Newsic: New song from Tom Skinner, Thom Yorke, and Johnny Greenwood

The new song from The Smile — Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead with Tom Skinner of Sons of Kemet — contains some R-rated lyrics. But that's because it's sung in the voice of a character who is sick at heart over the profane crimes against humanity inflicted by a powerful but heartless human being. The phrase "bunga bunga" pops up at one point, which (I've learned from a Genius annotation) refers to "parties thrown by former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in which he and his associates were alleged to have procured women, some of them underage, to dance and have sex with powerful members of Italian society." Sound like any American congressmen or a former President who lie and lie and lie to try to distract us from their own versions of the same crime?

It's not an easy song to sing along with. It shouldn't be. But it represents a healthy conscience, a soulful lament, a rage expressed in love for those who have been wronged. It shouldn't make us comfortable. It should bring us together in an active striving to be better people, better leaders, better seekers of justice.

https://youtu.be/-EB5NhI2RQQ

 


Joel Coen's Macbeth adaptation is visually striking — but unaffecting

The Scottish play's roots run deep in the Truth. But Shakespeare was never an artist to accept the arts' most beloved maxim: "Show, don't tell." He knows how to show alright — and endorses the power of showing in Hamlet when the young dane "catches the conscience of the king." But oh, how he loves telling as well.

And Macbeth is chock-full of both showing and telling — especially in persuading us that the Scriptures are right about "the wages of sin." Namely, sin leads to dead. But first, according to Shakespeare, before the death is dealt, the sinner gets an advance payment in madness.

Denzel Washington slides easily into compromise as an older Macbeth than we're used to. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]
You probably already know that The Tragedy of Macbeth is the first Coen Brother movie, rather than a Brothers' Plural movie.

That's the most talked-about aspect of Joel Coen's much-abridged adaptation for the big screen. (See Kenneth Turan's "Joel Coen wouldn't have made 'Macbeth' with his brother Ethan. Here's why.")

And it's fact that's certainly worth talking about! The brothers have been America's most remarkable sibling team of filmmakers for decades, making distinctive dramas and comedies covering a wide range of genres. The Tragedy of Macbeth is far more solemn than any of the brothers' collaborations. It's not humorless, exactly — Shakespeare's wit remains unparalleled in Western literature — but I didn't hear any laughter in the theater as I watched this version of what is, for many, the high-school entry point to appreciating Shakespeare's work. In fact — and this is unusual in my history of loving Shakespeare — I wasn't moved much at all by this take on the material. Beyond a few gasps of admiration at the striking production design and some startling juxtapositions of images, I found myself feeling detached, as if I were browsing through a gallery of still images from a movie I haven't yet seen.

I suspect that has something to do with the abbreviation of the play. If you're familiar with Macbeth, I suspect you'll feel pages being torn out as Coen — credited with both directing and writing "for the screen" — completes the narrative in less than two hours. Perhaps we need the whole thing to become fully invested in the compelling moral and spiritual quandaries at the heart of the play.

And yet, I feel every long minute of this film. Why? Perhaps it's because it must be difficult to make so much interior monologuing visually compelling. If we're attending live theatre, we are focused on the actors and we are using our imaginations to fill in a lot of gaps. And, indeed, long stretches of this film, while impressively shot in striking and stark compositions, are focused in close-up on great actors reciting pages and pages of text. But Coen's minimalist approach becomes frustrating because it leaves the actors with little to work with beyond their lines and their costumes. And that makes for a curiously tense time at the cinemas. 

Brendan Gleeson is the doomed Duncan. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]
Denzel Washington, distinguished in his graying and gruffness, chews on his lines like a hound gnawing his favorite bone. He makes things sound surprising, subtle, and strange. But I just don't find his Macbeth convincing; the man's famous decline doesn't seem particularly nuanced or even interesting. You can feel the hours of rehearsal put into the line delivery. But in the abbreviated span of this film, we don't develop much of a sense of Macbeth's resistance to his wife's aggressive scheming, nor do we get a good sense of his vain ambitions. Like so many Coen antiheroes, he's a dupe at the beginning who is sure to make mistakes early and often until he blinks stupidly into the advancing wave of consequences. The movie's solemn tone chokes any possibility for wry humor — and it's humor that usually makes the Coen brothers' characters endearing even in their folly. Some dry humor is what I'd believed either one of the Coens could bring to Shakespeare that would make it seem fresh, new, and intriguing. (Sure, there's a predictably manic turn from one of the Coens' go-to madmen, the great Stephen Root, but his interlude is fleeting. And that scene is so separate from the rest of the goings-on that it feels like it could have been added after the rest of the shooting had wrapped.) Thus, we're left with Washington being severe and sullen and not much more. We're always aware that we're watching the Great Actor Act. 

Frances McDormand, perfectly cast and yet making no particularly memorable moves, draws from her familiar gallery of expressions. It's clear she knows this part well (and recently played it onstage). But I don't sense any convincing chemistry between her and Washington. Her performance, like several of the others, feels strangely isolated — so much so that I begin to wonder how much COVID-19 social-distancing restrictions affected this production. 

Scheming her way into madness, Lady Macbeth looks down on everyone else. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]
And then there's Kathryn Hunter, almost a lock for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, universally hailed. Well, she's very good here at being weird, doing the best Andy-Serkis-as-Gollum impression I've seen since Serkis himself, and juicing the part up with contortions of body and voice. And her line readings make clear that she's performed a lot of Shakespeare in her career.

But a great Supporting Actor is one who works well with an ensemble, not one who may well have been shot separately, acting in extremes, and then inserted periodically in moments that seem carefully calibrated to jolt the audience back to attention. She's amazing — don't get me wrong — but I think the performance is getting attention more for her onscreen weirdness and for the way she's photographed than it is for the kind of subtleties and nuances of acting that suspend my disbelief.

Three Kathryn Hunters increase your chances of Oscars. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]
I realize that there will be plenty of Shakespeare devotees whose reports on this film will be different than mine because they love the material. And my favorite critic, Steven Greydanus, is raving about it at Our Sunday Visitor — so be sure to read his review for a second opinion that is assuredly more thorough and insightful than mine.

Full disclosure: I've always struggled to love Macbeth because the progression of this troubled leader from new responsibilities to murderous compromise to madness just seems so predetermined, so "over before it begins." We arrive at the realization of Macbeth's dangerous ambitions and feeble moral backbone early, and from that point on its just a matter of watching the man's inevitable disintegration.

In the Coen catalogue, we get to journey with so many tragic characters through so much action, so much behavior. And that allows us to find ways to — and reasons to — love those characters, which makes their failings so much more poignant. Here, the characters are already frauds and failures and we just watch the cancer of their evils devour them from the inside out, which takes away, for me, the sense of tragedy in this tragedy. From what have these villains fallen? Who were they before? What are we to wish might have been?

It's a long road to this climactic action between Macbeth and Macduff [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]
Not finding the play particularly engaging beyond the profundity of its written reflections on human nature, I just don't think Macbeth makes a smart subject for cinematic adaptation. There is always so much wisdom to be gleaned from any encounter with Shakespeare's text, and that proves true again here. But rare is the adaptation of a Shakespeare play for the screen that enhances the play into something purely cinematic. Here, we get Stefan Dechant's elegant and sometimes spectacular production design captured in Bruno Delbonnel's glorious chiaroscuro with startling juxtapositions and occasionally flamboyant flourishes of animation, and we also get another strong Carter Burwell score. But Justin Kurzel's 2015 Macbeth did far more to suspend my disbelief and make me believe in its characters' dilemmas. The downward spiral of Fassbender's Macbeth into madness was riveting, and I believed in Cotillard's Lady Macbeth completely. I wanted that film to be at least 30 minutes longer to give the cast room to explore the full text.

Despite my disappointments with Coen's take on the material, I'd still rate it as well worth seeing in the theater, uninterrupted, and I hope many will seize this fleeting window of opportunity before it becomes a novelty in the archives of Apple TV. It's an urgently relevant text for 2022. We live in a time when it seems like half of America's government has decided to sell their souls for the sake of clinging to power, and some are openly calling for violence and advancing campaigns based on lies. They're abandoning the nation's foundational ideals and taking a wrecking ball to democracy for formal establishment of white supremacy. Watching Washington's Macbeth collapse without a compelling fight, and without much sense of who he was before his compromise begins, reminds me of how depressing it has been to watch the nation I live in and love — the one that has celebrated being "the land of the free and the home of the brave," the one that has boasted of "liberty and justice for all" — cast all of that aside so quickly under the influence of a narcissistic charlatan who exploits their fears and angers, and who advertises his racism, his misogyny, and his eagerness to replace democracy with fascism. I'd say it's "tragic" — but is anything "tragic" if the fall was inevitable? Is it "tragic" if it turns out that the pledges to seek liberty and justice were just lip-service and never a country's core conviction? Is Macbeth really a tragedy if there was no moral backbone in him to begin with?

Lady Macbeth looks up at her man who is already falling from a great height. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]
It's interesting to consider this film in relation to David Lowery's The Green Knight — another film in which an ambitious warrior gains the throne that he longs for... and the rest of his short life is a living nightmare. Be careful what you wish for, both films say. I believe in the truth of that. I believe that is what awaits those betraying the ideals of democracy today. Indeed, it may already be their reality. God is not mocked.

Still, I do hope the Coens will make movies as brothers again. While Shakespeare's Macbeth may be a tribute to one of their primary inspirations, very little in this solo outing for Joel Coen feels truly inspired.


Weekender: 2022 film calendar; Luci Shaw's latest poems; C'mon C'mon; Azor; Licorice Pizza

Source — Yelp

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May your 2022 be a time of hope, fearlessness, truth-telling, health, grace, and peace.

And welcome to the third edition — and the first-ever New Year's Day edition — of The Weekender: a weekly confection of notes, links, cinnamon, maple frosting, and bacon.

These posts are a miscellany of things I discovered, enjoyed, thought about, and wrote about over the course of the week — things I didn't have opportunity to revise and develop into standalone posts. It's ironic and sad, but the work of teaching writing full-time is a 60+-hours-per-week job, and one of the primary consequences of embracing this work is that, well, I don't have the time necessary for writing and revising my own stuff. So... here's what I could assemble this week that you might find interesting.


2022's movie calendar is a cinephile's dream...

Are you looking forward to the year of Tilda Swinton? She's going to be everywhere at the movies in 2022. And that's just one of the ways in which 2022 looks likely to be unforgettable, according to David Hudson's extraordinary coming-attractions preview at Criterion.

Imagine you're invited to a 2022 film festival, and you have time to choose only three movies. Which of these would you choose? (More details about each in the link below.)

- Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's TORI AND LOKITA "will tell the story of a young boy and an adolescent girl who have each traveled alone from Africa to Belgium, where they meet and team up to overcome the harsh conditions of their exile together."

- Anna Rose Holmer's GOD'S CREATURES, starring Emily Watson and Paul Mescal

- Rian Johnson’s KNIVES OUT 2, with Daniel Craig, Dave Bautista, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Kate Hudson, Madelyn Cline, Jessica Henwick, and Ethan Hawke

- Wes Anderson's sci-fi film ASTEROID CITY. "Swinton, the first to be cast, as well as Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Rupert Friend, Jeffrey Wright, and Liev Schreiber. Newcomers this time around include Tom Hanks, Margot Robbie, Hope Davis, Matt Dillon, and Maya Hawke."

- George Miller's THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING, starring Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton.

- David Fincher's THE KILLER with Swinton and Michael Fassbender.

- Joshua Oppenheimer’s THE END, starring Swinton, Stephen Graham, and George MacKay.

- SNL's Julio Torres directs Swinton in a film with Isabella Rossellini and RZA.

- Guillermo del Toro's PINOCCHIO, starring Swinton as the Fairy with Turquoise Hair

ALSO in 2022:

- Scorsese's KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON

- Scharader's MASTER GARDENER, starring Joel Edgerton

- Spielberg's THE FABLEMANS

- James Gray's ARMAGEDDON TIME

- Linklater's animated APOLLO 10 1/2

- Cronenberg reuinites with Viggo Mortenson for CRIMES OF THE FUTURE

- Noah Baumbach's adaptation of WHITE NOISE

- Claire Denis directs La Binoche and TITANE's Vincent London in FIRE

- Malick's Jesus movie, THE WAY OF THE WIND, will probably, finally get here

- Jonathan Glazer's ZONE OF INTEREST

- Dominik's BLONDE ... at long last!

