Ricky Gervais has come up with a fresh and enticing premise but — I have to be honest — it is imperfectly executed. It has the gloss of a romantic comedy because it gives us the fun of knowing that the couple will end up together long before they figure it out for themselves. But it also takes on some very big issues and has some surprising insights.
Gervais has imagined a world that looks exactly like ours, except that the people can only tell the concrete, literal truth. That means that they always say exactly what is on their minds, most of which is, to be brutally frank, brutally frank. This is not a crowd you want to ask whether these pants make you look fat.
And so when Mark (Gervais, who also co-wrote and co-directed) goes out on a date with a woman he has had a crush on named Anna (Jennifer Garner), she tells him up front that he is not in her league. He is repeatedly told that he is fat, dull, and unappealing. And then he is fired from his job as a screenwriter. But since fiction is a form of lying, all of this world’s movies are merely footage of people sitting in chairs reading aloud text about historical events. Mark, assigned to the 13th century, is fired because the only thing he can write “movies” about is the black plague.
About to be evicted because he cannot pay the rent, Mark goes to the bank to close out his account and the movie’s title event occurs. He informs the teller that he has more money than the bank’s computers show. And since no lie has ever occurred in this world, the teller believes him. Mark is thrilled with this new power, especially when he discovers he can ease his mother’s passing at what our world would politely call a nursing home but in no-lie world is identified with a sign that reads “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.” She is upset because she does not know what happens after death, so he tells her that she will be in a place where everything is loving and plentiful and she will be reunited with everyone she has loved. She dies in peace and the doctor and nurses who overheard want to know more. And soon Mark’s new ability to imagine gets him his job back and everyone wants to hear all about heaven and the “Man in the Sky.”
Gervais is not as imaginative as a director as he is as a writer but we get to see what a subtle and even moving actor he has become. The flatness of delivery of the no-lie world is a challenge for the cast, including comedian Louis C.K., Jason Bateman, Rob Lowe (looking unnecessarily seedy), Tina Fey, the inescapable Jonah Hill, and John Hodgman, and the talented Nathan Corddry and Christopher Guest are on screen too briefly to make much of an impression. Jennifer Garner is a great pleasure, as always, giving us a chance to see the wistful longing for something she cannot define because it is beyond her ability to conceive.
Amid the jokes (just imagine what soda ads look like in a world without exaggeration and implication) there are some provocative and meaningful insights. Lies are impossible without abstraction and the ability to imagine. And so is fiction. And so is faith. And even love. Without the ability to conceive abstraction, marriage is only about genetic superiority. There is no kindness, no compassion, no real understanding.
Some audience members will be uncomfortable at the suggestion that God is portrayed as a lie but this underestimates the film. While Gervais is an acknowledged atheist, the movie does not have to be seen that way. The emptiness of the lives of the people in a world devoid of anything but the literal truth and the way they are enthralled with the concepts of faith and meaning argue just the opposite. Just because someone lies about something does not change the underlying reality. Watch Gervais’ face as Mark uses his new ability to depart from concrete truth to provide encouragement and inspiration, and enjoy a comedy that may be about the invention of lying but knows how to tell the truth.
Too cold to go outside? This is a great time of year for families to spend some quality time together with some stories to warm the spirit. These are some of my favorite movies when I need some cinematic vitamin C, sunshine for the soul.
“The Snowman” (all ages) This is the brief, wordless story of a cherished but necessarily brief friendship between a boy and a man he made of snow. The exquisite illustrations and score perfectly complement the story, evoking the simple joy and childhood magic of playing in snow. Some children may be upset when they see that the next morning, the snowman has melted. But even small children can understand that the boy will always cherish his time with his special friend. This movie can inspire children to build their own snow friends, and should lead families to talk about how what is most familiar to us (like a light switch) can seem interesting or strange or even scary to others. And what is familiar to others (like the Northern Lights) can seem exotic and thrilling to us.
“Enchanted April” (MIddle school-Adult) Four women in post WWI-London, bedraggled by the cold, rainy weather and feeling invisible and unappreciated, share their resources for a vacation at a villa in Italy. Their spirits bloom in the sunshine and they discover in themselves a gentleness and an ability to love and be loved that they never suspected.
