Exploring Time in “Tenet” and “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

*Spoilers for I’m Thinking of Ending Things

On the first weekend of September, Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited Tenet arrived to challenge the pandemic and (hopefully) save movie theaters. Meanwhile, writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things arrived on Netflix. Tenet is a sleek, imaginative, action-packed blockbuster thrill ride that has all of Nolan’s quirks: technical perfection, stiff dialogue, ponderings about reality, and Michael Caine. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is equally full of its director’s quirks: a focus on relationships, abstract, melancholy, arthouse. Both films, outside of their auteur-ness, share something in common: they are both about time, and much can be learned by comparing how the two directors approach their exploration of the subject. 

In Tenet, a character ends her explanation about the central premise of the movie (objects moving through time backward) by saying, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” Despite that instruction, Tenet is all about thinking. The entire film is completely plot-driven. Every single line of dialogue is plot-related. Every scene moves forward relentlessly. The momentum of the film is exciting, but there is no room for beauty or feeling. Tenet wants you to think about the possibility of going backward in time and it wants you to experience such a disorienting thrill (sometimes too disorienting, I spent an hour standing outside of the theater after the movie with my companions trying to parse the story out, and I’m still not sure I understand everything). 

Meanwhile, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is all about feeling. There is also a lot of talking, however, it’s less about what is said (which are often long monologues about art) and more about how things are said, or why. By the time the ending rolls around and there’s a ballet dance break and Jesse Plemmons sings an entire song from Oklahoma!, you’re either on board or are probably very annoyed. 

Time is warped in several ways during I’m Thinking of Ending Things. When Lucy (Jessie Buckley) gets to Jake’s (Jesse Plemmons) parents’ house, she and Jake stay the same age, but his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) begin aging backward in forward. Every time Lucy steps into a new room, both parents are at different ages. Later, Lucy notes that instead of people being stationary points that move through time, time moves through people and she watches time move through Jake’s parents. 

The scenes in the car between Jake and Lucy likewise play with continuity and time. Jake calls Lucy by several different names, she talks about being in different occupations, and her story of how she and Jake met changes multiple times. And in the ending sequence, it is revealed that Lucy wasn’t real at all, but that Jake was imagining falling in love. 

Maybe. That might be one possible interpretation. But nothing about I’m Thinking of Ending Things encourages you to “solve” the movie. It is not a logical puzzle, and there’s nothing you gain from being able to pin down the movie’s timeline or narrative tricks. What you need to know about Lucy and Jake, or their feelings and relationship, are all conveyed through the acting and visuals. The confusing, metaphysical nature of the visuals and story are supposed to only teach you one thing about time: it is our absurd enemy. Our perception of time is changed by our emotions, and the only way out is through. 

I’m Thinking of Ending Things treats time as a character within itself, as malleable as any of the other characters. Tenet treats time as a tool to play with. Neither approach- thinking or feeling- are inherently better or worse, of course. Both films have numerous explainer videos and articles on the internet to help people figure the films out, and both films prompt rich discussion through their ambiguous nature. I think, though, that the spectacle of Tenet (the big screen really is the only way to see it) will mean that the film won’t have much longevity. Some of Nolan’s other twisty puzzle-box movies have stood the test of time and remained in the cultural memory- I’m thinking of Inception and Memento– but those had stronger emotional cores than Tenet. Meanwhile, I’m Thinking of Ending Things will probably also be forgotten, but less because of the film itself and more from how few people will see it and how even less will submit themselves to its oddity. Yet I think that if you do give I’m Thinking of Ending Things a chance and embrace it on its own terms, you will find it worthwhile, even if you don’t enjoy it.

-Madeleine D.

“No Bad Guys”: Clemency

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“It’s my job.”

Chinonye Chukwu’s 2019 film Clemency, starring Alfre Woodard, examines the way this sentiment can be twisted to justify horrific behavior and unjust systems. Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, a prison warden who carries out executions. The film begins with a botched execution and follows Bernadine as she moves towards the next one, a highly public case where the man (Aldis Hodge) in question is largely thought to be innocent. As Bernadine faces public and private scrutiny, she continues to figuratively wash her hands of the issue- after all, she’s just doing her job.

It’s fascinating to compare Clemency to another 2019 movie, Just Mercy. There are plenty of differences between them of course- Clemency is fiction, Just Mercy is based on a true story and on the life of still-living attorney and advocate Bryan Stevenson. Clemency takes place in the present, Just Mercy in the past. Just Mercy speaks explicitly on race and interrogates a “justice” system that imprisons black men at a disproportionately high rate. Clemency, which stars a black woman as a warden and a black man as a prisoner, is full of interesting implications, but never explicitly talks about race. Yet they are both about the prison industrial complex, and specifically, capital punishment. Just Mercy is focused on the prisoner- in this case, wrongfully accused Walter McMillian- and his relentless, righteous lawyer Stevenson. In Just Mercy, little time is spent thinking about those working on the side of the system. Particularly since the film is about race and how racism played into McMillians’ wrongful conviction in 1980’s Alabama, there seems to be a clear right and wrong. The prosecutors, the prison guards- all presented as clear-cut representatives of a broken system, who are therefore complicit. 

But we are all complicit in all sorts of injustice. There is corruption and sin in every industry, no matter how seemingly neutral or even moral your job or workplace is. Most of us end up playing a game about the degree of separation; how close am I to the injustice? Surely if, say, I work at a retail store where I know the clothes we make use child labor overseas, I can take comfort in the fact that there is enough separation between me and the CEO or the foreman in the factory allowing that to happen. I’m alleviated of guilt.

Right?

The frustration and helplessness as we come to grips with the reality that everything we touch is stained and contaminated can feel overwhelming, so we dull ourselves to it. We turn a blind eye, we cope, we disassociate, we tell ourselves stories. And it is true, we can’t fix everything. But instead of allowing that to turn us towards lament, we turn to paralysis or detachment. 

Just Mercy is a great movie (and an even better book). But Clemency, the more understated spiritual sibling to Just Mercy, is a critical companion piece to getting a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the justice system and our state-sanctioned executions. Clemency is focused on the other side, those prosecutors and guards, as well as those people’s loved ones, who serve as instruments of the state. It suggests that those who work in the prison system have a form of PTSD and suffer alongside the prisoners in being a part of a system that dehumanizes everyone involved, a system that seems too big and unwieldy to ever fix. The film departs upon the viewer a wariness, a weight that you feel alongside Bernadine. From the nauseating first sequence to the chilling final one, the movie plunges you into the quickly dulling psyche and spirit of Woodard’s Bernadine as she desperately tries to cope and detach from her escalating guilt and ambivalence. 

