Before Mulan... we had Whale Rider.

Here comes Disney's reinvention of Mulan, perhaps the studio's best effort yet to give girls an action hero they can believe in. The production looks suitably extravagant, and the cast — in a remarkable shift from the Disney white-washing norms — looks completely and properly Asian. These teasers they're giving us bring to mind the epics of Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) at his best.

But for me, the most promising aspect of the new Mulan is Disney's choice of director: Niki Caro.

After all, Caro has enthralled audiences before with the story of a young female hero who subverts the expectations of her people and overturns restrictive patriarchal traditions. It's been a while, but I'm glad for this excuse to revisit a film that impressed me when I saw it back in 2003, and that has had more staying power than I expected.

My ongoing appreciation for Whale Rider stems from two of the film's strengths: its haunting musical score (thank you, Lisa Gerrard) and its lead actress, whose performance remains vivid in my memory.

Back in 2003, Keisha Castle-Hughes wasn't part of a galaxy far, far away yet. (She'd play one of Princess Amidala's decoys in Star Wars: Episode Three — Revenge of the Sith.) She hadn't played the young virgin Mary traveling with newcomer Oscar Isaac's Joseph in 2006's The Nativity Story. She didn't need a George Lucas blockbuster or the endorsement of Christian leaders to catapult her into the spotlight.

All she needed was the right director, a woman who believed in her quiet power, and a character she could bring to life.

Castle-Hughes found those in Caro... and in the character of Pai.

Here's a flashback to my original review of Whale Rider...

... which I've revised slightly to correct some errors and some clumsy writing.


You know how these hero stories begin. A narrator intones a prologue in sonorous tones:

“In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness...." waiting to be filled up, waiting for someone to love it, waiting for a leader….”

And so, true to its mythic template, Whale Rider begins with those words. Writer and director Niki Caro raises a curtain of deep sea blue onto a pageant that acquaints us with a real-world culture conflict: The Maori of New Zealand, like so many peoples of the world, are deeply rooted in patriarchal traditions, and, as depicted here, they are struggling with how to survive in a changing world where restrictive gender roles are dissolving under the light and heat of wisdom.

But Caro's story, which so easily could feel stridently political and preachy, instead — with a fusion of a mystically evocative musical score, a thrilling performance by an irresistible actress, earnest and spirited work from an all-Maori supporting cast, and an extravagant backdrop of New Zealand coastline — catches us in that familiar but oh-so-reliable narrative net known as "A Hero Will Rise."

So, yes, this is a film that follows a time-tested formula. Whale Rider isn't interested in reinventing the shape of such a story; it's interested in achieving two other ends: revealing the glory of the Maori people and traditions, while also challenging those traditions by rewriting the rules on who gets to play particular roles.

What captures our attention about this portentous opening is this: It is, contrary to the ponderous norm, spoken by a young girl, her voice soft, as if she is reciting a sacred story to herself in reverence: “In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness, waiting to be filled up, waiting for someone to love it, waiting for a leader….”

With this fusion of the familiar and the unexpected, Caro — drawing from a novel by New Zealand writer Witi Ihimaera — lures us into an immersion in the rich, sensual qualities of present-day Maori culture, a remarkable tapestry of past and present. Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the Maori leader of the Ngati Konohi tribe, is looking for a young male that he can train up to succeed him. One of his sons has grown fat and lazy. The other, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), has abandoned the tribe because of a terrible tragedy.

Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the Maori leader of the Ngati Konohi tribe, is looking for a young male that he can train up to succeed him.

“There was no gladness when I was born,” our narrator, young Pai (newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes) informs us. “My twin brother died and took our mother with him….” This excruciating event sends Porourangi running and leaves Koro without a son or a grandson to inherit his authority.

Since the tribe only looks to men for leadership, Koro grows angry when Pai herself starts showing all the signs of the traditional "crown prince." He refuses to consider her as an alternative. It is up to his wife, Nanny Flowers (Vicki Haughton), a wiser, gentler sort of leader, to cultivate Pai's virtues behind Koro's back until the time is right for her to claim what "the gods" have planned for her.

Some of the credit for the way this film transcends its own genre goes to Australian singer and composer Lisa Gerrard (famously of the band Dead Can Dance). The lush oceanic swells of her score are worth diving into on their own, for an immersive experience separate from the film itself. But here, her singular voice, backed by a sort of deep-sea angel choir, brings an appropriately mystical tone to the adventure.

But a good deal of credit also goes to Keisha Castle-Hughes, an astonishing young actress. Speaking lines that could so easily have sounded routine and uninspired, she brings young Pai to life a three-dimensionally human girl in whom we easily believe.

Stories of young heroes usually draw from a familiar set of action figures: the boy wide-eyed with wonder who somehow becomes the least interesting character in his own story; the snarky rebel who cleverly smacks down the nay-sayers; the humble servant who discovers a magical weapon and learns, like David with his slingshot, to slay giants. Whale Rider sets itself apart with Pai, who, at only 12 years old, is quiet, watchful, reluctant, and yet courageous. Like John Sayles’s charming modern folk tale The Secret of Roan InnishWhale Rider follows its young female protagonist into a growing sense of her cultural heritage, family secrets, and, of course, a prophecy. And like Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, the film treats its spirited heroine like a grownup, giving her an emotional complexity and a quiet intuitive nature that makes her seem more mature than anyone around her.

As she grows in knowledge and courage, Pai suffers a series of trials and rejections that seem familiar, recalling even such predictable audience favorites as The Karate Kid. But the film's last hour takes on an enchanting quality. As the legends that Pai has always been taught seem to come to life around her, she claims her connection to the tribe's legendary hero, Paikea, the boy who traveled across the ocean on the back of a whale. Our anticipation rises as we wonder what she will do to show such a connection. The revelation, when it comes, is something so ambitious that I never would have dreamed it would work. But it does, and the film's conclusion is surprisingly satisfying.

By the end of the film, Pai has humbled the willful grownups around her and won over even the cliché-weary cynics in the audience. In fact, her monologue near the end of the film still strikes me like a powerful wave, washing away the last of my resistance. I'm shaken when the scene is over — ready to follow this hero and fight for her people's future.

Until that moment, I'm not completely won over. After the film's startling beginning, I retreat at times into a state of detached observation, recognizing this as a story I have been told many times before. I'm weary of "Behold the Chosen One!" narratives. And I'm easily aggravated by big, one-note performances that give us Types instead of Human Beings, like the stuff of mediocre, formulaic television. Formulas are not a bad thing: they're formulas because they are founded in time-tested truths about human nature and history.

But when those patterns are not played with particularity, passion, and evident love, they become stale and obvious. A performance as specific and subtle as Castle-Hughes's makes us forget where the formula leads, captivating us with the immediacy and impact of real life. She stands out among this expressive cast by her silence, her patience. She is the still point, which in the flamboyance of her community rings out like a shout.

A couple of things linger with me as setbacks to an otherwise enthralling film.

We're told that Koro has his hopes for succession  set on his grandson because his own sons have been disappointments to him. Pai's father Porourangi, who might have followed in his father's footsteps, is portrayed as a noble man with honorable ambitions who, suffering a grievous loss, responds by leaving home to pursue a dream rather than staying to fulfill the plans of his father and his people.

