Fred Rogers: a lantern for troubled times

I've been waiting for a couple of open days so that I can tell you about a movie — the movie that I've been thinking about every day for weeks now. I think about it when I watch TV. I think about it when I read the news. I think about it as I plan the classes I will teach during the upcoming Autumn Quarter.

But summer has been busy, and I haven't found a couple of open days to craft the review that this movie deserves. I've found an hour.

So I'm just going to write as fast as I can, sharing a rush of thoughts as they come to me.

First, I need to tell you a story.


My wife and I received an unexpected gift in the mail this week. (Aren't all honest-to-goodness gifts unexpected?)

We recently visited the home of poet Luci Shaw and her husband — adventurer, entrepreneur, and author John Hoyte — in Bellingham, Washington, and I mentioned, as we were leaving, that I admired the paper lanterns in front of their home.

A couple of weeks later, I received one in the mail — a blessing from Luci herself.

It wasn't just a paper lantern: It was special design for use outdoors — it absorbs daylight, and then it glows like a moon at night.

I can't think of a better picture of Luci herself: She shows up at the page almost every day, attentive to what is before her, opening herself to revelation, and then writing the words to come to mind. Her words translate her experience. She has more books shining with poetry than most of my other favorite poets' books put together.

She receives light; she holds it; she shares it with the world.

You might say that Luci practices her poetry religiously. What is religionanyway, but the way in which we demonstrate, moment by moment, what we believe?

As the author David Dark has said, "Life's too short to pretend you're not religious." (He actually gave a book that title.) A person may affirm or deny religious beliefs until he's blue in the face, but we will know what he believes in, what he worships, whom he serves... more by what he does than what he says.

Dark has also remarked that you can tell a lot about a person's religion by examining their receipts. He knows the Bob Dylan chorus well: "It may be the devil / Or it may be the Lord... / You're gonna have to serve somebody."

These times are on fire with destructive hatred, soul-sickening speech, and world-shattering violence. I want to glow like Luci Shaw does, speaking my belief in the God who makes himself known in beauty, truth, and love, but—even more so—showing it in my treatment of everyone, moment by moment. I want my receipts to demonstrate generosity, as her receipt for this paper lantern certainly does. I want my writing to be evidence of love, reflecting the love that I witness and receive in the world. I want it to be obvious that I take joy in kindness, gentleness, and humility. And I want my grief in the absence of those things, my suffering in the presence of hatred, to sincere and obvious.

I fall far short of that, but my personal saints and icons are men and women who remind me of that ideal.


How many people do you know who fit that description?

If you can name some, I think you'll find that these are people whose company you enjoy. Perhaps these are people we should all spend more time during these days of relentlessly dispiriting news.

In the dark, as we are bombarded by missiles of prejudice, greed, vanity, hostility and anger, we need the lanterns who contain and shine the light we want to see illuminating the world.


Don't worry: This is about a movie. Bear with me.


Two of my favorite lanterns are the singer/songwriter duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, who the world knows as Over the Rhine. They have a song called "If a Song Could Be President."

If a song could be president
We'd hum on Election Day
The gospel choir would start to sway
And we'd all have a part to play


We'd vote for a melody
Pass it around on an MP3
All our best foreign policy
Would be built on harmony...

You get the idea.

This song came to mind as I watched Morgan Neville's new documentary Won't You Be My NeighborClearly, these lyrics aren't an actual proposal: Electing an administration of singer/songwriters would be like hiring a team of Starbucks baristas to repair computers in an Apple store.

And yet, just as there is value in the song's tongue-in-cheek wisdom, I think there's value in imagining Fred Rogers as President. Imagine the kind of "foreign policy built on harmony" we might establish if Rogers' words of compassion were reported in news headlines, from international leadership summits, and within contexts concerning immigration and poverty and science and law and order.

Fred Rogers was made for the work of children's television, not for the pressures and rigors of the Oval Office—that's obvious. Neville's movie about the life and legacy of this wildly imaginative Presbyterian minister could not be more clear on that point.

Nevertheless, when you catch up with this movie, you may find yourself asking "What if...?"


You may have seen Neville's award-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. That movie brought into the spotlight artists who have so far stood outside of it — brilliantly talented and unfairly overlooked vocalists who have served as backup singers to superstars. This new movie makes clear that Neville has a heart for celebrating humble servants who have not received the honors due to them. His filmmaking is an exercise of a gospel ideal: The last shall be first.

Fred Rogers, his new subject, is hardly obscure. We don't often remember him in the pop-culture onslaught of competitive, spotlight-seeking celebrities. But he's not last in anything. Still, watch who he is and what he does. He lifts up whomever he encounters. He treats them with respect and love. He treats those that society calls "last" as "first" in his world.

If ever there was an important moment in American history to pause and reflect on Rogers' career, this is it: Here, audiences are invited to consider the inspirational influence of a man whose core convictions—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—seem like the opposite of what America is quickly coming to represent in the world.

In one of the film's most resonant moments, we hear him say, “Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it." It leaves the question with us: What is at the root of our lives, our decisions, our priorities? What is our religion?


I won't go into detail about all of the laughs, love, and loss that Neville's film captures — I want you to experience as many of its revelations as possible without spoilers.

I'm not going to praise Won't You Be My Neighbor? as a work of high artistry that will influence filmmakers for decades to come. Neville is humble enough to know that his task here is to honor Rogers by letting his love, life, and legacy speak into this moment the way Rogers himself did: modestly, simply, intimately. Rather than creating an artifice that draws attention to itself, Neville makes a quiet movie about a quiet man. He serves his subject with strong organization of his material, graceful editing, whimsical animated flourishes that provide meaningful transitions and summaries, and music that enhances instead of overwhelming the material.

In the grace and power of its simplicity, this labor of love is likely to be the movie that means the most to me in 2018. The only thing that compares so far is Paddington 2. That imaginative comedy would probably have been too fast-paced, violent, and action-packed for Rogers, but the ideals at its heart suggest that Rogers' influence might show up in a Paddington DNA test. I've seen works of far greater sophistication and artistry in recent months, but none have moved me, stayed on my mind, or had direct influences on my decisions like Won't You Be My Neighbor? 



I grew up watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood on television. I never enjoyed it as much as Sesame Street or The Muppet Show, which appealed to my lifelong loves for music, animation, colorful characters, and comedy. I didn't put posters of Rogers up on my wall the way I papered my bedroom with pictures of Kermit the Frog, Charlie Brown and Snoopy, and favorite Disney characters.

But I doubt that any figure in my childhood had as much influence on my heart as Fred Rogers. His strategy of "slow and steady wins the race" worked on me: He seemed fully human, generous, personal, intimate — and not just neighborly, but both fatherly and motherly. While Muppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz stayed out of sight, their state-of-the-art puppets commanding our attention, Rogers was a magician: He slipped puppets onto his hands that looked like they'd been hastily sewn together from old clothes drawn from a laundry hamper... and it worked. I believed — even while he was in full view. He convinced methat I could do that too. 

And I did. My grandfather built me a puppet stage and I started entertaining my little brother and the kids next door the way Fred Rogers entertained me.

My first homemade puppet stage — and my patient father and brother — around 1973. "Jeffrey Overstreet's Neighborhood," perhaps?

And that translated into a love of storytelling. As I write fiction, I find my characters demonstrating the kind of courage and kindness that I want to embody in the world. I find in the voices of villains the words that hurt me in the world, and the words that I sometimes want to use to hurt others. I find myself expressing—often unintentionally, even accidentally—things I need to express and am too self-conscious to share any other way.

Rogers' relentless emphasis on kindness — and, more importantly, his practice of kindness — made me especially allergic to shows of disrespect, to meanness, and to bullying at school. My mother has told me that I would come home almost inconsolable if I observed kids picking on their classmates at school, and I believe it.

This embodiment of kindness, this opposition to cruelty, this encouragement to talk about feelings rather than bottling them up, this cherishing of silences as much as speech, this celebration of imagination — these were formative forces in my life.

I didn't understand, at the time, that Rogers was working in dialogue with the culture and politics of his day. The film's attention to the very first episode of Rogers' television show is revelatory: In responding to political turmoil among adults with imaginative storytelling for children, Rogers created something timeless that speaks just as boldly — perhaps even more meaningfully — into our present troubles.

Nor did I see Rogers as a pastor. Pastors of my childhood were men in suits behind pulpits who were in love with the sound of their own voice, and who raged against "The World" as a place of contamination and corruption. We were to withdraw from it. Embracing our neighbors was just too dangerous.

I struggle to feel peace in these days in part because so many of America's loudest and most influential voices—in politics and in the American church—are demonstrating, and inspiring, values and behaviors that are exactly the opposite of those that Reverend Fred Rogers practiced and preached through his television program.

So I felt both exhilaration and anguish watching this astonishing compilation of interviews with Rogers; scenes from his long-running television show; testimonies from his coworkers, friends, and family; and evidence of his influence on countless families. How miraculous — that this is playing on big screens, with wide distribution across America.

Here's another wild "What if...?" What if it makes a difference? What if it gives moviegoers an appetite for more grownups who lead with love, and who treat the last as first?


Won't You Be My Neighbor? plays like a vivid, urgent beacon from a lighthouse during a storm: Come home. 

At the same time, it can also feels like an elegy for a world that is slipping away, one in which it was possible that the American government might affirm its care for children, families, and basic human decency by supporting art and entertainment of this kind.

It may be that it's too late to hope for a revival of such compassion and vision in my country. It may be that we've strayed too far from practicing — religiously — the values that our national anthems tell the world we embrace.

If this is so, then this film is a summons to do what Rogers himself urged us to do in a crisis: "Look for the helpers": those seeking to tell the truth, those prioritizing the poor and the persecuted and the abused, those who have the interests of children — all children — at heart.

Against all odds, we can go to a movie theater right now and bask in the light and heat of one of those helpers, one of those glow-in-the-dark lanterns, thanks to director Morgan Neville and all of his collaborators on this heartening, heartbreaking movie.


Amy Hollingsworth's book about Fred Rogers is worth reading before or after you see Neville's documentary.

In the book The Faith of Mr. Rogers, Amy Hollingsworth's intimate portrait of a hero who became a dear friend, she writes,

[Rogers] knew that silence leads to reflection, that reflection leads to appreciation, and that appreciation looks about for someone to thank. "I trust that they will thank God, for it is God who inspires and informs all that is nourishing and good," he once said.

Hollingsworth gets this exactly right, and so does Neville. He closes his movie by giving his guests time to pause in silence to reflect. Their silence and reflection does, in fact, lead to appreciation. And they take turns thanking the lanterns in their lives.

Me, I'm grateful for Fred Rogers. For Jim Henson. For poets like the generous, radiant Luci Shaw. For storytellers with big hearts who go on shaping my imagination — like children's author Kate DiCamillo, young adult novelist Sara Zarr, and, well, grownups' novelist Marilynne Robinson, presently.  For songwriters like Over the Rhine and so many musical "helpers" like them. And, of course, for the Redeemer, whose light they reflect.