- Bradley's Corbet's THE BRUTALIST, starring Joel Edgerton, Mark Rylance, Marion Cotillard, Sebastian Stan, and Vanessa Kirby

- Damien Chazelle’s BABYLON stars Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Li Jun Li, Katherine Waterston, Tobey Maguire, Jean Smart, Spike Jonze, Olivia Wilde, Flea, and Max Minghella.

- David O'Russell's next, starring Margot Robbie, Christian Bale, John David Washington, Rami Malek, Zoe Saldana, Robert De Niro, Mike Myers, Timothy Olyphant, Michael Shannon, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Andrea Riseborough, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alessandro Nivola—and Taylor Swift.

- Kelly Reichardt's SHOWING UP, with Michelle Williams, Larry Fessenden, John Magaro (First Cow), Judd Hirsch, Maryann Plunkett, Heather Lawless, Amanda Plummer, James Le Gros, André Benjamin, and Hong Chau.

- Todd Field's "Tár" with Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss, Noémie Merlant, and Mark Strong. Did you get that? TODD FIELD IS BACK!!!

- Jordan Peele's NOPE, starring Daniel Kaluuya

- Ari Aster's DISAPPOINTMENT BOULEVARD, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Nathan Lane, Patti LuPone, Amy Ryan, Parker Posey, Richard Kind, and Meryl Streep.

- Robert Eggers' THE NORTHMAN, starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe, Ethan Hawke, Claes Bang, Björk, and Ralph Ineson

- Alex Garland's MEN, starring Jesse Buckley

- Luca Guadagnino's BONES AND ALL, with Taylor Russell, Timothée Chalamet, Mark Rylance, Michael Stuhlbarg, André Holland, Jessica Harper, Chloë Sevigny, Francesca Scorsese, and director David Gordon Green.

- Sarah Polley's WOMEN TALKING, starring Frances McDormand, Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, and Jessie Buckley

- Steven Soderbergh’s KIMI, starring Zoë Kravitz

- Mia Hansen-Løve’s ONE FINE MORNING, starring Léa Seydoux

- Yorgos Lanthimos POOR THINGS, starring Emma Stone, Ramy Youssef, Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo, Margaret Qualley, and Kathryn Hunter.

- Florian Zeller’s THE SON, with Hugh Jackman, Vanessa Kirby, Laura Dern, Zen McGrath, and Anthony Hopkins.

- Darren Aronofsky's THE WHALE, starring Brendan Fraser, Samantha Morton and Hong Chau.

- Nicole Holofcener's BETH & DON, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus

- Park Chan-wook’s DECISION TO LEAVE

- Ira Sachs’s PASSAGES with Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, and Adèle Exarchopoulos

- Josephine Decker's THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE

- Olivier Assayas's "reimagining of his 1996 feature IRMA VEP" with Alicia Vikander, Jeanne Balibar, Lars Eidinger, Vincent Lacoste, Hippolyte Girardot, Alex Descas, and Carrie Brownstein.


Luci Shaw's new book should be an inspiration for anyone struggling to write during the pandemic

Last week, I wished a joyous, peaceful, epiphanic, 93rd birthday to my guardian angel: the poet and memoirist Luci N. Shaw.

How does she do it? How does she continue to produce whole volumes of poetry — seemingly every year! — during such demanding and difficult times? She is a role model, a mystery, and an inspiration to me.

I encourage you to pre-order Luci's new book of poems Angels Everywhere today. You'll find that Paraclete gave me the privilege and honor of offering a few words of praise by inviting me to share an endorsement there, as follows:

How many collections by Luci Shaw have, over so many decades, tuned the instruments of my imagination to receive the glory of God? I've lost count. She is, herself, angelic in how faithfully she visits us with urgent messages, celebratory anthems, visions that inspire awe.

In Angels Everywhere, Shaw is, as ever, eager to translate the testimonies of all things great and small, from the behemoth to a bud on a chestnut bough. Seizing upon searing encounters in nature that she calls "little revelations," she opens occasions of transcendence. This latest treasury of work is composed in a spirit akin to the artistry of Mary Oliver, Jeanne Murray Walker, and Robert Siegel, and resonant with echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins — oh! "a fresh cosmology."

In making of her poetry a liturgy of prayer, I am blessed by her company. Her clear-eyed faith kindles within me a longing "to drink wind free as wine."


Still working on my year-end lists for 2021, but... C'mon...

I always argue that we shouldn't make our Best Films of the Year list until the year is... you know... over.

And I'm having a dreadful time deciding which one of five great films I'm going to choose as my favorite of 2021. (And I've been reading about several more incredible 2021 releases that I need to see as soon as possible.)

But here's what I want you to know: C'mon C'mon is a movie that is *radiant* with love.

What kind of art would I like to see much, much more of in the world? What kind of art do I believe can make a significant difference?

Art that is curious. Art that is attentive. Art that has eyes wide open, concave like a satellite dish for discerning beauty in the world. Art that listens. Art that is a document of the filmmaker's search for something meaningful, a document of discoveries rather than a delivery of messages or a working out of agendas. Art that is unflinchingly truthful. Art that is at play with the mysteries of the world, improvisational rather than overly controlled. Art that loves human beings — all ages, colors, genders. Art that loves human creativity and God's creativity.

In short, art that loves.

This kind of art.

Here are a few thoughts that crossed my mind while watching C'mon C'mon.

. . . . .

With this film, I can say without a doubt that, in the absence of Daniel Day-Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix is my favorite actor working today. And this is my favorite of all of his performances.

. . . . .

Rarely do I see a film after which I sit there until after the credits have rolled, not wanting to leave the theater. Rarely do I find myself thinking, "I want to give the world experiences like this one."

. . . . .

What is going on with black-and-white films in 2021? Passing. Belfast. The Tragedy of Macbeth. C'mon C'mon. I don't understand the trend... but I am loving it.

. . . . .

More film scores by the Dessners, please.

. . . . .

Mike Mills is slowly and steadily rising toward the top of my list of favorite American filmmakers. I love his passion for stories of multi-generational families. I love his passion for cherishing the possibility of love in a context that the movies so commonly treated with cynicism. Seeing the world through his eyes is always a healing experience for me.

. . . . .

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

C'mon C'mon makes me aware of my need to give love and my need to receive love. It also makes me aware that beauty is summoning me. It's one of the most loving movies I've seen in recent memory.

It is now available streaming for a rental price that's less than the cost of two typical movie tickets. Ideally, you saw this during its very brief theatrical run. If not, watch it on the biggest screen you can. It will move you.


Azor is one of the year's quietest and most unsettling surprises

"Imagine if Graham Greene rewrote Apocalypse Now...." - Nick James, Sight and Sound.

Exactly.

I'd have to look back a long way to find a film that gave me this particular buzz of "Wow — finally, a movie for adults who enjoy thinking." The tension in this film is exquisitely cultivated. It's particularly scary because it feels so true to life, refusing to ever provide expository dialogue or dumb things down to explain itself.

[Image from the MUBI trailer for Azor.]
This movie made me feel ignorant in a way that I've come to find thrilling: It made me want to learn more about situations, politics, vocations, and paradigms I now little to nothing about, but that I know are more important and more influential than 99% of what makes headlines. I don't know much (okay, anything) about the power games at the highest echelons of the Swiss banking world, or how they influence ongoing colonialist oppression and corruption in regions I've never studied or visited. (I know, for example, embarrassingly little about the history — or the present, for that matter — of Buenos Aires.)

But this movie made me want to understand its social-political quandaries, even as it threw fuel on the fires of my existential dread about an encroaching age of unprecedented tribulation in a world terrorized by "beasts" (to borrow this film's term). Imagine Michael Mann directing his subtlest, quietest film about a criminal underworld, with a script by Cormac McCarthy, and you're in the ballpark. The films I thought about most were The Counselor and No Country for Old Men. This is probably the scariest movie of 2021, partly because I believe its warnings and revelations are True.

[Image from the MUBI trailer for Azor.]
It's also one of those rare and powerful films that exemplifies the "less is more" principle, one that is almost always true in cinema.

And Fabrizio Rongione is fantastic.


Licorice Pizza is a high-spirited story of growing up in a world of fraudulent show business

My relationship with every PTA film changes over time. I'm usually enchanted or awestruck from the start, and then my admiration deepens into rewarding endeavors of interpretation. But not always. I admire Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice, but I don't particularly enjoy them the way I do Phantom Thread or find anything personally resonant in them as I do with Magnolia.

My relationship with Licorice Pizza is off to a rocky start.

I admired a great deal about it as it played: production design, performances, surprises.

[Image from the MGM trailer.]
But, unlike Punch-drunk Love and Phantom Thread, the other two PTA romances, both of which I've fallen madly in love with, this movie — in its jarringly episodic nature, in its rough and grimy aesthetic, and in its web of alarming and exploitative relationships — I can't say I ever settled into enjoying this one. I wasn't enchanted; I was on edge and often aggravated. It has some fantastic sequences. It's glowing with passion, full of scenarios that could only have been inspired by personal experiences. And it's a circus of "Spot the allusion!' and "Note the influence!" (you'll probably think of Robert Altman films, Taxi Driver, Almost Famous, Rushmore, The Graduate, Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood, and PTA's own previous films). But I was so often annoyed by the characters that I found myself checking my watch at the 90-minute mark and a little itchy to get out of town.

Every relationship in this movie is fractured by an imbalance of power — Alana (Alaina Haim) is too old for Gary (Cooper Hoffman), Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins) is disrespectful to his wives, Wachs (Bennie Safdie) has to confine his lover to save face with voters. And then there's the way a movie star (Sean Penn) can so easily exploit a lonely and uncertain young woman's longing for affirmation.

[Image from the MGM trailer.]
Everyone is faking expertise in something — Alana fakes her skills and spoken languages in talent interviews, Jerry Frick fakes speaking Japanese, Gary fakes knowing how to to drive, Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) is just a complete and total fake, etc.

So I find it strange that any critic would single out a particular character or relationship dynamic as inappropriate or singularly cringey. Everything about this world is unfortunate and inappropriate and more than a little cringey. It's a hall of mirrors, this web of relationships; that appalling Frick and his Japanese wife (either one) are Gary and Alana... are Joel Wachs and Matthew. Fakery and abuse seems to be the standard in this context of 1973 showbiz. Everyone's being mistreated, and those doing the mistreating are obviously buffoons (at best) or monsters (at worst). Sex has become so toxic in this context that the story focuses instead on the idea that a love affair can flourish without it — and, in some cases, might only exist so long as they abstain.

Perhaps the title, beyond its direct inspiration (the record store glimpsed in Fast Times, is a reference to two things that shouldn't go together and yet it will work for one or two people out there. Have you ever had a relationship in which there is a certain and singular sexual tension, and you both know you're a little bit in love, but you also know that it can only exist in that state, and any "step" would cause a stumble and a fall? There's something like that happening here. Gary and Alana can't bear the thought of anyone else becoming the other's confidant and intimate, and they're jealous to see each other with anybody else, but they also know that they'd better remain more platonic than erotic together. I get that.

[Image from the MGM trailer.]
And in that context, if a 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old young woman discover some kind of inexplicable connection or chemistry — it's not Harold & Maude, but it works for them (even if Gary's as surprised by it as Alana is unsettled by it) — maybe we should be more inclined to hope that they can develop some kind of helpful and meaningful relationship in the madness, rather than just have an attack of age-gap cooties. Gary's idealism and irrepressible industriousness are strangely appealing to the bored and insecure young Alana, and Alana's proximity and availability and loneliness make her an appealing prospect for Gary's eager attention-seeking.

And so, the enterprising boy and the affirmation-seeking girl need each other — that can't be too hard to understand. No, it's not a healthy relationship — they're dishonest with each other, disrespectful, selfish, unfaithful, and often downright mean. I'm not inspired by either of them. But maybe this isn't a story about inspirational figures or swoon-worthy love stories. Maybe it's about growing up in a chaotic and cruel world and lunging for whatever kind of relationship drug is going to bring out a better version of you and save you from the types of relationship drugs that are sure to wreck you. Maybe it's about how, when all avenues that the world offers us prove to be fraudulent and dehumanizing, we have to dream up a place of our own to figure things out. In that sense, there might be a little Moonrise Kingdom happening here, too.

