Same Blood, Different Heart

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

[SPOILERS]

Sami Blood (Sameblod) is the one film I missed at the 2017 Newport Beach Film Festival that I’ve been waiting to see. It’s finally been released for streaming on Google Play and iTunes, and I wasn’t disappointed. Though I’m nearly 100% of German ancestry (as far as I know), I will watch anything that comes from Ireland or Scandinavia. (As I’ve mentioned before, Scandinavian crime dramas are at the top of my list: see the Department Q films on Netflix, of which the newest one is under production. And though The Snowman—which I’ve not seen—did not get good reviews, the Harry Hole books by Jo Nesbø are excellent.)

I was only superficially aware of the Sami people in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and part of Russia. So I didn’t know about the prejudice and racism to which they were subjected (always called “Laplanders” or “Lapps” by the Swedes in the film). The film is the story, primarily, of two sisters (played by real-life sisters Lene Cecilia and Mia Erika Sparrok) who attend a boarding school for Sami children, where they learn to speak “proper Swedish,” and are compelled to undergo humiliating examination of their facial and bodily features, which seem to parallel some of the attempts to assimilate Native peoples in the United States.

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Necessary Horror

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

Dunkirk should rightfully take its place among the greatest of war films ever made (and I wish I had taken the opportunity to see it in its intended fullness on the big screen). It deserves the awards it has coming. The plot is not as straightforward as it initially seems, combining one week of soldiers trying to escape the beach at Dunkirk, one day of civilian ships rescuing those soldiers, and one hour of air battle.

There are movies that glorify heroism in war; there are movies that expose the absurdity of war; and there are movies that break the mold of what war movies can be. Dunkirk is that sort of film. If it weren’t for the intensity of Hans Zimmer’s score and the occasional burst of gunfire, the beauty of this film could lull you into reverie. In this way, it is much more The Thin Red Line than Saving Private Ryan. The music builds and falls back, rises and hums, without taking over or being repetitious. I watched it twice, and was more impressed the second time. In fact, it probably requires a second viewing to see—like a good book—everything that Christopher Nolan has seamlessly fit together.

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Holy Ghost Hypocrisy

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

There are more prominent hucksters in American religion, but perhaps none as honest as Marjoe Gortner. “Charlatan” is a word custom-made for him. I’m not sure why I hadn’t come across the 1972 Academy Award-winning documentary Marjoe before I found it on Sundance Now (you can also see the full film on YouTube here). After watching it, I was all the more surprised I hadn’t seen it—until I found this fascinating interview with the director, Sarah Kernochan, who says it was all but lost until 2002, when she came across an original negative of the film. (Another essay by her is here [although her misspelling of “Pentecostal” and her facile connections make me grimace].) Even so, maybe because he was before my time, I’d never even heard of Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner.

Marjoe is the real-life Elmer Gantry, though perhaps more restrained in his pursuit of the pleasures of the flesh. He’s the embodiment of everything skeptics assume to be true about old-time-relijun, revivalistic, faith-healing Pentecostalism. And he is, in the most literal sense, a hypocrite.

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The Inexplicability of Evil

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on December 29.]

There are only so many explanations for evil that can be given. Think of every single thriller/murder/crime book, show, or film you’ve ever read or seen. I don’t care how long it takes to get to the answer or how many twists there are before the detective solves the crime, you can count the number of motives on one hand.

We tend to think sin is exotic and dangerous, walking the razor’s edge of excitement. In reality, sin is as banal as it gets. It’s murder, sexual immorality, or greed. Try to come up with something else. On these three, the entire breaking of the Law seems to hang.

In order to tell a story that people will read or watch—that is, in order to make money—there has to be a solution. We don’t like leaving the theater or a book without having our questions answered. It’s easy in fiction to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion. And because we are so used to having neatly concluded stories in fiction, we can’t help but seek answers to our questions when evil confronts us in real life. We ask why, and we expect there to be an answer, even if it doesn’t seem apparent at the outset.

