Widows (2018)

Heists are more fun to watch if the heisters are plotting because they want to, not because they have to... apparently.

Earlier this year, we watched glamorous crooks — played by Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, and more — conspire to pull off a seemingly impossible robbery. The movie didn't take itself seriously, so neither did the audience. But as a genre exercise, it was an unremarkable two hours of fun. Our enjoyment was enhanced by the opportunity to see girls having fun in a game usually played by boys. Ocean's 8 was as impressive as an extravagantly decorated ice cream cake — and just about as nutritious. In other words, one slice was plenty. No need to go back for more.

And thus, if you're like me, you probably got excited by the trailer for Widows. 

The grim widows team up — reluctantly — for a high-stakes heist. Their lives are at stake and tensions are high.

Here's another movie about women conspiring to commit a robbery, women who have such compelling reasons that anybody with a heart will hope that they succeed. It would come from the director of the heavy Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave. It would star award-caliber actors — a lot of them — including Viola Davis, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya. It would feature Liam Neeson as someone whose daughter hasn't been taken. It promised to pull back the curtain on corrupt Chicago politics, and deliver cathartic retaliatory blows to abusive husbands.

It looked like a full meal deal.

But, alas, while Widows is certainly a more ambitious film than Ocean's 8, it left me feeling like I'd done two hours of film-critic homework when I thought I'd bought a ticket to see pros play a great game. It wasn't cake; it was a difficult, overcooked steak. It wasn't much fun at all.

Liam Neeson plays Harry, the driver in a heist that takes an ugly turn.

Director Steve McQueen and his cowriter Gillian Flynn (author of Gone Girl, the book and the movie) are unlikely but talented collaborators. But it's easy to sense how they struggled to boil their source material — a sprawling British TV series — down into a concentrate. They can't decide what they want to deliver: Is this movie about knuckle-biting suspense, shout-out-loud twists, and the cathartic retaliation of mistreated women against monstrous men? Or is it a grim social studies lesson, meant to furrow our brows over corrupt political campaigns, toxic masculinity, and urban poverty? I suspect it's possible for a movie to succeed at both, but Widows' barely leaves a scratch on Chicago's gritty surface, and its surprises... well, they aren't, really.

Not all of the news here is bad. McQueen, who knows the value of first-class acting, gets strong performances from almost everyone involved. And he can cook up memorable moments. My favorite in this film is the first one: a close-up of Veronica (Viola Davis) and her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) kissing. For reasons I won't spoil, it's a kiss that nearly gave me a heart attack.

Then, in a heartbeat, McQueen cuts immediately to a high-speed, high-stakes car chase through Chicago, during which we learn that Harry is part of a heist team, and this is a heist gone wrong. Before long, he and his team have been erased in a fiery cataclysm. The money they've lifted is gone.

Veronica finds it's tough to grieve when you can't trust anybody.

And the villains — corrupt politicians with an army of crooks to do their dirty deeds behind the scenes — aim their attention, anger, and intimidation tactics at the rattled wives and girlfriends, demanding that the money (which turns out to be corrupt campaign funding) be recovered.

More good news: Veronica's team is just as compellingly watchable as the fashion-ready cast of Ocean's Eight, even if they scowl and sweat as much as the Ocean's gang strutted and smirked. Davis applies the same emotional intensity she brought to Denzel Washington's arthouse adaptation of Fences to this commercial crime story. She's given formidable support by Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), a righteously angry single mother in danger of losing her business; Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), whose wicked-witch mother wants her to become a high-end escort to rich movers and shakers (like the one played with a Big Bad Wolf grin by Lukas Haas — and, wow, I remember him in Witness, so I am officially Very Very Old); and Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who turns out to be much more than a reliable nanny.

Perhaps the most refreshingly unconventional aspect of this movie is the way in which these women take little to no pleasure in their mission and partnership. They are doing this because they have to. Their lives are at stake. And they barely have time to comprehend their mutual awakening: The men they loved and lost were far, far more wicked than they'd suspected. And in order to save themselves from men who are even more monstrous, they'll have to play the same dirty game like professionals.

Colin Farrell plays a shifty politician uncomfortable with his father's political legacy.

Perhaps the most boringly and poorly staged aspect is the film's subplots about the candidates fighting for election as a Chicago alderman: Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime lord trying to put the local megachurch pastor in his pocket, and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the prince of a royal Chicago family and disgruntled son of an Angry Old Man (Robert Duvall, embarrassing himself).

The film has that signature McQueen look, thanks to his go-to cinematographer. Sean Bobbitt makes more of slick car windshield reflections than anyone has since Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, and he revels in the dilapidated textures of those off-the-map garages where crooks cook up heists.

Linda (Michelle Rodriguez, right) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) need more than thoughts and prayers to escape this mess.

But that's part of the problem: McQueen makes meditative pictures. He's earned his place among A-list directors for artful, solemn portraits of men oppressed by society, imprisoned by the law, or dragged down by their own worst impulses. He hasn't given us any evidence that he has much tonal range. And, sure enough, this movie is so saturated with angst that it feels downright awkward when things shift into action mode. A little levity would have helped. It's too busy feigning relevance.

(Come to think of it, the only director I know who can sustain my suspension of disbelief while combining such heavy solemnity, cultural commentary, and edge-of-your-seat action is, ironically, Michael Mann, whose primary and ongoing weakness has been his disinterest in female characters and actresses.)

Also, two of the actors I couldn't wait to see became part of the film's problems here:

If Kaluuya stares at ya, you'll want to get out.

I heard some popular podcast personalities gushing about how effective Daniel Kaluuya's eyes are in this thing. He does make an impression as the villains' blunt instrument, but I felt like his heavy-lidded killer glare became a sort of shtick that got older every time he shoved his face into someone else's. Kaluuya's eyes are his most arresting aspect, but if he does this one more time, it's going to be too easy to parody his performances.

Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) isn't experienced in gun shopping.

And I've loved Elizabeth Debicki since Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, but I really want to see her shine in a role that isn't so... Deb-icky. Seriously — 1980s Crime Thrillers called and want their gratuitous nudity back. (I note with some concern that, out of all of the film's fine performances, it's Debicki who is earning serious awards buzz: Isn't that joke old by now — the one about the surest way to earn an Oscar being a role as a "hooker with a heart of gold"?)

Worse — the narrative fails to reckon with the 'Ends Justify the Means' messiness of this affair. You can't have it both ways: making us nod solemnly as corrupt politicians effectively describe America's moral vacuousness and then asking us to cheer as those who have been done wrong smash their way to payback. Ultimately, the film writes itself to a dead end, with a face-off that falls flat and an epilogue that embarrasses itself trying to find a happy ending in a world fractured beyond repair.

So, alas, I can't join the chorus of praise for this one, except to say that the opening shot is almost worth the price of admission. It startled me and made me brace for two hours of unexpected jolts and delights. Which never came.


Madeline's Madeline (2018)

To shout or not to shout? That is the question. The answer? It depends.

If you're playing Hamlet onstage, you may need to project your voice to the audience in the back row. But if you're playing him in a movie, you probably want to dial that dialogue down to a whisper at times, drawing viewers in close to share the Dane's subterranean struggle.

Any experienced actor knows this. And, along similar lines, the chasm between the science of improvisational theater and the art of motion pictures is vast. It's one thing to take experimental risks in front of a live audience: Your audience is ready for on-the-spot surprises. But in art films, we're looking for visual poetry and listening for smart writing. It's hard to capture a sense of transcendence and timelessness in the incidental and immediate.

