Festive Season Viewing

Two festive season films releasing today in South Africa are: Ben is Back and Mary Poppins Returns. The former is for adults, the latter suitable for the whole family.

Far from sentimental, Ben is Back explores some of the difficulties that this time of year can bring. Ben (Lucas Hedges), a drug addict,

unexpectedly turns up on his family doorstep on Christmas Eve. While his mother, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts), is very happy to see him, it is obvious that Ben’s sister (Ivy – Holly & Ivy …) and stepfather are far from happy to see him. Ben has caused problems for his family on previous Christmases. After a heated debate the family agree that Ben can stay for just 24 hours – but only if he remains under his mother’s watchful eye for every minute. Thereafter he must return to rehab.

What could go wrong? Predictably, everything does go wrong after Ben goes out in public and has a run-in with former druggy friends. During the fraught 24-hour period that follows viewers get to see the really grim aspects that go with drug addiction: guilt, desperation, crime, lying, remorse, weakness, drug dealing, family love and pain, and even death. The final scene of the film gives a double meaning to the film’s title ‘Ben is Back’. The acting is good. Julia Roberts is especially believable as the loving, tough mother, prepared at once to distrust and to believe in her son. A very good, if sobering ‘Christmas’ film.

Mary Poppins Returns – although not specifically about Christmas – is nevertheless a lovely film that families will enjoy watching during the Christmas holidays. Emily Blunt plays Mary Poppins.

In the original tale based on the book by P L Travers, Mary Poppins arrives unannounced to help the Banks family. In this sequel, Michael and Jane – who were children in the first story – are now grown up, and their parents are dead. Michael is a struggling artist who works in a bank, and is a widower with three children. Jane has followed in her mum’s footsteps and spends her time attending workers’ rights rallies. More than that Michael and Jane seem to have inherited their parents’ absentmindedness and ineptitude. It is the children who are pragmatic and mature. Nevertheless, they are just children and the imminent repossession of their family home is a big problem. It is at this crucial time that Mary Poppins floats down from a gloomy London sky and sings her way into the family. With each song she teaches the children life-empowering lessons and once they have learnt and grown she quietly leaves again.

There is lots of bouncing, flying, floating, adventure, and entry into other worlds. The characters encountered, and the songs Mary Poppins sings, teach the children how to look at things differently, how to use their imaginations, and how not to take things at face value. These life lessons are a little different to the typical Disney message ‘believe in yourself’. They’re more realistic.

Mary Poppins Returns follows very much the same formula as the first Mary Poppins story and may be a little boring in parts to modern viewers. Emily Blunt is just perfect as Mary, though: prim, very self-assured, poised, beautiful and melodious. Mary Poppins Returns is a lovely film with which to end 2018. And the lessons learnt are worth taking into 2019.

Happy viewing this festive season.

Making the Christian Faith Tangible for Young Readers

The Little House in Heaven is a lovely story about a young girl named Melissa Green who enters another world where she learns about Jesus. What she learns of Jesus there Melissa applies to her ordinary life in an English village. The full story sees Melissa attend church for the first time in her life, learn about the love and forgiveness of Jesus, grow in her faith in Him, deal with temptation, see the answer to her prayers, make friends with unlikely people, and understand the importance of obedience and listening to her conscience.

Author, Kathleen Watson, uses the motif of a picture of a house built on a rock as Melissa’s entry point into the other world. This motif is carried throughout the story and is used as a tool to teach a number of Christian principles. One of those principles is the wonderful news that believers in Jesus will each have their own mansions in heaven, an image which both opens and closes the book.

Other important Christian principles are spelt out using Bible verses, many of them explained to the protagonist by the character of Jesus himself.

Watson intersects Melissa’s imaginative world with the character’s real one in an effort to make Jesus and the Christian faith tangible for the reader. The Little House in Heaven is thus a sort of modern-day Pilgrim’s Progress.

The writing is simple enough for middle grade children to understand and the passage of time is well handled. Characters, from Miss Amy Light upstairs, to Rufus next door, to Melissa’s mother and grandparents are gently drawn and have just enough depth to be interesting.

Whilst adults will not likely struggle to understand the difference between Christian teaching and Watson’s vehicle for telling it, it could be confusing for children. As a caveat, therefore, to Watson’s story: adults would need to explain the important difference between a mere imaginative world and the real yet intangible one of the Christian faith.

The Little House in Heaven is available for purchase on eBay or from the author, blue4flower@yahoo.co.uk.

 

Boy’s Life is on My Own Pile of Classic Reads

In an interview with Robert McCammon, about his book Boy’s Life, the author relates a touching story:

A woman wrote me several years ago to tell me that her elderly father had passed away, and that she wanted me to know he had asked that a copy of his favorite book be buried with him [- Boy’s Life]. He had read it over and over, she said. So many times that it was no longer a book. It was a constant companion.

In that same interview the author said that years after he had written Boy’s Life he walked into a bookstore, went to look at ‘The Classics’

Boy’s Life is currently only in my ‘virtual’ library’. I am awaiting a hard copy.

table and there, amongst Dickens and Hugo and Steinbeck, was his very own book Boy’s Life. Well, on my own little pile of classics in my small library at home I have recently added this one of McCammon’s. It’s a treasure I now love. I want to show it off and keep it close.

I read Boy’s Life recently at bedtime. Instead of dozing off as is my wont I found myself laughing and crying at the story of protagonist, 12-year-old Cory Mackenson, and the many, many characters that peopled his life. I identified with the depiction of 1960s childhood in southern USA, and delighted in exploring the imaginary world created by the author.

‘Imaginary’ or ‘magical realism’ is an important element in this book. It’s a device used to show the main character’s transition from childhood to adulthood. Therefore, many scenes are written in such a way that the reader is not quite sure if what happened was real or simply in the character’s imagination. Did Cory really defeat a huge water monster? Did a triceratops really save him from a kidnapper? Was the mayor a sinister character or not?

Whether the experiences were real or not, the move from childhood to adulthood for Cory involves the uncovering of both evil and good. Law enforcement gone bad. Dodgy grandparents. Racism. Gambling, moonshining and gangsterism. Loving parents. Bravery. Spiritualism. Forgiveness. Cory stumbles across or is faced with all of these in the children, adults and townspeople of his hometown. And the real-life murder that Cory and his father, Tom Mackenson, come across in the opening pages of the book forms the basis for all these different strands of the tale.

But very importantly, the author gets across the message that children can grow into adults without losing the magic of childhood. Whatever good or bad they uncover they can retain that magic. The main character says in the introduction to the book: When I was twelve years old, the world was my magic lantern, and by its green spirit glow I saw the past, the present and into the future.

And that past for Cory takes the reader through delightful tales of summer with friends, hilarious church experiences, schoolyard fights, bicycle rides, writing competitions, love for pets, loss of friends and death. Boy’s Life covers it all. The universal human experience. Perhaps that’s why it was on ‘the classics’ table of a bookshop McCammon visited. It’s certainly why it’s on mine.