Thanks, I Hate It!: Exodus: Gods and Kings

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In her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, famed writer Madeleine L’Engle argues that “art that isn’t good is, by definition, not Christian art, while on the other hand art that’s good, true, and beautiful is Christian art, no matter what the artist believes.”* 

By that definition, Ridley Scott’s 2014 Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings is not Christian. It is also not art. 

As a Christian who loves movies, my relationship with “faith-based films” or movies based on Biblical stories is personal and sometimes more fraught. There is great variation in how Christians approach and view movies and culture, and lots of literature written on the subject of whether Biblical films should even be made. I’m not here to discuss those questions. Instead, I want to look at how definitely not to make a Biblical film, using this one as a case study.

Personally, I do not think that filmmakers who make movies based on the Bible are chained to the source material and must be completely faithful to it, nor do I think the filmmaker needs to be a Christian (see Darren Aronofsky’s excellent Noah). My only requirements are the following:

Madeleine’s Four Commandments for Biblical Movies

  1. Thou shalt have a basic respect for the material (this doesn’t mean you have to believe the Bible, but in the case of this movie about Moses, you do have to recognize the Torah – the Pentateuch/first five books of the Old Testament- is a foundational text for three major world religions, and is the most studied and influential document in history).
  2. Thou shalt make an effort to understand the context of the story, both historical and theological (again, you don’t have to ultimately stay faithful to it, but if you deviate, you need to have a purpose and reason). 
  3. Thou shalt have something interesting to say (don’t waste 200 million dollars and two hours of my time!).
  4. Thou shalt make a good movie (be well-made on a technical level, a tight script, dynamic performances, a memorable score, CGI that has been fully rendered, etc…).

Exodus: Gods and Kings violates all of those commandments. Egregiously. 

Exodus bombed at the box office and was critically panned, but its trouble began long before that, when its all-white main cast was introduced. Having more ethnically-appropriate actors wouldn’t have been able to salvage the script, but it certainly would have cut down on a lot of the *yikes* moments of racism. The casting choices become even more ridiculous once you see the film because none of these actors are 1) box office draws, which was the justification for casting them, and 2) good in these roles. Sigourney Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, and John Turturro barely register. Joel Edgerton as Ramses… tries, I’ll give him that. Aaron Paul also tries as Joshua in an absolutely thankless, mostly silent role, although the silence may be for the best, considering the British accent he attempts. I think the emphasis on Joshua means they genuinely thought they were going to get a sequel, which is actually a shame because I, for one, would have loved to see El Camino 2 Canaan. 

Outside of the acting and racism, though, the movie’s biggest problems boil down to the characterization of Moses, which violates every single one of my commandments. Moses is one of the most complicated, fleshed-out characters of the Bible, and this movie is a blatant bastardization of him (and how do you make Chrisian Bale boring?!). 

Who is Moses in the Bible? Moses is saved by his mother from the slaughtering of the Hebrew boys. He grows up in the Pharaoh’s household. He murders an Egyptian and flees to Midian. He encounters God in the form of the burning bush and is commanded by Him to go to the Pharaoh and bring the Isrealites out of Egypt. Moses has the gall to tell God that he can’t because people won’t believe him and because he’s a bad speaker, so God allows him to take his brother Aaron with him to do the speaking and give him the power to perform three miracles (Aaron and the miracles are not in the movie). Moses and Aaron go, Pharaoh says no, God sends the plagues, and that convinces Pharaoh. Moses leads the Isrealites out of Egypt, and he communes with God on Mount Sinai and delivers the moral law. 

Moses is not a charismatic speaker; his anger causes him to murder people and later keeps him from getting into the promised land. He is the bringer of the law and a great prophet, yet he often acts cowardly and with a lack of zeal for God’s covenants, such as when he refuses to circumcise his own son (Exodus 4:24-26). In other words: Moses is full of messy contradictions! He’s weak! And that’s why God chose him, because God would be glorified through choosing someone so weak. That’s what God does in the Bible. He makes a group of slaves His chosen people. He chooses leaders who are wretched sinners and calls them men after his own heart. He redeems shameful bloodlines and incarnated as a poor man in a backwater town so that he could live a difficult life and then die like a criminal in a dump to save the lives of those who killed him. God loves failures and underdogs; that’s why he chose Moses. 

Who is Moses in Exodus: Gods and King? A dope military leader. That’s his number one qualification according to this film. God/Malak calls him “General.” Our opening scene of Moses is him winning a battle. He trains the Israelites on how to build weapons and fight like he’s Harry Potter forming Dumbledore’s Army. Here, God chose Moses because Moses was a fighter, and Moses uses his tactical skills to free the Isrealites. 

All of this can be encapsulated in a symbolic moment near the end of the film. The Isrealites arrive at the Red Sea. Moses hears that Ramses is pursuing them. He gets mad (something actually in-character!) and throws the sword his Egyptian dad, John Turturro, gave him into the sea. A few minutes later, the sword floats to the top. Moses goes out and grabs it like he’s King Arthur. Suddenly, he has the “faith” to part the Red Sea and defeat Ramses. 

In the Bible, Moses carries not a sword, but a staff, a symbol of a shepherd (foreshadowing of Jesus!) that turns into a snake (symbolism!). The staff represents everything a sword does not. The staff is a sign of gentle leadership, the nurturing care of a lowly shepherd. It is God that can change the staff into a snake, a reminder of Moses and the Isrealite’s dependency on him (and later, the snake becomes a symbol of their sin). Meanwhile, a sword is a symbol of destructive power, of self-sufficiency and independence, and of macho-leadership. It is a symbol of individualism, which pairs well with what the film offers as the thesis statement when Moses tells his wife that, instead of God, “isn’t it enough that we believe in ourselves?” Sorry, I didn’t realize that in Exodus 20:2 God actually says “Moses is the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because I was too busy or something.” (Oh, wait, that’s not what it says….)

