Entertaining, but Ultimately Thin History: 42 Review

In his new film 42, writer-director Brian Helgeland accomplishes what Spike Lee and Robert Redford could not—bring the story of Jackie Robinson to the big screen. The film recounts Robinson becoming the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball. It follows Robinson from his days in the Negro Leagues to the end of his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

For a filmmaker, Robinson’s story is shooting fish in a barrel, which makes one wonder why it has taken so long to get it off the ground. A good storyteller can make a boring story engaging. Robinson’s story is so compelling, one would have to be a horribly deficient filmmaker to muck it up. 42 is an entertaining, well-acted, and competent film, worth the price of admission. The baseball scenes are especially wonderful to watch. One feels the speed of pitches and we can actually see the movement on a curve ball. The film makes sure that the majority of famous events are retold, such as the time when Dodgers president Branch Rickey verbally berated Robinson with racial epithets in order to prepare him for the heckling and abuse he would receive for breaking the color barrier. Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson with a quiet dignity, always observing and wisely discerning when to take a risk. Harrison Ford gives the best performance of the film and his best performance in many years as Rickey. It is a joy to watch Ford take on a character. Some may find his acting a bit hammy and over the top, but from all accounts, Rickey was an over the top personality.

42 is not, however, a very complex look at the events it portrays. It does more to honor the legend of Jackie Robinson than the man Jackie Robinson. We see Robinson push back against Jim Crow laws during his time with the Kansas City Monarchs. We see him take Rickey’s challenge to not fight back during his stint in triple-A and in his rookie season in 1947. We see how his character and on-field success win over his teammates who had petitioned to not play with an African-American, the skeptical white press, and the fans. But we do not see Robinson or his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie) change. All of the growth belongs to white characters and their growth is largely predictable. It seems no racist or prejudiced comment goes unrebuked by some more enlightened character.

Robinson’s commitment to the cause and his race was heroic, but certainly the man must have changed through enduring such abuse. Aside from a couple of powerfully acted scenes, we witness little of how the weight of his endeavor affected Robinson. In interviews elsewhere, Rachel Robinson tells of how Jackie’s hair fell out in clumps during his rookie season—why not show that? Many close to Robinson believe that the stress of those first few years in the Majors was so great that it contributed to his early death at the age of 53. Further, for a man so committed to civil rights and improving the lives of other African-Americans, we rarely see him engage his community outside a relationship with the reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland). Not only do we miss how Robinson changed, we neither see how the African-American community was affected by baseball’s integration. White reporters complain in the film that African-Americans will take jobs away from white players, but that was only half the story. While Robinson received the support of the majority of African-Americans, there were some who saw the writing on the wall. If the Major Leagues were to truly integrate, that would mean the death of the Negro Leagues, which at the time was one of the largest and most successful black-run businesses in America. A few more scenes within the black community showing both the support they gave Robinson as well as dealing with the change he brought would have gone a long way.

In that famous meeting with Rickey in which Robinson agreed to not fight back, we see a truncated version of  the agreement. Robinson was indeed known for his temper, so Rickey only asked him to keep quiet for the first year. After that, he was free to express himself. And after 1947 he did pressure his teammates, argue with umpires, get in opponents faces. What 42 gives us is the saintly, quiet, pure African-American that we (white people) want Robinson to be. It is a Robinson with whom comfort is easy. We can marvel at his courage and longsuffering, but he does not challenge us. For being the main character, Robinson speaks very little. As an audience we get to project whatever feelings and thoughts onto him that we want. This is a disservice to a deeply principled and opinionated man. Thankfully the film does not shy away from the fact that both Robinson and Rickey worked together out of their shared Christian convictions. At the same time, by ending in 1947, we do not see how Robinson worked in the Civil Rights movement, nor his post-retirement campaigns to bring African-Americans into manager and front-office positions among MLB teams. At the twenty-fifth anniversary of his debut, Robinson accepted an award and offered a stinging critique of MLB when he said , “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”

With 42 we get an easy racism to hate. We (white viewers, especially) can feel good that we are against the overt exclusionary racism Robinson faced. We know we would never heckle a person of color as Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) does—this powerful scene testifying to Robinson’s perseverance is intentionally painful and shocking to watch. The movies 42 most closely resembles in tone and depth are Boaz Yankin’s Remember the Titans and Tate Taylor’s The Help, both of which also had strong acting playing out rather thin and easily digestible stories of racism from years ago. Like 42, the characters that actually grow in those films are the white characters. The black characters are largely enlightened and noble. These entertaining films let us feel good about ourselves because we can see what the obtuse racists cannot, but they never challenge us to think about how racism might still be alive today and how we might be participants in it.