We can empathize with his grief and his need to remove himself. But the film asks us to easily absolve him for leaving his daughter behind. The loss of a wife and a son justifies him in abandoning his daughter? This decision isn't given enough attention, and too little attention is given to Porourangi's reunion with her. While the grandfather's disregard for his granddaughter is demonized, the father's failure is quickly absolved. I'm not sure Porourangi deserve the admiring treatment the film gives him.

I was also confused by the Maori reverence for their tribal traditions. Threatened by diminishing numbers and increasing cultural distractions (drugs, alcohol, sports cars), Koro labors to inspire appreciation and reverence for the Maori rituals and culture. But he has only reluctant disciples.

I would have appreciated some more detailed exhibits of precisely what the traditions are and what they mean. Without that, I do not feel the loss that Koro feels as sharply as I might. I sense real warmth and integrity in the particularity of their greetings, their beliefs, their values. But watching a bunch of boys bat at each other with sticks in Maori martial arts training does not make me cry out “Preserve their heritage!”

Thus, Whale Rider works for me best an immersive aesthetic experience, and as the story of one young girl's triumph in humbling her elders and gaining respect. In this case, it succeeds enough earn it my hearty recommendation.


Catching up with a Varda masterpiece: 1985's Vagabond

A strange marriage of formal playfulness and intensely earnest Empathy Cinema storytelling, Agnes Varda's 1985 film Vagabond gives us the feeling that we're watching a beautiful plane tree being cut down because it has a disease that will eventually kill it. There is no suspense about the ending: the opening shot of a body in a ditch tells us it all ends badly. There are only the questions of How and Why, and What Does It All Mean?

Mona settles into one of the many homes she finds along the road.

My tree metaphor, as you know if you've seen the movie, is from the film itself.

We follow Mona — our abused, persecuted, neglected, and self-abused vagrant zigzagging her way around French territories that never show up on tourism postcards – through a variety of encounters with people who are either dismissive, abusive, or vaguely charitable people.

In one memorable sequence, she rides around with an agronomist who is studying diseased plane trees. The woman observes her with curiosity, almost entertained by this human wreckage who eagerly consumes any food or drink she's given. She's studying plane tree disease, she says, but she's not seeking to cure it.

(It's even more interesting how Varda emphasizes that the fungal disease killing the trees came over from America on shipping pallets and crates made of diseased wood — a rich metaphor in itself that could apply to Mona in a variety of ways. Are the corruptions of Western capitalism at work in what's killing her?)

From French bakery specialities to rock-hard baguettes, Mona survives on the generosity of strangers.

Is the agronomist really interested in helping Mona? No, of course not. Few who encounter her really do want to save her, and those that do learn that it's going to be much more difficult and costly than they thought.

Drawing extraordinary and unnervingly convincing work from actress Sandrine Bonnaire, Varda has sculpted — and I say sculpted rather than painted for how three-dimensional Mona becomes — a character failed by humankind at every turn, and that includes herself. Bonnaire is fearlessly committed to every harsh turn in this distinctive wanderer's journey, creating a completely convincing character through terror, desperation, bitterness, and occasional glimmers of joy.

But she's not the whole show: Ever ruggedly real supporting character is as distinctive as she is, many played by non-professional actors found by Varda in the places where the movie took her. Among this gallery are some characters who express not only pity for Mona and shame for how they fell short of saving her, but also some who express admiration — particularly women who envy her freedom.

A moment that reminded me of Proverbs 31:6: "Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress."

As a big fan of Varda's documentaries, I had no trouble recognizing her passions and improvisational sensibilities here. (I can't help but wonder if she means for the sophisticated academic to be a self-effacing reference to herself, since she would, in 2000's The Gleaners and I, speak with similar curiosity and fascination about a bunch of similarly beleaguered and desperate young people living on the street.)

Moments of fleeting grace shine out during Mona's downward spiral.

But I was surprised at how, in spite of the formal inventiveness, this came to feel very preachy, like a long and repetitive re-write of the parable of the good Samaritan, in which even the fleeting flares of generosity in those who encounter Mona give way, person by person, to fear, impatience, or — in the most difficult scenes — exploitative impulses.

I will have to give this one time. Perhaps as I continue to discover the poetry in the seeming chaos, I will warm to what Varda has done here. But due to their overbearing agendas to Make Me Care, most films that aim to inspire empathy with this narrative of a human pinball (that is, a protagonist who crashes into one calamity after another until they stumble into a pit) end up... leaving me cold — no Vagabond pun intended.*

Mona enjoying what may be the closest thing to love she finds in her punishing journey.

*But I won't say I wasn't pleased by the pun when I stumbled onto it.


Catching up with The Kid Who Would Be King

Like a decent Excalibur, a good King Arthur movie needs an edge. Maybe it was all those years that it lay half-buried in stone, but this sword just doesn't cut it.

Our fellowship approaches a landmark they've only just learned to pronounce: Tintagel.

Add The Kid Who Would Be King to the mountain of "Fantasy For Kids" films that have imagined their young-white-male protagonist as the most blandly uninspiring fellow imaginable. Take the situation from bad to worse by giving the role to a young actor whose name, we might guess, they pulled from a King Arthur Coloring Context drawing. That this fellow scored the lead role of Alexander, a middle-schooler who becomes the next King Arthur, makes me immediately suspicious that he's related to Somebody Important who wants to bump their kid to the front of the Child Actor Line. (Checks the kid-actor's lineage and... yep, that could well be the case.) I'll come around to an apology to Louis Ashbourne Serkis later — I don't want his talented father mad at me — but whether you point to the actor, the script, or the director... something's failing to click here.

Nice try, but the Spielberg is not strong in this one.

It doesn't help that he's surrounded by a supporting cast of school kids who are all more charismatic than him — nor does it help that, in spite of that, none of them would have been strong enough to earn a place at table in Hogwarts or in Frodo's fellowship. Points to Dean Chaumoo for giving Alexander's predictably portly sidekick Bedders some measure of charm. Promote him to the lead role, and the film would be markedly improved. (I'll give proper credit to the Magical Mentor who joins the team later.) But mostly this film serves to make me appreciate the vim and vigor of that Harry Potter freshman class even more.

Young brown sidekick awestruck at the kingly courage of unremarkable white protagonist.

Pit these bargain-basement British Goonies against the wicked witch Morgana, an impressively frightening fire-breathing chimera who seems to represent both the Spirit of Brexit and adolescent fears of sex (or something), and cast Rebecca Ferguson in a role, and you stand a chance of spicing things up. It's not a bad bit of casting, and points to the costume designers and concept artists for making Morgana sufficiently creepy. (Her fondness for wearing long curtains of root-vegetables reminds me a bit of some monsters in my own fantasy novels.) But the film gives Ferguson nothing particularly interesting to say, in those moments when we see an actress instead of a CGI monster, except for generic threats and rants from the Box of Standard Fantasy Villain Dialogue.

That she leads an army of video-game skeleton zombies on skeleton horseback — minions that have far less personality than, well... Minions — just amplifies an ongoing sense of missed opportunities.