Thanks, I hate it! 

Centering Moses as the “chosen one” hero means that there is suspiciously little God in a story about God. When God does appear in Exodus though, he appears in the form of an eleven-year-old-British boy, said to be a “messenger,” formally credited as Malak (Isaac Andrews). The idea here is that God acts like an emotional, entitled child who plays with people’s lives on a whim. The decision to portray God this way is the most forthcoming choice the film makes, and if it were executed correctly, is one I could begrudgingly respect, because it fulfills my commandment #3. But it isn’t executed correctly, and instead reveals the poor quality of the screenplay.

Near the end of the film, Moses has a conversation with “God”/Malak** where Moses is etching the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets and they say this:

Malak: What do you think of this [the commandments]?

Moses: I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t agree.

Malak: That’s true. I’ve noticed that about you. You don’t always agree with me… Yet here we are, still speaking. 

This scene is the primary problem with the film’s depiction of God. One of the most compelling aspects of the Moses story is the relationship between God and Moses. Moses argues with God. He negotiates with him, gets angry, tries to give up, and is constantly challenging God. Ridley Scott seems to understand this, so there are aspects of that relationship here. In the film, Moses quarrels with God/Malak. But why does Moses fight with God? Because Moses knows God is God, the ultimate, all-powerful authority in the situation. Moses negotiates with God because he knows God is the deciding vote, the one who will make things happen. Moses knows he himself is powerless, that’s why he makes appeals to God. His relationship to God is based on God’s mercy and sovereignty. 

Moses wouldn’t be negotiating and arguing and wrestling and having a relationship with God if he didn’t believe God was who He says He is, the omnipotent, omniscient, all-powerful I Am. If Moses thought he himself was the savior of the Israelites, and God was either not critical or a lesser-power, then Moses wouldn’t have to engage God at all. 

 But this line- “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t agree” portrays Moses as having some kind of equal say in God’s plans, in his moral law, as if God asked Moses, “Hey, do you think the world would work best if people didn’t commit adultery? I know that I’m the one who created the entire universe and formed every single person in their mother’s womb, but I figured you might have some insight that I just don’t have, bro.” It goes back to the rugged individualism the sword symbolizes, and how the film subscribes to the Great Man Theory of history, with Moses being the “chosen one” leader. 

But you can’t have it both ways! Either God is the Great Man of History, the hero of the story, and Moses engages him because Moses is simply a part of God’s plan, or Moses is the Great Man of History, who doesn’t have to. Either Moses wrestles with God because he knows God is God, or he doesn’t, because God isn’t who He says He is. Exodus: Gods and Kings wants it both ways. One minute Moses is coming fearfully before God to plead on his people’s behalf, and recognizing that it is God who is in control here, and the next minute, Moses is being portrayed as the real power behind the plagues and the leader of the Isrealites, and God is some kind of annoying-but-supportive background character. 

This flimsy marriage of the two positions- most likely in an attempt not to offend anyone too much- makes the film’s portrayal of God and Moses uneven and muddled, making it impossible for Scott to present any original ideas on the story. If Scott wanted to make a movie where Moses is the hero and God is some back-up hype man, fine, he should have done it with hubris and gusto. But instead he falters, and paired with a boring reinterpretation of Moses as every-action-movie-hero-ever, Exodus ends up a dull, uninspired film that is a waste of time for those who want to gain a new perspective on Exodus or those who want to enjoy two and a half hours.

If you want to learn about the Moses story, watch this short musical recap that is more entertaining than the entire film. And if you want to watch a good Bible movie that is also just a good movie, watch Prince of Egypt instead.

-Madeleine D. 

* (From Adorning the Dark, by Andrew Peterson, page 84)

**If you watch the scene on Youtube through the link, you’ll see that near the end of the clip, Moses touches the Ark of the Covenant. Not to get too nitpicky, but “don’t touch the ark” is Old Testament 101. This film is very, very concerned with giving scientific explanations for the plagues and for the parting of the Red Sea (which I actually thought were interesting, I don’t see any reason that God wouldn’t use the natural laws he established) but apparently Scott and Co. didn’t put as much research into these other parts of the movie. Uzzah is rolling in his grave.

Holiday Roundup: Last Christmas, Peanut Butter Falcon, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Marriage Story, and Bombshell

Last Christmas

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*Spoilers

In a possible attempt to be the anti-Hallmark Christmas movie, Last Christmas tries to be five different movies in one, with each storyline being just off-kilter enough to not be formulaic or guessable. 

Once you think you’re watching a quirky romance, you’re actually watching the psychotic breakdown of a woman who is falling in love with the ghost of the man who gave her a heart transplant last Christmas (“Last Christmas, I gave you my heart”- get it? GET IT?!). Once you’ve adjusted to the ghostmance, you’re actually watching a workplace rom-com. Then, wait- this movie is actually about the rise of xenophobia with Brexit and rising politicals fears. Then you’ve got a subplot about a woman who’s scared to come out as gay to her family. But wait again! This movie is actually about the holiday spirit as a woman is faced with the realities of being homeless. But it’s all cutesy enough not to feel, you know, uncheerful. 

I can’t say the film does any of these stories or tonal shifts well. It’s too busy trying to tie all these half-baked ideas together that it never gets around to saying anything. 