In closing, I'll steal two paragraphs from my friend and mentor David Dark, whose essay "What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?" was published in America Magazine. Dark, after pondering the example of Fred Rogers in the age of Donald Trump, concludes as follows:

May we each meet one another’s gaze—perhaps especially the gazes of those whose words and actions offend or horrify us—as we try to be as real as we can in the days upon us. As was always the case, we are not only responsible for our own ideas; we are responsible, too, for the ideas we allow others to lift up unchallenged in our presence. We get to engage our collective anxiety constructively, one neighborhood expression of care at a time.

If you aren’t agitated, you aren’t paying attention, but the question remains before us: What do you do with your agitation? It will require strength and courage and determined wit, but there are many words to be had and even more words to be embodied, maybe even for the first time, from here on out.

One thing we can do in our state of agitation — I would go so far as to say one of the best things we can do — is round up our family, friends, and neighbors, and take them to a showing of Won't You Be My NeighborIt's a form of activism. It's a chance to absorb some of the light that the world needs to see reflected in us — in joy, in generosity, in tenderness — and, yes, in grief.

Look for the helpers. Go see this movie. Soak up the light. And strive to be lanterns.

Dreaming of making a movie?

I've just learned about The Pitch, a new competition for aspiring filmmakers that will award some talented visionary a substantial financial boost to make their movie.

I'm going to spread the word to the aspiring filmmakers among my students at Seattle Pacific University, but you should tell any ambitious amateurs you know.

Check it out!

From the site:

Need a £30,000 film budget? Meet our unique adaptation challenge and you can have this film fund, with additional professional production support on top, to make your short film. We offer a host of other reasons to enter too, masterclasses, residential courses and runners up prizes.

Finalists will pitch live to top industry professionals. Once you’ve made your winning film, you will fly to Hollywood to meet top professionals such as Tim Williams (film score composer of The Book Thief and Guardians of the Galaxy) and Ralph Winter (producer of Adrift (2018), X-MenFantastic Four and Wolverine) who'll watch your film and give hints and tips on taking your skills to the next level.

I'm delighted to see that Ralph Winter is involved with this project. I've spoken with him on several occasions, and I'm always impressed by his passion for inspiring, finding, and then working with tomorrow's great filmmakers, whatever role they might play in the process.

Maybe you're his next collaborator.

Into the woods with Will and Tom

Will has lost the promise of the sky.

For most of us, the sky is a vault of possibility, a cosmos of beauty and mystery. "The heavens declare the glory of God," right? When artists seek to express inspiration and hope, they photograph people on mountaintops, or looking into sunrises and sunsets with arms outspread. When things take a good turn, we say they are "looking up."

But the sky has fallen on Will. A U.S. Army veteran haunted by memories and losses, he bears burdens that he does not — perhaps cannot — express. Throughout Debra Granik's new film Leave No Trace, we can only guess the horrors Will has witnessed, what grim tasks he has seen through, what griefs he carries. We're also left with questions about what happened to his wife, the mother of Tom, his 13-year-old daughter; we only know that she's been gone long enough to leave young Tom with faint, impressionistic memories.

Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) and Will (Ben Foster) try to go unnoticed.

And it's worse than that for Will: Whatever betrayals he has suffered, he has lost his belief in America, lost his capacity for compromising and coping with its corrupt and increasingly oppressive form of capitalism. He has come home to a country he finds threatening.

So he does what he knows how to do: survive. Hiding in a forest park just outside of Portland, Oregon, Will raises his daughter and teaches her to read, write, and think outside of culture's box of conformity. They survive on high-protein rations, drinking (and showering in) captured rainwater, and packing themselves in blankets and moss to survive cold nights. They make the most what very little they carry. And they practice hasty evacuations in case a wayward runner, hiker, or park ranger stumbles onto their carefully concealed shelter. Like soldiers surviving in faraway jungles, they do what they can to complete their daily missions and manage their uncertainties.

Although actor Ben Foster (Hell or High Water, Hostiles) is completely convincing as a character who is only at home beyond the influence of civilization, it isn't Will's countercultural convictions that captures my imagination here — not at first, anyway. That's a rather familiar conceit. Just in the past few years, I've seen several films that explore similar ideas: The Kings of Summer, Captain Fantastic, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople — to name a few.

The film's sense of place, however, is powerfully authentic and, for me, familiar. I've lived my whole life in the grey-skied, green-forested territories of the Pacific Northwest, and hiked many a trail through rainy forests. These towering evergreens, morning mists, abundant ferns, and immersive birdsong feel just right. (This is a good year for exploring Northwest woods on the big screen. When it comes to your town later this year, be sure to see Prospect, a thrilling sci-fi adventure filmed in Pacific Northwest forests.) Leave No Trace immerses us in rugged and rain-saturated terrain, where it is easy to get lost and even easier to get into trouble.

Leave No Trace: A persuasive, poignant portrait of a father and daughter.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that this territory is brought to us so convincingly by filmmaker Debra Granik. Her sensational feature-film debut Winter's Bone was a revelation in its observant and patient exploration of Ozark Mountain communities that live outside the radar of city-dwellers. That film also unleashed a force called Jennifer Lawrence upon the world. It's been several years since Winter's Bone won critical acclaim, and that makes sense as I watch Leave No Trace: Granik and her Winter's Bone co-writer Anne Rosselini have taken their time, lavishing love and care on this film, and clearly becoming well-acquainted with off-road areas in the Pacific Northwest, places people go to get lost. They've read Peter Rock's novel My Abandonment, studied the circumstances of the true story that inspired it, and collaborated to create a lean, soft-spoken feature in which more is said in the anxious glances exchanged by Will and Tom than in their dialogue.

Playing Will's fearful, trusting, and trapped young daughter, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie is the obvious highlight of Leave No Trace. She deserves all of the praise she gets: She's remarkable in how she conveys Tom's conflicted and evolving senses of love for, fear of, and skepticism about her misguided father. Tom seems at times like a baby bird thrown from the next into a hostile environment, terrified and vulnerable. At other times, she is angry about things she does not have the vocabulary or experience to describe; a sense that strangers who look on her with dismay and pity are probably right to do so; a sense that she is being deprived of things that any girl her age needs. And, in time, we see her finding courage to argue with her father, to trust her instincts, and, most remarkably, show compassion for her father in his condition of fear and fracture.

Survivor-in-training: Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as Tom.

The lesson that Will most wants to teach her in the midst of consumer culture's seductions and manipulations is simple but challenging: "We can still think our own thoughts." The unnerving question at the heart of the film, though, is whether or now Will can, in the end, allow Tom to have thoughts of her own about how to survive, what compromises to strike, and whether to engage the world around them or withdraw. For most audiences, the energy in this film that will capture and inspire them is Tom's, as she wakes up to "her own thoughts" and weighs the risks of acting on them.

But for me, the center of gravity in Leave No Trace is not in Tom's awakening discernment, but in Will's increasing awareness that he is a prisoner of his experiences.

For all of his bold (and, in my opinion, justified) critiques of contemporary capitalism — which remind me of Allie Fox, the half-mad prophet of Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast — Will exposes, at times, a sense of helplessness and grief, a knowledge that he has lost the way back to balance and wisdom. He knows that his daughter's well-being depends on her progress in finding her own way, but he dreads the loneliness of losing her. Tom is his only comfort and companionship as they move like vulnerable rabbits in a world of predators, betrayed by all that they should have bee able to rely on.

Haunted by losses: Ben Foster as Will.

Will cannot watch television, probably because he knows the prevalence of political lies and media manipulation, how human lives are sacrificed on the altars of misguided wars. He does not trust social services, perhaps because they took his wife from him. (The true story that inspired the novel focused on a veteran whose wife had been institutionalized, but Granik's film leaves the fate of Will's wife unclear.) And he is uncomfortable outside of the shelter of the trees.

There is something to the forest here. Granik's movie is not particularly interested in it — this isn't a Terrence Malick reverie about the glory of the natural world. The camera is not distracted by the natural beauty of its contexts. These environments are purely practical for Will and Tom, a way to hide from culture, from influence, from interference. At first, this bothered me. As someone who finds the Pacific Northwest to be a place alive with mystery and spirit, I find myself wanting films that capture that. But I realized later how that approach would have been a distraction. Leave No Trace is not about this particular wilderness. Will's existence in the forest isn't about loving its beautiful mysteries. For us to understand him, we need to experience how these environments are indifferent to human life, begrudgingly offering up resources, and quick to turn against their fragile inhabitants.

We need to understand that Will prefers this to the other wilderness of American culture. He is only content when he free, unmonitored, and unreachable in the woods. When he's out in the open, away from the risks he recognizes and understands, he looks trapped.

In what was for me the film's most revealing moment, we see Will working on a tree farm, loading freshly cut evergreens into trucks for sale faraway as Christmas trees. A helicopter moves in, and suddenly Will cowers, wrapping his arms around his head. That thunderous sound from the sky is our only clue, but the suggestiveness of the moment is hard to miss: He seems haunted by that specific experience of soldiering on in the shadow of massive machines, perhaps a participant in cutting lives short, perhaps witnessing casualties and lives being lifted and carried away.

The forests outside of Portland: a wilderness of wonders, a resource to be harvested.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but I don't think so. It makes so much sense. In that moment, I don't need more details or historical context. And Granik, thankfully, avoids unnecessary flashbacks and expository detail. (In this, she reminds me of David Lynch, who showed similarly effective restraint in The Straight Story; that film asks actor Richard Farnsworth to play a similar scene of PTSD, when wartime memories ambush and burden him.) I have what I need from this small but powerful scene to feel a strong emotional connection with Will, and to feel empathy for him the rest of the way.

Like so many — maybe you, too — I experienced the terrorist attacks on America in September 2001 through the constant replaying of horrific images and sounds on television. Almost anyone old enough to recall that world-changing day can talk about emotional scars. But for me, there was an added sense of surreality.

Since childhood, I had suffered nightmares of looking out at a downtown skyline and watching a Boeing 747 descend upon the city and smash into skyscrapers in a fiery cataclysm. So, waking up into sounds of panic and calamity from my clock radio's local news station, and realizing that I was not dreaming, that the nightmare was real this time... I lost something. I lost the joy I'd once found in the sight of skyscraper, in the experience of looking up at the reflections of clouds and sunlight among towers of glass. I lost my sense that my bad dreams were irrational and not to be taken seriously.

