Blog

Below you will find posts from Drew Trotter, Executive Director of the Consortium, with the most recent posts at the top. For years, I posted movie reviews on this site, and I am going to start again now (Spring, 2020). I also plan on posting book notices and perhaps other items of interest in the future. Please note that there are a number of other movie, book, and article reviews under our “Resources” tab on this website. Here, I will start with a series of posts on the Academy Award Nominees for Best Picture from 2019. To search for any post by film/show/book/talk title, simply use Command+F (on a Mac) or Ctrl+F (on a PC) to access a search bar.

For comment, you can always contact me at [email protected].

I look forward to our dialogue.

Drew


FORD V FERRARI

March 27, 2020

In my last blog post, I announced this series of nine posts, one on each of the films nominated for Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We will look at the nine movies in alphabetical order, starting with the James Mangold helmed Ford v Ferrari.

Ford v Ferrari is not a “racing picture,” though Formula 1 racing, especially the grand-daddy race of them all, Le Mans, is at the heart of the plot. In this context, Mangold has given us a fine buddy picture utilizing two of the best actors on Hollywood’s A list: Matt Damon and Christian Bale. In the hands of these two performers Ferrari has that wonderful blend of being a sports movie with much deeper heart than the plot could ever realize on its own, looking into a variety of themes— perseverance, family vs. work, winning at all costs, corporate greed, the quest for excellence, the nature of friendship, and even the usefulness of words, when the world collapses.   Read more …


Loving Your Neighbor by Watching the Oscar Best Picture Nominees

March 26, 2020

Christians go to the movies for a number of different reasons. Most, if not all, of us go, like everybody else, to be entertained. We want to escape the drudgery or the sameness (or both) of our lives into worlds we don’t normally inhabit, worlds of superheroes or space travel, of cowboys or battlefields, of pageantry or plainness, but worlds that are filled with characters and stories we don’t know or experience in our own daily lives. Sometimes we go to be surprised. We don’t know anything about a film, and a friend invites us, and we go. Sometimes we go, expecting to be challenged by the sadness of a story, or by its hilarity, or by its social or political message.  Read more …


Carol

January 15, 2016

Carol is the most recent film of Todd Haynes, a darling of the higher end independent film world. Haynes seems fascinated with the suburban housewife who “seems to have it all” but in fact lives a life that is either crumbling around her, crumbling inside her, or both. Safe (1995), the first of a trilogy of films about this character, begins with Carol (yes, Haynes names his protagonist “Carol” in two of the three films; Cathy is the name of the main character in Far From Heaven), a wealthy and “safe” suburban housewife, experiencing allergic reactions to almost everything in her environment—creams, exhaust fumes, even drinking water. She flees to a commune with dire consequences.  Read more …


The Danish Girl

January 3, 2016 

Eddie Redmayne, who won every award out there for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking, the famous British physicist plagued by Lou Gehrig’s disease, in last year’s Theory of Everything, anchors this film about another historical figure. Lilli Elbe and her partner Gerda Wegener, once married as Einar and Gerda Wegener, are known as pioneers of the transgender movement, and this film explores the psychological and social dimensions of Einar’s journey to becoming Lilli. Lavishly put together with stunning costuming and sets representing 1920’s Copenhagen, the film movingly portrays the torturous uncertainty Einar faces as he discovers—and uncovers to his wife—his own attraction to the clothes, mannerisms and look of the female form. Equally moving is his wife’s struggle with the phenomenon.  Read more …


The Revenant

January 9, 2016 

Last year’s Oscar winner for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture has put into the ring another masterpiece of filmmaking art. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and The Revenant could not be simultaneously both further apart and yet strikingly similar. The uniting factor is the director’s interest in the interplay between the supernatural and the imaginative.  Read more …


The Hateful Eight

December 30, 2015 

I won’t say much about The Hateful Eight for a number of reasons. Anyone who knows the work of Quentin Tarantino, its writer and director, will not find anything new here, except a new story in which to embed his common themes of revenge, anger, mystery and brutal, brutal punishment. Eight has characteristically well-written dialogue and plot design, and it has its share of surprises, a welcome truth since it is almost three hours long in its most widely released version. Tarantino fans will like it; Tarantino haters will find much to increase their distaste.  Read more …


The Big Short

December 29, 2015

Much has been written about the various tricks Adam McKay uses in this Wall Street comedy to create the film he has, and those tricks have put viewers of this movie on opposite sides of the fence. His breaking of the fourth wall, i.e. having an actor look straight into the camera and address the audience directly; his using scenes as pauses in the narrative to explain various terms of the crash of 2008, e.g. Collateralized Debt Obligations or Sub-Prime Loans; and his employing famous people who have nothing to do with the rest of the movie to make those explanations have been alternately called brilliant and arrogant. (My personal favorite is the first of these, when Margot Robbie, the beautiful, Australian actress who became famous portraying Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in The Wolf of Wall Street, sits in a bubble bath with a glass of champagne and explains what a CDO is. The ironies in this scene are multiple and hilarious.)  Read more …


Joy

December 27, 2015

The possibilities of this Jennifer-Lawrence-starrer were immense. Joy is the true story of a girl who overcomes her completely dysfunctional upbringing, comes up with an idea for a self-wringing mop, designs, manufactures and sells it herself, and then finds the strength to persevere when everyone and everything seems to go against her until she comes out on top. The movie had all the makings of perhaps David O. Russell’s (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) first Academy Award winning picture.  Read more …


Concussion

December 26, 2015

The risk and perseverance portrayed by the main characters in Concussion are mirrored in its journey as a film. Who would greenlight a movie which 1) thoroughly disdains the most popular religion in America, accusing its highest leadership of fraud, criminal injury and even murder, 2) presents a significant proportion of its priests and clergy as either ignorant or complicit in these crimes, 3) places a Nigerian doctor in the lead role as the often lone voice against the abuses of that religion, 4) includes, as its love story subplot, a chaste, loving extended courtship between the doctor and a Kenyan nurse, and last but not least, 5) portrays as the major device for battling the “evil” religion a mixture of an ancient religion and pure fact, acquired by rigorously applying the scientific method?  Read more …


December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The wait is over. Star Wars is back.

After less than a month in theaters (I’m writing this review in January), the new addition to the Star Wars storybook has already made more money at the domestic box office than any other movie in history. It is well on its way to setting records that may stand for a long time.

Reviewing this movie may be useless by now since so many reading these thoughts will have already seen it for themselves. But thinking about the phenomenon that is Star Wars may bear some fruit since the experience of this story has meant so much to so many.  Read more …


Creed

December 15, 2015

Almost everyone expected Creed to be another tiresome “Rocky” picture, a franchise that died a slow death ten years ago with Rocky Balboa (aka Rocky VI), when once again Sylvester Stallone dragged Burt Young and Tahlia Shire out of mothballs and engaged in one more “last fight.” Yawn.

If you thought that, you are in for a surprise. A combination of very good writing, some superb acting and that wonderful movie miracle, “chemistry”, Creed is, like its initial predecessor, very much in the discussion for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Young, relatively untested, director Ryan Coogler is as sure-handed in a big budget star-oriented historic franchise, as he was in the indie favorite, Sundance Film Festival award-winner Fruitvale Station a couple of years ago. Stallone is back of course and once again playing Rocky Balboa, but this time he’s a restaurant owner who is completely out of the fight game, since he lost his beloved Adrian. The star opposite Stallone is the excellent young actor Michael B. Jordan (Friday Night Lights, Fruitvale Station), who plays the son of one of Rocky’s former opponents, Apollo Creed.   Read more …


In the Heart of the Sea

December 11, 2015

In The Heart of the Sea got a lukewarm response both from the critics and at the box office. An elaborate period piece as well as a sea-going tale, it had those two strikes against it, but the movie delivers a hit anyway in my opinion—if not a home run, at least a double. Though it deals with a number of difficult subjects, Heart is a robust tale, combining all the important elements of good filmmaking to create an epic that faithfully mirrors Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction bestseller with the subtitle “The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”. In a season dominated by the likes of Star Wars and Hunger Games, it is oddly refreshing to be reminded that nature sometimes wins its battles against the human spirit and that in some ways man is better off for it.  Read more …


The Letters

December 8, 2015

It is one of the fascinating facts of the almost completely random world of movie release dates that The Letters and Spotlight came out within days of each other. Combined with Concussion, three completely different views of the Catholic faith are presented to the American movie-going public this Christmas season. Spotlight presents the secular, look-how-bad-religion-makes-us, viewpoint, though by no means as hatefully as it could. In fact the movie treats the faith overall with a great deal of respect, centering its focus only on the aberration which was the pedophilia scandal. (For more on this balance, see my review of Spotlight). Concussion centers its attention on two faithful Catholic believers whose faith enables them to face the racial profiling and common distrust of someone who brings the truth into a situation fraught with deceit, double-dealing and “good men who do nothing”. The Letters moves into the realm of the clergy and how those who have made it their lives to be devoted to Christ through the service of the poor in the workplaces of the Church actually accomplish that calling.  Read more …


Secret in Their Eyes

December 2, 2015

Secret in Their Eyes, is a crime thriller about a murder case in which the killer is pursued by three officers of the law over many years. The movie is a good example of an accomplished cast not being able to overcome poor direction. Nicole Kidman is fine, but Julia Roberts and Chiwetel Ejiofor are lost at sea in roles that they overplay, using their best techniques but without the throttle that good direction would have put on them, dialing it back on occasion in order to make the spots when they should really come to the fore shine by contrast.  Read more …


Trumbo

December 1, 2015 

Trumbo is that rare movie that shows a truly great, truly versatile actor at his worst. Bryan Cranston, who plays Dalton Trumbo, the communist screenwriter who was at the center of the HUAC witch hunt of the 1950s, may have been betrayed by a script that caused him to be “on” all the time. Even in the scenes when he and his wife, played wonderfully by Diane Lane, are alone, discussing the problems they have with money or the government pursuing them because of his communism, Cranston seems to need to be the larger than life actor Dalton Trumbo apparently was most of the time. That’s too bad because it draws more attention to itself than it should, and causes for the viewer that worst of Hollywood sins: disengagement from the story.  Read more …


Brooklyn

November 29, 2015

Saorsie Ronan in her brief career has played so many types of roles, and played them so well, that the twenty-one year old Irish-American will soon enough have her name mentioned in the same breath with the names of Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep, if the quality keeps up. The remarkable performance in her latest movie, Brooklyn, is surrounded by lots of Oscar buzz and only supports that prophecy.

This story is beautifully imagined and superbly written by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Tóibín. A young girl in search of the American dream immigrates to New York in the 1950’s, leaving behind in their small Irish village a beloved sister and mother.  Read more …


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

November 21, 2015

The Hunger Games has proved a resilient franchise, largely because of the perfect fit of its main character Katniss Everdeen with the actor who plays her, the hard-working Jennifer Lawrence. Compare the Divergent series which suffers from its lead, Shailene Woodley, being almost too smart to play the visceral Beatrice Prior with the animal abandon that Lawrence gives her performances. Katniss is simple, Beatrice more complex, which requires more of Woodley and Divergent’s writers to hold the attention of the teeny bopper crowd, a crowd lacking the sophistication to see all the strands of plot and strategy that Beatrice has to manage. For Katniss it’s all so simple: kill President Snow and everything will be fine. Or will it?  Read more …


Spotlight

November 20, 2015

It is a crying shame that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences doesn’t offer an Oscar for ensemble casts. Sometimes a movie requires a group of actors to contribute equally to a story, and if anyone starts chewing up the scene for their own aggrandizement, they just ruin the movie for everyone. Such a movie is Spotlight, and, I am glad to say, not a single one of a really stellar cast even begins to be selfish. Here the story, both in the film and of the film, reigns supreme.