Yet… it charmed me?

Stars Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding really do have nice chemistry, and Clarke is immensely charismatic. The holiday cheer is undeniable throughout the film, yet there’s also a refreshing amount of admission that for many people, Christmas is still wrought with real problems.

At most, Last Christmas is a rental. I doubt it will be remembered as a Christmas classic. But it might just be remembered like the WHAM! song it’s based on- often irritating, but sometimes it hits you just right. 

Peanut Butter Falcon

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Like many critics have already pointed out, Peanut Butter Falcon is reminiscent of the works of Mark Twain, particularly The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The story of a young man with down syndrome (Zack Gottsagan) escaping from his care facility and joining an outlaw (Shia LaBeouf) on the run is the best kind of a feel-good buddy dramedy. It has both the heart and the smarts, and great performances all around. 

It also captures the deep South authentically. It’s able to portray some of the worst aspects of the region without feeling condescending or patronizing (unlike some films, *cough* Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri *cough*). 

The only weak spot is the ending, which feels hastily wrapped up in a way that suggests the screenwriters didn’t know how to end the story. But it doesn’t ruin the film and, in a way, keeps the overall fable-like tone. Peanut Butter Falcon is a great choice for an almost all-ages movie night and is, as the kids say, truly wholesome. 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood plays like an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, but for adults. Because of that, Mr. Rogers (played by Hollywood’s Mr. Rogers, Tom Hanks), isn’t really the lead. This film isn’t going to give you more insights into Rogers, like last year’s excellent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will. But if you want to understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of Roger’s gentle teaching and affirmations, and maybe think through some anger or bitterness you’ve been holding onto, this movie is the perfect way to do it. It’s an ideal holiday movie in this regard, and a great watch. If the documentary answers the question of who Mr. Rogers was, then this film answers the question, “How was his show and teaching style effective?” Just keep in mind that this film is for teens and adults- there won’t be much for kids. 

Marriage Story

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A lot of praise has already been heaped on Marriage Story, and with good reason. It truly is a great film, full of raw emotion, layered performances, and a lot of truth. 

I don’t usually let distance from a film’s subject matter keep me from commenting upon it. But as someone who doesn’t have any experience with the deeply complicated and personal topics of the film, I feel particularly ill-equipped to say much about Marriage Story. I think it will speak to everyone in a different way. All I’ll say is that I highly recommend it. 

Bombshell

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Bomshell is this year’s Vice or The Big Short, using an Adam McKay-lite style to tell the story of the women who brought down Fox News’s Roger Ailes and broke some of the first ground of what would become the #MeToo era of exposing sexual harassment and assault.

When talking to a friend of mine who was interested in seeing the film, he admitted that he was reluctant because he felt the trailers had made the film seem like it was going to be saying all men are evil. He is also conservative and didn’t want to sit through two hours of bashing Fox News. I was able to tell him that while this film isn’t pro-Fox News or its particular brand of conservatism, Bombshell is less concerned with liberals vs. conservatives and more concerned with right vs. wrong, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on. There are jabs at both liberals and conservatives, and there are voices in the film that speak to the positives of Fox News. It’s a much more balanced film than either of McKay’s works. 

The point of Bombshell is not to say “men are trash” or to condemn all conservative news outlets. Instead, it is to show how a system of power and predators can be built, how it’s controlled, and why so many are victims to it. This system is not just a Republican thing- it’s a human thing. The film makes it clear the paranoia this system feeds and how high the stakes are for the women who come forward with allegations. It shows that changing any social ill takes both individual leadership and institutional change. 

Bombshell isn’t content with just exposing Roger Ailes. Instead, it goes beyond one bad man and interrogates many of the elements that go into making a workplace toxic. By examining these systems, the film engages in a form of sociological storytelling. That makes it a film that goes beyond being timely into being important.

-Madeleine D.

Quiet Faithfulness and Courageous Resistance in “A Hidden Life”

Guest review by Jonathan Dorst

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In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul lays out a general principle of Christian citizenship: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 

But, what about when the governing authority is the Third Reich, a government intent on ridding the world of all who are not of the ‘Aryan race’? Did Paul mean for the people of Germany and Austria during the Nazi regime to quietly fall in line and never put up a resistance? 

Interestingly, just a few verses after the opening verses of Romans 13, Paul writes, “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Rm 13:5). Why would he mention the conscience if he intended for obedience to be automatic? And, to further complicate (or, depending on your perspective, to further balance) things, how does one reconcile Paul’s later admonition to keep the 10 Commandments as the law of love, and that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor”? (Rm 13:10).  

These are the moral questions that director Terrence Malick is asking in his latest film, A Hidden Life. The film is a portrait of a real-life conscientious objector, Franz Jägerstätter, a Catholic Austrian farmer who refused to serve the cause of Hitler and the Nazi Party during World War II. Much like the more well-known figure, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran pastor who was actually part of an assassination plot to kill Hitler), Jägerstätter finds the courage to resist from his faith. 

This is Terrence Malick’s ninth feature film, spanning five decades that began with 1973’s Badlands. It is his best film since 2011’s The Tree of Life and his most accessible (and most linear) film since 1978’s Days of Heaven. All of Malick’s trademark stylistic touches are present in A Hidden Life: gently rolling Steadicam, an emphasis on the beauty of nature, a compassionate gaze towards his subjects, limited dialogue with much of the story told through visuals, voiceover, and a judicious use of classical music. But, whereas, some of Malick’s recent films have felt almost like a parody of his style (I’m looking at you, Song to Song), here his style is perfectly suited for the patient viewer to truly contemplate the difficulty of Franz’s choices, and by implication, the experience of all conscientious objectors who are made to be martyrs. 

