A Day Late and [Several] Dollar(s) Short: Film Reviews

We have kids.

No surprise there if you know us or just read a few posts here. They bring many joys, and change your life in many ways. One of those ways, we’ve learned, is that we are no longer anywhere near the cutting edge of music, cinema, or culture. The last time we saw a movie on the big screen, it was Frozen, and that at the cheap theater 4 months post-release. But, as balm for entertainment-deprived souls, the public library comes through…if you are patient.

All that to say, over the last few weeks we’ve just now caught up with some of the popular films from late last year. By and large, we are glad we saved the money and waited. None of them were terrible, but it’s reminded us that well-done original films are such a rare treat. In the order we watched them, now, some brief reviews.

Selma
David Oyelowo as Dr. King was phenomenal. The supporting cast was great. The set design, costumes, etc., superb. The themes are clear, the story (small historical quibbles notwithstanding) doesn’t overly sentimentalize characters and events. This should have been a great film, but the pacing was so poor it struggled even to be a good one. I’d much rather have a film with layers of meaning applied so quickly that a few re-watches are required to get it all than one that drags out each scene longer than necessary.

Shorter Selma: Watch the 1987 PBS miniseries Eyes on the Prize.

Into the Woods
A well-made film adaptation, largely faithful to the dark-yet-playful vibe Sondheim pulled off so well. I’ve seen this performed on stage a couple of times, and, to Disney’s credit, they didn’t muddy it up with too many special effects, and chose a cast who could sing well. My beefs with the movie are the same I have with Sondheim’s original: there are definitely creepy and suggestive moments (including a child predator thinly veiled as the Big Bad Wolf), and the takeaway message is that people let you down, so you’ve got to trust yourself (“Witches can be right / Giants can be good. / You decide what’s right / You decide what’s good.”).

Shorter Into the Woods: Very Grimm, indeed. Well-done, but ringing hollow.

Unbroken
Slightly better than Selma in the “true story” category thanks to tighter editing. Great acting from a good cast, good cinematography, and very faithful to the parts of the story depicted. Therein lies the trouble. Louis Zamperini’s struggles against himself, his opponents on the track, Japan, hunger, thirst, sharks, his demons, and ultimately his sin is so much richer than a two-and-a-half-hour movie can pull off. Not a bad film by any stretch, but a clear case of “the book was better.”

Shorter Unbroken: Read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand instead.

Many of these scripts suffer from gravitational time dilation...

Many of these scripts suffer from gravitational time dilation…

Interstellar
I admire Christopher Nolan’s ambition. Really, I do. When the dog catches the car, though, the results can be…interesting. This movie tried to say so much, and came so close. It bogged down not in the science, but in its lackluster development of characters. There is no one to really care about–even if you buy his premise that love is a force that moves across time and space (I found it good food for thought). If Nolan shaved 45 minutes to an hour off this bad boy, leaving more to the imagination and focusing on the action, it might have been great.

Shorter Interstellar: For the “leave the earth to save it, but only love conquers destruction” motif, watch Wall-E instead.

The Theory of Everything
Give the man his Oscar. Eddie Redmayne went the full Daniel Day Lewis, and was handsomely rewarded by the Academy. Feel-good mush? Perhaps, but Redmayne works it and it works. Felicity Jones and the supporting cast are quite good also, and the clash of worldviews features prominently. Even so, the film as a whole spends too much time lingering over Hawking’s incredible disability instead of plumbing the depths of his relational and intellectual (spiritual, really) tension with his wife. Again, pacing is everything.

Shorter Theory of Everything: Acting Oscars seldom indicate that the film is equally superb.

Maybe by this time next year, I’ll have found time to watch five more movies. Make ’em count, Hollywood!

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Into the Woods: Domestic Appalachia

Even as a lifelong Southerner, I wilt at the first signs of the heat & humidity our region is famous for. Fear not: there is an out.

When I was 14, our family managed to settle in the one place where Southeastern culture intersects Northeastern weather–the High Country of Western North Carolina. That July day we pulled out from the little Georgia town that had been home for the previous 9 years, it was 107 degrees. In our new driveway (500 miles later and 3,800 feet up),  it was a heavenly 62. Thanks to that move, I grew up with barbecue and blizzards, sweet tea and skiing, fried okra and fresh air.

After college, the need for employment opportunities and affordable living led to putting down roots in my wife’s hometown of Chattanooga (where we still live and which we still love). When days start nudging past 80, though, my thoughts head for the hills. Thanks to my folks’ ongoing homestead (they built a house in 2006 on 23 acres “down in the valley”, at 3,300 ft. in Deep Gap), we can act on that impulse and be feet-up in the front porch hammock in five hours’ drive.

The older two girls and I made one of our escapes from summer this weekend and were handsomely rewarded with perfect weather and the full array of spring flowers. Our kids don’t know yet just how blessed they are to have access to this as a routine part of life, but they do know how much they love to visit Grandaddy and B-Ma any time of the year.

Plants hold a special place in my heart, so visiting home means I also get to visit some amazing plants (weird perhaps, but we’re all a bit off at some level or another). I worked four summers at a nursery and landscaping business during college. One of the perks was getting all manner of amazing plants at a steep discount. When my parents built their house, they asked me (and my employee discount) to do the initial landscaping. Whenever we go back to visit, I love seeing how those few trees, shrubs, and perennials have filled in over the past 9 years (owing much more to my mom & dad’s ceaseless care than any work I did in picking and planting them). As they’ve grown in, covering the bright red fill dirt that first surrounded their place, the house looks more and more like it’s always been there in that little bowl.

