A Day Late and [Several] Dollar(s) Short II: Awards Edition

It’s become a tradition around our house to wait until long after awards season to actually watch any of the films up for Golden Globes or Academy Awards. By “tradition”, of course, I mean that a busy life with three kids and our general cheapskatiness dictates that we seldom go to the movies and are willing to politely wait until the library will share a DVD with us.

A parallel tradition (if, by “tradition”, I’m allowed to mean “I did it once”) is to briefly review these films once the haze of homemade popcorn (coconut oil will set you free) has settled. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and there’s more movies we haven’t yet managed to wheedle from the library stacks. With that in mind (and in no particular order) here goes nothing.

Hell or High Water

Hell_or_High_Water_film_poster

Courtesy Lionsgate Films

I’m a sucker for the bleak neo-Western (and the Western genre more generally). The grassy expanse of West Texas is a classic clean slate on which to draw the bright lines of a morality play. Even given the contemporary milieu of the story, the elements are all here: bank robbery, the conflicted anti-hero, the grizzled veteran lawman and his idealistic younger partner, the cold-eyed outlaw who can’t be trusted or reasoned with. Add to that a frustrating family drama and the backdrop of a crooked financial system and the mortgage crisis, and you should have a fine piece of work.

Like so many other Hollywood products, however, this movie falls prey to the temptation to be more “authentic” with excessive language and glorying a bit much in the violence and gore necessary to the narrative. At times, it felt like the director padded out the screenplay with these flourishes to fit the feature-length running time. Jeff Bridges earns his Oscar nod, but he doesn’t get enough screen time for us to know his character well. The last 15 minutes (essentially a lecture from Bridges’ character) almost make up for all this, but it seems overall a less than fully realized vision.

Shorter Hell or High Water: Lukewarm. Should’ve either been a tightly directed short or a longer, more complex study.

Fences

Fences_(film)

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play (for which he wrote a screenplay before his death in 2005) seems to have been tailor-made for Denzel Washington, but for Denzel in his 60s. He had to age into the role of Troy Maxson (who he portrayed in a 2010 broadway revival of the play), and he filled the director’s chair for this effort with just as much strength and nuance. Viola Davis’ embodiment of Troy’s wife, Rose, was rightly praised and certified by acting awards.

This emotionally charged story took so long to come to the screen because Wilson insisted that an African American direct it, and Washington’s touch was well worth the wait. Though emphatically a black story (with strong civil rights notes), the themes of family, sin, aspiration, frustration, love, and community lay claim to the universal human condition like all great literary works.

Shorter Fences: The true and better Death of a Salesman—more resonant with more of American life.

La La Land

La_La_Land_(film)

Courtesy Summit Entertainment

It had been conventional wisdom in Hollywood for quite some time that musical film as a genre was dead. And, aside, from the persistent presence of songs on screen in most animated flicks, the idea of people in a dramatic frame esoterically bursting into song was relegated back to Broadway. The success of 2012’s adaptation of Les Misérables and 2014’s Into the Woods (and the fact that a Broadway play—Hamilton—became 2015’s pop-culture sensation), it was perhaps inevitable that someone would come up with a good, original movie musical.

Damien Chazelle’s creative effort is lively, enjoyable, and (most importantly) the music sticks in your head. Though contemporary in setting, the pacing, framing, and set design feels like a more old-fashioned film. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone both do some good work, but overall, I found it did not quite live up to the hype. It falls flat, not because of the music or acting, but because the story falls prey to Hollywood’s love affair with itself. Still, it gets my recommendation because I want to see more in this vein getting produced.

Shorter La La Land: Good music, great ending, but impossible to take too seriously after Hail, Caesar!. Also, Loudon Wainwright III’s song, “Grey in LA“, provides a nice counterpoint.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence_Foster_Jenkins_(film)

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Now for the obligatory Meryl Streep vehicle of this year’s lot. This film is funny, and though tender and sad, mercifully does not take itself too seriously. Without spoiling too much of the plot, it involves the musical prowess of someone who cannot sing her way out of a paper sack, and some very sad marital issues.

Overall, it is a fun and finely produced piece, and the cast look like they had fun playing in it. Meryl Streep is always good. Hugh Grant plays, well, Hugh Grant (playboy-with-accent-and-charm), and Simon Helberg (of Big Bang Theory fame) has a wonderful turn as an aspiring classical pianist co-opted into Florence’s orbit. Not a great film, but a decent one.