A Hidden Life brings to mind the classic 1966 film A Man For All Seasons, as well as the more recent Silence (2016) and Hacksaw Ridge (2016), and, to some degree, Braveheart (1995). What those films accomplish through dialogue and confrontations, Malick accomplishes through quiet interactions and visual symbols. And like A Man for All Seasons and Silence, the character of God is questioned even as the duty of men is at the forefront. When a priest in A Hidden Life says, “God only cares about the heart,” we have to ask ourselves whether God is a pragmatic, ends-justifies-the-means kind of deity, or whether He calls us to a radical obedience in both body and soul.  

While we have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight of what the proper response to Hitler should have been, there’s no doubt that our choices would have been immeasurably harder had we lived in the uncertainty of the time before Hitler was defeated. The best movies call us to confront our own character and beliefs, and A Hidden Life gives us the gifts of time and story to help us ask ourselves who we are and who we might be when put in an impossible situation. It’s one of the best films of the year and one of the best uses of three hours that I spent all year. 

Check out more of Jonathan’s reviews at:

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/chorusinthechaos/author/jonathandorst/

One Day I Hope To Pay For This Movie With a $20 Bill With Her Face On It: Harriet

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Harriet is the first film about the famous underground railroad conductor, Harriet Tubman. Directed by Kasi Lemmons, Harriet will finally break ground on an overdue story. While this would usually give the film an edge, it has been plagued with various criticisms since its announcement, which has hampered public excitement. I think several of the critiques are understandable and worth considering, and I would recommend reading responses by black critics for more insight. However, for this review, there wasn’t any criticism that I agreed with that pertains to the film directly. 

Harriet is, in many ways, a by-the-numbers biopic. Sometimes Oscar-bait speeches and historical reverence threaten to bring it down. However, those moments never bring down the film too much. There are a couple of reasons why I think Harriet is able to rise above being a subpar biopic into a great film.

  1. There simply aren’t a lot of biopics of black women.
  2. There is a strong emphasis on family, and it’s genuinely touching to see Harriet’s family play such a key role here. It helps humanize her and balance out the more superhero-esque feel the movie tries to go for. 
  3. Harriet’s Christian faith is leaned into. There are moments of this film that remind me of Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Harriet is not nearly as stylized or flat-out weird as that film (although explicit connects between Harriet and Joan of Arc are made) but it does take Harriet’s religion seriously. One of the reasons I love The Messenger is because when I saw it, I realized it was the first time I had seen a movie focus on, and take seriously, a woman’s religious faith. 
  4. There are several stylistic choices (including the depictions of her visions) that elevate the film and make it feel worthy of the big screen. 
  5. The whole cast is wonderful. Lesley Odom Jr. and Janelle Monae are excellent and charismatic, and director Kasi Lemmon’s son Henry Hunter Hall, in particular, is a surprise. He has a cool “look” and is a scene-stealer. Joe Alwyn is fine as the (mostly fictitious) son of Harriet’s owner. In all honesty, though, I spent most of his screen time thinking about how strange it is that he’s dating Taylor Swift, and that his southern accent is pretty good for a Brit
  6. And speaking of Brits, Cynthia Erivo is our titular hero, and she’s incredible. There are two aspects to her performance that stuck out in particular. First is Erivo’s acting in the scenes where Harriet arrives in Philadelphia and has to learn how to be free. I had never considered this- acting free after a lifetime of enslavement- as a difficulty freed African Americans had to face, but Erivo is able to wordlessly communicate Harriet navigating through this new world through observation and imitation of those around her. And second, Erivo conveys a deep inner life of Harriet that we aren’t privy to. I always felt like Harriet, no matter how quiet she was being, had an incredibly complex mind and a thousand thoughts going at any given moment. 

Harriet is American History, biopic, slavery, and feminist storytelling 101. It’s a primer that will hopefully be an access point for many people. I don’t mean this to be derogatory in the least; this means I want another movie about Harriet Tubman, and other movies about all sorts of black women and other heroes (or villains) of history. 

After all, Harriet Tubman’s last words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.” It seems in that spirit that Harriet will hopefully help prepare a place for even more stories like it, stories that can go even further, higher, and deeper. 

Double Feature: Dora and the Lost City of Gold + Blinded By the Light

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

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The main issue with the new live-action Dora film is that it has an identity crisis: is it a movie version of the show, or is it a meta-commentary of the show, updated for an older audience? 

The film chooses to do both, to its detriment. There will be scenes where characters say something like, “Silly Dora, maps don’t talk,” or will make fun of Dora for speaking to the audience. But in the next scene, Boots the Monkey will talk, or something else magical will happen. Making fun of the central concept of the show is disrespectful because it not only insults its audience but also because the show is very good at what it does and is quality children’s entertainment. The movie ends up aiming young, so the meta-commentary isn’t even clever enough for fourteen-year-old edgelords. So if it’s not for older audiences, and it’s disrespectful to the young kids who watch the show, who is it for? The film never answers this question. 

But on the positive side, Isabela Moner is charming as Dora, taking the role seriously but with a twinkle in her eye, and is able to sell most of the antics and jokes. Michael Pena and Eva Longoria are lovely as her parents, and I found it refreshing to have two (living) parents who are shown to be deeply loving and respected, and even when they need to be saved by Dora, they are never made the butt of the joke. 