And the story of the film is its biggest surprise, too. Everyone associated with the movie seems to know that it is much more about journalism—its practice and its ethics—than it is about the Catholic Church and its sins. The true story of the Boston Globe’s investigative team, nicknamed Spotlight, and its uncovering of the depth and breadth of the scandal surrounding the pedophilia practiced by some eighty-five priests in the Boston area alone and the concomitant covering up of this fact by the Catholic hierarchy, does of course paint a grim picture of the Church. But in the end, the story reveals that the well-known maxim, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” couldn’t apply more perfectly to this horrific situation.  Read more …


Room

November 19, 2015

The American movie industry is full swing into awards season, and one of the most interesting things to watch is what “small” films will break through and get nominations for their scripts, or their actors, or even (and this is the big brass ring) for their overall quality—a Best Picture nomination. The pay-off can be enormous; in 2010 a little picture starring an unknown actress accomplished all three of those feats. The picture? Winter’s Bone. The actress? Jennifer Lawrence.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Room, one of my favorite pictures of the year, pull off the same trifecta and rocket its relatively unknown actress, Brie Larson, to stardom, too. Room is the heart-rending story of a single mother (called simply “Ma” in the picture and played by Larson) in her early twenties and her five-year old son, Jack, portrayed by a first-time child actor named Jason Tremblay. As the movie opens we find Jack waking up and going around to each element in the room—a chair, a table, a sink—naming it, and telling it good morning. His mother sleeps quietly in a bed in the corner. The room appears to be a dirty, poor one-room trailer or something like one. In fact it is a prison. Soon we learn the mother and child are locked in a garden shed behind the house of a man who kidnapped Ma seven years ago and impregnated her two years later. Their progeny is Jack.  Read more …


Spectre

November 23, 2015

Autumn is the time of falling leaves, crisp air, football and Oscar contenders. Spectre is none of these. For many reasons.

The 24th “official” title in the series that now spans some fifty-four years shows the age of the series. Not only are the plots old and tired, even the villains are creaking with age or are references back to earlier films of decades ago. Is the muscleman Hinx, an ex-professional wrestler named Dave Batista, actually descended from Odd Job of Goldfinger fame, or does he just look and act that way? By having him battle Bond to the death on a train, do they intend to make a reference to the greatest of Bond films, From Russia With Love, where the greatest of Bond villains, Grant, played by Robert Shaw, battles the greatest of Bonds, Sean Connery? To continue with the parallels, Daniel Craig, who had not said the magic words in some of his films, says them in this one: “Bond. James Bond.” (Anne Hornaday of the Washington Post wondered if “Bore. James Bore.” would have been more accurate.) Is that significant? How about the break with tradition, when Bond drinks a dirty martini instead of one that is “shaken, not stirred” as he orders earlier in the film? Such questions dominated my thinking as I tried desperately to flee the plot absurdities and mimic Craig by not falling asleep. I succeeded. I’m not sure he did.  Read more …


Suffragettes

November 23, 2015

Suffragettes is a serviceable look into the history of feminism by way of the early twentieth century struggle for the right to vote by the women who began to resort to violence to make their voice heard. Knowing nothing about that history, I have no opinion on how well Suffragettes—written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron—sticks to the truth and where it departs from it, but I’m not sure it really matters much for the common viewer. We all know that women now have the vote, and that is not likely to change again, so all that matters is this story and how it reflects values and concerns that it is reasonable to suppose were those faced by these brave, oppressed women. For those interested, the reader can find the stories here of some of the real life suffragettes upon whose lives the mostly fictional characters of the film are based. This film will serve as a superb discussion starter for issues of politics, violence, rights, oppression and all the concepts so important in our society for discussing race, gender and religious tolerance.  Read more …


Victoria

November 23, 2015

This extraordinary crime drama explores the rootless, dangerous world of the meaningless life of the twenty-something in modern Berlin, while at the same time providing a captivating story, two enticing lead characters (and two interesting supporting characters). Add to all this that the movie achieved something even Hitchcock could not in Rope: it is all shot entirely in one take. The energy and sense of anticipation this trick provides superbly serve the story, and so the method should not be judged as merely self-absorbed filmmaking. The accomplishment is laudable.

American audiences will not know the actors, though the young girl from whom the film gets its name, will surely appear again. Laia Costa is Spanish and plays Victoria, who has recently come to Berlin from Madrid. She meets up with four men, one of whom is attracted to her and persuades her to join them for late night playful hijinks. The innocence turns dark and dangerous, and choices must be made.  Read more …


Sicario

November 23, 2015

Sicario, we are told in an opening placard of the movie by that name, comes from the Latin for “dagger”. The Latin word sicarius, or “dagger man”, described the Jewish zealots who engaged in terrorist activities against the occupying Roman armies in Palestine in the first century AD. In Spanish today, it apparently means “hitman”. Benicio del Toro is el sicario in this movie, though he is never called that, and we don’t even know who he is until very late in the film. But Sicario is his film in every way.

Emily Blunt is the purported star of the movie; she appears in almost every frame. But del Toro provides all the interesting elements of this brilliant crime thriller about the drug war and how we should fight it. His moody silence erupting in violent outbursts on just the right occasions provides the texture for the film, and, if I said much what those outbursts were, it would necessitate an unconscionable spoiler or two. I don’t want to do that for anyone who wants to see this film.  Read more …


Bridge of Spies

November 12, 2015

Bridge of Spies is a fine film, and demonstrates Steven Spielberg, who directed it, at the top of his game. Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a big-city insurance lawyer, who is pressed into service by the US government to defend a captured Russian spy and later to arrange his exchange for Francis Gary Powers, the famous U-2 pilot shot down during the cold war. Hanks plays Donovan as the likeable, tough-but-fair, lawyer he apparently was (the film is based on a true story); Academy Award recognition may be coming his way again because the role was challenging, and Hanks is up to the challenge.  Read more …


Steve Jobs

November 12, 2015

Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men) and directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) from the award-winning biography by Walter Isaacson, is the story of three launches during the career of the computer legend: the original Mac, NExt, and the iMac. Boyle’s direction is as energetic as it was in The Social Network, fully in keeping with the hyperactive pace of the main character and his lifestyle. Handheld cameras track Jobs and his assistant Joanna Hoffman, played beautifully by Kate Winslet, as they prepare to go out on stage, frenetically trying to balance last second problems with meetings ranging from those of enemies to those of colleagues to those of family.  Read more …


Crimson Peak

November 12, 2015

Many have written about Crimson Peak that it is lavishly done with all the technical expertise in the world but flat as a pancake as far as plot is concerned. These criticisms are correct. There was virtually nothing new in this film and—even worse—nothing surprising. Guillermo del Toro, who wrote and directed Peak, set such a high standard with the wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth and the less interesting but still fine Hellboy, that we expect all his films to have the same high intellectual value of these two, and, sadly, the evidence is in and they just don’t. When del Toro is good, he is very, very good and when he is bad he is, well, not awful but pretty bad. Watch Pacific Rim, if you want to see a boring, predictable action/adventure movie; watch Crimson Peak, if you want to see a boring, predictable gothic romance cum horror movie.  Read more …


Truth

November 12, 2015

Truth is the story of the scandal involving CBS news reporting it had documents proving George W. Bush’s National Guard Service was suspect and that he went AWOL for almost a year during it. Mary Mapes is the hard-nosed reporter who carries the investigation on her shoulders and who pays the greatest price, when the whole investigation goes south. Dan Rather, her friend and mentor, and of course the anchor of the CBS Evening News and star of 60 Minutes, which produced the story, backs Mapes as fully as he can until they both end up losing their jobs. The clear message of the film is this: we may have made some mistakes but the story was true despite our failures, and we shouldn’t be punished because of that deeper value.  Read more …


The Intern

November 12, 2015

I am sorry to be posting about The Intern so long after its opening because it really is a nice piece of light entertainment with some good comments on the benefit of experience in the marketplace, ageism and work, workaholism and family, women in the workplace, and attitudes toward work itself that make it a very good film for discussion. Anne Hathaway plays Jules Ostin, a no-nonsense fashion designer with good instincts who has created her own online fashion company called “About the Fit” and moved it to the size that the company needs to decide whether to hire a CEO from outside or not. Tensions arise from Ostin’s family commitments, her work commitments, her self-evaluation, and her employee relations that create crises small and large, which need to be resolved. Enter Robert DeNiro as Ben Whittaker, a retired executive, who has grown bored with retirement. Whittaker applies for an internship at “About the Fit”, is hired, and after a brief time becomes Jules’s trusted assistant. Whittaker employees a solid work ethic, street smarts based on years of experience and simply patient, caring eyes and ears to solve the problems he can, give advice where appropriate and generally create the happy ending the film needed.  Read more …


The Martian

November 2, 2015

The Martian, directed by sci-fi master Ridley Scott, and starring as good a cast of actors as you will find, may be the best movie this year. Taking place in what feels like equal parts on the surface of the planet Mars and in the various rooms of NASA’s Space Center in Houston, Martian is the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut who finds himself stranded on Mars with very little food, no communication with the outside world and only the shreds of hope he can muster from his indefatigable courage to at least try to survive. Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator, Alien) is at his big budget finest, and the script is tight, fast-paced, funny where it might have been silly and moving where it might have been maudlin. The film is a triumph in every way.  Read more …


Black Mass

November 2, 2015

The much anticipated crime picture, Black Mass, has been a mild hit for the critics and a tepid winner at the box office. As Matt Neal of The Standard put it: “…given Depp’s performance, and the high-caliber cast around him, it’s disappointing Black Mass isn’t better.” Talk about damned by faint praise. And this review is rated “Fresh” by rottentomatoes.com. Just think what the “rotten” reviews say…

Black Mass is exactly that: a good, solid criminal drama but nothing to write home about. The odd thing is that when one breaks it down, there are many pluses and few minuses. So what makes the film so disappointing?  Read more …


Pawn Sacrifice

November 2, 2015 

What a great, totally unknown movie! Pawn Sacrifice, the story of Bobby Fischer, the genius chess master, who as a very young man defeats Grand Master and World Champion Boris Spassky, to become recognized as the greatest chess player in the world, appears to want to be a story of governments scheming to best one another by using up fragile individuals and leaving them discarded in their wake. What the movie in fact turns out to be is a tour de force of acting.  Read more …


What’s In a Picture?

October 14, 2015

In my dictionary the word “logo” has this definition: “a symbol or other design adopted by an organization to identify its products, uniform, vehicles, etc.” Symbols perform the useful function of telling a story when words are unavailable, or, perhaps, we should say they tell a story in a different way than words do. They create impressions without speaking directly to our cognition, and so, if you are offering a symbol that represents you this way, you want it to be right.

