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BASED ON: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Contrasts Real Faith With Gilead’s Fake Faith

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’/Hulu

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

THE HANDMAID’S TALE, a Hulu Series based on the Margaret Atwood novel of the same name. Content warning: Mature themes of violence and sexuality.

Margaret Atwood writes in the preface to a recent edition of her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale — currently a hit series on Hulu — that she disagrees with some critics who claim the work contains anti-Christian themes … unless, of course, in her dystopian world, Christianity has morphed into something it was never intended to be: a religious police state that dictates fertile women slave away as surrogates for the barren wives of government officials.

The story’s fictional country of Gilead, thus, resides at the center of the story as a theocracy. The semiotics of Gilead conveys the externals of religion, but little to no internal conversion has actually taken hold among the ruling populace. And no true conversions will be permitted — as, in the first episode, a cassocked cleric, presumably of Catholic persuasion, hangs over the city walls with other enemies of the state.

The show’s first season confirms what I’ve always suspected about even the subtlest appropriating of religion. Think of European flags. While some nominally Christian countries incorporate the cross into their national flag, this may actually be a way of keeping the transformative power of the Gospel in its place, relegating faith to historical signage.

Atwood’s novel ends in the same ambiguous way as season one of the Hulu show: June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), the voice of the story enters a van. Will it take her to safety in Canada, or merely transfer her to another host family in another part of Gilead? Subsequent seasons of Tale, are thus original to Hulu. (BTW, this September, Atwood releases a sequel, The Testaments picking up the story 15 years later.)

What interests me the most is the show’s continual juxtaposing of sincere and artificial faith. The second season reveals the van indeed took June to freedom. She holes up in the abandoned offices of the Boston Globe, which have been repurposed as a safe house, until she acquires transit out of Gilead. With time to explore, she discovers the bullet-riddled and blood stained walls where Gilead soldiers executed Globe journalists. Acting seemingly on instinct, June lights a series of candles and lines the wall with them. The scene reminded me of All Souls’ Day and marked a moment of spiritual truth to redeem Gilead’s suppression of journalistic truth.

I referred to instinct as June’s sole motivation, because her faith had not been revealed until season three. A subtle praying for the dead seemed to be the decent thing to do for the kind, decent character June is. In hindsight, there was now a mustard seed planted in June’s backstory.

In the season-three episode called God Bless the Child, handmaids and their newborns gather in a compulsory religious ceremony. A few participants show fervent zeal, most others stifle feelings of unease. The big set piece contrasts with flashbacks from June’s daughter’s private baptism. The only ones gathered for this intimate sacrament are June’s mother, the father of the child, a godparent and the priest.

The handling of personal freedom marks the difference between the two rites. In Gilead, the heavy-handed government forces religious observance. In a formerly free America, June and her fellow faithful present the baby for baptism of their own volition.

So, to Atwood, who created this sci-fi world, I say, “Bravo.” To the showrunners of seasons two and three, who added a layer of authentic faith to subvert Gilead’s fake one, I offer a full-throated, “Praise be.”

Image: Hulu

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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‘Breakthrough’ and ‘Emanuel’: New Ways to Watch Two Faith-Related Films

Chrissy Metz in ‘Breakthrough’ (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment); ‘Breakthrough’ (Fathom Events)

If you’ve heard about the faith-related feature film Breakthrough or documentary Emanuel, but haven’t been able to watch either, you now have second chances to see both — one on DVD, and the other in theaters.

Breakthrough (coming to streaming and DVD in July)

Released in theaters in April, Breakthrough — based on the true story of a teen boy’s apparently miraculous recovery from drowning in icy water — is available for streaming on July 2, but it’s also coming to DVD. On July 16, the film, starring This Is Us star Chrissy Metz as fiercely faith-filled mother Joyce Smith, hits 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD, from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Among the bonus features are:

  • A Tapestry of Miracles: Making Breakthrough
  • Carry My Soul Phil Wickham deleted scene, and optional audio commentary by producer DeVon Franklin and director Roxann Dawson
  • Short documentary Trapped in Icy Waters
  • Audio commentary by Franklin and Dawson
  • Photo gallery

From an earlier story:

From Franklin, on what he’d like people to take away:

The number one takeaway is that prayer works, love wins. Really when you think about it, it’s like why would Joyce pray that hard? ‘Cause of her love? I think that’s just so powerful. There’s so many films that celebrate superheroes that are great. Hey, those are billion dollar movies. But they’re all imagination; this is real. And what Joyce did is a real superhero doing a real superpower, which is faith and praying. So I really want people to take that away.