Despite my criticisms of the film’s portrayal of racism, I enjoyed 42 quite a bit. The screenplay is quick and entertaining. The performances are skillfully given. The action is engrossing. But 42 is ultimately a thin picture of Robinson the man because his campaign against racism did not end with the Dodgers winning the National League pennant in 1947. He spent his life working to better the lives of those experiencing oppression, both the overt and subtle kind. That is a rich and complex story also worth telling.


Reduced: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Review

20th century history largely unknown to American audiences despite their nation’s deep participation and influence in those events. Geek culture references aplenty. Unique prose brimming with energy and floating between street slang and sophisticated erudition. What’s not to love from Junot Díaz’s debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? Turns out, quite a bit. Díaz tells the story of Oscar de Leon, the son of a Dominican mother. When we meet Oscar he is grossly overweight and consumed by all sorts of science-fiction, fantasy, and comic book literature. His physical appearance and geekiness assures his failure with the opposite sex. Meanwhile, the women in his family, namely his mother and sister, are beauties chased by various men. Depending on where they live — the Dominican Republic or the United States — the attention of the men proves dangerous or merely stressful. While Díaz shows that there are different rules for Dominican men and women, whether as the upper-class in their home country or as immigrants in America, the narrator Yunior reduces the characters’ motivations and worth to sexuality. Yunior is a horndog and he makes it appear that just about every Dominican man’s sole desire is sleeping with Dominican women. The reduction grows old. Characters seem lifted from the comic books Oscar loves: the powerful men possess terrible evil, young men are extremely well-built and well-endowed, and the descriptions of the women’s bodies makes them sound like the impossibly proportioned heroines of Marvel and DC. Díaz writes tragedy well and we feel each one as readers — early on he introduces the concept of fukú, or a curse that follows Oscar’s family. The reduction gets in the way, however. When we come to the end we are supposed to feel a moment of relief, a sense that there was some fulfillment, but what brings that fulfillment is so thin that it falls flat.

Five Years Since Dad’s Death, or: How God Comforted My Mourning Through Film and Literature

“Look, just because we’re bereaved doesn’t make us saps!” — Walter Sobchak, The Big Lebowski

Today marks the fifth anniversary of my father’s death. I think about him every day and there are times I still break down in tears of sadness. Death is a terrible thing and it is no wonder the Bible speaks of death as Christ’s greatest foe — a foe he has thankfully vanquished. Dad’s death made me question God’s reality and goodness more than any other event in my life. It has been hard to feel God’s presence at times.  I have, however, also experienced God’s presence in the most real and profound ways as I have received comfort in my mourning. The most meaningful comfort has come from family and friends who have recounted their own stories of Dad to me, who have been able to sit with me in my mourning, who met needs such as food when I wasn’t in a place to care for myself. But I have also found comfort through the arts. I have found companions in stories and characters with whom I can relate. One of my favorite statements about the power of art and literature comes from the film Shadowlands: “We read to know we are not alone.” The following works of art have helped me to know that I am not alone as I miss Dad. (Warning: there might be some spoilers in my discussions about the specific films and novels.)

Perhaps the greatest connection I have felt with my father has been reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and watching the film adaptations by Peter Jackson. Dad was the first person I knew who read and loved Tolkien’s fantasy world. We had always connected in our love of books — it’s a love I think he and my mother instilled in me — but when I read and enjoyed The Hobbit in high school, I saw an excitement in him I had not previously seen. I previously wrote that I think of the stories of Middle Earth as my father’s stories. Every time I read about the Shire or see the white city of Minas Tirith I feel closer to Dad. These are stories he enjoyed deeply, that he read several times throughout his life. I remember I was home from college on break between quarters and the filmmakers had released the first images from the set of a door in Hobbiton. Dad and I looked at the computer screen and our responses went from skepticism to relief to impressed. We looked at each other and said, “Looks like they got it right.” We became excited to see the films together.

