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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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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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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City Lights

Last week I had the privilege of writing for Reel World Theology about one of my absolute favourite films, Charlie Chaplin's City Lights. It was a challenge to capture what makes this flat out masterpiece so timelessly beautiful. Check out the original post here, which includes links to scenes from the movie. I've included a slightly edited version of the review below. Whatever you do, take the time to watch City Lights.

Although I’ve included a few clips from City Lights, I highly recommend watching the entire 87 minute film. It moves quickly, is remarkably approachable (even to those unfamiliar with older and silent films), and available in numerous editions on YouTube, as well as through Criterion’s splendid restoration. 

The story of our world is that of a comedy. I don’t mean comedy in the modern sense of the word, a story filled with humour and laughs. I refer to its older meaning, the meaning used by Dante, that of a story ending in joy, rather than grief.  This understanding is distinctly Christian, for we are to view the world through the lens of the Great Story of All Time, communicated to us by the Bible; a story filled with grief that ultimately ends in the greatest joy imaginable. 

Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece, City Lights, mirrors this ultimate comedy. It is a story aware of grief, yet ending in great joy. But it is also a comedy in the traditional sense of the word, a supremely funny film. Chaplin, repeating his signature role as the Tramp, seems to always arrive in the right place at the wrong time. He sleeps in the arms of a civic statue, awkwardly ruining its grand unveiling. He tries to admire the art in a shop window, only to walk into an open manhole. He wanders out to the docks at night, where a drunk millionaire attempts a suicide right in front of his eyes, avoiding death only after Chaplin’s desperate measures to keep him alive. Finally, after all these apparent mishaps, a situation occurs that better suits the Tramp, when a blind flower girl, whose beauty smites him, mistakes Chaplin for a wealthy millionaire. 

The rest of the film follows Chaplin’s encounters with these two characters. At night, the indebted rich man takes the Tramp out on the town, where hilarious mayhem follows his every move. With a gracefulness despite scenes of ridiculous, frantic circumstances, Chaplin dances with the wrong lady, swallows a whistle down his throat, and mistakes the twirling streamers at a party with his plate of spaghetti. His response to this mayhem is a sort of bashful innocence. In the face of injustices and confusion, the Tramp carries on, smiling and enjoying what is offered him. In his mind, he deserves nothing, so anything he gets is a gift. 

But during the sober light of day, the rich man, forgetting the previous night’s drama, kicks the Tramp out of his mansion. Chaplin responds by visiting the flower girl’s apartment, where he impresses her with both his mistaken wealth and his genuine kindness. It is here that he learns of the girl’s debt and its impending consequences, as well as a doctor whose operation could cure her blindness. Desperate to save her from ruin and restore her sight, Chaplin doggedly pursues various employments in an attempt to raise the funds on time. A career as street sweeper is ruined by his frequent visits to her apartment, and a last minute effort to earn the money in a prize fight results in one of cinema’s all-time funniest sequences, graced by both Chaplin’s nimble feet and a light-footed musical score (composed by the star himself.)

In the end, his efforts failed and the debt’s deadline fast approaching, the tramp runs into millionaire, drunk again and eager to welcome Chaplin back into his home. The rich man gladly gives Chaplin money for both the girl’s debt and her surgery. The Tramp delivers this gift to the delighted girl, sparing not a single bill for himself.  But, in a cruel finale, echoing the frequent role reversals of the story, Chaplin is mistaken for a thief that had robbed the mansion and is locked in jail by the authorities. 

Already at this point in the film, there has been more than enough to stir our hearts. The Tramp’s wholehearted generosity and self-sacrificial love to his beloved echoes, if only dimly, that of our Redeemer’s. His undemanding spirit in the face of confusing circumstances has much to teach us on the believer’s attitude to our changing situations. The way that the rich man, despite his debt to the ragged tramp, regularly fails to recognize him or honour him, reminds me of our frequent condition of spiritual amnesia. But these themes find their climax in the film’s powerful resolution, the most powerful ending I have ever seen.

The Tramp, now released from prison, is completely desolate, a shadow of the man we’ve previously seen. His face is gaunt and his clothes are in rags, leaving him now, at last, truly alone on the city streets, mocked or ignored by all who pass him. He stoops by a window, picking up an abandoned flower. The window happens to belong to the girl, who is now restored to sight and the owner of a respectable flower shop. We learn that she is always seeking the return of her benefactor, wondering if every rich man that comes into her shop is him. Chaplin looks through the window and directly into her face. He lights up when he sees her, until he realizes that she has no way of recognizing him. 

