An Interview with A Ghost Story Director David Lowery

The movie I was most excited to see last year was David Lowery’s highly acclaimed little indie film A GHOST STORY. The problem is that highly acclaimed indie films tend to arrive in Calgary months after everyone else gets them.

Then one Friday evening in early summer I got an email from my editor at Mockingbird. “We’ve been given access to a screener for A GHOST STORY and the option to interview the director. Would you be interested?”

I watched the movie. I watched endless interviews of David. I reached out to writer friends for advice. I wrote scores of questions and ran them past my editor. Then I had 20 minutes on the phone with David and it went really well. It was an open dialogue about the issues that challenge both of us. I’m rather proud of the result and I hope you head over to Mockingbird to read the full thing.

 

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I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore

It was Makoto Fujumara who first introduced me to Jeffrey Overstreet way back in 2011. Jeff has been an influence in my life ever since.

Throughout the summer, he helped me refine what was a tough piece to write, and he has now published the finished review on his site.

I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore is still one of my favourite films of 2017, and since it's a Netflix exclusive most of you can check it out today. Go read my review and be sure to follow Jeffrey's work.

http://www.lookingcloser.org/blog/2017/09/04/not-so-beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood/ 

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The BFG, The 13th, and Tramps Capsule Reviews

I regularly contribute to Reel World Theology's Streaming Weekly column, where I offer paragraph length reviews of some of my favourite films available on streaming services. I really enjoy the craft of writing one paragraph reviews, so I thought I would include a few of these here. Head over to Reel World Theology to see the latest entires in this column. Then go watch these great movies!

The BFG

Steven Spielberg spent decades trying to make a movie out of Roald Dahl’s classic story, but when his dream was finally realized last summer the result was shrugged off by critics and largely ignored by audiences. That was to everyone’s shame because The BFG is a gem of a film. It is filled with lovingly crafted details, is gorgeous to look at, and features a simple story focused on a beautiful relationship. That friendship, between the vivacious orphan Sophie (a terrific Ruby Barnhill) and the massive giant (played by Academy Award winner Mark Rylance), is the sustaining thread of the movie and it is a friendship of trust, care, joy, and fear. Mark Rylance is astonishing as the giant. His face is the heart of the film, expressing years of kindness, open-hearted life, loneliness, and loss. Stream this film on the largest screen you can find and, if you have kids, gather them around you. Family films of this caliber are as rare as a friendly giant.

The 13th

In between 2014’s stunning Selma and next year’s highly anticipated A Wrinkle In Time, Ava DuVernay partnered with Netflix to make this paradigm-shifting documentary. 13th is an unflinching look at the devastating impact of the prison system in the African American community. If you’re like me, you will be struggling with the world of heartache and grief that this film opens up, and reckoning with its new narrative that pushes against the story of the 20th century I grew up believing.  The story of our history has consistently been a story told by the white hierarchy. In this film, we get to see that story reframed and retold by an educated and passionate black woman. Do you disagree? Fine, but in order to truly disagree you need to first listen. This documentary forces such listening by highlighting the dignity of being able to tell your own narrative and by recognizing the humanity of the people who are affected by the system. Little wonder it was nominated for an Academy Award.

Tramps 

Netflix is being criticized for its new habit of buying celebrated festival films and then burying these titles amongst its vast library. Seeking out these hidden gems gives us the chance to catch some of the best indie films of the year. One of these Netflix exclusives well worth your time is Tramps, a sure-footed crime caper that’s got heart. When the awkwardly affable Danny fumbles a shady package drop, he gets stuck in greater New York City for two days and a night with the hardened Ellie. As they desperately try to repair the mistake, their understanding and affections for each other begin to unfold. The film’s 82 minutes move nimbly and with confidence, like a welcomed summer breeze on a hot subway platform. The story regularly surprises (except for the predictable final 15 minutes), and the acting is endearing and memorable. The focus on the value of genuine human connection and its portrayal of modern New York makes this a delightful movie worth enjoying.

Toni Erdmann

The problem with assigning films for yourself to review is that you have to write about them even if you aren't the biggest fan. That happened last week when I agreed to cover the highly acclaimed German film Toni Erdmann. As usually happens when you force yourself to write, my feelings on it clarified and now you can read about them, if you're so inclined.

"Toni Erdmann is about the lengths one might go to pursue someone and the ways we mask such a longing for connection under a facade of professional ambition. It’s about the clash that can occur when an eccentric personality plants himself in the company of a formal society. And it’s a nearly three hour German film with an oddly surrealist flavour."