About a month after Dad died in 2007, Wes Anderson released his beautiful film, The Darjeeling Limited, which tells the story of three brothers traveling through India a year after their father died. I don’t think Dad ever saw an Anderson film and I doubt that he would have enjoyed them very much. As I sat in the theater for the first time since my father’s death, watching three brothers struggling to navigate through life without their father, I thought, “This film will enter my bones.” In the aftermath of Dad’s heart attack, death, memorial service, and cremation, I told a friend that I felt rudderless without my father. He was a voice of wisdom and reason. We did not see eye to eye on some important matters, but I could run any choice I faced by him. He was never one to give much advice, but rather he asked probing questions to make sure I had covered my bases. In The Darjeeling Limited we see the brothers Whitman going to two funerals: one for their father and one for an Indian boy they failed to rescue from drowning in a canal. The contrast between the two experiences is striking and they make a damning critique of the West’s discomfort with and subsequent sanitization of death. In America, the boys are essentially alone, having to gather their father’s belongings from disparate locations. Their mother refuses to come to the funeral and no one knows how to mourn. The busy schedule at the funeral home dictates that they nearly miss their father’s service because other families have reserved that space. The father’s remains are handled entirely by professionals in ways intended to keep the family uninvolved.  In Inida, they are welcomed into a community that stops and sits together in their grief. The father of the boy who died prepares the body for cremation. The village all takes a ritual bath after the funeral. The grief and wailing are more violent than anything we see in America and that is a good thing. Why do we keep ourselves from feeling the reality, shock, and torment of death? The Whitmans learn that grief and spiritual growth cannot be prescribed, but there are helps along the way. They learn they have to shed the baggage of their father (figurative and literally) to get back to living. I wrote more about The Darjeeling Limited here.

Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, snuck up on me. I picked it up in 2007 because I knew that it had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and I had this thing for reading Pulitzer winners back then. I knew little to nothing about the actual story and had never read any McCarthy before. This tale of a dying father and son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world went to my core. I finished the novel on a puddle-jumper plane and proceeded to weep next to an especially large man who encroached on my personal space. I could see my father in Papa, trying to protect his son from the terrors of the world as well as preparing the boy for a day when the father would no longer be around. I felt the fear of the young boy standing on the road alone, facing a world without his father’s guidance. I also knew the glimmer of hope as the boy was accepted by other “good guys” who also “carried the fire.” Few passages of literature have resonated with me more than these words of the boy’s new adoptive mother: “She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didnt forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet it pass from man to man through all of time.” I talk to Dad regularly. I choose not to forget him. The few times I have encountered my father in my dreams have been especially precious to me. The Road carries another sadness for me because I am sure Dad would have liked it, but we never were able to share it.

The final work of art that God has especially used to comfort me in my grief has been Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life. The film is a sort of adaptation, or rumination on, the biblical book of Job. Job expertly asks questions about suffering and God’s goodness. It is a deeply human book that gives voice to our fears and doubts. God in the book is beyond our comprehension. Little comfort is given the suffering Job beyond the fact that he knows God hears his questions, that God is aware of his pain. After my father’s death, I found it difficult to pray. All I could muster were groans and while I believe those are valid prayers, I wished for words to better communicate my anger, confusion, and sadness to God. Job does that as does The Tree of Life. It is not merely with the deep questions of the film that I find resonance, but also the specific images of the O’Brien family’s life. Mr. O’Brien, stern as he is — and my father could be stern at times — is also capable of gentle grace and pure fun. I burst into tears as shots of Mr. O’Brien squirting his sons with a garden hose flashed on the movie screen. In summers, my brother, our friends, and I would have epic water fights with water balloons and squirt guns. If Dad were home, he would sneak around the back of the house, grab the garden hose, connect the strongest nozzle and ambush us. A bunch of bare-chested boys in swim trunks trying to soak my gigantic (to us) father wielding a hose is perhaps my favorite image of a long summer day. Then we would all recoup from the battle lounging in the backyard pool. In my review of Malick’s film, I wrote, “I remember the giant hand of my father on my shoulder or neck as a child, encouraging or disciplining me. In these ways, I found The Tree of Life to be an icon, guiding me into praise of the God I will never fully understand, but to whom I am consistently drawn.” The Tree of Life asks the questions I ask. I still don’t know why Dad had to die. I still don’t know where God was when Dad was driven in an ambulance and died on a hospital bed. But I believe God has heard my questions. I believe God has cared. I also believe the answers to these questions are well beyond my understanding, though they are not beyond God’s.