The girl assumes that this is just a poor stranger struck by her beauty. “I have made a conquest!” her title card declares, and she kindly offers him a single flower, along with a coin. But the Tramp just continues to smile out of love, basking in the sight of her face, the petals of his ruined flower falling one by one out of his hand. Bashful, he turns to leave, but the girl, dashing out the door, catches his hand and places the coin in it. Suddenly, her look changes to one of clarity and recognition, even horror. Her heightened sense of touch has recognized what her eyes did not. Her redeemer is standing right in front of her, but he is not who she was expecting. Any former illusions of grander are stripped away. She has seen him at last for who he truly is. 

“You?” she asks through the title card. The Tramp, his face wound tight with expectation and hope, eagerly nods. Her face falls. He lover is not a rich man who will sweep her away, but a lowly tramp. Chaplin gestures to the eyes. “You can see now?” asks his title card, a simple question filled with double meaning. Her face is marked with disappointment and sorrow, and she confirms. “Yes, I can see now.” The tension is unbearable. Will she accept him for who he is? Will she love him, like he loved her? Everything in the story hinges on this moment. All of the pretending has been stripped away. 

Slowly, she takes his hand and clutches it to her breast. For an instant, she smiles; then the camera switches to a tight crop of the Tramps face. As doubt departs, his face breaks open into a smile of pure joy, an expression so intense that the screen quickly fades to black and the film ends. Fixing our eyes on such joy any longer than what was permitted would be too unbearable this side of heaven.

Do we recognize our Beloved? When He returns, will we see Him for who He is? Or are our eyes blinded to the reality of the joy we are invited to enter, joy like that of the Tramps face? City Lights, (aptly subtitled “A Comedy Romance”) is a reorienting film, a film of remarkable clarity for us who need such clarity so desperately. It refreshes us with laughter, reminds us of grace, and restores our vision of joy.

The Good Dinosaur (2015)

I've been asked by the folks at Reel World Theology to contribute a film review from time to time. It's been over a year since I've written in-depth about the movies so I was happy to oblige with a review of Pixar's latest, The Good Dinosaur. Below are a couple paragraphs to wet your appetite before you read the entire review.

"As someone who grew up shouldered by the Rocky Mountains, next to towns where Unforgiven and Brokeheart Mountain were shot, I recognized the landscape captured so well; the deep blues and greens of mountain river waters, the dusty greys of its sandy silt, and the glorious oranges of the virgin birch forest. I also recognized the dangerous menace of the quickly approaching mountain storm, as well as the haunting vastness of the wilderness. Whenever I travel into the mountains I return refreshed and in awe—of something, or Someone, who is far greater than me. Something untamed. Such is true in this movie too.


In The Good Dinosaur, this wildness (call it creation or call it nature) is the main character. Everyone and everything else is just the backdrop. I left as refreshed by this scenery as I do when I visit the real mountains, or when I watch films like The Thin Red Line, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the 1978 animation of Watership Down. These movies are alive to wonder and aware of terror and The Good Dinosaur joins their ranks."

Read the whole review and then, if you've seen the film, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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Boyhood Again!

As critics and fans continue to add to what is now a flurry of top 10 2014 lists, well deserved buzz over Richard Linklater's Boyhood is only growingThis week it was released on iTunes, giving me the perfect opportunity to share a link to what is my first published review.

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In partnership with Steelbook and Mondo's release of their stunning special edition of Boyhood, I was asked to write a review of the film for Hi-Def Ninja, who announced this special release. Here is an except of the review:

If you spend three hours in a movie theatre, you are typically watching an epic concerned with a hero’s efforts to halt an impending catastrophic demise of our planet. Spending three hours instead learning the complexities of a fellow human’s growth to adulthood is a welcome change. And yet BOYHOOD never loses pace or becomes dull. Our time with Mason and family is rewarded in what is an unexpectedly funny film. Our laughter is not just a laughter over the situations and banter, but is instead a laughter of recognition. We have been in their shoes. We’ve had that fight with our sibling, that first day in new school, or that awkward conversation with our teenage son. But we have also shared the excitement of a first crush or the recognition that you can now talk with your son as an adult. BOYHOOD is alerting us to the joy of the ordinary; the mundane special that is all around us, so easy to miss.