But that's what filmmaker Josephine Decker is going for in her daring and experimental new film Madeline's Madeline.

She's not the first to find inspiration for a film within an improv community. 2016's Don't Think Twice found an affecting drama behind the scenes of an improv sketch-comedy show.

The radiant Helena Howard plays Madeline in one of 2018's most intriguing performances.

But this movie is an altogether different endeavor: It's hard to tell if this was a scripted story or one that emerged in the telling, moment by moment, because the scenes seem improvised but so does every other aspect of the film: the cinematography, the editing, even the sound design. As a result, we feel like the movie is being born of a fever dream right before our eyes.

There is a story told here — one about young Madeline (Helen Howard), an adolescent with an uncanny knack for acting, whose participation in an improvisational acting workshop becomes a sort of therapy. As workshoppers participate in various laboratory exercises, their director — Evangeline (Molly Parker) — seeks inspirational discoveries that she can build upon with the aim to produce a major project. It doesn't take long for Madeline to emerge as a promising talent, and for her storm of emotional turmoil to become the cyclone that draws them all into her orbit.

In some ways, the film becomes a cautionary tale about visionaries who see everything, including the sufferings of others, as "material" — and who forget the importance of telling the truth in love. Madeline is the knot in the rope in a tug of war between two mothers. One wants to save her with a straitjacket of rules and warnings. The other has no boundaries at all; while at first she seems benevolent, eager to embrace all outcasts, her discernment eventually dissolves under the force of a kind of vampiric zeal. Evangeline drills straight down into the oil well of Madeline's troubles, pumping them up into a geyser of theatrical energy.

It gets worse: And before it's over, Madeline's high-anxiety, control-freak mother (Miranda July) is drawn into Evangeline's exploitative, almost predatory sights.

So far, so intriguing.

Let's just say that I doubt this movie will make anybody want to sign up for improv class.

But buckle up: This is a high-speed journey of hairpin turns, on-the-spot inventions, and a point of view can that can shift from deep within Madeline's fragile emotions to the whirligig energy of dance-like exercises. Your mileage may vary, and what's more, you might need to pull the car over for a breather now and then. E

arly in the film, its relentlessness is exhilarating. I found myself rooting for Decker and her cast, wanting to see how long they could sustain this high-wire juggling act. It's rare enough to see a film so focused on female characters that passes the Bechdel Test, caught up in questions more interesting than "Who belongs with whom?" It's also rare enough to see a movie that asks so much openness, agility, and interpretive participation from its audience.

As Evangeline, Molly Parker is fantastic and, ultimately, terrifying in this, an artist who prioritizes art as an end in itself. Is she a manifestation of Decker's fears about who she might, in a worst-case-scenario, become? This question reminds me of how Darren Aronofsky's film made me wonder how autobiographical his movie mother! might be, with its story of the destruction wrought by an artist with a God complex.

Miranda July as Regina, Madeline's maddening mother.

Miranda July is equally and oppositely intense as someone painfully fearful of openness. The film's primary thread of suspense is strung between Regina's worries about, well, everything and Madeline's inclination to impersonate her mother's anxieties in the lab: We know that things will go badly when Regina encounters a mirroring of her madness in art.

And Howard is wild and enchanting as (if you will) Madeline in the Middle. She makes the mercurial young actress's struggle to find a sense of herself and hold it, without surrendering it to a Svengali, compelling. She's caught between someone who wants to insulate her and someone who wants to take her apart and use everything that is rightfully hers for some contrary purpose.

As the relentlessness of the film's flamboyance goes on, it releases a sense of frighteningly volcanic potential I remember sensing in certain improv and acting workshops, those that did not care to cultivate a sense of conscience and responsibility alongside a sense of courage.

Molly Parker as Evangeline: inspired visionary or dangerous opportunist?

I remember seeing young acting students around me urged to "tap into their darknesses" and "open themselves" to any kind of spirit, and I saw some of them deeply wounded by the forces that overcame them. One suffered a kind of seizure mid-improv, and I lost a friend; his precarious capacity to cope with the world was upset by his irresistible attraction to "going there" in extreme immersive theater. I often wonder what happened to him after his breakdown. Sometimes, the energy that has been bound up within us in restrictive households will, when finally given an opening, explode us into an equal and opposite extreme of boundlessness, where we lose the selves that self-control and caution can coax into being.

For all of its ambitions and energy, Madeline's Madeline feels like a film made by Evangeline — one that blasts off in an attempt to escape the gravity of dramatic convention, but that, due to its lack of restraint, cannot hold together. Every time Madeline's Madeline starts to cast its nets around something beautiful, it has to turn and spin flamboyantly away on some other current of inspiration, accommodating some new rush. Energy overpowers the substance. It breaks apart before it can make a landing. Perhaps its zeal for transcendence is just too much within such a fragile dramatic construction.

Film critic David Ehrlich, one of the movie's most enthusiastic champions, admires how the film's ambitious structure allows it "to not only question if it’s right to tell someone else’s story, but also to ask if it’s even possible." And that's true. But I'm so busy following Decker's prompts to interpret its heavy symbolism, to follow its shifting modes, to understand its enigmatic characters who are always in motion, that I can't stick with its storyline. And this meta-script keeps flat-out reminding us that "It's a metaphor." Come on: Allow us, please, to suspend our disbelief.

What's with the pig masks? "It's a metaphor!" shouts the movie.

I was a singer in an improv comedy band for a long time, and I learned to love the rewards and surprises that can happen in a pressure-cooker of experimentation. It's a practice of discovery. And I love to watch filmmakers try to harness spontaneity to meaningful effect. We've seen magic from Terrence Malick's army of exploratory cinematographers. We've visited a map of unforgettable subcultures spun into life by Christopher Guest and his try-anything actors guild. Half of the laughs in Anchorman and other SNL-alumni comedies seem to come from inspired moments of ad-lib banter.

But this film reminds me, ultimately, of some of my creative writing students who are so focused on expressing emotional extremes, or trying some wildly experimental concept, that they can't concentrate on the fundamentals enough to suspend their readers' disbelief for one simple scene.

One of the few quiet, meditative moments in the film — one of many stories teased and tossed aside.

By contrast, Aronofsky's mother! had a similar energy and ambition, but it had a strong line of narrative coherence throughout, and characters who were complex and believable. For all of its conceptual ambitions, it kept me anchored to the sufferings of Jennifer Lawrence's character through every surrealistic flourish. I believed in her from beginning to end. Madeline's Madeline is just too eager to chase every big idea; it never quite transcends a sense of brainstorming to become a world I believe in. Perhaps the embrace-everything ethic of "Yes, and..." isn't the best strategy for a final draft of a work.

Nevertheless, I admire this film for its ambitions, and I can't wait to see what Decker does next.


First Man (2018)

I rarely look up at the big screen during the 25 minutes of advertising before the movie starts. Call it my form of non-violent protest. Once the movie starts, though, I rarely look away.

But reader, I confess: I looked away during a scene in director Damien Chazelle’s new film First Man.