At the time of the attacks, I worked in downtown Seattle, walking in the shadow of skyscrapers every morning, lunch hour, and late afternoon. My window-facing desk on the 20th floor gave me a clear view of airplanes ascending from SeaTac airport and from Boeing Field, airplanes flying directly toward me. I had always enjoyed the view, but in the years after the attacks, I felt an ache in my stomach every time I noticed an airplane flying toward downtown. Was it ascending properly, or was it unnervingly low? I knew that the odds against a similar attack made worrying irrational, but I felt sick anyway — a mix of dread that it would happen again, somewhere, someday, and grief for the loss of a world in which the sight of a passenger planes emerging from and disappearing into clouds had inspired awe and even joy.

Will, forever at war.

And even now, almost 20 years later, I feel a faint pulse of dread when I hear the rumble of a jumbo jet's engines reverberating through the city. I want to take cover, to get underground, to escape.

Similarly, I have recently lost the sense of possibility and joyful surprise that characterized the first 15 years of my relationship with social media. I used to look forward to signing on in the morning to see messages from friends around the world; to see what was making friends laugh; to read about exciting new developments in science, sports, and art. Now, I approach digital devices with a sense of dread, knowing that I will be almost certainly see painful headlines that will weigh on me for the rest of the day.

More and more, the world makes me want to withdraw, like Will, into a wilderness somewhere. It makes me want to cut all cords to a dehumanizing culture. I'm tired of being tracked, monitored, and pursued. I'm tired of sales pitches. I want to think my own thoughts. I want to pack the car and disappear.

But that is not a road that leads into hope or freedom.

And that is why the final moments of Leave No Trace are both hopeful and devastating at the same time, representing two possible futures. One is a path further up and further into suffering and struggle, a burden that we must bear with difficulty, humility, and gratitude in order to love one another and sustain hope. The other is a path of retreat, of desertion. That path tends to be chosen by those who have been crushed by crises, their trust betrayed too many times. They march on a relentless search for peace. Their lives are laments — evidence of a world broken beyond our capacity to repair it.

Leave No Trace might ultimately be most powerful not as a story about fathers and daughters, not as a survivalists' adventure, but as an invitation to pray for and love those whose sufferings have driven them out of reach, those whose skies have fallen.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

If you're here to read a review of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, I happily refer you to Steven D. Greydanus at Decent Films, who gives it a 'C+' — a higher grade than I'd anticipated.


The Rider and the beginning of wisdom

You've probably seen history's first "motion picture." Today, it looks like the first animated GIF, but in 1878 is must have seemed like sorcery: a bright window appeared on a dark wall, revealing a horse and rider in full gallop — a man and an animal who were not really there. The audience, staring at a flat surface, was suddenly in the presence of a man and a beast who were moving forward and yet holding still.

It was photographer Eadweard Muybridge who, tasked with taking pictures of this race horse and rider, made a discovery that would change the world. The owner and trainer of the horse wanted to examine the animal's gait in hopes of learning enough to improve it. Would they find a moment when all four hooves were up off of the ground?

What they found lifted us all into a new kind of suspension of disbelief: Here were a few instants of a specific time and place captured forever, as if in amber, for us to study: that particular rider, that particular animal, in that particular minute. This had really happened, and somehow it was happening again. And we were invited to appreciate this event and participate in it even more intimately than we could have before.

It's uncanny that a horse and rider ushered us into this enchantment. Together, their partnership may still be the most compelling image in cinema: a mysterious merging of motion and intent, cooperation and participation, human and animal, rhythm and mystery, ease and danger. We are captivated by the concept of two powerful entities surrendering some of their individual control in order to make something good possible.

Me, I find that no images live in my memory as vividly as moments in Carroll Ballard's 1979 masterpiece The Black Stallion, where we watch a small, vulnerable boy on the shore of a desert island, reaching out with a handful of seaweed and whistling to an obstinate, arrogant wild horse, trying to establish a relationship, a partnership, a friendship that would help them both in their crisis of isolation.

Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion (1979).

So perhaps I should have known that I would fall hard for The Rider, the new film from director Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brother Taught Me).

I'm caught up again, forgetting the theater, forgetting that these are images on a big screen, as I watch this new story of a young man and what seems a spiritual summons to ride horses — even the most difficult horses — on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Permit me a short oversimplification: There are two opposing forces at work in filmmaking. One force prioritizes financial success, and so it prioritizes the production of movies that do what has worked before, delivering what will please the most people all at once. These movies, as enjoyable as they can be, are designed to be "accessible" — which means easy, comfortable, conventional, predictable, like the items on menus in fast-food franchises. The other force prioritizes imagination, beauty, and truth. This leads to the cultivation of art that challenges audiences with new visions that require us to think about what we see, wrestle with unfamiliar experiences, discuss differing interpretations and perspectives, and — potentially — change and grow in the process.

This is, of course, a gross generalization. We can't divide movies into these and those. But every movie, however enjoyable, rewarding, and successful it might be, exists somewhere within the push and pull of those forces.

Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) and Apollo, learning to work together as cameras roll, achieve some of the summer's best "special effects."

When we watch a movie about a young man and a horse, we probably anticipate certain things — big races, life-saving heroics, a certain anthropomorphic quality about the horse — because we've seen stories like this before. Likewsie, when we watch a movie about a young man who suffers a painful setback during the pursuit of his dreams, we are likely to anticipate the way things will go. He'll have a girlfriend who sees his potential and "inspires" him out of despair. He'll catch the eye of a coach or a counselor. At some point, we'll see a training montage. We know the two likely story arcs. It will end in one of two kinds of glories: he'll triumph in regaining his hero's glory, or he'll burn out in a tragic blaze of glory.

The Rider might look, at first, like a familiar routine: It's about a cowboy. It has the big-sky backdrop of classic Westerns. It starts with the painful story of a champion who suffers a devastating setback, and whose friends exhort him to "never give up on your dreams!"

But The Rider has an arc and a wisdom all its own. It isn't made-to-order for people who like horse movies or power-of-positive-thinking fantasies. It dares to make us uncomfortable. It shows us a world that is harder, rougher, and poorer than we expect during a night at the movies.

Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn — which isn't much of a stretch for him. Blackburn's story is based on his own.

Brady Blackburn, a young man of Lakota Sioux descent, is about as different from me as any man I know: He's growing up in a family that doesn't know how to pay the rent. I grew up in a home my parents owned. Brady depends on his unreliable and cantankerous father, Wayne, who drinks and gambles; I was raised by truthworthy, principled, loving parents. Brady wrestles for fun; I avoid contact sports. Brady wants to climb on the back of a wild animal, one that could easily crush him, and hold on through the violent tantrum; I avoid rodeos — I don't enjoy watching people and animals put at risk for entertainment.

Nevertheless, I was catapulted out of self-consciousness into breathless belief during one particularly powerful scene in The Rider: the taming of Apollo. With seemingly superhuman powers, Blackburn approaches a snorting, stamping, dangerous animal, reaches out, and offers an invitation. This spectacle isn't as aesthetically enchanting as those iconic Black Stallion silhouettes of boy and horse against gold-gleaming ocean, nor is it enhanced by a memorable score. But the visceral realism of the horse's power, the trainer's courage, and the evolving chemistry between Brady and Apollo give us a documentary-style sequence that will stay with me as one of this year's — or any year's — greatest exhibitions of what we call, for lack of a better term, "movie magic."

I have never tamed a wild horse; I haven't even gone horseback riding. But something in those tense moments of whispers, whinnies, trouble, and transformation translated as a truth that I recognize — that mysterious thing that happens when someone discovers a particular gift and puts it to work: a dancer born to dance, a writer "in the zone," a singer who seems to levitate even as she elevates an audience. And in that startling recognition, I begin to see this story of a stranger as a revealing and humbling reflection of my own story, my own passions, my very present challenges, and my possible futures.

I feel this connection, in part, because I can relate to the cognitive dissonance of Blackburn's decision to approach that wild animal. Blackburn, you see, is not a typical horse trainer. He believes that God put him on this earth "to ride." And yet, he's suffered a fall — a literal fall — from that sense of purpose: a bucking horse threw him, kicked him in the head, fractured his skull, and left him forever changed and limited, a metal plate burning in his head as an announcement of permanent fragility. Doctors made it clear: Stop riding if you want to live.

After "God's plan" for his life seems shattered, Brady Blackburn faces an uncertain future.

As I watch Brady fighting for survival, refusing to give up on his perceived purpose even when his life at risk, I care about him, I want him to succeed, and I see how little separates us.

So it's unnerving and exciting at the same time to learn (as I did when I started reading about the movie after the end credits rolled) that I've been watching the real thing: a gifted trainer taming a particularly obstinate wild horse. The Rider, you see, isn't just a well-crafted drama. It's a testimony, a film crafted to convey the truth of Brady's experience — not just the experience of the character Brady Blackburn, but the truth about the young actor who plays him. Because Brady Jandreau is playing himself: he was forbidden to continue in his perceived purpose as a rider and a rodeo celebrity due to a skull fracture. And that scene of Blackburn's taming of Apollo? It was not, apparently, part of the plan. It was an actual event that Zhao captured on camera and wove into her fiction.

That spontaneously captured scene correlates powerfully with another not-so-fictional sequence in which we watch this soft-spoken cowboy apply his talents for coaching, training, and tenderness for the good of a wounded friend. Lane Scott — who is in both the movie and the "real world" a former rodeo rider, now a paraplegic in a care center — shows us where Blackburn could end up if he refuses to heed his doctors' warnings. But Scott's importance here is greater than that: He's also a revelator of Blackburn's other unusual gifts. With an intimacy rarely found among men, even brothers, Blackburn and Scott, unified by their loves and limitations, engage in a shared imaginative endeavor — a simulated ride, on a saddle, hands gripping the reins. Again we see our hero's natural gift for calming troubled spirits, reassuring wounded souls, and investing himself in beautiful acts of rehabilitation.

The extent to which The Rider depicts the day-to-day reality of Brady Jandreau is even more ambitious than that. His family plays themselves — his sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau). And the persuasiveness, familiarity, and intimacy of these portraits are even more impressive if we know that The Rider wasn't directed by someone who grew up in this context; rather, Zhao comes to the U.S. from Beijing, bringing a distinctly meditative sensibility that makes familiar subjects seem fresh and new.

Zhao is my favorite kind of filmmaker here: one driven by curiosity, attentive to silences and questions, inclined toward understatement and suggestiveness, open to the unexpected, willing to work spontaneously, enthusiastic about revising her initial concepts based on new discoveries. This movie could have had that feeling of a forced narrative, of broad-stroke entertainment. But she knows that life has much more to offer us when we aren't driven by "what sells."

Favoring close-ups of faces, scars, tattoos, hands, and soft-spoken exchanges, cinematographer James Joshua Richards offers the audience an impressive intimacy with actors and animals, and the non-actors in the cast are, for the most part, convincing. And when Richards pulls back for the kind of panoramic shots we might expect from a film like this, Zhao avoids the typical swells of musical bombast.

