Category Archives: My reviews

Amy

amy

The new documentary about Amy Winehouse, Amyis devastating. Whether or not you were a fan of Winehouse’s music, it’s hard not to be moved by this film, directed by Asif Kapadia (Senna). It chronicles the singer’s rise to superstardom as well as her roller coaster struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and other destructive behavior which ultimately led to her tragic death-by-alcohol-poisoning in 2011.

Amy is a powerful, haunting picture of what sin does to all of us: It destroys. It undermines our gifts. It stubbornly refuses to go away. The movie shows the various “good,” “bad,” and “really, really bad” periods in Amy’s life circa 2001-2011, which more or less correspond with periods of drug/alcohol addiction and stints of rehab or relative sobriety. It’s amazing to see how her physical appearance, speech, and ability to be creative change dramatically with the ups and downs of her addictive struggles. It’s painful to watch Amy at times start to move away from destructive behavior and make better choices, only to have it all undermined by relapses and returns to the people and pleasures that destroy her. If ever there was a movie that showcases the ugliness of what sin does in our lives and how hard it is to escape its grasp on our own merits, it is Amy. 

The film is also a pretty damning critique of the friends, family, boyfriends, managers, executives, journalists and fans who enable Amy’s self-destruction by standing by and saying nothing (while taking pictures and/or making money off her). Some of them are better than others, but for the most part the people in Amy’s life don’t have the courage to call a spade a spade. Some of the saddest moments in the film show her father downplaying the need for Amy to go to rehab (tragically this episode inspired her #1 hit song “Rehab”: I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine…). Or her mother downplaying the gravity of bulimia. Or managers booking shows for Amy at the height of her addiction struggles. Or anyone in her life refusing to keep Amy far away from her drug-pushing disaster of a boyfriend Blake Fielder. This is not to say that Amy is not herself also to blame; it’s just to acknowledge that individuals are embedded within communities who shape them for good and for ill, communities who ought not sit idly by when sin does its destructive thing.

The film made me think about how increasingly unwilling most people in our society are to talk about sin, let alone know it when they see it. Because we are so afraid of being intolerant or judgmental (vices that are worse than just about anything in our to-each-their-own #CallMeCaitlyn world), we find it unfathomable to tell another person that what they are doing is wrong, even if we know deeply and without a doubt that it is. Amy shows the pitiful fruit of a society that is impotent to help sinners because it has bought into the notion that tolerance is the highest love. It also shows the ramifications of the pervasive sense (even amongst many Christians) that brokenness is the most authentic thing and the source of all good art. One of the tragic meta themes of Amy is the suggestion that her timeless voice and raw lyrics stemmed from and were spurred on by her demons, that art and brokenness depend on one another. This may be partially true, but abandoning someone to ruin is never justifiable, even for the greatest art. We should all wish to have rather had a healthy and alive Amy who was boring than a dead-at-27 Amy who lives on in art films and the annals of pop.

Whiplash

whiplash

Whiplash is a great new film about jazz starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. If you’ve ever played an instrument, pursued anything creative with a passion, or even if you just like jazz, you should see this film. Here’s an excerpt from my review for Christianity Today:

One of the things Whiplash is about is the necessity of discipline and accountability in a world where kids grow up—emboldened by shelves of participation trophies and constant “you can do anything!” pats on the back—thinking world-changing greatness is just a Kickstarter campaign awayIt’s a world where many aspiring artists, including many Christians, skip that whole “tireless, decades-long training to master the craft” part, jumping straight to making the “masterpiece” that they are then surprised to see get trashed by the critics.

No, in order to be a legend, in order to make a difference as an artist, one must accept the indispensability of mastering technique. In order to be a good improviser, one must first excel within limits. Prior to “breaking the rules” in a brilliant and influential way, artists must study the greats and be great. Before Jackson Pollock was in a position to convince anyone of the excellence of his abstract expressionism, he had to first train in representational technique (he did in part under Thomas Hart Benton). Terrence Malick could have never made a formally bonkers film like To the Wonder had he not first established his credibility with more traditional fare like Badlands.

So it is for young Andrew under the tutelage of Fletcher, a man who maintains that the most harmful two words in the English language are “good job.” Andrew is brought to literal blood, sweat and tears repeatedly in the film, as the Hegelian collision between his drive and Fletcher’s punishing temper gradually produces something brilliant. Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) is nurturing and outwardly loving; he’s there to hug his son when a concert performance doesn’t go so well.