It happened during a grueling sequence: Astronauts Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott) lose control of their space capsule high above the earth and spin out of control. For a long, long time. Imagine being locked into the world’s maddest tumble-dry-cycle. Dizzy from the kaleidoscopic strobing, buffeted by the roiling noise, I had to manually override my suspension of disbelief and come "back down" to the tactile details of my vinyl recliner for relief.

Though I didn’t realize this until later, the scene was calling back the sense of helplessness and panic I'd experienced not so long ago when someone I love suffered a grand mal seizure. No wonder I couldn’t bear it. Car accidents, violence, job loss: We can be deeply scarred when our circumstances are overturned by forces beyond our control. Time doesn't heal those wounds; we may bury them, but they stay open.

Armstrong, according to this film’s subtle logic, might have found the willpower to recover control of that capsule precisely because of a traumatic experience he had suffered years earlier, losing his daughter to a terminal illness. Was that what drove him to make it through that vertiginous zero-gravity trouble, and then later complete a circuit to the moon and back? Was it a refusal to accept defeat? A drive to meet the laws of nature head-on and show them who was boss?

Maybe. First Man is not the kind of movie that offers easy insights or neatly packaged answers for anything.

Nor is it the first movie to vividly capture the fragility of space travel. We’ve seen The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Gravity — we know the drill. We know that unnerving sensation of being catapulted beyond the reach of any gravity or help, and that ironic claustrophobia of floating through the vastness of space strapped into a tin can that rattles like a 40-year-old Volkswagen Bug.

We shouldn't worry, though: We have history’s assurance that Armstrong and Scott don’t end up lost in space. So we know where this is going: a successful moon landing, a triumphant return of our heroes. At least, we think so.

But Chazelle doesn't seem particularly interested in that familiar story arc. While he manages to make those scenes of gyroscopic chaos more rattling than any big-screen amusement park ride I can remember, he's aiming for something more substantial than a "ride." This feels weightier. It feels like there's much more at stake than national pride, macho accomplishment, beating the Russians, or any of your typical space-movie motivations.

Sticking respectfully enough to historical details, Chazelle attends to much more than the vainglorious aim of being “the first.” As he was when he directed Whiplash and La La Landhe’s interested in what compels human beings to reach for the stars — and perhaps even more interested in what it costs those who do.

The Whiplash drummer Andrew makes a Faustian bargain, alienating his loved ones in his quest to overcome obstacles and achieve one taskmaster's definition of excellence. In La La Land, Mia makes a "Mia-first" commitment, losing love in pursuit of success. In First Man, the stakes are just that high, but the motivations are more mysterious.

Gosling's Easter Island mug is ideal here: Armstrong’s inexpressive face remains as enigmatic and inscrutable as the moon's. Just as he did playing the stoic control-freak in Drive, Gosling defies us to discern Armstrong’s reasons for sticking to NASA's mission through one calamity after another. Drive worshipped the man who keeps his cool at the wheel through terror and carnage; by contrast, First Man inspires skepticism about the priorities of an American icon.

And that makes for some tangible tension. This might seem like a vision of courage, of humble service, of hope. It might seem like he’s just "doing what it takes" to "be all that he can be." And some of the bold, brave, ambitious candidates around him who dream of being the "first man" seem to fit the mold. But — as this film powerfully reminds us — Armstrong isn't free to act as a solitary agent. He's married with children. And every time he takes these risks, he endangers his family's heads, hearts, and futures.

Making very much of a severely underwritten role, Claire Foy makes Janet Armstrong far more accessible and empathetic than Armstrong. For her, the family home can feel like a capsule spinning out of control, throwing her and her children against the walls while one would-be astronaut after another is lost to accidents. Alone with Neil, she rages against the "protocols and procedures" that "make it seem like you have it under control. But you're a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don't have anything under control!" Characterized by subtlety, toughness, and no-filter emotions, Mrs. Armstrong clearly loves her husband, is proud of him, has high expectations of him, and yet is also disappointed in him, afraid of what he is becoming, and yearning to keep him safely tethered to home. She seems almost maternal in the end, a guardian angel to a lost boy rather than a kindred spirit.

Most movies of this kind aim to inspire us to become astronauts. And the most likely treatment of this story would cast Armstrong as taking that small but historic step because he dreamed bigger than anyone else or fought hardest or earned it in some way. But that narrative breaks apart in turbulence here. Instead, Armstrong is the “first man” because other candidates died in horrific experiments gone wrong.

No, this movie finds its center point not in Armstrong's strength but in Janet’s conscience — in her clear understanding of what matters most. Those moments of off-world uncertainty are excruciating precisely because we can trace the spaceship's kite string all the way back to the family dinner table. (Chazelle stages scenes of domestic ritual and tension that may as well have asterisks on them: They were clearly inspired by similar scenes in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.)

Yet, Neil Armstrong continues, driven by... what? Curiosity? A desire to glimpse some transcendent glory to quiet his troubled heart? He makes a good speech in front of NASA bigwigs to prove his qualifications for leading a mission. Perhaps our best clue is in his assertion that space travel "changes your perspective." What kind of change is he looking for?

One reading of Armstrong’s ambitions which might be tempting is that he loved his daughter so much that he wants to do this to honor her. But the accumulation of deaths over the course of the film argues against that — with each loss, he seems more madly determined (emphasis on madly). I’m tempted to read the film’s closing image — due to its provocative composition and complex reflections in glass — as a picture of permanent fracture, of alienation, of loss. Janet is unable to touch her husband through the quarantine glass. Like the husband returned from an anomalous and alien zone in Annihilation, here is Neil’s body, but he is someone else now. He may have drifted too far from himself and lost himself. For now, anyway, he is enclosed, insular, bound.

She, by contrast, seems otherworldly, ethereal. Her face appears twice in that closing image, once looking up in to Neil's solemn silence, and again reflected as an inverse duplicate, floating like a Chagall angel, on the other side of the frame, behind Neil. It suggests some kind of "giant leap" of her own. She surrounds him, gazing at him from both sides. It's a picture of earnest empathy, that uniquely human superpower. She looks at him with all of the warmth and love and intimacy that he could never receive from the moon.

As the end credits rolled, I kept thinking about Dave in the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey. You probably remember that astronaut, and how, when the systems he thought he understood betrayed him, he was sealed outside of the world that could support him, the world in which he could play a meaningful role. Dave was left drifting off into cold isolation, his doom illuminated by distant and indifferent stars. Armstrong — this movie's Armstrong, anyway — may have, in his anguish over loss and his determination to transcend the limitations of human experience, lost his access to the human experience he once knew. Something has sailed off into the void, unlikely to return, even as a starchild. His wounds are still wide open. The question remains: Can love reel him back in?

It’s become the focus of Chazelle’s oeuvre — a cautionary correction to that perennial American mantra: "Shoot for the stars!" It's a variation on that beloved poetry in First Corinthians 13: If you have the gift of jazz, if you've earned the spotlight of stars, or if you've tracked moon dust in on your boots, but you do not have love, you are nothing. So, go on — dream. But dream carefully.


The Hate U Give (2018)

The fight for the soul of America is well underway on the big screen.

One of the consequences of Trump's election, I cynically predicted, would be that we would soon see theaters flooded with a sort of cinematic shock therapy: Artists would take extreme measures in an effort to revive the American conscience. They would strive to save us from fascism; embarrass us with how easily we embrace lies and become pawns for villains; and remind us of a vision that we can make "liberty and justice for all" a reality. And we the moviegoers would suffer through bleak and despairing prophecies, endure heavy-handed history lessons on foundational American ideals, and hear angry sermons about Civil Rights and equality shouted through megaphones.