Unlike Sam and Suzie in Moonrise Kingdom, Alana and Gary aren't a couple whose company I enjoy, and I won't be eager to revisit them. But they make me hope they can find a way through seasons of awkwardness, misfortune, hormonal chaos, and a sorry dearth of options. They need each other, and I'm glad they have each other. But I do hope they find better tomorrows. To borrow a line from Rowlf the Dog — "I hope that somethin' better comes along." For both of them.


The Weekender: Christmas Edition 2021

Source — Yelp

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Merry Christmas, friends and neighbors!

And welcome to the second edition — and the first-ever Christmas edition — of The Weekender: a weekly confection of notes, links, cinnamon, maple frosting, and bacon.

These posts are a miscellany of things I discovered, enjoyed, thought about, and wrote about over the course of the week — things I didn't have opportunity to revise and develop into standalone posts. It's ironic and sad, but the work of teaching writing full-time is a 60+-hours-per-week job, and one of the primary consequences of embracing this work is that, well, I don't have the time necessary for writing and revising my own stuff. So... here's what I could assemble this week that you might find interesting.

Before we get started, I must say this:

I pray and hope that our 2022 will bring us more joy, more freedom, and more peace than 2021 did. It's been the toughest year on record for many of us.

But hey — I'm not going to dwell on the troubles of this year. I'm just going to put it behind me and thank God for the blessings that have sustained me through it. I'm grateful for more than I can say, particularly for God's promises of deliverance — a light that will outshine all of these sufferings — and for Anne, my incredible pandemic partner. I love my job, as challenging as COVID has made it. And I love my home just north of Seattle, which makes long walks at the water's edge possible almost any day of the week. I'm also grateful that it's been possible to go to the movies, and I'll be working on the very challenging task of making my favorite movies and favorite recordings lists for you over the next few weeks.

And since I'm not capable of showing up for any Christmas parties, I'll share this ghost of Christmas Past: Me, in 1993, at the Christmas party for the Seattle Pacific University Student newspaper, for which the newspaper staff requested that I show up as Santa.


American audiences can finally stream Terrence Malick's Voyage of Time

Here are the first impressions of the long-awaited conceptual documentary by Terrence Malick called Voyage of Time: An IMAX Documentary, notes I posted at Letterboxd.

[Now streaming on MUBI.]

https://youtu.be/lbTqdQbyisA

Today, I have been grieving in advance.

Jonathan "The Duke" Mardukas, the cat that Anne and I adopted in 2002 — yes, 2002 — went into the ER this morning with symptoms that were consistent with an aggressive brain tumor: rapid deterioration of eyesight and coordination; seizure-like fits that rocked his sleep; inability to walk; and more. I was up with him all night last night, as he dozed, then suddenly spasmed into screaming and flailing, and then leaned hard into my hands as I held him and calmed him.

I'm a wreck. I love this animal more than I knew I could. He is 20, and yet he is muscular, funny, smart, and beautiful. He high-fives me. He sleeps at my feet each night. He chases birds in his sleep. He looks like a black cat with faint grey stripes, but when you run your hand from his forehead down the nape of his neck and his back and his tail, a shocking ripple of snow white follows your hand. (His fur is actually white with black or grey tips.) Whenever we take him to the vet, other vets come out of their appointments to see him. They know he is one of a kind, and a wonder in their experience. (He loves going to the vet; he can sense their adoration.)

All day, Anne and I grieved the call that we knew would come. We wanted to be absolutely sure before we gave them permission to release him from his panic and his pain forever.

Rather suddenly, we decided to watch something. Something to take our minds off of our sorrows, to distract us until the inevitable phone call.

So we watched an episode of the BBC comedy game show Taskmaster. And we actually laughed.

But then, I stumbled onto our Roku MUBI app, and there it was: the Terrence Malick documentary I've been waiting five years to see. It was only 45 minutes. Is it wise to take on a Malick film on a day full of excruciating stress and high emotion? Normally I'd say 'no.'

[Image from the MUBI trailer.]

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And anyway, Malick's typical "everyman" narration — an annoyingly monotone style of screenwriting that only makes the distinctive voices of characters in his early films seem that much more interesting — is the kind of thing to get on my nerves quickly. Since The Tree of Life — one of the greatest masterpieces I've ever seen, a film that produced so much gobsmackingly gorgeous imagery that this film is made of its cutting-room-floor clippings — I've been frustrated with Malick's Philosophy 101 dialogue. And this film might benefit from a complete erasure of its text, as the speculative images of the cosmos coming into being, of the origins of life, and of the constancy of change do little more than suggest the cosmic questions of existence. Why do we need Brad Pitt reading them? Can't we just enjoy the music and the imagery and let our own imaginations run wild?

But despite the predictable aggravations, the fusion of awe-inspiring imagery and soulful music quickly swept us away. It reminded us of the dazzling unlikelihood of our world, our environment, our bodies, our circumstances. It filled me with gratitude that I get to be here, that I get to participate, that I get to bear witness.

[Image from the MUBI trailer.]

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It made me think about Jonathan "The Duke" Mardukas, that beautiful Russian Blue mix, and want to thank God for the two decades I've enjoyed with him. It made me marvel that, of all the world's cats, I would have the privilege of his distinguished company, and that I might be the one to embrace him in his distress and carry him across town to those best-equipped to make him comfortable in his final hours.

As this film's 45 minutes came to a close, I felt relieved. I felt peace. Anne and I made eye contact, and I knew that some kind of balance had been restored. We belonged. The Duke belonged. We were a part of the Before, the Now, and the What Shall Come. It is a cataclysmic reality — no pun intended. And it is beautiful.

Two hours later, the phone rang. The Duke will live. He is home with us again. His recovery from a stroke will require rigorous monitoring and assistance for weeks to come. We are up for it.

“Why is there something rather than nothing?"

. . . .

By the way, we discovered that MUBI's offering of the concert film Tripping With Nils Frahm makes a perfect double-feature with Voyage of Time. Ideally, we could play the audio of the Frahm show while playing the visuals of the Malick film. It might be an improvement.

https://youtu.be/7DAWFKzXdhY


And speaking of great music...

Postcards to The Edge

I got distracted from my work for a while when I stumbled onto this lengthy, all-star salute to the guitar playing of U2's The Edge published at Guitar World.


First impressions of Bergman Island

Here are the first impressions I posted at Letterboxd about Mia Hansen-Løve's film Bergman Island, which Alissa Wilkinson has celebrated as her #1 favorite film of 2021.

She writes, "Bergman Island is like a diamond that you can turn over and over, seeing the light refract through each facet in new ways."

I streamed Bergman Island by renting it from Vudu.com. And, as movie theaters are currently stuffed with both Oscar-begging flamboyance and blockbuster franchise entertainment, my decision to fight the peer-pressure call of the mutliplex, settle in on my couch at home, and watch this quiet, unhurried, observant, contemplative film felt almost thrillingly transgressive.

[Image from the IFC Films trailer.]

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Few subjects are as important to me in art or in life as the challenges of marriage, the high calling of unconditional love, and the complex mysteries of where art comes from (and why). And here's a film that takes place at the intersection of all of these things.

Bergman Island gives us Tom and Chris, a convincingly intimate couple, played by Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps, whose relationship feels "lived in," but it also feels worryingly past its prime.

So, when Chris gets aggravated by how everything and everybody have free passes to interrupt her quiet and collaborative conversations with Tom, we can see where this might be going.

I can't say I was surprised that the film took a hard turn into a representation of the screenplay Chris is writing, nor was I surprised that it's a screenplay in which she gives shape to her frustrations and fantasies. What did surprise me was how much more compelling the movie-within-the-movie seemed.

[Image from the IFC Films trailer.]

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Mia Wasikowska does some of the best work I've seen from her as the avatar for Chris in Chris's own movie, and as the lines between reality and art begin to blur, the movie becomes more and more interesting. At times it flirts with the cleverness of Kiarostami's masterful Certified Copy, but it ends up staying modestly focused on Chris's doubts about her partner and questions about whether or not she is on a path to happiness.

[Image from the IFC Films trailer.]

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The conclusion is almost too ambiguous and enigmatic for me, at least this first time through. But I admire how the film gives Chris a subtle character arc so that she seems, at the end, so much wiser, stronger, and likely to take more initiative in the progress of her life and art going forward.

If I were a greater admirer of Bergman and more interested in this film's substantial investments in conversations about him and his work, I would probably love this. At this point, I can say I admire and enjoy it. And I'll go on thinking about it, blissfully free of that feeling of being pummeled that I probably would have experienced if I'd gone to see anything at the multiplex today.


First impressions of Steven Spielberg's 2021 remake of West Side Story

My film-critic voice:

This is Steven Spielberg making masterful artistry seem effortless, fusing dance, music, color, context, and light into a symphony of kinetic energy that is enchanting and often exhilarating — and as it honors and celebrates the movie that inspired it, it is altogether superior to that film. While bodies rush across the screen in choreography as mesmerizing as a murmuration of starlings at sunset, nobody makes a false move or strikes a false note...

The voice of a more personal response:

... with two exceptions, though... right? I mean, one offender is worse than the other.

[Image from the 20th Century Studios trailer.]

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The casting of Ansel Elgort as Tony seems to me to be the single most unfortunate casting choice of Spielberg's career, even more frustrating than Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds. Elgort stands out in the film, for me, as nothing more than a placeholder, a "type" of actor cast more for his resemblance to a certain kind of Hollywood icon: He looks like Discount Marlon Brando, or, worse, Young Billy Zane. He's as jarringly dissonant here as if you'd cast a young Tom Brady in the role: He looks like the Iconic Leading Man, but he doesn't have a flicker of charisma or depth essential for this role, nor does his expressiveness or his line delivery suggest any of the developing intelligence, the educational scars, or the conflict of conscience that are essential to making this character work.

Complicate that with the unfortunate and appalling tabloid-ready idiocy that Elgort brings with him, polluting the experience with his abuse of celebrity privilege, and you've really made this movie difficult for me to enjoy. (I don't blame Spielberg; he probably couldn't have seen this coming, having cast Elgort before the scandals hit headlines. But still, I can't watch Elgort and make myself forget how he has abused his fame in harmful and self-serving ways.)

[Image from the 20th Century Studios trailer.]

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And while Rachel Anne Zegler, as Maria, is charming and gifted with a marvelous voice, as the film goes on and demands more and more of her, she just isn't making Maria as interesting or as compelling as several of the supporting cast — Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, Iris Menas — make their characters. Whenever she's onscreen with one of them, my attention shifts to them. Elgort fails for lack of any compelling complexity; Zegler falls short for summoning up nothing but the emotions called for in the moment.

And we need complexity from both of them. Why? Because — and this is my biggest problem with West Side Story as a whole — we aren't given any compelling suggestions about why these two are drawn together beyond a sort of fairy-tale, love-at-first-sight infatuation that has nothing to do with getting to know each other, finding something in each other that has been missing, learning from each other. We're supposed to except that they've discovered True Love in the midst of trouble, but it is the shallowest and most sentimental of love's definitions. It's just as if an invisible and meddling Fairy Godmother swept in and waved her wand arbitrarily over two people at the dance and said, "You're in love!" Thus — I hate to say this — I just don't care. That kind of love-spark is fleeting and fickle, and if we put all our money on it, we're likely to find that one of them changes their mind and feels the same way about someone else tomorrow.

By contrast, I care about Bernardo and Anita because there is a serious challenge in their relationship: She is trapped between her love for him and her awareness of his prejudice and dangerous rage. He is allowing his righteous anger against prejudice harden into hate, determining that violence is the only path forward. There's risk, there's challenge, and there's potential for real enlightenment or real tragedy here. That's a story that could have made for a meaningful center in this mess.

[Image from the 20th Century Studios trailer.]

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So, unfortunately, this feels to me like the same frustrating West Side Story that enchants me in every way except as a narrative.