If anything aggravates me in this film, it's just how much the camera adores Jandreau, as if one of Zhao's primary goals with The Rider is to launch him into a new career as a movie star. It could happen — Jandreau looks like a perfect amalgam of a very young Heath Ledger and a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But there are a few too many moments — including one in which he plays around with a gun — that feel framed to advertise his potential.

Nevertheless, Zhao's more poetic inclinations counteract any way in which The Rider could be perceived as a typical hero story. In my first-impression comments after the movie, I argued that it works as a deconstruction of Western white-male self-aggrandizement — but I wasn't giving enough attention to its context or to the Jandreau family's Native American roots. As Zhao herself told Bilge Ebiri (Village Voice)"Some of [the reservation's young men] look just like white kids, but they’re real members of the Sioux tribe. They’re born, raised, and live on a reservation. Some would be offended if you called them white." My mistake. This isn't a critique of iconic American heroes; it's something more like a lament for the Lakota Sioux and their struggles to sustain cultural identity and tradition in a nation that, while boasting of "liberty and justice for all," continues to erase the territories, traditions, and identities of indigenous peoples.

Don't get me wrong: The Rider is never preachy or heavy-handedly political. It doesn't sensationalize the family's poverty or fetishize Reservation culture. Zhao demonstrates an admirable focus on faces, gestures, and silences, allowing her characters to speak like ordinary people without any "loaded" dialogue.

She also avoids the narrative conventions that help hard stories like these go down easy for audiences. She doesn't give Blackburn a sexy girlfriend and magical mentor and an arc that ends in Karate-Kid-style triumph over adversity. The closest thing to a mentor for Blackburn appears in the form of his autistic sister Lilly, whose irrepressible spirit becomes a voice of conscience in his struggle and a spark of joy in his darkness. What begins as a conventional father-son conflict takes unconventional turns — Wayne and Brady are too convincingly human to become predictable. And while Blackburn's most unsettling head-injury symptom is the tendency of his right hand to lock up on whatever it holds, even that obvious metaphor is employed with subtlety.

Tim and Lilly Jandreau, Brady Jandreau's father and sister, play his character's family in the film.

Zhao also resists temptations that other filmmakers would have easily embraced for the sake of crowdpleasing: She doesn't indulge the opportunities to jar and scar her audience at the rodeo. And, unlike 2018's other impressive movie about a boy and a horse — Lean on Pete — she doesn't sucker-punch the audience with the horror of animals in crisis. (Caution: If you had trouble with the barbed-wire scene in Spielberg's War Horse, you might want to steer clear of Lean on Pete, which includes a moment so jarring I actually doubled over and felt sick for the rest of the movie.) When trouble comes to one of The Rider's animals, Zhao frames it with such tenderness that the effect is more about grief than horror.

Surprisingly, The Rider is much more about grief than resilience or determination. Imagine falling from the stature of a celebrity rodeo rider to stocking shelves at Wal-mart in the standard blue of a company uniform, your once-masterful right hand now seizing up from your injuries around a "gun" that zaps only bar codes. When Blackburn encounters a young fan in the supermarket, he is both thrilled by the remembrance that he, doing what he loves best, made a difference, and also wounded all over again by the realization that those moments are behind him.

While I have never experienced so drastic a fall, this is where The Rider speaks to me most powerfully, translating truth from the language of its own context into my own.

I'm increasingly impatient with stories about young men who should prioritize achieving their dreams against all odds because I sense in them, more and more as I get older, a narrow imagination and a lack of wisdom. "You Can Make Your Dreams Come True" stories can do more harm than good for those who would do better to expand their sense of what is possible.

I've heard myself declare that "God put me on this earth to write." I've heard myself describe writing as "my calling." Such a claim has served me well — it has given me a sort of Divine Permission to boast that God has assigned me to do what I want to do, what I enjoy doing, what gives me the greatest sense of command and confidence. I've ignored the fact that the Scriptures' examples of God's "calling" are never about the advancement of an individual's dreams for personal accomplishment. When God calls someone, that someone usually ends up wounded, frustrated, sometimes even half-mad with the struggle. A "calling," a wise counselor once told me, is probably not something you should hope that God gives you. Jacob limps away from the scene of his "calling" — his "blessing" is manifested as an injury, announcing itself with every awkward, limping step forward.

I look back now at my naive younger self, seeing more clearly what it would cost me — and, more importantly, others — if I were to insist on the "calling" that I wanted to believe in. Do you know what it takes to live a life like that? Do you know the resources that are required, the people who have to invest in you and support you, the isolation you have to cultivate, the people you have to shut out and let down?

I think about this as I spend my days preparing lesson plans for my classes, grading student essays, and wishing that I was off on an adventure of my own, writing my own stories, achieving new publications. I've tasted something of the fulfillment of my childhood dreams, and it was exhilarating. There are moments when I'd give almost anything to know that exhilaration again, to see my name in the lights of the "New & Noteworthy" displays at the front of Barnes and Noble bookstores. "Look at how God has rewarded your hard work!" people said to me. "You've been faithful to your dreams, and they are coming true!" Perhaps there was some truth in that.

But the story took a hard turn — one not worth detailing here. Suffice it to say that our dreams rarely align with the hardships of this difficult world. I suffered a "fall" when toxic conditions in a hostile work environment dealt heavy blows to my health, began swallowing up all of my time and energy, and brought a swift conclusion to my publishing career. Feeling wronged, I had to grieve the loss of that life and fumble toward a new vision. While I don't have a metal plate in my head, like Brady Blackburn does, forcing me to face hard new realities, I struggle at times with resentment toward those who harmed me. I struggle with jealousy about those who find easy publishing success. I struggle with surges of self-righteousness. And, yes, I miss the thrill of the spotlight, as I bear up under adulthood's heavier demands, serving other writers rather than prioritizing the production and publication of my own work.

But this path, which I perceived as a "setback" or a "surrender," is — I now understand — the better path. I have discovered more substantial joys and a more fulfilling sense of purpose in teaching, even as I fight to accept how rarely I get to go out and "ride" on my own. This is a less glamorous road, but it leads deeper into lessons of humility, cultivation of community, and a deepening of faith. A healthy dream is one that seeks God's true will, rather than one that imagines that God's will aligns with your own fantasies about individual achievement.

Brady's right hand has a will of its own now — and it shows him the need to let go.

The most compelling conflict in The Rider isn't so much about a man being thrown from a bucking horse that he sought to control; it's about a man who finds that God's will isn't something he can embrace by insisting on his own desires. "Follow your heart" only works if your heart is whole, healthy, and selfless.

I've heard some point to The Rider as a movie about a young man's simple faith in "God's plan for his life," and I just don't see it. I see it as a movie about an adolescent's slow and difficult realization that his ideas about his future were too narrow, too self-serving. Faith grows within a context of limitations and uncertainties. The Rider becomes a movie about how pain — particularly the pain of loss and disappointment — enables us to become better fellow sufferers, bearing one another's burdens. Blackburn must commit himself to loving and serving his sister and his father — and his friend Lane Scott, who faces such daunting daily challenges and setbacks to his "dreams" that I find them hard to imagine.

In a scene late in the film, Blackburn steers his truck off the road and weeps. It's the opposite of what we expect from a movie about a guy in a cowboy hat who encounters seemingly insurmountable obstacles on his path to fulfilling his dream. But it's the release that he needs — that we need, if we are to escape the inevitable damages of vanity and certainty. It's the necessary grieving that must take place in order to surrender what was never ours to claim in the first place, making room for what is best.

After Blackburn loses what he claimed was "God's plan," we don't hear him talk about God again. But we do see a slow surrender, a willingness to cooperate. In Brady's slow education of Apollo and in his embrace of Lane — as in those ancient Eadweard Muybridge images of a horse and rider — we see lives achieving a sort of flight in love and cooperation: a greater good. We get a glimpse of what can happen when we loosen our grip on the reins of our lives, when the fear of God and reverence for his will becomes the beginning of wisdom.

Are Bob, Helen, Dash, Violet, and Jack-Jack still Incredible?

These are tough times for people who care about truth and justice. Unrelenting bad news is taking a toll on us.

I think we can assume that some of the writers at work on superhero movies — perhaps most of them — share our concerns. Can't you sense it in the storylines of recent franchise movies? DC films have a reputation for being dark and grim, but recent Marvel movies—which are more inclined towards wit and whimsy—are taking a harder turn. Villains are becoming more dangerously persuasive, even sympathetic, in their justifications of violence (Black Panther's Killmonger, for example). Heroes are finding that things are just too complicated for clean solutions of KAPOW! ZAP! and BANG! In fact, superheroes seem increasingly willing to compromise citizens' privacy, to consider the benefits of cultural isolationism, to let dissension fester in their own ranks.

What's more — heroes are losing and dying at alarming rates as supervillains gain more power and find their weaknesses. (See Avengers: Infinity War).

It's as if artists and audiences alike are finding the very idea of the American hero — or any hero at all — difficult to believe in anymore. How many superheroes have served as symbols of our dreams of "liberty and justice for all"? What happens if nationalists and white supremacists persuade the public that these values are nothing more than a "Deep State" conspiracy?

In view of this, I've been both excited about and anxious about the long-awaited return of the Incredibles.

The Parr family are back to save the reputation of superheroes. Can they?

Sorry, Spider-man. Deal with it, Batman. The Incredibles are my favorite superheroes.

Bob, Helen, Violet, Dash — they made it clear in 2004's The Incredibles, Pixar's first and (until now) only superhero movie, that they fight for truth, justice, liberty, and excellence. And they do so as a family, caring for one another and learning from each other. Brad Bird's blockbuster Pixar movie, which I first reviewed for Christianity Today on its opening day, remains the most enjoyably satisfying superhero film I've ever seen. I stand by what I wrote back then:

As a comedy, a family film, a social commentary, a superhero movie, and as an animated feature, this movie excels. Just as Mr. Incredible and his nuclear family prove they're equipped to save the world from evil, the "dream team" of Brad Bird, the brain behind the overlooked masterpiece called The Iron Giant, and John Lasseter, director of both Toy Story movies, looks poised to defend family entertainment against mediocrity through what we can only hope will be a long-running franchise. The joy they find in working together is obvious, and it brings radiance and vitality to every frame of this film.

I did not, however, highlight then what I've come to appreciate as one of the film's greatest strengths: The artists are as invested in the little, everyday, human moments between characters as they are in the big ones, making the Parrs fundamentally engaging as humans rather than just as superfreaks.

That the animators placed this family in a context so ebulliently retro saves The Incredibles from seeming like a frantic attempt to be "timely and relevant." In matters of design, music, and even gender politics, the movie recalls 1950s America. But it isn't the 1950s: It's a style, an ethos, a mode — an Edna Mode, to be exact. It's a wonderland that works, like the New York of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, by being every big American city at every stage of its history... all at once. The Incredibles established that these characters can do something better than directly comment on our breaking-news realities the way Spider-man: HomecomingBlack Panther, and Avengers have recently done. They exist in a kind of timeless, imaginary America, reminding us of the ideals that have brought out the best in Americans, making us us laugh about the narrow definitions we've outgrown, and inspiring us to long for and salvage the ideals we are losing (like the freedom of lives untethered from screens, for example).

