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Below you will find posts from Drew Trotter, Executive Director of the Consortium, with the most recent posts at the top. 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.

You can always contact Drew Trotter at [email protected].

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January 15, 2016

Carol

            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. Far From Heaven (2002) is set in the suburban world of the later 1950’s, where Cathy discovers her husband making love to another man, then falls for Raymond, her gardener, an African-American man, who is her soul-mate. The twin social problems of the treatment of homosexuals and of minorities are clearly central to Haynes’s story, though the focus here is on race.

Carol is the third movie in which a suburban housewife with social/personal problems appears, but this time the central theme is lesbian love in the context of marital and parental responsibilities. Carol, played by the inimitable Cate Blanchett, is wealthy and well-married, living in what appears to be Westchester County in the late 40’s or early 50’s. The only thing wrong with her life is her apparent boredom with it, though she loves her daughter and the movie intimates that her marital dissatisfaction stems from her husband’s obsession with his work and the frequent travelling associated with it. Carol becomes attracted to Therese, a shop girl played by Rooney Mara, and their affair results in a brief attempt to escape, Thelma and Louise style, from both their meaningless lives. In the end, circumstances push them back together, and the viewer is expected to think that they will find some resolution to the problems of their lives since “love conquers all.”though both are such complex, unhappy characters, the viewer is not really given hope that they have found any real.

Critics have loved Carol; Rotten Tomatoes gave it a Tomatometer score of 93%. I am less enthusiastic. Blanchett and Mara are very good and the venerable Sarah Paulson does a good job in a small role as Carol’s friend and one-time lover. Similarly, Kyle Chandler performs admirably as Harge, Carol’s husband. But while there are flashes of a realistic love, the chemistry between the two main characters simply isn’t there for most of the film. They both seem to be acting out roles in their own spaces, rather than plowing into the other as red-hot, sexual attraction would seem to demand. One could argue that this is a function of the shared nature of the two because they are both so fearful of losing the little they have—Therese her psychological health, her job and her meagre place in society, and Carol her daughter, her wealth and her quite elevated place in the world. They simply can’t commit to the totality that love demands.

But I’m not sure that answer is adequate. I believe the script has made the women two wandering souls, but without the hunger for intimacy, which the human being needs in order to be real. They explore their relationship, especially early on, in tones too cold and analytical, and the two actresses never really get over that, when later they are freer to commit to each other. An explicit, highly erotically-charged sex scene doesn’t help either; an event that should display the greatest emotional intimacy privately between the two women ends up involving the audience too much as voyeurs (Is that really Cate Blanchett really doing that?) and breaking the fourth wall just when it needs to be kept secure.

Apart from the two women and the nature of their forbidden love, there really isn’t anything more to the movie. Unlike Far From Heaven where the social tension between the races contributed an interesting dimension to the story, here there is little exploration of the mores of the times and the public disdain for same sex relationships that prevailed then. What could have been more interestingly and more deeply examined, Carol’s marriage to Harge, and the ambivalence that seems to be there in her, was really only hinted at. Perhaps the movie needed another ten minutes of them together to answer the questions about the marriage’s viability more satisfyingly. Suggestions like that often fail to take account of the pace of a movie, but it did not seem overlong, even though it was a character movie, so I don’t think adding an additional scene or two would have harmed its length.

Of course, one thing—unsurprisingly—that is not commented upon in Carol is the question of whether their attraction to one another is something that it might have been healthy for them to resist. No, we can’t even explore a question like that.

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January 3, 2016 

The Danish Girl

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.

Unfortunately, The Danish Girl, while a story worth telling and certainly interesting in its own right, suffers from a lack of depth that could make it succeed against Carol and the plethora of other movies dealing with gender orientation that have seen the light of day in recent years. If you’re interested in, or have a reason to investigate, the transgender phenomenon, Girl will be worth your while. The very fine performance by Redmayne is equaled, if not exceeded by, that of newcomer Alicia Vikander; both were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances. But the themes and ideas of co-dependence, loyalty in the midst of change, art and its calling (both are painters) are not well enough developed to make much difference to the overwhelming main theme.

See it if you must. But only if you must.

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January 9, 2016 

The Revenant

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.

Birdman is set in New York City in the present day. It is a tour de force about a famous celebrity’s slow slide into madness triggered by a desire to be accepted by the artistic community. The film opens with its main character, Riggan Thompson (played by Michael Keaton), apparently meditating in his dressing room, dressed only in his briefs. Slowly, the viewer realizes he is floating several inches off the table where you thought he was sitting. The movie throughout shows him with supernatural powers—to fly above New York City like Birdman or destroy cars with lightning bolts summoned at the snap of his fingers. The controversial end of the film is complicated by the uncertainty the viewer has whether he has committed suicide or flown off into the sky.

In many ways The Revenant could not be more different. Bloody in the extreme, it is based on a novel, which has fictionalized a true story from the 1820’s. The movie relates the survival and revenge journey of Hugh Glass, a trapper in the wilds of Canada. Glass, after being attacked by a bear, is left for dead by two fellow trappers who were supposed to watch over him until he either recovered enough to be moved or died. He uses his considerable talent to get back to civilization, and the movie reaches its climax in the face-to-face meeting of Glass and his nemesis John Fitzgerald, played by the extraordinary Tom Hardy. Equal parts story of survival and revenge, the movie has none of the interaction between madness and reality Birdman has, but that doesn’t mean it is not heavily mythological or psychological or both.

The psychological investigations of The Revenant are embedded, not in mad visions, but in the dreams and visions Glass has of his wife and son, whose appearances inspire him to continue to move forward sometimes literally inch by inch. The supernatural occurs in The Revenant in much more traditional ways than in Birdman. Glass sees his wife and son in the ruins of a church, in the trees of a forest, in the plains floating above his face, as he lies in the grass. Many, if not all, of his visions are in dreams as he goes in and out of consciousness; as he puts it at one point, “I ain’t afraid of dying; I done it already”. Since Glass is in danger the entire film from either other humans or the simple, raw dangers of the mountainous terrain surrounding him, it is safe to say the visions are a feature of the danger and fear he inhabits.

Glass’s hallucinations are clearly that in The Revenant, but they are not treated as unreal. Belief in the reality of the spirit world is of course well-known in Native American lore, and Glass, who lived among the Pawnee Indians and speaks Pawnee fluently, has every reason to be susceptible to its influence. Add to this that the only two people—in fact, things at all—that he seems to have ever cared about are the son he had by a Pawnee woman and the woman herself, who was killed in a raid by American soldiers, played in flashback several times in the movie. Iñárritu has incorporated a more traditional “magical realism” into this film, than he did in Birdman, and it works very well. Right up until the end, Glass’s survival seems tied to his belief that he is honoring his wife and son by both surviving and seeking revenge.

This film is brutally gory, but still remarkably engaging for most of its 2½ hours. The first time I saw it I thought it was over-long, but a second viewing discovered so much detail, particularly in the performances, that the movie actually went faster since I knew what was coming in the story-line. Almost everyone has mentioned the work of Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Glass, but Hardy certainly earned his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and Domnhall Gleeson, Will Poulter and Forrest Goodluck turn in stellar work of their own. The Revenant has garnered twelve Oscar nominations, rewarding a rich tapestry of cinematography, production design, make-up and special effects that make the movie a visual delight.