Alfre Woodard carries the entire film effortlessly. She conveys a multitude of emotions with just a glance or a sigh. She strikes an intimidating figure, making it clear how Bernadine got to the position of warden, but she always leaves a vulnerable underbelly for the audience to see. Woodard is also able to establish, without the script ever drawing direct attention to it, that Bernadine is experiencing clear signs of trauma- nightmares, detachment, hypervigilance and sensitivity, avoidance, numbness. You can see her choosing to deaden her spirit, moment by moment, rather than fully comprehend all of the implications of what her job requires. In the final sequence, we see that spirit leave her altogether. 

“It’s my job” has been a justification for all sorts of horrific evil. But instead of self-righteous indignation towards Bernadine and the work she does, Clemency takes an observational, non-judgmental eye and instead focuses on the effect the work has on her soul. Clemency rises above feeling like an “issue” movie, yet whether it intends to or not, it offers a critical perspective needed for advocacy and greater awareness of the issue of capital punishment and criminal justice reform.  

– Madeleine D. 

P.S- 

I’m from Oklahoma, where we lead the country with the highest incarceration rate and rank #3 in executions. We also have the highest rate of female incarceration, which just keeps growing. If you’re interested in learning more about programs that offer support and counsel to female inmates, I highly recommend reading about the work of (and consider donating to) the following two Tulsa-based nonprofits. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to meet with some of the leadership of both nonprofits and see some of their operations, and I admire the outcome-driven, strategic work they are doing. 

Still She Rises– Provides comprehensive legal representation to indigent women in the criminal and civil legal system.

Women in Recovery – Intensive outpatient alternative for eligible women facing long prison sentences for non-violent drug-related offenses. The 18-month program focuses on each client’s holistic needs, including rehabilitation, therapy, legal counsel, family reunification, and job training/workplace readiness.

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.

Netflix Triple Feature: Da 5 Bloods, Eurovision, and Athlete A

Da 5 Bloods

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Da 5 Bloods is about five men, but it also may as well be 5 different movies. You’ve got a Vietnam movie, heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now. Then there is a treasure hunt movie, paying homage to Spike Lee’s favorite movie, Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Then there is a father-son story about bitterness and fear. Then there’s a story about veterans and PTSD, particularly for black American soldiers. Then there is a little bit of Girls Trip and other vacation comedies. But like the Da that binds the 5 Bloods together, what binds all of these genres and storylines is Spike Lee, and since this is first and foremost a Spike Lee joint, that means that it is never boring. 

Da 5 Bloods is an epic, and like most epics, the scale means that it is much more unwieldy, and less consistent. It’s a mixed bag. It feels like Lee was trying to do too much, like he was afraid he wouldn’t have another chance to say everything he wants to say (which considering Hollywood’s track record towards black talent is possible, even with an acclaimed director). But with a running time of two and a half hours, with the last forty minutes feeling pretty irrelevant from the stronger first half, I wish he had a stronger editor.

It also, at times, feels like the cast was having too good a time filming on location in Vietnam and Thailand, and Lee let his actors do off-the cuff improv and he had too many good memories to cut scenes short when they needed to be shorter. But at the same time, the entire cast is terrific, with Jonathan Majors as a highlight (watch The Last Black Man in San Francisco)! Their chemistry is palpable and carries the film even in its weaker moments. These weaker moments, while they lower the movie’s overall quality, don’t hide the sharper moments of commentary and insight from Lee, making it still a worthwhile watch. It may not be Lee’s best work but it may be the most “Spike Lee” movie he’s made.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

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A quick story: I recently joined a book club that is reading White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White, by Daniel Hill (great book). The book is about the prevalence of white culture and understanding its impact, why whiteness is often considered the default and how to fight that, and how to celebrate your white culture without being racist. Our book club leader posed this question at the end of our first meeting: what are ways that you can enjoy white culture, unproblematically? 

After that book club meeting, I watched Eurovision, and realized it is the perfect way. So if you, dear reader, are a white American wanting to get back to your European roots, or you’re not either of those things but want to enjoy a cute comedy with over-the-top musical numbers, and find out what Americans have been missing out on, then Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, is your movie. 

The movie follows Lars (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) as two Icelandic singers who beat the odds to get into Eurovision, the yearly multi-national singing competition. The movie is not, as some feared, a satire or lampooning of the contest. Instead it is a sweetly earnest celebration of the event. 

Eurovision’s biggest weakness is simply that of most comedies- the script. The actors carry the movie with their energy, and the music is fun and the locations are lovely, but the script feels more like a series of scene ideas rather than a narrative with cohesion, pacing, and momentum. It also feels the need to add an emotional element to the film, hamfisting a disappointed father subplot with Pierce Brosnan’s character that is wholly unnecessary and distracting. I would have preferred they skipped this obligatory “moral,” especially since the film has other more genuine things to say about the importance of your hometown and not running away from shame. 

In the end, Eurovision is an enjoyable, if forgettable, watch, and I’m looking forward to post-Coronavirus when I can start watching the real song competition myself.

Athlete A

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Documentaries have become more experimental in recent years, but Athlete A is not experimental in style or even in content. However, despite not being flashy, it tells its story compellingly. It focuses on the survivors of the Larry Nassar USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal and centers their experiences while providing a larger context to how such an abusive environment was able to form- and hide a pedophile amongst its ranks. In this the film explores why the culture of an institution- whether it be one like USA Gymnastics or your workplace- matters so much, and what changes can be made to prevent abuse and silence. It also is a celebration of journalism as a force of accountability and balance, injecting the film with a bit of Spotlight feel. It’s one of the best of the media that has come out of the #MeToo era, and while it isn’t a comfortable watch (and while not graphic, should be carefully considered before being watched by sexual assault survivors) it’s an important and valuable one. 

– Madeleine D. 

4 Father’s Day Movies

Happy Father’s Day! This holiday is special to madeleinelovesmovies because, as you may have figured out, this is actually a joint venture between a daughter and father! My dad shared his love of movies with me and taught me how to watch them discerningly, and now we continue to share this love through seeing films, debating them, and writing and editing these reviews. To celebrate, here is a spotlight on four small, under-the-radar movies I haven’t reviewed before about complex fathers.

Infinitely Polar Bear

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Infinitely Polar Bear stars Mark Ruffalo as Cam, a father with bipolar disorder taking care of his two daughters when his wife (Zoe Saldana) goes away to attend graduate school. The film is semi-autobiographical for director Maya Forbes (The Polka King), based on her father and her experiences growing up. 

This is a tough film to watch at times. There is a lot of second-hand embarrassment that comes from Cam’s manic episodes that play out in public and humiliate his daughters. There are emotionally wrought moments, and if you have a parent that struggles with a mental illness, the film will especially hit home. Sometimes it feels a little simplistic, like Forbes is too close to the material to push against Cam’s more irresponsible moments that nearly endanger his children. I imagine the reality was a lot more difficult than Infinitely Polar Bear admits. But this isn’t enough to deter what is overall a wonderfully acted and compelling film that ultimately argues, convincingly, that being present is more important than being perfect, and that there is a lot of grace for parents who try.