“Pollyanna” (7-Adult) Hayley Mills is “the Glad Girl” in this sumptuously produced Disney film based on the classic novel about the girl who transformed a town with her ability to see the best in every situation and, more important, in every person. Top talent in the cast includes Jane Wyman as starchy Aunt Polly and Karl Malden as the preacher whose heart is not really in his fire and brimstone sermons. If you like this try: the remake called “Polly” with “Cosby Show” stars Keshia Knight Pulliam and Phylicia Rashad.
“All Creatures Great and Small” (10-Adult) The best-selling series of books based on the real-life adventures of a Yorkshire veterinarian has been lovingly adapted for this completely charming miniseries filled with endearing characters, lovable animals, and touching stories.
“Rudy” (Middle school-Adult) In this true story of determination and courage, a young man from a blue collar family wants to play football for Notre Dame, despite the fact he has neither the athletic nor the academic skills. Rudy’s spirit and insistence on giving everything he can every single time inspires them. Rudy becomes an indispensable part of the team, and in a deeply moving scenes each of his teammates goes to the coach to insist Rudy play in his place. (NOTE: strong language for a PG movie.)
“Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” (7-Adult) Edgar G. Robinson is best known for playing tough guys and hoodlums and Agnes Moorehead is best known for playing Endora on “Bewitched.” But in this lovely film, they are utterly believable as gentle Wisconsin farmers devoted to their only daughter, played by Margaret O’Brien. As the seasons pass, the family and the community face challenges from small (teaching the importance of sharing) to frightening (lost children, a barn fire), based on the real-life memories of the child of Norwegian immigrants. If you like this, try: “I Remember Mama”
“To Be and To Have” (Middle school-Adult) This documentary about a French one-room schoolhouse shows us a gifted and devoted teacher whose classroom includes students from age 4-11. As he patiently works with them on reading, writing, a sense of mastery, and learning to get along with each other he reminds us of the power we all have to touch the lives of others.
“The Spitfire Grill” (Middle school-Adult) A young woman just out of prison picks a small town in Maine called Gilead to start her life over again. Her kindness and honesty at first seem threatening to a community that is comfortable with its discomforts. The Biblical name of the town is well-chosen for this story of simple decency among neighbors and what we can do for others just by giving them a chance.
“Anne of Green Gables” (7-Adult)The classic series of books about the red-haired orphan girl who lives on Prince Edward Island farm was lovingly adapted for a miniseries starring Megan Fallows as Anne and Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth as the sister and brother who wanted an orphan boy to do chores but find themselves unexpectedly loving the big-spirited, imaginative girl.
“Outrageous!” (Adults) A gay man who does not have the confidence to pursue his dream of performing as a female impersonator and his best friend, a woman prone to psychotic hallucinations find that while they may not be able to help themselves, they have unexpected strength of spirit to help each other. Canadian cabaret performer Craig Russell plays a character based on himself. One of the highlights of the film is seeing him as Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Peggy Lee, and more. But what makes the film unforgettable is the sweetness and devotion of this unbreakable friendship. (Very mature material)
“Beauty and the Beast” (7-Adult) One of Disney’s loveliest romances is the story of a beautiful girl who loves to read and the monster whose heart she learns is as tender as her own. Gorgeous animation features some of the earliest merging of hand-drawn and computer-generated images, giving the film’s sensational ballroom dancing number an enthrallingly immersive sense of space. The musical numbers are some of Disney’s most memorable, including the gorgeous title love song and the rollicking “Be Our Guest.”
“Strangers in Good Company” (Middle school-Adult) Eight women traveling through Canada by bus are stranded when the bus breaks down. They find an abandoned farmhouse and talk to each other about their lives, with stories that are sometimes sad but always teach important lessons about resilience and survival. The movie was largely improvised by non-professional actresses which underscores its message about the value of people who are all too often overlooked.
I was able to speak to the man behind the Black History Collection: Soul of the Church DVD, Bruce Faulk, who assembled a treasure trove of gospel performances into this stirring and inspirational collection. It even includes some of the vintage commercials.
Tell me how this production came together.