The Revenant is not for the squeamish, but is well-worth seeing. The discussions are legion one could have about dreams and their reality in addition to the obvious themes of revenge, survival, the difficulty of decision-making and human nature in general. And the ending, which I will not reveal, is worthy of a discussion of its own.

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December 30, 2015 

The Hateful Eight

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.

The Hateful Eight is a western, set mostly in a cabin, which serves as a wayside station on a road through the vast regions of the Old West. A snowstorm requires eight despicable types to stay together in the cabin over the space of several days. They are all related to one another in ways the viewer discovers as the story advances, and none of them are to be trusted to tell the truth or to be on anyone’s side but their own. Each character is distinctive, though one will see elements in many of them from other Tarantino films, especially Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds. The performances are solid, but Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson stand out among them, though it is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was nominated for the Oscar for her portrayal of the disgusting Daisy Domergue.

Tarantino has said himself that he is not sure how many more films he has in him. Eight demonstrates the same high quality of writing, directing, acting and production that his other films have shown. But the nastiness of human nature, when it is almost the only theme one ever displays in one’s films, grows wearisome after awhile.

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December 29, 2015

The Big Short

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.) One side of this argument believes that he accomplished something many thought impossible: he was able to explain much of the always complex, usually confusing jargon of this massive economic meltdown in such a way that anyone could understand it. The other side believes that he still didn’t clarify anything, and/or that his “cutesy” way of trying to explain was demeaning to the film’s audience.

I’m in the first group. These devices do more than explain difficult things necessary to understanding this film. They provide an amazingly fertile set of comic interludes to what could otherwise have been a grim and boring film. Short’s pace is super-charged like the people and the industry McKay is portraying, where one-millionth of a second can determine the loss or gain of millions of dollars. The interludes help the audience keep pace. One of the points of the movie is that even many of the investors were moving so fast that they had no idea what the products actually were, which they were so often buying and selling. Much less did the public at large, so explanations of some of the key terms were necessary in one form or another. McKay’s solution to this problem was absolutely brilliant.

The Big Short is not without its drawbacks. A movie with clear themes, the merciless self-interest and greed that propelled the crash is explained in raw, anger-inducing detail, but there is almost nothing about the government’s role in the crash, from lack of regulation of the banking industry to the astonishingly big role government-owned Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac played in this shell game. The unrelenting greed that the bankers of Wall Street played in this scandalous blot on American business history comes in for some much-needed direct approbation, and any Christian should be glad of that. If nothing else, it is a wonderful study in idol-making (from a number of different perspectives) and explores the sins of both materialism and acquisitiveness at deep levels.

Short is intelligent, extremely well-acted, beautifully written and so well-ordered in every way, that it really is that rare success story of a filmmaker taking a story that has been told woefully badly by even brilliant artisans (the aforementioned Wolf of Wall Street by the peerless Martin Scorsese) and telling it well. McKay has made a film that by any measure is extraordinary in its genre-breaking magnificence, too. It is impossible to call this a drama, but equally impossible to call it a comedy. Perhaps it’s easiest to call it a painful tragedy, but it is far too funny to be called that.

The Big Short is getting much buzz for the Academy’s Best Picture award, and few would be surprised if it won, even fewer begrudging its merit to do so. It should be on everyone’s short list of can’t miss movies to see this year, and it would provide a perfect basis for a discussion of greed and materialism and their impact on American culture today.

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December 27, 2015

Joy

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.

Unfortunately, 1) Lawrence mails it in and, uncharacteristically, simply doesn’t seem to have her head in the game. She’s good at times, especially with her back against the wall, but a story like this is not supposed to have Katniss Everdeen at its center. 2) The story is in the end, mean-spirited. It finishes Trump-like, emphasizing a kill-or-be-killed message. Joy’s a winner! But… at what cost? She picked up the gun. 3) The comedic element that Russell so often works into what are essentially dramas and provides a respite from the difficult main themes of his films, doesn’t work in this movie at all. Many of the jokes are early in the film and come across as angry, cruel put-downs. This is some of Robert De Niro’s worst comic work, but I’m not sure it is not the script that fails him.

None of the uplifting messages of hope and triumph over tremendously adverse circumstances that seem to be true of the actual story come through as they should. Pity.

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December 26, 2015

Concussion

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?

Yet Concussion has made $31M at the box office to date and with a budget of $35M is likely to make plenty more before it is through. The performances of the stellar cast anchored by Will Smith and including Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin and David Morse, and Peter Landesman’s writing and direction are more than up to the task of creating a believable and interesting film from a true story of recent vintage, which has no gun violence or sex to move it along. The film is a wonderful achievement, and is being seriously discussed for Oscar recognition. Just as important for the believer, Concussion is the best Christian movie in years.

Perhaps I should explain a few things. First, the most popular religion in America is football, and this film is about a doctor who takes on the NFL, its doctors and its Commissioner, Roger Goodell. As one of the characters in Concussion says, “You want to go up against a corporation that owns a day of the week. The same day the Church used to own. Now it’s theirs.” The movie shows what by now everyone knows, that many knew there was a problem before Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith, did, and either turned a blind eye or actively sought to cover up the evidence. Omalu, a pathologist from Nigeria who is working as a coroner, had neither the credentials nor the power to make such a challenge, but he was driven to do so because he had done the research and the research was valid. He wanted to tell the truth and save lives. The NFL wanted to continue its money machine. Omalu perseveres because of both an obsession with scientific truth and a conscience driven by doing what was right, and he does so clearly because of his faith in that ancient religion: Christianity.

No, Concussion wasn’t made by Purity Pictures or FaithStep Films or Sherwood Productions or Pure Flix Entertainment. It was produced by little-known Elizabeth Cantillon and distributed by Columbia Pictures. Neither is known as particularly “faith based”. And the plot is not directly about the faith like so many of the “inspirational” films of recent years, such as God’s Not Dead or this year’s War Room. So what do you mean by “best Christian movie”?

I mean it is the movie from last year which most powerfully displays the faith as what it is, an energizing, all-consuming, motivating relationship with a living God, and does so within a story that takes place in the midst of American society and not in a Christian bubble. This does not mean that the faith is talked about a lot in the movie; it isn’t. But signs of the faith are everywhere from the worship service portrayed early in the film to the crosses on Omalu’s apartment and office walls to the Bible on his bedside table to his discussion with his child in utero to the questions he asks his “patients” who of course are cadavers. Clearly Christianity is what Bennet Omalu is all about.

And that’s not all. Omalu’s girlfriend and later wife, Premu, played by the wonderful Gugu Mbatha-Raw, plays a sort of guardian angel role, urging him to keep going and reminding him regularly of two of the deepest truths of the Christian faith: providence and faith in hardship. These conversations, as well as a third—the tender conversation Bennet and Premu have as they are beginning to realize they are in love—breathe an atmosphere of Christian ethical and moral stance unknown in our larger society. God is assumed, and honored, without thinking, and so there is no reason to preach, and the film doesn’t. Concussion just shows the normalcy of a world where God is assumed to be at work in relationships, in science, in politics—everywhere.