This series is supposed  to be about hikes and assorted adventures in the wilderness, but sometimes a trip “into the woods” feels a lot like home. There will always be more to say about the vast beauty of the Appalachians, and people with more time on their hands than me have written and photographed enough to document every good hike around. This little corner of the world is all ours, though.

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A little corner of rhododendron varietals

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You can seriously grow everything up there…

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Mountain Laurel are everywhere

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Lupine is an old favorite

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They have several patches of Pink Lady’s Slipper around the land

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Even the weeds are pretty: Cow Parsnip

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And so are the grasses…

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This Bigleaf Magnolia (not native to high altitudes) moved with me twice, but it seems to be thriving in the last place I planted it…20′ tall and about to bloom

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The creek bottom down the hill from the house is covered with Skunk Cabbage and Cinnamon Fern

Meanwhile, Back at the Day Job…

In the lead article for this month’s issue of Disciple Magazine, I’m trying to wrestle with some practical issues facing the Western Church as the “new morality” of unfettered sexual gratification (which is really neither new nor particular to current debates surrounding same-sex marriage) gains traction in law as well as culture. This is not another Jeremiad (at least, I don’t intend it as such), but a reminder that the time already passed was sufficient for finger-pointing and hand-wringing, and that our focus should be on Christ’s call to live in obedient holiness and share His truth with a watching world.

Christian leaders and writers across denominations have been wrestling with what that means for our daily practice and identity as members of the Body of Christ. Few expect an impending trip to the lions, but the consensus takeaway is that things will be different. Russell Moore (a Southern Baptist) speaks of becoming “a prophetic minority” (playing on the 1980s “Moral Majority”) willing to be reviled while lovingly and unflinchingly speaking truth to the world. Rod Dreher (a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy) has been most vocal about what he calls “The Benedict Option”—not a wholesale return to monasticism, but the intentional withdrawal from mainstream culture and cultivation of Christian community to preserve the truth and shine the light of Christ in a new dark age. This is beyond the “culture wars” of decades past. These are not discussions within a nominally Christian population about public morality, but serious questions about how the Church as an institution will weather the coming storm.

There is a real sense of fear today—fear of what we stand to lose, fear for the world our children and grandchildren will inherit. Beyond its value as a healthy motivator (more on that to come), though, this is not the time for fear. Whatever comes (though we seek to understand the times, we cannot know all that God’s plan holds), we ought to be concerned with how the Church will survive and thrive, because we have been given roles and responsibilities in the Lord’s kingdom. We strive to protect the Church, not because we want to preserve our comfort and influence, but because we have a job to do.

Read the whole thing. This train of thought is (as evidenced by the links throughout) not original to me, but it has been weighing on me of late. Tell me what you think.

Why Write?

Why do we attach such significance to the written word? What is there on the page that is not in the mouth?

Speech is living, is fellowship, powerful and fleeting. Writing is two-dimensional, durable, lying there unmoved until read. What works in one ought to work in both, but different streams from the same spring develop distinctive tastes.

Talk at its best is considerate, shifting tone and meaning in a dance with the perceptions of its audience (whether of one or one thousand). A stroke of the pen can only be ever so mindful of who pays attention. Saying something of consequence in a conversation happens often enough that we don’t notice, but finding true meaning in permanent words is a rare gem. Lives are changed daily by a quip, a word of advice, a confidential aside. To read something and take it to heart requires time, a slow ferment to the bloom of understanding.

Somehow, I’m never satisfied with giving voice to ideas; they aren’t real until they’re on paper. E. M. Forster was not merely being coy when he asked, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Therein lies the danger, though. It is too easy fake knowledge in person, so much simpler to eat words spokeBenton Fallsn in haste. What we write (what we truly think, if Forster is to be believed) lives on, returning to us for good or ill years later, unchanged yet never the same. Solomon warned us of this much: “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc. 12:11-12).

I’ve only recently taken to telling people I want to be a writer. Looking back it seems so obvious–from starting a school broadside (rendered with dot-matrix éclat) in fifth grade to spending seven semesters on the student newspaper in college to taking a job that requires me to think on paper all the time. Ever in thrall of professions that seem to be waning in their ability to feed a family, I dreamed for years of sticking with journalism to become the lone voice of reason at a big-city mainstream newspaper (in other words, being Ross Douthat) and now I’m carving up time and resources chasing after the novel(s) in my head. It’s bad enough to want to spill the contents of your mind on others, much worse to plumb and plunder the depths of other minds also.

At times, articulating a vision for telling stories with excellence for the glory of God almost makes sense. At others, it seems like a petty grasping after the privilege of being paid for my thoughts, as though there are things that must be said which no one else could say. For better or for worse, this is the closest thing I’ve ever felt to a calling. Even so, it is always intermingled with craven pursuit of recognition. O, to be sought after, to be thought wise.

Having something to say and saying it somewhat originally, though, tampers with strong magic. It’s one thing, I suppose, to unfold your own troubled soul to the world, but quite another to play the observer. Anything of worth necessarily touches nerves, and the stories that make up our stories aren’t ours alone, but belong to children, sisters, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends. What does it cost to set a life in text? What if that work is accursed rather than acclaimed?

Teasing out that which will not let you go demands both obscene arrogance and humble fear. And so we write.