Head over to Hi-Def Ninja to read the entire piece and do take a look at the beautiful work Steelbook and Mondo put into this release. It was huge honour to be part of this project. Stay tuned for further work from me in partnership with these companies!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)


Summer blockbusters seam intent to satisfy crowds looking for low mental output and high octane thrills, but rarely do they leave the viewer with anything more enduring than a headache and more thought provoking than a love triangle. And so summers find contemplative viewers in small theatres seeking independent jewels. But when these viewers wants to talk intelligently about movies to anyone outside of the five audience members present at the indie theatre, Transformers 4 and Sex Tape don’t offer much fodder. But just when such hopelessness confronts us, along comes a smart blockbuster like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a film popular, exciting, and thought-provoking.

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This movie is not called Dawn of the Planet of the Humans and Apes, so from its very title we know that things do not look well for the humans who have survived the devastating simian flue. The evolved ape community will rule and our race will be exterminated. We just don’t know how, so we watch the nervous interaction between the new ape civilization in the Redwood Forest and the struggling humans in ruined San Francisco with incredibly high stakes. Minor decisions are being made and any one of them could be the spark that sets the inevitable bonfire of war alight.

This simmering tension is sustained by a musical score that, like the film, is both interesting and heartfelt. The cinematography is not content to to let us just sit back and partake in the action, instead it throws us in headfirst with angles that surprise and engage the viewer. And it's a major accomplishment that we grow to care for and understand the apes as equally as the film’s humans. Part of this is due to to the completely believable worlds that are built, both the rising ape culture and the ruined San Francisco.  And a large portion of credit goes to the astonishing work of Andy Serkis and his fellow ape actors. The audience develops a deep emotional resonance with their civilization but the remaining humans are not ignored. Instead, the uniqueness and preciousness of human life is acknowledged, especially in light of the oncoming disaster.  One might argue that there is less depth to the human characters, but I would say that since we are unfamiliar with the apes, the extra time spent with them is well proportioned. 

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Watching this movie will inevitably spark deep discussions. I would suggest that there are two conclusions we can walk away with. The first is the importance of a rooted understanding of what makes someone human. If humans are not made in the image of God, ethical decisions between apes and animals and lower life life or higher life loose their footing. But as sketchy as this ground is, I think Dawn of the Planet of the Apes deserves more praise than criticism for its ontological understanding, if we suspend our belief and acknowledge that the apes are humans. And that is the second conclusion. Fo even in an ideal community like that of the apes, war is inevitable. Someone is going pick the forbidden fruit, disobey the given rules, and fire the shot that will begin the collapse. The minor moral choices we make have great weight because their consequences are brutal.

Finding a movie that strikes us with these truths in such a fresh and thought provoking way is rare. Coupled with a story that is thrilling, special effects so effortlessly believable, and a world rendered with both explosive terror and and quite sadness, we have a summer blockbuster to be proud of. 

Tracks (2013)

This review was originally written in June 2014. The images are from the film and are not my own. 

People are conflicting, confounding, and confusing. Our interactions with them reveal a fundamental problem with our very core. Some of us try to ignore confronting this problem by distractions. Others bury it in resentment. A few take a more desperate action, what some might call crazy but what could actually be an honest response to the predicament. Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) was one of these people, a spirited young Australian who was inspired and driven to do a feat that had everyone shaking their heads. Her goal: walk across the Australian outback by herself, using four camels and accompanied only by her dog.

Of course, a film like this has to be based on a true story, first recorded in a 1978 National Geographic article and later a book by Davidson. And like any episodic travel film, there are challenges that come with such a territory. The film tackles these challenges in a frustrating mixture of half heartedness and visual creativity. The half heartedness came from attempting to check off the boxes we expect in a film about such a wilderness journey; Robyn loosing her compass, or being attached by the wild bull camels, or getting to know the local aboriginals. Another challenge is the recurring scenery, but here the photography prevailed, finding creative ways to show the austerity of the desert, focusing on its shadows, its negative space, its heat and its whiteness.

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But even if this territory felt flat, the grace and grit of Mia Wasikowska’s character holds and sustains our interest. Robyn is fascinating. Why would this slender willow of a woman tackle such a harsh landscape, peppered with such harsh people? Wasikowska’s face holds continued appeal as she attempts to read the people and environments she throws herself into. We are aware of every slimmer of loathing and longing that battle within her.