In deliberating on Concussion, I couldn’t help thinking about a recent Philosophy Bites podcast, which discussed the differences between western philosophy and African philosophy with Katrin Flikschuh of the London School of Economics. At one point she mentioned that African philosophers, when discussing human nature, are quite happy to include categories that westerners would not consider useful. One of those was the common idea for Africans that their ancestors are not dead to them, even though the ancestors are dead physically. In Concussion Dr. Omalu, a coroner, talks to his “patients” who of course are cadavers. He asks them to help him understand why they died. The dignity, the nobility, that this practice gives the dead person in the eyes of the viewer is extraordinary, and though the philosophy here need not be exclusively Christian, the Christian view of the dignity of the human being, flowing from humankind’s bearing of the image of God, fits this practice very well.

Perhaps Concussion is ten minutes too long. Perhaps there are one too many autopsies, one too many thoughtful ruminations. But for my money, Concussion in addition to being one of the best films of the year, was the best Christian movie of the year.

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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.

So the story first. We are now thirty years after the triumph of the rebellion and the death of the emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi. The dark side of the force is once again concretized in what is now known as The First Order, and once again a resistance has formed. A new robot, small, smart, feisty and fiercely loyal to its master, has an important message that an uneducated outlier on a rural, backwater planet has to bring to the rebel headquarters so they can use it to destroy the huge, deadly weapon the First Order has developed to put down the resistance once and for all.

Hmm. Sound familiar?

The great thing about The Force Awakens is that it uses so much of the same material employed by George Lucas in The New Hope in such a way that the viewer watching the movie doesn’t really care. The story is a good one and bears retelling. Good confronts evil. Evil is powerful and fearful but depends on power to implement its will. Good on the other hand stumbles towards its goals, uncertain, ill-equipped and weak, but is able to triumph in the end because of perseverance, hard work, ingenuity and most of all humility and team work. Ethically speaking, Star Wars should be nothing but encouraging for the Christian viewer because its many virtues are so in line with Christian thinking.

Metaphysically speaking, however, the latest episode of Star Wars continues to preach the universalism of Joseph Campbell. Embedded in the pantheistic view that God encompasses both good and evil, constantly struggling against each other on an equal footing in His being, the Force is ultimately amoral. Christianity stands in direct contrast to this view. God is good in this faith; evil opposes God; God ultimately triumphs over evil, whatever its form. If this sounds like Star Wars to you, it is; the original story had a self-contradictory nature, even according to its creator, George Lucas. In 1999, when asked what religion he was, Lucas told a story of his son being asked the same question and answering, “A Methodist Buddhist”. He laughingly told the interviewer, “That sounds about right to me.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens provides a rollicking good time. Just know what you’re buying into, when you praise it without caveat.

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December 15, 2015

Creed

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. The young Creed also wants to get into fighting, and comes to Rocky for training. Though Apollo died in the ring and was a good friend of Rocky’s when he died, Rocky is loathe to get back into the game in any capacity, but after he does, the movie takes the expected turn towards boxing and the question of whether or not Adonis will defeat the current champion in his weight class. Appropriate moral lessons about friendship, balancing life, etc. are learned and the viewer goes away with a new hero gained and an old one resurrected.

This story could have been maudlin to downright silly like several of the other Rocky movies, but the tight direction, great script (by Coogler with an assist from Aaron Covington and Stallone), and the great interaction between Stallone and Jordan make it one of the year’s most enjoyable movies. Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Creed borrows heavily from the earlier Rocky movies to construct its plot. Like the young Balboa, Adonis has a girl friend who helps him learn how to live life outside the ring, and his enemy in the ring is clearly a baddy who looks much, much better than Adonis on paper, but is a machine-like product of the boxing industry, just waiting to be knocked off his pedestal.

Most of all, the scenes with just Stallone and Jordan make this movie work. Clear and simple without being pedantic or trite, their dialogue presents two lonely people, both fighters, both used to standing alone, struggling to find the relationship they will eventually find in this film, one that may be the best father-son portrayal since Cinderella Man (oddly enough another boxing movie). The interracial nature of this friendship adds another important element in our current social situation in America, and the movie treats this aspect of their friendship just as it should: without ever drawing attention to it, i.e. by simply assuming it.

Creed is not for everyone; the boxing is violent and the language what one might expect. But for most, the superb work of Coogler, Stallone and Jordan will provide a great two hours of entertainment.

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December 11, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea

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.

The structure of the film centers on the flashback device. A young writer, Herman Melville, played by Ben Whishaw, comes to the home in Nantucket of one of the survivors of the wreck of the Essex: Tom Nickerson, played by Brendan Gleeson. After a great deal of bickering, Melville convinces Nickerson to deny his demons and tell Melville the story of the Essex’s demise.

The flashback enhances the story. There is enough action to keep the viewer busy, but when the action does stop, the audience is exhausted. A movie made up of non-stop action would weary its audience, and the interludes with Whishaw and Gleeson provide an interesting respite from the whale and his pursuit.

And I mean “his pursuit” in both ways it can be taken. Much of the movie portrays the pursuit of the Essex by a huge, white whale, encountered when the whalers go further out than they have ever been before into the middle of the Pacific. This storyline shows the whale as God’s ambiguous agent of Nature and its right to survive in peace. When the whalers finally reach a field of whales larger and more productive than they have ever seen, the giant whale is portrayed as rescuing and protecting the other whales as the herd’s defender. At the same time the whale’s relentless pursuit of the sailors, well after the Essex has been destroyed and the men are any threat to anyone or anything, shows him as a symbol of Evil, pursuing man until it crushes him.

The other pursuit, the pursuit of the whale as the obsession of Chris Hemsworth’s character, first mate Owen Chase, becomes a symbolic quest that will not stop until Man once again asserts his dominance over Nature. The ecological and evolutionary themes here are obvious.

The movie is directed by Ron Howard and the chief roles are played by Hemsworth and Benjamin Walker, who plays Chase’s nemesis Captain Pollard, with a verve that is appealing. My guess is that places in the movie would have been quite spectacular in 3-D, though I didn’t see it in that format.

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December 8, 2015

The Letters

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.

Like other movies with difficult story lines to convert into film—In the Heart of the Sea comes to mind—The Letters makes its story viewable by resorting to the device of flashback. Father Praagh (played by Rutger Hauer), a Vatican priest in charge of examining the facts of the case for sainthood of Agnes Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa, comes to the home of her religious mentor, played by Max Von Sydow and discovers that she had entrusted her mentor with letters she had written in her private moments, describing her doubts and deepest fears. Would these letters derail a popular sainthood or not?

This is the tension that the movie is supposedly built around, but it fails to develop that tension well. Instead The Letters slips far too often into hagiographic biopic. Juliet Stevenson is very good in a demanding role; I cannot think of anyone carrying it off better. The fault does not lie with her and her performance. It lies with the script, which fails to highlight adequately what the nature of Mother Teresa’s difficulties with her faith actually were.

A second reason the tension fails is that the flashforwards to Hauer and Von Sydow don’t happen often enough or in a well-integrated enough fashion. Mostly they just advance the story a number of years without disconcerting the viewer. Sadly, the two men do not get to spar together over the letters; in fact the letters are never even read on screen at all, for whatever purpose of copyright, church defense of their saint or whatever I don’t know.

This was one of those movies I don’t want to discourage really; there are too few efforts at presenting a saint like Mother Teresa in all her humanity. And this is not a bad movie, despite the strange feeling that one regularly has during the film that one is not really seeing the streets of Calcutta but a movie studio in London somewhere. In spite of a meagre script and poor production values, the story of this woman’s dedication to Christ and her incredible discipline in carrying out her calling to the disadvantaged of India is adequately enough handled here to inspire us, and perhaps this is enough.