Metz on what she hopes people glean from the film:

That we’re stronger together than we are apart, and there’s all of these people on the planet to learn from, to teach, to learn, to grow, to evolve with each other, Otherwise there’d be one person on the planet. There’s a reason why we all look differently and like different things, come from different backgrounds, because we’re all here to teach each other, whether it’s empathy or tolerance or self-love in order to impart that on other people. So, I hope that that’s what people take away.

Click here for the DVD on Amazon.com; and here for the film’s official site.

Emanuel (hitting theaters in June)

Executive-produced by Christian NBA star Stephen Curry and actress Viola Davis, and co-produced by actress Mariska Hargitay and director Brian Ivie, Emanuel documents the aftermath of the June 17, 2015, racially-motivated mass shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina — nicknamed “Mother Emanuel.”

The film features interviews with witnesses, survivors and family members, along with the remarkable story of the strength and willingness to forgive shown by the church community.

Now, the film hits the big screen as a two-night Fathom Event on June 17 and 19. Along with individual tickets (click here to find participating theaters), group or whole-showing sales are available for churches and other organizations (click here for that).

From the website:

National headlines blazed the story: Churchgoers Gunned Down During Prayer Service in Charleston, South Carolina. After a 21-year-old white supremacist opened fire in the church, nine African Americans lay dead—leaving their families and the nation to grapple with this senseless act of terror.

Forty-eight hours later, in the midst of unspeakable grief and suffering, the families of the Emanuel Nine stood in court facing the killer … and offered words of forgiveness. Their demonstration of grace ushered the way for hope and healing across a city and the nation.

It’s the story that rocked a city and a nation as it happened … and in the days that followed. Marking the fourth anniversary of the event, executive producers Stephen Curry and Viola Davis, co-producer Mariska Hargitay, and director Brian Ivie (The Drop Box) present EMANUEL. The documentary powerfully weaves the history of race relations in Charleston, the significance and impact of Mother Emanuel Church, and the hope that somehow emerges in the aftermath.

Featuring intimate interviews with survivors and family members, EMANUEL is a poignant story of justice and faith, love and hate, examining the healing power of forgiveness. Marking the fourth anniversary, EMANUEL will be in movie theaters across the country for two nights only.

From Deadline.com:

“The documentary highlights how a horrible tragedy can bring a community together, and spreads an important message about the power of forgiveness,” said Curry. “Stories like this are the reason we created Unanimous and entered the entertainment space. I hope the film inspires others like it does me.”

“We, along with the country, grieved each family’s loss,” add Davis and Tennon. “Yet, miraculously, from this devastation we witnessed tremendous benchmarks of humanity. The survivors found courage to love in the face of hate.”

Click here for the official website.

Images: Fox 2000/2oth Century Fox; Fathom Events

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter  and YouTube.

BASED ON: Hulu’s ‘Catch 22’ Doesn’t Improve on the Original

(L-R) George Clooney, Christopher Abbot in ‘Catch 22’/Hulu

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

Catch-22, a Hulu mini-series produced by George Clooney, based on the Joseph Heller novel of the same name.

I remember reading Catch-22 in high school at about the same time Quentin Tarantino released Pulp Fiction in theaters. Both works drew me in by their unique structure. Catch-22 was told in third person omniscient, taking the points of view of several characters. Additionally, Heller tells the narrative non-sequentially, a departure from the linear storytelling I had been accustomed to. An event told matter-of-factly at first is revisited later for greater impact by story’s end. Tarantino’s classic film also opted for a non-linear structure and has been copied by both professional and student filmmakers ever since. (Especially, the latter.)

The small-screen adaptation reverts back to a more linear approach. Showrunners/writers Luke Davies and David Michod also tell the story primarily through the perspective of one character: bombardier John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott). The two alterations have the cumulative effect of blandly attaching historical note cards together in an unbelievable way. Would every absurd event that could happen in a war really happen to one Army Air Force captain over the course of one campaign?