The logo, or brand mark, if you prefer the newer way to describe these symbols in advertising circles, at the top of the page above represents many months of work by experts in creating this sort of thing and discussions by our staff and others concerning who we are and how we at the Consortium want ourselves to be understood. Some elements of our new logo are fairly simple to understand: the columns are representative of the fact that we serve universities and colleges, and that we have an appreciation for the stability and history so important to the view of reality we represent in the Christian faith. The light rising on the face of the columns is equally plain in its representation of the hope and desire we have as Christians to see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God found in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6) triumph over the darkness of despair that grips so much of our world. We believe that hope is grounded in the three-ness of the columns and its primary reference.

That primary reference is to the God we worship and trust, one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Both Bible and nature tell us that everywhere God, the Three in One, is at work in the great story of our creation, fall, redemption and restoration. We believe, too, that He has revealed Himself in three so-called “transcendentals” so common to classical philosophers and early church fathers: beauty, goodness and truth. Modern Christians like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton have made a good case for these three representing the highest aspirations of humankind, as well as one of the most profound descriptions of the way God meets those desires in His own person. A third three embedded in our logo comes from the variety of ways the human being attains knowledge. Simply (and alliteratively!) put, we must look for God in the thoughts of our heads, the affections of our hearts and the actions of our hands. He reveals Himself to us through all three, and so the programming and work of all kinds, which our member Study Centers adopt, generally reflect all three.

We hope each time you look at our logo, you will think of God in all the richness He is and pray for us as we labor in His name.


The Gift

October 8, 2015

Whatever happened to the subtle, frightening thriller? It’s alive in The Gift.

Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s (The Great Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty) writer/director debut, The Gift is a flawed, but exciting example of what is wrong with big, action-movie dominated Hollywood. The paucity of movies like this makes too much hang on the success or failure of a few, and that is not fair to a genre that knows no generational, sexual or racial boundaries. Everyone can enjoy a good thriller, but there just are not enough of them out there to justify their existence.  Read more …


A Walk in the Woods

October 7, 2015

Bill Bryson’s report of his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail, entitled A Walk in the Woods, is a funny, intelligent, self-deprecating narrative. This movie, built on the book, is not.

Directed by Ken Kwapis, who has spent much of his career directing episodes of television sitcoms, the movie relates the story of Bryson, recently returned home from England and wanting to “experience America” once again, deciding that one way he could do that would be to get out into the most famous place in the wilds of the Eastern U.S. and walk. The AT provides the beauty and the challenge of hiking the spine of the Appalachian Mountain range from Springer Mountain in North Georgia to Mount Katahdin in the wilderness of Maine. The trail is rigorous and glorious, but barely a fifth of those who start out in the spring in Georgia make it to the peak of Katahdin. Bryson, and his hiking buddy, Stephen Katz of Iowa, were not among them.  Read more …


Diary of a Teenage Girl

September 23, 2015

Some lives are lived in a desperately hopeless environment, and that is the case with Minnie, the teenage girl from the title of this film. The setting of Diary is the 70’s, and the seedy, drug infested downside of the hippie revolution in San Francisco. Minnie’s mother wanders in and out of the house, working lightly, getting fired mostly, smoking grass constantly. Her no-count boyfriend, Monroe, never seems to do anything but drink, and as Minnie’s sexual desire awakens (she is fifteen), she seduces him.

Their affair lasts for some time, as they meet in the afternoons after school and any time, really, Minnie can talk him into it. One knows from early on this is going to end badly of course, and it does, but not until Minnie has also been introduced to other “freedoms” like marijuana and cocaine. The mind of the teenage girl maneuvers in ways that are a complete mystery to me. As a friend of mine said to me about this movie, “It’s not possible for us really to judge this film as accurate or not. How can we?” I think he’s right.

But Justice Frankfurter was also right. I may not be able to define pornography, but I know it when I see it. Not that Diary is salacious, really; it tells the true story of Phoebe Glockner, the author of a memoir thinly disguised as a novel. True stories are what they are, and, if the sex is treated with some care, then salacious is not really the word. Maybe the word is not “salacious” but “obsessed”?

And that is what Minnie, the teenager at the heart of the film is: obsessed with sex. She pulls out a cassette tape recorder and decides to record the details of her intimate encounters with Monroe. Thankfully, Marielle Heller, the writer and first-time director of the movie avoids dwelling on these details; in fact the “diary” gets lost in the movie for the most part, though it proves to be the mechanism of Minnie’s undoing late in the film. I’d worry about this being a spoiler, if it weren’t so predictable in an otherwise relatively clean script. The standard stock characters—a girl friend for Minnie, the ex-husband/father—pad the script out without adding anything to it, but this is a minor distraction as the actors who play the three main characters are more than able to keep the viewer engaged.

Diary of a Teenage Girl was a darling of the Sundance Film Festival this year, and in many ways deserves its praise. Kristen Wiig as the mother, Charlotte, and Alexander Skarsgård as Monroe are very good, and lose themselves completely in these roles, though there is not a lot of depth to explore in either character. The find of this movie, though, is Bel Powley, an eighteen-year-old actress, who plays Minnie flawlessly and never lets what could have been a cartoonish romanticism cause the viewer to check out. (In fact there is a literally cartoonish romanticism intended in the film, as Minnie sometimes daydreams in animated drawings of flowers, etc.) Not particularly attractive—as the character is not—Powley nevertheless exudes a sexuality that is disturbing and erotic at the same time. This of course is as it should be, and it makes the film a compelling experience.

I’m not sure what the point of this movie was. Was it just to tell the story? If so, who cares about another hippie movie this many years later? Was it a commentary on every teenager’s sexual awakenings? I hope not. Was it a warning that this way, the way of “free love, sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll”, leads to a hazardous conclusion? The ending is unclear on this point, and, anyway, the movie is anything but preachy.

I don’t know. What I do know is that once again I left the theater wondering where hope lies in the experience of today’s teenager, and being saddened that none was offered. It was a rough experience, but so is life for too many teenage girls.

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September 22, 2015

War Room

I had begun to get so hopeful towards the efforts of Alex and Stephen Kendrick, the two brothers “who do the Christian films.” From Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, they are the filmmakers who made the surprise box office success Facing the Giants, in 2006, and followed it with Fireproof and Courageous, each time improving in their screenwriting sensitivity and accessibility for Christian and non-Christian alike. None of their films were as truly dreadful as the distressing God’s Not Dead!, and each one made more money than the last.

What had excited me was that the problems the firefighters faced in Fireproof and the policemen faced in Courageous were problems that they handled as Christians, but without seeming strangely unrealistic or “weird”. Of course these characters were different from the secular man who never prays, reads his Bible or goes to church, but these are things that have always distinguished Christians from those without faith (though not from religious Jews or Muslims), and they seemed to have been accepted by the movie-going public, at least enough to have built something of a following for the Kendrick brothers’ films.

More important, the solutions to the problems in these films were handled in a more realistic way than “Christian” films often handle them. After Facing the Giants, where the football team becomes more Christian and then wins, not one, not two, but three state championships, sometimes prayer and Bible study seem to help and sometimes they don’t, as is true in life. Fireproof and Courageous had characters who came to Christ and characters who didn’t, characters whose lives changed for the better and characters who continued to suffer. The stories felt more real.

Then along comes War Room. In it not only does the couple, who are the main characters, repair a breaking marriage in a couple of weeks, rediscover a great new job for the husband, reform a lying, thieving, philandering dad into an honest, sacrificial one, but also the daughter’s team wins second place in a jump rope contest with the help (and participation!) of her dad! Everything comes up roses in the end, and all the subtlety that had seem to at least have begun to be built in the earlier films is gone. Pray and everything will turn out splendidly is the message of this movie.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe that a lot of the practices preached in this movie (yes, there is no weak “We’re just telling a story” here; these guys are preaching) are for the most part in line with what we should do in our spiritual practices. Even the idea of a prayer closet is one that saints from Augustine to Bill Hybels have recommended in their books. The sacrificial ideas propounded by the spiritual source of wisdom in the film, an older woman named Miss Clara and played by the entrancing Karen Abercrombie, are almost all spot-on. There is much in the film that should be heeded, if one desires to be a faithful Christian.

The problem is that the sovereign Lord of the universe simply doesn’t work on a quid pro quo basis with us in terms of our prayer. Yes, He does encourage us to pray, and, yes, He sometimes responds to those prayers in ways that deeply move us with joy and gratitude because He works His work to deliver us from danger or depression. But just as often, I believe, He does not and for reasons we often are not told.

War Room is far too pat with its solutions. And that’s too bad because much of it is well worth seeing. Just the jump rope competitions near the end are almost worth the price of a ticket.

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September 2, 2015

The End of the Tour

Talky movies are never big box office. The famous cult classic My Dinner with Andre (1981) grossed a whopping $5.2M (that’s right, million, not billion) and even in 1981, that was paltry.

This movie is not only almost all talk, it records a five-day conversation between David Foster Wallace, a revered novelist who has been dead for six years, and David Lipsky, a novelist and journalist who, though well-received, is hardly a household name.

OK, so the film has everything going against it. And it turns out to be one of the most fascinating movies of this year. Wallace may be best known nowadays for a commencement address he delivered at Kenyon College, his alma mater, in 2005. In it, he moves from mild cynicism about commencement speeches to an impassioned plea to the graduates of the famous liberal arts school to face their everyday existence, always choosing to think humbly about those who get in their way, who seem more angry or intolerant or even uneducated or unfortunate than they are. He essentially teaches them there really are no atheists and that the god most often worshipped is the self.

This demeanor, this tragic humility, of the suicide victim creates an aching empathy in the viewer of the film. I could not take my eyes off Jason Siegel, who plays Wallace with such grace and commitment that he completely disappears into the role. Jesse Eisenberg, who plays the role of Lipsky, sent by Rolling Stone to go with Wallace on the last five days of his book tour for the one novel Wallace ever produced, the 1,076 page Infinite Jest, is very good, but essentially as the foil to Wallace’s charismatic ramblings about fame and success and life.

They drive and fly together, sometimes sharing the screen with two women who latch onto them after a book signing, but mostly they talk, and the talk never ceases to be interesting. It ranges from the banal (imagining Alanis Morissette eating a bologna sandwich) to the sublime (Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment), but it is always searching, searching for a new phrasing, or a new idea, or both. Lipsky, a considerably lesser light as a novelist, but actually with some accomplishment himself, comes off as the friend, who simply wants to listen and learn. Wallace seems to want this, then not to want it; he is a complex bag of emotions and viewpoints, and that complexity, darting and feinting all over the conversational map is what carries the movie, until Lipsky gets in his rental and drives away.

The End of the Tour says a lot about the kinds of things Wallace wrote about and talked about in his speech at Kenyon, elements embedded in our society that are eating away at it, discomforting us, even as they tempt us to indulgence, experiences like alienation, loneliness, self-centeredness, consumerism. In his humility, he rejected these as meaningless and devoid of satisfaction, but he could never find anything to replace them that would both affirm his humility, yet give him enjoyment in the now.

A deep tragedy, and it will make your heart ache for a generation striving to find its way.