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December 2, 2015

Secret in Their Eyes

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.

Roberts plays the distressed, despondent mom of the victim so fully, she seems to forget she’s also supposedly a hard-nosed detective who can insult her colleagues with the best boys in the office. Unfortunately, her excessively catatonic state telegraphs the secret revealed at the end of the movie to the thoughtful viewer, and that secret was the only fresh thing about the plot. Successful plot-driven movies with a twist like The Usual Suspects or Primal Fear have that secret so buried in brilliant performances, they completely surprise the viewer. Roberts, unrestrained by Billy Ray, Secret’s director, denies us that delight.

In the same way, Ejiofor pursues the killer with an earnest perseverance and righteousness that were held in much better check in Twelve Years a Slave than here. Throughout the movie he comes off as too good, too fervent.

The movie’s failings could have been due to the writing. Ray also penned the script, but his other efforts, Captain Phillips, The Hunger Games and the superb if little known Shattered Glass, have not shown this failing. In any case acting and directing can both trump poor writing by simply changing the lines or altering the cadences in a thousand different ways. That didn’t happen here. Too bad. There aren’t a lot of good thrillers out there nowadays.

 

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December 1, 2015 

Trumbo

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.

That is not to say that Trumbo is not a good picture. It is, perhaps especially for those who know nothing of the sad story of betrayal and controversy that the Hollywood Communist scandal of the late 1940’s and 50’s was. Michael Stuhlbarg, as the conflicted but ultimately cowardly Edward G. Robinson, actually outshines Cranston much of the time. And Lane, given a part that is clearly that of the submissive housewife to the “great man”, plays it with the restraint and devotion the part requires and rockets past her husband in the quotient of empathy required of the viewer. Other supporting roles by John Goodman as Frank King and Helen Mirren as the irrepressible Hedda Hopper are underwritten but admirably performed.

But this movie belongs to Cranston, and, I am sorry to say, he doesn’t carry it off.

 

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November 29, 2015

Brooklyn

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. Homesick and a little out of place in her boarding house of more worldly wise girls and her job at a posh department store in Manhattan, Eilis, played by Ronan, begins to spiral into a depression that a kindly priest and an adoring boy friend pull her out of by their love for her. Events unexpectedly take her back to Ireland where her loyalty to Tony, her Italian-American boy friend, is severely tested.

I like crime pictures, thrillers, action/adventure movies, science fiction, westerns and war movies, but there is nothing like the grace of the well-constructed relationship picture. Call them chick flicks, if you like, but a movie that explores relationships as richly and sensitively as this one does will win me every time. Eilis’s relationships with several males in the movie—boyfriends, priests, even children—and her encounters, sometimes friendships, with other women at work, at home, in Ireland and in America, all have such a ring of truth about them that they really deserve a close viewing, and a close viewing will be rewarded with a delightful film experience. Everyone is so good in this movie, from Jim Broadbent as the Irish-American priest who pays the tuition for Elish to go to accounting school to Jane Brennan as Eilis’s sad but noble mother that the movie travels seamlessly, if quietly, to its denouement.

With period pieces attention to detail is so important, and Brooklyn gets costuming, hair, even the manners of a mid-twentieth century girl’s boarding house to a T. Great writing, great performances, great production values—what’s not to like? Go see Brooklyn, and enjoy.

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November 21, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

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?

Games has been dismissed as simplistic, and therefore better blockbuster material than Divergent. It is true that it is basically a rebellion story with an interesting premise that gets somewhat worn out by the last part. It’s also true that its simplicity enables it to draw in the big crowds. The audience knows where they stand in The Hunger Games; there are no real guessing games here. Blockbuster audiences want to see good things happen with the good guys winning and the bad guys going down. Only a clever twist at the end of the series (better handled in the books than in the movies) turns this relentlessly hero-driven story into a more balanced, if still sunnily optimistic, tale.

Divergent on the other hand begins with a complexity that sustains an uncertainty throughout the series so far. The audience is presented with characters who are each capable of good and evil, love and hate, respect and disdain in a mixture that subtly reflects real human existence in a fallen world. The viewer is sure of Beatrice, but almost any other character in the circle of friends who are the rebels in the futuristic world could turn at any time and surface as having been an enemy spy all along. This story strategy makes for a better story long-term, but in the short term can confuse simplistic theater-goers and lose ticket sales a more stream-lined adventure story wouldn’t.

Having said all this, Mockingjay, Part 2, often shows off the gifts of a very good cast, and ends the story with a bang. While none of the special effects include anything worth writing home about, they are all efficiently done and fit the story well. Of course the superb Lawrence really does carry the show, but her supporting cast including actors as good as Donald Sutherland and Julianne Moore form just what a supporting cast in an action/adventure movie should: an environment in which the story thrives and its star shines. Enjoy it, if futuristic action/adventure movies are your thing, while you can.

And if you don’t like The Hunger Games, there’s always Star Wars.

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November 20, 2015

Spotlight

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.

Spotlight begins with a flashback to a Boston police station in 1974 where a Father Geoghan, accused by a mother of sexually abusing her children, is released without even an arraignment. Much later this case provides the basis in 2001 for the new editor of the Boston Globe, Marty Baron, played superbly by Liev Schreiber, to suggest that Spotlight try to get to the bottom of this since it appears that even the powerful cardinal, Cardinal Bernard Law, knew about the fact that Geoghan had been accused of pedophilia six other times, each time getting off. The movie follows the team of three men and a woman in search of victims, priests who will talk, lawyers who had something to do with the cases (whether on the victims’ or the church’s side), and even public advocates—some reasonable, some seemingly crazy—who have tried unsuccessfully to bring to the public’s attention how widespread and deeply entrenched the scandal is.

Michael Keaton, as Walter “Robby” Robinson, the editor and head of the Spotlight team, and the three actors who play investigative reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carrol (Brian D’Arcy James) form the core of the cast, but Schreiber and John Slattery as editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. contribute enormously as well. The uncertainty of where the story lies, the editorial politics necessary with a major scandal like this, the reporters’ fears of being wrong, the demands upon their time—all these provide more than enough tension for the story to be thoroughly engrossing, but the pace replicates the plodding, interview-after-interview, doors-shut-in-their-face, false-lead-after-false-lead life that a reporter in search of a story leads. In the end, what the reporters find not only angers them at the Church but shines the spotlight into the legal and educational arenas of Boston, too, then causes them to take a hard look at their own profession and why it took them so long to discover this story.

Spotlight is about the sins of the Church, both through the sizable number of priests found complicit in the allegations of child abuse and through the leadership, which covered up the story in every way it could. Christians will be pleased, though, that the Church is not punished unduly in the film. I only hope they will get the point of the movie, which is this: if the spotlight were turned on your heart, what would it uncover that you know but have done nothing about? It is a question we should all take seriously and ask ourselves on a regular basis.

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November 19, 2015

Room

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.

Room is heart-rending, but it may be the most searingly thought-provoking movie of the year, too. Never titillating, the viewer lives with Ma and Jack in a constant merry-go-round of fear, boredom, despair and loathing. The dialogue between the two is never off-point, and helps construct a relationship that tenderly saves the two of them, as they try simply to exist. Jack of course has known very little of life, but the small rabbit-ears television their captor has allowed them to have introduces him to the world outside. Only to protect him, Ma has convinced him that the world outside is a fiction and that the only real world is inside Room. When the opportunity to escape presents itself, this strategy proves problematic for both Ma and Jack.