I teach a creative writing class at Seattle Pacific. The syllabus I inherited from the previous professor contains a startling rule for the young writers. The gist of it is this: "No love stories allowed. Writing about love and romance is one of the greatest challenges a writer can face. And, no offense, but you're not ready yet. It's rare that a freshman or sophomore writer has learned enough about love yet to write about it with depth and wisdom instead of sentimentality and superficiality. Instead, focus on other kinds of stories, and practice bringing characters to life in their complexity and contradiction. This will be good practice for later, when you can write about love from a vantage point of experience, perspective, and wisdom."

I don't hold this line as resolutely as she apparently did. But there is a cost to my loosening of the restrictions: I end up reading a lot of "love stories" that are cheesy, flimsy tales of sudden infatuation, rushes of emotion, and little or nothing of substance or detail. In short, I'm not really reading about love. I read about young couples whose enthrallment is based on superficial things, and anyone who gets in their way is automatically a villain. I remember being that young. I remember "falling in love." And I remember the kinds of love stories I wrote. And I look back on my naive, hormone-driven self with pity and amusement and affection. I was in love with love, but my sensibilities were not sharp enough yet to see through the fantasy to the reality. And I am so glad that I was saved from myself, and that I did not marry until I had grown into a stronger understanding of what love really is, what it really requires.

[Image from the 20th Century Studios trailer.]

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West Side Story always strikes me as an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet written by one of those freshman fiction writers who has only read a synopsis of Shakespeare's story, and who wants, above all, to stage occasions of beautiful young lovers kissing in the moonlight, to focus on the characters' appearances and flirtations, and to indulge in the violence and melodrama that might threaten such a fantasy. It's all just so... superficially romantic. Meanwhile, I just want to step in, swat away that meddling Fairy Godmother, and shift our attention to characters and relationship that feel more grounded in the messiness and complexity of real human nature and, well... true love.

When I first saw In the Heights, I remember thinking that these two films would inevitably be compared at the end of the year because of their similarities. As it turns out, thanks to the trials of 2021, In the Heights feels like a hundred years ago, and I don't see those conversations happening. Perhaps that's for the best. But for the record, I cared about the romances at the heart of that film so much more than I care about this one. And while Spielberg's film is more masterful on cinematic terms, I'm far more likely to go back to the charismatic and complicated characters of In the Heights, who actually made me care not only about their crushes and their dreams, but also their families, communities, and neighborhoods.


Twenty years ago this weekend, a fellowship formed in Rivendell...

Merry Christmas, readers and moviegoers.

It would be good, in these days of frenzied merchandising, to remember the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, which he included in a letter to his son Michael in 1962: “Well here comes Christmas! That astonishing thing that no ‘commercialism’ can in fact defile — unless you let it.“


With those words, I greeted moviegoers on January 5, 2002. Writing for the faith-and-culture website The Phantom Tollbooth, I was reflecting on what I had seen just a few weekends earlier, on December 19, 2001: the first film in Peter Jackson's The Lord of Rings trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Anne and I had an extraordinary opening-weekend fellowship for our first viewing of The Fellowship of the Ring: (l-r, standing) Danny, Nathan, Sarah, Wayne (l-r, seated) Kenny, myself, Anne

That review continued:

Likewise, the greatness of The Lord of the Rings as literature cannot be defiled by merchandising or mediocre movies, unless you let it. Tolkien's beloved saga will remain one of the most influential fantasy stories — and probably the most popular — for a long time to come. And no matter what moviemakers leave out, no matter what shows up on a collectible Burger King glass, nobody can rob the books of their greatest strength: their language.

But, for better or worse, the film series has begun, and it's time to determine how they stand as adaptations, as entertainment, and as art.

That's how it started.

[Image from Warner Bros. Entertainment's trailer for the 4K Ultra HD release.]
Here, if you want to read the whole thing, is a link to that original review, with the addition of notes on the Extended Edition that I published upon the release of that momentous revision.

I find it fascinating to revisit these first impressions that I submitted. I remember what a joy it was for me, a lifelong disciple of Tolkien and his vision, to write about these adaptations and offer my perspectives — not only here on my website, but also on platforms as influential as Christianity Today. I felt like my whole life as a film enthusiast and a writer had led to those exciting opportunities. (I had no idea that I would soon have the chance to follow in Tolkien's footsteps and share my own epic-fantasy storytelling with the world.)

Looking back, I cannot deny that the films have been among the most influential cinema in my life. Writing about them was the greatest challenge I'd yet faced as a critic, and it represented a huge step forward for my career. But enough about me: More importantly, I think Jackson's trilogy raised the bar for fantasy filmmaking as a genre in ways that made moviegoers around the world take fantasy more seriously. What's more, it kindled curiosity about Tolkien's imagination and religious beliefs. The Lord of the Rings is an epic poem about God's providence and grace. It's also about humankind's temptation to strive for immortality, and about the destruction that such vanity wreaks on creation and on souls.

I agree with Steven Colbert, who thinks we should be throwing Jackson's trilogy a bigger anniversary party than Harry Potter is receiving.

https://youtu.be/L1dU1HZ_73M


"I cannot describe the magnitude of these images" — early buzz that made Tolkien fans dare to hope

My review of The Fellowship of the Ring was not the beginning of my writing on the trilogy.

Before it opened, the film had been inspiring buzz for many months. Way back in May of 2001, I was tracking it in my weekly column at Christianity Today, "Film Forum."

It's pretty wild to look back at this, when I was as skeptical as I was excited. Here's what I wrote:

The rest of the world is only now beginning to feel the tremors. J.R.R. Tolkien fans, however, have been feeling them for a while. The buzz has been building, and last week, a veritable explosion rocked Cannes Film Festival, sending a shock wave to Hollywood and beyond. Fantasy fans have always known that the only known epic with the potential to eclipse Star Wars at the movies was Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, if only it could find the right director. It appears that the right director is Peter Jackson.

A select audience was treated to a 26-minute preview at the Festival in Cannes, France, last Friday. The footage was so astonishing that it has eclipsed the dozens of films in competition to become the event's most talked about exhibit. Even the toughest skeptics are now eagerly anticipating next Christmas, when the first of three installments — The Fellowship of the Ring — reaches theaters. "The best movie at Cannes isn't in competition,” one reporter announced. The Age, an Australian newspaper, reported, "Coming out of the cinema, back to the real world of Cannes cafes, the same line was repeated everywhere: 'I can't wait to see more.'” "Watch out, George Lucas!” said more than one of those who saw the footage.

https://youtu.be/V75dMMIW2B4

It must be a great relief for the folks at New Line Pictures, who have watched the cost of the trilogy climb to $270 million dollars. Robert Shaye, founder of New Line and CEO, personally presented the preview. A seven-minute summary began the preview, introducing Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), Frodo and Sam (Elijah Wood and Sean Astin), and other major characters. Then came a fourteen-minute piece from The Fellowship of the Ring, the chapter in which the heroes journey through the Mines of Moria, assailed by terrifying armies of orcs and, finally, a winged devil called a Balrog. “Startlingly scary,” wrote one viewer. The preview concluded with a three-minute collage of moments from the second and third chapter.

Longtime fans of the series, many of whom went in harboring grave reservations about seeing their favorite stories brought to the big screen, came out stumbling over their words as they attempted to describe what they had seen. On one web page, a viewer who had never read The Lord of the Rings wrote, “This film looks like it will make…incomprehensible money worldwide. I thought I was interested in seeing the new Star Wars. I'm not anymore. I was so impressed I have decided to go out and buy the books. I really want to know the story, and the characters I only got glimpses of. I really think the films… deliver more than people are expecting, let alone hoping. I can't describe the magnitude of the images.”

[Image from Warner Bros. Entertainment's trailer for the 4K Ultra HD release.]

Even if the movies are as profound a cinematic achievement as many predict they will be, perhaps the best thing we can hope for is that the films will draw a new generation to the books themselves. Tolkien’s storytelling, like C.S. Lewis’s, does not last merely because it offers frightening conflicts, memorable characters, and dazzling settings. Dozens of fantasy novels are compared to the works of Tolkien every year, and very few remain popular a decade later, while the saga of the Hobbits is as strong as ever more than fifty years after publication.

What sets The Lord of the Rings apart? I would venture to guess that it lasts largely because the writer’s devotion to his Creator infused his work with an awe of Creation. It lasts because Tolkien had a deep understanding of the power of unconditional love, evident in the story of the faithful hobbit Sam Gamgee. The importance of respecting and loving all kinds of people is demonstrated in the story of Legolas and Gimli, an elf and a dwarf who learn to work together in spite of a grudge between their peoples. Perhaps the strongest theme of all in Tolkien’s work is loss — as in the stories of the Entwives, or in the passing of the age of Elves to the age of Men. These chapters remind us to value what we have, and to strengthen the things that remain.

[Image from Warner Bros. Entertainment's trailer for the 4K Ultra HD release.]

Most heroes in fantasy stories overcome evil by cleverness, by magic, or by sheer willpower. Tolkien illustrates something else. His readers are assured that heroes can be brave and virtuous, but they are not enough on their own. Magic, like any great power, corrupts. Willpower is not always enough. But there is a greater power, a deeper power — like the power associated with Aslan and the Stone Table in The Chronicles of Narnia — that is innately loving. Anyone who traces the forces of good and evil in The Lord of the Rings to their origins, stories told in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, will find further evidence that Tolkien was profoundly influenced by the Creation story, the story of Satan’s fall, and the history of God’s working out humanity’s redemption through history.

Tolkien did not fashion stories to preach, to propagandize, or to sell millions of copies. He wrote for the love of what he called "co-creating," using his imagination for the sheer pleasure of it. Like a traveler returning from another world, he was compelled to share, in excruciating detail, what he beheld there. Whether or not the movies succeed, his stories will continue to draw readers and believers just as he himself drew inquiring truth-seekers to his side. Once, a man walked with him, asking questions, and found himself accepting Jesus Christ because he could not deny what Tolkien illuminated for him. That man was C.S. Lewis. If the movies do succeed, Peter Jackson's achievement will be a giant signpost pointing the way to some of literature's finest mirrors of God's truth.

While my perspective on Jackson's trilogy has evolved over twenty years — I remain profoundly impressed with The Fellowship of the Ring, conflicted about The Two Towers, and frustrated with quite a bit of The Return of the King — I'm relieved to see that the films continue to draw attention to Tolkien's work. And I still enjoy so much about them.

It's a shame that Jackson's Hobbit trilogy represented tarnished his legacy with its excesses and its fundamental misrepresentation of that beloved story's characters and themes. And things are likely to get worse. Soon, Amazon's Middle-earth television series will either rekindle the enchantment we felt watching The Fellowship of the Ring, or — and I fear this is more likely — it will become a demonstration of the very failings Tolkien's epic warned us about: it will exploit the treasures of Middle-Earth for the sake of money and power, distancing us further from a clear apprehension of Tolkien's Christian vision.

I hope my fears prove unfounded. After all, I had similar fears before I saw The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time, and yet it remains, for me, the greatest epic-fantasy feature film ever made.


The Weekender - Third Weekend of December 2021

Definition: The Weekender, baked by Byen Bakeri in Seattle, just down the street from my office, is a gigantic coffee-cake-like pastry enhanced with maple frosting and then topped with a pile of bacon. I will not admit to you how many of these I have eaten — the whole thing, all by myself. They are gratuitous. They are delicious. They contain things that are good for you, and a whole lot of Unnecessary as well. They are extravagant.

And that is why I'm naming my new Looking Closer weekend series after this glorious monstrosity.

Source — Yelp

If I'm good at anything, it's this: I get inspired by new ideas, I launch them into the world, and then I realize that they're unsustainable. Any amateur's archaeological dig into the archives of LookingCloser.org will find plenty of ideas — weekly series, topic-focused columns, and more — that started strong and then fizzled.

I make no apologizes. Life comes at you fast, as they say, and changes in context and circumstances require changes in routines. I adjust.

And hey — I produce this website without charging you a penny, so really, you're getting what you pay for, right?

But today is December 18. Christmas and New Year's Day are on the way! So I'm feeling that familiar Resolution Rush: adrenaline and inspiration.

So here's a new kind of post that I would love to carry as far into 2022 as possible. And if it sticks, I'll keep it going for as long as it makes sense.

The Weekender will be a Surprise Box, an unpredictable newsletter, a bulletin board of things I'd like to share that I would have expanded into full, individual posts if life had afforded me the time.