[Insert uninspired threats from droning minions here.]
Take my complaints with a heavy dose of salt: As I glance back through opening-weekend reviews, I'm surprised to find myself so out of step with other critics. The Playlist's Kevin Jagernauth thinks all of this is "terrifically sharp and entertaining." And Leigh Monson (Birth Movies Death) hails it as "a loving testament to the power of legends to build a better future, with a surprisingly mature understanding of how that message has a place now more than ever." Heck, one of my closest friends has been recommending it to me for months: "If there is any film that kids should be watching today, it's this one. If there is any film that storytellers for young people should be studying, it's this one."

I wish I could have what they're having. I'm sure my response will provoke some laments about how I've lost my ability to "be a kid" again (but I would point to my enthusiasm for excellence in entertainment for children in answer). But I'm hearing what The AV Club's Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who says:

Authentic Arthur legend is awesomely weird and loopy, idealized and mystical. But The Kid Who Would Be King mostly goes through the motions of a one-size-fits-all quest....

...Cornish, for better and worse, is trying to have it both ways, offering both a sanitized fantasy about a boy whisked into a world of knights and magic, and a commentary on the same.

Okay — I do agree with the critical consensus who have hailed young Angus Imrie, playing Young Merlin, as the film's MVP. While the film positions him as the next Patrick Stewart, he strikes me as much more likely to be the next Hugh Laurie, Stephen Merchant, or even Richard E. Grant. With a bit of Davie Bowie Other-ness (and limbs so elongated that he'd be the taffy-stretch ideal for the role of Plastic-Man), Imrie effortlessly steals every moment he's in — from his bare-assed entrance as a kinder, gentler Terminator to the percussive spell-casting in which his arms become a circus sideshow. Without Imrie, this film would, unlike its zombie minions, stay stuck in the muck of the... peat?

The highlight of the movie, Angus Imrie is stretched and arm-strong.

Anyway, I'm running out of the will to say more, partly because I''m burned out on franchises and franchise-wannabes that just pour money into a Wal-mart Cake Mold hoping to become the Next Big Thing. (There's a massive loose end at the conclusion here, a character they keep promising us who never appears, and who you can half-expect to appear as an end-credits stinger saying, "I'm ready for Episode Two.") I expected better from Joe Cornish, whose Attack the Block remains a recklessly vivid reminder of how a great cast, a script full of firecrackers, and a judicious use of special effects can be worth more than a dozen blockbusters. I'm so grateful for that film, which showed us how good young John Boyega could be (before Star Wars showed us how easily such talent can be squandered).

Yep, that's Patrick Stewart cleaning house in a Led Zeppelin t-shirt. I didn't say the movie was without memorable moments.

But so many friends of mine seemed really excited about this that I'm wondering what I missed. Okay — so it has some admirable cast diversity and some lines about hope in an age that lacks any meaningful leadership. It's good to here a voice of common sense from England, feeble as it may be. But if you're going to hold up what the film itself calls "the LEGO mini-figure boy" minus any of the LEGO-movie personality and try to convince me that this is the next King Arthur, I'm sorry, but I'm getting plenty of that from the current stream of dispiriting Democratic campaign ads. It's a bad look to organize a Round Table of quirky cultural diversity around just another Bland White Hero and call it "a King Arthur for a Better World." Instead of inspiring hope, it bumps it further out of reach.

All this Arthurian cleverness, all these pop culture references, and yet not a single Monty Python joke?

To the cast: Sorry, kids, if I'm sounding cranky and mean. It's not really your fault. Maybe you just needed a better script so I could've appreciated your potential as Knights of the Drop-Leaf Table.


Gold thieves, an artist, two cops, and a storm of bullets

In a case of spectacular style over brain-splatter substance, Let the Corpses Tan delivers so many surprises so fast that I found myself wondering, only five minutes in, if directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani could sustain that level of ingenuity through the whole film.

Much to my amazement, they do. If you're a student of film editing or screenwriting, you're going to have fun studying this mash-up of spaghetti Westerns, grindhouse flicks, and Italian giallos...

... that is, if you can stomach the violence.

I couldn't.

After hearing some enthusiasm from reliable critics in 2018, I finally sat down to watch Let the Corpses Tan this weekend when I stumbled onto a DVD at the local public library. I hadn't planned on making time for a movie, but my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to take a look at the first five minutes. Ninety-two minutes later, I was watching the end credits roll, trying to make sense of all I'd just seen.

The story... yeah, okay: As best as I can understand it, this is a movie about half-mad painter named Luce who lives in the ruins of a Catholic church — or, perhaps, a convent — on a sun-baked Italian island, where she splatters her canvases with violent expressions, incorporating, for example, bullet holes. She surrounds herself with glowering thugs — for inspiration, I suppose — who are distracted by their plots in progress. We watch some of them rob an armored car and then, as they throw bodies in the trunk and retreat back to the commune, they end up reluctantly giving a ride to desperate strangers: two women and a child.

Once the ruins are busy with unexpected guests, it's just a countdown until the newcomers discover the foul play, or until the cops arrive to investigate the robbery and the killings. We don't have to wait long. With the first gunshot, the game begins in earnest: a complicated shootout that runs through the afternoon, evening, and night, all the way to sunrise. The action moves so frantically, often doubling and tripling back to show us the same incident from different viewpoints, it's hard to sort out each character's connection to Luce's art, her sexual exhibitionism, or her past.

And then there's the allegorical overlay: a surrealistic spiritual warfare in which a woman is painted with gold and seemingly abused for the entertainment of unidentified male onlookers. A lot of this looks like found footage from late-60s exploitation films.

The cops arrive at the ghost town. They don't know what they're up against.

But I shouldn't invest too much time in a synopsis. Dizzying in its creativity, Let the Corpses Tan is too formally inventive to be suspenseful. Its characters barely register as anyone more complicated than the role-playing descriptions for a Clue game. It's a genre exercise par excellence, with Cattet and Forzani shifting pieces around a game board, and then finding the most invigorating shots, edits, and transitions to document their moves.

Good luck tracking all of the relationships, loyalty shifts, betrayals, and charades. It's as deliriously fast-paced as a Guy Ritchie film, but where Ritchie busies things with slow motion and digital effects, Cattet and Forzani prefer to make low-fi magic the old-fashioned way; their style is raw, rough-edged, and, in these hot climes, radiant with oversaturated colors. And, unlike Ritchie's films, which serve up plenty of gunplay but irresponsibly minimize carnage for the sake of crowdpleasing, this is irresponsible in its over-indulgence — it's unflinchingly bloody, insisting on extreme close-ups of guns shoved into open mouths and fired, recalling Nicolas Windig Refn's most graphic gore-gies. If we know what a movie loves by what it pays attention to, this movie love the destruction of human bodies. As with Tarantino's latest, I'm thrilled by the execution, but repulsed by the, um... executions.

An Eastwood-esque stare from Luce (Elina Löwensohn) — just one of many nods to Sergio Leone in this heated showdown.

Still, I gasped when I recognized Elina Löwensohn as Luce. I haven't seen her in many years. Her distinctive beauty charmed me in Nadja way back in 1994, and her face in close-up is still one of the most exquisitely interesting subjects in cinema.