For it is people that she is trying to escape from, almost to prove that she is tough enough to be without those who betrayed her in the past. She tries to avoid those who pry into the curiosity of her journey. She shuns people who follow her, seeking to be alone with her animals But Robyn soon finds that a journey like hers requires the support of people. People to her train her camels, people to guide her during the roughest territory, and people to provide funding. And it is because of their contribution to this funding, National Geographic sends along Rick Smolan, played with a charming awkwardness by Adam Driver. Robyn dislikes him, for genuine reasons. He is pries too much and nearly ruins sections of her journey. He is annoying but can not be ignored.

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In the end, when the animals she loves dearest are taken from her, Robyn cracks under the weight of loneliness. The arid, white desert that she wanders through is empty and void of humanity and the few humans she encounters treat her like an oddity. As she continues her solitary quest, a sort of shock sets in. In one scene Robyn sets huddled under the blackness of the outback, her terrified eyes and sunburnt face illuminated only by her fire. Out of the darkness comes a stranger, talking cheerfully yet unceasingly, his face shrouded in a racing helmet, bright as clown’s. “F*ck man, it's cold out here” he drawls, warming his hands by her fire. She is terrified of his harmless appearance and as he leaves his statement rings with truth. This world and its inhabitants are cold.

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And yet there is something that can overcome this coldness and loneliness that accompanies it. There is a kindness that breaks through, persistent despite Robyn’s retreat. Strangers, themselves alone in this wilderness, take her in and offer her fellowship. Others, putting their own needs behind, guide her through the toughest sections of her journey. And one in particular goes out of his way to provide for her needs and celebrate her successes. It is this kindness that stands out against the harshness of the world and reveals the glimmer of hope still offered.

Godzilla (2014): A Capsule Review

This review was originally written in June 2014. The images are from the film and are not my own.

Genre films can be so boring. Superheros, bumps in the dark, cowboys pointing guns, they have become so much of a template that Hollywood can spit them out with more fanfare and twice as much sticky ooze as EasyBake cooking projects from my childhood. As result, moviegoers looking for visual creativity and thematic interest have learned to look elsewhere. 

But now and then we come across a creative visionary who takes this cookie cutter predictability and turns it into a challenge. In such a chef’s hands a genre  film, by very nature of its familiarity, can be used to say interesting things in interesting ways. Enter indie film darling Gareth Edwards. Entrusted with a Hollywood budget, we have a Godzilla to take note of.

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There is a creativity in this film that was unexpected. It contains a storyline that includes all of the major points (MONSTER FIGHTS! NUCLEAR SECRETS! CITIES DESTROYED!) but it had me guessing how he would get us there for the majority of its duration.

But even more appreciated was the way the camera introduces us to its world. There is repeated theme of windows and reflections - characters observing tragedy through a literal window, a window like frame accenting other scenes, and the window of a television used to provide a new angle on the action. But the camera is also aware of the vast space of this canvas and uses this space to full effect. A chameleon crawls on the jungle floor, a foreshadower of a much larger scaly creature. The camera pans beachgoers on vacation before it leads our eye to to the destruction in the distance hills.

These clever entries lead us directly to the “holy sh*t!” moments of scale and terror, making such moments all the more memorable. Equally impressive is the colour language at work (the Dante like scene of the paratroopers descending into the dust and ruin being a favourite).

In addition to being creatively realized, this movie also uses the familiar themes of a monster film to explore serious questions on man’s seeming power to control things. Their is a careful balance at work. Military power is shown to be necessary and important and yet futile in the face of such higher powers, much like the way such power is depicted in the Old Testament.

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The portrayal of Godzilla is of a great being to be feared, that leaves your city in tatters but, more importantly, alive, that conquers enemies at great cost to himself, leaving you humbled with the knowledge that, with such a creature alive the deep, your are never quite safe, never quite in control. It’s a biblical image that is rare to find in the blockbuster. There is a sacrifice and a brutality woven into the nature of universe.

It’s a shame that the human characters are so flat compared to such crackling brilliance. If we had something to latch onto in them this would of been a blockbuster for our generation.

Reflections on Babette's Feast (1987)

These reflections were written in June 2014. The images are from the film and are not my own.

Growing up in a Christian community, the majority of the stories that were told to me dealt with the results of the church and the world crossing. The contrast was always impressive. Sometimes the good character would become corrupted, often the worldly character would convert, but occasionally the worldly character would leave the church unchanged and the good character would remain in the church, having learned the importance of staying pious.