Captain Fantastic

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Captain Fantastic tells the story of Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a father of six who has been raising his children in the wilderness as a form of extreme-homeschooling. When his wife dies, Ben is forced to take his family out of isolation and emerge into a society that they might not be ready for. 

Captain Fantastic is quirky, but despite the occasional weak point in the script, mostly steers clear of indie cliches. Mortensen holds the film together through his performance as Ben, a fiercely dedicated father but an arrogant, prideful, and boastful man who has to be brought down from his pedestal by his children. He wrestles with making difficult choices for his family, and when to compromise his values for his kids. While the film isn’t traditionally “faith-based” or Christian (the main characters actually make fun of Christians a few times), the questions wrestled with here are those of what many Christians who strive to “be in the world but not of it” face. It will certainly ring true for all parents who must navigate a rapidly changing culture they don’t always understand, in what feels like an increasingly hostile world for their children. But Captain Fantastic assures you that, no matter what, a parent’s love will help the kids be alright. 

The Parts You Lose

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The Parts You Lose is a cautionary tale about what will happen if a child doesn’t have a good father. In this case, the lack of love between him and his father is what drives young Wesley (newcomer Danny Murphy) to bond with the fugitive criminal (a particularly grizzly Aaron Paul) he’s hiding in his shed. 

Wesley is deaf, something his father Ronnie (Scoot McNairy) refuses to acknowledge. While it’s clear Wesley responds better to sign language, Roonie insists on Wesley reading his lips. Ronnie is a rough man; bitter and often absent from his family. It’s basically an act of rebellion against his father’s inattention that Wesley rescues the injured criminal and nurses him back to health. 

Paul’s unnamed criminal is not a good man, but his meager offering of attention and semi-paternal affirmation is enough for Wesley, who quickly becomes attached to him despite the unavoidable. As Wesley struggles between these two fathers, it becomes clear that no matter which influence prevails, Wesley will never fail to be disappointed. 

The Parts You Lose is a bleak, moody, slow burn, but never unengaging. The movie puts Paul’s natural chemistry with kids to good use and he and Murphy’s scenes are a delight. Most impressively, the movie sticks the landing, which is always difficult for any film, but especially for small character dramas. A good ending is surprising, yet inevitable, and I felt like this movie nailed that. It’s sad as hell, but properly haunting. 

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For our last pick, and the second film in the subgenre “convicts with parental instincts,” we have the lovely Adopt a Highway. Here at madeleinelovesmovies, we are big fans of all of these leading men, but Ethan Hawke has a special place in our hearts (watch First Reformed!!!) and Adopt A Highway simply reassures us of that fact. Hawke gives a soulful portrait of Russell, a man who spent 21 years in prison for possession of marijuana and emerges back into the world as a thoroughly institutionalized man. He struggles to reintegrate into society, assert his own identity, and make connections- that is, until he finds a baby named Ella in a dumpster outside of his work. 

Adopt A Highway is not Raising Arizona, in tone or plot. Instead, it follows Russell’s road to restoration as he makes his way through his new world. His time with Ella is sweet but- spoiler alert- is not the main focus of the film. Rather, what he learns from his time taking care of Ella sticks with him as he journeys to resolve his own father’s death. Baby Ella shocks Russell into action, making him aware of his own self-worth and potential to care for others. It’s a tender journey that shows what fatherhood- in its many forms- can positively awaken within a man.

-Madeleine D.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

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Imagine a new world with me for a moment: I’m Vince Gilligan. I’ve spent the last six years being asked by fans what happened to Jesse Pinkman at the end of Breaking Bad. I can’t sleep well at night knowing that the fate of this beloved character that I tortured for years is still up in the air. I convince Netflix to give me a couple million dollars, and I write El Camino. I set it five years in the future, and tell a lovely and painless story of how Jesse Pinkman moved to Alaska, became an artisan carpenter, adopted a dog, bonded with his neighbors, is crushing it in therapy, and is now a big-brother mentor at the local elementary school. Aaron Paul wins five Oscars for it. How is that even possible? It just is. 

But alas, I am not Vince Gilligan, and instead, El Camino starts mere seconds after where Breaking Bad left off, with Jesse driving into the night after escaping the Brotherhood’s compound. The movie covers roughly the three days afterward as Jesse gets the money he needs to start his new life in Alaska. 

The largest criticism leveled against El Camino were accusations that it is superfluous. Jesse ends Breaking Bad driving to an unknown future, and that’s exactly how El Camino ends, too. Nothing in El Camino changes or informs us of anything new about Breaking Bad. So the accusation that it is superfluous is true- if you’re thinking purely in terms of plot. But plot and story are different things. The plot of The Lord of the Rings is getting the ring to Mordor, and everything after is technically superfluous. But the story of The Lord of the Rings is that of Frodo Baggins (and company) leaving the Shire to do an extraordinary task and the personal sacrifice it takes, which makes it impossible for Frodo to return to things the way they were. It’s that story that makes the long ending of Return of the King necessary. 

The plot of Breaking Bad may be over, but the story of Jesse Pinkman is not. Jesse’s ending in “Felina” completes the plot, but it doesn’t complete Jesse’s arc, because “Felina” ends with Walt freeing him from the Nazis, and that’s Walt taking action, not Jesse. Instead, Jesse’s arc has to be about him taking action to free himself, which is exactly what El Camino does.

The vice of Jesse Pinkman throughout Breaking Bad, more than his addictions or recklessness, is his malleability. He’s a sponge to outside influences, always looking to others to help him find a sense of direction and identity. His loyalty to these influences- Jane, Mike, Gus, and of course, Walt, form mental imprisonments that lead to his physical imprisonment. El Camino is about liberating Jesse from both.

Part of the way the film explores Jesse’s liberation and reclamation of personal agency is by building upon a connection that formed in the latter half of season 5, which is the comparison of Jesse to a dog. The title of episode 12, “Rabid Dog,” is in reference to Jesse and is when the connection is made explicit. Jesse has become a loose cannon to Walt’s operation, and Saul Goodman suggests to Walt that he should see this as “an Old Yeller type situationwhere he might need to put Jesse down, like a rabid dog. Walt stalls, but eventually hires Jack’s gang to do the deed.

The connection isn’t random; Jesse has always been a bit like Walt’s dog, tragically loyal and always there to be kicked around whenever Walt is angry. In El Camino, this connection is taken to its extreme, particularly in the flashback scenes of captivity with Jesse’s interactions with his primary captor Todd (a fantastically creepy Jesse Plemmons). Now literally in a cage and on a chain leash on a dog cable run, Jesse has been dehumanized more than ever. Little actions from Todd- licking his hands and smoothing down Jesse’s hair, spraying Jesse with a water hose to clean him off, patting Jesse on the head as he sits crouched over in the car, his condescending words of positive reinforcement- all go to show that, as Plemmons says in The Road to El Camino: Behind the Scenes of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, “I think Jesse’s part [Todd’s] pet, and [Todd] thinks that what he’s doing is best for [Jesse], even if Jesse doesn’t realize it.” This is a sentiment similar to what Breaking Bad writer Gennifer Hutchison says of Walt, that “Walt does care about Jesse. The great thing about Walt is he kind of believes his own lies. He really does think he’s doing what’s best for Jesse.” In El Camino we finally see Jesse breaking free of these captors and regaining his humanity. Finally, it’s Jesse who is doing what is best for Jesse. 