But Fletcher provides something fatherly that Andrew desperately needs: discipline. One minute Fletcher encourages Andrew and the next he’s slapping him in the face. One minute Andrew is Fletcher’s go-to drummer and the next he’s kicked out of the band. But it’s not bipolar as much as it’s two faces of the same love—a love that includes both grace and discipline, both mercy and judgment. When Andrew comes to realize this, he may as well be reading Hebrews 12:5-6: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

Read the rest of the review here.

What’s Missing in “Gone Girl”?

Gone Girl

Gone Girl is an exceptionally made film. That’s the first and undeniable observation that one must make about David Fincher’s new film. Fincher is a master of the craft and his command of the filmic language gets more impressive with each film he makes. The editing, angles, words and plot turns in Girl are all as razor sharp as the box-cutter that proves so pivotal in the film’s most dramatic scene. I don’t think Girl tops Fincher’s best work (Zodiac or The Social Network), but it’s certainly one of the most cinematically accomplished American films to be released this year.

Still, Gone Girl left a bad taste in my mouth and has me a bit sour on Fincher in general. Since Se7en he’s been a filmmaker I’ve greatly admired, and Zodiac is probably in my top 20 films of all time. Yet I felt like Girl was missing something, and it made me wonder whether Fincher’s films in general are largely void of the spiritual or existential gravitas that their lighting, music and mood would suggest they might have. Even in their unique brand of postmodern-ish film noir (a genre that in the mid-20th century was the most existentially perceptive of Hollywood’s output), Fincher’s films (with the exception of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network) feel a bit one-note. He’s probably the best living director we have in terms of giving prestige treatment to C.S.I.-type procedurals and potboiler page-turners. The case could certainly be made that Fincher is a bit Warhol-like in terms of taking popular, mass-consumed culture (Facebook, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl) and turning it into high art. But I’d rather not call it high art as much as highly polished art. He’s a technical, aesthetically brilliant filmmaker. What’s I’m less convinced about is whether he has much to say.

After finishing Fincher’s Gone Girl one gets the feeling that there was maybe something profound-ish going on in the film. Something about the elusive nature of truth in narrative, or maybe something about the changing nature of media. I tried to reflect upon the film from an auteurist angle, looking at Fincher’s larger filmography to pick up connections to his typical preoccupations. Certainly Girl explores familiar Fincher territory like domestic violence and female revenge narratives (Panic Room, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), postmodern “there’s no way to know what’s real” narratives (Fight Club, The Game) and head-scratcher detective procedurals (Se7en, Zodiac).  And while all of this makes Girl more intelligent and substantial than your average film, it nevertheless strikes me as mostly really good decoration. But where’s the meat? Where’s the film’s coherent voice and vision?

If Girl is about anything it’s about marriage. Here it may convince some viewers of its insightfulness, perhaps. It’s a film that tries to be a commentary on marriage in America in the same way that American Beauty or Revolutionary Road do; which is to say lyrically bleak and meager on substance. And that’s a shame. There’s a way to tell stories that critique American marriage and gender roles in a way that is insightful even as it is bleak. Mad Men does a pretty good job of this, I think. But Girl‘s portrait of marriage, much like that of the Underwoods (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) in House of Cards, feels too extreme, too cold-hearted and cartoonish to reveal anything very insightful. Girl’s central villain, Amy (Rosamund Pike), is so fictionally overblown as a femme fatale that it’s hard to make any connections to real life. Even Barbara Stanwyck as the consummate noir vixen in Double Indemnity (1944) feels closer to real life than the man-eating “Amy” of this film. I’m far more interested in films that explore the dark sides of suburban soccer moms (and dads) in subtler ways. Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom (2001) comes to mind as one example.

In addition to providing a not-really-helpful commentary on marriage, Girl also feels a bit exploitative and counter-productive in light of the current cultural conversation surrounding domestic violence. Wesley Morris discusses this at length in his critique for Grantland:

The movie doubles as a snide contradiction of the serious conversation Americans have been having lately about men, women, exploitation, and violence. Gone Girl isn’t complicating that conversation. It gets off on thumbing its nose at it, using a vengeful false accusation to exploit an old trope of the terrifying femme fatale… Flynn and Fincher are presenting a glib and facetious alternative provocation in the name of entertainment. The movie isn’t smart enough to think around the problems it superficially engages with. Amy turns abuse into a romantic fantasy for her amusement and for ours.