So, here we go: a list of notes and links and surprises that I want to share with you and I want to commit to the record for future reference. If I ever lose my memory — and considering my age and the stress levels that qualify as "normal" for me — I may find such a record useful.

So, Shes, Hes, and Thems, it is with pleasure that I give you this awkward, experimental First Edition of THE WEEKENDER.


Steven Greydanus calls it quits — sort of.

End of an era!

Steven D. Greydanus of DecentFilms.com is my favorite film critic and the most insightful Catholic mind I’ve found in film criticism. I’ll go on reading him religiously at Decent Films and using his great work to teach writing students in my classes. Steven was one of the first people I met online in the late ‘90s who became a close friend. I’m so grateful for him and for all the ways he has enlightened me and blessed me.

This week, SDG departed his influential post at The National Catholic Register. For a fleeting moment, I was worried that he was moving on from film criticism altogether. What a foolish thought. No, of course not — Steven is not finished with his rigorous work; he has not lost his passion; and he is not ready to sail off to the Greydanus Havens. (That's a joke I know he'll get.) Steven Greydanus loves movies, loves moviegoers, and loves the Maker whose creativity is the source of all artistic inspiration. He writes with love, for the sake of love, and in a way that inspires his readers' love. I can't imagine him ever losing that fire.

So, join me in making more frequent visits to DecentFilms.com to see what he thinks of the movies of 2021, and what he will think of all the films he sees in the new year. And I fully expect to see him showing up, published and making a difference, in new contexts soon.


I voted.

Year-end film lists are, in many ways, a ridiculous game. None of these 187 participating film critics — myself included — have had enough time with the films of 2021 to make meaningful assessments of which films are "the best." In the past, the folly of such endeavors has often kept me from participating.

So, why did I participate as a voter in Indiewire's Best of 2021?

Here's link to a "Best of 2021" list voted on by almost 200 critics, including me.

Because I love a few of these films and I thought my vote just might help a few more readers think about prioritizing them. But do I accept the phrasing of "Best Movies of 2021"? No — not even close. And besides, ask me in a week or two, and I will probably have changed my mind about how I'd vote.
Anyway, here's how the largely meaningless votes from 187 film critics added up. The results make me say, "Huh. Okay. I admire some of the movies on this list. There are even a few that I love."


The right critic for the right movie: West Side Story

And speaking of outstanding Catholic film critics, here's another one. Evan Cogswell is a man who knows his musicals.

I recently interviewed him for the Looking Closer podcast — oh, did you miss the fact that that is a real thing? — about the new Leo Carax musical Annette. But I've been even more eager to hear his thoughts on Steven Spielberg's first musical: West Side Story.

Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort in West Side Story. Image from the 20th Century Studios trailer.

Frankly, I've felt the influence of musicals on Spielberg's work since Close Encounters of the Third Kind's score (by John Williams, of course) proved to be as essential to its power as its exquisite, enchanting cinematography.

And if you watch the original film version of West Side Story, you may realize that some of those moments have been recreated in other Spielberg films — even Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Watch for the moment in Raiders when Marion, being pursued by a local thug, dashes through a shadowy doorway and disappears, and her pursuer, leaping through that same door, comes flying back out, having received the full impact of a frying pan to the skull. When I first watched the 1961 West Side Story, I laughed out loud when I recognized what must have given Spielberg the idea for that slapstick flourish.)

Anyway, here's Evan Cogswell on why he loves the new West Side Story.


How to add the best animated feature of 2020 to your home video library

Cartoon Saloon's Wolfwalkers deserved the Oscar for Best Animated Feature last year. (That's my opinion, anyway.)

But the Academy has a troubling affliction: They just automatically give that award to Disney, except in rare cases when movies by other animation studios achieve massive box office success. (See Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Which did, I admit, deserve it.)

Watch Wolfwalkers and tell me it's not one of the most gorgeous animated movies ever made.

You probably already know that.

And, like me, you've probably been wondering how to add Wolfwalkers to your home video library. It's been streaming on AppleTV+ for a while now, but what about those of us who still value a physical copy, something you can hold in your hand, something loaded with extras?

Our wishes have been granted... just in time for Christmas.

Read all about it here.


A zigzagging walk through the highs and lows of Villeneuve's Dune

Six or seven sentences on Dune.

Well... six or seven long, detailed sentences. I can probably hold myself to that.

That's what I've been telling myself. Maybe if I force myself to sum up, in just a few lines, my first impressions of Denis Villeneuve's long-anticipated science fiction epic, I can spare everyone the mess of my contradictions, my enthusiasm, my defensiveness, my doubts, and my disillusionment. Maybe that way my readers can avoid falling into the deep wells of memory that this adaptation opens up.

Like a giant tick feeding on a body, a spice harvester fracks up the Arrakis desert. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

I'll give it a try.

Here we go: my elevator speech on this, the latest attempt to make a Dune movie worthy of the claim "Based on the novel science fiction classic by Frank Herbert."

Like a fever-dream, director Denis Villeneuve's Dune: Part One — which is the second attempt by a major studio to properly represent Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel on the big screen — is immersive and relentlessly intense.

Unlike David Lynch's famously distorted 1984 adaptation (one badly botched by studio meddling), Villeneuve's version is strikingly faithful to the book's basic plot points, the look and feel of its worlds and technologies, and the personalities of central characters.

The vastness of its vivid imagery, the innovative design of its world-building, the "shock-and-awe" wartime violence, the groundbreaking subtleties of its naturalistic special effects, and the overbearing solemnity of its tone (underlined by Hans Zimmer's sonorous score) are all likely to feel just right to devotees of Herbert's fiction, and I suspect the film will keep almost everyone rapt and dazzled for the full 155-minute running time.

And I cannot fault the commitment of this magnificent cast, particularly the two leads: Timothée Chalamet appropriately subverts familiar hero archetypes as Paul Atreides, Herbert's introverted, reluctant, and (initially) non-violent messiah; and Rebecca Ferguson inspires our empathy as Lady Jessica, a conscientious "witch" whose loyalties are divided between her regal lover, her troubled son, and her membership in a strict and scheming religious order.

But all of this is compromised in a cut that, despite the duration, seems severely edited, perhaps  to fit theatrical programming schedules. The result is likely to leave Dune newbies distracted by unexplained story elements, and it's left this longtime Dune enthusiast yearning for an Extended Edition that expands fleeting exchanges between characters into full, revealing conversations. Here's hoping that Part Two slows down and provides more helpful navigation in this glorious wilderness.

That, in a nutshell, is my take on Dune: Part One at this point.

Rebecca Ferguson is Lady Jessica, a sorceress trapped between a rock (her lover Leto) and a hard place (the son she means to make into a Messiah). [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

But if I publish only  that, I won't express just how much I'm struggling with my first two big-screen experiences of this film. Both my first and second viewing left me awestruck, deeply satisfied, ready to turn around and attend the very next screening. (I've already pre-ordered the blu-ray/DVD/digital package.) And yet, in both cases, the balloon of my enthusiasm has come drifting right back down to earth within 24 hours, disillusioned by lingering questions and frustrations. I'm left boggled by my own mixed feelings.

Also, if I stop with that short summary, I'll ignore the thing that Dune: Part One has made me think about most, and that is this: Our individual relationships with movies are dramatically influenced by how different we are. Our impressions of young Paul Atreides will vary based on what kind of heroes we looked up to as children, whether or not that has changed as we've matured. Our emotional engagement with the film will also be powerfully influenced by what our own childhoods were like, and whether we've been supported or betrayed (or both) by families, teachers, and institutions like churches and governments.

Thus, if I'm to let you in on the storm of struggle that Dune has inspired — or, in some cases, rekindled — within me, I'm going to have to transcribe some of the argument I'm having with myself.


A Dune I Recognize

As Part One of Denis Villeneuve's Dune thundered and roared into the Dolby Digital cinema at the AMC Alderwood 16, it took only few minutes before I knew that my worries were unnecessary. The story I've loved for forty years was clearly in the capable hands of a filmmaker who reveres these worlds, these characters, these thrilling events as much as I do.

Over five decades of loving the arts and living within imaginary worlds, I've watched almost all of the novels I've loved manifested into big-screen adaptations. More often than not, I've wished filmmakers would focus more intently on new, image-focused storytelling rather than merely illustrating their favorite texts. As a result, few adaptations have seemed worthy of their inspirations; so many of them have left me feeling disappointed, proving for me the supremacy of the original text and the singular value of what happens when someone reads and imagines for themselves.

But then again, I can relate to what must be a common impulse for those gifted in image-making: I want to see with my eyes and hear with my ears the sights and sounds I have imagined while reading.

I've always admired the way that author Frank Herbert gives us just enough tantalizing details to tease our imaginations into a frenzy of visions.

Oscar Issac (center) is Duke Leto, whose goodness might be his downfall. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

In the book, we get just enough of the House Atreides, a royal family moving from their ocean planet home to govern a desert planet, to fall in love with the volatile marriage of the noble Duke and his passionate partner Jessica, the conscientious Bene Gesserit witch.

We get just enough of House Harkonnen, with its corpulent Baron and his heartless slaves and warlords, to suffer nightmares about their campaigns of cruelty.

We learn just enough about the fearful and arrogant Emperor and the army of terrorists called Sardukar, the Guild and their mysterious ability to "fold space," just enough about the super-intellects of the Mentats, just enough of the desert survivalists called Fremen, for our minds to spin all kinds of "fan fiction" to fill in the gaps along the way as Herbert strides aggressively forward, each step of storytelling as sturdy as any of Shakespeare's, the epic seeming to be ages-old and merely discovered or recorded by its teller.

Our first glimpse of Baron Harkonnen proves he's a fan of the wrong character in Apocalypse Now. In his cruelty and lust for destructive power, I suspect he's become a role model for Steve Bannon. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

And so, I've gone running toward, instead of away from, any attempt to illustrate this adventure. I've wanted to see Dune "done right." That is, just as my childhood love for certain scenes in The Lord of the Rings made me rejoice when I saw Peter Jackson's realization of them in The Fellowship of the Ring, so I've wanted to savor a sensory feast of scenes from Dune on a massive canvas. We're made in the image of a Creator God, we are told. We are hard-wired to want to see words made flesh. We don't want a religion that engages only the mind; we want to see what seems true to us become embodied in the world. The same goes for storytelling.

And if my sudden turn to religious vocabulary seems like overreach, consider Lauren Wilford's outstanding reflections on the art of adaptation, and the intense responses that adaptations good and bad inspire:

There’s a reason that fandoms use terms like “the powers that be,” “word of God,” and “canon” when talking about their beloved fiction properties. When a story moves us deeply, it can provoke a quasi-religious response. We evangelize, hoping to share the experience with others; we become invested in the legacy of the story, the preservation of its essence. This is especially true of the stories we came to love in childhood, the stories that shaped the way we see the world. A bad adaptation feels like someone telling the story wrong. It feels like betrayal — like blasphemy.

I can't deny that. I love Martin Rosen's Watership Down precisely because it captures the spirit of the novel and celebrates it with such exquisite artistry. I would like to smash every single analog copy of the 2008 film The Tale of Despereaux for how it spoils a beautiful story. And Neil Jordan's The End of the Affair? I suspect Graham Greene will someday claw his way out of the grave to strangle the filmmaker for making a movie designed in condemnation of the very God that the novel reveres.

I've made my peace with David Lynch's extravagant and perverse 1984 adaptation of Dune, so severely and tragically abridged by the studios. I've seen it many times in order to savor a few memorable moments that really feel like Dune; Lynch seems to understand the fundamental strangeness of Herbert's vision. But despite his admirable ambitions, I always end up frustrated with what is left out, with what is rushed through, and with the unacceptable "happy ending" tacked onto that film's conclusion. By contrast, I can't even remember the Dune television series; it seemed promising, but it proved so bland that I quickly gave up on it.

So, how does Denis Villeneuve's epic endeavor fare?

Javier Bardem is Stilgar, a leader among the desert-dwelling Fremen. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

After the fleeting and awkward prologue of Villeneuve's film, narrated by Chani (Zendaya), when as I watched the Bene Gesserit witch (Charlotte Rampling) force young Paul (Timothée Chalamet) to stuff his hand in a black box, and then hold a poisoned needle — a gom jabbar — to his throat, threatening to kill him if he withdraws his hand from the box... well, when I saw that, my doubts dissolved and my fears evaporated. I feel a wave of relief and a surge of anticipation.