All of this is conveyed through a truly captivating performance by Aaron Paul, whose work here is certainly cut out for him. He’s returning to a beloved character six years later, which alone brings plenty of skepticism. He has to play Jesse in five different time periods, and he has to overcome the sizable age difference between him and the character (Paul’s age works towards conveying that Jesse has been aged by his experiences, but can be distracting in flashbacks.) He has to track Jesse’s constant ups and downs, progresses and regresses, put well by Donna Bowman for the AV Club, “Gilligan’s camera won’t let us look away from [Jesse]: painfully infantilized by Todd in flashback, flinching and broken at Badger’s house, desperate in Todd’s apartment, regressing to petty defiance at the vacuum shop, and wearily dominant at Kandy Welding.”

Most impressively, Paul portrays Jesse as he is processing this deluge trauma in real-time, while also trying to fight it off, knowing that, as Brian Tallerico says for RogerEbert.com, “he does not have the luxury of time to grieve or heal [yet]… capturing the push-and-pull of trauma and need within Jesse.” Jesse has been in survival mode for so long that he can barely remember who he is outside of those basic instincts, making the moments where we see glimpses of “old Jesse,” precious glimmers of hope. Through the extensive flashbacks, Paul is able to weave together the different versions of Jesse to remind us of the person who is still there beneath the feral survivor. 

The only thing about El Camino that gives me pause is the climactic shoot-out. So much of Jesse’s character has been about his guilt over the violence he’s caused, and his quest to leave this violence behind him. To have the climax of the movie require Jesse to kill two men feels… wrong?

On the one hand, Breaking Bad has always been a western, and El Camino leans heavily into the genre’s tropes and aesthetics. I think incorporating the genre conventions are fun, and a shootout is classic Western. Also, Jesse doesn’t go into the situation with the intention of violence, and the duel is mutually agreed upon. It’s an “honorable” killing, as moral an act of violence ever gets in the world of Breaking Bad. And, as a cherry on top, the man Jesse duels is the man who built the rig-system that kept Jesse captive, so there’s a sense of righteous retribution. 

But. On the other hand, the rule of threes means that this shoot-out scene is thematically connected to two previous scenes in El Camino. The first is a flashback with Todd, when Jesse gets his hands on a gun while he and Todd are out in the desert burying the housekeeper. The second is when Jesse hands himself over to the fake cops, rather than kill them. As James Poniewozik says for the New York Times, Jesse “gets a ‘Coward of the County’ Western arc, twice surrendering his gun to bad men who break his will, then finally winning his freedom in a shootout. The beaten cur gets his mojo back by pulling the trigger. Walt would be proud.” The progression of these scenes, of Jesse suffering greatly twice before for not pulling the trigger, and gaining his freedom in the third, sends the message that Jesse had to enact violence. Pulling the trigger is part of his liberation. It was necessary, part of his character growth. In a way, it also implies that Jesse surrendering the gun twice earlier was a sign of weakness.

I hate this implication. What has always been most powerful about Jesse is his aversion to violence and his conscience. In the Breaking Bad ending, Jesse doesn’t kill Walt because Jesse has always been better than Walt. He doesn’t run from the consequences of his actions. He accepts them and endures them. Jesse isn’t like Walt, that’s why we love him, and his final actions in El Camino shouldn’t be about becoming more like Walt or doing something that Walt would approve of. 

So.. sorry Vince, the climax doesn’t do it for me. But that’s hardly enough for me to disregard the rest of the movie, which otherwise is the perfect mix of soul-crushing sadness and hopefulness that we’ve come to expect from the Gilligan-verse, and is a fitting ending for Jesse. But if, say, we’re looking at an El Camino Dos: A Breaking Bad Movie Sequel, Vince, I have the perfect pitch for you. 

-Madeleine D.

 

The Elder Brothers of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul

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*Spoilers for Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and El Camino below

For the past 9 weeks, my heart has been in Vince Gilligan’s Land of Enchantment. I have watched, for the first time, Breaking Bad, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, and Better Call Saul. I’m 12 years late to the party, but I’m here! Therefore, this is not a review about how amazing these shows and movie are, because by now that’s a pretty well-established fact. Instead, I want to examine an overarching theme of the Gilligan-verse.

In both TV shows, we see a reenactment of the biblical parable of the prodigal son, with a special emphasis placed on understanding the Elder Brother character. Walter White of Breaking Bad and Chuck McGill of Better Call Saul are archetypal elder brothers to Jesse Pinkman and Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, respectively. These characters become case studies of the unique failings of both Elder Brothers and Younger Brothers, as depicted in the prodigal son parable. These allegorical connections are part of what makes Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul such rich examinations of morality.  

The Parable

The Prodigal Son narrative appears in Luke 15:11-32 when Jesus tells a series of parables to a group of Pharisees. In the story, there is a rich man with two sons. The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance (an extremely disrespectful action). The father gives it to him, and the son runs off. He squanders the money “in reckless living” (v. 13, ESV). When he runs out of money, there is a famine in the country he is in. The only work he can find is feeding pigs (which, when considering Jewish dietary laws, symbolizes a great spiritual deprivation). The son decides to go back to his father and to offer himself up as a hired servant in order to pay back his debt. He knows his father is a kind man, and he will be treated better as a servant for him than he is now.  But when the younger son returns home, his father runs to meet him and immediately embraces him back as his son and puts on a celebration, declaring that the son “was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’” (v. 22). The son, despite his failings, has been forgiven and fully reconciled with the father. 

Meanwhile, when the elder brother, who has remained faithful to his father, hears about this, he becomes angry and refuses to join the celebration. His father comes out to try to bring him in, but the brother argues that it is unfair that while he has always served the father, it is his younger brother, who acted so shamefully, who is now being celebrated. The elder son has served his father out of duty and a desire to be recognized, not out of love. The father responds that “‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (v. 31). The parable ends without any reconciliation between the brothers or between the older brother and the father. 

Better Call Saul 

Better Call Saul is a more straightforward telling of the prodigal son story with the literal brothers of Chuck and Jimmy McGill. Chuck (Michael McKean) is the older brother who is a brilliant, respected, accomplished lawyer, and is nearly impossible to please. He casts a long shadow over his younger brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), who has a messy past and is more than willing to take a few shortcuts to get his way. Chuck operates in a completely black-and-white worldview. He is a staunch legalist who puts all of his trust in the law. He shows little capacity for mercy or grace. Because he sees Jimmy cut corners and get things without working as hard for them as he did, Chuck is full of self-righteous anger. 