Maybe I’m reading too much into Girl and expecting too much of it. But again, Fincher is clearly a smart guy and an accomplished director. He’s got immense talent. Can’t we expect more substantive and nuanced ideas from his films?

There is a cold objectivity and moral indifference to Fincher’s films. On one hand it’s refreshing to see dark stories simply told, with room for the audience to make judgments and determine the blurry contours of good and evil (I like many of Michael Haneke’s films for the same reason). On the other hand it feels sometimes like Fincher is interested in drama, intrigue, violence and revenge for their own sakes; as if the survival-of-the-fittest struggles of human existence are compelling even when stripped of telos or conscience.

Maybe there’s more than meets the eye in Fincher’s films. Perhaps if I re-watch his other films I’ll feel differently. But Girl feels too flippant for our times; a waste of slick form on middling substance. But maybe that in itself is a commentary on the HD polish of our vacuous age.

Best Films of the First Half

locke

We’re midway through 2014 and so, as I do every summer, I’ve compiled my list of favorite films so far this year. I have yet to see Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (which doesn’t come out until July 11 anyway), which I assume will make my year-end list.  I love Linklater and last year at this time I already knew his Before Midnight would be one of my top films of the year.  In general it’s been a fairly standard first half of the cinematic year: a few great films but not a lot of memorable ones. I’m excited to see what’s to come this fall. Here’s what’s stayed with me so far in 2014:

1) Locke: The more I think about this film, a one-man-in-a-car-for-90-minutes tour de force from Tom Hardy, the more I find it impressive. Not only is it another fine entry into the growing genre of “minimalist actor showcase” films (see also: Robert Redford in the criminally under seen All is Lost), but it’s also a master class in filmmaking. Only after the film is over, and just as you’re getting used to Hardy’s peculiar Welsh accent, does the force of its power start to hit you. It’s a film that doesn’t tell you what it’s about but reveals itself over time (days, weeks, months in my case) and after much reflection to be a film that is about nearly everything. Countless times over the last few months, whether reading Genesis, watching the news, dealing with relational stress or driving the L.A. freeways, my thoughts have returned to Locke. That’s the mark of a great film. (my full review)

2) Noah: I’ve been unabashed in my acclaim for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and my insistence that, in spite of all the controversy surrounding the ROCK MONSTERS, “liberties taken with the story” and accusations of Gnosticism, it’s actually a pretty excellent film–one of Aronofsky’s best. Not only is it a great film but it’s a rather reverential one too, taking faith in God more seriously (ironically) than some of the more on-the-nose God films that came out this year (I’m looking at you, God’s Not Dead). Yes, its an unfamiliar take on the story. Yes, it’s environmentalist (so is the Bible). Yes, it draws from more than just the Bible in its telling of a biblical story (so did The Passion of the Christ). Whatever. I loved it, I’m a Christian and my faith is richer because of this film. (my full review)

3) True Detective: OK, I know this isn’t a film per se. It’s TV (well, HBO). But who can tell movies and TV apart anymore? This eight-part epic takes the police procedural to the next level, mixing the ominous tone of Zodiac with the potboiler plots of C.S.I., but with far more grit and misanthropy. Though at times a bit too bleak for me, the show’s finale (“Form and Void”) puts the whole thing in a new perspective and adds major theological gravitas to an already philosophically bent show.

4) Under the Skin: Jonathan Glazer’s follow-up to his stylish enigma Birth (2004), Under the Skin is a similarly provocative exploration of what it means to be human, particularly what it means to be embodied. Starring Scarlett Johansson in her second non-human role in a row (see also: Her), Under the Skin is quite literally about skin: the phenomenon of a soul clothed in a body, of our bodily substance, of what an alien’s gaze at the awkwardness of humanity might look like if it spent some time in our shoes. It’s also about incarnation, which is also a theme in Her. In the midst of our disembodying, digital age, films like these help remind us of the complexity and wonder of what it means to be human.

5) The Immigrant: The latest from James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night), The Immigrant is a glorious and deceptively simple throwback to classic Hollywood melodrama. Featuring exceptional work from the always terrific Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant explores the very American mingling of God and mammon, as well as grace and work, as it tells the tale of America’s messy dream. (my full review)

Honorable mention: Cold in July, Ida, Night Moves, Mad Men, Mitt

Note: THE IMMIGRANT, TRUE DETECTIVE and especially UNDER THE SKIN  contain sexual material and nudity and should be approached with caution for those sensitive to this type of content. 