Most other war films follow an ensemble of soldiers, thus creating an air of realism. As it is, this version is one part Memphis Belle, one part Casualties of War, one part Best Years of Our Lives, among others. The theme of a Catch-22 is interesting at first, but tires out by series end.

The showrunners establish early that on the military is necessary to defeat fascism. Waging war is a profitable business, however. So is the very apparatus best suited to end a military conflict is also then financially incentivized to perpetuate it. The series seems dead-set towards viewing every human interaction through this prism. In the most bizarre of protests, Yossarian walks the airfields in the buff in the final episode. We expect a reprimand from his superiors, but the Catch-22 now turns against them. The bombardier, despite him losing his mind remains the most experienced and effective of airmen.

Satirical tone aside, the circular reasoning of the film’s title makes for fittingly repetitive story beats. By the show’s end one is both exhausted and left not knowing how to feel. As alluded to earlier, the show has a nagging way of saying everything about war, but at the same time, nothing.

Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line is a much better war film, employing a somewhat non-linear structure that also gets into many of the heads of its soldiers thanks to generous amounts of voice-overs. The impressionistic style, typical to a Malick film, lessens the feeling of judgment of the film’s characters. Objection to the war machine might be one character’s viewpoint, but not everyone’s, and certainly never something to be imposed on anyone else: characters in the story or viewers watching it.

TTRL’s various viewpoints and fractured story structure masterfully upgraded the James Jones novel on which it was based. It’s a shame that Joseph Heller’s novel of a similar structure wasn’t preserved and respected in the same way.

Also starring are Kyle Chandler and Hugh Laurie; along with being executive producer, Clooney plays Lieutenant (later Colonel and eventually General) Scheisskopf, and he directed the fourth and sixth episodes.

All six episodes of Catch-22 are available for streaming here on Hulu.

Image: Hulu

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter  and YouTube.

The ‘Downton Abbey’ Trailer Is Here, and We Take a Catholic Look Back

‘Downton Abbey’/Focus Features

The full trailer for the much-anticipated Downton Abbey movie has just been released, and it contains royalty, surprises and lots of familiar faces.

Set to be released on Sept. 20, the movie picks up the story of the aristocratic Crawley family, led by the current Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, who was host of a documentary on Jesus last year) and his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). Their daughters Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Edith (Laura Carmichael) are on hand, along with the extended family.

Created and written by Catholic Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey aired on ITV in Britain and on PBS’ Masterpiece in the U.S. (the last episode aired in the U.S. in May 2016). It was a highbrow soap opera that dealt with family, class, sex, race, religion (a bit), war and the changing world of the early 20th Century.

As the trailer shows, it’s now 1927, and King George V and Queen Mary (Queen Elizabeth II’s grandmother) are coming to visit the elegant Yorkshire estate of Downton Abbey. The family and servants prepare for a royal luncheon, a parade, a dinner and no doubt lots of romance, conflict and surprises.

FTP’s producer-at-large, Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 graduate of USC’s film school, has been rewatching the Downton Abbey series, so I shot him a few questions:

Based on the trailer, what are your hopes for the Downton Abbey movie?

The trailer mentions 1927 as the year the movie takes place, so right after the events covered in the final episode of the TV series. My selfish hope for the movie is that it only covers a year or so in its temporal time, thus leaving the possibility of sequels.

Julian Fellowes, who created and writes Downton Abbey, also wrote the movie Gosford Park. Other than the superficial similarity that they are both upstairs/downstairs stories about English nobility and their servants, what other themes do they share in common?

The central theme of Gosford Park I found to be mercy. The perpetrator of the murder is revealed, but the victim by all accounts was a wicked person (Michael Gambon) whom neither the upstairs nor downstairs would miss. The housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), declares to the maidservant (Kelly Macdonald) that she could reveal the culprit to the constable, but “what purpose would it possibly serve?” The maidservant then becomes the next messenger of this theme of mercy when she uses this same line with the Countess of Trencham (Maggie Smith, who plays the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton).

Fellowes is a Catholic, which is not always an easy thing to be in Britian. What are the main ways you think that has influenced Downton Abbey?