Shorter Florence Foster Jenkins: Almost worth it just for Helberg’s facial expressions…

Silence

Silence_(2016_film)

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Portraying any form of Christianity on screen and avoiding ridicule or kitsch requires a directorial pirouette. Through his adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel, Martin Scorsese has pulled it off. Beyond that, he has crafted a beautiful, richly moving film, pitch perfect on nearly every front—acting, cinematography, pacing, etc. That it is loosely based on real people and real events in 17th century Japan gives it even more force.

The entire film is a gut punch, reminiscent of The Power and the Glory (and Endō’s work is often compared to Graham Greene’s), but without the antiheroic angst of the Whiskey Priest. The clerics of Silence are earnest and faithful, and the suffering they endure (and, perhaps, cause) is sustained and painful. Like the source material, it raises many questions that Christians living under persecution have faced since the first century. What is apostasy? Can the church be the church in secret? The highly visible nature of Catholicism accentuates these tensions, but there are lessons here for believers of all stripes. An incredible work of art.

Shorter Silence: Wow. Just Wow.

A Man Called Ove

A_Man_Called_Ove

Courtesy Nordisk Film

Foreign language films can be a bit daunting, but the effort to follow along is just as often rewarding. I read Fredrik Backman’s superb novel earlier this year, and was prepared (as most readers always are) to be let down by the film version.

Hannes Holm’s deft rendering was a pleasant surprise, keeping the tenor of the story just right, and managing to tell it in such a way that even those who haven’t read the book should be able to appreciate it. Rolf Lassgård as Ove and Bahar Pars as Parvaneh shine. Just like the novel, I found myself laughing and crying almost simultaneously. This is a story for our time. There is more to life than simply individuals and an administrative state, and the people we do not want to “bother” us (neighbors, co-workers, and those in need) are precisely the ones put in our path to save us from despair. Well done!

Shorter A Man Called Ove: Grumpy old men may not always be what they seem.

***UPDATE***

Arrival

Arrival,_Movie_Poster

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Science Fiction is, for most, an acquired taste. Were there more films made like Arrival, combining artistry and compelling stories with the mind-bending concepts of the genre, more moviegoers would likely acquire the taste. So much of recent sci-fi tends toward the grotesque, relying more on horror-film tropes than intelligent writing, or the outlandishly comedic. The transcendent themes of a movie like Arrival (based on “Story of Your Life”, a short story by Ted Chiang), remind us what a treasure the best of sci-fi can be.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner deliver top-shelf performances as a linguist and physicist tasked by the U.S. government with deciphering the purpose of alien visitors to earth who have come to in peace (or have they?). Along the ride we are treated to a plethora of questions about language, cognition, time, and human agency. This is well worth any serious movie-lover’s time.

Shorter Arrival: People will be talking about this film for a long time.

 

Books of the Year that Was, 2016 ed.

‘Tis time again for the annual stroll down library lane. As always, what follows is not an exhaustive list, but a selection of some of my favorite reads of the year sorted by genre. Also as usual, most of these were not published within the year, but I encountered them for the first time in 2016. Since changing jobs in March, I’m no longer reviewing books professionally, so this year’s list is more stilted to my personal tastes (i.e. literature).

History/Biography/Cultural Observations

The Chip by T. R. Reid
Once in a great while, an invention comes along that upends the settled order of things. The cultural perception that such devices are the result of a “flash of genius,” striking from a clear blue sky, is misguided; often the discovery comes after years of questing to solve a particular problem. Such is the case with the integrated circuit, or microchip. Engineers from all over the world were working to figure out how to reduce the size of computer circuits, and two Americans, Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby came to the basic design almost simultaneously. Reid’s book engagingly narrates this discovery, the resulting patent disputes, and the legacy of rapid technological change that this tiny tool unleashed on the world.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Some biographies inspire by demonstrating the heights to which humanity can soar with the right mix of circumstances, talent, and grit. This is not one of those. Isaacson’s overlong, chatty, and occasionally vulgar portrait of Jobs is not a particularly good book, and tiptoes too close to hagiography even to be a truly good biography. Jobs led groups to accomplish amazing things, but at such a great cost in burned up relationships, one wonders if it was worth it. A role model he was not. Jobs was a Raskolnikov of industry: someone to whom rules did not apply, at least in his own mind. And yet, yet, I can’t help but be a little in awe, especially thinking of the way Apple products and Pixar movies have made my life a little brighter, more productive, and more fun for many years.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Hereitics by Ross Douthat
Despite the fact that he’s only a few years my senior, New York Times columnist Douthat has become one of the leading voices for conservatism, tradition, and common sense in the American public square. Bad Religion provides a fascinating take on the history of American Christianity, namely that the slide in religious adherence has less to do with outright rejection of faith than the accommodation of Christian orthodoxy to various cultural ideas, which in turn have lead to various heresies. It is a clearheaded approach to the (real and perceived) challenges to the Christian faith in America, recognizing that they come from within as much or more than from without.

