We Are Not Our Own Saviors

[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.

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Faith Deformed

[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.

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A (Not So) Wild Story

[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.

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Not Quite Holy

[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.

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The Swedish Theory of Love

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 25.]

What would happen if an entire country took independence and individualism to their logical and extreme ends? We don’t have to wonder. We have Sweden. For the last 40+ years, Sweden has been engaged in a social experiment which now has borne its desiccated fruit. The Swedish Theory of Love is the documentary telling that story. (You can find it online here. If you don’t want to subscribe, you can simply share the movie—I shared it to be visible only to me on Facebook—and you can watch it for free.)

It is the story of the inversion of Genesis 2:18: “It is good for a man or a woman to be alone; too much human dependence is evil.” I found myself both repelled and interested, because my default is alone and quiet. And yet the effects of this as a national ideal are clearly destructive: the end of husbands and wives; the end of the home with two parents as the natural location of a child; the beginning of loneliness as the more-than-likely outcome of a life.

This is the end of an “old-fashioned, outdated family structure…that made us deeply dependent on one another.” In order to call this progress, complete independence with complete control and choice must be the goal. But that begs the question: is that a good or worthy goal to be pursued? Does such “progress,” in fact, work against what is hard-wired into the human creature, whether one believes that to be the result of a Creator or the result of evolutionary adaptation? Can natural law be so easily contravened?

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One Kind of Invitation

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 18.]

[SPOILERS]

There is only one story, told truthfully or distorted. Once reality has been shaded in a particular direction, there is no escaping it. One can deny it or affirm it, but one can’t pretend that it never happened. So whether one denies the Christian story or believes it, it is impossible to escape.

I don’t know if The Invitation (available on Netflix) was conceived to be a denial of or an attack on the generally religious or specifically Christian idea of an after-life, that there is “a better place after this one,” but there is much more beneath the surface of this “horror” film than is usual.

And for Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), there is much more than just an invitation to a party at this house. They know it’s the house of Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), but it’s been two years since they’ve last seen each other. Why this party, and why now?

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Passion and Temptation

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on March 30.]

It’s Holy Week, so what else would I be doing but watching two films about Jesus’ last few days? Two long movies. Two movies that inspired controversy and discussion and debate. Two movies that present two different Jesuses. And, frankly, I don’t care if movies want to use different devices to try to understand the most divisive, explained, written-about person in history, Jesus of Nazareth. I have trouble understanding people who protest religious movies (or any movies for that matter). The only thing such protesting serves to do is draw attention and publicity to movies that might otherwise (and sometimes rightly) fade away into the oblivion of thrift-store DVDs. It is exactly for these sorts of protests that the phrase “all publicity is good publicity” was coined. Roger Ebert’s 4-star(!) review barely even touches the film itself, acknowledging “that this entire review has been preoccupied with replying to the attacks of the film’s critics, with discussing the issues, rather than with reviewing ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ as a motion picture.” (That, for Ebert, is a confirmation of the film’s greatness.)

So I re-watched The Passion of the Christ and watched for the first time The Last Temptation of Christ. Since I found a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel at the library, I decided to read it first, to get an idea of what Scorsese was working with. I was only nine when The Last Temptation came out in theaters, so I didn’t see it then, but I do remember going to a little theater in St. Louis to watch The Passion, sometime during Lent, 2004.

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There’s Hollywood and Then There’s Hollywood

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on March 9.]

Usually, I just check the internet to see which films won which Oscars. I don’t really have any strong desire to hear the rich and famous pontificate, posture, and “use their platform” to push this or that cause. I have nothing against them doing so; I just don’t want to watch it. This sort of exhibitionism has been given the name “virtue-signaling,” in virtue of the tendency to show how much more virtuous one is than some other one who has not shown the same virtues he or she holds up as virtuous.

But: those who seem to be most vehemently against this form of signaling one’s virtue are not quite as virtuous as they suppose themselves to be. In reference to movies, short-handed as “Hollywood,” they will say things like, “This is why I don’t go to movies!” Or they will talk about the cesspool of Hollywood and its filmmakers, and decry the immorality of it all (of which, of course, there is enough to provide a rich tableau of examples).

“Hollywood,” however, is no more univocal than any other segment of culture, popular or otherwise. Of course there’s trash. Of course there’s immorality, at least from a Christian’s point of view. There’s gratuitous (a strange word for it, with its connotations of grace) violence and sex, with which the film could clearly do without and be no less rich—if it is indeed rich. But music and books are no less subject to the inundation of trash. The point cannot be that Hollywood (as synecdoche for filmmaking) produces immoral things or low-quality things, since that is true of anything else that people produce. Hypocrisy and double-speak is no more endemic to Hollywood than it is to any other class of people engaged in the same kind of work.

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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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