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Paterson

Last week I finally got the chance to see Jim Jarmusch's film Paterson. I loved watching it and it was the movie that I most enjoyed writing about so far this year. I'm pretty happy with the essay. 

This film is about the details of a routine and how the poet notices them and works them into his imagination. It's about the settled routine of a peaceful life and the significance of this routine's variations. It's also about the people in these routines - the strangers we serve through our jobs, the neighbours we bump into and interact with, and the quirks of those with whom we choose to live our lives. It's a gentle, warm hearted wonder of a film, carefully crafted to include incidents that work on multiple levels.

 Head over to Reel World Theology to read the review. Then take the time to seek out the film. It will be well worth your time. 

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My First Screener and The Resurrection of Gavin Stone (2017)

In past years I've been so immersed in the independent and prestige film scene, I almost forgot about the strange world of Christian film I grew up around.  I was quite content forgetting, until I got an email inviting me to watch and review the WWE Studios film The Resurrection of Gavin Stone. The film was billed as "a lighthearted, family-friendly Christian comedy" which is exactly not how I wanted to spent 90 minutes of my life. 

After much discussion with my fellow film reviewing friends, where we debated the merits of wasting precious time versus accepting my first screening, I decided that taking the assignment could be way to strengthen my writing and discernment skills. And to jinx my career as a critic by turning down my first screener invite just felt wrong.

Watching a yet-to-be-released film on my iPad in my bedroom via a private screening link was a pretty neat feeling. If only I could access films like Paterson or The Red Turtle this way! One can only dream... But The Resurrection of Gavin Stone was actually entertaining. But it was also flawed, revealing a sad and dangerous picture of church life and what it means to be a Christian. It was a great exercise to think through what it was trying to say. To read more about that, head over to my review at Reel World Theology. 

Let me know what you think! And if you know anyone looking to screen some indie or prestige films, you know where to find me....

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Public and Private Grief in Jackie (2016)

Director Pablo Larraín’s new film exploring that infamous week of Jackie Kennedy's life is a highly unusual biopic.  It uses a variety of film stock, shooting styles, and moods to peel away the various images that Jackie created for herself to reach her inner life. It's also a profound film about grief and features a truly remarkable performance by Natalie Portman. 

I caught the film last week and reviewed it for Reel World Theology. I'm really happy with the review and I hope you take the time to read it and to watch this fine movie. 

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Le Innocents (2016) and an Unusual Community

I miss reviewing films. I miss taking the time to understand what I have just seen by wrestling with it through words. I don't want to simply consume media - I want to engage in it.  

So in 2017, expect to see more film reviews arrive at this space. I've partnered with my friends at Reel World Theology and my first review for them this year is up already on their website. It's for the French-Polish film "Le Innocents." 

The movies follows the strange, true story of a group of nuns in Poland who were raped during and immediately after the Second World War and who are now pregnant. Unlike recent films about monasteries, like the excellent "Ida" and "Of Gods and Men", the main character in this film is not a member of the nunnery, but a young atheist doctor. Her journey into the religious community and how this affect both her and the believers she has to work with has profound implications for how Christians like myself are to interact with those whom we get to know from the outside. 

In my review I tried to pull out some of these themes. Head over to Reel World Theology to read the whole thing. I definitely recommend watching this beautiful film and would love to hear your thoughts on how it might impact our communities.

 

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Finding Courage through Finding Dory: Pixar and My Mental Health

For a year and a half I've struggled to understand my mental health disability. This weekend I saw a children's film, starring colorful cartoon fish, that confronted exactly what I've had to learn. Finding Dory, which just debuted to the most successful animated opening in history, is focused on a character with a mental disability and how she perseveres through it.

There is lots to love about the film. I enjoyed the relentless creativity that seemed to find its focus when the filmmakers limited themselves to the confines of the Marine Life Institute. The new characters, all with physical or attitude issues, were a constant delight. I admired how it emphasized that both family and close friendships play unique roles in life. But what captivated me was how the story of Dory's memory loss related to my own life.

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The film opens on the teeny, adorable, blue blob that is young Dory repeating after her parents, "Hello, my name is Dory and I suffer from short term memory loss." Right from the beginning of both the film and Dory's life, there is a naive acceptance of her disability. Dory will struggle with this for the rest of her life and her parents are preparing her early in how to deal with it.