And  I cannot deny the genius of the architecture and editing. This is extraordinary, playful, relentlessly surprising cinema; it's easy to admire it, even if it troubles me as much as it dazzles me. Let me know when Cattet or Forzani come up with something new. I'll want to do my research, so I know whether to be there for opening day... or dive for cover.


El Sur: a father–daughter dance for the ages

If I were studying psychology, I'd want to do a deep dive into this question: How is a person's belief about the existence and nature of God shaped by the presence and character of their father and mother?

I'm re-reading Chaim Potok's novel My Name is Asher Lev, and I'm particularly intrigued by the influence of young Asher's authoritative, judgmental, and yet often affectionate father Aryeh. A devout Hasidic Jew, Aryeh expresses furious disappointment in, frustration with, and condemnation of his son over his compulsion to grow as an artist. This stirs up a storm of emotions in Asher: fear, shame, self-hatred, and longing. And it greatly complicates his relationship with religious faith and his capacity to believe in a just and loving God.

This rings true. I have grown up with loving, faithful parents, and I often wonder if this has anything to do with why I have never suffered what is commonly called "a crisis of faith." I've had seasons in which I become impatient and frustrated with God's silence, but I have never experienced (that I can recall) a lapse of belief that God exists or deep doubts that God's name is anything but synonymous with love.

Along the same lines, I have watched so many friends suffer crises of faith, and in so many of those troubles it seems that those same individuals are grappling with fractures in their relationships with their parents. Quite specifically, friends whose fathers abandoned or were unfaithful to their mothers have seemed to struggle with the idea that God could be either loving, faithful, or just.

I thought about this a lot watching El Sur, director Victor Erice's intimate and visually enthralling drama about a girl growing up in northern Spain in the shadow of a loving but secretive father (Omero Antonutti).

The first half of the film focuses on Estrella when she is very young (played by Sonsoles Aranguren), fascinated with her father Agustín's isolated work in the upstairs of the family home: "experiments," her mother Julia says. But Estrella's enchantment is shaken when she discovers evidence that her father might have secrets, secrets tied to the south of Spain, secrets that would expose dishonesty... or worse. Then the film shifts to Estrella the teenager (played by Icíar Bollaín), who is skeptical of her father and intent on learning the whole story behind his disappearances. Clues that lead her to a movie theater in town, and the plot thickens.

There are just enough religious references — particularly the centrality of Estrella's First Communion — to start me thinking about theological implications of Estrella's relationship with her father. But the film's spirituality resides more in its subtle attention to visual beauty and a sense of mystery conveyed through composition. El Sur has some of the haunting qualities of a Terence Davies film, with a powerful motif of figures emerging from and disappearing into shadow. And there are meditative close-ups of both young actresses as Estrella that I suspect may have influenced Krzysztof Kieślowski's work with Irene Jacob in The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colors: Red.

This film also feels, strangely, like a prologue — an origin story for a woman who will embark on a quest full of discovery. Maybe I've seen too many series lately, but I was disappointed as I felt the conclusion of this 95-minute film approaching. I wanted to stay with Estrella and follow her as she set out to solve her father's mysteries beyond the familiar territory of her childhood.

That disappointment deepened when, after watching this film for the first time on Criterion's gorgeous blu-ray edition, I read about El Sur's history. What a bittersweet education! I was right to think that Erice's movie feels like a prologue: As you might know, but I've only just discovered, the movie was meant to be twice as long. The producer Elías Querejeta shut the project down at the 95-minute mark thinking that the film seemed complete, even though Erice had his heart set on filming the full (and apparently extraordinary) screenplay. I think a lot of artists have probably had nightmares as I have about just this kind of crisis — fears of passion projects being shut down halfway through. My heart goes out to Erice.

If I must treat El Sur as a complete work, then I must confess that I find it unjust to Estrella's mother Julia (Lola Cardona). She is so wronged by her husband Augustin, but her sufferings are treated as almost shrug-worthy here, while Augustin's suffering is given great attention, as are his charisma and gravitas.

Having said that, Augustin and Estrella become a father–daughter pairing for the ages. As Augustin, Omero Antonutti is quietly enigmatic. And, collaborating to play Estrella at two different ages, Sonsoles Aranguren and Icíar Bollaín give convincingly cohesive performances — the transition is as seamless as can be. They make me believe enough to ache for Estrella's feelings of betrayal and her desire to gain a mature understanding of her family's secret history.

I might imagine a second half in which we see whether she holds on to any of her family's cultural Catholicism after the painful turns in her view of her father's character. That first hour's emphasis on First Communion suggests that it would be right to revisit whether she carries any inklings of faith along with her into adulthood. Having lost faith in her father, is she still capable of turning to God for consolation and guidance? Or have the sins of the father wrought their ruinous consequences in the heart of his child? El Sur, this incomplete masterpiece, doesn't have room for any suggestion one way or the other.


Strange Negotiations (2019)

In the opening scene of filmmaker Brandon Vedder's documentary Strange Negotiations, as the buzzing bass of David Bazan's song "Impermanent Record" pulses with grim resilience, we find ourselves seeing through a drone's camera eye high in the air above a stretch of I-5, the freeway vertically bisecting the screen and vanishing at the top into a fog bank.

Those cars and trucks descending on the right, ascending on the left, might be angels on a rungless Jacob's Ladder, silent as souls. Or they might be images of Protestant proposals about heaven and hell. But does this path lead to someplace heavenly? Those clouds are less than bright; they look more like a frontier of uncertainty, a place people go to get lost.

It's an effective stage-setting for the drama that's about to unfold. Strange Negotiations is about an artist we cannot discuss without bringing up the toxins that have poisoned evangelical Christianity in America. And before long, Vedder will slant those lines, giving us a sense of how this poet's understanding of faith has tilted off of its axis.

If, during the last 25 years, you've lived in the world of rock, or, if you've lived in the world of Christian pop culture, you will already know the outline of this story: David Bazan became a rising rock star when he fronted Seattle's beloved band Pedro the Lion in late '90s and early 2000s, singing about Christian ideals, religious hypocrisy, and a yearning for an authentic faith. Then, he disbanded Pedro in 2006 and made a startling departure from the stage that this distinctive band had built, declaring that he didn't believe in Christianity anymore. His belief, it seemed, had been broken by the relentless contradictions between what Christians profess and what they actually do. The Scriptural mantra "You will know them by their fruits" had led him, as it has led so many recent generations of young Americans, to the conclusion that the fruit of Christianity, at least in America, is rotten.

Since then, Bazan's spent 15 years zigzagging around the country on solo tours, releasing solo records, and starting up collaborative side projects like Headphones and Lo Tom. Every step of the way he has borne the burden of those betrayals by people who had taught him that they believed in love. And ever since he left the name Pedro the Lion behind, the names on the covers of his albums and concert posters have seemed almost inconsequential. What has kept listeners — believers, agnostics, and atheists alike — coming back has been the ongoing saga of Bazan's wrestling match with the angel of American evangelicalism, as well as his raw and rigorous self-examinations in verse. These conflicts are boldly and bravely expressed in his beleaguered baritone, one of the few voices that has ever raised the words Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and sounded worthy of the task. The main attraction has become more about a struggle than a sound, more about a man haunted by the Jesus he left behind than about hits or show business.