As a result, our interpretations of what the Incredibles' adventures might mean can be a little more... elastic.

And, yes, if I had to pick a favorite Incredible, I'd choose Helen Parr—aka "Elastigirl."

Elastigirl's new motorcycle has some flexibility of its own.

I'm weary of macho superheroes, their rivalries, their burdens, and their furrowed brows. I'm weary of the women of various superhero franchises who seem required to be superheroes and supermodels... while audiences wonder which superman they'll end up loving.

Elastigirl's strengths lie in her versatility: she's a superhero wrestling the challenges of crime-fighting, a wife wrestling the challenges of marriage, a mother wrestling the challenges of parenthood. She's the most spectacularly realized superhero I've seen, not just in her character and personality but in the ways in which her powers are portrayed by visual artists. Her action scenes are more inventive and surprising than any other comic-book hero's onscreen exploits.

What's more: She makes the best use of Holly Hunter's voice since Raising Arizona.

So, yes — since Incredibles 2 gives Elastigirl more attention than any other character, I love it. It's all kinds of fun to watch writer/director Brad Bird turn Helen Parr loose on a solo adventure for almost half of the movie, during which she demonstrates the full, flexible range of her superpowers. Her Stretch-Armstrong pliability brings out the best in Bird, who routinely elevates action-comedy sequences in ways that seem, well, superhuman.

And within its first hour, Incredibles 2 delivers the most glorious big-screen action we've seen in years. When Elastigirl infiltrates the villain's lair, trying to learn what makes a threat called The Screenslaver tick, we're treated to a spectacular, ferocious battle that strobe-lights an adrenaline rush. It's a wonderfully scary and distinctive clash — and at that point in Incredibles 2, I'm absolutely delighted to find that my 15 years of dreaming about this movie were not in vain.

Spider-man once saved the passengers of a runaway train. Can Elastigirl?

But this isn't Elastigirl: The Movie.

Incredibles 2 is a film about a family — as it should be.

Family is the Parrs' greatest superpower; the synchronization of their gifts reveals the advantage of teamwork. And they have to fight not only their enemies but also the fickle, skeptical, disrespectful culture they're seeking to serve. Bob (voiced perfectly again by Craig T. Nelson), Helen, Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner), and newcomer Jack-Jack (whose powers are more unpredictable, surprising, and hilarious than we've been led to expect) are funnier and more fantastic than most heroes, and yet they feel more grounded in the real world than any other superheroes, due to Bird's interest in the potential of their everyday challenges. As he did fifteen years ago, Bird wants his fantastic four — correction: fantastic five — to accomplish great things within their relationships even as they scramble to understand, track down, and overcome a formidable threat from the outside. He's so good at weaving separate storylines together, we end up as invested in Bob's success at home with the kids (helping Dash with his math homework, managing Violet's boyfriend crisis, and keeping up with Jack-Jack's variety pack of powers) as we are in Helen's world-saving shenanigans.

As usual, their powers seem intriguingly symbolic of ways in which they exist in the world: Bob (Mr. Incredible) serves his family as a father of strength and passion. Helen (Elastigirl) does what the best moms do through spectacular multi-tasking. Violet, a teenager who worries about going unseen at school, uses invisibility to her advantage. Dash, who moves as fast as most adrenaline-fueled boys, has some impulse control issues that can be both a strength and a weakness. Then there's Jack-Jack, whose unpredictable and destructive capacities will seem familiar to anyone who has been a parent.

Bob's heroics happen at home this time around... at least, for a while.

In this film, they do more than exercise these strengths: They learn and they grow. Bob, for example, will have to learn to step aside and let Helen do hero stuff while he holds down the fort. Helen will have to trust him to learn the hard way while she's gone.

When Helen jumps on a shiny new Elasticycle and blasts off through heavy traffic, Incredibles 2 assures the fans who have been waiting for this family's return that the action, at least, isn't going to let them down. Her pursuit of a runaway train is the most exhilarating sequence I've seen in a long, long time; I actually applauded—twice—during that scene. It may not build to the emotional resonance of a similar train-crisis in Sam Raimi's Spider-man 2, but it's ten times more inventive and surprising.

And that may be the best way to sum up my enthusiasm for and disappointment in Incredibles 2.

Yes, disappointment.

Don't get me wrong: I love Incredibles 2. I'm not contradicting myself. I smiled all the way through the end credits, dizzy on an overdose of Incredibles goodness. But in the hours after leaving the theater, I realized that its superior action is undermined — pun fully intended — by how its themes get lost in the mayhem. The movie is not much greater than the sum of its parts.

The parts are first-rate: That opening train chase? Breathtaking. Helen's first fight with the supervillain? Thrillingly frightening. Bob's attempts to help Baby Jack-Jack fall asleep? Laugh-out-loud funny. Baby Jack-Jack's first fierce solo battle with a neighborhood menace? It's an homage to the giddy madness of Chuck Jones's Looney toons (an influence I observed in the first film as well). The climactic battle, while familiar in concept, is executed with inspired hyperactivity.

Let me highlight an almost arbitrary moment that captures the genius of this film: Brad Bird cuts from a wild helicopter-focused action scene to a closeup of Bob serving breakfast waffles. Viewers are on the edges of their seats throughout the spectacularly choreographed aerial action, and then, a split second later, they literally gasp at the glory of those beautiful waffles. When Brad Bird is running a Pixar movie, every moment gives us something worth praising.

Let me also encourage you to pay attention to Michael Giacchino's magnificent musical score. It's easy to overlook during the action, but this is first-rate superhero soundtracking. I look forward to hearing it as a standalone work. It will serve as motivational music on my car stereo during upcoming commutes.

Having said that, I must also admit that a story-arc issue has been bugging me like a mosquito bite, manifesting slowly and aggravating me more and more in the days after seeing the movie. My problem with this movie is that what served as the masterstroke of the original — its supervillain — is its weakest link this time around. The Screenslaver, despite making a grand entrance, just doesn't qualify for any Supervillain Hall of Fame the way that Syndrome did.

Nobody can look away from the Screenslaver's reign of terror.

For a long stretch of the movie, I was thinking that The Screenslaver might be the most exciting and interesting bad guy since Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight ten years ago. At first that mask is creepy, that voice is compelling, and when the punching starts — yikes, look out! What a fast and furious characeter! Best of all, Screenslaver's motivations were unsettling in their persuasiveness: During a major monologue when we hear his sermon on the dangers of being over-reliant on superheroes and overcommitted to screens, I'm thinking, Wow... I agree with this guy!

But then there's a "Big Twist" in which the game changes considerably. We learn the monster's big secret. And when we do, that sense of substantial and purposeful storytelling starts evaporating. Our focus shifts to the crisis of family members being turned against each other, and then our attention turns to the immediate (and familiar) concern of trying to stop yet another runaway vehicle. I'm left thinking, Wait... can a theme be a red herring? I *liked* what this movie was about for a while. Is it still about that? What's it about now?

Violet has a crush that gets complicated this time around.

Another minor quibble: Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) gets a lot of action-focused screen time this time around, but what we'd really like is more time with his personality and sense of humor — or, even better, more about Mrs. Frozone, who remains nothing more than an offscreen voice of exasperation. (Having said that, I should add that Edna Mode (Bird himself) fares much better here, becoming a babysitter extraordinaire and giving poor Bob some important resources in managing his new baby's volatile powers.)

Despite these second thoughts and misgivings, I can only conclude that the weaknesses here are a matter of "sequel bloat." Audiences expect sequels to be bigger, louder, and, well... more. And Incredibles 2 delivers.

If you're going for the action, you'll get more than you bargained for, and that is a wonderful thing.

If you're going for meaningful storytelling, you can have that too — more than usual, in terms of superhero storytelling. You'll just find it's somewhat muddled and diluted, by the "2 Muchness" of Incredibles 2. No, I don't think the movie abandons its theme completely: The Screenslaver's convictions about what happens when citizens give up their agency, failing to use their democratic powers against evil, and sit around waiting for "heroes" to save the day, remain relevant to the story and worth discussing after the movie. The villain's sermon is not meant as a distraction; it's just that the importance of that message is diminished in the distractions of predictable plot twists and somewhat-anticlimactic third-act craziness.

You'll notice that I haven't outlined the plot for you, and I won't. Much of the pleasure of Incredibles 2 comes from the story's surprising turns and blast-soda-through-your-nose laughs — particularly when they involve Jack-Jack. More comes from the ways in which the animators bring Bird's multi-player action to life with breathtaking choreography.

Real News: Elastigirl is back in action.

And even more comes from what it all might mean for its audiences today. As sequels go, this may not be the heartbreakingly beautiful Toy Story 2-level masterpiece we might have audaciously hoped for. But that's a ridiculous standards to hold anybody to, even the geniuses at Pixar. While Incredibles 2 ties itself in one too many knots, it gives us an urgent exhortation to stop watching and waiting for heroes to save us from dangers — whether that be a foreign menace or the "inside job" of this present darkening of democracy.

Halfway through the film, Edna Mode lectures Bob about his most important job: "Done properly, parenting is a heroic act." This is also true, of course, for filmmaking. And I'm grateful to be living in a time when I can see one of animation's greatest directors working like a virtuoso. I'm convinced that Brad Bird could have been a sensational professional basketball coach; he knows how to set up a cast of talented characters so that their strengths are complementary, and then he knows how to launch them into harmonious action in ways that will make the fans in the stands go wild. If the Incredibles were Bird's own basketball team, they'd be the Golden State Warriors and the Harlem Globetrotters at the same time.

Since his last Pixar movie, he has shown his potential for live-action blockbusters with the thrilling Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, but also his capacity for miscalculation in the misguided sci-fi fantasy Tomorrowland. Just as Elastigirl is stretched past recognition and restored to her proper definition, Incredibles 2 marks Brad Bird's demonstration of spectacular flexibility — and his return to form.

In which I wrestle with Paul Schrader's First Reformed

Picture this: A man of ever-struggling faith, a lifelong student of various prayer practices, shaped (for better and for worse) by a lifetime in Christian education, sits down at a laptop to see if the news that he has heard about the world is true. And the faith he has believed would sustain him, the faith that describes trials and troubles as occasions to consider "all joy," is quickly shaken.

Surrounded by an increasingly oppressive darkness, he stares into the screen — not unlike poor Pippin the Hobbit entranced by the soul-sucking visions of that crystal ball called a palantir. His fears catch fire and spread. The promises of his God seem to fade when he stares into the toxic glow of human evil: images of devastation, headlines about disaster and pending disaster, statistics that promise unimaginable human suffering and global destruction.