Musing/Memoir

The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon
Capon’s masterpiece is delightfully uncategorizable. It is perhaps the world’s most circuitous cookbook or its most unorthodox work of theology. In either case, it is a must read for every one of us slightly pudgy and shameless lovers of all the tastes God built into His world. Food is necessary for life, but He made it fascinating and delicious on purpose. I’ve seldom come across a book that exudes such unvarnished joy.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Abbey, perhaps the atheist’s Annie Dillard, evokes with intimate detail the harsh moral clarity of the the wilderness while abandoning mankind to its condemning ravages all alone. Somehow, though, this paean to the vast inhospitality of the Colorado Plateau is more worshipful than Dillard’s glorying in the minutiae of a Virginia mountain stream. I read this (on a friend’s recommendation) before heading out West this fall, and Abbey’s portrait is richly accurate.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Snarky in that particular mien of the Northeastern sophisticate, but heartwarming all the same. I’ve long been a frequenter of the AT for day-hikes, and I always loved chatting with through-hikers on Roan Mountain, Mount Rogers, and the Smokies. Bryson elucidates the exhilaration and exhaustion of walking these mountains with a good mix of humor, disgust, and awe. His relationship with Katz keeps the narrative going, helping the book to rise above mere travelogue.

Theology/Christian Life

Knowing God  by J. I. Packer
From my review: “Though this work has been driving home deep truths about our Triune Lord since well before I was born, it was to my great detriment that I only just recently picked it up for myself. Every accolade Knowing God has received through the years was just praise—I have seldom read such a clear, emphatic presentation of so much Christian doctrine. To ears ready to hear and hearts ready to obey, Packer’s masterpiece is sort of a devotional ‘jet fuel’ to feed the fire of spiritual maturity….This pastoral heart most characterizes Packer’s work. It is a systematic theology (and a good one), but it is a systematic theology for pilgrims. Other books have more academic depth, but few achieve the devotional concern for the holiness, peace, and joy of the Christian.”

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith
It takes a while to get going (unpacking a philosophy of formation), but eventually Smith gets up a good head of steam and makes some very punchy, helpful suggestions on how to recover and retain the faith in the midst of our self-absorbed consumer society. In brief, he teases out at a more popular level what he has been writing about for years: that culture is liturgy, and the Church cannot combat secularism with knowledge alone. His earnestness comes across rather condescendingly at times, especially when he seems to downplay the intellectual pursuit of God, which can be just as formative as other more “embodied” acts of worship.

Fiction

Laurus by Evgheny Vodolazkin
Hands-down my favorite read of the year. From my review: “What shines in both the words and the story is a voice eerily absent from the world of modern literature—sincere faith. The Orthodoxy of Laurus isn’t merely attached to a character or added for ‘color’, but suffuses the entire work because it is real. The people of this book are, like the rest of us, sinners, but through God’s mercy, many are saints. Most are earthy, some insufferably pious, and a few are wicked, but they all live under the shadow of the Almighty. In this world, the glow of icons by candlelight is meant to inspire, and a Holy Fool throwing rocks at invisible demons is to be expected.”

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
My first foray into McCarthy did not disappoint. Horses has doses of his trademark depravity, but the story is tempered with enough tenderness to make it go down. The interweaving of characters into the turbulent political history of Mexico gives a literary and cultural ballast to what is already a fine (if bleak) bildungsroman. As a marginal hispanohablante, I also enjoyed McCarthy’s frequent use of untranslated Spanish dialogue.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
A masterpiece in every way. Why, oh why, do we persist in thinking the classics are somehow less accessible? Human drama explodes from every page, and spiritual significance crackles throughout. “Hurrah for Karamazov!”

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Powerful, affecting assault on the American soul. Being “colorblind” is not the opposite of racism, but often the same beast in another cloak. Ellison refuses to let any region (South or North), class (establishment, radicals, workingmen, etc.), or race off the hook for our mutual culpability in dehumanizing one another.