I can’t say more about the movie’s plot without giving away far too much. The themes in this film abound, most of them circling around the relationships we find ourselves in, when we are part of a family. The importance and yet the limits of fantasy for a child are woven into the story along with questions of celebrity, normalcy, expectations, recovery and a thousand other human themes. Each idea is treated with respect, with a reality that is unquestionable and in a story that is as engrossing as any I have seen in a long time. By the way, anyone fearing the movie has violent sex scenes or other elements difficult for the squeamish, should dismiss those concerns. Yes, it is a difficult movie, but nothing about it is untoward.

Room had a lot of strikes against it. Not only were almost all the actors unknowns (Joan Allen and William H. Macy play Ma’s parents in relatively small roles), but the director is the little known Irish director Lenny Abrahamson. Add to that the script-writer, Emma Donoghue (also Irish), adapted her own novel, a sin in Hollywood that almost never results in a crisp screenplay. But Larson is phenomenally able to disappear into the role of Ma, Abrahamson, though passionate about the material, directs with a sure hand, and Donoghue never misses in her dialogue, pacing and clarity. Perhaps the biggest contributor to the movie’s success is the young Tremblay, who gives one of the great child performances of all time, every bit as good as that of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. At one or two sensitive points in the story, he is called upon to be extraordinarily courageous, and he never misses his mark.

Winter’s Bone actually garnered four Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and also Best Supporting Actor for the superb John Hawkes. Room won’t win, though it perhaps should, for Best Picture, but Larson is being talked about very favorably for Best Actress. It would be wonderful if Room also garnered a nomination for Tremblay for Best Supporting Actor. It’s a packed field this year, but stranger things have happened.

Do not miss this picture. There are a lot of great movies out there this year, but none better than Room.

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November 23, 2015

Spectre

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.

For years, no one has gone to a Bond film expecting anything really new except a new Bond, when one of those has appeared. Daniel Craig has said publicly that he would rather slit his wrists than do another Bond film, but Spectre informs the viewer who stays to the end of the credits that “James Bond will return.” (No scenes by the way, just this announcement, so don’t stay unless your best friend was an assistant junior editor, and you want to see her name in the list.) Who knows whether Craig, who has been a serviceable Bond, but not a particularly good one, will be drawn back into the fray by the money? But I digress.

Spectre finds Judi Dench as M dead of course, but replaced by the great Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes simply never seems to mail it in, and he and Ben Wishaw, who has played “Q” for a few films now, play the joke out admirably, as do Léa Seydoux, as the Bond girl, and the delightful Christoph Waltz as Ernst Blofeld. Waltz may be back, as he is the one in this movie who regularly performs the miracle of rising from the dead, and he would be welcome. The reveal about him at the end of the film is drowned, as is any semblance of thoughtful story and plot, in the non-stop chases, explosions, gun battles, explosions, love scenes, and explosions. Did I mention explosions? That’s too bad because if someone had decided to make the daring decision to try to make a “clean” Bond film—in the mode of From Russia with Love by the way—without excessive explosions, etc., the elements are there for a really good story. Bond underground is not your typical Bond story from the start, and we find soon enough that he in fact is working for Dench via a note left to him before her death. The personal details about Bond revealed in the movie could have come more to the fore without all the glitz, and the movie could have been really stunning with the cast it has.

Unfortunately, Spectre is just cliché after cliché, and, if you like that, then they are all carried off well, and you can go and have a good time. As for me, I like a movie that I don’t have to work to stay awake in.

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November 23, 2015

Suffragette

Suffragette 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 Suffragette—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.

Carey Mulligan, one of Britain’s finest young film stars, plays the central character of the film, Maud Watts, a laundry worker, who is radicalized to the cause by the encouragement of a fellow worker Violet Miller, played by Anne-Marie Duff. Both are bolstered and directed by the educated, though also working class, Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). These three carry the burden of the acting, though Maud’s life is the one thoroughly explored, and the tensions are brought mostly strongly to the surface through her marriage and motherhood and their pull on her away from involvement in the dangerous politics of protest. Mulligan gives her typical thoroughly committed performance, perhaps because she may have been pregnant during the filming of the movie (she gave birth to her first child in September of this year). She is perfect as the mousy, submissive worker at the beginning of the movie, who is clever enough to subvert the plans of the lecherous owner of the laundry (a huge, dangerous place in early twentieth century in Britain), but she is just as good as the loving mother who must face impossible choices as she becomes more and more deeply embroiled in the illegal work of the movement.

Duff and Carter are also very good, though they have much smaller roles, and one of the greatest faults of the film is that the woman around whom the most important plot point turns is almost non-existent until that point in the story.

A major contributor to the film’s being able to get over some of its deficiencies in the story is the remarkable costuming, hair and set design. Beautifully shot by Eduard Grau (A Single Man, The Gift), whether the scene is in the rain or the smog-filled daylight of turn of the century London, the feeling is absolutely impeccable that we are in the grime and dirt of a London caught in the ill effects, both physical and social, of the industrial revolution. Kudos to the producers and the special artists responsible for the look of this film.

As an aside, Meryl Streep is prominent on the advertising for the film, but has less screen time than Judi Dench did in Shakespeare in Love. Of course in the mysteries of the Academy, Dench won the Oscar for that performance…

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November 23, 2015

Victoria

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.

The story holds together even though so much happens in two hours plus of real time. (Remember: if it is all shot in one take, everything happens in order with no cuts representing time to think about things or let them develop.) It is the recipe for a thoughtless disaster, which never happens in Victoria. That is part of its extraordinary triumph.

Costa as Victoria is remarkable at the ad-libbing necessary to pull off her part. Frederick Lau as Sonne, the leader of the pack who falls for Victoria and does his best to protect her, is clearly not as able at the ad-libbing; once or twice, his memory clearly fails him and he just repeats himself, laughing. This, however, just makes the moments feel even more real, and the chemistry between the two, though never consummated sexually, is strong and wonderfully demonstrative of how budding love can be well portrayed without nudity or even sexual innuendo. They are a great cinematic couple, and form the greatest of the achievements of the film.

Another is the solidity of the action sequences near the end of the film, when things get interesting after the crime. By this time the viewer really cares about all these people, and the danger, driven by the hand-held camera cinema verité framing of their movements down alleyways, across parks, into apartment buildings, up stairs, into apartments, etc., is palpable. It is incredible to me that they only had to shoot this thing three times before they got a 2 hour plus “take” that was as good as this.

Though you will have a hard time finding Victoria in the theater, if you can, the ride is well worth it. Unfortunately, though you will leave the theater exhilarated by the experience you have just had, when you think about it, the weight of the lostness of these sad, twenty-somethings, can’t help but crush you. How badly this world needs the gospel… Victoria will make you weep for the misery of the world.

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November 23, 2015

Sicario

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.

So let me just say that the movie is bloody, tough and chaotic, just like the trade and the opposition it defines. Blunt is good, though used as something of a foil for the real stars of the movie, del Toro and to a lesser degree, Josh Brolin. The premise? Until the billions of dollars worth of cocaine dries up because no one uses it any more, the only way to fight the drug trade between Mexico and the U.S. is to create as much chaos in the links between production in Mexico and distribution in the U.S. as possible. Del Toro certainly does that. See it if you want a grisly, demanding, real-world insight into a world you never want to encounter in reality.