Pastor Timothy Keller writes in his book The Prodigal God that “Elder brothers base their self-images on being hardworking, or moral, or members of an elite clan, or extremely smart and savvy” (61). Chuck does all of these things, and because he defines himself as being diametrically opposed to Jimmy, he refuses to recognize any of these characteristics in his brother. This means Jimmy, even at his best, can never earn Chuck’s love and approval. This is part of the reason he gives up on being good altogether and embraces the Saul Goodman moniker. 

Chuck’s resentment towards Jimmy is best reflected in the words of the older son to the father in the parable after he hears of the celebration for his brother:

“‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ [The father responds:] ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found’” (v. 29-32). 

The joy of the father’s inheritance has always been available to the older son. Being with the father is itself a gift. Likewise, a joyful relationship with his brother and personal satisfaction in his own accomplishments has always been possible for Chuck. But he self-sabotages both because he’s too preoccupied with the perceived unfairness of how he’s been treated compared to Jimmy. He sees any grace extended towards Jimmy as unfair, and isn’t unfairness the antithesis of the law? It is for a legalist who hasn’t experienced mercy. 

The tragedy of Chuck is that he is too focused on what he deems “fair” to see what is loving and kind. Even when Jimmy is at his humblest, Chuck continues to cut him down. Chuck did all the “right” things, but without the right heart, it leads to nothing. Chuck dies alone in his house, with nothing of value to show for himself. His story ends with alienation from joy and from his brother, just like the elder brother in the parable.

Amill Santiago writes in “Better Call Saul and the Ache for Approval” that, “The two broken brothers are trying to get essentially the same thing through very different ways: immorality and moralism… [But] In Christ we can be received and approved despite our moral failures (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15) and independently from our moral performance (cf. Eph. 2:8-9).” Chuck and Jimmy, like the Elder and Younger brother, are both trying to fill holes in their hearts for affirmation and reward, but simply in different ways. In this sense, Better Call Saul invites viewers to examine the ways in which they lean towards the younger brother or elder brother mindset, and the follies of both. The show understands, like the parable, that neither approach to life- duty and joyless obligation like Chuck, or self-centered rebelliousness like Jimmy, are satisfactory ways to have relationships with God or others. 

But, unfortunately for the McGill brothers, Better Call Saul is also a show about how seemingly minute choices put people on a path towards destruction from which they eventually find themselves unable to escape. There is no father/God figure in Better Call Saul who disrupts the road to destruction and redeems his wayward children, who stops Jimmy McGill from becoming the Saul Goodman we know in Breaking Bad. In this regard, Better Call Saul’s fatalism is at odds with the Prodigal Son parable. But despite this, there is still great value in the way the show prompts audience introspection, and how Better Call Saul shows other characters land in the middle of the extreme older brother-younger brother spectrum. Kim, Howard, Mike, Nacho, and others move around from one end of the spectrum to another, and this fleshes out how anyone can “break bad,” and the many incarnations this can take. This variation is what makes the show so compelling. 

Breaking Bad

In Better Call Saul, the older and younger brother dynamic is more straightforward because it plays out in the central sibling relationship between Chuck and Jimmy. But in Breaking Bad, Walt and Jesse are not brothers, nor is their relationship dynamic that of brothers. Instead, Walt and Jesse have a twisted father and son relationship (one of forced co-dependency). This means that the older/younger brother dynamic doesn’t play out so much in their interpersonal relationship as much as it does through their symbolic standings in society.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a quintessential elder brother in his world. When we meet him in the pilot, he’s a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who keeps his head down and is a steady father and husband. He is seen as the beta male to his DEA brother-in-law, Hank’s, alpha machismo. Walt feels emasculated by his wife Skyler. He feels underappreciated and underestimated. He is full of unrecognized genius, and therefore full of bitterness to those around him who do not recognize this genius. When he is diagnosed with lung cancer, he’s been dealt an undeniably crappy deal. But he chooses to let this be the reason why he indulges in self-pity and becomes unbelievably cruel. This is because, “The first sign [of] an elder-brother spirit is that when your life doesn’t go as you want, you aren’t just sorrowful but deeply angry and bitter. Elder brothers believe that if they live a good life they should get a good life” (Keller, 56). In El Camino, Walt tells Jesse in a flashback, “You’re lucky, you know that? You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.” Walt wants the same thing as Jesse, but has spent his life trying to get it in a different way. Elder brothers try to gain what they want through loveless obedience, and become disillusioned when their efforts don’t pay off.  

Walt’s cancer diagnosis puts him in contrast to Hank when Hank is shot by the twins and loses his ability to walk. While Walt’s pain reveals pride, anger, bitterness, and entitlement, in the end, Hank uses his pain as a catalyst to become a better man, husband, and DEA agent. For Walt, “The good life is lived not for delight in good deeds themselves, but as calculated ways to control their environment” (Keller, 58). When he loses control of his environment, the Heisenberg that was always inside him does everything necessary to regain control, which means becoming a menace to everyone, especially to those in his own home. Walt feels that he’s earned the right to play Heisenberg, to live out this childish power fantasy because he has acted good and has been repressed for so long. He helps justify this with his mantra of doing it all “for his family,” a lie he holds onto until the very end, when he finally admits to Skyler in the episode “Felina” that he did it all for himself. In Walt, we see that the elder brother mindset is a ticking time bomb. When the elder brother feels cheated, or that his “good life” hasn’t paid off in the way he expected, he lashes out in self-righteous pride and anger. He is unable to relate to others with grace and mercy because he refuses to accept it himself, and nothing will ever be good enough for him. 

On the flip side, you have Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who (despite actually being an older brother in his biological family) is a classic younger brother. In the parable, “The [younger brother] humiliates his family and lives a self-indulgent, dissolute life. He is totally out of control” (Keller, 39). This is how we meet Jesse at the beginning of the show. He’s considered by his family and respectable society to be an embarrassment; a wayward junkie, too dumb and unruly to ever do anything of value. He’s seemingly squandered all potential and resources he has for a life of easy living and drugs. Literally the third sentence Walt says to Jesse in the pilot is, “Honestly, I never expected you to amount to much.” 