When I think of all the changes that has happened in his family in the five years after Dad’s death, I am saddened even more. He never met three of his grandchildren. He never saw me receive calls to the pastorate. Death is a terrible thing. Thankfully I worship a God who is greater than death, even though that might be one of the hardest things about the Christian faith for me to accept. Because God is greater than and victorious over death, I look forward to the day, the great day of Resurrection when I will see my father again and we will be in our transformed selves, fully reunited forever. He will finally meet my son, his grandson, and together we will worship God together, hopefully singing something like, “Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

When the Truth is Good Enough: The Dark Knight Rises Review

With The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan completes his Batman trilogy that roots the Dark Knight in a grittier, more realistic, and film-noir environment. It has been one of the most successful movie series in recent history, and I don’t mean that in terms of the large sums of money the trilogy has made, but in that the separate films tie together extremely well (i.e., plot points from film to film don’t contradict each other) as they form a cohesive narrative while each episode has its own arc. The same could be said of the films’ main characters and themes. Nolan’s takes on Batman have been both true to the character and willing to deviate from the standard narrative in fun and surprising ways, often teasing fans of the comics.

Batman Begins set the series on solid footing and The Dark Knight took it to entirely new heights. The second film in the series was not just one of the best films in the genre, it was, one of the best films of the decade. (While Slumdog Millionaire won the Academy Award for best picture that year and is a very good film, I imagine The Dark Knight will be talked about much more twenty years from now.) So, the obvious question is how does The Dark Knight Rises measure up? It is a wonderful film, but it cannot reach the dizzying heights of The Dark Knight. Then again, few films can. Given the scope of the story and the goals of the villains, it makes sense for The Dark Knight Rises to finish the series, but the fact remains that Joker is the most engrossing and frightening villain in the Batman universe, and Heath Ledger’s performance as Joker virtually came from another dimension. That is not to knock Tom Hardy’s portrayal as Bane, which is excellent — because of the mask he wears, Hardy has to convey everything entirely with his eyes, body language, and disconcerting voice — it is just that Ledger’s performance goes in the pantheon of great film performances.

Like the previous installments in the series, The Dark Knight Rises shines as a piece of filmmaking. The story (screenplay by Nolan and his brother, Christopher Nolan) is complex, especially for a summer popcorn flick, but not incomprehensible. It is a technical marvel, full of beautiful shots and exciting stunts — they actually lifted a real fuselage into the air for Bane’s introduction. The fights are furious yet logical. The acting is top-notch. A reviewer could get lost in parsing out these details. The films also have much to say about matters such as morality, jurisprudence, psychology, and plain old, good and evil. I’ll explore the themes more in this review and will likely have some spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

Continue reading

That’s a Loaded Question: Moonrise Kingdom Review

Writer-director Wes Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom (co-written with Roman Coppola) is a beautiful and idiosyncratic coming of age fairy tale. It plays better for adults who can look back on their early adolescence and remember the spark of discovery as the world opens up, but also the disappointing realization that the adult world may not be as magical as one had dreamed. In The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, cartoonist Bill Watterson, a wonderful chronicler of the complexity of childhood, writes, “I’ve never understood people who remember childhood as an idyllic time.” Anderson’s film shares this sentiment. It explores just how hard life can be on a kid. Hard and funny. This movie contains a lot of laughs, and like all of Anderson’s films, the humor is often found in the midst of sadness.

The film  takes place on the fictitious island of New Penzance off the coast of New England. We follow Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) as they run away together in the summer of 1965. They met the previous summer when Sam’s Khaki Scouts troop attended a church production of Noye’s Flude by Benjamin Britten in which Suzy played a raven. A pen-pal relationship begins and they see that they have more in common with each other than with anyone in their homes or schools. Both are twelve years old, both are misfits and misunderstood, which they express with antisocial behavior. In each other, however, they find companionship and easy understanding. Over the year of correspondence, Sam and Suzy devise their secret plan to run away. Once their escape has been discovered, a search across the island ensues led by Sam’s troop leader Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), the island’s lone police officer, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Ultimately Social Services (Tilda Swinton, and yes, that is her character’s name) becomes involved. Sam and Suzy benefit from his learned skills as a survivalist and her imagination. As the adults and children looking for the fugitive couple begin to understand Sam and Suzy’s love as well as the dangers facing them upon return to the rest of the world, such as rumors of electroshock therapy, allegiances switch, enemies become allies, and those working so hard for their capture now plot and aid in their escape. Their story follows in the tradition of forbidden teenage love stories — escaping authorities, parents, and societal norms in order to be with each other. Nothing, not even hurricanes and lightning strikes can keep them apart. Anderson is able to tell this without being melodramatic, largely because of his tongue-in-cheek tone and the sincere performances. What is amazing about Sam and Suzy’s love in contrast to so many other recent teenage love stories, is that sexuality is not the focus. To be sure, there is some curiosity and experimentation since they are on the cusp of being teenagers after all, but their relationship emphasizes finding a companion who understands you easily, who is curious about your quirks instead of labeling you a freak. It is about finding someone who can say to you without fear, “I love you, but you have no idea what you’re talking about,” as a statement that brings you closer together instead of emphasizing the distance between the two of you.