Honorable Mention: Re-reads

C.S. Lewis wrote in “On Stories” that “We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” Armed with that exhortation, I’ve made a habit of revisiting books that hit the mark to see if they stick. Here are a few that came back up this year.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Much as I want to find fault with this book (Atticus’ stoicism being an unsustainable ground for real social change is about as close as I can get briefly), it is justly enshrined in the American literary canon. Lee manages to be endearing, but not cloying; profound, but not preachy; childlike, but not childish.

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
As an habitual re-reader of Percy, this deceptively deep comedy has wormed its way into my list of favorites. It even inspired an effort at scholarly analysis this summer. From that paper: “This then, is the solution to which Percy points the beleaguered reader. Life, to be genuine and grounded, must find its roots in the reality of Christ, but also in the reality of creation—even in the realistic parameters of the Fall. To attempt salvation by any other means only brings disaster. By God’s grace, change comes to sick men and sick systems through the ordinary faithfulness of doing the next right thing.”

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
In the morass of 2016, I reached again for the mother of all political novels for understanding, if not consolation. Warren’s magnum opus is so good, and ranges so much farther than politics, or the South, into the very depths of humanity. Truly, everything worth knowing is covered in blood, and we cannot escape the awful responsibility of time.

*UPDATE
It was suggested that I list the other books I read this year which didn’t make this “hits list” but are still worth a read. Here they are, without comment:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie
Godric by Frederick Buechner
The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser
Hillbilly Elegy 
by J. D. Vance
Intellectuals and Race by Thomas Sowell
The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie
The Sympathizer by Viet Than Ngyuen
Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre

Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Dystopia for Our Time

The 1970s have a curious aura, especially to those of us born in the early 1980s. Not quite far enough before our time to feel like “history,” Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and all the associated malaise were so much a part of our parents’ formative experience that they taste to us rather of a half-remembered bad dream—especially given the relative peace and prosperity we enjoyed throughout childhood. Perhaps it is only natural, then, to associate that 70s vibe with our own grave misgivings about the present.

Facing as we do a national election between a habitual liar under investigation by the FBI (is anyone more Nixonian than Mrs. Clinton?) and a much-married misogynist, racist, and paragon of petty machismo, we see a strong political overlap between the two eras. The nausea goes much deeper too—into sex, race, religion, and society itself. All around, our souls give way, yet no solution presents itself. The exhaustion is palpable, even papered over as it continues to be by our blithe consumption and entertainment.

Into such troubled times, the prophets of old spoke even greater trouble. “On account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest.”[1] This indicts us just as much as it happens to us. Perhaps the prophet we need to hear thunder today is the unlikeliest of anointed men—nearly three decades dead and always unassuming in his own time.

Walker Percy, Louisiana novelist and essayist, keenly felt the dislocation of man in the modern age, and set his face toward exploring and explaining that pain in nearly everything he wrote. In Percy’s own telling, a serious novelist (one as much concerned with plumbing the depths of existence as with telling a good story) is by nature a sort of prophet:

“Since true prophets, i.e., men called by God to communicate something urgent to other men, are currently in short supply, the novelist may perform a quasi-prophetic function. Like the prophet, his news is generally bad. Unlike the prophet, whose mouth has been purified by a burning coal, the novelist’s art is often bad, too…. Like the prophet, he may find himself in radical disagreement with his fellow countrymen. Unlike the prophet, he does not generally get killed. More often, he is ignored.”[2]

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Goin’ Coen: Film Reviews

N.B. These are reviews, not recaps. If you want plot summaries, hit up Wikipedia or IMDB. Still, a *minor* spoiler or two follows.

Movies make me happy. Not for the sake of entertainment, but in the particular punch of storytelling that only feature-length Hollywood can deliver. I have no patience with bad films (which are legion), and cannot tire of re-watching a good one.

As previously stated, time to spend on movies, particularly new movies, is a rare commodity, and movies worthy of that precious investment are few and far between. Even so, Rachel and I managed to sneak in a date night recently to watch a new film at the theater, and managed to snag another new release at home. These two features don’t have much connection beyond that fact that we just saw them both and that both involve the input of Joel & Ethan Coen.

Hail, Caesar!

Writing a genuinely funny film that keeps all the humor on key for two hours is an accomplishment. Doing that these days without swiping at the low-hanging fruit of crude or sexual exhibitionism is even more impressive. Pulling it all off while weaving deeper emotional heft into the film is a triumph.

Hail, Caesar! marks the first time in a very, very long time that I’ve left the theater after a comedy without the least cringing or regret. That’s not to say there is nothing off-color here, but that most of it is tasteful and all of it works to advance the plot.