Lo, my prediction is coming true. The cineplexes are saturated with dystopic fantasies and near-hysterical lessons in all caps. And I could respond to these trends with a high-minded speech about how movies that preach are doomed to mediocrity, and about how I'd much prefer to see beauty and imagination and subtlety and poetry and, well... art. I would mean every word of it.

But I would also be guilty of hypocrisy. Film criticism is an art, too, when it's done well. And here I am, ranting about politics, contradicting my own standards. Perhaps I'm feeling some panic. Perhaps I'm realizing that I'd rather do what I can to help those who are immediately threatened by a rising tide of hatred than withdraw and savor my favorite Subtlety Cinema.

A family finds itself caught between a corrupt police force and drug dealers in The Hate U Give.

Having said that, I'd like to turn my attention to The Hate U Give, a hastily produced adaptation of a celebrated Young Adult novel by Angie Thomas. Directed by George Tillman Jr, this feels more like a blockbuster After-School Special than an event of literary significance. I hadn't planned on seeing it because I could pick up its urgent messages a mile away. But the buzz about the movie's performances has been strong. And as I frequently preach to my film classes about America's need for greater diversity in mainstream movies, I want to support occasions like this that set new standards.

I am pleased to report that the buzz about lead actress Amandla Stenberg is absolutely legit.

Playing sixteen-year-old Starr, she convinces us of a young woman's harrowing metamorphosis from a code-switching private school student to an inspirational "Black Lives Matter" protestor. The opening scenes effectively illustrate her double life: In her mostly white private school, she downplays anything that could be perceived as "ghetto," while at home she has to face the low-income hardships of being black in America, mentored by a father determined to save his children from the cycle of disadvantage, crime, and incarceration that he knows all too well.

Starr and Kahlil: a reunion goes wrong.

When a typical neighborhood party goes gunshot-wrong, and her charismatic friend Kahlil (Algee Smith) puts some distance between them and the scene of shots fired, it's easy to guess what the major turn will be. Sure enough, a white cop finds them. Sure enough, the stuff of daily headlines in America goes down.

Traumatized, Starr is launched into brutal awakenings to the extremes of white privilege; to the exploitative nature of the news media during such events; to the way that a truth-teller's moral courage can make hard times much, much worse. And Stenberg nails every scene. I believed in her character. I believed in her family, particularly her father, played with soft-spoken authority by Russell Hornsby.

But my belief — or, rather, my suspension of disbelief — was frequently disrupted. This is cast of characters in wildly inconsistent stages of development. Some are more than halfway convincing; others aren't even substantial enough to deserve names. For example, 'Neighborhood Drug Lord' would've served Anthony Mackie just fine. Chris (K.J. Apa) isn't much more than 'Starr's White Boyfriend Who Doesn't See Color.' And Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), whose friendship with Starr rapidly devolves, seems to exist only so Starr has a chance to smack down the "All Lives Matter" attitude — and makeup artists seem to have gone to distracting extremes to make her look like the whitest white girl on the planet.

Starr begins to wonder who her real friends are.

What's more — every chapter here is calculated to teach. I developed an allergy to evangelical entertainment at an early age, and while I'm impressed with most of the performances here, I got twitchy during the sermons. They kept jarring me out of scenes that had begun to spark with life and nuance. The movie tries to stuff so many lessons into is final chapters that I lost my grip on belief and started checking my watch. It runs about fifteen minutes too long, concluding with a climactic showdown that I'd be surprised to find in the novel; it feels like a focus-grouped finale.

And yet, for all of its troubles, I don't really mind the movie's mediocrity. America needs raised voices and simple illustrations on matters regarding equality, civil rights, white privilege, the influence of racism on law enforcement, and the prevalence of police officers who shoot first and don't ask any questions at all. This might be an important formative experience for young moviegoers. There's a purpose and a place for Afterschool Special entertainment. Let's just acknowledge that its relevance doesn't make it great art.

Starr and Chris face more tests than most high school couples ever experience.

In a way, The Hate U Give reminds me most of my experience with Ava DuVernay's take on A Wrinkle in Time: It's an entertaining two hours, remarkable in its focus on a compelling young African American girl, elevated by an admirable cast, but compromised by the motivational-speech quality of the dialogue. Its eagerness to educate and inspire keeps breaking the spell of story.

But the fact is that America is the kind of crisis that W.B. Yeats had in mind when he wrote those famous concluding lines in "The Second Coming." It does seem, alas, that we find ourselves in a world where "the best lack all conviction" and that "the worst are full of passionate intensity." The passengers of our American ship have invited pirates to become both captain and crew, and now they're feigning ignorance and looking for someone else to blame as those pirates do what pirates do: rip off the valuables, prepare their escape, and dismantle the ship mid-voyage. The destruction is accelerating as the pirates fan flames of hatred and throw the passengers into chaos. That flag that says "freedom, equality, democracy" is quickly becoming anachronistic, the lie of it exposed. So, maybe we need both right now: artists who give us a vision of beauty that transcends the moment and artists who scramble to save the ship from sinking by picking up a megaphone and shouting instructions. We need poetry and beauty and profundity and we need some lesson-heavy entertainment, some megaphone movies that represent the protest, that shout — as so many have become hard of hearing — that we should stop killing our brothers and sisters.

I'm glad that both movies — A Wrinkle in Time and The Hate U Give — are out in the world right now, flaws and all. As preachy productions go, this movie is a stirring sermon that has me saying "Amen! Lord, hear our prayer."


A Star is Born (2018)

Rocket Raccoon has a reputation as the Guardian of the Galaxy who machine-guns equal measures of bullets and bad language. In that sense, he's like a fusion of two more characters played by Bradley Cooper: He's a gunner like American Sniper's Chris Kyle and he's a snarling cuss monster like, well, the latest Cooper character — Jackson Maine in the latest remake of A Star is Born.

And that comes as a surprise.

I walked into what I believed to be a sort of prestige picture, a remake of a melodramatic musical so classic that it can be rightfully credited with establishing certain silver-screen cliches, and I was ready for it to feel formulaic. I was also prepared for this to feel like the coronation of Lady Gaga as a Grade-A movie star: As Ally, a made-to-order pop starlet, she's playing a role far less distinctive than the one she actually inhabits in today's musical cast of characters.

But I wasn't prepared for this to feel more like a Bradley Cooper vanity project — one in which he orchestrates every gaze — from the camera's adoringly upturned angles to the hero-worship wetness of the leading lady's eyes — in a clear attempt to announce himself as The Sexiest Man Alive.

Cooper sets himself in all kinds of spotlights.

Add to that the bizarro-choice of replacing his voice with a Sam Elliott impression so overbearing that I found myself straining to endure. But we'll get back to that later.

You don't need a plot synopsis from me on this film: You already know it's a rags-to-riches story of a down-on-her-luck Ordinary Girl who works as an [Insert Difficult Job She Can Flamboyantly Quit] and who still lives with her dad. You already know she'll be discovered in an unlikely [Insert Sexy Meet-Cute Here] by a Drug-Addicted Superstar. You know they'll have the slo-mo Love-at-First-Sight necessary for us to want his worldly success to save her... and her conscience to save him.