Dory's task, and the basic story of the film, is to locate her parents;n first within the wide ocean and then within the endless aquariums of the Marine Life Institute. It's a tall order by itself, but with the added complications of her condition, it seems insurmountable.

Seven years ago, the time came for me to learn how to drive. I took the most comprehensive driving course my parent's could find. I practiced and practiced. But I didn't pass. I still don't have my license.

Driving our family Sienna down country roads was easy enough, even enjoyable. But when I arrived at differing intersections, or engaged in complicated lane changes, or tackled at the tight maneuvering of parking, it got dangerous. I recall two separate incidents were I would have had an accident or even been killed, had my co-driver not yelled at me to stop. My brain flips the intersections around. I yield when turning left at a red light because that's what you do when you have to turn right. Or I stop but not look when crossing a highway. It's like there is a blank space in my brain that appears only 10% of the time. It takes over when I least expect it.

It wasn't until I received a formal diagnoses of my disabilities that it became clear why I was struggling so much. I was not just stupid. I was not just lazy. (Although my truck-driving uncles insisted otherwise.) I had a documented problem that was known to effect exactly this skill. So I accepted the frustrations of not being able to drive. I relinquished control and was at peace with the situation.

Just last month, after a year and a half of waiting, I made the decision to master these weaknesses and learn how to drive. The time had come. I was ready. But when I started doing research into how my disorder affects drivers, I panicked. I was confronted again by the reasons for my lack of a license. I wanted to give up.

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In the film, Dory is confronted by impossibilities again and again. And she keeps swimming. She acknowledges her limitations, her weaknesses, and her problems. She knows she will need help to get around them. She's humble about this. She's honest, even to strangers. But she does not give up. Because she knows that finding her parents matters. This battle is worth fighting for, right to the very end. Watching her determination renewed my own efforts to learn how to drive.

At one point in the story, young Dory wakes from sleep to her mother sobbing as her father attempts to comfort her. They agonize over her condition. Is it their fault? Will their daughter survive? Have they failed as parents? Dory offers a heartfelt apology to her parents for her condition. Her parents offer their unconditional love and insist this is not her fault. Watching these cartoon fish cry over memory loss reminded me of the heartbreak my parents have gone through wrestling with these very questions.

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But the film emphasizes another point, one that has taken me years to learn. Dory requires her friend Marvin's analytical brain to support her. But Dory's unusual, and very different personality is absolutely necessary for the success of her quest. Her out-of-the-box thinking, unique handling of prickly personalities, and enthusiastic outlook seem crazy and often on the verge of falling apart. But in the end, she is a gift to those around her.

It took me 6 months of fighting my disability through medication before I realized that my personality has both strengths and weaknesses*. I was created this way by God and while it will take a lot of work and understanding for me to work well within it, there is also much to enjoy about it. My uniqueness is a gift. It will have consequences both positive and negative. But I need to be quick to thank God for the way he has made me and relish the opportunities it provides.

The bright, jolly cartoon characters of Finding Nemo have been part of our social fabric for 13 years. How brave of Pixar to tackle dealing with disabilities in its long-awaited sequel. What a sign of their artistic integrity to do so in a story that's ultimately joyous, imaginative, and engaging.

*I realize my situation is as unique, just as everyone else's is. I've seen firsthand how medication can make an incredible impact on many people. I have also seen firsthand the pain and confusion it can cause. If you have friends or family on any kind of mental health medication, take the time to understand their needs before pronouncing your opinion. It requires much, much empathy, wisdom, and prayer to maneuver these situations.

Macbeth (2015)

We humans are still finding unique and beautiful ways to make Shakespeare’s ancient text come alive. This delights me. So when it was announced that Australian director Justin Kurzel was working on a new film of Macbeth, starring two of today' greats - Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillar - I got excited. When the trailers debuted with their stunning imagery, the film was projected to the top of my must see list.

In fact, I was so thrilled watching a trailer, I took a bunch of screenshots and arranged them into this beautiful grid. I wanted to show the world how breathtaking these shorts were.

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I had a lot of free time back when I was sick for a month and a half.

Only the film would not arrive in Calgary’s theatres. The December 4th date listed on IMDB came and went. As each week progressed, my hope to see this on the big screen fell a little lower, until I despaired and stopped checking for listings. It was then that my friend Kyle pointed out that it was showing in one of Calgary’s tiniest theatres.

So, I got to see the film. Then I reviewed it for Reel World Theology. It was a fun film to write about, and I hope you enjoy my review.

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