In this intimate portrait, Vedder puts us in the passenger seat of Bazan's car on "the 137th day on the road in 2015," as he drives around America performing shows in fans’ living rooms and engaging in emotional Q&A sessions about his beliefs, his family, and his "breakup with God." His face is a compelling subject for the camera: a canvas fraught with anger, grief, regret, and longing. His rugged forehead is furrowed with world-weariness, his expression wounded and yet resilient, his eyes vigilant tot he road as if determined to find some exit toward relief.

As the scenery rolls past, he describes how the demands of this career have separated him from his family, his journey becoming a manifestation of that famous U2 refrain "I can't live / with or without you." "I'm on the road all of the time," he says, his composure almost crumbling. "I recently realized I was gone two years and nine months of my son's first five years on earth. Over half."

Even more prominently, he gives voice to the challenges of navigating a darkening world after having thrown the imperfect compass of his Christianity out the window. "I want Christianity to get better," he tells a crowded living room. "I want it to quit shittin’ the bed." These monologues in the car and the exchanges with his fans are occasionally sewn together with montages of radio news and NPR stories about Bazan himself. Inevitably, he ends up berating the abominable marriage of evangelical leaders and Antichrist con man Donald Trump.

"Until the [2016] election," Bazan eventually laments, "I was under the impression that the white American church was not a lost cause. I thought I saw it maturing and evolving.... But the fruit that showed up on the tree was, for me, very much the 'cut the damn thing down and throw it in the fire' kind of fruit. For everything Christians claim to believe, the election, I think, laid bare what they actually believe. They reliably work against the best virtues of their tradition. The people who taught me how to be a decent person are losing their minds."

The prodigal troubadour also describes how his traveling road show became a journey of self-discovery and re-invention, his intimate performances for fans revealing that "vulnerability was the antidote for all of this anxiety and self-loathing."

That vulnerability is what makes the film so fascinating. I was particularly delighted to see excerpts of Bazan's onstage conversation with my friend David Dark, one of the most provocative conversationists I've ever met, and then doing an interview with another Christian author and musician whose insights I appreciate: Justin McRoberts. Bazan's willingness to engage and embrace those who still believe and those who don't in the very same living rooms is a model of behavior that few Christians I know could carry off so effortlessly.

I doubt that Strange Negotiations will unpack many surprises for Bazan's fans, Christians or otherwise. He's worn his broken heart on his lyric sheets so brazenly that his frankness has become his most familiar feature. I may have hoped for more historical background, more specifics on the influences that inspired Bazan's doubts. I may have hoped for a greater focus on musicianship and performances of full songs. But the movie might lead his Christian fans and friends to reflect on how the power of love — or what I would call, more specifically, the True Holy Spirit — often speaks most powerfully through the music of those who have enough distance from the church that they can see it clearly and proclaim uncomfortable truths.

And lest I paint too grim a picture of this testimony of torment, let me assure you that you'll find glimmers of hope breaking through those relentless Pacific Northwest rainclouds.

Watching the film a second time, I could not help but think about the disheartened men who away from the sight of Jesus's death hanging their heads, despairing, believing that their Messiah has failed and that the bad guys have won. But when these men, their faith in shambles, nevertheless invite a stranger to dine with them, they realize suddenly that it is Jesus in their midst. They are blessed by his breaking of the bread, and the sequence is significant: He blesses their goodness and turns their simple meal into sacraments without requiring any apology or formal recommitment first. I feel that flash of recognition and restored hope when Bazan, at the end of the film, reaches for new terms to express his sense of a Grand Design: "What if the divine is just balance and harmony itself? In harmony... that’s where you experience transcendence." It's as if he is tasting salvation in a new vocabulary, having too much trauma associated with his first language.

Bazan finds the vocabulary of America's churches too toxic to accept — that much is clear as he drives headlong into the fog of his uncertainties. (And, in view of how many professing Christians now openly endorse practices of cruelty, racism, misogyny, and child abuse, who can blame him?) But in his honesty and sacrifice, he reveals what a life touched by a true Gospel might look like. His open arms are a picture of Jesus's own teachings, one more visceral and inspiring than many — if not most — celebritiy "testimonies." I continue to admire him, and I am grateful for this intimate filmic portrait, which is as honest, as earnest, and as soul-searching as David Bazan himself.

[Full disclosure: While I wouldn’t call Bazan a “close friend,” it’s true that he lives a few minutes from me and we’ve had quite a few conversations in local coffeehouses. I'd been a fan of Pedro the Lion for years before that first encounter in a local cafe, where I had trouble containing my enthusiasm. (That beautiful Zu Cafe in Edmonds, Washington, has been closed for quite a while now.)  We would have several conversations in years to come in that space of gourmet espresso drinks and exquisite French pastries. The day he greeted me with an enormous grin and announced No Country for Old Men to be his new favorite film is an occasion I’ll never forget.]


Knife in the Water (1962)

This is only my second attempt at this 500-words-or-less film-review format. What can I accomplish within stricter constraints? This will be give me practice in saying more with less — good exercise for any writer.


A few thoughts on
Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water

[Watched on Criterion's Essential Arthouse DVD edition.]

My recent preoccupation with Rian Johnson's Knives Out has me thinking about movies that cultivate suspense and then consistently deliver solid surprises. And — speaking of knives being out — I've just caught up with Roman Polanski's legendary 1962 breakout thriller Knife in the Water, which does exactly that.

I've seen other thrillers set on small boats at sea. 1989's Dead Calm comes to mind as a memorably jarring jaunt, even though I haven't seen it in more than 25 years. But Knife in the Water has got to be the gold standard: A drifter thumbs a ride from a couple on their way out for a day of leisurely sailing in their swimsuits, and eventually — in perhaps the film's most implausible turn — he gets himself invited aboard.

I'm not usually interested in watching two men try to out-man each other to impress a pretty girl, but this gets much more complicated than that. Every single scene ratchets up the suspense for... what? Will the stranger kill the man? Will he seduce the woman? We expect the hitcher's knife to end up in somebody's throat. We expect a hostage situation. But what we get unfolds slowly in a dance of brash boasts, subtle insults, and uncomfortable silences.

Striking visual composition, like this over-the-shoulder shot, amplifies claustrophobia and tension in Polanski's groundbreaking thriller.

Testing our patience as Andrzej, the overbearingly arrogant alpha, Leon Niemczyk's huge face and fearsome teeth are asking to be punched. As the twitchy, wounded wanderer, Zygmunt Malanowicz gives a sensually unsettling performance; it's a role a young Ewan McGregor would have rocked in a remake. Jolanta Umecka makes the alluring Krystyna quietly fascinating — she seems at first to be a blank-headed passenger, a willing audience for Andrzej's abrasive vanity; but as the film progresses, we wonder if she's trapped and eager for an escape. Whatever the case, the stranger seems like he might just seduce them both.

I won't give away the film's sudden turns, but by the end I'm uncomfortable with Krystyna's character. She seems a little too content to play a trophy, a little too willing to endure abuse as men compete for her attention. Checking Rotten Tomatoes, I'm disappointed that all of the linked reviews are by men; I'd like a woman's perspective on this one.