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August 31, 2015

Ricki and the Flash

Meryl Streep may be one of the greatest actresses of all time, but she has also been in some clunkers in her illustrious career, and Ricki and the Flash is one of them. Why would she do such a thin, silly movie? One might think that her sole reason was to act alongside her daughter, the accomplished Mamie Gummer (The Good Wife), but surely there was a better vehicle than this to satisfy that desire.

The movie revolves around a 50-year-old rock ‘n’ roll singer named Ricki Rizzolo (Streep), who plays with her band every weekend in a sleazy bar in Tarzana, California. Ricki gets called back to her former husband and family in Indianapolis, Indiana, when her daughter tries to commit suicide after her husband leaves her. Wonderful themes like sacrificing everything to follow your dream, a mother’s love fills holes nothing else can fill, and the power of music to heal, are taken to ridiculous extremes in this farce of a script by former stripper Diablo Cody (Juno, Jennifer’s Body). The “sacrifice” Ricki makes is to leave her husband and three kids high and dry to run off to California to become a star. When she shows up in Indianapolis, Ricki is able in what seems like five minutes to get her severely depressed daughter to get cleaned up, get her hair done and buy a new dress, and worst of all at the end of the movie, Ricki shows up at her son’s wedding, plays him and his new bride a song and everybody lives happily ever after, dancing and holding each other close. At least when Shakespeare tried to pull off something like this, everybody knew he wasn’t serious.

The only reason to see Ricki and the Flash is to get to hear Rick Springfield, one of the most revered guitarists in rock history, play some energetic tunes, and it must be said that Streep holds her own in singing everything from U2 to Bruce Springsteen.

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August 28, 2015

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

For Tom Cruise fans only.

A fun ride, if you want to leave your mind completely at the door. At least the film eschews gratuitous sex or gross violence; everything is done in cartoon fashion. Lots of explosions, car chases, absurd gun fights. What actors (the cast is full of fine actors, including Cruise in my opinion) will do for money…

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August 26, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton has been one of the greatest box office surprises of the summer, and this biopic writ large is even generating Oscar buzz. Not the biography of one person but of three (with a couple of others thrown in with lesser roles), Compton relates the origin and early history of rap and hip-hop, at least from the N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude), Los Angeles perspective. The film is choppy and confusing at times, but it is filled with energy, and if rap and hip-hop are anything, they are musical forms filled with energy. The script of this film, while far too hagiographic, moves the action constantly, but never fails to form the characters, and this is a very difficult thing to accomplish. It’s brilliant, and the actors fulfill all its promise.

Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., plays his father, and is the strength of the film. Portraying in perfect balance his father’s anger, smarts, drive and basic fair-mindedness, Jackson never falters in showing his love for his fellow band members, his difficulty in leaving the band, when he is getting shafted by their manager (played brilliantly, as usual, by Paul Giamatti), his inability to face the death of Eazy-E, their leader who died of AIDS, and most of all, his love of words and their powerful possibilities. The range of Jackson’s performance draws the viewer into this world, so foreign to most of us, of gang rivalries, depressed neighborhoods, police brutality.

And to praise Jackson should not be taken as damning the other performances in Compton. Everyone is superb—Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, and the list could go on and on. It would not be surprising to see each of these young men become stars; they are that good. The variety of situations N.W.A. confronted as they grew up in Compton is extraordinary. In a day when race is at the forefront of almost every political and social discussion in America, the movie helps those of us who cannot imagine what it is like to grow up black in our country to taste at least something of the hurt, the pain, and, yes, the oppression blacks, especially young black men, face. It is a painful movie to watch.

But what is even more painful is to see the response of “gangsta rap” clothe itself entirely in anger. Rage and fury dominate the film until N.W.A. and its members each become rich beyond their wildest dreams. Then their greed and materialism begin to compete with their rage. None of this is explored in the movie. Nothing questions any of these responses and the evil done to them. The questions asked by reporters about their foul-mouthed lyrics or their contributions to the violence spawned by their concerts are answered by weak appeals to their “art” and their “freedom of speech.” An eye for an eye is consistently the ethic of Compton.

The movie is not for the faint of heart. Of course the lyrics of rap are filled with cursing of every kind, and guns, drugs and sex are everywhere in this movie. Unfortunately, that is the life of the characters portrayed in Straight Outta Compton, and we should not berate the filmmakers for portraying them that way. We should weep for them.

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August 18, 2015

Irrational Man

Woody Allen. You gotta love him.

Allen’s movies have been dissected, debated, debunked, demonized and otherwise discussed for many years, but I don’t think anyone thought he would remain as fresh and interesting as he has been in what must be the twilight of his fifty year long career. (And that’s only his films; he’s been writing and acting in television since the Colgate Comedy Hour in the early 1950’s.) The last five years alone have brought us Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love, Blue Jasmine, Magic in the Moonlight, and now Irrational Man, and only To Rome with Love was generally believed to be a failure. Actually, that’s saying it too negatively. How about this: Midnight in Paris was compared to Annie Hall as potentially Allen’s best film ever; Blue Jasmine was an unqualified success and won the Academy Award for Cate Blanchett; and Magic in the Moonlight was shallow but loved. How many 79-year-old men do you know who have had that much success in the last five years?

Though the critics have not been kind to Irrational Man, I believe Allen has shown once again that he is best filmmaker in history at putting serious, important thoughts into a story that is intriguing, at times funny, and always engaging. Man fits alongside Crimes and Misdemeanors (which is decidedly better, I admit) as the most philosophically engaging movies Allen has done; Match Point builds the philosophy into the film without saying as much about it. The story revolves around a philandering philosophy professor, named Abe Lucas (played by Joaquin Phoenix), who arrives at a small, California college and immediately becomes involves with Jill (Emma Stone), a student, and Rita (Parker Posey), a fellow faculty member. Sex plays some role in the picture but only as a foil to explain how seriously Abe is in the throes of philosophic depression; he’s even been impotent for the last year.

The event that brings Abe out of his funk is to plan the perfect murder, one that rids society of a cockroach but is performed by someone who has no relationship to the victim at all. Plotting this murder energizes him once again, and the film’s action and intrigue take off from there.

The movie displays Allen’s usual gift for dialogue (“I can’t write. I can’t breathe. I couldn’t remember the reason for living, and, when I did, it wasn’t convincing.”) and quiet, assured camerawork, and of course the cast is outstanding. What sets this film apart is its rotation around a philosophy professor and his view of the meaning of life. Again, Crimes and Misdemeanors comes to mind, but the main character in that movie is an ophthalmologist, not a philosopher or theologian. Here, philosophy is spouted directly, head on, and the key plot points are spoken of in terms of moral justification.

Like several movies from last year (Boyhood and Birdman come to mind), existentialism, the dominant philosophical stream of the 60’s, shows up in spades. Camus’s The Stranger with its murdering protagonist, is not mentioned in the film, but surely was in Allen’s mind as he wrote, and the Danish existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard, is prominently referenced, as the subject of one of Lucas’s lecture topics.

Like any good thriller, one doesn’t know what is going to happen until the very end. Irrational Man is to be seen by anyone interested in ideas about meaning as we move more deeply into the twenty-first century. And by anyone who just wants to see a good movie.

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August 14, 2015

Southpaw

Boxing movies have established a remarkable record down through the years for providing, sweet, accessible, dare-I-say-in-our-cynical-age “inspiring” stories about men and women who overcome devastating circumstances to triumph in life, even though these stories are mostly clichéd and predictable. One of my favorite movies is one of the least known boxing movies, Cinderella Man (2005), in which Russell Crowe plays the real-life James J. Braddock who, during the depression years, returned to the ring and pulled off an upset of the heavily favored Max Baer. Braddock loves God, his family, is humble and selfless, though strong. If one is looking for a movie that presents a father the way you might want to model yourself as one, Cinderella Man is the one to watch. Of course the Rocky (1976-1990) pictures come to mind, though they suffer from varying degrees of quality, and Million-Dollar Baby (2004), for the first half before it takes a decidedly sharp, dark turn, should be mentioned. Many boxing pictures fill out the resumé of inspiring rags to riches stories, the only exception I can remember being the intentionally-against-type, brilliant Raging Bull (1990).

Southpaw may be short on story creativity, too, but it makes up for it in superb direction and editing, solid dialogue and spectacular performances. Anton Fuqua directed the film, and his choices move the story along so well that one hardly notices how predictable the actual plot points are. His shooting of the fight scenes makes use of a number of techniques, which give deep impressions to the viewer of both the violence and the art of boxing. It is remarkable in this day and age of viewer self-awareness that a film could make you feel that you are actually being punched, but that happened to me in Southpaw. The more dramatic scenes between the boxer, Billy Hope, and his family, his trainers and other people with whom he interacts are just as well done, and Fuqua should be praised as much as the actors for making the audience really feel a part of the events of the film.

The writing gets a little over wrought at times, but generally remains faithful to the streets from which Hope comes, but it is the acting that makes this movie worth viewing. Jake Gyllenhaal, as Billy Hope, is in almost every frame of the film, often looking like he is one punch away from death, but he gives the kind of performance we have come to expect from him. He is thoroughly convincing as the Eminem-like white/black street kid who has achieved success in the ring, then loses it all in the face of a severe downturn in his fortunes. (Eminem was actually offered the part and turned it down.) Rachel McAdams is equally good as Billy’s wife who has come up with him from a foster-care childhood of her own, and Forrest Whitaker and 50 Cent are both excellent as his “last hope” trainer (Whitaker) and as his earlier “money is what it’s all about” trainer (50 Cent).

If you don’t mind the blood, crude language and violence of the ring, Southpaw is a touching love story about a simple man and his family. Enjoy yourself.

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August 12, 2015

Mr. Holmes

Quiet, slow-moving mysteries with old men and little boys are rare nowadays, and that may be one of the reasons I enjoyed Mr. Holmes so much. This movie is a pleasant time out for anyone, who loves a good story. There is nothing particularly deep about it, but the film evinces a nice moral, extoling caring about those around you and trying to see things from their point of view.

Mr. Holmes is of course the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, played by Ian McKellen, but here he is late in life, in retirement after he has misjudged a case and becomes consumed with guilt over the death of a young woman he believes he has pushed to commit suicide. McKellan plays Holmes both in flashback and the present-day and does an extraordinary job of appearing both dashing, arrogant and blindingly intelligent in the younger role, as well as doddering, self-pitying, and unreasonably selfish as the old man. Laura Linney is magnificent as the housekeeper, who has to put up with him; her Welsh accent is beautifully consistent and agreeable to listen to. Her son is played by Milo Parker, a boy who is as confident and professional as he is boyish and appealing. There are no misses among this cast, and that helps make the movie the pleasure it is.

Any film about Holmes is going to elevate reason to heights generally not appreciated in the twenty-first century, but the film is true to postmodern form in that Holmes’s development as a character is from selfish, aging detective to gentler, kinder protector of Linney and her son. The detective grows more and more at peace, as he discovers things about himself and his two housemates, some revealed by the boy, but others by his own process of self-discovery through probing elements of the case he has suppressed all these years. Under the skillful direction of Bill Condon, what sounds like a mind-numbing journey of psychoanalysis becomes a brief, but engaging, human story of intrigue and mystery.

The movie feels shorter than its hour and forty-four minutes, and it does not contain any transcendent dimension, but most movie-lovers will enjoy this throwback to another age of films that wish to entertain simply and winsomely.