I am one of the Wes Anderson devotees and have been watching all of his movies again — feeding a newborn in the early hours of the morning affords lots of time to watch DVDs. What strikes me as I go through his catalog is just how different his films are from one another. It is often said that his films are all the same. There is a consistency in how they embrace sadness and loss while finding humor in the cracks of life. Characters often have to deal with death — Sam is orphaned after his parents died. Each movie has surreal settings, creative but misunderstood characters, deadpan beats of dialogue, terrific music, and specific camera movements. But the narratives are strikingly different. Compare Moonrise Kingdom’s modern fantasy to the  complexity of the family in The Royal Tenenbaums or the spiritual journey of The Darjeeling Limited. What other live-action filmmaker could have made an animated movie such as Fantastic Mr. Fox drop seamlessly into their body of work? That continuity largely has to do with the familiar elements of Anderson’s films, but also with the fact that we have become accustomed to his experimentation.

While Moonrise Kingdom has the telltale signs of an Anderson picture, it also feels unique in his catalog. The 16mm stock gives the movie a visual gauze, lending a dreamy sense to the story. This film takes its time, perhaps more than his other works. The humor and characters reveal themselves  slowly. Sam and Suzy are trying on growing up, each expressing it in their own ways from Suzy’s choice of extreme eye makeup to Sam’s smoking a corn cob pipe. At the same time they are still kids as seen in Sam’s coonskin cap and Suzy’s Sunday school shoes. I’m sure on repeat viewings the movie will grow funnier and funnier as the jokes and beats become more familiar. This fact reveals another brilliance of Anderson’s films — they become funnier the more familiar we are with them. Most comedies rely on surprise and even shock to communicate their jokes. Once the novelty has worn off, so have the laughs for the most part. Anderson’s movies, however, with their dense compositions and specific dialogue, reveal more humor with subsequent viewings. I have been watching Rushmore for close to fifteen years and I still find new things to laugh at. Moonrise Kingdom will also likely reward returns to New Penzance.

A Game of Subtitle Telephone and The Passion of Joan of Arc

Having the early morning shift with my son has afforded me the opportunity to watch several films. Yesterday I watched the classic French silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (d. Dreyer, 1928). Criterion produced the DVD I saw and gave considerable time to discussing the history of the film. The original master print was lost in a fire. The director Carl Theodor Dreyer tried to reassemble the film using discarded takes. That print also burned. Years later a copy of the original print — albeit with title cards in Danish — was found in the closet of an Oslo mental institution. Criterion restored and used that print for the DVD.

I had to scratch my head as I thought about the journey the film’s dialogue had taken. The title cards used for dialogue on the DVD are in French, translated from the Danish of the found print. I watched film with English subtitles. (Why subtitles instead of English title cards, I’m not sure.) For those keeping score, the film, originally written in French, was then translated into Danish, then back into French, then into English for the subtitles. As a viewer, how do I know this didn’t happen with the film’s screenplay?

A Terrence Malick Viewing Primer

In nearly forty years working as a director, Terrence Malick has released only five films — Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life — and each one has polarized audiences with their contemplative pacing, tangential narration, and often unconventional editing.

Go read some online discussions about Malick’s work and you will see debates with little gray area. Insults fly in all directions. Malick’s detractors call his supporters pretentious, whereas his supporters call the detractors obtuse and shallow, or worse, lazy moviegoers. The fact is, Malick’s films are difficult. They explore deep issues and not in a linear fashion. Malick never holds the audience’s hand. During The Tree of Life’s theatrical run last summer, one theater printed a disclaimer for potential viewers, telling them to read up on the film before purchasing a ticket because no refunds would be given. It is funny to think the theater management would have to warn people about a, “uniquely visionary and deeply philosophical film.” It is as if the theater was telling customers, “If you don’t want to think, avoid this movie.” (The last time I remember a disclaimer for a movie was for The Blair Witch Project, and not for being philosophical, but for the motion sickness some viewers experienced.)

I write all this to say I do not think many of Malick’s detractors are insipid or dense. Granted, there are some who would likely be more at home with a Transformers movie, but I do not think many fans of that series are watching Malick’s pictures. Most of my friends who do not like Malick’s work have no problems with challenging, serious, and ambiguous films. When watching Malick’s work, they could praise the beauty of the cinematography, they could sense that they are about something, but what that something was remained frustratingly out of reach. They simply find Malick’s movies to be too wandering, even impenetrable.