Babette's Feast is a fable-like story that explores this topic with greater nuance then those childhood morality tales. But it also addresses a second more subtle contrast of the church and decadence. What happens when worldly luxury meets humble faithfulness? What is the roll of such artistic extravagance in the church?

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This film touches on these issues and more. It gets many things right, is lit with an ordinary beauty, and explores important themes with such balance that there is room for many essays. "There is a steady gathering of emotion, a sense of a larger truth being touched."

It's central message is that summed up in a quote from the film. "Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty."

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But what that quote misses and what is only lightly touched upon in the film is the cost that such grace requires. A cost that Babette herself freely gave and cost that was given for the grace that we so freely enjoy. That cost begs us to consider when and how such decadence, in life and in the church, should be enjoyed.

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013): A Capsule Review

This capsule review was originally published in May 2014. The images are from the film and are not my own.

Last summer when the trailer for this movie arrived I watched it on repeat. It was perfect. Stunning creative shots set exquisitely to a Monsters and Men track and an ending at the car rental shop so funny my brother and I laughed again and again (I still think it's the funniest moment in the film). If I could have framed that trailer I would have, but part of me knew that such unabashed devotion only resulted in outstandingly high expectations.

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Now that I finally got around to watching the film the unusual cinematography that the trailer exhibited remains its major streangth, alongside its creative use of typography. It's fitting that the visual elements are so strong in a film that celebrates the value of photographer's image. This, combined with the mostly unified soundtrack (thanks Josh Ganzoles) and the rugged Icelandic landscape, kept me happy for the film's duration. But the movie as a whole failed to graduate from good to great for three reasons.


The storyline felt slapdash and predictable. A plot that moved from New York to Greenland and Iceland and then back to New York would make sense. But a plot that does all that, then adds a backpack trip to the Himalayas and a segway in LA (for the purpose of reintroducing a minor character), finally returning to New York to neatly sum everything up felt a tad complicated, especially when the eventaul ending felt so predictable.

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The film's believablity was also hampered by an inconsistent reality. I enjoyed Walter's daydreams. The cinematography blended so them seamlessly with reality that at first we aren't sure just was is happening. (Did he really just insult his boss's beard so brilliantly?) I particularly enjoyed the battle in New York's streets that poked such good natured fun at our modern obsession over superheros. But when the story changed from daydreams to real adventures, moments like a shark battle in the Arctic Ocean cast this supposed reality into a dreamlike state - which would have been fine if the point of the story was that Walter was now transitioning from solely dreaing about adventures to actually doing them.

Which brings us to the point of the story which was muddled by an uncertain and unarticulate message. I think it's point was that we were supposed to go out and chase our dreams. But maybe it's saying that all it takes to get the girls and stare down the jerks is to have a tanned face and a beard from epic mountaineering? Or that having Iceland on your resume along with skateboarding skills and the skill making descisions to join a Tebiatan football game after hiking all day will get you success in life? It did have something do to with being the hardworking ordinarily employee (as long as you remember to enjoy the moment rather than always photograph it). It is hard to be profound when you have nothing profound to say.

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In the end, the film would have done better if it had tried to do less. Like longboarding down an Icelandic road, this is a fun ride with many pleasures. I enjoyed watching it. But its efforts at trying to say something leave it in the dust of so many other films that say such things so much better.

(And no Icelandic kid would trade his brand new longboard for a ridiculous toy from the 80s. Please.)

The Mill and the Cross (2011): A Capsule Review

This review was originally published in April 2014. The images are from the film and are not my own.

I was introduced to this film over a year ago and knew then that I looked forward to returning. But the question was how long to wait? I didn’t want to rush it. But I also knew that this movie would be the perfect fit for Holy Week. So on Holy Saturday I turned down the lights and pressed play.

I am now more familiar with the painting this film brings to life so effortlessly, particularly its lighting. Its costumes and props are so rough and lived in that their foreign realism shocks us.

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The theological and artistic heart of the movie is the intersection of ordinary people’s lives with the cruelty of the world. We see this intersection graphically when the life of a young couple is ground to a searing halt after the man is brutally torn from his wife and lifted up to die while on their way to market. We see it subtly in the crows, ominously and repeatedly visible through the window of every house, particularly Brugal's as his young wife cares for their rowdy children.