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Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on December 22.]

I used to like sentimental-type movies (think Lifetime Channel, tug-on-your-heartstrings, push-your-emotional buttons-type things). Or it would be songs like Randy Stonehill’s “Christmas at Denny’s.” At some point I got tired of having my feelings manipulated and I wanted something real. If that’s your thing, fine by me. I’m not judging. (Well, maybe a little, now and then.)

Christmas is almost the worst time for sentimentality—or best, depending on your view. Who doesn’t have at least one memory from some Christmas past that inspires some sort of nostalgia? Nostalgia has its place. At its best, it’s related to C.S. Lewis’ conception of joy, for which he was always searching. Surprised by Joy resonates because it’s an experience true to life. And Christmas is connected to an almost universal experience (although, I suppose Jehovah’s Witnesses or Jews would quibble with that point). Otherwise, why would nearly every musician and band—Christian or not—produce some kind of Christmas album? Why do debates about Christmas movies rage every year? Why are there a billion movies about some sort of Christmas magic? Something clearly appeals about “this time of year.”

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Reaching for Immortality

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on December 1.]

[SPOILERS!]

Movies and shows made for children always seem to include sub-themes that resonate with adults. Maybe it’s just marketing so that parents will take their children to the theater (only $7,800 for a family of six!), but I can remember it in television shows, as well. Animaniacs was my generation’s Phineas and Ferb. Both have adult jokes running throughout that barely registered with the children who primarily watched those shows. More recently, Disney and Pixar, have made sophisticated, animated films that appeal to both children and adults. Of course, “children’s” authors have probably always included subtexts that only become clear as one ages (see the Grimms, Roald Dahl, or The Chronicles of Narnia). That’s part of the joy of having certain books read to you as a child, and then re-reading them for yourself at older ages.

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War Machine

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on November 17.]

The war machine will take what you have to give and when you’re used up, it will discard you. At least if you’re General Glen McMahon, or any of the other fictional generals who head up the combined allied troops in Afghanistan. War Machine (streaming on Netflix) is comedic, but its underlying themes are deadly serious and maybe even tragic. A veteran (or someone else who knows more than I do about inner workings of the military) could probably point out the moments at which this film touches reality, in the political machinations or the stupidity of how some military operations are decided and carried out.

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Force Majeure

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on November 10.]

Want to start a war between husbands and wives or friends of opposite sexes? Watch Force Majeure together. My wife went to sleep, so we didn’t get to have the discussion. But this is a film that raises questions of the differences between men and women, fathers and mothers. I suspect that, like the characters in the film, the reactions of men and women will match the reactions of Ebba and Tomas, Swedes on vacation at a French skiing resort.

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What Comes At Night

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on November 3.]

What’s more terrifying: the things you cannot see that are outside the walls, or the things inside the walls that you may not fully understand? And so the question is begged: what comes at night? I had wanted to see It Comes At Night as soon as I found out that the writer/director was Trey Edward Shults, who made one of the best films of 2015, Krisha (which is magnificent and terrifying in its own way as an examination of family and mental illness).

It Comes At Night is not a typical horror. There’s a minuscule amount of blood, and the terror is mostly confined to wondering what might happen. But, as with any worthwhile horror, the tension is used to tell a deeper story. What are we scared of and why? Are things that should terrify us played down because we know them well? Is the unknown and unnamed fear only fearful because we don’t know it?

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Lost in the Bedroom

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 27.]

File this under favorite authors/favorite films. I’ve enjoyed reading Andre Dubus since I was in college. “Killings” is one of his short stories that moved me most. (For another, try “A Father’s Story.”) Todd Field and Rob Festinger do both the story and Dubus himself more than justice in their 2001 film adaptation, In the Bedroom.

I don’t detect a false note anywhere in this film. Every detail is fitted perfectly to the story, every moment adds texture and contour and weight. The kids on the baseball field, the Red Sox games on the radio at significant moments, the details of place in Maine: this is what it looks like to build a believable film.

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