This post then is my attempt to offer a primer on how to understand Malick’s films to people who are curious about them or who were turned off and want to give his works another shot. I make no claims to being a Malick expert — I simply like his films and after each one have felt enriched.
Continue reading

Year-End(ish) Picks, 2011: Favorites in Film, Books, Music, Television

Continuing a tradition from my old blog, here is my 2011 Year-End(ish) List — my list of favorite things seen, heard, and read in 2011. The items on the list may or may not have been released in 2011, I merely experienced them for the first time this past year. The items on the lists are presented in alphabetical order.

2011 was a fairly strong year for new releases. I also finally watched some of the classics that any lover of film is supposed to know.

  • 12 Angry Men (d. Lumet, 1957) Deserves to be shown in every high school civics class. Maybe every prospective juror should see it too given how many people have difficulty with the concept of the presumption of innocence.
  • 127 Hours (d. Boyle, 2010) Filming the unfilmable. I hugged my arm for an hour afterward.
  • Bicycle Thieves (d. De Sica, 1949) Simple and extremely heartfelt. Holds up after several decades.
  • Breathless (d. Godard, 1960) Shows its age, but clearly influential. Patricia asking Michel to explain all his idioms is great character development.
  • Contagion (d. Soderbergh, 2011) Unsettling to watch in a crowded theater. Awesome female protagonists.
  • The Fighter (d. Russell, 2010) Great performances ranging from the sympathetic to the I’d rather use battery acid for lip balm than be related to that person.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (d. Yates, 2011) Strong ending to a wonderful series. Splitting the last story in two films made for much better pacing.
  • Hoop Dreams (d. James, 1994) Some of the most utterly gripping suspense in a sports movie ever, and it really happened.
  • Hugo (d. Scorsese, 2011) Sweet ode to imagination. Worth seeing in 3-D.
  • Inside Job (d. Ferguson, 2010) The 2008 economic meltdown clearly told. Be prepared to be infuriated.
  • The King’s Speech (d. Hooper, 2010) How a film about a super-rich monarch could be an underdog story is beyond me. This film, however, pulls it off.
  • La Dolce Vita (d. Fellini, 1960) Episodic. Slow. Somehow mesmerizing.
  • Moneyball (d. Miller, 2011) Awesome movie about lateral and unconventional thinking. Great performance by Brad Pitt. Love how the first stylized action sequence is of David Justice taking a walk. This film is one of the only positive things an A’s fan has going for them in recent years.
  • Super 8 (d. Abrams, 2011) Fun nostalgia for movies that were made twenty to thirty years ago. Made me remember riding my bike everywhere with my friends during long summer days.
  • The Tree of Life (d. Malick, 2011) One of the most beautiful films ever made. Read my review/reflection here.
  • Wings of Desire (d. Wenders, 1987) Deliberately paced story about angels watching humans. Opens the eyes to the image of God in all humans.
  • Winter’s Bone (d. Granik, 2010) Terrific use of place. The impoverished Missouri setting is its own character.
  • Zodiac (d. Fincher, 2007) Creepy film that emphasizes the detective work of the press and police instead of glorifying the violence of the killer.

Books (Fiction)

  • Batman: Knightfall, Part One: Broken Bat (Moench, Dixon, Aparo, Nolan, Breyfogle, Balent, 1993) Fun, enjoyable, and brisk. Surprisingly good character development. Keeps Batman in his own universe — I’m not a big fan of Justice League type stories.
  • Cities of the Plain (McCarthy, 1998) One of McCarthy’s most accessible books. Builds wonderfully on the previous two novels of the Border Trilogy and has that sense of impending doom that is classic McCarthy, while also holding out glimmers of hope.
  • The Crossing (McCarthy, 1994) The first section of this second book of his Border Trilogy contains some of the strongest writing and pure storytelling McCarthy has ever accomplished. Unfortunately, the next two-thirds of the novel are not nearly as engrossing and the book slows to a near-halt at several places. It thankfully ends on a strong note with one of McCarthy’s most evocative images.
  • Red Mars (Robinson, 1992) Part one of a trilogy on the colonization of Mars. Inventive and gives a strong sense of plausibility in its depiction of the science and psychology needed to make a home on a different planet. The second book, Green Mars, unfortunately crumbles under its own weight as it attempts to focus on politics.

This list makes it look like I didn’t read much fiction this past year. I reread a couple of novels — so they are disqualified — and some other novels that were just OK.