This was a syndicated mid-60’s television series called “TV Gospel Time.” It was the idea of a Chicago advertising agency. Their idea, which was rare at the time, was to go from town to town and record local gospel choirs and feature singers with the hosts being some of the best-known gospel singers of the time. The premise was unique. There were many many many many shows and we have just about all of them. This first release has sixteen of them and we were able with bonus material to include six songs from “Mahalia Jackson Sings.” It is an amazing array of the icons of the golden age of gospel. In many cases these are the only visual recordings of these artists. It’s just totally amazing. Just on this release we have James Cleveland, Sally Martin, the Blind Boys of Mississippi, Ernestine Washington, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Alex Bradford, Clouds of Joy. The Highway QC’s a group from Chicago was founded by two people you don’t think of as gospel — Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls. One of the celebrities is Ruth Brown. You don’t think of her as gospel; you think of her as a pop and R&B singer. But she’s here. This is an amazing look at Americana and gospel as an American form of music. It gives me chill bumps! Gospel means good news and this is certainly good news.
What a treasure trove! And it is history as well as music, culture, and worship.
It’s amazing that these survive; it’s amazing that they were recorded to begin with. Even though the show was sponsored by, recorded for, and broadcast to the African-American market, it crossed over to the Caucasian market. It was broadcast during church hour and it opened the music up to an entire new demographic.
Where did these come from and how did you come to them?
My background is in children’s programming. I worked in television animation and produced some well known seasonal pieces. I met a gentleman at CBS, a controller there, and to save room they were throwing away some old shows and he started buying. He now has the largest privately help film library in the world. These are kinescopes, camera pointed at the camera as it was broadcast live. Even though we’ve digitally enhanced it, it is still kinescope.
Growing up, a lot of these songs, I immediately wanted to see how they were handled by these singers. How did Marie Knight treat “Jesus Lifted Me?” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” or Tommy Browns doing “Keep Trusting.” I wanted to know how they did with the songs that were my all-time favorites and they were just amazing.
It’s like any other type of music — but jazz and gospel are American music. Gospel was the call and response put to music for an era when so many did not read. Over the years it’s been changed, augmented, tampered with, but you still find that line almost like a jazz riff that goes right through it. These recordings are like those early Sun recordings with Elvis. To see them work, to see their enthusiasm and spirit is something to behold.
Is there one performance that really is special to you?
Ernestine Washington doing “Down by the Riverside” just tears me up! She is the quintessential queen of gospel. The six songs from Mahalia Jackson, especially “Walk On” and “Just as I Am.” She was President Kennedy’s favorite singer and performed at his inauguration. She was Dr. Martin Luther King’s favorite singer.
We are working on a separate Mahalia Jackson release and we have enough for several more collections.
To order, click on Black History Collection: Soul of the Church
This is a genuine treasure. Black History Collection: Soul of the Church is a collection of vintage broadcasts of gospel superstars of the 1960’s, taken from a Sunday morning television show called TV Gospel Time and not seen for decades. TV Gospel Time (1962-65). The half-hour, Chicago-based show aired on NBC Sunday mornings – merging music and God’s word – attracting a mostly African-American audience (and sponsors), but introduced the genre to a non-Black audience. Featuring guests on location (to save travel costs) it highlighted non-professional performers alongside the day’s biggest stars. Performers include Rev. James Cleveland, Ernestine Washington, Blind Boys of Mississippi, Barrett Sisters, Ruth Brown, Sallie Martin, Alex Bradford, Dixie Hummingbirds, Jessie Mae Renfro, Harmonizing Four, Clouds of Joy, Highway QCs, Marie Knight, Caravans, Three Professors of Gospel and more.
This DVD is a stirring tribute to the roots of gospel in “Black folk music” and fervent, camp-meeting religion. Gospel, meaning “good news,” derives its name from the books of the New Testament (the gospels of the apostles). Though the genre continues to grow in variety and sound, gospel dates to an oral tradition of the 18th century – when many Blacks were unable to read – allowing all to participate in worship. Ministering to the downtrodden and disenfranchised is at its core.
I have one copy of the DVD to give away to the first person who sends me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Gospel” in the subject line.