The entire Latinx cast is game and most are good, although sometimes they struggle with nailing the inconsistent tone. Jeff Wahlberg as Diego is the weakest link, and because there are too many characters, his traits are made nearly interchangeable with the other classmates on Dora’s trip, and a bafflingly unnecessary and dull “romance” doesn’t do him any favors. 

There were times I was a little bored, which made the hour and a half feel like two, but the young girl next to me was loving it. When Dora asks the audience in a fourth-wall break, “can you say neurotoxicity?” the girl very solemnly said out loud, “I can’t say that.” That was enough to charm me, and this movie is almost as charming. 

 

Blinded By the Light

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Blinded By the Light’s trailers do this film a great disservice. Whether you’ve seen the trailer a couple dozen times like my family has, or just once, the impression you’re likely given is, “It’s a feel good movie.” And while that isn’t bad within itself, the feel-good genre is predictable and can be a little stale, and a Pakistani boy from Thatcher’s Britain realizing his artistic dreams because of Bruce Springsteen had plenty of opportunities to be that. 

But Blinded By the Light, directed by Bend It Like Beckham’s Gurinder Chadha and based on the book by Sarfraz Manzoor, is not that. Yes, it may make you feel good, but it’s got some other things to say. For one thing, while it’s certainly in-love with Bruce Springsteen, it’s much more of a love letter to any pop culture that we use to communicate to others. We’ve all been in a place where we are able to relate to someone simply through our shared interests. When we aren’t able to say something straight, we may say it in the language of our favorite movie or musician or book, and usually we do that because that piece of media spoke deeply to us first. 

The film also has something more thoughtful to say about following your dreams them, “screw your family and do it.” It, like The Farewell, wrestles with the complications that come with being at the crossroads of collective vs individualist cultures, and reveals truths about both. Then it interprets Springsteen’s work into something universal and complex enough to speak to both cultures. 

Something not touched upon in the trailers that is present in the movie is the racism faced by the Pakistani characters. This racism was true of the time period but also looks a lot like racism around the world today. Further, Blinded By the Light, albeit very loosely, questions what it is like to be a person in an oppressed minority group who uses pop culture to escape the daily pressures of such oppression, yet that exact pop culture is made by someone from the dominant group that oppresses you. However, despite all of the difficulties endured by the characters in this film, it also has moments of uplifting hope and humor and whimsy that reminds us of the holistic lives of the characters.

I walked away from Blinded By the Light with an appreciation for The Boss, a Springsteen in my step, and something to think about.

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost, But This Movie Is: Tolkien

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Tolkien is a new biopic about the life of J.R.R. Tolkien, best known as the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. Biopics are hard to do because they usually go one of two ways. The first is where they become about the lead actor trying to imitate a famous figure and thus they simplify and whitewash history so that the story can be inspirational. The second way is where the biopic is a reinvention of a personality that tries to imply certain things about the person, which also whitewashes and simplifies history, and makes the person an icon of a specific cause or identity. It is very hard to tell the story of a person that doesn’t play only into what people want that person to mean to them.

So, what about Tolkien? Tolkien the man (played here by Nicholas Hoult) isn’t a particularly well-known individual. His work lives on but, outside of academic circles, his life doesn’t have much influence on the common perception of his work. What is the purpose of telling his story?

During the film, one of Tolkien’s professors tells him, “People take a certain comfort in the past.” This is, unfortunately, the unintentional thesis of this biopic (and to be fair, of most biopics). Between all of the scenes of twentieth-century British boyhood, from dead mothers to boarding schools to uptight fathers to drinking tea with the chaps, gallivanting around the pastures, and reading old books under the guidance of professors, the antiquated anglophilia of the movie fails to do much beside remind me of better movies, particularly Dead Poet’s Society and The Imitation Game. The stories of men like Tolkien have been told many times before. That doesn’t mean Tolkien’s life is irrelevant by any means- he was a real person- but it means the film has to work harder to tell his story in a creative fashion, which it does not do. Therefore I feel like I’m watching a remix of other films, rather than a story personal to one man.

To its credit, Tolkien isn’t concerned with making everything in Tolkien’s life have a direct 1-1 correspondence to something from his books (unlike, say, 2017’s The Man Who Invented Christmas). While there are some brief direct allusions to his work (“it shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring”), overall the film is more interested in creating an atmosphere where Tolkien could find his stories.

The problem with building this atmosphere, however, is that the movie wants to focus on Tolkien’s fellowship with his friends, yet the movie spans half of his life. This means there are long portions without his friends, and since the movie is much less interested in showing how those parts of his life influenced his work, those scenes feel like filler and lack any interest or urgency that the friendship scenes have. This is worsened by the fact that each section of his life is shown as utterly independent from the other. Take, for example, his relationship with his wife Edith (Lily Collins). Except for one scene where she meets his friends, the groups are kept completely separate. The “fellowship” part of his life, which ends up being the heart and theme of the movie, is established with these mates and is never connected to Edith, who from her first appearance is framed not as a friend but solely as a love interest.

And that’s fine, but it means the film, which is more interested in how fellowship influenced Tolkien’s works than how romance did, could have omitted all of Edith’s part and very little harm would have been done. This is not only poor storytelling but is a truly missed opportunity to explore how Edith became the inspiration for all of Tolkien’s iconic female characters.

This is only part of Tolkien’s focus problem. The movie has a framing device where Tolkien is in WWI going to the front lines to find his friend. He passes out and has rapid-fire flashbacks through his childhood, mother’s death, boarding school years, and courtship with Edith. The pace slows down significantly to show his college years, before jumping back to the war scenes and the framing device. He finishes out his mission, and suddenly the movie is back in chronological order with no flashbacks as we finish out on him as a family man, which means we miss out on other things about Tolkien, like his Catholicism, friendship with C.S Lewis, and his other group of artistic friends, The Inklings. If the movie was truly going to be about friendship, then wouldn’t it make more sense to have the timeframe of the film start with Tolkien’s school friends, their war experiences, and then Tolkien recovering from the trauma of war and losing some of his friends by creating The Inklings? I guess that would make too much thematic sense.