Books (Non-Fiction)

  • Captive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection (Volf, 2010) Ruminations on how Christian Scripture and contemporary life intersect. As the historical-critical method of biblical study falls back into the pack with all the other methods of interpretation, it is good to see theological readings have their time in the light as well. And it’s even better that Volf is doing that reading. The essays in this book show creative, yet faithful interactions between the Bible and some of the issues that we face today.
  • Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One (Roxburgh and Boren, 2009) A much easier introduction to the missional church and its theology than the wonderful 1998 tome, Missional Church, edited by Darrell Guder. Roxburgh and Boren offer strong examples in ways that will not tempt readers to miss the forest for the trees. They do the appropriate deconstruction of the Christendom, consumer-driven, and attractional church models, as well as offer a good constructive approach for becoming a missional church, a church that follows God out into the neighborhood. They wisely do not offer a formula and instead offer several reflections and narratives. Admittedly at times, it does feel like the second half of the book is an advertisement for some of their consulting services.
  • Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Mother Teresa and Kolodiejchuk, 2007) This is the book that created a stir when it came out because it revealed just how deeply troubled Mother Teresa was by doubt and what theologians call, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Not the easiest read as it feels repetitive, but it remains insightful and inspiring in a very nontraditional way of inspiration. Reading about Mother Teresa as she holds on to what she knows for certain while she doubts just about everything else challenges me since I can give up easily at the first sign of difficulty. I’m very grateful this portrait of a hero of the faith exists. It gives hope to us who find certainty hard to come by.

We don’t have cable and due to Mt. Diablo’s interference with signals, we only get three Spanish-speaking channels. Thus, all our television viewing happens on the internet. I haven’t seen many of the dramatic shows people seem to love, so I’ll have to catch those on DVD in the future. Here are some comedies I like.

  • The Colbert Report. Awesome, awesome satire. His recent ribbing of Donald Trump is so cathartic.
  • Community. The meta aspect of this show is extremely enjoyable. Even better, the writers never forget characters are always more important than gimmicks.
  • The Daily Show. The warm-up to the 2012 election cycle has been terrific.
  • Modern Family. Another great ensemble cast. The writers took their time establishing the characters and now it’s a blast to watch them mix up the pairings. The show reminds me of I Love Lucy in that we laugh at the characters and their hijinks, but we love them and the show never feels mean.
  • Parks and Recreation. I had written this off after the first few episodes of the first season, but it has really come into its own. A very sweet and silly show.

My music intake was low this year and while some of my favorite artists put out new albums, none of them really blew me away. Instead of mentioning albums then, I’ll emphasize the songs I liked most in 2011.

  • “All My Favorite People,” Over the Rhine. A prayer for my friends who endured an unbelievably difficult year. Given the pattern of loss and pain that has fallen on my loved ones over the past decade or so, I’m beginning to think odd years suck.
  • “Blood Bank,” Bon Iver. Simple and beautiful. It seems like my wife plays this just about every day and I don’t mind.
  • “The Cave,” Mumford & Sons. I love the folk-roots revival these guys create.
  • “Death In His Grave,” John Mark McMillan. This ain’t no, “Jesus is my boyfriend,” praise fluff. McMillan’s new hymn is one of the few contemporary praise songs emphasizing that deep biblical theme of Jesus’ victory over death. Thank God for that victory.
  • “Funeral March,” Patrick Cassidy, composer. Perhaps it’s embarrassing to say a piece from a movie trailer is one of my favorite songs of the year. But that film — The Tree of Life — is incredible and this song fits it perfectly. “Funeral March,” is not in the actual film, but it easily could have been. Beautiful and celebrative and mournful.
  • “In Your Eyes,” (New Blood Version), Peter Gabriel. Listen to the richness and joy that comes from the orchestral sound. I love how Gabriel continues to rework his classics.
  • “Lacrimosa,” Zbigniew Preisner, composer. Another track associated with The Tree of Life. This piece plays during the breathtaking creation sequence. “Lacrimosa,” brings tears to my eyes. I don’t care if you don’t like classical music — it is nearly impossible to deny the beauty of this song and Elzibeta Towarnicka’s soprano. I think I’ve listened to this song more than any other in 2011.
  • “Little by Little,” Radiohead. A strong song from the lukewarm album, The King of Limbs. Still, a lukewarm Radiohead album would be a masterpiece for 99% of the bands out there.
  • “Longing to Belong,” Eddie Vedder. The cello gives a terrific lift to this song that sets it above the rest from the album, Ukulele Songs. The album as a whole is a mood album — if you’re in a mellow mood, it’s great and if you’re not, it’s not.
  • “Midnight Sun,” The Choir. A song a friend turned me on to as he was enduring tragedy and loss. A heartfelt prayer.
  • “Solsbury Hill,” (New Blood Version), Peter Gabriel. The orchestra perfectly complements the lyrics expressing liberation and potential.
  • Someone Like You,” Adele. Her voice is unfairly good.