What vile and depraved people are we. What a hopeless vision.

He stares into the laptop screen, hour upon hour sucked into the black hole of his paralysis and increasing despair.

But enough about me scrolling through Facebook every night.

We're here to consider a movie. Let's talk about First Reformed.

I approached First Reformed, the acclaimed new film from writer-director Paul Schrader, with some trepidation.

Schrader the Screenwriter — there's an artist I admire. He's written some unforgettable films, including three directed by Martin Scorsese that I've found richly rewarding over decades: Taxi Driver, for example. Raging Bull. And, yes, The Last Temptation of Christ. (It's complicated. Don't overreact.)

Schrader the Director? Although he has more than 20 directing credits, the man calling the shots (literal, visual, theological) in First Reformed hasn't directed anything that has made a lasting impression on my imagination or crafted images that linger with me (or, in my experience, with most other moviegoers and critics). Hearing this film referred to as his "masterpiece" by many, even by most of my favorite critics, I was skeptical. But when I learned it was about an American Christian wrestling with the hypocrisies of "the political church," I was intrigued. Few subjects are closer to my heart or more relevant to my experience.

Full disclosure: I saw the film with a friend who has some history with Schrader. They were undergraduates together at Calvin College, and they both continue to wrestle with questions about faith. I wanted his company for the post-viewing conversation. Without the "work" of reflection and discussion, moviegoing is like tasting, but not really eating, a meal. I knew he'd help me appreciate what I'd been served.

Sure enough, First Reformed gave us a lot to chew on and a lot to stomach... so to speak. From the film's exaltation of the writings of Thomas Merton (a personal hero for me) to the timely debates between church leaders to the film's enigmatic conclusion, we found our expectations surpassed in some ways, confounded in others.

[Note: My thanks to Laure Hittle and Claire Tanner, whose ongoing support of Looking Closer as "Looking Closer Specialists" made this moviegoing and review-writing possible. They pour fuel into the tank that makes this engine run. Thanks, Laure and Claire!]

I've approached writing about the film with some reluctance (because I hate to sound a dissonant note in the concert of praise that my colleagues are singing); some misgivings (I think theologically ambitious films like this one should be seen and discussed, so I don't want to discourage anyone); and some serious dread (I find it difficult to express why I'm not one of those guaranteeing this a place on my year-end top ten list).

Still, surprised by how many readers have asked me specifically about this one, I need to take a swing at this complicated pitch. It feels like a movie that requires a series of essays: essays about artistry, about theology, about other movies, and about my personal and complicated history with Christianity. So bear with me as I try to sum things up in a single post here, during this short window of time.

If you've read this far, you probably already know the film's premise:

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) — the zealous pastor of the small, white-steepled, First Reformed church of Snowbridge, New York — is negotiating with Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) of the heavily branded Abundant Life megachurch across the street, in preparation for the little sanctuary's 250th anniversary celebration. Or, as they're calling it, "a reconsecration service."

Negotiations aren't going well.

Abundant Life owns the little church, preserving it as a sort of tourist attraction. Abundant Life may be "successful" when it comes to attendance numbers, extra programs, and tithing totals, but it seems to value the way in which the smaller, older church gives it the appearance of a connection to an actual tradition, actual integrity. As Toller talks with Jeffers (a play on the name Jeffress?), we can sense the tension between his earnestness (Ernst-ness?) and Jeffers' easy compromises and business-minded rationalizations. While Toller values the examples set by contemplatives and mystics like Thomas Merton who read the Scriptures deeply and insightfully, Jeffers' eyes are on the bottom line.

For Toller, First Reformed Church is more than a tradition to uphold; it's a lifeline to what remains of America's grasp of the Gospel. For Jeffers, First Reformed is anachronistic, a 'museum,' or a 'Souvenir Shop.'  In fervently seeking to defend and revive his church, Toller is, as Steven D. Greydanus writes in his review for The National Catholic Register, "propping up a monument."

There are other troubles lurking in the corridors of the conference-center-like church across the street, including Esther (Victoria Hill), the Abundant Life choir director eager to provide Toller with a listening ear and, well, a lot more than just that. She wears her suits — you could call her style "Megachurch Corporate" — like a straitjacket only Toller can unbind. And while her not-so-subtle invitations expose her own near-desperation for intimacy with Toller's aching heart (aligned with her church's lack of real Gospel), they also reveal Toller's deep shame over past failures to uphold the teachings of his own church on matters of love, lust, and relationship. He's weak and wounded, after all, having lost a son in the oil-driven Iraq war, and subsequently lost his marriage. He's not confident that he's capable of loving again, or of surviving the costs that love demands.

What's more, Toller struggles in communicating with today's consumer-culture Christians. His summons to the self-denial of Christ clash with the politics and shallowness of the Abundant Church young people, where a false gospel of positive-thinking makes believers intolerant of questions that aren't easily answered, and thus incapable of wrestling with the problem of evil.

When Toller realizes that his church's "reconsecration" is going to give places of prominence to the local governor and, worst of all, an ignorant and bullying oil man, and that he's disallowed from giving "political" messages about serving the poor, caring for creation, and repenting of corruption, he doubts whether he should be involved at all.

But the central conflict of the film is more visceral and intimate.

Toller is counseling a troubled married couple — Michael and Mary (yes, you're right, the names are heavily symbolic) — who have come to him in desperation. Michael, an activist recently released from jail for his participation in protests against environmental pollution, has a bleak vision of the future: He thinks that humankind has poisoned the world beyond repair, and that the end will come quickly and severely. But Mary is pregnant, and Michael cannot reconcile their responsibilities as parents-in-waiting with their vision of the future.

Do you see where this is going? Mary wants to have the baby, to live in hope, to choose life. Michael wants a mercy killing for the baby, to spare it the inevitable nightmare of Planet Earth's disintegration at the hands of heartless corporations.

Can the baby be saved? Can the marriage?

Those are heavy questions. But there are even more unsettling questions. (And why are they more unsettling than the prospect of an abortion or the world's end?) What are Toller's motives in opening his door so readily to Mary in her desperate state? Why is she so eager to fling herself into these deep, intimate conversations with another man? Is this headed where it seems to be headed?

It doesn't take long to see that nobody here has the answers. Nobody knows what to do. And nobody has the moral high ground: every stream is polluted, every heart is fraught with sin, polluted with despair, and hastening a pending apocalypse.

As Reverend Toller investigates Michael's claims about pending environmental destruction, he spends long hours staring at horrific news on his laptop. His "awakening" is also a "darkening." Alexander Dynan's cinematography emphasizes this: Watch, and you'll see Toller increasingly drawn to darkness, ignoring or failing to notice the light that so relentlessly pursues him (it's almost always just around the corner, or shouting through a window) — the light that could, well, enlighten him.

If we've learned anything from scripts penned by Paul Schrader, things will get worse before they get better. In fact, they probably won't get better at all. The best we can hope for is some kind of transcendent hope, like the kind that faintly glimmers in the closing moments of No Country for Old Men, as the despairing sheriff stares into the darkness and dreams of a distant light.

In noting the art-film classics that stand like authoritative ancestors for this film, I'm not straying from what many other critics have already observed: Schrader has clearly and deliberately shaped his film to admit and even celebrate the influence of master filmmakers like Robert Bresson (especially Diary of a Country Priest), Ingmar Bergman (especially Winter Light), and Andrei Tarkovsky (especially The Sacrifice and Mirror).

He's also obviously reminding us of points along his own filmmaking journey, frequently glancing back at moments in Hardcore (with its burden of Dutch Reformed theological inquiries); Taxi Driver (with its story of a man whose loneliness, compulsions, ignorance, and desire for justice lead to violent extremes); and Last Temptation (with its story of a tormented Son of God trying to figure out how to save the world and resist his own human impulses toward sin).

Greydanus concludes that First Reformed is a film "full of longing for redemption: for healing of wounds, forgiveness of sins, and, in some unguessable way, vindication of faith." And I cannot disagree.

But I must also admit that the influential masterworks that Schrader reveres, and which he references in ways both obvious and subtle, turn what might have been a strength — his expertise in transcendental cinema — into its most frustrating weakness.

I don't need to go into what so many others have observed: how a close-up of Toller's whiskey-Pepto cocktail recalls Travis Bickle's glass of roiling Alka-Seltzer fizz; how the sight of Toller's burdened and self-polluting priest recalls the titular minister in Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest; or how he films spaces in ways that resemble Ozu's frames within frames.

Perhaps other moviegoers won't find themselves distracted by the frequent allusions to other films. But they disrupted my suspension of disbelief on more than one occasion — by their frequency; by their obviousness (the echoes of Schrader's own Taxi Driver are clever at first but annoying later, and levitation isn't the only iconic Tarkovsky surprise that he somewhat clumsily appropriates here); and by the fact that, without them, the movie would never quite — forgive the expression — get off the ground.

Keeping all of these movies I've already mentioned in mind, I want to point to another film, the one I find myself thinking about most in comparison to First Reformed. It's one I don't see deliberately cross-referenced in the movie... or mentioned at all in reviews I've read so far: The Mosquito Coast.

Directed by Peter Weir, and adapted by Schrader from a novel by Paul Theroux, The Mosquito Coast follows Allie Fox (Harrison Ford in a gutsy, whole-hearted performance): a zealous, prophetic, countercultural man raging about the corrupting evils of American consumerism, and raging against a corrupt Christianity, only to find his own hubris leading him to catastrophic mistakes that accelerate the destruction of the world. In Fox's evangelistic fervor, we see another precursor to Toller: an activist whose activism quickly makes him yet another destroyer of worlds.

And yet, when I think of how The Mosquito Coast has stayed with me as not only one of my favorite Peter Weir films but also one of my favorite Harrison Ford performances, I think of how enthralled I was; how persuaded I was by the narrative, the contexts, the dark and troubling images; and how I came away taking it all so personally. It was as if I'd been given a warning by a Ghost of Passion Future: "Beware of your zeal for righteousness, because it will fill you with the same condemning spirit you loathe in others." It was a strange and singular experience — singular like Scorsese's virtuosic direction of Taxi Driver, or Tarkovsky's abstract and terrifying exploration of memory, conscience, and the subconscious, in Zerkalo (Mirror).  Those are films in which I am caught up, believing in what I'm seeing, under a spell, and changed.

By contrast, First Reformed constantly points outside of itself, asking us to consider it in relation to other great works. It seems so eager to show us connections with past movies that I almost anticipate we'll find Toller wearing a tattoo of the Criterion Collection logo on his arm. It seems to announce its own canonical importance by association. I half-expect to see copies of Schrader's own book, Transcendental Style in Film, sitting on Toller's bookshelf next to The Cloud of Unknowing or Merton's The Sign of Jonas. (Don't get me wrong: It's a great book, and I rely on it when I teach film courses.) And as the film's insistence on its own profundity goes on, I find myself longing to escape into one of its more spontaneous and surprising cinematic relatives, like John Michael McDonagh's Calvary.