Throughout the series, Jesse has quite a few “eating with the pigs” moments, from S02E04 “Down” when he’s kicked out of his house and spends the night on the floor of the Krystal Ship, covered in portapotty sludge and wearing a facemask, to being a meth-cook slave to neo-nazis by the end of the series. And that’s just the physical desolation; Jesse is constantly haunted by guilt and remorse and keeps being pulled further and further in over his head into the life of crime he was never cut out for. Jesse, unlike Walt, is brought low enough to see his need for forgiveness and redemption. It’s easy to imagine him saying the words of the younger brother at his lowest points- “I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21). But because there is no God/father figure in Breaking Bad either, Jesse turns to all sorts of self-flagellation to try and replicate this forgiveness, from rehab and its philosophy of unconditional self-acceptance, to mind-numbing partying, to helping the DEA, to going through a personal hell in captivity. We see here that the younger brother’s life of gluttony and self-fulfillment leads to great personal consequences. If the younger brother doesn’t come to see the error of his ways, this self-destructiveness is a never-ending spiral. If the younger brother does see the error of his ways, then he needs forgiveness and reconciliation to be able to move past his failings. 

In El Camino, Jesse gets his happy ending (as happy as one can be in Breaking Bad), and the older brother/younger brother’s differences are further parsed out. When Jesse escapes captivity, he is able to rely on his friendships and connections to help get him to Alaska. He doesn’t have Walt’s pride and is able to use his relationships with Skinny Pete, Badger, Old Joe the junkyard guy, his parents, Ed, and the memories of Mike and Jane to guide him. In the end, Jesse is, in part, saved by his reliance on others and their prodigal mercy towards him, while Walt dies utterly alone, having severed all relationships because he saw them primarily as transactional. Jesse as the younger brother experiences a restoration. Walt refuses every chance given to him of restoration with himself, his family, and moral society. 

While Better Call Saul invites viewers to consider themselves and whether they are an older or younger brother and how such mindsets lead down equally dangerous roads, Breaking Bad is focused more on the ending of the parable. Better Call Saul’s lack of a father/God figure means neither Chuck nor Jimmy get redemption. Breaking Bad gives Jesse as the younger brother a reconciliation, but leaves the elder brother Walt’s ending as unresolved, just like the parable. This zeros-in on a key point of understanding the parable. Jesus was talking to a group of Pharisees, hyper-religious men who loved the law over God and enforcing the law over loving others. By leaving the elder brother unreconciled, Jesus sends a clear message to the Pharisees- you look down on the younger brother sinners of the word, but your fates will be much worse if you do not see the hatred in your own hearts.

Breaking Bad, too, seems to think that being an elder brother can be potentially worse than being a younger brother, conveying this through both the respective endings for Walt and Jesse and also through the show’s tight-rope balance of pushing the audience to align themselves with Walt, only to then remind you of Walt’s monstrosity. By doing this, the show puts up a mirror and makes you realize how easily you too are swayed into his self-serving, self-righteous, entitled mindset. Perhaps it is easier in our current society to be elder brothers- and much more dangerous as well. These shows focused on morality come to similar conclusions to that of Jesus’ parables- that bitterness, anger, resentment, a lack of mercy, and entitlement are all key roots of evil.

-Madeleine D.

Oscar Movie Minute: Little Women, Dark Waters, The Two Popes, 1917, and Knives Out

Wow, after all of that Marvel propaganda, it’s time to talk about some real cinema! 

Little Women

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More than any previous adaptation, this Little Women has meta-textual interaction with the source material. Telling the story out of order and cutting between the adult and younger versions of the March sisters work mightily in some areas (Beth’s death has never been more devastating) but not as effective in others. Some characters suffer from this structure, such as Timothee Chalamet’s Laurie, who unlike Christian Bale’s version doesn’t get to build up into a confidant and friend of the March family. But it also helps characters like Amy, who is given her due and more time to justify her point of view and actions. 

Some of the ideas writer-director Greta Gerwig puts forth and the way she speaks to how the novel has been received and critiqued didn’t agree with me, but I admire how she elevates the art of adaptation. I’d rather have a story that had a unique perspective rather than just dutiful, stuck-to-the-original material. 

But what hasn’t been changed from the source material to this adaptation is the coziness or the timelessness factor. The story still rings true for women today and celebrates female narratives. The movie portrays sisterhood and women’s socialization with astounding accuracy. It also shows how women, who throughout time have been confined to the home, have made these domestic spheres into feminine sanctuaries, and the beauty in that. This adaption pays special focus to the bewilderment Mr. Brook, Laurie, and his grandfather have at experiencing for the first time a peek into this world, which probably will ring true to many men (including men like my father, who has a house full of girls). It’s charming, though, with no malice on either side. 

While this film does depict sorrow and struggle and pain, it’s ultimately a celebration, and that makes it not only a perfect holiday movie, but it’s also, in part, what helps it be one of the best movies of the year: beautifully made and carefully crafted at every level. 

Dark Waters

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True advocacy in the world, the work activists do, is long. It’s time consuming. It’s often detail-oriented and tedious. It’s not sexy. For every great march or momentous legislative win there are hours upon hours of unrecognized labor (often underpaid or not paid at all). Behind every win is a million disappointments and setbacks. 

Movies about advocacy and justice often win awards, but they win not for their realism but instead because they are perfectly engineered to boil down years of work into two hours, giving audiences a concentrated dose of inspiration that has plenty of spectacle and triumph. They’re a cliche, but they win. They make us feel good and keep up optimistic. 

Dark Waters, the newest film by director Todd Haynes, starring Mark Ruffalo (who also produced) and Anne Hathaway, is adamantly none of those things. It’s the anti-Oscar movie. Dark Waters tells the real-life story of corporate defense lawyer Rob Bilott, who discovers that the DuPont company is poisoning water in West Virginia and becomes a whistleblower. The film, which takes place over seven years, gets into the nitty-gritty details of the case it’s following, and shows the true, grueling nature of legal work. It doesn’t have a victorious ending, or big bravado speeches. It stubbornly refuses to fall into any of those tropes, and that’s probably why it hasn’t been nominated for any awards, including for Ruffalo, who gives probably the most humble performance of the year. 

It’s hard to recommend this film. It’s a downer. It feels long. Ruffalo and Hathaway give great performances, but their roles require them to be unlikeable and stripped of their natural charisma. The film, from simply a visual standpoint, is ugly. The movie wears on you. But… that’s kind of the point. By the end of it, you’ll feel defeated, like Bilott. You’ll feel like his wife and family, who have had to sacrifice an attentive dad. You’ll feel the wariness of knowing the corporations who make all of the products you use daily could be poisoning you, and you might never know it. And even if you did- what would you even do about it?

The Two Popes

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I didn’t expect to enjoy The Two Popes. Afterall, I’m not Catholic, and don’t know much about either Pope Benedict or Pope Francis. What could this film have for me?

I’m here to tell you that The Two Popes is a marvelous film, for anyone. It is worth seeing for the performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce and the sharp screenplay alone. But, there are two other elements I found that truly set this film apart. 

  1. Despite not being Catholic, I found plenty of similarities between the conversations of the Popes to conversations happening not only in my own church denomination but also in American politics. 