Having promoted it, let me also register another complaint from a Christian perspective. Movies—and Sicario is among them—are increasingly affirming revenge as a just and reasonable course of action. Christianity never allows for that from humans. Revenge is God’s and His alone, for only He can really see into the human heart clearly enough to act retributively. The rest of us need the law. Without it, we all descend into the very chaos Brolin and del Toro’s characters seem to embrace all too strongly, against the pleas for law from Blunt. The movie raises this question well, so see it, but it clearly sides with the sicario.

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November 12, 2015

Bridge of Spies

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.

It does not hurt to have the exceptional Mark Rylance, who plays the spy Rudolf Abel, to play off of in many of his scenes. Rylance, fresh off a spot-on performance portraying Thomas Cromwell in King Henry the Eighth’s court in the PBS series Wolf Hall, is one of those actors, who seems to inhabit his roles totally, perhaps because he has done so much stage acting. In any case, he and Hanks overshadow almost everyone else in the film; whenever the action strays to Powers, or to the bungling CIA discussions, the decrease in acting quality is apparent.

Thankfully, that is not often, as Hanks, at least, is in almost every scene in the film. Sebastian Koch, as Wolfgang Vogel, the shadowy East German official who dislikes Russian occupiers as much as he does Americans, should also be mentioned. He is mysterious, frightening and sympathetic all at once.

The story has a small but interesting twist that makes the negotiations Hanks engages in with first the Russians, then the East Germans, the most interesting part of the film. In the opening scene of the film, we see Hanks negotiating an insurance dispute; that should tip us off that negotiations will be at the heart of the film. The script, initially penned by Matt Charman, but polished by the Oscar-winning Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, is a wonderful piece of work. Anyone who can make negotiations without a gun in one’s face interesting has accomplished something.

The movie’s production values shine as well. I was able to go to East Berlin in the 1980s before the wall came down, and they have caught the city’s frightening coldness well. Spielberg with his famous penchant for doubled images incorporates one scene with Donaldson on a train going back to West Berlin, when a few desperate East Germans are shot trying to get over the wall. Donaldson witnesses this horrific incident, and has brought home to him the great benefit anyone has who lives in the United States, when, later back home, he observes (again from a train) a group of kids jumping fences in back yards in New York City. The patriotism mixed with his critique of heartless government, when it has no thought for the individual, is perhaps the main theme of the film, and Spielberg holds this balance as well as he has done since his magisterial Saving Private Ryan. This film is not Ryan’s equal, but Bridge performs its lesser task well, and that is enough.

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November 12, 2015

Steve Jobs

            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.

Boyle has cast the movie perfectly. Michael Fassbender plays the volatile Jobs without missing a beat. Seth Rogen surprises with a perfect subtlety in the role of the complex Steve Wozniack, co-creator of the Mac. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Andy Hertzfeld and holds his own in the company of Winslet, Fassbender, et al. And Jeff Daniels, experiencing something of a renaissance with this role and his role as a major player in NASA in the hit The Martian, shows why he is considered such a versatile actor by playing John Scully with all the savvy Scully must have had to run both PepsiCo and Apple in his career. It is a wild and crazy ride Boyle puts the viewer through, but I never gave a thought to it because that seems to be the way Jobs and his colleagues lived their lives.

Or did they? Does Steve Jobs really give us a window into the life of the historical Steve Jobs or does it simply create a character illuminating a movement? I have not read Issacson’s very large book, but it is hard to believe that the questions the movie introduces, i.e. almost every aspect of Jobs’s life, both public and private, personal and corporate, were dealt with by him in the half hour before he went out to pitch the three most important products he ever pitched. (The iPod was arguably the most successful product Jobs ever made, but if he had not done what he did with the three covered in this film, the iPod would have never happened.) Did he really get into huge knock-down drag-outs with his common-law wife Chrissan Brennan about his paternity of their daughter just before he launched the Mac in 1984? Did Steve Wozniack really get into a shouting match with Jobs in the auditorium before the launch of the “Blueberry” iMac in 1998? And did Jobs really turn into “good dad” almost instantly just before the same launch?

Steve Jobs is a beautiful film, capturing at least the image of what the computer revolution has been all about everywhere: brilliant, young programmers thinking and working outside the box to create the incredible innovations that have changed almost every aspect of 21st century humanity’s everyday lives. But does it really tell us who Steve Jobs was or simply add to the mythology that has grown up around the icon? Such is the mystery of the biopic.

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November 12, 2015

Crimson Peak

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.

Del Toro came up through the ranks of make-up artists, and the production values of all his movies are superb. Crimson Peak is no exception with magnificent attention to the detail of costuming, hair and make-up, set design, etc. The colors are opulent as are the cloths, and the settings. The castle on Crimson Peak is a masterpiece of set design. The couple who live in it, a brother and sister played by Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston, have lost their fortune and have no money to keep it up. Time and weather have caused the roof high above the foyer to collapse so that it is open to the sky; snow pours in and contributes wonderfully to the feel of truly gothic frigidity the film exudes. When the murders start happening, the gore is plentiful, and the make-up depicting stabbings in the face, heads bashed in on sinks, etc. fully horrifies the sensibilities.

The acting performances are fine, too, but none of the characters are written beyond stock level, so the three principal actors (Chastain, Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska who plays Edith Cushing, the wife Hiddleston and Chastain drag into their lair) are pretty much wasted. This is a rare miss for Jessica Chastain, though Hiddleston and Wasikowska have been in their share of duds. Supporting performances, too, by Charlie Hunnam (Cushing’s faithful suitor) and Jim Beaver (Cushing’s father) seem determined to be set within a rigid frame of gothic performance that make them feel well-done and clunky at the same time. None of the relationships work, none of the characters work, the movie doesn’t work.

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November 12, 2015

Truth

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.

This heavy-handed piece of hagiography is no All the President’s Men in any case, but it could have still been so much better. Every shred of evidence has to be trotted out to look like the news team did every thing they could to be objective in the case, and few really think they were. Dorothy Rabinowitz, writing in the Wall Street Journal (“Dan Rather: Still Wrong After All These Years”, WSJ October 19, 2015) begins her piece with this: “Combine every speech about the nobility of the journalistic endeavor in every film glorifying reporters intrepidly searching out truth, and you still won’t come close to grasping the level of treacle—there are other words—bubbling up out of Truth.” The piece never gets kinder than this, and shows how mistaken anyone is to accept this movie’s take on the events as the “truth” about Bush’s service. If the writers had simply made the reporters look a little less saintly and a little more suspect, the film might have pulled itself out of its pompous position (Truth as a title? Come on) and been more useful as a piece of informative entertainment.

As it is, once again the actors give any benefit this movie may have as entertainment value, and even that is not much. Cate Blanchett plays Mapes, and portrays her as driven and torn between family, the story and eventually saving her own skin while protecting Rather’s. The venerable Robert Redford is Dan Rather, and is simply too old for the part. Though Rather was seventy-three, when the piece aired in 2004, he looked considerably younger. Redford looks, if anything, older than his seventy-nine years, and his deliberate movements get in the way of what we remember as Rather’s crisp, confident demeanor. In fact the supporting cast of Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacey Keach and others actually give the ballast needed to the two headliners. Blanchett overacts in this role and Redford is bland, though of course Mapes seems to have been an overly dramatic person herself and Rather was a bland person so perhaps they shouldn’t be criticized for this.