What's more, the supporting characters around Toller strike me more as positions designed to provoke him than as fully realized characters enriching the whole.

As Mary, Amanda Seyfried (Mama Mia: Here We Go Again) never becomes, for me, anything more than a walking symbol, a prompt for Toller to take up her cause. I'd argue that she's miscast; we needed someone who could do more with what little she's given in the screenplay. (I am grateful, I guess, that Mary's pro-life pregnancy will shield this movie from sparking what several of Schrader's previous films have provoked; the condemnation of FOX Evangelicals.)

By contrast, Philip Ettinger (as Michael) gives what lingers for me as the film's most haunting performance. Michael speaks from a place of persuasive conviction and passion while also sounding like a wounded child, a boy whose life has been shaped by bullying. He's amazing. (And he only appears in two scenes!)

Even Toller himself works more as a complicated construct of metaphors and footnotes than as a living, breathing, convincing character. If you see his austere apartment, his bottles of liquor, his coils of barbed wire, and the suicide vest he's confiscated, you can map his whole story. He doesn't come fully to life for me because he seems so narrowly and forcefully tracked, as if that vertical furrow in his brow were carved there by Makeup and he lost himself inside of it. I never quite believe that he would make any of several extreme decisions he makes near the end.

This makes First Reformed a drama that feels more like ideas, concerns, and questions given human representatives rather than the absorbing, persuasive human drama that I think it wants to be—and could have become in the hands of a different director, one unconcerned with annotating his own film.

So many of my favorite films are about human beings bending under a burden of conscience and grief, then catching a glimpse of grace: Kieslowski's Three Colors: Blue, for example, or Malick's The Tree of Life. Both of those come from artists deeply rooted in the study of cinema. Both draw upon, without drawing attention to, their influences. First Reformed can't quite bear up under the weight of the masterpieces it asks to be counted alongside. What seemed organic, visionary, and integral in those films feels awkward when reappearing here, as if those allusions are balloons Schrader ties to his work in order to lift it up.

Having said that, I'm sure I'll continue to think about and discuss First Reformed for years to come. It represents a rare and intriguing example of theological inquiry in American cinema, and one driven by an aching conscience, a self-effacing honesty, and, yes, a longing for God's grace in a world that we — incapable as we are of saving ourselves from our sins — cannot redeem ourselves. Perhaps its strengths will, in time, outshine its weaknesses for me.

I'm already experiencing one of the movie's special effects.

When I find myself staring at my laptop screen or my phone, caught in flood of dismaying headlines, my soul suffocating at the constantly breaking news of how humanity is breaking the world, I see a face reflected in the screen: Reverend Toller, disappearing into the internet abyss of his own sickness, losing sight of God's promises under the spell of the devil's flamboyance, and — worse — failing to give shape to the love that he claims to have for this world. In those moments, I hear actual wisdom in the voice of the otherwise-misguided Pastor Jeffers: "Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden.”

This reminds me of what I recall as the most striking and unexpected image in the movie: a seemingly inconsequential moment when Toller sits with Mary in her home. Beside him stands what may be the most unsettling living-room lamp I've ever seen: a lightless eye that stares slightly off-center, distracted, preoccupied. If Schrader doesn't intend this as a reminder of Matthew 6:22–23, then I can't make any sense of it. Those scriptures seem foundational to the movie's portrait of a believer whose faith is shaken by what he sees—or, rather, by how he sees:

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body.

Insofar as I need to be reminded of how corrosive my growing addiction to news, images, and revelations of the world's decline has become, I am grateful for this image, this reminder, this movie.

Perhaps it is most appropriate that I conclude this review by doing what Schrader loves to do. I'll point to Andrei Tarkovsky. I'll let the Russian master's imagination do the heavy lifting. For it was Tarkovsky who said,

My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware that beauty is summoning him.

Could there be a better description of Schrader's own intent as he crafted the final moments of this movie?

Insofar as Tarkovsky is describing what cinema, at its very best, can do... First Reformed is a work that deserves all of our attention. And, in gratitude for that, I will, in spite of its weaknesses, see it, suffer it, and "consider it all joy" again.


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A jewel heist that stole my ten dollars

Maybe we should call it Ivanka: The Movie.

Too soon?

Okay, I know: These Ocean's movies are flashy junk food, and I'm probably wasting time in taking this one seriously enough to engage in political snark. But when a movie is made of money like this — so much money — and when it stars an A-list cast like this, well... it had better be Grade A junk food. Otherwise, it can only inspire questions about what went wrong. Like, "How could a movie starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, and Helena Bonham Carter end up being so... bland?"

Directed by Gary Ross (who also dreamed up the story and co-wrote the script with Olivia Milch), Ocean's 8 extends the Ocean's series made famous by director Steven Soderbergh and his cast of smug, glamorous Hollywood icons like George Clooney and Brad Pitt. But it does so with a whole new con-artist collaboration. And who can resist, in this year of overthrowing misogynistic Hollywood monsters, a movie in which so many great actresses team up to put on a show? It's especially satisfying to note that none of the eight in Ocean's 8 seem particularly concerned about the lack of men in their lives. Men are for manipulating or punishing here, and while that may seem frivolous, it also feels earned.

Speaking of men — Ross admirably resists what must have been an tremendous temptation to please his audience with lots of cameos. Allowing he allows only two inconsequential glimpses of glamour guys from the first trilogy (and not the actors you might expect), Ross devotes this movie to his actresses, giving each one substantial screen time and banter—not to mention the extravagant costumes that are more likely to dominate post-viewing conversations than any storytelling twists and turns.

You know how these movies go: It's not really necessary to describe the plot. Suffice it to say that master thief Danny Ocean has a sister with similar talents: Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), just released from prison, wastes no time getting back to work at what she does best. Assembling a team of superfriends, she sets her sights on a jewel heist. The diamonds she hopes to swipe are buried deep underground, but Debbie has a plot to bring them out into the light of day by influencing a celebrity, the vainglorious Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), to wear them to the Met Gala.

Debbie's starting lineup for her spectacular swindle includes Lou (Cate Blanchett), her longtime partner in crime (the movie isn't too subtle about how we should interpret that term); Rose (Helena Bonham Carter), a wacky  designer who may or may not be up for the demands of this job, and whose fashion sense suggests she might have once been involved with Tim Burton; Constance the pickpocket (Awkwafina); jeweler Amita (Mindy Kaling); a hacker called Nine Ball (Rihanna); and an anxious but habitual smuggler named Tammy (Sarah Paulson). But Debbie also relies on help from some supporting players, some of them oblivious to the schemes they're advancing — include her aggravating ex Claude (Richard Armitage) and an insurance investigator (James Corden).

Wow... I mean, just look at that cast. How can this be anything but pure joy?

And yet, here we are. I'm not here to air major grievances: Ocean's movies are meant to be lightweight fun, and a substandard entry is best shrugged off. But I'm a little bit aggravated to have ended up with a bag of bargain-store imitation M&Ms, when the Soderbergh trilogy took frivolous material and turned it into gourmet M&Ms with peanuts.

Soderbergh's style is substance — the narratives were never particularly compelling. His editing, cinematography, and marriage of music and imagery — those were the reasons to buy tickets. Lose those, and you lose the primary strength of the series. They feel like musicals. Watching Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen is like watching a great magician or standup comedian at work: You'll go back and watch the same routines again and again because it's about more than just tricks and jokes — it's about execution. This? Soderbergh's movies live on the Roger Ebert principle: The movie isn't about what it is about — it's about how it is about it. But Ross's film lacks any interesting how. So we're left with, well... what it's about. And who's in it. And what they wear. That doesn't energize me — it just gives me a cheap sugar rush. Nothing here feels even slightly risky or surprising. Everything feels derivative. Ross lacks the Soderbergh edge and capacity for surprise.

And that leaves me feeling pretty empty by the end.

Thus, my Ivanka snark: This ends up being about glamorous people in glamorous clothes trying to steal more wealth and carry out personal vendettas.

Photo by Barry Wetcher - © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

And in this political environment, that seems especially frustrating.

Ocean's 8 shrugs about its characters' obsessions with glamour, with taking the money and running, with sensational personal revenge plots, with opportunistic partnerships built on wealth-grabbing. Insofar as this is a genre exercise, that makes some sense... but right here, right now? As the super-rich chip away at democracy in order to increase their profits, led by lying swindlers who show no consideration of the consequences of their action, here's a movie that celebrates people just like that.

Think about what could have been: What if this team had been imagined as catching the crooks rather than following in their familiar footsteps?

What if this had been a fun version of Michael Mann's Heat, with supercool secret agents ensnaring high-tech thieves?

Considering the times, wouldn't audiences have enjoyed seeing some swindlers, liars, and con-artists get caught and brought to justice? Isn't that what most of us are dreaming about at night?

That might have done us some good.

What's more, if studios wanted to revel in this movie's moment, reimagining the machismo-overdose formula with an all-female cast, why not bring it to life through female imaginations? Why is Gary Ross making this movie at all? His work has never inspired the word visionary or innovative. His best-known works have been broad-stroke crowdpleasers. Why not bring in an artist of Soderbergh's caliber, or better, who would make something that really seizes this moment and shakes it? Why not put a woman in charge?

A shame. Ocean's 8 is a fun idea. But there's Gene Siskel rule that applies here as well: Is the movie more entertaining than listening to these actors sit around a table and talk? How much more fun we would have if we'd spent 110 minutes listening to Rihanna and Awkwafina sit around and chat about... I don't know, anything.

This script is so blandly predictable. I am not making this up: Thirty seconds before the movie's big twist, my friend turns and tells me what it's going to be. And he's right. And I don't mind it, because it's an unremarkable twist.

Highlights? Well, I'm not going to lie: I'm a fan of every actress who has a role in this thing, and I'll show up for even their disposable movies. I don't mean to imply that Ocean's 8 is a total waste of time. I'm surprised to find myself saying that Hathaway is the MVP. If there's any real heist here, it's her show-stealing turn. Hathaway's given the most interesting moments to play — so much so, it's hard not to feel that Ocean's 8 was cast so that other A-list actresses could defend her against her haters. (If you don't know about her haters, don't bother investigating. People can be mean.)

But — and oh, how I hate to say this — Rihanna, the player I was most eager to see, the one with the most potential to break out and become a major actress after conquering the pop music and music video worlds, is given almost nothing interesting to do here. On crime dramas on screens big and small, the role of the hacker is one of the most routine. This was an opportunity to do something surprising. But the soft-spoken tech wizard Nine Ball doesn't get to steal moments that should've been hers.