This is Dune. This is the world I lived in and loved in my most formative years. I recognize this.


Young Paul and the Spice of Sympathy

Why, I've been asking myself, do I feel such exhilaration as this movie unfolds?

I could praise the cast: Consider Timothée Chalamet makes choices that will be unjustly maligned by audiences who need charismatic, muscular, dramatic heroes. He gives us a Paul with an Edward Scissorhands vibe — he's awkward, quiet, curious, and not at all interested in attention or action. Consider Oscar Isaac manages, in very little screen time, to convince me of Duke Leto's love for Jessica, his deep affection and respect for his son Paul, his sense that he is in over his head as his family is manipulated by the Emperor, his fear for the future of House Atreides. Consider how Rebecca Ferguson makes us feel the danger that Jessica has risked with her controversial partnership and her controversial pregnancy; she gives Paul's mother a fierce intelligence, a believable agility in combat, and a powerful personal anguish. As Gurney Halleck, Josh Brolin makes me fear the wicked Harkonnens more with one line delivery than the Harkonnens can live up to with their run-of-the-mill violence for the rest of the film. As Baron Harkonnnen and his nephew Beast Rabban, Stellan Skarsgård and Dave Bautista are manifestations of ego and brutality, their appetites for power having consumed any fragments of conscience.

I could write about the design and the special effects: These worlds feel like they have real history. These spaceships look designed for practical purposes rather than for merchandising or video game cool-factors. There's a simple genius of the lamps that glide dutifully alongside people as they move from shadowy space to shadowy space. The famous shields that protect individuals in combat, and that yield to "the slow blade," are beautifully manifested here in a way that doesn't draw attention to itself. Most big-screen battles in space or on land are filmed so that audiences can easily track the action and admire the innovations in animation or in the art design of vehicles and armor and artillery; here, by contrast, we often feel we're watching footage of actual events, where dust or shadows might obscure or complicate our views. Every moment serves the story and characterization; there are no gratuitous thrills. That makes me feel as if I have really gone somewhere and witnessed some kind of history. I don't feel, as the movie plays, like anyone is trying to sell me anything.

From the 'thopters to the spice harvesters, the many vehicles — airborne and dunebound — are uniquely convincing and thrilling to watch. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

But what moves me most is how the film's faithfulness to Herbert's vision reawakens the compelling chemistry of awe, dread, and curiosity that I experienced when I first read the book. And that enthrallment is never disrupted. Unlike Peter Jackson — or most major directors working in this mode today — Denis Villeneuve doesn't ever make a movie that takes me out of the movie and gets me thinking about his decision-making. It feels like exemplary, unselfish filmmaking in a time when too many directors are in it to make their mark with signature style. As the film plays, I'm not thinking about the director; I thinking only of Dune.

As a result, I am free to focus fully on this familiar story. And I am able to appreciate, thirty years since I last read Dune, why it cast such a spell over my adolescence.

I've loved Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel since, when I was 12 and eager to read books from the Grownups' Aisles of the public library, the story of Paul "Muad'dib" Atreides permanently broke my trust in formulaic hero journeys. This story rang true to me. It follows someone I could relate to: a boy slowly awakening to the fact that the's been born into a world of corruption and contention, and of impossible expectations from family, community, religious institutions, and political powers. I understood that burden of unbearable pressure, the idea that any misstep could bring calamity on myself, and, potentially, everyone I love. I admired and learned from Paul's struggles, particularly his rejection of conventional power, and his choice to not merely lead the poor but to become one of them, vulnerable and humble.

There's something a little Scissorhands-y about Chalamet's Paul and his alienation. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

Roger Ebert famously called movies "empathy machines," but Dune has never really been an experience of empathy for me. The bond I have felt with its characters has not come from trying to imagine their hardships. No, it's been more like sympathy. I have always felt like this is territory I already know, these choices as heavy and as complicated as my own.

Thus, as I watch Chalamet's Paul suffer the test of the Bene Gesserit witch Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), and willfully endure excruciating pain, even though he thinks his hand might be burning to ash inside the box, I feel a thrill that I have not felt since I first read that scene. Despite my parents' best efforts to shield me from scary realities, I'd read frightening things before: Tolkien's Middle-earth is full of nightmare fuel, and Watership Down depicts some bloody truths about nature's cruel indifference. I'd read both of those already, and more than once. This, though — Dune felt more adult in its concerns and in its severity. There was something vaguely transgressive about reading this when I was so young.

And, as Paul, his hand burning in the box, suffered pain unlike anything I'd ever imagined, my hand gripped the paperback willfully, stubbornly. I was tempted to close it. I did not. Like Paul, I endured. I endured because I did not want to be defeated by this Book for Adults, this text that rang true. And somehow I knew that it was too late to give up now. If I closed the book, that pain would continue, and Paul would be stuck there, suffering for eternity. The only way to escape the hell of the trap that the witches had laid for Paul was to go through it rather than around it. I kept reading. And went back again and again.

Stellan Skarsgård plays Baron Harkonnen, the power-mad destroyer who may have inspired a variety of franchise villains — particularly, Jabba the Hutt. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

So much about Paul's paradigm rings true to me. Sure, I was caught up in the cool stuff: the energy-field body shield Paul wears in combat; the sorcerous voice powers he wields (just like the Jedi he inspires); the quick reflexes and spidey-sense vigilance that save him from assassination attempts; the eventual lessons in riding massive sand worms.

But it was the sociopolitical and religious stuff of Paul's context that fascinated my teenage self the most — the way he found himself, for better and for worse, part of some larger design not of his own making. The Bene Gesserit witches and their slavish devotion to breeding a superman was like a wildly exaggerated version of the pressures I felt living inside what Wilford calls "the American evangelical apologetics machine": at home, in Sunday school, in Church, and in my private Christian school, I strove to "get everything right" when it came to being a good, moral, Christian teenager.

Growing up, I had a loving father who, like Duke Leto, was always striving to do the right thing, even when the world refused to reward that. And he was, as Leto was for Paul, invested in my success so I would have advantages in the future. I had a loving mother who, like Lady Jessica, was committed to protecting me from evil influences, and she had strong opinions about who could and who couldn't be trusted. Both of them were intent on raising me in ways that would keep me from any wrong turns. I am grateful, convinced that their convictions saved me from so many forms of destruction, so many consequences I still see others I grew up with suffering.

Paul's home of Caladan is green and lush, and nothing like the world his family is sent to govern. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

In time, though I would also come to recognize the ill effects of living in such a programmed, controlled religious bubble. I can see now how, within the smallness of my childhood sphere, I was learning to be suspicious of, and afraid of, difference. I believed and trusted so blindly that it would be many years before I started realizing how I had absorbed the fear, the judgmental spirit, and the deeply embedded "-isms" in our church and private-school communities: the sexism, the racism, the not-so-Christian nationalism, etc. But those are stories for another time. Like Paul, who does not at first perceive the way his family is being manipulated for political purposes, I felt I was on "the right side" and thus was content to suffer the pressures of sky-high expectations from so many around me. If I came home with an A-minus in a class, the question I'd learned to ask was "Why did I fall short of getting an 'A'?"

So, yes — I related to Paul as much or more than I ever related to Frodo on his torturous path, or any of the Narnia kids with their destinies as kings and queens. In some ways he was like Luke Skywalker, whose story was unfolding onscreen just as I was tracking Paul's on the page. Skywalker was finding his way out of a small, sheltered existence, facing fearsome dangers, and learning that the lessons he'd been taught about the world were distortions. Where he would make a hero's journey, taking up his sword in support of a military rebellion against an evil empire, Paul would, to the contrary, come to realize that there were evil empires everywhere and there was no escape — he was tangled up in corruption, and to answer the call of becoming a militant messiah would be a life of heavy burdens, a path as much a part of problems as solutions. I wanted to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi; it seemed glamorous. But Paul's struggle felt worryingly true in a way that Skywalker's never did.

And there was something else: Paul's visions. At eleven years old, I had an imagination that made me happiest in my own company. Undistracted, I would lose myself in stories that came to me faster than I could type them. I would often find myself staring at a typewriter, with piles of pages stacked up alongside it that I did not remember writing. It all felt important. Those stories meant something to me, and they held some mysterious key to my future. As Paul begins testifying about his glimpses of the future, and as those around him blink in bewilderment and alarm, as if he is speaking a language they don't understand, I recognize how his "blessing" is also a cause of alienation. I remember having a sense that people around me were worried about me, and that "it isn't normal" for a teenager to become so preoccupied with bringing visions to life in solitude. And they cautioned me that such compulsions could lead to loneliness — and worse. They were not wrong. But, like it or not, I knew I had to answer that call.

Jason Momoa plays Duncan, House Atreides' most reliable representative and fighter. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

I admired Paul for the authenticity of his struggle to fulfill his calling. I admired him for loving his parents even though he was often angry at what they put him through. He struck me as a young man of conscience. And that was who I wanted to be. Instead of rising as yet another power-mad tyrant, he instead chose a path that would bring him alongside the poor, the vulnerable, and the persecuted. Yes, he would compromise. (Don't we all, in one way or another, in our attempts to do the right thing?) And yet, despite his failings, Paul always seems to be answering a call of love instead of power, a call of service instead of selfishness.

Now, I'm seeing the boy I believed in onscreen for the first time, and recognizing things about myself in the process.


A Dune that is flawed, nevertheless...

So yes, it's hard for me to be objective about Dune. And that makes the criticism I keep reading difficult to manage.

Much of it doesn't impress me.

Yes, Villeneuve's film is ponderous and almost humorless. That doesn't bother me much because it feels like the book I remember. It's part of the reason I found Dune so compelling as a young reader: The world I was living in often seemed burdensomely serious. I was conditioned to see existence as binary: a cosmos of us versus them, where I had a responsibility to live by a strict code and be on my guard at all times ... or else calamity would shake time and space. I lived within a bubble of religious fervor and anxiety. A film that lacked an overbearing solemnity would not be Herbert's Dune.

Yes, this Dune seems derivative, as we've seen so many sci-fi epics about rebellions versus empires over the last five decades. But while so many are complaining that this movie owes too many of its ideas to Star Wars, the truth is that there is no Star Wars or its generational variations without Dune. They were built on this foundation — not the other way around.

Intergalactic warfare on a massive scale — this movie really needs a big, big screen. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

Some of the criticism makes a lot of sense to me. I agree, in particular, with some of Sarah Welch-Larson's complaints, eloquently expressed in her brilliant Bright Wall Dark Room essay. She writes,

[Villeneuve's] adaptation trades the intimacy of interpersonal relationships and internal dialogue for overwhelming visual scale: massive ships overshadowed by even larger ones, clustered above the curve of a planet’s atmosphere; immense armies arrayed in the hulking shadows of space cruisers; the fury of dust kicked up by a sandworm half a kilometer long as it cruises through the desert. 

Later, she adds that the movie

does not care much about the individual hearts of its characters, with the exception of Paul and perhaps his mother, Jessica. Everyone else remains a cipher, a cog in the wheel of history, a tool to push Paul further and further toward his end. People are repeatedly dwarfed by machinery, and by the gigantic buildings and rock outcroppings that spring from the dusty desert floor. Villeneuve’s Dune is interested in the 10,000-foot view of the machinery that drives history, and in the drivers’ decisions to preserve their toeholds on power, but not in the fates of those who dwell in the shadows of greatness.

I, too, would love to see a film or series that captures the complexity of Herbert's tapestry. It would be an unmatched experience in cinematic science fiction, something closer to Game of Thrones in scale and scope. As I said in my "capsule review" at the top — I'd love to see an "extended edition," one like Peter Jackson's deluxe versions of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers that helps us get to know more of the characters. Very few scenes here allos characters to cultivate anything I would describe as a conversation. It's the film's biggest weakness. I wish Villeneuve was more interested in trusting his actors to act than he is in cutting to the next action sequence.