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August 11, 2015

Ant-Man

In a climate which seems to produce another super-hero movie every two months, anyone jumping into that pool would naturally seek an advantage, a niche that would make it stand out from the rest. Most seem to think that the best avenue to such a place is by producing more and bigger special effects, usually in terms of natural disasters, wars or extraordinary science fiction elements, but that will never satisfy the moviegoer who is looking for an engaging movie experience. Even the teenage boy for whom these movies are made is beginning to get so jaded it becomes almost impossible to frighten, much less excite, him in the face of so much one-ups-man-ship.

Ant-Man goes in a different direction entirely. Nothing about it feels “big” (pardon the pun). For instance one of the most fearsome moments in the film is when a toy train runs over ant-man’s nemesis, Darren Cross played by Corey Stoll. The movie deftly switches back and forth between the POV of the main character and that of the audience so that in that particular scene, we see a huge train bearing down on the bad guy, creating a split second of terror for the audience, before the movie comically cuts to a high angle shot of the toy train, having hit the ant-sized person (who has full human-size strength), running off its tracks as Cross simply swipes it away.

Scenes like that are multiplied for the hero, Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd), especially since one of the tropes of the film has to do with Lang’s modesty about his abilities, even as a full-size human. The whole idea of the film is a running joke—a super-hero who is the size of an ant? Come on!—and that endears ant-man to the audience from the start. Who wouldn’t pull for a guy who is the size of an ant, been fired from his job, and whose lone foray into the criminal world gets him arrested, convicted, divorced and separated from his adoring daughter?

Everything about the film’s plot is predictable. My guess is that from reading the last sentence of the paragraph above, you, reader, already know what motivates Lang to take on the impossible possibility of becoming ant-man, entering a ridiculously high security technology building, and securing the safety of the world by destroying the only other ant-man suit which has fallen into the wrong hands. Enough said.

What isn’t predictable is Ant-Man’s regular comic forays into self-deprecation. Super hero movies usually do this at least a little, and comic reference to earlier super hero magazines and films has been around a long time. I’ll never forget Clark Kent in the Christopher Reeve Superman (1978) stopping, confused, in front of one of the small public phones in Metropolis, when he needed a phone booth in which to change his clothes. Ant-Man does this non-stop, but, brilliantly, never keeping the action from proceeding. The movie’s comedy never feels strained or boring, and that takes superb writing with proper pace and sensitivity. The funniest examples of this are in some of the “human relationship” scenes, when people are asking forgiveness or expressing love in a variety of ways, and the Rudd character almost breaks the fourth wall in the way he breaks up some of these scenes with his social ineptitude.

If you can’t tell by now, I really liked Ant-Man. The story is crisp and delightful, and the movie brims with great performances by Rudd, Stoll, the great Michael Douglas and even Evangeline Lilly (Lost, The Hobbit) who has never played such a nuanced role and pulls it off well. Go see it, and you can even take the kids to this one.

By the way, stay until the end of the credits. There are not one, but two previews of upcoming movies with ant-man in them.

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August 7, 2015

Minions 

Minions is as cute and hilarious as expected. Funny, isn’t it, that we so like creatures who are cuddly, yet seek after the most evil master they can find? How can that be right?

The answer is that the evil in Minions is so stylized that it’s really not evil in any actual sense at all. And of course we find out in the Despicable Me movies that the evil Gru, the most despicable super villain of all time, is really a mushy sweetheart after all. Satan, not with a pitchfork even, but a heart-shaped box of chocolates, in his hand.

Ah, the summer myths we sit in the dark for two hours to enjoy.

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August 5, 2015

Inside Out

Latest in the Pixar pantheon of kid’s movies made for adults, Inside Out takes a bold step into the world of the inner life, creating a mythical headquarters inside the head of Riley, a hockey playing girl from Minnesota. At the controls of Riley’s mind are five emotions—Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness with Joy at the helm, voiced by Amy Pohler. After deftly laying out a rather complicated system by which Riley does what she does and the emotions’ involvement with her decisions, the movie essentially begins when at the age of eleven, Riley moves from Minneapolis to San Francisco. This major crisis in Riley’s life endangers the existence of the five “islands” fueled in her head by core memories created by her experiences and managed by the five emotions. The islands are representative of Riley’s personality at a subconscious level and are responsible for her behavior; they are the touchstones of her decision making and are all healthy and functioning well up to this point in her life. The five islands, “Goofball”, “Friendship”, “Hockey”, “Honesty” and “Family”, float above the Abyss of a dark wasteland called the memory dump and are connected tenuously to headquarters by long rods. During the crisis of the movie, the islands become disconnected from headquarters, begin to crumble and die, as their corresponding core memories are destroyed.

The move to San Francisco is a disaster as Riley’s new home is dilapidated and unwelcoming, her father loses his job and of course she is confronted with a new school devoid of all her friends in Minnesota. The movie focuses on Joy and Sadness, thrown together by circumstances and ejected from headquarters after a struggle for control of some of Riley’s memories, going on a journey through Long-Term Memory, some of the islands, the Abyss, and eventually getting back to headquarters. All the while Riley encounters disappointment and heartache one after another until she decides to run away (at Anger’s prompting). Of course this is a Pixar movie, so Riley is eventually reconciled to her parents, confesses her lack of honesty, makes new friends, redevelops her ability to goof around and even gets back her love for hockey. Along the way, she learns a lot of lessons, and the viewer is given much to consider.

So much of this movie is wise. There are many funny portrayals of anger, disgust, and fear, as well as of joy and sadness (the two chief characters), and a clear premise of the film is that any of these emotions by itself creates a shallow—or worse, dangerous—personality that is bound for trouble. The emotions are put in a very high place in the film, but not one that allows for pedestals.

The chief lesson, that as one matures, one realizes that most experiences (and memories!) are tinged with both joy and sadness, is a good lesson for a fallen world, and rightly sees humankind as both noble and fallen. Would that the movie only taught what it explicitly says, but, unfortunately the subtext of this film is not so encouraging.

Religion of any kind plays no part in Inside Out, a profoundly disappointing aspect of the film since it seems to want to present us with a comprehensive view of how life is lived by human beings. As often in “good” secular film, the family is the closest thing to God, so the Family island is the one that is last to be almost destroyed and is clearly the most important to be restored. The entire metaphor of emotions governing a “headquarters” in the human psyche is sadly materialistic to the core, and the lack of any kind of reference to some sort of higher governing, or even helping, agency misses the point of actual human experience where we are all governed by the gods or God we serve. One could argue that the islands were of Riley’s choosing and serve as her “gods” but since there is no reference to god or the transcendent in the movie, that is simply too clever by half. The movie avoids the transcendent in every way.

Even worse, the only Christ figure in the film is a childhood imaginary friend named Bing-Bong, who gives up his chance of escape from the Abyss of the memory dump by choosing to jump from his rocket ship in order to save Joy. Too many Freudians already irrationally believe in the childishness of faith. They don’t need Pixar to help them along that road. Bing-Bong, Santa Claus, Jesus Christ—all for childhood, right?

Additionally, reason comes in for really bad treatment. At one point on their journey, for example, Sadness, Joy and Bing-Bong are trapped in the Center of Abstract Thought, which turns anything real into an abstraction, capturing it forever. They escape this horror just in time. Plato would be mortified. I cannot remember the exact nature of the joke, but there is also a reference to ideas being all jumbled together while the emotions are riding the Train of Thought. Ah, well, perhaps there is some truth there…

Much of my disappointment with Inside Out stems from the fact that its chief creator and director is Pete Docter, who has declared his Christian faith many times (cf. e.g. this interview). He has said

I don’t think people in any way, shape, or form like to be lectured to. When people go to a movie, they want to see some sort of experience of themselves on the screen. They don’t come to be taught. So in that sense, and in terms of any sort of beliefs, I don’t want to feel as though I’m ever lecturing or putting an agenda forth. (“What’s up Doc(ter)?” Christianity Today, May 26, 2009)

What he doesn’t seem to realize is that every film “lectures” in one way or another, and even further, every film is a religious film, whether it wants to be or not. Particularly, film that deals with the mind, the emotions, character formation and the capacity for decision making in the human being simply shouts one view or another about the existence of God, the nature of man, the means of salvation and a host of other teachings that force one to religious conclusions. The religion in a film doesn’t have to be heavy or overly direct, but in Inside Out, Docter didn’t give us anything that even hints at the existence of the transcendent. That’s a pity because the film has many, albeit humanistic, insights.

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July 4, 2015

I’ll See You in My Dreams

Old folks movies didn’t all used to be comedies about broken down hotels in India or exotic restaurants being produced in exotic places in Europe. Cocoon (1985), for example, starred Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley, Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton and Hume Cronyn, none of them under sixty at the time, Ameche winning the Oscar in the Best Supporting Actor category for his performance. I’ll See You in My Dreams, an independent darling at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, swims in the same waters with Blythe Danner, Sam Elliott, Mary Kay Place and Rhea Perlman providing the main characters of this charming, sad, but thoughtful tour de force.

Danner plays Carol Petersen, widowed for twenty years and now in her seventies, whose dog dies, setting off a chain of events that force her to consider her life and its direction in a new way. Dreams follows three plotlines, all relating to Carol: her relationship to the much younger man who cleans her pool; a budding love interest in Bill, the Sam Elliott character; and her regular bridge games with three friends, all similarly unmarried, and played by Place, Perlman and June Squibb.

Much of the comedy of this very funny movie comes from the dialogue at the bridge table between the women, when they discuss sex, travel and life. Carol is the rock among the four and the only one who still lives in her own house rather than a retirement community. She rises at six every morning, does all her own shopping, and sips Chardonnay while watching television, but when her dog dies and a rat invades her house, she encounters Lloyd, a lackadaisical pool cleaner, who lives with his mother, and who helps Carol dispose of the rat. Nothing untoward happens between the two, though Brett Haley, who wrote and directed the movie, does a superb job of keeping the tension just high enough to make one wonder what might happen next. What does happen is a friendship that gives rise to discussions of such grace and interest one cannot help but feel a kinship with both characters and their experiences.

There is much that cannot be discussed about Dreams for fear of spoiling important moments of the plot, but I can’t recommend this movie highly enough, if you want to learn a little about what it is like to face life older and alone. Dreams is at once heart-breaking and encouraging, and for the Christian, challenging. No faith of any kind is spoken of in the film, and, when Carol has an important talk with her daughter and says at one point, “I feel so incomplete,” I couldn’t help but think that we all do, but not because of the lack of a spouse as Carol meant. Rather, without the life-transforming “joy in the Holy Spirit” that anchoring ourselves in Christ brings to the Christian, we really would be incomplete. Feel that way anyway as we do sometimes, the Christian always comes back to Him and His promise never to leave us nor forsake us. I’ve never seen that relationship, i.e. that of Christians and their Lord, portrayed believably in film. Perhaps Eric Liddell’s character in Chariots of Fire came the closest. But just because I’ve never seen it, doesn’t mean I can’t lament what I know to be true in real life, if not in film.