But nowhere is the contrast more obvious then when these smaller images of the divine morph into an anachronistic representation of the ultimate intersection - the passion of our Lord. In the history of art anachronistic paintings of the crucifixion are common but we see them less in our film driven age. So in the film, when Judas betray Christ by visiting a cathedral's confession room or the condemned thieves meet with a priest before being dragged to their crosses, it’s like cold water to the face. And it reminds us that the world Christ came to save is our world; in this movie, the Flemish world.

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In the film Christ’s crucifixion is given a weightiness, most notably in the scene when the miller, representing God, “parts the clouds” by pausing the windmill and with it the scene below him. But when the gears resume their turning and the people their moving and the world its cruelty, I longed to see some glimmer of the resurrection. There lies Christ’s body in a grave, holes on his feet. There is the sun, welcomed after the darkness and violence of the night. There are the people, moving on, dancing, showing Christ in the way they care for their offspring.

There is only one difference. In the background this time there are no crows.

Noah (2014)

This review was originally published in March 2014. The images are from the film and are not my own.

One of my earliest memories is my dad reading to me from Ken Taylor's Bible in Pictures. The images seared in my early memory were far different than the cartoon images in other children's Bibles. They were vivid and realistic, men with muscle and woman with grace. These images were my earliest encounter with the Noah account and one particular image stood out as I watched Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. It was of a wooden ark, tightly sealed, mounted on jagged, painful rocks. Water poured from the sky and gushed off the these stones while desperate men and woman clung on for life while others slipped into the encroaching waves.

Any time Hollywood takes a beloved story and illustrates it on the big screen, scores of angry fans of the book will tear apart any time the adaptation commits infidelity to the text. But if such is the case for a work of fiction, the response is intensified when someone tries to adapt the Bible. It's disappointing that there is such backlash from Christians who have historically had a close relationship with the arts, especially religious art. So it's no wonder recent adaptations safeguard themselves from such response by creating tame and boring films of biblical texts, like the recent Son of God.

So I was rather intrigued when it was announced that Darren Aronofsky was directing a large budget version of this beloved story. Aronofsky is first and foremost an artist who is bound to use his greatest gift, his imagination, in telling this story. And, contrary to what many devote Christians are raving against it, Aronofsky is treating the text with great seriousness, both in details, like the measurements of the ark, and the human themes contained in the account.

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Immediately apparent is a distinct visual style. The antediluvian world is depicted as far different than our own. Barren, expansive landscapes are paired with crude ancient clothing, architecture, and artifacts. Of course Aronofsky gives us the expected stunning visual moments that draw us, the audience, in with anticipation - animals surging towards the ark, water springing from the ground and pouring across the earth. Less expected but equally appreciated were the small imaginative details like stop motion flow of time passing while the creator creates and the reoccurring figure of Cain killing Abel as a symbol for man's propensity to violence.

But these broad brush strokes also lumbered, much like the ridiculous and unnecessary fallen angels turned rock giants. Part of the challenge is that this story is so familiar and linear that the director almost has to add extra drama, drama that ultimately weighed down the flow of the film.

Aronofsky’s is deeply concerned with the humans that are at the centre of this story, particularly Noah and his call to obey a God he doesn't understand and isn't quite sure he hears. This was a clear departure from the text in scripture, where God’s message to Noah is explicit and allows many opportunities for the rest of mankind to repent and take refuge in the ark. But this departure results in a fascinating dilemma to materialize. Man is pictured in this film as fallen to his very core, both in his actions and the intent of his heart. It accurately depicts the root of the Fall as wanting to be like God and refusing to allow His word to rule.

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At one point, Noah, having seen the extent of human evil in the hoards that surround the ark, comes to realization that this same fallen nature is rooted in him too. His wife insists that he and his children are good, listing off their attributes until Noah interrupts her. “If their lives were at stake , wouldn't you kill others for them?” In coming to this honest realization of his personal propensity to evil, Noah (and his screenwriter) have been more accurate as to the state of humanity then many other recent films.

Noah is left with an intense internal dilemma. Why has God chosen him and his family to continue to live? What has made them so special when the Fall as ruined them too? Don’t they and their innocent offspring deserve death, the same death brought upon their neighbours by the waters around them?

Aronofsky is creating this movie from the perspective of a Jew-turned-athiest, and he doesn’t give an answer. He hints at a possibility through a drunken, naked, and broken Noah on a beach, restoration and reconciliation through new life, and the unspoken promise of a rainbow pulsating from above.