Films About Faith That Are Actually Good

There have been quite a few “faith” oriented films to come out this year, including the excellent Noah but also quite a few terrible Christian films: God’s Not Dead, Heaven is For Real, Mom’s Night Out, Son of God. And coming this fall: Left Behind, Nicolas Cage style.

Thankfully there have been several really excellent “secular” films that have either directly or indirectly explored Christianity, God, faith and morality, and I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing several of them for Christianity Today:

Locke (dir. Steven Knight): Full review. Excerpt:

As the film progresses we realize, as Locke does, that as much as we desire full control, there will always be things outside of our power. Men want to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They want to earn it. But sometimes being a man means embracing one’s limits, humbling yourself, and accepting the reality of a higher sovereignty.

The best moments in Locke are the brief glimpses we get of the man’s vulnerability. They are few and far between, but thanks to the film’s close-up camerawork and Hardy’s astonishing performance, we can’t miss them. They reminded me of epiphanies in other films where the “I’ve got it all under control” man comes to a humble awareness of his own limitation: the final moments of All is Lost; the “I wanted to be loved because I’m great” moment in The Tree of Life when Brad Pitt concludes, “I’m nothing.”

These are moments of grace. They are moments when the reality becomes clear that “self-made” can only go so far, that we can never truly survive on our own, and that that’s a good thing. We need grace. And while grace cannot be earned and must accepted from a humble posture, grace is not opposed to effort, as Dallas Willard says

The Immigrant (dir. James Gray). Full review. Excerpt:

immigrantWhen Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) gets arrested and briefly jailed midway through the film, one of his other prostitutes laments to Ewa that “we are nothing without him.” Ewa (Marion Cotillard) emphatically replies, “I am not nothing.” Even the most depraved and lowly creatures have dignity, Ewa’s faith leads her to believe, and she sees this in people even when they themselves do not. When Bruno is at his lowest moment and says “I’m nothing,” Ewa repeats her earlier comment, but this time to him: “You are not nothing.”

Both Emil (Jeremy Renner) and (in the film’s closing moments) Bruno appear at times to be Christ figures of sorts. Yet it is Ewa herself who ultimately presents the film’s best picture of Christ-like love and sacrifice. Everything she does in the film is not for herself, but for the sake of her sister. She lays aside her innocence and opens herself to the profoundest humiliation, so as to liberate her imprisoned sister. It’s an imperfect parallel to be sure, but Ewa’s journey reminds me a bit of what Paul says of Christ in Galatians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.”

Christ, of course, went further. Unlike Ewa, who grasps on to her belief that “I am not nothing,” Christ relinquished all claim to pride and status (Philippians 2:6-8) and became “nothing” on a cross, for our sake. God vindicated Christ’s humility by exalting him to the highest place (Philippians 2:9-11).

Other recent films I recommend that deal with matters of faith, God, and morality: Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski) and Night Moves (dir. Kelley Reichardt).

 

Review: Noah

Noah

[Excerpt from my review of Noah for Converge Magazine]

One of the images that lingers from Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is that of a huge rock protruding from the sea, with hundreds of screaming people climbing desperately to its top, being swept off like toys by mighty waves. In the background we see the massive wooden ark, peaceful and secure amidst the deadly raging sea. Inside, Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family are safe, but they can hear the screams of the dying outside.

Among other things, this horrific scene underscores the darkness of the Noah story. Though many children reared in Sunday School remember Noah’s ark through a cheerfully colourful flannelgraph lens, the tale is actually quite sobering. Aronfosky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) — not exactly a flannelgraph sort of filmmaker — does the story justice by confronting its disturbing darkness head-on…

Does Noah take liberties with the biblical account? Does it embellish and expand upon what’s there in the text? Yes and yes. And it must. The Noah account in the Bible covers four chapters in Genesis for a grand total of about 2,500 words. Everything that happened is surely not recorded. Furthermore, the film’s setting — a mere ten generations removed from Eden — is so unknown to history and so charged with mystery and the miraculous; it’s difficult to tell any sort of story in this context without lots of educated guesses as to what it was like.

