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.]


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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Snapshots of Grief

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 13.]


A few years ago, I did the funeral for my grandmother in a small town in eastern Oregon. My grandfather (who had died a couple years prior) and she had lived in this town for many years and I had visited them there both as a child and then later when I was married with my own family. But what struck me about doing my grandmother’s funeral was that, with her, my last, physical connection to that little town died. I could visit on vacation, as I would anywhere else. But there was no familial reason to return there again.

The connection of people to particular places throughout time is at least one theme in A Ghost Story, starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. This isn’t a horror movie, if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s not trying to be scary. But I have far more questions at the end than I did at the beginning. Like, for example, can Casey Affleck enunciate a little more clearly? Is that him in the sheet the entire time? Will Rooney Mara ever be in a happy movie? What’s on the little scrap of paper? Does it matter?

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Nihilism in the Moonlight

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

I’m not going to lie: there’s a little bit of hipster in me. It’s much harder for me to get enthusiastic about movies or music that other people recommend to me (with the exception of a couple people). I like to be the one who recommends things to other people. I know that’s a fault, but there it is. This is especially true of those things that win at major award shows, such as the Academy Awards. I still haven’t seen Spotlight, though it’s on my list, and I kept putting off seeing Moonlight until last night.

Maybe part of it is the fear of disappointment. Awards raise expectations, and they’re so often unfulfilled. For my part, I wouldn’t have chosen Moonlight or La La Land, though they are both clearly cinematic achievements. If I were the Academy, the Best Picture would have gone to Silence, which is beautiful, sweeping, and profound. But I’m not the Academy, so who cares?

I don’t want to be the person who has to put films down because they garner so much attention (though, as I said, I have that tendency). And so this is not that sort of review of Moonlight. It’s a great film. It’s unique and it’s easy to see why Hollywood and the critics loved it. There’s nothing else like it: a depiction of black life that is not confined to one sub-culture or to one neighborhood, and that has a gay, black male at the center of the story. Who has a frame of reference for a film like this? So it’s ground-breaking, and it has received every sort of encomium that you would expect to see flash on a screen as the trailer ends, with all the laurels and awards.

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Inventing New Gods and Old

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on September 22]

It will always be my favorite example of Hollywood missing the point entirely: the 1999 remake/reimagining of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair. The End of the Affair was one of my favorite novels that I read while I was in college. So when I first heard that the movie had come out with Julianne Moore, Ralph Fiennes, and Stephen Rea, I was excited to see how Greene’s vision translated to film.

I have no illusions about the difference between books and movies. I prefer, as often as possible, to read the book before I watch the film. But they are not the same sort of thing. Books can do things that films can’t, and vice-versa. But if the film misunderstands or completely misses the central theme of the book—especially if it’s one of my favorites!—it takes all enjoyment out of the experience of interacting with those two visions.

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