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But it is through redeemed eyes that we look back on the story of Noah, seeing grace from judgement offered through one man. We see a God who himself shut the door of the ark, giving many plenty of time to get onboard. We see a family, themselves just as broken as their neighbours, offered mercy through a second chance but we also see a means for this grace to appear. Noah is allowed to live, but his wickedness did not go unpunished. “By faith Noah…” says the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews. By faith he trusted in the God who saved him and by faith the punishment that he deserved was passed on to another, an innocent man, the God-man made flesh, Jesus Christ. That is my answer to the very important dilemma put forth in the film.

So is this movie perfect? Far from it. Is it an artistic accomplishment? Absolutely. It engages an age-old text, raising serious questions that will result in fascinating discussions; therefore it deserves be seen.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

This review was originally posted in March 2014. The images are from the film and are not my own.

Every since seeing Moonrise Kingdom in a small theatre in 2012, Wes Anderson’s films have always held a certain magic over me. His minutely crafted details draw me in, but I return for the character’s honest and painful journeys, reminding me of the joys ever present in this life.

Wes Anderson always creates artificial or nostalgic worlds that are tucked away in their own space and time, connected to our world yet entirely their own. By its very title implying old world Europe, The Grand Budapest Hotel lets you know that this story will accentuate these traits. Yet Wes eases us into this faraway country by the use of not two but three prologues, each in a separate aspect ratio. It is a time very different than ours, where Andersoneon visual symmetry and character quirkiness feel entirely natural.

And so the hotel and its surrounding landscape, like a luxurious visual pop-up book dusted with icing sugar, is the ideal medium for Wes to perfect his signature style. Visual elegance is matched by characters so pitch-perfect that one false step would ruin the illusion - but this delicate pastry of a movie is in the hands of meticulous master and there are no false steps.

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A good portion the fun is its wound-up mechanical clock of a story involving train rides at night, tramways up snow covered mountains, luge sled chases (in stop motion) and an evil villain (William Defoe) with so many giant rings that his fingers are an ever present brass knuckle. The flavour is that of a Tintin adventure and the joy of the action is equaled by the joy of its humour. Wes Anderson’s jokes are always character driven and the characters here are numerous and in perfect step with each other. It's as if Wes gathered a "whose who" of old and new Hollywood players, impeccably outfitted and moustached them, and let them play their best, serving the story rather than themselves.

Ralph Fines plays M. Gustave H, a vain concierge, egotistic in his ever present service, dedicated in detail (and body) to every guest at his hotel (which all happen to be old, rich and equally fuelled by flattery). One of these guests, Madam D. (Tilda Swinton as her future self), is murdered in her mansion, setting off a goose chase involving fortune, a old-master painting, henchmen in black and the (somewhat) innocent against the (purely) evil.

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But just Madam D.’s fear foreshadows her eventual murder, an approaching darkness grows in the background of the picture, visualized by SS soldiers at checkpoints and the decay established in the prologue. This darkness announces its permanent arrival through several unexpected and grizzly deaths. This may be a fairytale world, but it is rooted in a real and tragic history.

This darkness helps balance what would otherwise be almost too sweet to swallow. Much like the film's tiny pastries that hid iron weapons, this confection of a film contains serious themes under its delicate wrapper. Guestave H., through his lobby boy in training (Tony Revolori),  undergoes a journey from vanity to humility and sacrifice. His protégée, Zero, realizes that against these dark tides of Nazism and socialism there is real love to protect and cherish - love for his fiancé Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) and his now elder brother Guestave H. Zero, who arrived in Europe with “zero” family, has found one. And even if tragedy takes them, his memories of them will leave him content.

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But there is hardly time to catch one's breath to let these themes sink in, which is perhaps why this volume doesn't rank as high in my books as Anderson’s other, more poignant, stories. And does this dark undercurrent lend itself to despair? Is there a certain sense of cynicism - the knowledge, given through the prologue before the story begins that as grand and elegant and beautiful as this Europe was, it would soon implode to death, decay, and depression - a grim riper, hiding in the dark shadows with socked feet? Perhaps, but one might argue that this is a realism that gives this visual delight its staying power. And lest we worry that subsequent times were devoid of beauty and humanity, Wes Anderson's other films should serve to remind us that joy, sorrow, repentance, and delight - life itself - will continue.