Pope Benedict represents a conservative interpretation of the faith. Pope Francis represents a more liberal one, both theologically and socially. This opposition extends into mercy vs. the law, personal responsibility vs. corporate responsibility, individual change vs social justice. None of these ideas should be binaries, but in both the evangelical protestant church and in American politics, crossing the aisle and creating bridges across what has become divided stances becomes more and more difficult. 

The Two Popes brings us a beautiful picture of what it looks like to actually engage someone on a human level, and only then being able to confront the differences between one another. You can’t always change someone’s mind, but sometimes you can. And sometimes you’ll find your own beliefs changed as well. But you must first engage as people. That applies even to Popes. 

  1. The Two Popes also captures something I very rarely have seen in film. If last year’s criminally overlooked film First Reformed understood the inevitable tragedy of being a minister, then The Two Popes understands the inherent comedy of being one. 

The concept of being a pastor/reverend/minister/priest- whether a humble youth pastor or a Pope, is somewhat ridiculous if you think about it (wait, hear me out- as a second-generation PK I say it with love). 

We suppose that the God of the universe has created an institution for his people, his beloved sinners, which will be led by other sinners. If you’re a pastor, you’re trying to guide others in all the ways you still sin yourself. You want to lead by example, but your example is littered with failures. You try to be truthful about your struggles, but you can’t be too truthful or people get uncomfortable and nervous. If you are a good pastor and in it long enough, you will see dozens of people fall and betray everything you thought you had taught them, and you will betray your own deepest held convictions dozens of times (a week) and yet you must continue admonishing and extending grace and forgiveness.

Isn’t it preposterous? Absurd? Contradictory, yet commonplace, yet rare? And yet it still remains almost untouched by cinema. 

The Two Popes is a serious drama, but moments of levity come from embracing the contradictions of being considered sacred while also being human. The two popes eat pizza in the Sistine Chapel. They watch football. They joke and laugh because they are human. They dance. Then they forgive one another. Neither knows exactly what they are doing, but when they are able to extend grace, they’re closer to God then they’ve ever been. 

Films that take religion seriously (and aren’t marketed as “inspirational films”) are fairly rare, and the conversations of doubt, forgiveness, and church bureaucracy in this film were deeply moving, thoughtful, and rang true. It’s one of the most well-written movies of the year, and I believe, a must-see.

1917

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1917 is a spectacular technical achievement that really can only be seen to be believed. The “one-shot war movie” pitch is executed perfectly. It’s exciting to watch cinematography be pushed to its very edge, right in front of you.

But what is there to 1917 outside of the one-shot gimmick? What does it have to say and reveal about war?

A friend who saw the film with me said that in a political time where many are hungry to start wars at seemingly a whim (*ahem* WW3 with Iran *ahem*) a war movie like 1917 is always timely and important to remind us of the truth of war: it is hell. It is not glorious. It should be avoided at all costs. 

But the warfare of WWI shown in 1917 is radically different from how war looks today, and this period of warfare had already been covered extensively in film. Any relevance and timeliness is rendered mute. This war is so removed from modern warfare that it is easy to categorize it as the past, with little to teach us today that has not already been taught. 

Because of this, 1917, outside of the cinematography, has no new things to add to the already extensive war-movie genre, on a storytelling or aesthetic sense. It’s not that it doesn’t deserve to have been made. I’m glad there’s a movie that demands to be seen on the big screen- those are becoming rarer. 

Yet it’s impossible to talk about this film outside of the knowledge that it’s currently a frontrunner for best picture, and so I have to remark that I sure don’t think it should. The best picture award is not awarded to the crew who wins the suffering-olympics. It’s about the best overall film, ideally one that captures its particular year’s zeitgeist, which 1917 does not do in any respects. 

Knives Out

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Knives Out isn’t quite the ensemble murder mystery it was advertised to be, but it’s got great surprises in store nonetheless. The main twist is that you learn who the murderer is right away, and are poised to root for them as they try to get away with their plan. The movie is atmospheric and fun, and the whole cast seems like they’re having a good time playing this deliciously spoiled family. 

There is an overt political message to the film that casts the Thrombey clan as emblematic white Americans who believe they earned everything they’ve got and who like legal immigrants who keep their heads down and work hard, but don’t like any immigrants that either challenge that persona or make them feel threatened in any way. I enjoyed the creativity in which this message was incorporated throughout the film, and loved the perfectly meta-casting of Chris Evans, the literal Captain America, as the embodiment of the worst of socially-accepted white nationalism. 

But outside of this political message is a spiritual one, one that was pointed out to me by my pastor, Ricky Jones. That is of true innocence unveiling fake righteousness. Marta’s innocence lays bare the fake righteousness of the Thrombeys. Her simple truthfulness confronts their deceit. This immigrant may remind us of another visitor, an immigrant to our world, whose complete holiness and innocence illuminated the sins of those around him and put their hypocrisy into the light. 

-Madeleine D. 

Next week: Top Ten of 2019

Boldness in Storytelling: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Jojo Rabbit, and Cats

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*Spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker 

I’ve said before that I’d rather have a movie that takes risks and sticks to a bold vision than one that plays it safe and is dull. When I say bold vision, that doesn’t mean the movie has to be big or flashy. Avengers: Endgame is a big, flashy film, but doesn’t have as bold a vision as, say, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which is a much quieter film but sticks to its guns and has fascinating ideas. 

But after seeing the wild trio of WWII satire comedy Jojo Rabbit, the final movie of the newest Star Wars trilogy, and Cats, I have been forced to ask myself if I really, really do prefer boldness. 

Star Wars

You’re probably here for a review of The Rise of Skywalker, and you’ve probably already seen it and have a lot of thoughts. 

I like Star Wars, but would not call myself an invested fan. I enjoyed The Force Awakens, primarily for the promising new characters, and I really liked The Last Jedi, because it tried to move the franchise away from nostalgia and tired patterns towards a new future. It challenges Star Wars fans to imagine a more inclusive Star Wars, and it made the franchise less escapist.  

Unsurprisingly, it’s now one of the most divisive films in recent history. Not that director Rian Johnson couldn’t have gone about his radical reimaginings with more grace towards the original fanbase, but I can never forgive The Rise of Skywalker for doing him dirty and almost entirely retconning everything he tried to do. There are ways director JJ Abrams could have tried to unite the fanbase without erasing or ignoring everything Johnson introduced. The way it was handled reeks of desperation and cowardice. 

I usually see movies knowing most of the spoilers, but I didn’t for Rise of Skywalker, so there ended up being three moments I involuntarily threw up my hands and sighed. 

  1. Rey is a Palpatine- I’ve never been punched in the face, and I don’t know if Rian Johnson has either, but now we both know how it would feel. 
  2. Han and Ben/Kylo moment- I know Harrison Ford hasn’t cared about Star Wars for a while now, but after seeing this, I question if he’s ever had any genuine enthusiasm for anything in his entire life. 
  3. When Rey and Ben kiss- Writer/director Joss Whedon once said, “Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” This choice gives people neither of these things, which in a fandom as divided as Star Wars, with a movie as fanservice-y as this, is actually quite an accomplishment, I guess. 