Behold, the behemoth: Part One gives us only fleeting encounters with the monsters that will dominate Part Two. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

But the enormity of Dune's architecture and machinery — it works for me as a way of aesthetically expressing not only "the machinery that drives history" but the unfathomable pressures Paul must feel when he hears crowds chanting the name of a long-awaited savior and realizes that they are looking at him. In his visions, which foretell of great wars waged in his name, he senses the impossibility of being worthy. Paul's story — the devastating weight of all the madness he will witness and inspire, the hardship he will know in trying to respect and wrestle with religion's controlling influence — is the story I'm most interested in. And these moving pictures make me feel as if I've had an unexpected occasion to participate in his story in a new way, to understand better. Moreover, they provide a visual vocabulary for what I feel is at stake in the real world when people justify any kind of violence as "holy," or when the "faithful" forge contracts with liars, warlords, and tyrants.

As Wilford writes,

I don’t mean to say that the book is never better than the movie — it is, often, maybe even most of the time. But to champion adaptation is to champion the idea that stories are adaptable; that they can withstand the weight of interpretation, of translation, of imagination, of embodiment. A good adaptation opens up the possibilities for what a story can mean.

This Dune movie adapts only half of the first book. And I'm going to keep hoping for the surprise of a four-hour cut of Part One, so that we can hear more from the characters, learn more about what Mentats are, observe how space travel is achieved, and get a glimpse of this Emperor everyone is talking about. I doubt that will happen. Still, like Paul, I'm inclined to dream.

But so far, Villeneuve's version makes me grateful that I've lived to see it, and that I didn't have to settle for the wreckage that producers and financiers made of Lynch's endeavor. This version is already moving at less than half of the speed of that one, giving me a chance to feel, like Paul, that I'm actually zigzagging across Dune's dunes and seeing the glimmer of spice in the air, instead of just getting glimpses of it as Paul does first from a "filmbook."

And the more time I spend there, the more Villeneuve's aesthetics speak to me in a vocabulary that make sense of my own experience in poetic and powerful ways. I realize now how much I learned from this story about what the Scriptures describe as a war "against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." In many ways, Dune marked for me the beginning of two journeys — making sense of the world, and making sense of myself. And after so much exploration since then, "we arrive," as Master Eliot wrote, "where we started / And know the place for the first time." Within contexts of politics and religion, Herbert and Villeneuve give me new perspective on who I have been, who I am, and who I am meant to become. I hope it speaks to you, too. We are living in times when evils are being endorsed and enacted right out in the open in ways we never imagined possible. Some days we look up and its seems the forces of darkness are too awesome to dream of overcoming.And the betrayals, the intimidation, the physical and emotional abuse, and the calamity looks likely to increase.

And still, the truth is out there, "heard, half-heard" — Eliot again — "in the stillness / Between two waves of the sea." Or, in this case, beyond a dune.

We sleepers must awaken, indeed, before it's too late.

Bring on Part Two!

Discovering "Devi"

On a recommendation from my friend Joshua Wilson, co-host of the art-and-faith podcast See/Hear Brother, I took the Barnes & Noble half-off Criterion sale as an opportunity to gamble on something I haven't seen before: Satyajit Ray's film Devi. And I was not disappointed.

Devi, which arrived only five years after Ray's beloved masterpiece Pather Panchali (which I wrote about here), takes place in bengal in the 19th century. We follow Doya (the dark-eyed and enchanting Sharmila Tagore), a quiet and mysterious young woman whose husband Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee) is away from home to complete his studies (including studies in English). Due to his travels and his studies, Umaprasad is becoming increasingly Western in his ways of thinking, evolving into someone more rational and less superstitious than the traditional and religious community in which he grew up.

Thus he is unsettled to return home and discover that his religiously zealous father (Chhabi Biswas) has had a vision that Doya is an incarnation of the goddess Kali, and has fallen at her feet to worship her. Worse, his brother has followed suit.

Feudal landlord Kalikinkar is dizzy with the implications of his dream. [Image from The Criterion Collection.]
Doya is now the center of a roiling storm of religious fanaticism, and their home has become a temple. People are making pilgrimages to worship her and to bring their sick to her for healing. And only Umaprasad's sister-in-law, skeptical and jealous, shares his doubts

Does Doya believe all of this madness? Is it too late to turn back this tide of seeming hysteria?

Here's a movie that's 61 years old, in a language I don't speak, from a culture quite foreign to me, in which a man realizes the waves of death and destruction that can spread when "the faithful" choose to reject the great gifts of science and medicine in healing the sick and instead rely on "thoughts and prayers."

Better to watch something timely, relevant, and relatable, huh?

Umaprasad's alarm. [Image from The Criterion Collection.]
Seriously — though the film immediately immerses me in a context of religious iconography and ritual that I find unsettlingly unfamiliar, I am still drawn in by Ray's love of reverent close-ups and his attentiveness to the intelligence and the emotions of people who speak softly and sparingly. He might have made this a movie that makes fun of the irrational extremes to which religious faith can lead its believers. But instead, by shifting back and forth between the skeptical and troubled gaze of Umaprasad, looking down at his diminutive wife at the center of a ceremonial storm, and the upward-gazing adoration of Umaprasad's awestruck father, he draws us into the complicated silences of Doya, who is both enchanted by the waves of attention and adoration and terrified of where it all might lead.

We're left to make up our own minds, aching for Doya in her bewilderment, sharing Umaprasad's dread, and recognizing more than we might have anticipated about the whole scenario.

Doya's trance. Umaprasad's alarm. [Image from The Criterion Collection.]
She is right to be terrified. We can feel things begin to spiral out of control, and the film's abrupt conclusion leaves us to imagine just how much worse things will get.

This is quite a discovery for me, and one that I may write into the syllabus of my "Film & Faith" course at Seattle Pacific University. It's rare that I buy a blu-ray of a film I've never seen, but something — probably my love for Pather Panchali — persuaded me that this would be worth the investment. I'm confident it will be even more rewarding in subsequent viewings, and its unanswered questions are going to haunt me for a long time to come.

For a deeper dive, read Devika Girish's essay for The Criterion Collection.


Why I find "Passing" a profoundly "unrelatable" film

In almost every aspect, Rebecca Hall's directorial debut Passing is a compelling and challenging film. And, at first glance, it's about an experience that I — having spent much of my white, middle-class, American life largely insulated from an awareness of the struggles of my non-white neighbors — know almost nothing about. That is to say, it is not, for me, what so many people find essential in a movie: It isn't "relatable."

And that is exactly why I need it. Why I find it so absorbing. Why I am grateful for it.

Irene (Tessa Thompson) lives in an illusory state of sophistication and denial. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
After all, it's a movie that I'm sure many of my black- and brown-skinned neighbors would "relate to" very powerfully. And if I'm going to be a good neighbor, a faithful friend, and a fearless advocate for them — as a Christian, I am called to be all of those things — I need to know how these children of God experience the world. I'm learning as fast as I can, troubled by an increasing awareness of the deficiencies in my education. In recent years, some of my best mentors have been Black filmmakers like Spike Lee, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, and Regina King, and Black authors like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, and Eula Biss.

Hall continues my overdue education by introducing me to a literary landmark: Nella Larsen's 1929 novel Passing. And she does so by crafting an adaptation with vision, artistry, and efficiency. Rather than merely turning a text into a screenplay so actors can play the characters, she crafts an impressively immersive experience of light and sound, cocooning viewers in the illusions of the main character: Irene Redfield (played with passion by Tessa Thompson). As we see the world through Irene's eyes (the opening scene achieves this with an imaginative flourish of aural and visual strangeness), we start feeling her anxieties.  Then, layer by layer, the willful naïveté in which she has wrapped herself is gradually stripped away.

Irene is a sophisticated Harlem socialite who, married to a successful doctor (André Holland of Moonlight and High Flying Bird), she enjoys a greater measure of privilege than many Black Americans — most, actually. She finds purpose in her charity work for the Negro Welfare League, but she is nevertheless insistent on shielding her two young sons from the daily news of lynchings and other signs that racism is still an American epidemic. Despite her husband Brian's increasing bewilderment over her refusal to face the truth, she wants to shelter her boys from disturbing realities.

Irene struggles to accept the compromises made by her friend Clare (Ruth Negga). [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
At least, that's how she sustains a fragile sphere of peace and luxury. Irene enjoys her status — better than working class, with a black maid named Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins) — and her acquaintance with an acclaimed white author named Hugh (Bill Camp) for whom black lives "matter" only as material for his unnervingly voyeuristic research.

Such is the state of things as the movie begins. But, as I teach my fiction writing students, every narrative arc sets a stage precisely to that the stage can be disrupted. An "inciting incident" soon occurs. Sure enough, Irene's illusory existence, in the first several minutes of the film, is shaken. She has an unexpected encounter with an old friend from school: the feisty and flirtatious Clare (Ruth Negga), who has learned to pass so successfully as a white woman that she has become "happily" married to a white man (Alexander Skarsgård) who smilingly spews hatred for black people. What's more — she's the mother of his little girl.

And, true to that narrative arc formula, a chain reaction of greater disruptions ripple out from the initial strike. Irene meets Clare for tea and discovers, with increasing horror, the depth of her old friend's deceptions. The charade has gone so far that Clare seems to be living in dangerous denial of just how thin the ice has become beneath her feet — to say nothing of what might happen to her daughter, should the truth come out.

So when Clare starts showing up at the Redfield house, charms their community of friends, inspires the admiration of the awestruck Hugh, and goes so far as to make Irene doubt her husband's faithfulness, Irene's anger and resentment grow... as does a fierce longing to live life as freely and fearlessly as Clare, crossing back and forth over those stark boundaries that she would like to imagine don't actually exist.

As you can imagine, it does not go well.

Clare's husband John makes no attempt to mask his hatred for African Americans. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
Hall's decision to frame the film in a 3:4 aspect ratio is not just an "artsy" move but an effective strategy — in tandem with starkly shallow depth of field, and a sound design to match that keeps background noises blurry and abstract — so that our experience of Irene's self-made isolation, her little bubble of identity and security in a world full of terrifying possibilities, is immersive.

And Tessa Thompson, who is quickly rising through the ranks of my favorite actresses, gives the finest performance I've yet seen from her. My suspension of disbelief wavers quite a bit whenever Negga's Clare is onscreen. Negga's a great actress, charismatic enough to be convincing, but — this is probably more my fault than the actress's — I have some trouble believing she would have "passed" as easily and as successfully as we're to believe Clare has. (So many fans have expressed shock that Rashida Jones is the daughter of Quincy, I can't help but wonder what she might have done in the role.)

Still, so much else is working well that the Hitchcock-ian turns near the end drew me to the edge of my seat. (Watch for a fantastic sequence on a winding staircase that makes Irene's disorientation dizzying.) As Irene's peace of mind implodes, tragedy seems not so much an "if" but a "when" and "what kind?"

I am so glad I saw it on a big screen in a dark theatre. I wish everyone would. In a season of sprawling epics and extravagant spectacle, this is a quiet, focused film that knows exactly what it wants to be and efficiently achieves it.

Oh, look — it's Chekov's teapot! [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
But I doubt that many will see it at all, in spite of its accessibility on Netflix. It's not the story's tragic arc that will most likely keep those who need to see movies like this away. Rather, it's the the fact that the film gives us such reverent, mindful attention to African American experiences. I'm seeing too many Americans try to whitewash their history — banning texts about America's history of racism, making it illegal to teach children about slavery — even as right-wing evangelical populations support candidates who aggressively advance policies that increase risks for African Americans.

I have no doubt that many who have grown up white, American, and Christian will recoil from a movie like this, suspecting that it is part of some subversive "agenda" to make white moviegoers feel shame, or to teach some false and unpatriotic view of America. But the fact is that this is a truthful testimony: It exposes some of the symptoms that manifest wherever the disease of hatred is at work. It dramatizes how America's failure to deliver on a promise of "liberty and justice for all" has driven some African Americans to embrace fantasy and denial merely to get through the day, while others shoulder the burden of demanding the respect and opportunities promised them.

I began this review by saying that the film seems, at first, unrelatable to me. My students sometimes respond to challenging art with frustration, and that's the word they give me when I ask them why: "It's unrelatable."

But isn't it one of art's primary purposes to expand our experience, to challenge what we find familiar, to invite us into other experiences of the world? And isn't it essential to the call of the Gospel that we engage our imaginations in the work of loving our neighbors?