Still, it's a thrilling brain teaser, boldly crafted. Jerzy Lipman's cinematography is full of surprises, sometimes as detail-oriented as a primer on how to manage a sailboat, sometimes startlingly artful. (Watch for the God's-eye shot that turns the stranger into a religious icon.) Editor Halina Prugar's juxtapositions are brilliantly subversive, calibrated to make us brace frequently for shocks, shocks that rarely arrive. It's easy, with all of the visual cleverness, to overlook the subtly affecting sound design. Shifts in weather and waves amplify the characters' isolation and vulnerability. Then, at the peak of tension, well... sometimes, the soft rustle of wind in a sail is the only musical score you need.


A Hidden Life (2019)

In A Hidden Life, the masterful, influential, and divisive director Terrence Malick brings his visually sumptuous and poetically complicated cinematic vocabulary to an epic poem in honor of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, a man who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II. A poem? Perhaps it's better to call it a symphony — it's almost impossible to resist musical terminology when describing Malick's style. Or maybe an allusion to the Sistine Chapel would be more appropriate. The effect of watching this film in a theatre — I hate to say it, but that's really the only way to experience what Malick has to offer here — is that the details we see "on the ground" are always drawing our eyes skyward to remind us of the scale of the cosmos and the ever-presence of beauty and mystery.

Whatever  metaphor we reach for, we cannot deny that this is whole-hearted celebration of moral courage; a lament over the sufferings endured by those who embrace the call of Christ; an indictment of those align themselves with an Antichrist (especially those who betray the name of Jesus in doing so); and, ultimately, a weary but hopeful suggestion that God sees, God knows, and that God is drawing everyone — even those complicit in atrocities — back into his arms.

That may sounds like more than a movie can hold. But the fact is that A Hidden Life is more accessible, more linear in its storytelling, more focused in its themes and aspirations than anything Malick has made since Days of Heaven in 1978.

The outline of this simple narrative has inspired some to call A Hidden Life more conventional. Some — like David Ehrlich at Indiewire — declared that "Terrence Malick is back," and complained about his last few films: "Malick has always been the cinema’s most devout searcher, his faith and uncertainty going hand-in-hand. But the work he’s made over the last few years hasn’t been searching so much as lost."

Personally, I think it's ridiculous to write off Malick's last several films as some kind of misguided tangent, something to be dismissed. Yes, by nature of its simple narrative about one man's difficult decision and the dominoes that fall from it, bringing heavy consequences upon himself and his family, A Hidden Life isn't nearly as complicated as To the Wonder (2013), Knight of Cups (2015), or Song to Song (2017). Those films asked more of their audience, required more interpretation; they were storms of soul-searching among larger casts of characters in the midst of messy contemporary contexts. They were a more demanding form of poetry.

But in other ways, A Hidden Life is a continuation of what Malick's been doing all along. If there's one issue at the heart of all of Malick's work, it's the risk and responsibility that comes with pledging allegiance — to another human being, to a cultural tradition, to a national ideology, to God... or only to oneself. It's as if his whole filmmaking career has been a response to Bob Dylan's song "You Gotta Serve Somebody." Over the last decade, characters played by Sean Penn, Ben Affleck, Christian Bale, Rooney Mara, and Ryan Gosling have suffered through all kinds of relationship troubles because of their fickle hearts, all of them as tangled up in blue in their searches for God as they are in their searches for a meaningful marriage. A Hidden Life's images and dialogue circle similar questions about priorities: To whom should one be faithful? And what allegiances should have highest priority? What does it mean to be faithful to one's marriage and to God? To be faithful to one's country and to God? And how much should a person be willing to sacrifice for any of these commitments?

And what if fidelity to God requires us to put not only our own lives but others' lives on the altar? After all, this is also the story of Franz Jägerstätter's wife Franziska (Fani), their children, her sister, and his mother. Franz's decision threatens to take him away from their quiet, hard-working routines on the farm. It risks a future in which they must keep the farm going on their own, labor in prayer for his safe return, and suffer the persecution of their disgruntled neighbors.

Come to think of it, these are dilemmas that have driven some of the most talked-about films of recent years — at least in communities of moviegoers concerned with questions of faith. Compare and contrast Marc Rothemund's Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men, Anne Fontaine's The Innocents, Martin Scorsese's Silence, Paul Shrader's First Reformed, or — Scorsese again — The Irishman. What a challenging film festival we could organize, watching some of these in dialogue with A Hidden Life.

Just as I was moved watching all of those films I just mentioned, I was powerfully moved and challenged by A Hidden Life in a crowded theater.

Of course I was. Stories of those who, in the name of love, find their heads on the chopping block, face fundamentalist firing squads, or stand up against big-business distortions of the Church, are perhaps the most powerful, inspiring, world-shaping narratives known to humankind. They run against our basic animal tendencies to save ourselves. They suggest that there are more important things to consider than self-preservation. And they whisper to us that perhaps our idea of self-preservation is, in fact, self-destructive, and that the surrender of self for a higher cause might be the way toward the very peace our hearts desire.

But that's not the only reason I was moved. To watch A Hidden Life in a theater is to see Malick's work at the scale he intended. Nobody takes advantage of the big screen like Malick. He knows, perhaps more than any filmmaker alive, the power of nature's beauty as a language that transcends the limitations of our spoken and written texts. Mountains loom over the audience. The not-so-subtle fish-eye-lens effect that alters much of the imagery creates an immersive you-are-there effect when seen at this scale. (I suspect it may be distracting and even aggravating on smaller screens; it tested my patience even on this grand canvas.) It's also affecting to experience this with a large audience, as you can feel tensions rise, hearts break , and, perhaps, even a raising of silent prayers.

The more time I spend with Malick's films, the more I sense that he is not manipulating images to insist upon some predetermined meaning, but that he is seeking what the cosmos themselves might mean. As C.S. Lewis said of all true artists, we do not create — we re-arrange aspects that God has "provided." "And that is surely why our works never mean to others quite what we intended," Lewis writes, "because we are recombining elements made by Him and already containing His meanings. Because of those divine meanings in our materials it is impossible that we should ever know the whole meaning of our works and the meaning we never intended may be the best and truest one.”

I think Malick would be delighted and surprised by the revelations his more attentive viewers experience while watching his work. By following his intuitions as a "reader" of life, teasing out the implications that emerge as he looks from human behavior to nature and back again, he is leading us into contemplation that cannot be easily paraphrased. A Hidden Life is poetry in pictures, and thus endlessly suggestive and mysterious. When he cuts from an image of a woman in prayer to a magnificent tree bending in the wind, and then to a long and lyrical shot of a river winding around all obstructions in answer to the sea's gravitational call, he will leave some viewers thinking "Those are pretty pictures." But those "with eyes to see and ears to hear" will understand that these images give us a way to think about the Soul, the direction of its yearning, its source and its destination.

And there is yet another reason that I was moved. Recalling the message of that terrifying angel in David Lynch's Twin Peaks, the giant who appears in a spotlight to tell the detective that "It's happening again," this movie burns with prophetic urgency.