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July 3, 2015

Dope

Dope is an angry, at times ugly, at times funny slice-of-life drama about life in the hood. This time the hood is the area of Watts known as “the bottoms” where Malcolm, a geek who loves nineties’ hip-hop, makes good grades and wants to go to Harvard, hangs out with his friends Jib and Diggy. In pursuit of a girl, Malcolm and his friends go to a drug dealer’s birthday party, and antics ensue that leave Malcolm dramatically changed.

The movie is choppy and jarring. One “comic” scene, described by Malcolm in voice-over, exemplifies the angry and ugly tone that surfaces too often in Dope. An inconsequential character is standing in line at a burger joint, playing a game on his smart phone, when two armed robbers enter the place, gunning down people at random. The game player is one of the victims, and, though the film doesn’t show the boy murdered, it does show his blood spattered phone with the voice-over lamely saying the real tragedy was that he had just set a record for the game he was playing and he was never going to enjoy his victory. If you think that is funny, maybe you would like Dope after all, but for me such comedy repulses rather than relieves.

The movie begins with a placard, displaying three different meanings of the word “dope”: 1) A substance that is sold illegally on the streets and imbibed to get an emotional high; 2) a slang term for an idiot; 3) a slang term used to express when something is really great. All three emerge in this movie as pointers to the movie’s view of life for someone growing up in Inglewood and trying to break out of the cycle of violence and drugs the place’s atmosphere forces on its children. Drugs form the heart of the Maguffin, which makes the plot go forward. Malcolm is of course the idiot, the “dope”, whose actions regularly get him and his friends in trouble.

The third definition, the thing on the streets that’s really great is harder to discern, and this may be the movie’s greatest problem. Are we really supposed to think Malcolm’s success at the end, at the expense of his own moral fabric, is a good thing? Would his hard working, bus driving single mother approve? Would Harvard be worth it to her? Or are we supposed to think that it is his growing into a man, symbolized apparently—again this is unclear—by his willingness to pull a gun on the boy who has earlier stolen his tennis shoes? If so, the movie’s disdain in other places for those with money, social respect and the “hot girl” is foolish and inconsistent at best, immoral and anarchic at worst; money, respect and sex turn out to be the Holy Grail after all.

Dope’s racial anger, brought in vaguely throughout the film, but made explicit at the end, oddly seems stupid and out of place. Most of the racial references have to do with a white drug dealer/computer hacker named Will who fancies himself to be “black” and wants to use the “n” word when he is around Malcolm and his friends. Malcolm’s black friend Diggy, a lesbian with an attitude, slaps Will every time he uses the word. This joke is overused and underfunny, but the tone of the scenes is not funny and does not seem to be meant to be. The movie gets explicitly racist, when near the end Malcolm turns to the camera and asks the audience, “Would you even ask that question (Is Harvard really worth going to, if you have to become a drug dealer to get in?) if I was white?” To reinforce the racial point, he is standing under a bridge that says “Thurgood Marshall Memorial Walkway”. Why would he think the answer to his question would be “No”? For me it wouldn’t. Harvard is not worth it for anyone, black or white, to stoop so low. It is insulting for the movie to imply that all white people would say this is OK as long as it’s a white person doing it.

Of course the entire argument of the last paragraph is based on assuming a worldview that believes in the rule of law and does not elevate education, money and social status to levels of importance above that law. But Dope doesn’t accept such a view. No, getting into Harvard and getting out of the hood is everything, no matter what you have to do to accomplish that feat.

Dope has its moments, but it generally left me cold and irritated. Avoid it.

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July 1, 2015

Max

In one of my favorite films, The Shawshank Redemption, there is a scene in which Andy Dufresne sits down at the lunch table with the other convicts just after he has been released from two weeks in solitary confinement. He says it was the easiest time he ever spent because he had the music of Mozart in his head and heart to keep him company. When Red, played by Morgan Freeman, says it doesn’t seem to make sense to him to think of music in prison, Andy replies, “Here is where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.” Red: “Forget?” Andy: “Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside they can’t get to, they can’t touch.”

Max is a movie like that. Every pre-teen boy in America ought to go see Max. In fact every teen should, too. Oh, OK, every male, living in a world of the approval of same-sex marriage, murders in church Bible studies and videos of heads being lopped off on the beach, should see it, too, because Max reminds us that there are places in the world where dogs are faithful and true, where there are teen-age boys who need to find themselves and can, where there are fathers who need to learn how to talk to their sons and finally get up the courage to do so.

Max is far from a technically fine movie, but if there is another movie around today where the value system is as honorable and yet the relationships are portrayed as realistically as they are in Max, I wish you would show it to me. This story is one of friendships of all kinds, of budding teen-age love, of crime chases, bad guys and good guys—in short, while it stretches credulity to the breaking point in a lot of places, Max is a movie that will warm your heart without isolating your head.

For film history buffs, Max is also a throwback movie to the days of Rin Tin Tin, when “Rinty” ruled the box office in the early days of cinema. (The biggest box office star of the 1920’s? Rudolf Valentino? Not on your life. Rin Tin Tin. Look it up.) The star of this movie, Max, is a military dog, like Rin Tin Tin trained to sniff out arms and explosives on the battlefield. When his master is killed, he is sent back home and bonds with his master’s younger brother, changing both of their lives, and the lives of the boy’s father, mother and friends, forever.

Max lacks any real reference to faith, but that doesn’t keep it from being an inspiration toward the good. Its performances are less than stellar, and its story is far-fetched, but take your young boys to see it. They’ll love it.

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June 22, 2015

Spy

Spy is one of those movies that saddens me. Hilariously funny, the script by Paul Feig, who also directed, often achieves its humor by using cheap tricks. Those tricks involve foul—usually scatological or sexual—cursing, sleazy imagery, and demeaning jokes about everything from fat people to penis size. I wouldn’t be so bothered, if the movie just plain ol’ weren’t funny, but it is. Melissa McCarthy, for whom Feig wrote the screenplay, is her typical, perfect self, when it comes to delivery and style. She really is one of the best comic actresses around. The movie’s best comic surprises, though, come from its three other principal comic actors: Jason Statham, Rose Byrne and Miranda Hart. They are superb in their supporting roles, and Byrne virtually steals the movie.

Statham of course is the super-spy/assassin/etc., bad/good guy of a thousand action movies. Always as tough as it is possible—and too often impossible—to be, in Spy he spends the entire movie spoofing himself and his typical macho personality by playing a buffoon of a spy, who thinks himself to be the best and is really the worst of the CIA’s elite corps. Thankfully, too, his dialogue is impressively devoid of the sexual and scatological references found in much of the rest of the dialogue. His jokes are silly, but it’s his delivery that makes them so funny. I wish the other characters had been written so well.

Hart is completely unknown to American audiences and plays McCarthy’s CIA sidekick so well that it appears her part was written up to include more screen time as the movie went on. Again largely self-deprecating because she is a tall, gangly woman without a great deal of natural beauty, she is nevertheless a wonderful comedienne with great timing and a strong sense of her own physical presence and how it can contribute to the joke. She often smiles, showing off a row of crooked teeth that would send any American mother racing to the dentist, and just at the time, when the viewer needs it. She plays her role to the hilt, jumping Fifty Cent in a concert scene that was worth the price of admission.

But Byrne is unmatched as the Eastern European daughter of a mobster, who wants to sell a nuclear bomb to terrorists. Dressed to the nines but acting like Scarface at every moment, right and left consigning henchmen who fail to everlasting punishment, she plays her part so well one is actually afraid of her until the silliness of the moment reminds again that this is a comedy, and the viewer realizes how firmly the Australian actress must have her tongue planted in her cheek. She is perfect in the role and throws herself into it fully. Again, it is worth it just to go to this movie to see her act.

Back to the laugh factor. Quentin Tarantino once famously said that in Pulp Fiction, his goal was to have at any given moment one-third of the audience diving under their seat from fear, one-third falling off their seat from laughter, and one-third doing both. That seems to me evil. Fear should be real, not funny, because it should be directed at the evil in the world, even if it is the fictional evil of film.

Here, though, it’s not fearful things that are being made funny, but disgusting ones. The laughs are too easy to come by, when they are the jokes one can hear from a thousand foul-mouthed comedians doing stand-up in a thousand places every night in America. Sure, sometimes disgusting things can be very funny, but I like those jokes to be the very few and far between jokes, sprinkled into a dialogue that has smart, well-crafted jokes that form the backbone of the comedy. Once again, check out a movie I reviewed a few days ago in this space, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, if you want comedy that’s really good. Or watch a 1930’s comedy or two.

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June 19, 2015

Love & Mercy

There is so much bathos in the world that it is really refreshing to see a sad story with a happy ending, which rises above its potentially sickening melodrama and sincerely moves the heart. I am glad to say that Love & Mercy, the story of the life of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys achieves that remarkable goal, and it does so in spades. The only sad thing to me is that apparently the box office for this fine film is miserable, and, if you want to see it, you’ll have to hurry to your local theater, or remember to get it on Netflix, when it does finally come out digitally.

I can’t remember when I last saw two well-known actors play the same character at different stages of their life, but this movie takes that risk and pulls it off perfectly. Paul Dano, as the young Brian Wilson, full of ambition, talent and musical savvy, ranges easily between the fun-loving, pool-side “normal” kid and the increasingly troubled young man plagued by an oppressive father (played by the little-known but superb Bill Camp) and a strong fear of failure. Dano really is one of the great young actors of our age, who burst on the scene as the memorable older brother in Little Miss Sunshine and has starred in movies like Looper, 12 Years a Slave, and There Will Be Blood, holding his own there over against the great Daniel Day-Lewis.

As the older Brian Wilson, held under the thumb of the shyster doctor, Eugene Landy, John Cusack has the difficult job of underplaying a heavily sedated, fearful, star who is past his prime and completely devoid of understanding who he is and what his role in the world is any more. Cusack more than succeeds, and elicits so much sympathy in the role that, combined with the seething evil portrayed in Paul Giamatti’s Landy, the tension is nail-bitingly engrossing. There has not been a better job in recent film of displaying a thoroughly good and sympathetic character over against a thoroughly evil and hateful one like this movie did and not sinking into a simplistic mawkishness that is thoroughly unbelievable.

Part of the reason for that may be the performance of another wonderful actor in the film, Elizabeth Banks. She plays Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who falls in love with Wilson and eventually rescues him from Landy, giving the Beach Boy his life back. Walking the line between trying to find out what is going on in the situation, being sensitive to a needy human being with whom she may be falling in love, and respecting the fact that that human being just happens to be a rock icon must have difficult for the real Ledbetter, and Banks lives that pressure superbly for us.

Love & Mercy is not without its flaws. One of the largest is not playing enough Beach Boys music and giving us more of the feel of the bright lights and concert glitter that also contributed to Brian Wilson’s mental condition, but if the movie had to err, it did so on the right side, not falling back on the too-easy attractiveness of the Beach Boys’ easy, early sound that made them so famous and for which they are still remembered. No, this was a movie about the artist of Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations, who wanted to be remembered for his musical genius, not the shallow success of big-money, teeny bopper concerts. One of the most interesting sequences of the film is when it delves into the process Wilson followed in developing his biggest hit, which was in fact Good Vibrations.

Go to see Love & Mercy. It won’t be the feel-good experience of a 1960’s Beach Boys concert. It will be something better: an encounter with a story of love, music, redemption, sacrifice and triumph that will encourage you in the way a substantial, honest piece of filmmaking can and should.