The writing is decent. There is a nice weaving in of psychological issues with father, projected onto Dan Rather, as motivation for Mapes’s persistence until she gets the story she wants. This subtext of course, though, just seems to provide more ammunition for those who see the film as wanting to sugar coat CBS News’s egregious errors in this embarrassing affair.

Whatever you think of its politics or of its many flaws, the movie does do one thing well, and that is portray the news industry and its penchant for the lost art of mentoring. At one point late in the film, Topher Grace, who plays a young reporter, answers, “You”, when asked by Rather why he got into journalism, and the theme of Rather’s influence in Mapes’s life is deeply etched in the film.

More importantly, Mapes’s wretched relationship with her father is redeemed in the movie by her relationship to her surrogate father: Rather. The movie is based on Mapes’s memoir so one can’t really blame Rather for his portrayal as little short of a god in the film, but that’s irrelevant anyway. If one looks at these two not as historical personages but as characters in a movie, the viewer can appreciate much about what the relationship of a mentor and mentee should be like. Redford, despite the criticisms described above, is best in his scenes with her. And the writing is best when they are focused together on the job at hand. Aristotle once wrote that friendship is best accomplished by two people doing one thing together with one mind. Friendship is almost defunct in our Facebook world, but Truth says a lot about what it can look like.

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November 12, 2015

The Intern

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.

De Niro performs better than ever in a comic role and Hathaway, who plays this sort of movie as well as anyone, is every bit his equal. While some of the supporting cast perform admirably, the difference is apparent between them and the Academy Award winners in the starring roles. Most of the acting miscues are due to miscasting and shallow characterization, though, and the exception to this rule is Rene Russo. Russo has been in two good films in a row (this one and last year’s completely unappreciated Nightcrawler), playing polar opposite characters, and is superb as Fiona, the company’s masseuse who is Ben’s love interest.

There are a lot of moving pieces in this plot, which keeps the development of minor characters to a minimum, but most of the pieces work. A silly, slapstick break-in of Jules’s mother’s house to delete an email is the exception that proves the rule. The plot points allow for the exploration of the variety of work-related themes we listed above, and that makes the film worth the length (over two hours, a long time for a comedy). Nancy Meyers, the film’s director and writer, is a master of this genre; she has The Parent Trap and Something’s Gotta Give to her credit.

The Intern is a “modern” comedy in every way. Some of its advice will make the Christian cringe; some of the values simply taken for granted will not be those of a follower of Jesus. Overall, though, the film is a nice night out, or a nice night in front of the video monitor, and that is rare nowadays for comedies.

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November 2, 2015

The Martian

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.

Matt Damon plays the indomitable Watney, and the role is a challenging one. The astronaut goes through highs of triumph and lows of defeat, and Damon plays them all with the same precision and intelligent ease. Surprisingly, the role has a lot of comedy, mostly sardonic, but humor nonetheless, and Damon, who showed how well he can play comedy in the Ocean’s movies, dwells seemingly effortlessly in that realm. Probably Jeff Daniels, as Teddy Sanders, head of NASA, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing Vincent Kapoor, the project manager, have the fullest roles outside of Damon, but Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, and Mackenzie Davis add much to the dramatic decision making process on the ground, as the folks at NASA try to decide how and even whether they can get him home. In space, no less than Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, and Kate Mara work towards saving their risen-from-the-dead colleague. Perhaps the only negative in the whole movie is how small the roles for Chastain, Wiig and Bean were, especially Chastain. To their credit, none of them mailed it in, and the movie is the better for it.

The great, unnamed character is the Martian landscape and the little compound Damon dwells in for much of the film. The sets are so believable, one forgets that in real life we have yet even to reach Mars, much less colonize it, and the glorious storms and silences are both equally believable and unique. The pace is masterful, too, as a movie that approaches two and a half hours in length felt too short, not because things were not explained or got left out, but because the viewer so enjoys himself, he doesn’t want the movie to end. Movies like this are usually much too long; not this one.

The only questionable aspect of The Martian is its underlying philosophy. Andy Weir wrote the novel (an incredible first novel) and Drew Goddard (World War Z, The Cabin in the Woods) adapted the screenplay, and their main theme is clear: when Nature goes up against the rugged human individual, especially one who is a scientist and an American, She is no match for him. Watney’s perseverance in the face of odds as insurmountable as odds can get is testimony to the human spirit first, but secondly to American ingenuity, especially that of the space program’s engineers. While there is a nod here and there both to the community of mankind and to transcendence, the burden of getting off Mars falls almost entirely on the astronaut’s shoulders and on the scientists back at NASA and in the spaceship, and they are up to the task. Yes, the Chinese help out with a rocket and, yes, Damon does speak once to a crucifix he discovers among his Latino colleague’s belongings, but these are small nods.

Perhaps in a world where few Christians spend more than five minutes a day in prayer or any other acknowledgement of God’s existence, we should not expect anything else. And of course there is no indication that any of the principals in the construction of the story are Christians; in fact, Ridley Scott has publicly proclaimed himself an atheist, though he apparently now self-identifies as agnostic. Why should we then expect them to produce a film that even bows to the self-doubt any Christian would have in this situation? Of course we shouldn’t.

Christians, of course, have the same capacity to act courageously as non-Christians, and I am not saying that what the story needed was a hand-wringing scene where Watney cries out desperately to God for help. What I am saying is that it would have been nice if, added to the humor and courage the character shows, a prayerful, humble attitude had surfaced, then Watney would have been a more palatable character for Christians to accept. It feels almost silly to want that in the face of such a likeable and admirable character as the astronaut is, but as a friend of mine once said in preaching on Matthew 5:16, “If you do good works and don’t acknowledge your Father’s role in the process, then all anyone is ever going to see is a good man.” Christians should always want God acknowledged in some way in their heroic actions. After all, does His presence permeate all of reality or not?

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November 2, 2015

Black Mass

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?

I’ll give my answer in a moment, but first let’s catalogue some of the positive elements of the film. The acting is first rate. Johnny Depp, finally playing a “real character” and not someone wearing a silly hat or who has scissors for hands, portrays the famous gangster Whitey Bulger, ruler of South Boston for decades because of a deal he made with FBI agent John Connolly to trap the Sicilian mafia intruding on his turf. The deal, however, gave Bulger free reign to control all the illegal traffic in his territory without consequence. Bulger was supposed to abstain from killing anyone and from selling drugs. Good luck.

The superb Australian actor Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, The Gift), playing Connolly is perhaps not as good as he is in other films. The part is difficult, and the balance he tries to give to Connolly of braggadocio, yet sympathy plays out well enough. One could blame the writing for the scenes Edgerton overplays, but in any case, the performance does not sink the film and adds much to it. The rest of the supporting cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon and on and on, are well-cast and contribute to the film in just the way they should. No scene-stealers here. A good example is Julianna Nicholson, who, in a chilling scene with Depp, could have gotten all breathless and sexual, but instead plays the fear she has of him perfectly and allows the sexual undertone to be where it should be in the darker shadows of the scene’s themes.

All the production elements are expertly handled. The streets of South Boston from that era are presented in just the grimy, sloppy way they were. I lived in Boston at the time Whitey Bulger was loose and in charge, and the set design and location and costuming design as well as the lighting during both day and night made the film’s scenes indistinguishable from how that environment really was.