Noah’s filmmakers must fill in the gaps to fill out a coherent cinematic story, speculating as to things we don’t know about. What was the mindset of Noah (who, apart from Gen. 9:25-27, never actually speaks in the biblical narrative) during this crazy episode in his life? What did his family think? What were the interactions between Noah and the wicked population doomed for destruction? Did Noah have a relationship with his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins)? The film explores all of this in the spirit of midrashic interpretation, and takes the story far beyond the source material. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t, but (as far as I can tell) none of it directly contradicts anything in the biblical account. Most importantly I believe the film — which ends up being an epic somewhere between Tolkien’s The Two Towers and Shakespeare’s Hamlet — retains the theological themes of the Noah story, powerfully bringing to life a “second Eden” tale that highlights both the justice and mercy of the Creator, a God of grace and second chances.

Read the rest of my review for Converge, in which I discuss the film’s environmentalism and drawn upon Tim Keller and Charles Spurgeon, here.

Also, read this piece I wrote for TGC on the question of what Christians should think about biblical movies made by secular filmmakers.

For a few other reviews of the film, check out those by Alissa Wilkinson and Steven Greydanus.

If you’ve seen Noah, what were your thoughts?

Nebraska

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is road movie. It’s about a father and son (Bruce Dern and Will Forte) who travel to Nebraska from Montana, in hopes of redeeming a “You’ve won $1 million!” mailing that everyone but the old man knows is a scam. The comical plot conceit aside, Nebraska is really a movie about going home, and understanding home. Like Payne’s other movies, which probe the idiosyncrasies of middle class America in places like Omaha (Election), Colorado (About Schmidt), Hawaii (The Descendants) and California’s wine country (Sideways), Nebraska is about small-town life in the Cornhusker State. Its title should indicate as much.

Filmed in black and white (a choice that both heightens the drab blah-ness of flyover country and accentuates its minimalist beauty), Nebraska has been called a minor addition to Alexander’s body of work. I think it may actually be his best film yet.  Perhaps I’m biased as a Midwesterner myself. The suburban Oklahoma and Kansas of my youth are evocatively construed in the tableaus of Payne’s films, particularly Nebraska (Payne grew up in Omaha). Watching Nebraska, I recognize and identify with Payne’s love/hate relationship with the places he is from. On one hand there is a sort of “I’ve moved on” distaste, which dwells on the provincial smallness and embarrassing insulation of the yokel customs. On the other is a profound affection and nostalgia for its simplicity, slow pace and settledness in rhythms and rootedness.

Both of these perspectives are on full display in Nebraska, a film that skewers small-town life and provokes groans and grimaces throughout, yet maintains a respect and even love for its subjects. The film leads the audience to laugh at the small-minded ridiculousness of its characters, but in a way that sympathizes with them too. We almost feel guilty for laughing at them. Payne’s gaze is neither condescending nor reverent. If anything it’s a gaze that sees in others a sort of universal quirkiness; a mirror reflecting back to us the familiar flaws of a people just trying to do the best that they can.

The world of Nebraska is realistically drab, harsh, often bleak. The fictitious small town, Hawthorne, in which most action unfolds is a struggling farm community hit hard by the recession. Almost the whole populace spends their time watching football or drinking together in bars (there’s not much else to do, notes one character), reminiscing about times gone by. There’s a pervasive sense of “the best days are behind us.” Everywhere there are shuttered small businesses, rusted old machinery and dilapidated homesteads of once-great farms.

The sense of place at the heart of Nebraska is also a sense of loss. It’s a confrontation with the harsh indifference of time: generations passing, buildings crumbling, man’s finest glories fading as decades go by. Payne’s film captures, perhaps better than any I’ve seen, the feeling of returning home after a long absence and observing the hard facts of change.

For me, returning to the home of my childhood (as I am this week for Thanksgiving), is always a strange mix of continuity and discontinuity. So much is the same: the meals, the traditions, some of the neighbors and many of the local businesses. But every time I go back, so much has changed. And perhaps most jarringly: I have changed too.  Nothing can call us to itself more convincingly than the memory of home, even while few things can feel so alien as time goes by.

All things are ephemeral: the places we’re from, the people we were. Nebraska captures this beautifully. It’s about the way the world around us changes, faster — but not by much — than even our own rapid aging. But Payne’s film also offers hope, reminding us that love and care for one another make our struggles more manageable. In the midst of dizzying change, and our own stubborn resistance to the reality of mortality, the small kindnesses of friends and family are what give us ballast.