and fair and accurate. You had to listen to what other people had to say," he said. "Besides, I knew that if I turned in a story with holes in it my editor would come down on me. He'd bounce that thing right back."

But this story was different. The person on the other side of this Strobel investigation was his formerly agnostic wife, Leslie, whose 1979 conversion to Christianity rocked the foundations of their marriage. Suddenly, their home contained a new set of expectations when it came to anger, alcohol, ego and workaholism.

"I was mad and I wanted my wife back," Strobel said. "I decided that the Resurrection was the key to this whole thing and I set out to prove it was all nonsense."

The result was 19 months of research and interviews with experts on both sides of centuries of arguments about the claims of Christianity. As a graduate of the famous University of Missouri journalism program, followed by a Yale Law School degree, Strobel worked through a library of classic texts by atheist and Christian scholars.

The result was Strobel's own conversion, a career shift into ministry and, in 1998, the first of his many books, "The Case For Christ." This year, that book evolved into a movie built on a screenplay by Hollywood veteran Brian Bird -- a former reporter. The indie film made a modest $15 million at the box office. Here is the surprise: It drew an A-plus rating from CinemaScore and 79 percent of Rotten Tomatoes ratings by critics were positive.

The key to many reviews was that journalism remained front and center in the story, creating what Variety film critic Joe Leydon called a cross between an a basic "investigative-journalism drama" and a "theological detective story."