If winding stairs like this one make you think of Vertigo, well... that's a meaningful reference here. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
I'm reminded of the words of the great Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner in Whistling in the Dark:

And when Jesus comes along saying that the greatest command of all is to love God and to love our neighbor, he too is asking us to pay attention. If we are to love God, we must first stop, look, and listen for him in what is happening around us and inside us. If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.

Is there a way I can connect with – or relate to — a story like this, having lived such a different experience?

I think so.

After all, I was enabled to live — even taught to live — in a way similar to Irene. In childhood, most of my associations with my African American neighbors came from the fact that I only ever saw them as happy and friendly characters on Sesame Street or as mug-shot suspects on the local news broadcasts, programs designed to entertain predominantly white audiences. I learned by example to ignore the ugly reality of racial violence around me. Just as Irene tells her husband to stop talking about the daily, front-page-news lynchings that are breaking his heart, I was taught to change the channel when public television showed me present-day protests over inequality. I knew the name Martin Luther King Jr., and I sensed some measured respect for him. But I was more familiar with a sense of grim disapproval for the occasional evening-news sight of Black Americans marching, waving signs, and shouting for change. This was treated as disruptive, as inconvenient, and — worst of all — as ungrateful. Instead of reckoning with reality, I was taught to look back admiringly at Abraham Lincoln, the good Christian who had "solved" the problem of slavery with his white-savior goodness. But I was deeply naive, and conditioned — in just the ways white supremacists would have wanted — to think that Black and brown-skinned Americans were less intelligent, more inclined to crime and violence than people like me, and not really part of "God's country."

Thus, the struggles of Black Americans remained only a vague concept to me. We didn't study Black scholars, read Black authors, or speak of them much in my 99% white school, my 99% white church, or my 99% white neighborhood. They were rarely ever represented in the art that surrounded me except in rare appearances as residents of that place called "the Mission Field" where charity cases lived, people who needed my white-savior, white Jesus help.

And I welcomed the convenience of my cocoon. My education was incomplete. And it wasn't just a case of my schools and churches failing to show me the whole picture; it was a case of active avoidance, a case of deliberate denial. An ache of doubt began to swell inside of me — a still, small voice of conscience that I believe was the work of grace, not anything I can boast of. I was comfortable among white conservative Republicans who professed Christianity and prioritized the memorization of verses about loving our neighbors and seeking justice, but who seemed to think that the only way to do this was to send money to missionaries far away, a convenient way to "serve" without discomfort. Meanwhile, our fears and dismissals became ever more obvious to me. Vocabularies of "us" and "them" turned bitter in my mouth.

In other words, though I could "talk the talk" of true Christianity — beliefs inspired by the teachings of Jesus, the brown-skinned Messiah — I was, in many ways, just another imposter who knew how to live in denial. I was only "passing."

Thus, I am grateful for movies like this one. Passing, like Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, Lee's Do the Right Thing, Butler's Parable of the Sower, and Morrison's Beloved, is a meaningful invitation to better understand, and thus learn to love, my African American neighbors. It asks me to confront "unrelatable" experiences so that I can work on waking up from an illusory substitute for the Gospel, a toxic worldview that runs so rampant in this fearful, hateful nation that I call home. As promised, the Truth, even though it is disruptive — because it is disruptive — will set us free.

https://youtu.be/EMHZSmqyn1A


Welcome to Wes Andersonia, Part 1: My first two visits to The French Dispatch

If you're here for a traditional film review of Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch — one with a full, detailed plot synopsis — you'll have to read other reviews. I don't envy any film critic who has tried to make sense of this story's myriad narrative threads; I'd be hard-pressed to think of a movie with a more complicated plot.

If this sentence diagrammed by Elizabeth Moss looks complicated, imagine an outline of this movie's narrative! [Image from the KinoCheck International trailer.]

Suffice it to say that the movie's a tribute to — or better, a revelry in — art-and-culture magazines like The New Yorker.

It begins with the occasion of a legendary editor's passing: R.I.P., Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray, of course). Howitzer has been the master of The French Dispatch — an American magazine published in a fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. He leaves behind a crowd of world-famous journalists. And they're appropriately despondent, knowing that his departure marks the end of more than just a magazine.

Then, we jump back to the beginning of production for the Dispatch's final issue, and follow a motley crew of adventurous journalists on various missions to capture big stories.

Under pressure to cut back budgets, Arthur Howitzer (Bill Murray) fires an employee. [Image from the KinoCheck International trailer.]

Each story is detailed enough to stand alone as a memorable Wes Anderson feature:

  • a whirlwind tour, with a bicyclist guide (Owen Wilson), of Paris's least-romantic sights, sounds, and smells;
  • a portrait of an incarcerated serial killer (Benicio Del Toro) who becomes an art-world sensation when he paints abstract nudes of his prison guard and muse (Lea Seydoux);
  • an investigative report on a student protest over the separation of boys' and girls' dormitories, in which the journalist (Frances McDormand) becomes romantically involved with her very young subject (Timothy Chalamet, of course); and
  • a frantic rescue mission of a politician's son from a dangerous gang, in which a gourmet chef (Stephen Park) plays a crucial role.
Zeferelli (Timothy Chalamet) argues with fellow protestors about the content of their manifesto-in-progress. [Image from the KinoCheck International trailer.]

Wait — did I just contradict myself? Isn't that a plot synopsis?

Not hardly. Those lines barely scratch the surface of this deep well of storytelling. But there's so much more than storytelling to talk about when it comes to The French Dispatch. The first viewing may feel less like moviegoing and more like an immersion in a Wes Anderson amusement park. It's an astonishing — and surely, for some, off-putting — cinematic achievement: it is, by far, the most extravagantly decorated, narratively complicated tapestry of eccentric characters, accelerated storylines, cinematographic techniques, shifting aspect ratios, and elaborately mapped environments that this polarizing filmmaker has yet constructed.

How many adjectives does it take to describe the spectacle of Wes Anderson's Paris? [Image from the KinoCheck International trailer.]

I say constructed rather than filmed because the movie feels more a massive contraption than a movie. I've become preoccupied with tracking how other cinephiles are attempting to describe the experience:

At RogerEbert.com, Sheila O'Malley compares The French Dispatch to the insides of an elaborate clock: "a dizzying array of whirring intersecting teeny tiny parts" that "ticks forward relentlessly, never stopping to breathe, barely pausing for reflection." At Vox, Alissa Wilkinson, bemused but unenthusiastic, says it's "nostalgic, a little weird, visually sumptuous."

And The New Yorker's own Richard Brody, ecstatic, writes with an effusive energy that recalls the rush of the movie itself:

The French Dispatch contains an overwhelming and sumptuous profusion of details. This is true of its décor and costumes, its variety of narrative forms and techniques (live action, animation, split screens, flashbacks, and leaps ahead, among many others), its playful breaking of the dramatic frame with reflexive gestures and conspicuous stagecraft, its aphoristic and whiz-bang dialogue, and the range of its performances, which veer in a heartbeat from the outlandishly facetious to the painfully candid. Far from being an inert candy box or display case, the movie bursts and leaps with a sense of immediacy and impulsivity; the script ... bubbles over with the sense of joy found in discovery and invention. Even its static elements are set awhirl — actions and dialogue performed straight into the camera, scenes of people sitting at tables joined with rapid and rhythmically off-kilter editing, tableaux vivants that freeze scenes of turmoil into contemplative wonders — and take flight by way of a briskly moving camera.

For all its meticulous preparation, the movie swings, spontaneous, unhinged....

And he's just getting warmed up. Soon, he'll issue a warning: "On first viewing, audience members run the risk of having their perceptual circuits shorted."

Consider yourself doubly cautioned. I come away from my first viewing reeling at the thought of the amount of writing, art-department brainstorming, storyboarding, set construction, and editing that must be involved in a production like this. We are finally seeing what Wes Anderson will do when fully unleashed — apparently able to cast any actor he wishes, drawing from what appears to be a limitless reservoir of resources. With most talented filmmakers, the success of a modest early feature (in this case, Bottle Rocket) leads to an increase in their resources, and that too often leads to a loss of aesthetic focus and a dilution of artistic vision. But every time Anderson's movies get bigger, they show that he becomes even more involved in every detail, even more enthusiastic about a design that demonstrates structural integrity. (For proof, consider the massive book on Anderson's Isle of Dogs written by Lauren Wilford and Ryan Stevenson, which will convince you that a whole film-studies program could be built on just one of Anderson's movies.)

Sure, it's worth asking if Anderson's exponential leaps into projects of ever more bewildering complexity won't ultimately alienate most audiences, even some of his longtime fans. How many viewers are willing to give these movies the kind of long-term attention they require?

But one shouldn't fault great literature because readers have poor attention spans. Films like The French Dispatch are not designed for "love at first sight." To see this movie is to be invited into a relationship; it's not meant to be a one-time transaction. If you don't understand that going in, well... you may want to stick to more elementary entertainment. Anderson is devoting every resource at his disposal to the realization of grander visions, and they've become so ambitious that the results are becoming more like museums than paintings, more like restaurants with multi-faceted menus than mere meals.

Stephen Park plays Chef Nescaffier, who cooks up a storm but says very little... until he suddenly says a great deal.  [Image from the KinoCheck International trailer.]

Bringing to life a big-screen city unlike any we've seen before, Anderson has built himself the biggest Parisian playground since Jacques Tati doomed himself to financial ruin erecting the stages for his masterpiece Playtime. And, after cinephiles have had years to examine many aspects of its architecture and find their way into meaningful engagement with its characters and storylines, The French Dispatch may have a reputation in film history similar to Tati's masterful folly. The first viewing is like catching an aerial view of a bustling city. Second, third, and eleventh viewings will draw us to descend into the avenues, pick particular characters for our focus, follow them around, and discover subtler nuances in their stories.

So, did I emerge from this first screening of The French Dispatch enthusiastic and overjoyed? No, I'm not there yet.

At this writing, I've seen the film once, and I'm dizzy. It's possible, I suppose, that I'll end up more frustrated than fond of this film. It's as preoccupied with its own architecture as it is with intricate storytelling, so labyrinthine and relentlessly busy that it makes The Grand Budapest Hotel look as quaint as a single episode of Only Murders In the Building.

As the most narrated of any Anderson film, with a screenplay that must be the size of an encyclopedia, it’s seems more exhausting than exhilarating. And it's not unreasonable to sniff something vaguely show-offy about a movie like this so overstuffed with celebrities who only get a line or two. It's as if this Willy Wonka is just so high on his own candy-colored Rolodex that he can’t resist reminding us how many big names will do whatever he asks on a moment’s notice. He’s on a sugar high of Pure Imagination, and it’s almost impossible to discern between self-indulgence and genius.

A print edition of Wes Anderson's screenplay (based on a story he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman) would be what they call "a doorstop." [Image from the KinoCheck International trailer.]

But I won't say I'm disappointed — because I've learned my lesson.

I went from scoffing at Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou at my first viewing to blinking back tears of joy by the third viewing, where I felt a deep and soulful connection to its melancholic antihero, and started sensing profound poetry in what had at first felt like reckless tangents. I came away from The Grand Budapest Hotel complaining about how I wanted Anderson to go back to intimate, character-focused storytelling, but now I eagerly plunge back into its storybook to enjoy new epiphanies every time. But this first viewing of The French Dispatch felt like flipping through a massive coffee-table-book treasury of The Best of The New Yorker; I suspect that I'm holding in my hands a treasure trove of big-screen reading that will keep me busy for years to come.

So, if I were you, I'd be profoundly skeptical of any immediate assessment of The French Dispatch from a one-time viewer. Critics have been given a whirlwind golf-cart tour of Disneyland without being granted the time to explore, to spend time in the various exhibits, to go on the rides with friends and strangers. In my opinion, we're not ready to proclaim a judgment. I know because I used to be one of those impulsive, first-viewing judges, and I ended up retracting so many of my first-impression reviews, realizing to my regret that they weren't really reviews at all, but reactions. Wes Anderson deserves better than reactions. Considering the amount of love lavished upon this production at every level, The French Dispatch deserves our curiosity, our careful attention, and a long-term commitment. I'm confident it won't let us down.

[Coming soon: Part Two — my second experience of The French Dispatch. This time I was better prepared.]