It speaks to me directly in the audience, saying, "Pay attention. The forces of evil that tested the faith of Franz and Fani Jägerstätter have risen again. They're here now, all around you — in your own country, your own city, your own community. Even this movie theater, there are those who are afraid of immigrants, afraid of skin unlike their own, afraid of anyone who seems different or speaks an unfamiliar language. There are those who are drawn to figures of coercive and violent power because they think that these tyrants can give them safety or advance the cause of Christ. Be vigilant. The Antichrist is a spirit that rises again and again, saying 'Be afraid of your strange new neighbors. Fight to recreate the more comfortable and familiar world you once new.' Do you really believe in love? Are you ready to take up your cross and fulfill the greatest pledge of allegiance?"

Perhaps your experience will be different. Perhaps it will say something new to you.

And perhaps my feeling of inspiration, that surge of admiration for Franz's courage and zeal to stand up for Truth, comes too easily. Perhaps it's a confidence that would crumble under the first wave of a direct challenge. I don't know. I think the movie wants me to ask this.

At this particular point in the history — the tearing down of American democracy by an uprising of white supremacists, nationalists, and religious extremists; England's self-interested and narrow-minded departure from a community of nations collaborating on a better future — it's hard not to feel those surges of enthusiasm at the sight of a conscientious objector staying true to the ideals of the Gospel.


And yet....

This is the point where I must acknowledge that, while many of my friends and colleagues are hailing A Hidden Life as not only Malick's greatest masterpiece but also one of the greatest films ever made, I also feel some frustrations with this film.

For all of the film's swells of aesthetic and musical beauty, its constant enthusiasm for timely rays of light, for panoramic views of natural beauty, and for symphonic crescendos of familiar classical compositions (Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa gets particular attention here), A Hidden Life does not captivate and enthrall me as earlier Malick films have.

My frustrations may well be due to the fact that I've seen all of his films several times, and I am so familiar with his style that I can walk through my day imagining with some confidence just how he would film particular spaces and how he would coach his actors to engage those environments. This film gives me the impression that Malick is just too eager this time to achieve a familiar transcendence, and not willing enough to live with these characters in substantial scenes, observing the distinctive details of their days and their difficulties.

From his debut Badlands in 1973 to what I would argue to be his greatest masterpieces — The New World (2006) and The Tree of Life (2011)Malick has made a few of my favorite films. But even in The Tree of Life, as I made clear in my early reflections on the film (including two-part review of first impressions at Image), I was beginning to feel a repetitiveness in his images that, for a while, seemed like a deliberate endeavor to place the films in dialogue with one another. It's the visual equivalent of what it would be like if he began weaving five or six pieces of music in and out of all of his movies — it would be distracting to those who notice.

In addition to the over-familiarity of certain images, there is the increasing familiarity of how his characters speak and move through space. The more he wrestles his philosophically and theologically complex questions, the more the voices of his characters — and their body language as well — all blur into a disappointing 'sameness.' That may be a statement about brotherhood, but it makes words and the voices that raise them less interesting. It's increasingly obvious that his actors wander around being coached by offscreen voices that might be saying "Look like you're suffering a memory of grief. Now raise your eyes to heaven. Now... you're playing! You and your family are playing! Chase each other and laugh!"

Even more disappointingly, Malick's visual poetry, which has worked in such distinctive, complex, and surprising ways in the past, is becoming increasingly predictable. It's also becoming simpler, as if he's been listening to those impatient critics who, like literature students who want to "solve" a poem upon first reading, punished The Tree of Life for being confoundingly inscrutable. (I recently co-hosted a community conversation following a screening of The Tree of Life, and we were able to find exciting ways to read just about every scene in the film, finding coherence, integrity, and glory in its architecture. It felt like an in-depth study of Eliot's "The Four Quartets.")

I suppose I could look on one of the film's bright sides: Maybe A Hidden Life is the best film for introducing people to Malick's work. It's easy to care about these characters and their dilemma, and the suspense of it carries us easily through the more abstract flourishes. If someone likes this one, maybe they're ready for Days of Heaven or The New World — and maybe someday they'll be up for the surrealistic struggle of Knight of Cups or the monumental task of climbing The Tree of Life.

So, yes, I have come to praise Malick — I admire this film. Any I'm glad it exists. B-grade Malick is, in my book, still more meaningful and magnificent than most filmmakers' A-grade work. Any movie that inspires a response as unforgettable as this testimony I stumbled across on Letterboxd is a treasure worth celebrating.

But I come also to justify my lack of enthusiasm about this film — specifically, for friends and colleagues who have called it the crowning achievement of a magnificent career. I've held back for more than a month since the advance screening in Seattle that Image hosted; I've been reluctant to voice some disappointment with any cinematic appeal to the conscience, any movie that asks us to remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, any art that urges us to reject contracts with an Antichrist. In the light of this film, it is easy to see how that too many in America's evangelical Christian culture prefer to do deals with the Devil than to walk the hard and sacrificial road of true Christianity.

But I miss the days when Malick movies surprised me and gave me that sense of revelation, that I was experiencing a kind of cinema I'd never experienced before. I suppose it's unfair of me to make an issue of this, since artists who can break through to such new visions come along once or twice in a generation, and even rarer are those who sustain a drive for innovation and discovery to the end of their careers.

More importantly, though, I miss characters who captivated me and discomforted me with a familiar human complexity. I still hope for a recovery of distinctive characters and voices like those that inhabited The New World and the best stretches of The Tree of Life. I miss the man who gave us the idiosyncrasy and grit of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands — they sounded like real people. Franz is inspiring, but he would have been more inspiring if he had seemed more particular, less of a stained-glass-window sort of saint; his words are rarely more complex than "What do we do if our leaders are bad?"

In that sense, A Hidden Life has exactly one scene that sticks with me, only one that feels particularly thought-provoking. We're introduced to a painter, played by Johan Leysen, who is illuminating the walls and ceilings of a church with depictions of saints. As he does, he laments — like the self-doubting artist of Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev — the insufficiency of his artistic endeavors: "I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. Someday, I’ll paint the true Christ.” (In this moment, we may be hearing the filmmaker himself; Malick's next movie, after all, will be the first he has made about Jesus, the Apostle Peter, and the Devil.)

Here, I see a glimmer of what could have been a far more interesting and compelling film. As stories of Christian martyrs go, A Hidden Life doesn't strike me as being nearly as curious about, or as attentive to, its characters as Of Gods and Men or Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.

In his poetic masterpiece Wings of Desire, director Wim Wenders immersed audiences in a symphony of interior voices, the thoughts and prayers of the people of Berlin. But he didn't stop there: He also animated angels that drifted through the city, listening in on human hearts and then comparing notes with one another about the trouble and the glory they found there. That screenplay was penned by a poet — Peter Handke — and it's easy to imagine how the film could have seemed pretentious, pious, overly literary, and detached from the grit of human experience. But it wasn't. Those voices were textured and detailed, so that I count some of the exchanges between Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Peter Falk, and Solveig Dommartin among my favorite conversations in cinema. A movie can be both elevated and grounded, cerebral and salty, contemplative and complicated.

Here's hoping that Malick will, in his upcoming film about Christ, Peter, and Satan, bless them with human voices as distinct as those that Wenders gave humans and angels. With closer attention to his characters' complexity, he may yet provide the cinema with something it's been missing: a powerfully and redemptively discomforting Christ.