It is hard to say why the movie fails, but I think one must lay the fault at the feet of the script and the director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace). Mass just does not have an arc like it should. One thing happens after another with no apparent fear or tension developed toward an overall purpose or end point. The movie is violent and there are a few mild points of concern for the viewer, but nothing ever happens that is unexpected or strongly evocative of the fear one should have watching a movie like this. Black Mass feels more like a history lesson than a crime picture. The viewer is comfortably distanced from the murder and the mayhem, and that should never be. A gangster movie should make one afraid that “this could happen in my town”. Black Mass only makes you feel that this could happen in Boston.

If you want a movie about the crime scene of Boston that scares you, rent Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award winner The Departed. While it’s not a perfect picture either, one only need compare it to Black Mass to see how good it is.

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November 2, 2015 

Pawn Sacrifice

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.

Tobey Maguire plays each dimension of Fischer’s complex personality with equal skill, frightening us when he is angry, usually lashing out from places of dark irrationality, and softening us when he lets his guard down, which happens at rare but important moments. Peter Sarsgaard, as Fisher’s “guardian” Father Bill Lombardy is brilliant, filling his character with lots of emotion and empathy, while having relatively little screen time to do so. Sarsgaard is one of those actors who can do just about anything, and here he makes a Catholic priest engaging and funny, but also serious and thoughtful. He does so much with his body, and his hesitations, his rhythms, are perfect. He thoroughly convinces us he’s a priest.

Michael Stuhlbarg is good as the patriotic American businessman/lawyer, Paul Marshall, who engineers the famous challenge match in Iceland at which Fischer finally wins the coveted title. Marshall embodies the geopolitical aspect of the movie’s theme from the American side, but the movie portrays the Russians as just as cynically using Spassky to achieve their own ends of cold war triumph. Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan), who plays the Russian champion, steals every scene he’s in. Schreiber’s is a very good performance, and one feels that if there had been more in the script about him, an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor might have lurked in it.

This movie contains a fascinating story, and embodies the old saw that truth is stranger than fiction. It sometimes overplays the political side, but brilliantly shows the psychological displacement of Fischer from his earliest days as a child until the day he wins. There may have been one too many extreme close-up flashbacks to the same blinds cord knob, radiator, and shadows passing under the door of his childhood bedroom, but for the most part Ed Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall) does a masterful job directing this picture and balancing Fischer’s mental disparity with his genius.

One doesn’t have to know a thing about chess to feel the tension at both the level of the game and simple winning and of the political climate and the much more complex national posturing going on in Pawn Sacrifice. Fascinating stuff.

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October 14, 2015

What’s In a Picture?

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.

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October 8, 2015

The Gift

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.

The Gift at least delivers the kind of tingles that make us hopeful that more will follow. Jason Bateman plays Simon, a man with a past, who seems at first to be the perfectly devoted family man. Rebecca Hall is Robyn, his wife, sadly failing at getting pregnant, but skilled in her work, and happily enough married as she and Simon continue to try to produce a child. Edgerton then enters the picture, playing a former high school classmate of Bateman’s named Gordo, who is socially awkward and who attaches himself clingingly to them, giving them presents too often, dropping by at unseemly times, and generally making himself a nuisance. Hijinks ensue.

The movie is shot in the classic center of such films, LA, present day. Effectively using the glass walls of the house into which Simon and Robyn have moved, Edgerton presents the truth that all of us live fragilely protected lives, but he goes beyond that to probe deeper truths of the consequences of past sins often coming to haunt us much later in our lives. But then the layers go even deeper, as we discover that people are not always what they seem and human sinfulness can dwell in the most attractive of shells. Add to all this building subtlety in the plot of The Gift a superbly crafted twist at the end of the film, and viewers have to come out thinking, “Boy, that was amazing. I did not see that coming.” Unfortunately, thrillers don’t usually lend themselves to deep internal analysis, or, perhaps, too, they will reflect on their own lives and how there could be consequences later for how the viewer might be treating people now.

The movie is not perfect. Sometimes it is too subtle, and gaps appear in some of the characterizations that needed to be rectified. Plot points, too, are sometimes too easily won; when Robyn begins to doubt Simon, she too quickly and too completely turns on him. The film needed to earn the rift more since it had spent so much time training the viewer in the couple’s love for each other.

The movie even touches on a particularly intriguing social topic in some circles right now, that of bullying at school and its consequences. While Edgerton does not seem explicitly aware of this discussion, and has made what is largely entertainment, the film could serve as a gateway for a discussion of what high school bullies grow up to become.

In any case, though The Gift is in the process of leaving theaters now, the movie is well worth renting, if you feel like a scary, exciting night in front of the TV.

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October 7, 2015

A Walk in the Woods

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.

The book is filled with fascinating detail of important points along the way from Civil War history to ancient geology, but its attraction centers in Bryson’s ability to describe the people and circumstances he encounters, which form the real heart of America for him. From Katz himself, woefully out of shape and unprepared for the strenuous ordeal he was attempting, when he meets Bryson to begin, and the gradual growth of Bryson’s appreciation for his friend and his perseverance to his descriptions of the people he and Katz meet as they hike, both Bryson’s humor and his wonder at the beauty of the trail never fail him.

The movie, though it contains both these elements, lacks the elegance and the depth of Bryson’s telling of them. Robert Redford plays Bryson, and Nick Nolte plays Katz. Neither actor is up to the task. Redford simply displays no gift for the easy-going, acceptance Bryson has for both the rain, mosquitoes, arrogant young through-hikers and the like, and the awe-inspiring panoramas, gentle kindnesses, and historical insights, which form the focus of his story. Redford is too reflective and intellectual in his approach to the role. Nolte, on the other hand, seemed to chafe against being second fiddle and tries to make Katz more important and wise than he should, and certainly than the character in the book. If Redford had been more assertive as the leader and joke maker Bryson is, and Nolte had been more willing to be his foil, the movie would have been lively. As it is, it sits there like a lump, and the viewer leaves asking, “OK, why did I go see this again?”

Both these actors are too good at their profession to sink the movie, though; the fault for that lies at the feet of Kwapis. Walk is a strongly character-driven movie, but it fails almost entirely to capture the most important character of all—the woods. There are beautiful shots of early morning campsites, of ridges of green that is so deep and quiet, they are almost blue (hence the name “Blue Ridge Mountains”), which Bryson and Katz also spend some time in. But shot with far too many tightly-framed scenes of people sitting around picnic tables talking or cooking around campfires, the beauty of the majestic Shenandoah Valley or the grandeur of the Smoky Mountains, as well as the comfort of the streams and waterfalls, the dew saturated trees, the rocks and ferns and flowers, all this takes far too much of a back seat.

Perhaps the tone of Bill Bryson’s book is just not accessible to film as a medium, but movies—A River Runs Through It or Dances With Wolves just scratch the surface—have regularly shown that nature can play a deeply important role in a film. A Walk in the Woods fails to give it that role.

For Christians, the movie has very little religious discussion. Neither of the principals appears to be people of faith, and I at least don’t recollect any particular scenes of interest in questions that flow from believing in God. Perhaps if I saw it again, I would go, “Of course, how could I forget that?”, but as of this writing, one simply sees two men, who are loose friends from long ago, going out into nature with a goal in mind, and becoming deeper friends by the end of their quest. Not a bad way to spend two hours, even if the medium for such thoughts is not as good as it could have been.

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September 23, 2015

Diary of a Teenage Girl

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.