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June 17, 2015

Jurassic World

Poor Steven Spielberg.

In the featurette for Jurassic World, essentially a remake of Jurassic Park, Spielberg, who was an Executive Producer on this film, says two things that must have been hard for him to say. The first is that World goes down “an original road, which none of the other movies dared to travel.” The second was: “There’s a lot of surprises in Jurassic World, and my confidence was so high in what our director, Colin, was going to achieve.” While neither of these statements are lies because they are based in Spielberg’s opinions, I find it hard, having seen the finished product, to understand how he could have made them with a straight face.

What “original road” did World travel? Yes, it deals with genetic engineering, but this is hardly an original idea, even in the Jurassic movies. Even the difference between the cloned dinosaurs of the first movie and the engineered larger, faster, smarter dinosaurs of this movie does not feel new in any way. The plot is basically same, as are the themes: Humans mess with nature, thinking they can control it. Nature does not do what is expected and surprises humans, creating a difficult, terrifying situation. Smart, kind humans are humble before nature and live. Stupid, mean humans are proud before nature and die. And a few other random people get eaten along the way.

The characters are not as good as the earlier movie. (I will leave out the sequels between these two movies, though one of them I found really enjoyable, The Lost World, which also contains a plot device, hidden dinosaurs, used again in this movie.) Chris Pratt and Dallas Bryce Howard are simply not as good at their profession as Sam Neill and Laura Dern, their rough equivalents from Jurassic Park, but they are also not given as much to work with. Their dialogue is clichéd and the timing in some of their scenes is atrocious. At one point, Howard and Pratt are standing there discussing her high-heeled shoes in the middle of being chased by a 50-foot high dinosaur, who has disappeared and threatens at anytime to eat them whole. Silly, bad comedy is annoying anytime, but when inserted in an inexplicable place in the story, it grates with an aggravation that is unnerving. This happens more than once in the movie. Add to Pratt and Howard (and Vincent D’Onofrio who plays one of the bad guys I mentioned above) a supporting cast, which seems only to be put in the movie for really awful “comedy” or thoroughly stereo-typed fillers, and the people don’t come off well in World. By the end you’re hoping they all get eaten, even the younger (bland) kid and his older (irritating) brother.

The set design and CG effects are stunning. There is nothing wrong with any of the dinosaurs, whether in close-up or long shot, and, if you like a movie in which the monsters are the attraction and suspension of disbelief has to be extended to the details of the plot and the likeability of the characters, then you’ll like Jurassic World just fine. The huge dinosaur that takes center stage is certainly frightening, though I was pleasantly surprised by one choice the filmmakers seem to have made, and that was to low-ball the amount of blood one sees. Yes, there are bloody hands on car windows, and there are characters we actually know to some degree, who are eaten whole by the creatures, but nothing so gripping as Robert Shaw’s inch-by-inch descent into the mouth of Jaws, still one of the most gruesome and terrifying deaths in movie history. Perhaps the reality of the actual violence in our society and its connectedness to our entertainment has finally impressed at least some movie producers to censor effects they could have used in PG-13 movies.

There are many things to say about the effect of movie violence on the psyche of the individual and of the society, but the odd, net effect of lessening its blood content was to make the movie not as frightening as it might have been. The movie’s plethora of obligatory, “close call” scenes where the humans must remain still and let the animals search for them from inches away (think Sigourney Weaver in Alien or the children in the kitchen in Jurassic Park) are more frightening than blood and guts anyway. And of course there are the surprises of animals jumping out of the bushes or water and one surprise plot point, and these are perhaps enough.

Overly predictable, poorly acted, written and directed, one would think that I would not recommend this movie in any way. But I must confess: I did still sit there in awe, asking, “How did they create a world like this or a creature like that?” and saying often enough, “Now that was really cool.”

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June 9, 2015

Aloha

Yes. It is as bad as everyone says it is.

Aloha, the new film by Cameron Crowe, writer and director of Almost Famous, Say Anything, and his best, Jerry Maguire, has given us another clunker like his Elizabethtown and We Bought a Zoo. Our hopes are so high for Crowe, one of the smartest writers of dialogue around. Flashes of his brilliance shine through this mess of a movie, but not at all often enough.

The problem is not the cast. With admirable actors like Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, John Krasinski, Emma Stone, Bill Murray and an even deeper supporting cast, this movie has no lack of talent. And none of them appear to mail it in. Even McAdams who has a very straight-line part gives it everything she’s got.

The problem with this movie is the basic plot. Two problems here. First, everything in the movie takes place within a tightly constricted moral arc; none of the characters do anything that bad, and none of them are rewarded that spectacularly. In other words there’s not enough that is actually interesting in the film. The main plot device is so ludicrous, it never feels threatening. It is not even interesting enough to merit the title Maguffin. Secondly, for the most part the characters just seem lame. Even though people treat each other badly at times, everything works out perfectly for everybody, tied up with a beautiful pink—no, pretty pink—bow. But nobody deserves it. This is not a screwball comedy of the 1930s where most people came out okay in the end because almost everybody deserves to come out okay.

Here there is no such reasonable ending. None of these characters have any right to make us think they earned a favorable nod. Cooper plays a complete screw-up whose one righteous act at the end of the movie, we are to suppose, wins him redemption, and who concludes the film wandering around with a silly smile on his face for everyone with whom he’s made contact during the movie. McAdams is a lonely, mostly single, mom whose husband doesn’t communicate with her at all and whose part is so poorly written, we never seem to know what is going on in her head. Stone plays a crazed fighter pilot (how’s that for casting? The only worse choice was Bill Murray as an evil billionaire. Come on, really?), who is obsessively devoted to the gods of Hawaii, and who just seems nutty. Throw in a seemingly constant stream of references to Hawaiian mythology, apparently intended to show Hawaii as a land of magic and mystery, and the whole island seems instead to be a mixture of crazy and stupid.

None of these people deserve the happy endings they receive, but this is not the worst thing about Aloha. Even if they had all been killed off, nobody would have cared because none of them elicits any empathy from the viewer. They are shallow, stick people. The character who comes closest is the daughter of McAdams, Gracie, who has the one truly moving scene in the film. Played by newcomer Danielle Rose Russell, the tears she sheds, when she sees her father, seem real, and our hearts break for her. She is one to watch.

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June 8, 2015

Skylight

This David Hare play is directed by Stephen Daldry at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway. Taking place largely on one night in the apartment of an East End schoolteacher in London, the play chronicles visits to the teacher by the son of her former lover, and then by the lover himself. Carey Mulligan (Far From the Madding Crowd, Shame, Drive) plays Kyra Hollis, who lives alone and is dedicated to her working class students in a shady part of London called East Ham. One immediately gets the impression of a well-educated, higher-class social worker, who has chosen to teach here, but why? That question will be one of the most important of several confronting the audience during the course of the play.

As Kyra is fixing herself supper and drawing a bath, she gets an unexpected visit from a youngish male named Edward Sergeant, who the last time she saw him was just a boy in a family with whom Hollis lived and worked in the restaurant business. He lets her know that the matriarch of the family, his mother Alice, has died after a bout with cancer, and that living with his father, Tom Sergeant, is now pure hell. Edward asks Kyra to consider coming back home to offer some comfort to his disintegrating father. She resists this suggestion, but we know there is more to the story than we have found out thus far.

Shortly after Edward leaves, Tom shows up, and the interaction between Tom and Kyra forms the heart of the play. Shortly, we learn that they had an affair that lasted six years, while they both lived under one roof; their guilt at betraying Alice and their love for each other form the yin and yang of a dialogue that never lacks for riveting tension. Add to that the clear opposites in their characters: Tom is a successful, older businessman; Kyra a poor, younger teacher. One has no social conscience whatsoever, the other is consumed by her calling to teach deprived students because no one else will. One drives a Mercedes—or rather has a driver who drives the Mercedes he owns—the other rides the bus and revels in the time it gives her for contemplation.

But under the principle that opposites attract, the two do genuinely have a love for each other, and the question of whether they will find a way to get together again keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. Mulligan and the irrepressible Bill Nighy, who plays Tom, have reprised the roles they had in the West End, and they are electric together. Every once in awhile at the performance I attended, the rapid-fire repartee of their more angry exchanges was too hurried; their familiarity with their lines got in the way of their performances. When a slight pause to think about what the other had just said and then respond to it would have been the most natural circumstance, too often the answer came crisply and strongly, but unnaturally, to the fore.

But this is a small matter. Usually, and especially when the discussion turns quieter and more reflective, the two go at each other like the professionals they are. Hare’s writing contributes so much, too, as it ranges through a number of levels. The play is the straightforward story of two people with a past, but is also a strong political statement of class warfare as well as the typifying of a man and a woman who struggle to relate to each other’s personalities with all their strengths and weaknesses. One will walk away thinking of scene after scene up and down the different layers of this magnificent performance.

Both Nighy and Mulligan are up for two of the seven Tonys for which the play is nominated. As I write, the Tonys are still in the future, and though neither is favored to win, they have my vote.

 

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June 5, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2

In my last post I praised a movie that has been little seen, but is a superb example of how to do teen comedy, a movie called Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It was superb in every way (except the horrible, though accurate, title). See it if you can.

I suppose it is appropriate that the next movie I mention is its polar opposite. Pitch Perfect 2 does have the expected fine musical performances by the different groups represented. One can’t help but be in awe of the choreography, singing and inventiveness of these groups as they pound our senses with acrobatic dancing, incredible harmonizing and perfect timing in every sense.

But that’s it. Another raunch comedy that gets a PG-13 rating simply because it exists in a culture which accepts that language is so meaningless and impotent only one certain word (beginning with “f” and ending with “k”, in case you didn’t know) has the power to require its censorship whenever it occurs, this filthy, pathetic, stale excuse for a movie demeans everyone in it, including its director, star and chief promoter, Elizabeth Banks. Banks, a smart, accomplished woman who also happens to have knock-out looks, seems bent on proving that she is what she is, and doing so by pushing the envelope on how offensive she can make her material.

It really saddens me to think about what PP2 could have been, and what it is. All the actresses who make up the cast have ability, but the material they are given here is so clunky, gross, and clichéd that one hurts for them having to deliver it. The first movie in this series, while bad, was not nearly so dependent on its raunch humor. One wondered where the relationships were going, how the Barden Bellas were going to be redeemed, etc. In this movie there is none of that suspense, even in the tiniest of senses.

Filled with gross, we-girls-can-be-as-filthy-as-you-boys, language, stunts and innuendo, Pitch Perfect 2 has nothing to commend it other than the music.

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June 4, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has been called “heavily hyped” by Vulture, and so it is. But it’s been heavily hyped by those who have seen it for one very good reason: it is just a superb piece of filmmaking for all the right reasons. It takes on one of the most dangerous genres in the world to master successfully—the sad, teen romantic comedy—and does so well that it is hard to think of a movie of this type you’ve ever seen that was as good. Mean Girls? Not close. Clueless? Well, maybe in the same league but at the bottom of standings. The Breakfast Club? I believe Dying Girl will stand the test of time as well as Club has, if its single flaw, its atrocious name, doesn’t sink it first. And it is much sadder than any of these three without ever being maudlin in its pathos.