Julian Fellowes, the show runner and Catholic himself, created a priest-like character in terms of the butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter). The butler treats the upper-class family and lower-class servants with equal dignity, knowing both classes irrespective of wealth (or lack thereof) nevertheless undergo their own joys, triumphs and sorrows. He responds to them with the appropriate candor. Especially, with the downstairs community, he balances pastoral application of the house rules without ever compromising them. The butler is the model of truth in charity.

Some have accused Downton Abbey of having an overly rosy, even nostalgic, attitude toward the largely bygone era of servant and master. How do you see this, from a Catholic perspective?

Every time and space will display some version of servant and master. Just because these formal divisions have been dissolved doesn’t mean they don’t exist in some unofficial (cultural elitism) illegal (sex slavery/trade) or existential (so-called sexual revolution) form. I would say Downton Abbey is not so much nostalgic as it is frank with a past that was honest with the reality of the formal class divisions of its day. Catholicism, after all is telling the truth of something. I don’t always see the same introspection of our current secular culture sold as a liberating one, but whose reality is often a bag of hot air.

As a filmmaker, what do you think Downton Abbey did best?

The period nature of the show requires a literal and figurative chastity to be observed. Downton Abbey can not rely on lust to draw in viewers the way some premium-cable shows do. The extra rules then demand impeccable plot structuring and characterization to hold an audience. The dialogue in particular, ranks among the best in TV history. Maggie Smith spouts some amazing one-liners. I wait with bated breath to hear what she will say next in the movie version.

Image: Focus Features

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter  and YouTube.

RIP Tim Conway, Actor, Funnyman, ‘Carol Burnett’ Star … and Catholic

Tim Conway on ‘The World Over’/EWTN

A bit of laughter has gone out of the world, with the announcement of the death of Tim Conway at the age of 85 this morning, May 14, in the Los Angeles area.

A native of Chagrin Falls, Ohio (he has something to say about that in the video below), Conway volunteered for the Army and later pursued show business. He was beloved as a funnyman but also as star of such classic TV shows as McHale’s Navy and The Carol Burnett Show. For younger viewers, he was also the voice of Barnacle Boy on SpongeBob Squarepants and won Emmy awards for guest appearances on the sitcoms Coach and 30 Rock.

From People:

Conway is survived by his wife of 35 years, his stepdaughter, his six biological children and two granddaughters. In lieu of flowers or gifts, the family would like donations to be made to The Lou Ruvo Brain Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The beloved actor is best known for his work on The Carol Burnett Show, winning viewers over with characters like the Oldest Man and Mr. Tudball, whose accent he has said was inspired by his Romanian mother. He was known to ad-lib his sketches — even surprising his scene partners — and won a Golden Globe Award for the series in 1976, along with Emmys in 1973, 1977 and 1978.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, to an Irish father and a Romanian mother, Conway was baptized into the Romanian Orthodox Church but converted to Catholicism for a girl while in college. Faith wasn’t almost foremost in his mind, though, until back spasms later in life led Conway to discover that a high-school football injury could have left him paralyzed … but didn’t.

From a 2013 post at Tony Rossi’s Christopher Closeup blog:

That was a watershed moment for Tim, spiritually speaking. He writes, “Ever since that incident on the football field, which might have altered the course of my life, Jesus and I have stayed in constant touch. I never stop saying thank you.”

Though Tim, who converted to Catholicism in college because of a girl he liked, doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve, his relationship with God remains important to him. He admits that his journey of faith hasn’t always been a straight line, but adds, “All straight lines get a little crooked from time to time, but I tried to maintain a decent life.”

In the same year, Conway went on Raymond Arroyo’s World Over show on EWTN to discuss his career and his memoir, What’s So Funny?: My Hilarious Life — and his conversion to Catholicism …

Here’s just a taste of Conway’s comic genius on The Carol Burnett Show, with co-star (and frequent victim of Conway’s efforts to crack him up) Harvey Korman:

Conway was married twice. Among his six biological children and one stepdaughter is Tim Conway Jr., who currently has a radio show on L.A. station KFI AM 640.

Here’s a clip of Conway Jr. as emcee of the Orange (County, California) Catholic Foundation’s 15th Annual Conference on Business & Ethics, from 2017, including a selfie with Bishop Vann of the Diocese of Orange — and showing the comic apple doesn’t fall far from the tree:

Image: EWTN (screenshot)

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter  and YouTube.