"Hymn for the 81%" — a new anthem addressed to the American church

I'm grateful for this new hymn which was shared with me on Facebook.

It sums up much of what I'm feeling as I welcome students into my classrooms, so many of whom are eager to declare that they want nothing to do with the Christianity of their families, the churches in which they grew up, because of how evangelicals are supporting and endorsing a leader who persecutes the poor, scorns the immigrant, and throws fuel on the flames of racism and hatred.

It's by Daniel Deitrich. You can look him up at Danieldeitrich.com.

https://youtu.be/3GT-LfLpzzo


1917: a forgettable war story cleverly staged

It's a rare thing that I am deeply moved by a war movie — especially one that is daringly unconventional in its architecture, its storytelling, and its visual innovations. But here we are: 2019 has given me one of those rare and unforgettable experiences — a mesmerizing and harrowing journey through the trenches of World War One. I am very grateful for it.

Ah, but I've already written about They Shall Not Grow Old, haven't I?

Yes, Peter Jackson's 2019 documentary about the ordeals of World War War One soldiers stands as one of my favorite films of the last year. I was shaken by the experience of that tapestry of testimonies, amazed by the battlefield footage that Jackson's technicians restored and enhanced, and, above all, moved the voices of the soldiers telling their own stories about horrors and nightmares — worst of all, the Battle of the Somme.

So I was reluctant to revisit World War One on the big screen again so soon. And when I saw the trailer for Sam Mendes's 1917, I was skeptical. Then I began reading about the Big Idea that would set this war movie apart from others — the idea of a film designed to carry us from the trenches of British forces up and over the front lines into German territory and all the way to the end of an impossible mission... in one continuous shot.

One continuous shot!

"I'll go wherever you go, Mr. Frodo."

What a thrill, I thought — to be taken through such a spellbindingly realistic hellscape, one of the ugliest and deadliest wars ever fought, in a way that will have us all gasping and applauding at the daring of the filmmakers, not the sacrifices of soldiers! After all, what good is it to fight a war, sending countless human beings to their deaths, if you're not going to give filmmakers material for an endless game of big-screen one-upsmanship? I can hear Maximus's challenge to the audience at the Colloseum echoing in eternity: Are you not entertained?! 

Okay, I admit it. I was not only skeptical — I was cynical, too.

After seeing the trailer, reading an article about how the film was made, and seeing some behind-the-scenes footage, I posted my concerns over at Letterboxd, where I regularly share my off-the-cuff, unedited, hasty first impressions. In short, I wanted to make clear that I was keeping an open mind, but that experience has already taught me that too many war movies lead to conversations about How They Did That instead of Why This Happened and How We Can Prevent It From Happening Again.

"Hello. I'm Colin Firth. I suited up for just one minute of screen time, so listen closely, boys."

Then, 1917 began winning awards, gaining some of the highest honors of a year full of outstanding, meaningful cinema. I began to hope again that maybe this would be an exception. After all, I've seen director Sam Mendes make memorable movies before. While I've written far too often about how unfairly American Beauty plays with its audience, I remain an admirer of Road to Perdition and Skyfall, and I found much to admire in both Away We Go and Revolutionary Road. Maybe the movie would end up being more than just a stunt of technical showmanship.

It's difficult to tell from a plot synopsis whether this movie will give us memorable characters (it doesn't), new perspective on the historical context and causes of the war (it doesn't), or interesting new takes on traditional war-movie scenarios (there aren't any) — like the moment when "the good guys" encounter a severely injured German soldier and their ethics are put to test (and things go rather predictably).

I couldn't help but think about Frodo and Samwise of The Lord of the Rings as I watched our two anxious heroes — Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). They made me think about the World War One troubles suffered by British soldiers who turned their stories into art: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Richard Adams, in particular. It was easy for my mind to wander as these faint sketches of characters received their orders from One Famous British Actor (Colin Firth as General Erinmore) to venture into enemy territory and prevent many hundreds of other British soldiers, led by another Famous British Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel Mackenzie), from advancing into a trap.

"This barbed wire is giving me flashbacks to that awful scene in War Horse!"

Just as I did when I first watched Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant, wanted to care. I wanted to see past the distraction of the film's elaborate artifice and find myself absorbed, believing. These cameras were, after all, controlled by the legendary Roger Deakins who has created many of cinema's most unforgettable images.

But the film's insistence on simulating moment-to-moment you-are-there experience kept me always conscious of the effort. Nothing cast much of a spell as Schofield and Blake ventured across corpse-littered battlefields full of "Ew, gross" moments; as they encountered even more Famous British Actors (Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Richard Madden); as they dodged occasional German soldiers who jumped out to say "Boo!"; as they became what must be the thirtieth or fortieth characters I've seen run from a crashing airplane and toward the camera; as they strove to beat the clock and stop a slaughter. As Filmspotting's Josh Larsen put it (at Larsen On Film), 1917's mise-en-scène "begins to resemble that of a video game—only without the user interaction that makes games so compelling."

While I considered the art of surprising viewers who have seen too many war movies, Mendes's scheming caught me off-guard exactly once with a sudden explosion. I admired the execution of that moment so much, I heard myself say aloud, "Wow, that was cleverly done!" I immediately clapped my hand over my mouth, embarrassed, worried that I might have disrupted the suspension of someone else's disbelief. But overall, the simplistic pin-balling of our heroes from one bit of ugliness to another doesn't amount to much more than a series of How Did They Do That? spectacles.

"And now I'm having flashbacks to North by Northwest!"

It's as sure as shooting: War movies, battlefield scenes, piles of dead bodies in uniform, photographs of loved ones back home— these things will move an audience as definitely as if "Amazing Grace" is being sung in a commercial for health insurance. Perhaps this will be some moviegoers' first war movie, and thus it will inevitably move and challenge them like nothing they've seen before. But I've seen far more war movies than any human being really should, and very few of them have amounted to more than two hours of jolts that aim to make me Feel What It's Like, and I've learned that these feelings are not the same thing as being challenged, inspired, and moved by art. So at this point in my moviegoing life, if I'm being dragged through this kind of aesthetic pummeling and come out the other side without something compelling to talk about, then I'm going to want those hours back.

I saw this movie with one of my former college professors who introduced me to so much great literature — war stories included. He counts Apocalypse Now among the most meaningful films he's ever seen, and he shares my enthusiasm for Gallipoli and my admiration for Saving Private Ryan. When the credits rolled on 1917, he looked at me, shrugged, and said, "I don't think I need to see this again. And, forgive me, but I'm not sure I can think of much to talk about."

"Did you see They Shall Not Grow Old?" I asked him. And his eyes lit up. We immediately began talking about the greatness of a movie we'd seen many months earlier.

"Hello, I'm Benedict Cumberbatch. I suited up for about one minute of screen time, so listen closely."

Anyway, Mendes's technical achievement in a genre that is sure to pack theaters will probably end up earning him the Big Heavy Shiny, just as it was designed to do. It'll be the safest, most traditional choice in a field of far greater films that ask far more of their audiences.

But alas, even if we grant 1917 the distinction of being the first war film to play from beginning to end as one unbroken scene, I think we may also conclude that it's less than the sum of... its part.