Lady Gaga plays Ally, a performer far more familiar and formulaic than the one she actually is.

You can sense it coming if you haven't seen the trailer: the glorious moment when he thrusts her into the spotlight and the world loses its mind in the first flush of her irrepressible onstage passion. You can just as easily sense the trouble coming: If the extreme close-ups of Jackson Maine taking drugs, Jackson Maine taking swigs, Jackson Maine taking more drugs, Jackson Maine drinking everything in sight don't tell you what's coming, neither would reading a Wikipedia synopsis before the movie.

To be fair, Cooper the Director has put together a convincing-enough world of arena-rock shows, big audiences that worship his character, backstage road-crew expertise (featuring a Designed-for-Oscar Supporting Role for an almost-always-crying Sam Elliott), and flashy imitations of the Grammies and Saturday Night Live that complete his representation of the "Riches" after the rags.

Things get weird when, after Cooper's Sam Elliott impression starts getting old, Elliott himself shows up demanding his voice back.

But the inevitability of Cooper's storytelling is amplified by the haste with which he moves through its pop-song routine. After the first 45 minutes that do a halfway-decent job of developing Ally's character as a spirited singer who's as likely to throw the first punch in a barfight as she is to confess her insecurities about her looks to a drunken Casanova on their first grocery-store date, Cooper leaps from one All Caps Scene to another. It's like we're watching a lengthy, spoiler-packed trailer of a longer movie's major moments: the Big Rock Numbers, the Substance Abuse, the collaboration montages, the Bathtub Intimacy, the Jealousy of the Success Story He's Launched, the Further Substance Abuse, and the Pending Crisis.  I haven't seen the original or the other remakes, but this sure doesn't make that prospect palatable. (I can only hope that earlier versions don't have this Edited for ADD pace.)

Cooper gives Ally a lesson in how to make hit songs and get the big spot on SNL almost overnight.

Melodrama, as a genre, eschews subtlety. But the way some of these scenes play big basic chords as if they've just invented them, it feels like watching a great pianist try to hit the highs of a Chopin piano concerto on a five-button Baby's First Keyboard. That big scene set at the Grammies, which may as well have a chapter title "Calamity!", is downright embarrassing — and not in the way it intends to be. ("Far from the shallow," my eyebrows.)

And all along the way, Cooper carpet-bombs his scenes with f-bombs as if it's possible to cuss your way to an Oscar. The aggravation of this is exacerbated by the Rock God posturing, the fake accent, and the generic early-'90s Seattle rock vocals. I mean, come on, Cooper: As an actor you can be pretty good... but Eddie is Vedder.

Who knew there were so many American Sniper fans eager to serve as extras in an arena?

As a result, Cooper is to this movie what Jack is to Ally's career: He's the thing that makes the beginning possible and the thing that nearly spoils everything for her. She's too good for him. She's too good for this movie.

It might be worth some chuckles to see a supercut of Cooper's curses from A Star is Born re-dubbed with an impression of his Rocket Raccoon voice. Outside of that, I doubt I can stomach revisiting anything from this movie.

But judging from the sniffles I heard all around me during the steroidal moments of angst and crisis, A Star is Born might be just the kind of Super-Sized Escapism that could win an Oscar. Maybe in these times of unfathomable violence and destruction in the world around us, moviegoers are so desperate for escapism that they need heavier doses of the same old illusions. Maybe they need to believe, if only for 145 minutes, that what matters most are the sufferings of a white male celebrity who can't properly enjoy his success, and a pop goddess whose rise to glory is interrupted by harsh realization that alcoholics make terrible boyfriends.

Turns out it's a bad idea to hitch your dreams to someone who almost always reeks of alcohol.

To steal a line from the movie: Lady Gaga, "it wasn't your fault." You're a star. No argument there.


Join me for two special screenings of Prospect in Seattle

Here’s your chance to meet filmmakers Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl, the makers of the new science-fiction thriller Prospect.

Caldwell and Earl (Seattle Pacific University graduates in 2009 and 2010) have earned extraordinary opportunities in making high-profile commercials and acclaimed short films under the banner of their commercial production company, Shep Films. I wrote about these two for SPU back in 2013. But I'd been following their pursuit of filmmaking success long before that, acting as an advisor for Earl was writing a screenplay as an English major.

Their first feature film, Prospect, opens in theaters in November. They will make special appearances at two of those opening-weekend screenings in Seattle, and they’ve invited me to host an interview and Q&A after the movie.

We’re hoping to see SPU moviegoers — faculty, staff, and students — in the audience to enjoy the movie, ask questions, and cheer them on.

Join me either Thursday, November 8, at 6:45 p.m., or Friday, November 9, at 7:30 p.m., at Regal Meridian 16 Cinemas downtown. 


Puzzle (2018)

As Puzzle begins, we see Agnes vacuuming her house. She looks as dull and as dimly lit and as dusty as the house she's vacuuming.

This is how you might expect a movie to begin if it's going to be about the drudgery of being a neglected housewife. You might also anticipate a great deal of what's ahead. You'll brace yourself for scenes of domestic tensions; of a belligerent husband; of a concerned friend raising questions that Agnes brushes off in her fear, shame, and humility; of Agnes resisting temptations to pursue something—or someone—representing her own desires and potential.

Kelly Macdonald gives her finest performance yet in Puzzle.

The fact that I'd heard the premise — "This is the story of a neglected housewife who discovers a passion for jigsaw puzzles and secretly slips away to pursue competitive puzzling" — did not help matters. I was ready for a whole lot of "been there, done that":

  • the woman's secretive training behind the backs of her disapproving husband and children;
  • the conventional development of a Mr. Miyagi/Karate Kid relationship with a genius;
  • a training-for-competition montage;
  • her family's inevitable discovery of her secret life and passion;
  • a sudden turn that threatens her ability to participate in the competition;
  • a joyful rush when she finally breaks free of her family, or when they finally come around to supporting her, and she gets to compete anyway; and, of course,
  • the suspenseful (but inevitable) tournament victory.

And, of course, the 'Plain Jane' appearance of our hero would dissolve so that she looks like a glamorous celebrity at the end — thank God!

I admit that I smelled these maddening cliches right away. These are tried-and-true crowdpleasing paces, but I've seen too many movies to find them interesting anymore. I started fast-forwarding through the movie in my mind.

But, fortunately, I was sitting in a theater and did not have a remote in my hand.

Puzzle may begin in a way that feels familiar and formulaic. And it does, in fact, include some of those unsurprising turns. But it is a much, much more rewarding experience than I expected.

Can a movie about jigsaw puzzles be a meditation on marriage, family, and the meaning of life? It can indeed.

Heed this warning: Avoid the trailer at all costs. I can think of few previews that spoil more of a movie's important turns than this one. Suffice it to say that, after that worrying start, almost every scene of Puzzle comes alive with small pleasures, big surprises, and exquisite subtleties of storytelling, performance, and cinematography.

Much of the credit is due, I suspect, to the writers.

IMDB lists Puzzle as Polly Mann's first screenplay, but her co-writer Oren Moverman worked on such outstanding indie hits as Love & MercyThe Messenger, and I'm Not There (with Todd Haynes). They've made Agnes and her jigsaw-genius mentor Robert into nuanced, believable, and complicated characters.

David Denham as Louie in Puzzle.

