[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.
[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” (!).
[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?
[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on August 3.]
I’m not proud of it, but Alfred Hitchcock is one of the gaps in my film self-education. It’s sort of like those classic books of the Western canon I always tell myself I’ll get around to. I’ve got good intentions to read more Dostoevsky or Greek dramas or Moby Dick or Les Misérables… well, they look good on my shelf, at least. So I finally watched Vertigo last year, and now Rear Window. Rope and North by Northwest are next. (I know, I know. By the way, have you all seen these great new shows, Breaking Bad and Justified?)
[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 27.]
[SPOILERS, BUT YOU CAN PROBABLY GUESS THEM ANYWAY]
That seems like far too important a title for thoughts about a dinosaur movie, but underneath the fantastic and seamless CGI, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is claiming to be far more than simply an adventure movie with dangerous animals. The tired part of the movie is that people always do stupid things when it comes to dangerous animals about which they really know nothing. Yeah, we get it: if you’re ever in a room with a caged dinosaur, do not open the cage, no matter how much you want a trophy or a closer look. Don’t pretend to be Chris Pratt if you’re not.
[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 13.]
At one point in the documentary Karl Marx City (streaming on Netflix), the narrator (Matilda Tucker) translates two German words for dealing with memories. The first is Erinnerungskultur, or the “culture of remembrance,” and the second is Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “the process of coming to terms with the past.” These are fitting terms for a country that seems to have more than its share of recent past with which to come to terms. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to watch this film so soon after seeing Hitler’s Children (which I wrote about here).
[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 29.]
I knew this was going to happen. I knew that if a movie was hyped over and over, time and again, as being an incredible, profound meditation on faith and doubt, that it was unlikely to be anything of the sort. If someone has left or been scarred by Christianity, or an American Fundamentalist version of it; if someone is quick to say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”; or if someone is fully convinced that what the Church should do is take up the apocalyptic cause du jour, then that person is the perfect candidate to be over-impressed with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed.
I don’t mean that those aren’t authentic responses to a real emotional and intellectual experience of viewing this film. But if you don’t find yourself resonating with one or more of those categories, you might well wonder if you’ve completely missed the point of the film. Is there an additional scene after the credits? Did I miss the profundity? Am I too stupid to understand the basic elements of serious film and thereby misunderstand Schrader’s intentions? The last two might, of course, be true. But the simpler answer is probably more accurate: It’s an attempt to be profound about religion, faith, and doubt, without actually achieving it.
[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 15.]
Since high school, I’ve been interested in the genealogy of my family. Nearly all of us German Lutherans as far back as I can trace, all of those generations are part of who I am. So far, there haven’t been any shocking discoveries, but there are certainly intriguing gaps in the records. At what point did my German ancestors settle in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (my father’s side) or Russia (my mother’s side)? What is the connection between the German town of Winterstein and my family? (One interesting speculation is that our ancestors were Sinti [Christian Roma or Gypsies] who took the Winterstein name after working as tailors for the minor nobility of Winterstein).
What about that one great-uncle who was kicked out of the pastoral ministry for some form of false teaching (and later reinstated)? What about that one cousin in my mother’s family who spent nearly her entire life in a mental institution? Why, on the same census, do my great-grandfather and his family appear to live in different locations?
Those sorts of questions are normal with the gaps in knowledge that open up when those who know the answers begin to die. But what if you were born with a last name like Goering, Himmler, Hoess, or Goeth, names infamously connected to the Nazi regime and particular concentration and death camps? I don’t know why it has never occurred to me that while no one (that I’m aware) shares the surname Hitler, many of the other significant members of the Third Reich would indeed have children and grand-children and other relatives sharing their names.
[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 8.]
On the one hand, Wild Wild Country (six parts, on Netflix) is about as strange a religious story as there is in the United States. On the other hand, it’s not very strange at all. The divisive nature of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (a name I would be okay never hearing again), the completely opposite stories told by the Rajneeshees and everyone else, and the weird, magnetic pull of the Bhagwan’s personality make this a compelling story. It’s salacious, with the (accurate) rumors of a sort of sex cult, but it doesn’t seem that the Bhagwan was all that involved in the sexual aspect of his commune, as you might expect a sex cult leader to be!
But even though the free-love aspect of the Rajneeshees seems to attract the attention, that’s only a side story to this documentary. The people interviewed are limited to four major people on either side of the controversy in Antelope, Oregon, in addition to law enforcement and legal participants. While normally I might want more breadth and more input from various people, the limited number of main players actually works well in a six-part series. You actually begin to get a pretty good feel for where they’re coming from and their individual personalities.
[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 1.]
I can’t believe that I’ve been writing these for a year! Thanks to The Jagged Word for the opportunity to watch more movies and write down whatever I think about when I watch them. I don’t know if any of it is worth anything but, at the very least, I hope you’ve discovered some good movies.
In spite of some controversy stirred up by this film, I had never heard of Holy Air until I came across it randomly on Amazon (free for Prime users). The synopsis begins, “Adam and Lamia are a Christian Arab couple from Nazareth – members of a vanishing minority in the Holy Land.” and I was in. But if you go by the synopsis, you might, like me, start to wonder after 15 minutes or so what you’re actually watching. Adam and Lamia are not what you’d call observant Christians. In this, they parallel many (most?) American Christians who are in their 20s or 30s and children of observant Christians. Adam’s discussion with his parents at the Christmas dinner table probably sounds a lot like many conversations around holiday dinner tables in the United States.