Where to begin? Absolutely spectacular performances by three virtual unknowns. First, there is Thomas Mann as Greg Gaines (the “me” of the title), a geeky, friendless dork who also narrates the movie in a hilarious voice-over so well written, it rivals my favorite voice-over of all time, Morgan Freeman’s Red in The Shawshank Redemption (a movie that was sunk at the box office, I believe, by that ridiculous name). Second is Earl, played by RJ Cyler, Greg’s sidekick, equally a loner, who hangs out with Greg in their favorite teacher’s office, makes short movies with Greg, and generally debates Greg about everything. Laid back and brilliant in his portrayal of the “angry”, young black, Cyler has a great future either as an actor or a comic. And there’s Olivia Cook, as Rachel, the normal one of the three, who is helped through life’s most difficult step by her two friends and their humor, their friendship, and their love. The supporting cast carries the film from scene to scene with the all-important task of not getting in the way of the three principles, and fulfills that task admirably. Molly Shannon, as the drunk mom of Rachel, gets to do some comedy. Connie Britton, Greg’s mom, has the harder task of delivering the serious news, but the two women are both believable and sympathetic, even as they are pilloried by their teen-age children.

Next, the writing. The gags just keep on coming, fresh and laugh-out-loud funny in one of the most cliché-ridden types of movies imaginable. I can’t remember a single line feeling out of place, or flat, or too smart. Everything said and done feels perfectly natural for these three misfits, and not one scene goes on too long or should have been cut. In a movie that has the inevitability of a sad ending hanging over it from its first moments, the trick is to make the humor work without clashing with that sadness, and Jesse Andrews, who also wrote the novel, shows a remarkable ability at this, especially as a first-time screenwriter. I wish it hadn’t been six months since I saw this movie or I would relay a couple of these, but trust me: you will love it.

No review of this movie by a film-lover can be complete without mention of the task that forms the heart of the movie, Greg and Earl’s film, made for Rachel as a sign of their affection for her, when she is near the end. They have made 42 movies together, all short films, parodying famous movies from the past. The titles are without exception hilarious. My two favorites are the Hitchcock ones: Vere’d He Go? and Rear Wind. How more teen-age boy can you get?! Of course the movie is both funny and touching, just like the movie in which it is embedded. A sad, but wonderful expression of life and death as experienced by teen-agers. I can’t praise this movie enough.

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June 3, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

The critical hullabaloo over Mad Max: Fury Road is completely mystifying to me. I liked it, but goodness! No less a critic than A.O. Scott of the New York Times ends his review with the following: ‘“Mad Max: Fury Road,” like its namesake both humble and indomitable, isn’t about heroism in the conventional, superpowered sense. It’s about revolution.’ Revolution? Really? The main character says it’s about redemption. From what and for what, one isn’t told, and neither purpose seemed very clear to me. I think the movie is simply about having a good stunt-man (and woman!!) time with a completely ridiculous set of characters from the post-apocalypse.

Critics make much of the return of George Miller to the directorial helm of an action/adventure movie. Miller directed the earlier Mad Max trilogy (Mad Max [1980], The Road Warrior [1981], and Beyond Thunderdome [1985]), but he has been far from the frantic, noisy, blood-soaked desert of those films for the last thirty years, directing such movies as Babe: Pig in the City, the disastrous sequel to Academy Award nominated Babe, and the anemic Witches of Eastwick, described by Janet Maslin at the time of its release as full of “gimmickry” and “confusion”.

But here he is in his element. Stylish beyond description, everything from the two Cadillacs piled on top of each other to the rock ‘n roll guitarist with a plethora of speakers on the front of a truck blaring music to inspire the white-bodied, silver-mouthed Warrior Boys to furious pursuit keeps the action ramped up for the audience at every moment. Just enough tiny peeks inside the cab of this “war machine” or that dune buggy provide enough rest for the exhausted viewer not to get bored. This movie is one, long, two-hour car chase that is pure action.

So, if you like action, this in-your-face, screaming explosion of a movie is for you. But a movie that has any thought as deep as the words “revolution” or “redemption” would encourage? I don’t think so.

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May 29, 2015

Furious Seven and Begin Again

Furious Seven is a bad movie. It’s bad because the characters are wooden, the plot hackneyed, and the writing insipid. The evidence for these allegations is so fulsome that it seems a waste of time to give any, so let me defend that statement by asking the reader to do any one of three simple exercises. 1) Name any character in the movie, good or bad, brand new or deeply rooted in all seven films of this achingly boring franchise, and describe any scene that shows any real development in their personality, belief system or moral being. 2) Describe any plot twist that is new or interesting in any sense of the word, and tell me how it is so. 3) Repeat any piece of dialogue or relate any development of the story that is not found in at least two of the former films.

So why would I suggest it for review? To give myself an opportunity to let off some steam about movie-going in America. How can Furious Seven make $1.5B (Yes, you read that correctly: Box Office world-wide: one and one half BILLION dollars) and a movie like Begin Again make $16M? Both movies are completely accessible; there is nothing deeply philosophical or formally obtuse about either movie. One is an action/adventure flick, one is a romantic comedy. This is a major difference, to be sure, but both are about human beings and their relationships, both have recognizable stars, and both demand nothing of, or give a lot to, the viewer. No complicated plot twists here.

A critic I admire once said something I think is absolute poppycock, that there are no bad films made in Hollywood anymore. I know what he meant, that there are no Ed-Wood-like silly films made because there is too much money and the technology is so advanced that the look of almost every film is polished, but I think that’s a bad use of the word “bad”. Anyone who says there are no bad films (someone has written a book with that title, and a funny one at that) makes two critical errors. The first is that, though “bad” and “good” are often subjective categories, the reason God gave us the ability to dialogue with each other is so that we can turn the subjective into the objective. We do that by presenting our evidence for why the object is “bad” or “good” and then discussing that evidence. When a conclusion is reached that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of one or the other, a form of objectivity has been achieved. I submit that, given time, I could persuade anyone that Furious Seven is a bad movie and that Begin Again is a good one.

The second critical error is that expensive and shiny don’t equal “good”. Polish and elegance don’t mean that the movie creates in the viewer an experience that is satisfying or that the movie has been able to transport you from your world and place you into its. These two things—satisfaction and transportation—are major factors in the greatness of a film. One doesn’t have to like the “message” of a film to think it a great film, one only has to believe that it has told its message well.

Furious Seven had one redemptive moment, at the end, when Paul Walker was so movingly eulogized by the scene on the beach. But that was not even part of the original movie of course, and doesn’t really qualify as part of the film.

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May 28, 2015

Tomorrowland

Sadly, Tomorrowland was as disappointing as most critics said it was. Many things about the movie are commendable; I genuinely liked it, and, when I left, couldn’t really figure out at first why I was vaguely disappointed. George Clooney was decent as the cranky, brilliant scientist with all the answers, but two young women steal the show and help the movie almost pull off what it was trying to do. Britt Robertson as Casey Newton, a precocious teenager with a big brain, and Raffey Cassidy, playing Athena, an enigmatic being who moves back and forth with supernatural ability, do such good jobs at delivering their lines with the enthusiasm and commitment required that the movie picks up every time they enter the picture, which is much of the time. Action, this movie does not lack, and I thought the set design was fun, given that they almost had to make Tomorrowland look like the 1964 World’s Fair/Disney theme park section from which it derives its name. Critics who said they didn’t see anything they hadn’t seen before missed the point.

The problem in this movie is payoff. Its premise is (spoiler alert, sort of) that humanity has adopted such a negative view of itself that it is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: the world will end, and probably soon, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. It turns out that this narrative of the future is being helped along by an evil governor of Tomorrowland, who has created a computer program, feeding this prophecy through media, weather, and just about everything we experience. Destroy the program and at least humanity can hope to have a chance.

It’s not a bad idea, and could have produced a great movie, but it doesn’t. The solution (sort of) for which Casey is brought to Tomorrowland because she is the one prophesied (sort of) to come and save humanity (sort of) by solving the problem (sort of) of stopping a clock that is ticking down to humanity’s extinction (sort of) is dreamed up in about two seconds off the top of her head at the end of the movie, when the viewer is beginning to wonder where this whole thing is going. The lack of clarity is palpable especially since one feels one does understand what is happening most of the time, i.e. in the short run. It’s the long run, the real purpose of Casey’s adventure, that is confusing, and remains so at the end. Sort of.

Brad Bird, the brains behind the superb PIXAR films The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles, wrote and directed Tomorrowland. Kids might really like it, and I, for one, do enjoy a good old-fashioned adventure movie where good guys are good guys and bad guys are bad guys. I admit, too, that that sort of movie is very, very hard to pull off perfectly in our cynical, anti-hero age. It hasn’t been in Tomorrowland, but it’s a very good try.

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May 22, 2015

Openers

For a long time, people have asked me where I post my movie reviews, random thoughts, talks I’ve given, etc. And for a long time, I pointed them to places like the bi-monthly Resources email we do for our Consortium email list or, when I was at the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville, to the newsletter we published quarterly, then called PRAXIS. And for a long time, their response was, “Oh.”

I was asked just yesterday what the last movie I had reviewed was, and I answered Ex Machina. I have done so much thinking about this film, and have discussed it so much with friends and family, that I literally thought I had reviewed it somewhere, but discovered very soon I hadn’t, mainly because I don’t have any outlet for putting out thoughts about things in that short period of time between experiencing them, discussing them and then, …what? It was time to do something. This blog is it.

I have no idea how often, or how thoroughly I will use this space to discuss movies, books, articles, sermons, lectures, TV shows, podcasts or any of the other plethora of thought-sources I encounter during the week, but I hope to do it frequently enough and with enough heft to be of help to some of those folks. I expect to do mostly short pieces, stimulating theological thinking about our world and its amazing assortment of ideas, both terrible (in every sense of the word) and elegant (in every sense of that word, too).

The space and format are far too limited to do thorough analysis of course. I expect these to be mostly ramblings pretty much off the top of my head, though no good writer would really do that, I think. So I promise relatively coherent, relatively thought-through pieces, just short ones. Perhaps some of the postings here will develop into longer ones.

Some of that will depend on you and whether I’ve written anything interesting enough to be contested by you. I hope you will do just that.

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May 22, 2015

Ex Machina

What an extraordinary performance by newcomer Alicia Vikander. The way she is able to control her expressions: just the hint of a smile indicating thorough delight, or the tiny down-turning of the edges of the mouth indicating confusion. And always, always, the mind seeking to understand, or, shall we say, the computer seeking to process. She looks as if she could be Emily Blunt’s younger sister, and, like the older actress, she can be as intelligent a presence on screen as she desires to be.

What is this compelling movie saying about the nature of humanity? If Artificial Intelligence is to be achieved, it must be with a heart. A robot cannot be a human without learning, and achieving the exercise of, desire. But which desire is chief? What holds the top spot in the list of human yearnings? For most of the film Alex Garland, the movie’s writer/director, sucks us into thinking he will answer this question with “Love”. But what he ends up saying is “Survival”. The fall trumps the creation in this film; the devil wins the war in Ex Machina. How glad I am the real deus, not ex machina, but ex caelo, triumphed in life.

 

 

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