St. Coraline the Mundane

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on November 2.]

Coraline (2008, streaming on Amazon Prime) might be the perfect movie for All Saints or All Souls (not that I’m praying for the dead in Purgatory, understand). What a great, semi-frightening children’s movie that gets to the heart of what matters in a family. I don’t know how closely it follows the story by Neil Gaiman, but the film is profound in ways I didn’t expect.

Coraline moves to a new place in Oregon, brown and barren, far away from her friends, with parents who seem to ignore her or want her to go somewhere else and leave them alone. They’re in the middle of their work, and since it’s raining, Coraline is forced to explore the old house in which they live. She discovers a pathway to an alternate world, where her Other Mother and Other Father are everything that she wants from her own parents. But be careful what you long for. You might get it.

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Gosnell and the Hypocrisy of Everything

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 26.]

Halloween is almost upon us, and some people like to watch scary movies. But don’t see the new Halloween or Predator or The Nun. If you want a real horror show—because it’s true—go see Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer.

I saw it a couple Fridays ago and, while it’s not going to win any acting or cinematography awards, none of the cinematic shortcomings distract significantly from the story being told. This is one case where the story is so unbelievable, so horrific, so heart-rending, that everything else comes in second.

That’s not to say the acting is bad. Some scenes might seem more television’s Law and Order than award-winning film, but there are definite highlights. In particular, Sarah Jane Morris (as ADA Lexy McGuire) and Earl Billings (as Kermit Gosnell) are compelling and believable. Billings, especially, is convincing in his half-naive, half-psychopath portrayal. Nick Searcy does his thing (one of my favorites in every scene of Justified in which he appeared), though he goes a little over-the-top, big-time defense attorney at moments. But the best actors in this film are those who play the employees and patients of Gosnell’s clinic. These women are impressive in every sense. If they gave out awards for such short appearances on screen, they would deserve to win.

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Absurdity Between God and Evil

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 19.]

After I watched Troubled Water last week, one of Amazon’s recommendations was Adam’s Apples (2005, streaming on Amazon Prime), about a naive pastor in Denmark, Ivan (Mads Mikkelsen), who welcomes in a neo-Nazi in hopes of (I think) rehabilitating him. Add that neo-Nazi to a Saudi immigrant who robs gas stations and an alcoholic Dane, and it’s a weirdly religious, absurd black comedy.

In spite of the weird aspect ratio thing that Amazon was doing, I was slowly drawn into the story. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but funny in its absurdity. The pastor is not only naive, but indefensibly and, apparently, invincibly so. Nothing that Adam does can shake Ivan’s optimism and “faith,” including a picture of Hitler on the wall and beating him viciously. Ivan says that Gunnar’s alcoholism is cured, though he doesn’t hide the many bottles and Ivan even offers to pick up some “medicine” for him when he goes out. And Ivan is convinced Khalid is done with robbery, though there is a balaclava and a large wad of cash in his jacket, not to mention the gun he easily produces to get rid of the crows in the apple tree.

Further, Ivan refuses to admit that his son is completely disabled and that his wife committed suicide. He views it all as an attack from Satan that he is to withstand. All of it: the crime, the alcoholism, his wife’s death, a neo-Nazi beating him up, the crows and worms in the apple tree. It is all a Satanic attack, and Ivan believes that he is simply called to bear up under it with an undying optimism.

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Guilt and Grief, and Relief

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 12.]

Troubled Water (2008, streaming on Amazon Prime) is really a brilliantly made film. You know the whole thing is going to collapse and fall apart between Thomas and Agnes, but you don’t know when. That tension builds and builds, even when there is nothing tense happening in a given moment. And the way the story is put together brings even seemingly unimportant events to their true significance.

It’s not that the shift in perspective in the middle of the film is unique, but perhaps it surprised me because (not having heard of the movie before) I simply didn’t expect it. Even though it’s over two hours, the two couples are so entwined and paralleled, focused on Thomas and Agnes, that I never felt the length. One has seemingly overcome her grief; one has seemingly overcome his guilt; but both have been deprived (or deprived themselves) of the opportunity to face head-on the event that connects them.

Until that happens, you can feel the troubled waters begin to stir beneath the surface. The central moment is highlighted by the caretaker asking Thomas to play “some real church music” for children on a field trip—led by Agnes—and he plays “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (!).

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Rams

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 5.]

First of all, in another life, I would have wanted to be an Icelandic shepherd. Second, Rams (streaming on Netflix) is a beautiful—truly—meditation on family, place, and history. There is the dark humor that comes with two brothers (Gummi and Kiddi) who live next to each other, doing anything and everything they can to avoid actually speaking with each other—up to and including training the dog to take messages back and forth.