This is a tongue-in-cheek-in-cheek work, marrying the Coen brothers’ carefully crafted sense of absurdity with their wide-ranging fascination with Hollywood history. Inside jokes layered upon inside jokes abound. For me, a classic film junkie, nearly all the winks hit home—I am fairly certain I was smiling or laughing for every second of the running time.

The beauty of this work, however, is that it is so well timed and acted that it would be almost as funny to someone who missed all the layered meanings, who knew absolutely nothing about the old studio system, all the hushed-up scandals of yesteryear, or the plots of the many great movies parodied in this sprawling sendup. It is that rarest of animals, the “highbrow-lowbrow” comedy. Who, afteCaesarr all, can hold back a snigger when a director tells his star in a biblical epic to “squint into the grandeur”, or when a man confesses that he “struck a movie star in anger” to his baffled priest?

Though Caesar! has been only a modest financial success, critics have found it endearing, particularly within conservative (here, here, and here) and Christian media. The film seems to take certain aspects of its story (the value of work, the role of entertainment in society, and yes, religion) fairly seriously, while still being able to crack wise about them.

What those reviews intuit is that this is not just a good comedy (though it is not less than that) but that the Coens have tapped into something deeper. Caesar! is Hollywood’s soul-searching, born of deep doubts about the growing irrelevance of movies in an instant culture, wondering if the wealth and power they enjoy is fading and, ultimately, wasted. This paean to the “golden age” of movies is stirring precisely because people miss it. We miss when “pictures” were important, not merely checked-out entertainment but enjoyable and poignant shared experiences of our culture.

Many of the so-called culture makers are content to live on as Baird Whitlock (George Clooney’s character in the film), making money hand over fist while caring not a whit for the craft and gladly babbling regurgitated pseudopolitical talking points to feel good about themselves. Others are, no doubt, like Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) and his co-conspirators, using the pull of entertainment to subliminally indoctrinate the masses. Viewers are left to wonder, however, if “good guys” like Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, who is outstanding as the core of this story) and Hobie Doyle (an impressive Alden Ehrenreich) still exist, or ever did. Even that is one of the Coens’ best jokes—the real Eddie Mannix was an utter scoundrel, an exact doppelgänger of the man Brolin brings to life here.

Seeing this movie just prior to (an attempt at) watching the Oscars, brought these themes immediately to mind. The self-absorption that has always more or less characterized the industry is on humorous full display in Caesar!, but there are still adults in the room keeping things together and making the system work. Today’s Hollywood has so completely swallowed itself that the “scandal” of #OscarsSoWhite consumed the entire ceremony, overshadowing the honorees of the night (which included several accomplished films that actually tackled issues of substance with artistic merit).

Bridge of Spies

The second Coen-spun film we watched recently was Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (for which the brothers, along with Matt Charman, wrote the screenplay). Though not as remarkable an achievement overall as Hail, Caesar!, this was nevertheless a solid, enjoyable movie. It certainly further cements Spielberg’s status as America’s “Slightly Fictionalized Historian-in-Chief” in the tradition of Schindler’s ListAmistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Lincoln, etc., belting out the ballad of the unsung hero.

Tom Hanks, playing his usual highly-capable everyman, guaranteed some level of success, and endearing (now Oscar-winning) Mark Rylance gives heart to a tale of espionage, treason, Cold War brinksmanship, and good old American dealmaking. Somehow though, it manages to rise above even those stalwart expectations, unabashedly praising the inherent goodness of republican democracy and rule of law in an era when we have all but lost faith in all our institutions.

Spielberg and the Coens mined an era (the late 50s and early 60s) and events (the U2 incident and East German prisoner swap) not well plumbed by popular history, to show how the truly key players in world-shaping are often inconsequential middlemen. That, in itself, is a testimony to the American experiment—living proof of man’s equality with man.

Though I am of two minds (at best) of most of the Coens’ oeuvre, both of these fine films strike needed notes in an increasingly troubled time. With all the bluster of uninformed political rhapsodizing from the centers of culture, is it any wonder that a nation of moviegoers is staring into the void of a very real political crisis dominated by vapid celebrity? In the age of Trump, perhaps Hollywood should fully weigh what it lost when it gave up trying to lift up and inspire America with stories that cut across the lines that so define us now. When the powerbrokers are asleep at the switch, we desperately need to recover the tenacity, decency, and trustworthiness these pictures hold up for acclaim.