Perhaps most importantly, they've made her husband Louie into someone who is simultaneously overbearing, loving, naive, sympathetic, and frightening. It should have been easy to cheer for Agnes and to root for her to abandon her horrible husband for a romance with someone who really sees her. But Puzzle is not that movie. Mann and Overman chart a course that risks alienating the audience by committing to the complex humanity of its characters, and by refusing to support the lie that difficult marriages can be happily and blissfully abandoned.

That's just one of the ways that Mann and Overment cleverly avoid the pitfalls of genre cliches. Most impressively, they devote very little time at all to puzzle competition events. Yes, we're on our way toward heated puzzle matches. But get this: Agnes has no rival. We're not given a villain to root against. In fact, we don't even witness any culmination to an edge-of-your-seat championship round!

No country for poor puzzlers.

Instead, the film focuses on a tangle of messy relationships. I believe in Agnes, Louie, and their two sons—one of whom is escaping by way of college, the other hanging around home with clear eyes and, yes, a big heart. This family, flawed as it is, is a loving family. They disappoint each other. They give each other second and third chances. And they soldier on as a family even after explosive clashes. What a rare and marvelous thing to witness.

Don't overlook the film's treatment of the family's faith, either. Louie and Agnes are Catholics, and that becomes an influential factor in Agnes's moral struggles when her husband takes a harsh stand between her and meaningful engagement with the world beyond housework. Is her faith an avenue of freedom and salvation, or is it just one more cultural pressure restricting her to frustration?

Even more impressive, the film refuses to give the audience a clear conclusion of tragedy or triumph. It arrives at a messy but meaningful conclusion that is open to interpretation. For me, this was even more satisfying and thrilling than the summer's stunt-driven Mission: Impossible movie.

Christopher Norrs cinematography is a highlight of a surprising, subtle film.

I also commend cinematographer Christopher Norr, who filmed Scott Derrickson's masterful horror film Sinister, for infusing this film in sumptuous color and light. While it's a script-based film, with most scenes being filmed matter-of-factly, it offers moments I wanted to live in for a while, radiant in ways that reminded me of Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy.

But I must, above all, celebrate what Puzzle's three leads achieve: an exquisite, discomforting, and fully human chemistry. As Agnes, Kelly Macdonald—an actress I would happily watch on a far more regular basis, worthy to be remembered for so much more than No Country for Old Men, Brave, and Gosford Park—shines in the lead. Her face is a powerfully expressive text conveying complicated emotions and thoughts, and representing hairpin turns of understanding and decision that are always convincing.

Agnes is a Catholic, but her crisis at home leads to a crisis regarding confession.

Irfan Khan (The Namesake, The Darjeeling Limited)—an actor who deserves so much more praise and glory than American audiences give him—turns unremarkable lines into surprising moments. I'd call this Oscar-worthy work in a supporting role.

David Denham has, in some respects, the most difficult job here. I've only known him as Pam's aggravating boyfriend on The Office, but he makes Louie one of the most memorable big-screen fathers and husbands I've seen in recent years. Late in the film, I found myself rooting for him to make the right movies, change his heart, and redeem himself from past mistakes.

Irfan Khan is Robert: jigsaw-puzzle champion and mentor to Agnes.

Puzzle, directed by Mark Turtletaub (a producer on that indie landmark Little Miss Sunshine), brings so many three-dimensional pieces together into a small, substantial, and intricate surprise — one that has stayed with me since I got more than I bargained for on an occasion of spur-of-the-moment, late-night moviegoing. (It makes me curious about Rompecabezas, the 2010 Argentine movie on which this film is based.)

So if you're worried about being bored by a movie about jigsaw puzzles, or weary of films about the living hells experienced by housewives — I mean, come on, I know so many extraordinary stay-at-home moms who live rich and rewarding lives — let me encourage you to give Puzzle a try anyway.

I almost heeded my concerns and skipped it. And I'm so glad I didn't.


Dead Poets Society and the Legacy of Dr. Luke Reinsma

Today, I walked down the English Department corridor at Seattle Pacific University and saw something that stunned me.

I saw a friend of mine, a recent graduate of SPU's MFA in Creative Writing program, settling into his new office. For most people, this would have been an unremarkable sight: a professor at work. But it startled me, and not for the first time. I was expecting — and will, for a long time to come, go on expecting — to see someone else beyond that door. I thought I'd see Dr. Luke Reinsma, a legend of SPU's English program, surrounded by his books, his feet up on his desktop, the Oxford English Dictionary open in his lap. It's a sight I've seen frequently over almost 30 years of experience at this university. It means a lot to me, as Reinsma is one of the most influential figures in my history.

Here's the thing: I've had time to get over this. Reinsma announced his retirement a few years ago. And I wrote an essay celebrating his legacy back then, before he found ways to keep one foot in the work of teaching by covering some adjunct courses here and there.

But now that his bookshelves are gone and someone else is setting up shop, I feel it's time to re-post this: an article I wrote for Christianity Today. At the time, CT's entertainment editor Alissa Wilkinson had asked me to write about a movie that I'd changed my mind about. I thought of Dead Poets Society. And then I realized it was a chance to write about my favorite professor.

Here's what I wrote, what Christianity Today published, four years ago this week.


He’s leaving. I can hardly believe it. Dr. Luke Reinsma, professor of English at Seattle Pacific University, is retiring.

Two weeks ago I revisited Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society for the first time in twenty years. Watching Robin Williams play that charismatic English teacher who transforms the lives of repressed prep-school boys, I had flashbacks to my undergraduate years when Reinsma was my academic advisor.

As a freshman at SPU in 1989, I found that this idiosyncratic professor lived up to the reputation I’d heard from former students. I learned to love how, when he handed back my essays, he had written almost as much on them as I had written in them. An exploration of The Canterbury Tales, a coffee conversation about the origins of the Arthur legends, an independent study of Old English, a post-movie talk about Quentin Tarantino—every time we met, we dug deep into the substance of our subject.

Now, he’s boxing the books that blessed his office with an aroma of scholarship and mystery. I’ll miss his Richard Farnsworth mustache. His quick and mischievous eyes. The perpetually windblown hair that he sculpts wildly with both hands as if trying to wring out the words he needs to express his big ideas.

He changed my mind about so many things. I realize now that, due to his influence, even my perspective on Dead Poets Society has changed — dare I say matured?

The Space Between Chaos and Control

Still shaken by news of Robin Williams’ death, I knew that even his mediocre movies might now become emotional experiences. Williams was such a commanding big-screen presence that some filmmakers seemed to think that they needed nothing more than his improvisational genius to make a good movie. But his did his best work—The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting, Insomnia, Awakenings—with directors who knew when to restrain him and when to unleash his Tasmanian Devil personality.

That tension between chaos and control made him perfect for the Dead Poets role of Mr. Keating.

Set in 1959, the film focuses on the strict routines, rituals, and rigor of Welton Academy, a conservative preparatory school where young men are pressured to score highly on tests not only by headmasters and instructors but also by demanding parents. In their classrooms, in their rows, at their desks, on the clock—everything happens by the book.

Mr. Keating takes a sledgehammer to their comfort zones. The first thing he does? He gets them moving—bodily—as if education might involve more than the headHe leads them out of the classroom and coaxes them to engage mysteries.

Similarly, Dr. Reinsma led his undergraduates out from under the merciless buzz of fluorescent classroom lights into the cool of Pacific Northwest mists, up challenging trails in the Cascades, until we emerged above the clouds to study our texts on sunny mountaintops.