Maybe jewel heist movies are your thing. If so, I'd recommend that you revisit The Great Muppet Caper. Now there's a fast-paced, funny, memorable movie about big fat diamonds! And it knows that the best of these genre exercises are all about stylistic invention and surprises.

This one? I have the receipt, so I know that I saw it today... but I'm struggling to recall any good lines, smart moments, or anything that gives the actors a chance to play a <i>scene</i>.  It already feels like a movie I saw two weeks ago. It feels like an endorsement of our most superficial impulses. It feels like I flipped through a fashion magazine.

It feels like a movie Ivanka would love.

Solo teams the Wookie with a rookie

If I told you that Frodo first met Samwise Gamgee in a mud-wrestling match behind a Hobbiton tavern called "Half-Pints," would you believe me?

Of course not. Why? Because it's a dumb idea, and one too lazily contrived. It fills in a detail that's best left to our imagination — unnecessary to the primary plot of the story. What's more, I just made it up. It doesn't come from the Author that gave us Middle Earth in the first place. It's not in any published version of The Fellowship of the Ring, nor does it occur in Peter Jackson's film adaptation (although he did embellish a great deal). No, my claim would be properly categorized as 'fan fiction' — and poor fan fiction at that.

Along the same lines, we don't know what George Lucas, the author of the original Star Wars stories, would have shown us if he'd made a movie about how Han Solo met Chewbacca and became a dynamic duo, or how Solo became a cocky smuggler with a reputation as one of the galaxy's finest pilots. And we won't ever know. So, any movie that offers up an explanation is extraneous, an artificial limb — speculation, at best.

In the case of Solo, we're given some entertaining, occasionally exciting, but ultimately lazy and extraordinarily expensive speculation.

File Solo: A Star Wars Story under "Frivolous Fan Fiction." It isn't a story that will work very well for those of us who grew up with the mysterious,  money-focused mercenary that Harrison Ford made famous. The starship streaking into light speed here is strictly a millennials' Falcon. It weaves its way through a film that will seem frenetic (and, as it plays, fantastic) to those who cut their teeth on the ploddingly ponderous prequels, but it will most likely seem overlong and overcrowded to those of us who had to wait three years between canonical installments.

© 2018 - Lucasfilm Ltd.

The movie, which was originally envisioned by the impressively imaginative LEGO Movie team of Philip A. Lord and Christopher Robert Miller — they went as far as principal photography on the film — ended up in the hands of Ron "I Can Take Any Great Story and Make a Bland and Forgettable Crowdpleaser" Howard. Yes, this is the filmmaker who took the beautifully simple How the Grinch Stole Christmas and turned it into an ugly, overstuffed live-action nightmare that ends up contradicting its own lesson. The filmmaker who turned the story of "Beautiful Mind" John Forbes Nash, Jr. into a crowdpleaser that barely bore any resemblance to actual events. Now he'd turned what might have been the most recklessly inventive Star Wars movie into something carefully engineered to entertain by filling in as many of our questions about Han Solo as possible.

And those answers are so startlingly unsatisfactory that they rob Star Wars' most beloved character of what made him so intriguing in the first place.

Okay, I should be fair: Solo is occasionally fun to watch. We get some of the mandatory adrenaline-rush action that I suspect would have been even more exciting in Lord and Miller's version; plenty of charismatic actors playing unusual characters; and more quirky variations on Star Wars conventions than we had any right to expect. But if you, like me, value the Star Wars saga for how it fires up both the imagination and the conscience, here's a story that does more harm than good.

A synopsis seems unnecessary: Suffice it to say that the movie begins when Han and his girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) are trying to escape their miserable existence as slaves to a crime syndicate on Corellia. They end up separated, with Qi'ra dragged off to who-knows-what kind of punishment while Han teams up with planet-hopping crooks-for-hire in hopes of earning enough money to go back and rescue his dreamgirl. Along the way, yes, he'll meet that not-so-gentle giant — an encounter that raises more questions than answers — and find his way into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon: the ship so inseparably linked to John Williams' famous soundtrack that it seems to serve a bluetooth connection to the Spirit of '77.

© 2018 - Lucasfilm Ltd.

There will be heists. There will be wisecracks. There will be gambling, shootouts, and double-crossing. There will be deaths of characters so minor that we don't even remember they happened until those characters get mentioned in reviews we read later.

There won't be storylines that ask us to be mindful of anything particularly meaningful.

As Solo's turn toward acts of conscience come much later in this saga's chronology, this movie can't find much of consequence for him to do. From what we know of the character, he should be focused on saving himself in any circumstance. To make him more admirable, the father-son screenwriting team of Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan cook up a story in which Solo's trying to save his girlfriend from slavery. So... maybe he was never such a bad guy after all? Maybe he's always been a softie who hides behind his bluster?

© 2018 - Lucasfilm Ltd.

A braver screenplay would have surprised us by giving somebody else a conscience-focused character arc, running the risk of frustrating us with what we already know — that until Solo was moved by the plight of the Rebel Alliance, he was a self-serving opportunist, and thus something just short of a villain. If I'd had my way, a final-act turn in this film would have shown us a Solo who takes the money and runs, setting us up for his pending transformation the way Rogue One ended with the soon-to-be-redeemed Darth Vader slaughtering good guys without a moment's hesitation.

But Solo is too fast-paced, too busy to give us time to think about what it all might mean. We spend more than two hours and fifteen minutes chasing characters on a spectrum of "scum and villainy," enjoying the typical Star Wars pleasures of fast cars, faster ships, and extraordinary special effects.

And yet... has a Star Wars movie ever looked worse than this one?

Bradford Young's cinematography is kinetic, but the imagery is often far too busy, and — worse — everything has been muted as if the scenes were shot through lenses smudged with Wookie sweat. I echo Steven Greydanus's challenge to this, the most expensive Star Wars movie ever made*: "Is there a single novel visual in Solo that lingers in the imagination?" Not that I can recall. The complicated train-heist tug-of-war that takes place among icy peaks reminds me a little of Snowpiercer and shows off some elaborate action choreography, but it unfolds at such a frantic, busy pace that it can't develop the kind of pathos its desperate characters are working so hard to express.

© 2018 - Lucasfilm Ltd.

How about the humans, then? The original trilogy was grounded in the chemistry of its lead actors, their simple costumes, and their memorable voices. Solo is set before the original Episode Four, and yet, like Rogue One, it still makes A New Hope look strangely minimalistic, from its space battles right down to its actors' wardrobes.

Ehrenreich does some of what he was hired to do — he recaptures some of the smugness in Ford's original gunslinging smartassery.He's a talented actor: The Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar! proved that. But I can never quite get past the cosplay-ness of his costume, his props, and his expressions.

While Ehrenreich's performance was what I most wanted to see going in, I emerged from the theater most dazzled by Donald Glover — 2018's Renaissance Man du jour — who brings an exciting mix of suave sophistication and goofy idiosyncrasy to the game. His interpretation of Lando Calrissian is strikingly faithful to the Billy Dee Williams original, expanding on it to make him the thrillingly complicated and interesting character that The Empire Strikes Back suggested he could be. His relationship with a social-justice-seeking droid named L3-37 (brought to life by the irrepressible voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is a jarringly unexpected innovation, introducing questions to the Star Wars universe we've never asked before — and probably never wanted to ask. (Parents, brace yourselves: Your children might have interesting questions about sexuality after the film.)

Less interesting is Emilia Clarke. Her supernaturally radiant face cannot help but make Qi'ra charming, but she's given little to do except shine adoringly at her flyboyfriend and, in rare instances, glance aside just glumly enough to suggest (for those without any imagination) that she might have divided loyalties. (I won't spoil where this particular storyline takes us, but I will say that it doesn't make much sense. And the conclusion increases my belief that "It's a Small Galaxy After All" should be composed as an official Star Wars anthem.)

Other prominent cast members — Paul Bettany as crime-boss Dryden Vos, Woody Harrelson as Beckett the mercenary, and Thandie Newton as his dutiful sidekick, to name a few — seem fully invested; they just don't find anything interesting to play in their merely functional roles. They exist to nudge Solo along in becoming the kind of rascal-for-hire who doesn't trust anybody.

Overall, though, the thing that sticks with me the most about this film is its annoying eagerness to answer the questions that have always been part of the joy of discussing Star Wars with friends. I really, really, really didn't need to know the origin of the name "Solo." And I'm almost resentful about the answer that Howard stamps on the saga. At least the origin of "Indiana" for Indiana Jones was an amusing revelation. By comparison, this explanation is stunningly, unimaginatively literal, instantly killing anything that ever sounded cool about it.

For Star Wars fans like me who miss the days when Star Wars movies were major events... well, as a famous droid once said, we seem to have been made to suffer.

© 2018 - Lucasfilm Ltd.

*Regarding the fortunes that were spent on this film, I feel it's important to share this from Greydanus's review:

I will write this review in less than a day, for a paycheck that is less than 1/100th the cost of a single second of Solo’s running time. (With a reported $250 million budget, Solo is the most expensive Star Wars movie ever made. The average cost of each second of its 135-minute screen time is more than $38,000.) 

Lucky Steven. At least he gets paid a little.

If you'd like to donate a little to this site to support my review-writing endeavors — I put a couple of volunteer hours into this one — you're welcome to do so!

Pope Francis: A Man of His Word — a Looking Closer film forum

Can a documentary about the Pope give us a complex, nuanced, truthful vision that is more than just a vehicle for a message?

Wim Wenders remains one of the most unpredictable and interesting filmmakers going. His is the visionary imagination behind my all-time favorite film — Wings of Desire — and Paris, Texas, a masterful collaboration with Sam Shepard, which is widely regarded as his masterpiece.

Lately, he's been making documentaries like Pina and The Salt of the Earth, which are as visually enthralling as they are insightful on the subject of art and vision.

And now, Wenders — an ex-Catholic who has become something of a Christian mystic — has turned his camera directly into the loving gaze of Pope Francis in order to bring his wisdom to moviegoing audiences.

The review I've most anticipated is Steven D. Greydanus's review for The National Catholic Register. Greydanus is the writer I consult whenever I'm uncertain about the authenticity of mainstream media reporting on anything related to the Catholic church. And sure enough, he has a detailed, nuanced perspective:

If Pope Francis: A Man of His Word isn’t the documentary final word on the 266th pope, in a way it’s something better: It’s a winsome, challenging call to take the Gospel more seriously and to work to make the world around us a little bit better.

Alissa Wilkinson, at Vox, has a similar take: She's glad the movie exists, but has mixed feelings about Wenders's accomplishment. She says it's

less biographical documentary and more a lucid and coherent presentation of Francis’s theological framework, with some exploration of how it springs from the man whose name he adopted, the 13th-century St. Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis is charming and engaging, and he speaks with conviction and wit. Pope Francis — A Man of His Word isn’t likely to convert any of Francis’s critics, but it might just convince the indifferent that he has something to say to our world.