Then there’s Gummi using his front loader to transport to the emergency room a passed-out and nearly frozen Kiddi. This follows the Christmas when Kiddi is found on Gummi’s doorstep, and Gummi helps him into a warm bath and then covers him up. (And then Gummi hides in his back room until Kiddi leaves.)

But in moments like those is revealed an underlying tenderness that even 40 years of bitterness can’t erase. This is the tension that finds its release in the final scenes, where the brothers’ literal survival depends on putting the past in the past.

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Wild West Preachers

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on September 28.]

So I watched Pale Rider for the first time. Clint Eastwood is great, as always. The Eastwood squint/glare is in full effect. He has no actual name in the film, but simply goes by “Preacher.” And he comes as an apparent answer to Megan Wheeler’s prayer over her dog’s grave, interspersed with Psalm 23. In fact, this is a religiously infused movie, down to the coincidence of Megan reading Revelation 6:8 when the preacher first rides into the small mining town.

The people in the mining town (the “tin pans,” as Coy LaHood calls them) respect him because he’s a preacher, and the LaHoods fear him for the same reason. Preachers are dangerous, according to LaHood, because he might give the people faith, and then the LaHoods will have no chance of running them off their mining claims.

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The Devil and Father Amorth

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on September 21.]

This isn’t a great documentary. In some ways (down to the design of the credits and titles) it is simply playing on the success and popularity of The Exorcist—though there’s no pea soup, no unnaturally turning heads, and no priests die. (And my wife thinks William Friedkin sounds like Donald Trump. Narrator: he does.)

So while there are a few and minor interesting things in this film, the questions it raises are more interesting to me. What is it that continues to fascinate about exorcism? Why do people continue to make movies dealing with exorcism? I count at least 25 films focusing on possession or exorcism since 2000 (most of which—to placate my critics—I have never seen). Why so many, and why is this a recurring theme?

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Memory is Treachery

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on September 7.]

Memory is a strange thing. Last week I wrote that I had seen The Machinist during my second summer at college, the first that I did not return home between classes. In one of my periods of sleeplessness last night, I realized that couldn’t be true. As clearly as I seemed to remember picking up that movie at a video place and watching it then, it couldn’t have happened then because I was in college from 1998-2002. The Machinist came out in 2004, which means that if I saw it soon after it came out, I couldn’t have seen it before my third year at the seminary (my vicarage, or internship).

Huh. Who knows when I actually watched it? Who knows where I got it from? Maybe the little video rental place in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas during my vicarage. Maybe the Blockbuster in Grand Forks, North Dakota after I had already become a pastor in Northern Minnesota. Once I realized that my original thought was clearly wrong, I couldn’t place the memory in a particular place or time.

And I’ve had this experience more than once, where I think I remember something and there is irrefutable evidence that I’m remembering incorrectly. Memory is a slippery thing. One of my favorite films ever, Memento—not to mention one of the most original films I’ve ever seen—completely messes with the idea of what memory is and what it does.

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Guilt and Rest

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on August 31.]

If Hitchcock remade Fight Club, it would probably look a lot like The Machinist (2004). If you haven’t seen it, but you’ve seen Fight Club, then I probably gave away the major plot twist. But even if you know the major twist, this is a devastating film about the destructive power of buried guilt. I had seen The Machinist before, but I honestly didn’t remember much except that he works in a machine shop and is struggling with something. I probably watched it on a VHS rented from a Blockbuster (RIP) in Washougal, Washington during a summer when I worked the night shift at a Safeway and then in a hot, dusty, stifling concrete plant in Portland. Not much else to do during my first summer not returning home from college.

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Guilt and Horror

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on August 24.]

“I felt that I must scream or die!—and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!—

‘Villains!’ I shrieked, ‘dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!’”

So ends Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It had been a long time since I had read that story, and in my mind it was guilt that drove Poe’s narrator mad: that he couldn’t take the guilt of what he had done, the evidence of which he had hidden. But reading it again, it does not seem to be guilt that drives him to confess, as much as the—to him—unacceptable idea that others knew about his crime but pretended not to. “[T]hey were making a mockery of my horror!”

Poe inverts the understandable impulse of the non-psychotic criminal to tell, to confess, to be free of the burden of one’s crime. The narrator doesn’t want to be free of his crime, but of the “agony,” “derision,” and “hypocritical smiles” of the police who sit in his house “chatting pleasantly.”

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