Keating climbs too—right up onto his desktop. And then he invites his students to follow. “Why do I stand on my desk? . . . To remind myself that we must constantly see things in a different way.”

This is, in fact, a line from "Dead Poets Society."

So Reinsma had us discuss how texts challenged, unsettled, and even offended us. We learned that “love thy neighbor” means listening to experiences altogether different from our own. And he coached us to voice personal reactions, craft personal opinions, and back up personal interpretations with textual support. We were not there to receive his perspectives, but to discover our own.

Keating seeks to save spoiled, obedient boys from society’s narrow definitions of success. “Medicine, law, business, engineering—these are noble pursuits, necessary to sustain life,” he says. “But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for.” The arts, he knows, can equip young hearts with compasses of conscience and passion.

Similarly, Reinsma was (and still is) allergic to the idea that arts and literature are a garnish on the plate of academia. It pained him to see so many schools prioritizing business, science, and mathematics, as if doctors were telling him that the health of the hands and the head mattered more than the health of the blood and the heart.

You’d guess that I embraced Dead Poets Society as a personal favorite.

You’d be wrong.

Threatened by Freedom

I first saw Dead Poets Society a few weeks before I moved from Portland, Oregon, to “the Emerald City” for college. In some ways, the movie impressed me. I already dreamed of a career that allowed me to write and teach, so I applauded Mr. Keating’s passion for literature. On that, we agreed.

Moreover, the film’s young cast—Robert Sean Leonard (who would later play Watson to Hugh Laurie’s Holmes on TV’s House), Josh Charles (whose role on TV’s The Good Wife would win him a host of female fans), and Ethan Hawke (who . . . well, you know Ethan Hawke)—powerfully impressed me.

Nevertheless, I came out of Dead Poets Society grumbling. And I furrowed the brows of my fellow English majors by holding a grudge against it all through college.

Professor Keating really throws himself into his work.

At the conservative evangelical institution I attended kindergarten through high school, I had always sought to fulfill and exceed the hopes and expectations of not only my teachers but also the God in whom they had taught me to believe. That meant achieving “straight A” report cards in academics and in morality. No misbehavior, no drugs, no sex, no profanity—you know the drill. Their guidance seemed to work: In my senior year, I lived up to their hopes and graduated with honors and scholarships. Might as well have draped a “Mission Accomplished” banner in my bedroom. I was ready for the rest of my life.

Not really.

Outside of the school’s controlled environment, I was deeply insecure. I knew how to impress adults, but not my peers. Fearing the peer pressure that Friday chapel assemblies had warned me about, I was utterly terrified of unsupervised parties. I became judgmental toward (and, frankly, jealous of) classmates who enjoyed greater freedoms than I did. My imagination animated scenes of extracurricular debauchery. To escape, I lived in a self-inflicted quarantine, troubled by dark speculation about those who might be drinking, smoking, or going out on unchaperoned dates.

As I watched Dead Poets Society, Welton’s oppressive administration seemed like the Evil Empire—but Mr. Keating seemed like an equal and opposite threat. With his “Seize the day!” mantra, he seemed to shout “All things are permissible!” without the necessary caution of “But not all things are profitable!” He seemed a false Christ, granting his students a license to lust, sending them off into lives of unhinged sensualism.

It didn’t make me any more comfortable to see a character who looked like me—tall, awkward, and big-nosed—getting drunk at a party, then trying to kiss another young man’s girlfriend while she slept. (You know what really stung? His name is Overstreet.)

Watching Neil Perry—the student whose burgeoning love of the arts is crushed by his father’s condemnation of “nonsense”—become a tragic figure, I blamed Mr. Keating’s apparent disdain for parental authority. I felt he had goaded Neil to embrace drama and disrespect over discernment, and thus the boy had lost all control. Nothing short of a conversion to Christianity—I believed—could have straightened Neil out. Keating had failed to show Neil what really mattered.

And that’s where I misjudged the film so badly.

I was so preoccupied with the boys’ reckless rebellion that I missed the contrast between their sophomoric declarations of independence and their compassionate teacher’s counsel. “Sucking all the marrow out of life,” says Keating with quiet authority, “doesn’t mean choking on the bone. Sure, there’s a time for daring . . . and a time for caution. And a wise man understands which is called for.”

In sharp contrast to the boy’s controllers, Mr. Keating models a healthy balance of freedom and responsibility. He descends into that world of order, accepting the form of a servant, and makes all things new. He shows them what the imagination, taking the shape of love, makes possible.

He may not speak of Jesus. But he’s an imitation of Christ.

A Delicate Balance

Looking back at authority figures who have inspired my respect, and at those who have been driven by ego and a desire to control, I’ve come to suspect that anyone who seeks to instill character in another person by force will produce an equal and opposite reaction. Those Dead Poets boys aren’t anarchists or hedonists. They’re human beings pushing back against forces that would press them into dehumanizing molds.

Reinsma and Overstreet at the 2014 Glen Workshop, an arts conference hosted by Image. Image by Bob Denst.

Are they extreme? Immature? Petty? Sometimes. But who can blame them? Who, besides Keating, has shown them an example of wisdom and integrity?

The film’s tragic turn comes when those given authority over Neil show no respect for his imagination or sense of calling. They serve their own ends. I’d even say that Neil’s father is threatened by the possibility that his son might find more fulfillment than he, in his fearfully insulated world, will ever permit himself to know.

It’s a dangerous business—freedom. I’ve known those who, given their first glimpse of it, plunged without discernment into rash decisions, costly consequences, and never recovered. My younger self would have said, “I told you so.” Now I wonder: What (or who) inclined them to throw themselves overboard? Moreover, I’ve seen others who live in fortresses of caution and self-righteousness, showing no grace to those who live more freely. In either case—there, but for the grace of God, go you and I.

God forbid that I punish my younger self for holding respectable principles. No—I’m just saying that I held them too tightly. What began as desire to avoid sin darkened into judgment of (I called it “praying for”) anybody who appeared to enjoy what seemed dangerous, no matter how responsibly they enjoyed it. So long as “the laws” of my moral universe served as guardrails to keep me from crashing out of bounds, they were meaningful. But when I began looking down on others from a place of prideful “righteousness,” my precious morality stopped supporting life and stifled it.

With the guidance of teachers like Reinsma, I’m coming to see how my fears of injury have kept me from climbing mountains. I explore a larger world now, and I’m grateful. As we learn to exist in that tenuous balance between courage and caution, we will all stumble. But that’s how we learn to mature from the basic exercises of “righteousness” into the exhilarating dance of grace.

A Grand Conclusion, A New Beginning

At the conclusion of Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating is betrayed by a student and dismissed by the school. But as he departs from a faculty of smugly authoritative traditionalists, he clearly remains the boys’ one true mentor, teacher, and inspiration.

For Dr. Reinsma at Seattle Pacific, the story has a happier ending. His “Last Lecture” was met with uproarious applause from a teary-eyed audience of grateful students, alumni, and admiring faculty. I cried too. But I realize now, thanks to the final moments of Dead Poets Society, that Dr. Reinsma cannot retire from teaching. A title, an office, a classroom—those are not the source of his influence. It’s who he is. It’s how he lives. Those around him will go on learning from his example.