The focus problems come with a pacing problem, which is a result of a screenplay that makes confounding choices on which scenes should be brief and which ones should be long. Most of Tolkien’s childhood flashback scenes are annoyingly brief, which means none of the relationships get to marinate and build. Meanwhile, there are several very long scenes, but these scenes are mostly of Tolkien talking about other people, which confuses us on who this movie is about. Hoult’s (and his eyebrows’) performance is competent, but he is so easily overshadowed by the other actors that it is disappointing to remember that he is the lead. I’ve seen good movies about quiet introverts (2017’s Paterson) and mediocre/boring ones (2016’s Loving). It’s possible to have charisma and still be a soft-spoken, introspective type, but Hoult and this movie just simply aren’t up to the task.

If you want to make a theatrical release, especially now in the age of streaming, there is a degree to which you have to justify your movie being in a theater. People only have so much time and money to spend at the movies, and so it has to be a movie worth seeing on a big screen. Tolkien never justifies itself in being a big-screen movie. Frankly, I don’t think it justifies itself being a movie. It simply doesn’t have enough insight into Tolkien and what makes his work still so beloved and relevant.

So what is the purpose of telling Tolkien’s story? I think it is to make me wish I had spent my time rewatching The Fellowship of the Rings instead.

-Madeleine D.

Satire and Catharsis: BlacKkKlansman

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BlacKkKlansman is the true(ish) story of Ron Stallworth (a fantastic John David Washington), the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s, who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. He talks to the “organization” members (and even David Duke) on the phone, while fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (an excellently understated Adam Driver) goes in person to the meetings. This Spike Lee Joint is a little too long (clocking in at 2 hours and 15 minutes) but is entertaining and is an odyssey of different genres, moods, and political and social discussions.

BlacKkKlansman has a satiric undercurrent that, I’d argue, is not fully effective. The Klan members in the film here are not simply mocked for their supremacist ideologies. They are also mocked for things like being uneducated, southern, gun-loving, and fat. Things that, while they may describe some Klan members, are not directly tied to being racist. Making the KKK members caricatured and so removed from what we would like to think of ourselves (along with making the heroes more typical of Hollywood standard of beauty), removes white audiences from thinking too hard about whether they have anything in common with these Klan members. Instead, you can sit back and think, “Of course I’m not like that. I’m not racist. I’m not like them.”

This is why Jordan Peele’s Get Out was so effective- it asserted that white liberals can be racist (Peele produces here). It uses the language of white people assured of their innocence against them. BlacKkKlansman does not challenge in the same way.

Saying someone is racist or not needs to stop, because that halts productive conversation on race. Anyone is capable of saying racist things, and when a white person is told they are being racist, the response should not be, “I’m not racist so I can’t say racist things.” It should be, “What did I do and how can I stop?” Being so binary is unproductive, and yet it is what this movie deals in (there are some exceptions, like the character of Flip, but it is the overarching tone of the film).

But BlacKkKlansman does not just contain satire; it also contains catharsis. Ron gets the last laugh. He throws his arms around David Duke and mocks him. There are moments throughout the film that are meant to not only say, “we will overcome” to black audiences, but relieve anxious white audience members. Catharsis is a good thing, and film is an excellent medium to provide it.  But pairing it with satire is tricky, because satire is supposed to provoke conversation, and catharsis is about ending it, in a way that relieves the pressure of such a conversation and/or oppression to a person or group of people.

There is also the question of who this movie is intended for. It draws a direct comparison between the KKK and Donald Trump.

I am not opposed to politics in film. If you are, don’t see a Spike Lee film about the KKK. But by doing this in an overt way, the film makes less sense in who its intended audience is. The movie sure isn’t going to be watched by a KKK member, unless the trailer really confused them. It will make Trump supporters feel like they are being accused of being aligned with the KKK. It will make a white audience who are assured of their enlightenment feel smug. And I doubt black Americans need a reminder of how white supremacy and the ideals of the KKK, as shown in events like Charlottesville, are so prevalent today.

Making fun of the KKK could be an effective way to strip them of power, but doing it so that what is being made fun of includes attributes unrelated to the psychology of their hate is not effective satire. It may be cathartic, but it does not do what needs to be done, which is have people recognize these attributes in themselves. The more white audiences realize how they believe (whether they mean to or not) in aspects of KKK ideology, and how those ideologies are the foundation of America itself, the more an honest healing process can begin.

But here I have to admit my own prejudice. I’m white. I can talk about wanting nuance and complexity, because while I despise white supremacy and the KKK, I am not directly affected by it. I have never been on the receiving end of such violent, oppressive hate. So I will never be able to empathize fully. I will never be as angry as every black person in America has the right to be.