Favorite of All Media, 2011ish

  • The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life Poster In 2011 Terrence Malick released one of the most splendid pieces of cinematic art I have ever seen. I try not to use so many superlatives, but this film earns them. I have never seen anything like The Tree of Life. It is a film that one must let wash over them, take them on a journey, and yet, the viewer cannot remain passive. The viewer must consider his or her own life, not just the lives of the characters on the screen. I thought of my life growing up as I watched the O’Brien boys navigate childhood and early adolescence. I thought of my relationship with my father. I thought of deaths of family and friends. Most of all, I thought about God. This film is grand, ambitious, and utterly remarkable. After first viewing it, my wife and I went into our backyard and looked up at the stars, talking about the film and all the things it made us remember. Both of us expressed that we found ourselves praying throughout the movie as if we were looking at a religious icon. This is a film that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Film as Labyrinth and Icon: The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s newest film, The Tree of Life, is at once a poem, a prayer, a family drama, and an exploration of humanity, God, and all of creation. It is therefore fitting that the film opens with a quotation from the book of Job — “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (38.4,7) — which, besides being the oldest book of the Bible, is itself a poem, prayer, family drama, and an exploration of humanity, God, and all of creation. This will not be in any way a traditional review because, quite simply, I don’t know how to review what I saw last Friday night. This post has taken me a long time to write. The Tree of Life is one of the most beautifully-photographed and beautifully-written films I have seen. It is challenging and also extremely risky. For large sections of the film, we hear little dialogue aside from some voice-overs in prayerful whispers. These whispers are the only things linking the brief shots of the O’Briens, the central family of the film. There is also a long sequence detailing the creation of the universe that brings to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey. This movie calls people in, but it will not pander. The Tree of Life ushers us into another world, or rather, another way of seeing our world as full of violence and grace, yet it is no summer escapism. It demands that you work and it makes for a wonderful experience.

The film makes these bold statements: all of creation can be told in the story of one family and one family fits into the story of all of creation. In print that sounds audacious and even pretentious, but it is a testament to Malick’s skill that the film does not come across as bombastic. Rather, it deals deeply and sincerely with some of the most difficult questions we ever face — those questions we often are afraid to ask because answers seem so elusive.
Continue reading

“You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another.” True Grit Review

Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel True Grit paints a beautiful if harsh picture of life on the Arkansas frontier. The film follows Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) as she hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a deputized gun, to hunt and hopefully kill her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Cogburn is an infamous and frequently drunk marshal, having shot or killed many of the people he set out to find. This fact actually ingratiates him to Mattie, as she wants nothing less than for Chaney to suffer the same fate as her father. Mattie has intelligence, rhetorical skill, courage, and an unflinching nerve that surprise nearly everyone she meets given that she is only fourteen years old. Chaney is also being hunted by a Texas Ranger, LaBouef (Matt Damon), for murdering a senator back in Texas. The film takes the shape of a quest narrative, and given what we know of quests, we can safely assume that the journey will not be what the characters expected, nor will they return unchanged.

True Grit is an extremely watchable film and incredibly funny. I found myself laughing throughout the movie at the pinpoint dialogue and brilliant characterization of the world’s inhabitants. Damon’s gregarious and cocky LaBouef is so tonally correct I wondered why it took so long for the Coens to put him in one of their movies. The film is textured and surprising, which marks a true accomplishment since the quest is one of the oldest motifs in literature. Brolin does not portray Chaney as some monster, but more like a dangerous child who has never felt appreciated. Bridges embodies every inch of Cogburn’s body. You can nearly smell the booze on his breath. The real surprise of the film, however comes from Steinfeld, who handles the smart and complex dialogue with incredible ease. There are accomplished and well-paid actors and actresses two or three times her age who would sound incredibly dumb trying to deliver these lines. Every character, from the leads, to each supporting role is three-dimensional to such a degree I was reminded of the Coens’ mid-1990’s masterpieces Fargo and The Big Lebowski. In those films each role, including those with only a few seconds’ screen time, were wonderfully quirky without being caricatures. The inhabitants of True Grit are similarly well-developed. It is an exceptional film.
Continue reading