The Dead Poets Society honors Keating by standing on their desks. It’s a beautiful tribute. It works. But I don’t want to stand on a desk for Reinsma. Someday, I’d like to stand behind one. Or, wait . . . no! Better yet—I want to push desks aside entirely, draw students out of gridlike rows, and go with them into larger worlds that my greatest teachers opened for me.

It would be a daunting responsibility. And an extravagant privilege. I would need a healthy sense of caution, yes. But also—a courage better known as “faith.”


A great film about linguistics has arrived...

"I like Arrival because it’s about a linguist and about the kinds of things linguists find fascinating. I am not a scholar of film. But I do know well-done linguistics when I see it, and I see it in Arrival."

That's the opinion of Dr. Kathryn Bartholomew, who has been a regal and inspiring professor of linguistics at Seattle Pacific University over the last three decades.

When I launched a new interview series at North By Pacific Northwest, I began by asking Dr. Bartholomew which film she would show people if she were invited to host a screening. Her choice was a pleasant surprise.

You can read her insights into Denis Villeneuve's recent science-fiction brain-buster at spu.edu/nxpnw.


Three Identical Strangers (2018)

On an impulse of curiosity, I ventured out for a late-night movie at my neighborhood's second-run theater. The title, Three Identical Strangers, was intriguing — especially since I knew it was a documentary. But that's the only thing I knew.

I expected the theater to be quiet and almost empty. After all, this movie isn't exactly a box office smash. And it's been playing for weeks. But I was pleasantly surprised. Why were so many people out to see this so late at night, and so late in this movie's theatrical run? I don't know, but my guess, now that I've seen it, is that word-of-mouth is spreading. From the opening moments to the end, it's riveting. Everybody stayed, silent and gobsmacked, and then burst into boisterous conversation that continued in the lobby long afterward. It seemed everybody was eager to come to terms with the twists and turns of the story they'd just discovered.

The mystery at the heart of Three Identical Strangers is too good to resist.

I'll keep my synopsis to one basic paragraph in order to preserve the movie's surprises:

Three Identical Strangers zooms in on three young men—David Kellman, Eddy Galland, and Bobby Shafran—who, upon discovering one another in 1980, find that there's a good reason they look alike, sound alike, think alike, and act alike: they're triplets, separated at birth, and then adopted into families who didn't know their new sons had brothers.

It's also about how their story brought them sudden superstardom, success, and challenges beyond anything they could have imagined. (The American television audience, so easily and eagerly entertained, just couldn't get enough of the fact that all three brothers preferred Marlboro cigarettes, apparently.)

It's also about differences between the families that raised them. But you're probably already sensing that things will take a dark turn (several, actually).

You're going to love this story about Bobby, Eddie, and David. And then you'll be profoundly unsettled.

And then it does: Troubles emerge not only within the brothers' seemingly miraculous unity but also in the culture that surrounds them. In fact, the dangers from outside have been working in sinister and stealthy ways from the beginning. You might begin to wonder if this isn't a documentary at all, but an unnervingly lifelike sci-fi/horror film.

In short, it's a story about "nature versus nurture"—with a heavy dose of Dr. Ian Malcolm's rant about the hubris of reckless scientists.

And by the end, it's become a powerful reinforcement of Rogers' philosophy.

I've been thinking about it for days now. Wardle seems fascinated by some of my favorite questions: How much of who I am is influenced by the basic building blocks I've inherited from, say, my grandfathers, both of whom were carpenters? I'm not a carpenter, but when I write, I am preoccupied with architecture. Is there something happening here? Or have I become someone shaped more by teachers, texts, and other outside influences?

Even more so, I'm interested in the relationship between who we become and how much love we've received growing up.

You may hear in those words an allusion to another recent documentary: Won't You Be My Neighbor? Ever since that profoundly affecting movie opened, I've been haunted by Fred Roger's words: "Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it." The insight here isn't exactly breaking news, but those are just the right words at just the right painful moment for moviegoers like me who are grieving the loss of wisdom in the White House, and the loss of love and compassion as an American priority.

How did I not know this story already? It was in the papers when I was a newspaper-loving ten-year-old; it was the focus of talk shows and news programs that I watched. (Good to see you again, Phil Donohue and Tom Brokaw!) With its charismatic leads, its hilarious twists, and its unsettling true-crime revelations, it's as movie-worthy as true-life drama gets. But I wouldn't want to see a full dramatization: There's just, well... too much drama, and it works because you have to keep reminding yourself: This is real. These aren't actors. This script hasn't been revised to sensationalize the truth. And if you tried to depict these developments in a big studio production, with one actor playing three parts, you'd lose the film's best "special effect": the physical reality of the triplets themselves.

Triplets on tour: Brotherly love before it turned into brotherly trouble.

No, a documentary was the right choice — and director Tim Wardle has organized his material here brilliantly, his chapters carefully arranged not only for suspense and surprise but also to give weighty attention to the ethical and philosophical questions raised by each new stage of the story. It's remarkable how much impressively useful and entertaining footage of the actual events exists, and how effectively that footage leads the audience from the initial amazement, laughter, and joy, into sudden alarm, a sinking feeling of suspicion and dismay, and then grief, and, ultimately, well-founded anger.

Chapters are stitched together with modest but effective recreations, something that could so easily have been overdone. At times, the filmmakers underline the Big Moments too heavily in ways that distract from, rather than enhance, the drama; these events are drama enough on their own. (The only moments in the movie that annoyed me were a few occasions when the filmmakers decided to replay key clips, again and again, as if to say "Remember this moment? How do you feel about it now? And... now" )

It's a minor quibble. I was engaged—enthralled—throughout. The film never felt like it was embellishing the story to sensationalize it. And I was particularly intrigued because of my age: Everything from the footage of TV news and TV talks to the fashions, furniture, cars, and styles reinforced my amazement that these guys were growing up in the same world where I'd grown up, and having such wildly different experiences. I can't imagine what life was like for any of them, in these bizarre circumstances, and yet their contexts were so familiar that I kept expecting to see my own family members in the background, leaping from my old Polaroids to the screen.

It doesn't seem likely at first, but this is a story with serious villains.

That makes the inhumanity of the film's "villains" that much more troubling. When, in the movie, an exasperated man asks how it can be possible for human beings to be so audaciously evil in the mistreatment of parents and children, I wanted to stand up and say "Preach!"

And I'm sure that my anger was increased by my awareness of horrors happening in the world today. This may seem like something of a tangent, but it really isn't. Three Identical Strangers relies on the fact that a moviegoer's conscience will recoil at the idea of family members being separated and exploited.

This is a painfully difficult movie to watch in a year when Americans are welcoming the vulnerable, the desperate, the poor, and the war-scarred by breaking up their families, throwing their children in cages, deporting the parents, and doing all of this in the name of "security."

I used to criticize Hollywood movies for making villains too preposterously heartless, but man... I've learned the hard way that there is no such thing. I hope I live to see the great and harrowing documentaries that memorialize the names and faces of those who have written this year's atrocities into American history, to caution coming generations that seemingly unthinkable sins can be committed right here, right now, by the people all around you. It happened when I was a kid. It's happening now. If we're not careful, it will happen to people we know. If we're not attentive to the Spirit of Compassion, we'll be complicit in similar sins.

After all, no matter how different we are, based on genetics or upbringing, we all have the potential to set own interests over the well-being of others, the capacity to rationalize our crimes.