So while this wasn’t the movie I want, and I still think there are problems, this is Spike Lee’s movie. And he can be as angry as he wants, and can make a movie where the good guys win, black Americans have a victory, and he can call out President Trump as he likes. This movie is his prayer of lament. Of anger. Of despair. Of hope. So in that regard, I think others will find great comfort in this film, and if you watch it with discerning eyes, it should make you uncomfortable. Not just with others, but with yourself.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There is one more thing I must add. The best part of the film, and one of the best scenes of the year, answers the question most white people have probably asked at some point: “why can black people say ‘black power’ but I can’t say ‘white power?’” Near the climax of the film, Lee cuts back and forth between a meeting of the KKK, and a black power meeting. The KKK is about looking backward, mythologizing and endorsing the violence of the past, and glorifying white-led oppression. It’s about securing lies about the white race. The black power meeting is about remembering the truth, and learning how to move forward. One is about honesty, the other is not. And Lee does challenge some of the black power movement’s more radical ideas, but in this case, it is clear that white power and black power do not share the same meaning, just for different races. The ability to say this, without words, through the narrative of the movie, is one of the best uses of cinema I have seen.

-Madeleine D

I Would Probably Invest in a Ponzi Scheme If Jack Black Sang To Me: The Polka King

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Netflix’s new movie The Polka King is a biopic of the real life Polka King of Pennsylvania, Jan Lewan. In 2004 he was arrested for running a Ponzi scheme to finance his various polka enterprises. The film is based off the documentary The Man Who Would be Polka King and notes the real Jan Lewan wrote about his life while in jail.

I knew this movie was about this scheme before I went in. The trailers and film summary tell you the movie is going to be about the scheme. Yet it wasn’t until halfway through the film I realized, with a start, Hold on, Lewan is scheming people out of their money!

Why did it take me so long to realize the film was portraying Lewan’s Ponzi scheme, when I knew that was what the film was about? How was I so surprised by what I knew before I pushed play?

What I saw while watching was a kind, hard-working family man who was just so… so genuine. Sure, part of it was that he was played by Jack Black, but his dreams and unabashed hope for America and love for his family and unyielding work ethic made me forget that what he was doing was technically illegal. People were giving him the money willingly! He was giving people generous interest on their money (at least for a while). What’s so wrong with that?

So in a way, Jan Lewan, and The Polka King, schemed me. I was duped in a film about people being duped. So what you should take away from this is that if Lewan asked me to invest with him, I probably would. I would be a tremendous sucker. Please don’t call me up for (my little bit of babysitting) money. But that also means, at least to this particular viewer, that the film not only pulled me in and made me sympathetic for the criminal protagonist, but also made me into one of the characters. It put me in the place of the investor who fell for his charm and earnestness.  

Now the film doesn’t get high marks exactly for how they make Lewan likeable. Patriotism, love for family, hard working, lovable goofiness, and an accent is the easiest and most black and white way to make a protagonist likeable. But the film does get high marks for using this as a way to make the morality of the situation grey. How can such a good man get punished so harshly? Should he even be imprisoned- did he really understand what he was doing? But he did, and now I’m angry that I’m defending him.

Ultimately, the film is able to stay pretty unbiased towards the material. It presents Lewan as a well-intentioned man who did wrong, which is how he was described in real life. The audience is the one that is left frustrated on how to respond.

Jack Black grounds the film with his Lewan being a wily, whimsical man with dreams and a dark ambition. He does most of the heavy lifting as his supporting cast get to ramble free with their own kooky stories. Jenny Slate and Jason Schwartzman are fun to watch, but are really there just to give stakes to the greater story. Their individual side plots do not have any thematic resonance on their own. Most of their contributions are true though, and the entire film is fairly accurate, which just goes to show how finding the right story is all you need for a compelling real-life movie. This movie is the true The Greatest Showman.

However, it’s the job of a film, a piece of art, to take a real-life story and find the thematic, universal message within it, and the failure of The Polka King to tie everything together and make each thread of the movie count, not just let it be filler distraction, makes it a weaker film.

This is director Maya Forbes’ second feature film, her directorial debut being 2015’s incredible Infinitely Polar Bear, a tender semi-autobiographical story about her own childhood. The Polka King is a less precise film, maybe because it is more of a comedy and doesn’t have Forbe’s own life and personal stakes in it. With a little more care, every scene and storyline in Polka King could have hit home perfectly. With a little more thought, the film could have relied less on Jack Black to pull the storylines of the other characters into his own.

That being said, The Polka King is a satisfying, whimsical real-life fable and cautionary tale that tells a story too crazy to be true. Just be warned- you might find yourself sympathizing with someone who would try to take all your money. Bleeding hearts (and get-rich-quick suckers) be warned.

-Madeleine D

Drama In Front Of and Behind the Camera: All the Money in the World

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“That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.” George Carlin

J. Paul Getty was not just the richest man who walked the earth in 1973, he was one of the richest man who had ever walked it. He found oil in Saudi Arabia and was an infamous penny pincher. He achieved the success we all dream of in one way or another.

But Getty, no matter how smart or savvy or wary he was, lacked the humanity we all hope we have. On July 10th of 1973, Getty’s grandson, Paul Getty Jr., was kidnapped in Rome by Italian gangsters. They asked for $17 million as ransom. Getty refused, and in the end, only paid $2 million, because that was what he could get as a tax credit.

It makes you wonder, was it the money that turned Getty Sr. into stone? Or was it in him all along? Or do you have to stay asleep to some things to keep the American dream? To believe it’s worth it?

With Getty Sr.  as an immovable force, it’s up to Getty Jr.’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) to fight for her son’s life, and Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to help negotiate Getty Jr.’s release. As they suffer loss after loss, with Getty Jr. slipping from their grip, they’ll wake up to some realities of their own.

To me, All the Money in the World  is as intense as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. While Dunkirk relies on the cold hand of time, All the Money in the World relies on the anticipation that something is going to happen, I was just not sure what. This might be because I didn’t know anything about the Getty story going in. I’m sure it will be different for everyone, but for me, watching a boy my age being kidnapped, tortured, with my own mother sitting beside me, watching the mother on screen do everything in her power, well, it got to me. I even nearly threw up during one scene (you’ll know it when you see it), and I had my eyes closed. The film leaves every scene with a cliffhanger, keeping the audience as frustrated as the characters, pulling us along and then making us lose hope over and over again, until the final scene where we can breathe a sigh of relief. It’s the kind of engrossing experience that only film can provide.

Christopher Plummer has been getting all the publicity for replacing Kevin Spacey mere weeks before the film’s release date, but this truly is an ensemble film. Plummer, though, does deserve all the credit he is getting. He makes nuance out of a role that would have just been stitched together with thematic lines. His and director Ridley Scott’s professionalism and talent are the real takeaway from the reshoots.

Michelle Williams gives a nomination-worthy performance as Abigail Getty Harris. She infuses grit and determination into the character, and she rejects every normal “hysterical mother” trope given to her, holding the screen in a fierce grip that puts her among the best female performances of the year.

Mark Wahlberg makes no impression here. I suppose his character is necessary, but… you know. Meh Wahlberg. Not a performance that, I dare say, is worth eight times more than Michelle Williams’. (http://www.vulture.com/2018/01/michelle-williams-paid-8-times-less-than-mark-wahlberg-for-all-the-money-in-the-world.html).

On the other side of the story, Romain Duris as Cinquanta, aka, “the nice kidnapper,” is incredibly charismatic and gives a tender performance. He and Charlie Plummer have the chemistry it takes to make the scenes of Paul’s imprisonment more compelling than they are written to be, and it’s a shame he is being overlooked in coverage of the film.

I like to say that a movie needs to justify its existence. Why is it a film I should spend money and time on? Particularly for live-action dramas.For example, I didn’t think last year’s Loving or this year’s Darkest Hour elevated their respective material to a cinematic level. Both of those films were high quality, but I didn’t gain something from watching them I couldn’t have gained from reading a Wikipedia article about their subjects.

All the Money in the World gives the audience multiple reasons for why it is a movie. The film is thrilling, and the adrenaline from watching it is not something you’ll get from a detached experience of reading it. And the film, no matter how bluntly, tries to say something about wealth, and create themes out of the historical events. Most of the time, it succeeds. And it’s an exciting ride nevertheless. It kept me engaged and left me with things to think about.

Ironically enough, a film that explores the selfishness and corruption of Paul Getty Sr., and his refusal to awaken to his family’s needs, has been a film that through behind-the-scenes drama has been a part of Hollywood’s own awakening to its corruption. Kevin Spacey’s sexual assault allegations were punished, and the revelations about the pay disparity between Williams and Wahlberg have pushed home the persistent gender pay gap. Let’s just hope Hollywood, unlike Getty, doesn’t try to fix things cheaply.

-Madeleine D

V for Victory: Darkest Hours

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“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” – Winston Churchill, speech given to the House of Commons, June 4th, 1940.

Great speech, huh? One of the best the world has ever heard. While you may assume you know about Winston Churchill, the prime minister of England during WWII, the man who guided the country through its “darkest hours,” Director Joe Wright and actor Gary Oldman want to take you through the first month of his term and try to reveal more about the man.

When I review a movie, I try to either put aside or state my personal preferences. There is no true objectivity in art, and so I try to judge both the technical achievement of a film and the thematic.

So, before I give my verdict on Darkest Hour, I should say that I have seen two other WWII films this year in Dunkirk and Their Finest. And within the last six months I have watched multiple WWI and WWII films (Empire of the Sun, The Wind Rises, Saving Private Ryan, Joyeux Noel, Lawrence of Arabia, Wonder Woman, Sophie’s Choice) and frankly, I’m just tuckered out. Also, British period dramas are not my cup of tea. Sorry. I can appreciate them, but there are only so many I can take. I would not make a good Academy member.

So Darkest Hour to me felt much longer than two hours. I was alert and engaged, but I was also not opposed to an abrupt exit.

Part of the reason is that I think films, to some degree, need to validate why they are films. If you are going to ask someone to pay money to see your film in a theater, there needs to be a compelling reason why. Darkest Hour is a lead-up to one of the most famous speeches in the world. That’s great, but besides “come see Gary Oldman’s great performance,” there isn’t anything here that I either haven’t experienced before, seen before, or could not have found out from a Wikipedia skim.

Moreso, 2017 has been a year characterized by out-of-the-box filmmaking. There have been the Justice Leagues and The Circle’s of course, but there have also been the Get Outs, Wonder Womans, Okjas and Logans and Lady Birds. Films that, even if they are not technically perfect, are ambitious and different. Films that spotlight new voices and talent.

Darkest Hours is classical. That’s not at all a bad thing. It is top-quality filmmaking. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) makes each frame of the film mean something. Whether it is framing Churchill alone in a claustrophobic space as he tries to make a decision, or showing the ‘God’s eye view’ of the battlefield, nothing is wasted or unintentional. The script is tight. The score is haunting. All of the actors do a fine job, with Gary Oldman completely disappearing into his role. His makeup and prosthetics aren’t obvious or distracting. The entire film ticks like an intricate machine, and hits every beat.

I think, though, what makes filmmaking such a powerful medium, what keeps it culturally relevant, are the messy films that have something to say and push our expectations. My tastes are leaning towards those films, and they stay with me longer.

If you want to see a fantastic lead performance, and if you love history and admire perfect filmmaking, see Darkest Hour. Appreciate it. But I don’t think that if you miss it, you’ll be missing out on one of the best films of the year.

-Madeleine D