There is a distinct lack of identity to ROS, despite the film trying to namecheck and cameo every part of the Star Wars legacy. It shows, more than anything, that Star Wars has to change. It can’t continue like this, and it’s going to take a very strong creative force (not a Dollar Tree-Spielberg) to move the franchise into new territory. Not everyone will like it, but that’s what bold vision takes. 

One of the worst parts of ROS is the hastily completed redemption arc of Ben Solo. We all knew it was coming, but that doesn’t excuse that there is absolutely no attention paid to the fact that he’s been, in effect, a fascist. In a world with a rising number of actual fascists, extreme alt-righters, and incels (these three things are not all the same, but there is a heavy overlap), Kylo Ren being one of them can’t be treated lightly. 

So if Star Wars isn’t going to teach you how to redeem a fascist, then Taika Waititi will. 

How to Redeem a Fascist: Jojo Rabbit vs Rise of Skywalker

Jojo Rabbit is a dark comedy about WWII and Hitler that tears apart the ideology of the Nazis. With the rise of neo-nazism today, a movie that is both critical of nazism but also has compassion for those who have been taken in by it is critical. 

The film tells the story of a 10-year old boy (a fantastic Roman Griffin Davis) living in Nazi Germany near the end of WWII who is one of Hitler Youth and discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) a Jewish girl his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in their house. His interactions with Elsa challenge all that he’s been told about the Jews and the war, and he comes to terms with the lies he’s believed. 

The film is able to show how those with hateful ideology prey on vulnerable young people by promising things that all people universally want- to be loved, accepted, and made to feel important and powerful in a world where so much is out of our control. By emphasizing throughout just how young Jojo is, the audience is reminded just how vulnerable and easily persuaded children are, which helps us root for Jojo’s redemption, even as he says and does terrible things. It reminds us to be compassionate for the scared child within all of us. 

Jojo is redeemed by the end of the film by realizing what he’s been taught is wrong, and then, with the help of others, finding love, identity, and community outside of this ideology. The people who help him don’t ever condone or excuse his bad actions, but they don’t give up on him. Most importantly, they offer Jojo alternatives. In our age of calling people out on social media and “canceling” people, it is very easy to say someone is doing something bad, but there’s very little offering of something better. That’s where the hope is in Jojo Rabbit. 

Meanwhile, in Star Wars, Ben Solo is a mass murderer and a father-killer who says he’s drawn to the light side every few scenes, but only changes when he’s healed by Rey, to whom he already has a force-connection with. Then he has a quick exchange with his dead-dad, and then he helps out Rey and then dies. 

Now there is no explicit outlining of the First Order’s ideology, but from context, visual cues, and the history of Star Wars, it’s clear they are supposed to be like the Nazis.* That makes Ben Solo, a young man who was taken in by Snoke/the First Order, fit to compare to Jojo. 

When Ben goes to the light side, he doesn’t have to reckon with his ideologies and past (besides being forgiven by dead dad.) There’s no conscious uncoupling with the systems that were approving and supporting his vile behavior. There is no real alternative he joins with, except Rey. Because in the Star Wars universe you can just switch to the “light side,” Ben never has to unlearn all of his behaviors and hateful thoughts like Jojo does. And Ben dies heroically, which, ironically enough, is a key component of fascism, the cult of death. When it comes to Ben vs Jojo, this lyric from Hamilton sums it up well- “dying is easy, young man, living is harder.” Jojo has to live with the continued consequences of having been a part of an evil institution. Ben does not. 

Even worse is that Rise of Skywalker implies Emporer Palpatine created Snoke to manipulate Ben, because then it’s like Ben was somehow mind-controlled and manipulated into becoming a neo-nazi, which makes it easier to excuse his behavior and it reduces the systematic and structural ways youths are pulled into ur-fascism to one individual bad apple. 

Jojo Rabbit never does this, instead showing the systemic and structural ways youths are pulled into ur-fascism/nazism while also not negating personal responsibility and choice. These complex choices make Jojo Rabbit a bold movie that doesn’t run from controversy or relevant commentary. But it isn’t controversial because it’s trying to be provocative or just rile people up. It’s for good reason. And it’s an overall excellent film. 

And then there’s Cats

Cats

There’s been a lot of great memes about Cats. Reviews for the film have basically become a genre within themselves. It’s a movie so inexplicable that it makes it hard to talk about, and you’ve probably already decided whether you’re going to see it or not.

But while making a movie of the musical “Cats” was probably a fundamentally bad idea, this film is bold through the level of seriousness and commitment everyone, from the actors to the director, takes with this movie. It’s ridiculous and nonsensical and contains the eternal sin of somehow being able to make beautiful-human Idris Elba look like a naked mole-rat, but once you surrender to it, at least it tried. Honestly, I’d rather have something like this, with its breathless enthusiasm and wild disregard for things like “decency” and “respectability” than something that feels soulless and engineered. It’s unhinged, but isn’t it kinda beautiful that it can all bring us together in utter dismay? 

There’s this great story about Harold Prince, a legendary theater producer, who met with Andrew Lloyd Webber about his musical “Cats” and was insistent that there must be some kind of deeper analogy and theme behind the story (sounds like a man after my own heart) but simply could not figure out what they must be. He said to Webber, “‘I don’t understand. Is this about English politics? (Are) those cats Queen Victoria, Gladstone, and Disraeli?’ He looked at me like I’d lost my mind, and after the longest pause said, ‘Hal, this is just about cats.’” 

Sometimes, you have to surrender and realize that this is just about Cats. 

-Madeleine D. 
*Video essayist Lindsay Ellis has an excellent video on this subject of Star Wars, the First Order, and Fascism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAVeyXwy3BE

A Passover Story: A Guide to the Symbolism of “Uncut Gems”

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By Jonathan Dorst

The book of Exodus in the Old Testament is a story of two types of people and two ways of living. The first type of person and lifestyle is represented by Pharaoh in his drive to build bigger and bigger buildings and work his (Jewish) slaves seven days a week (Exodus 1:14) to produce the marvels of Egypt. The other type of person and lifestyle is represented by Yahweh God in His desire to have a (Jewish) people who are defined by their just and loving relationships to one another and their ability to rest (Exodus 20:10).

The dramatic highlight of the book is when God brings about a series of ten plagues upon Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let His people out of their slavery. When, nine plagues in, Pharaoh is still resolute in not allowing the Israelites to leave, God finally unleashes His angel of death to kill every firstborn son in Egypt. While the Egyptian families are devastated, the Israelite families are spared by spreading blood over the doorways of their homes, signaling to the angel to pass over their homes.

In Uncut Gems, the new film from (Jewish) filmmakers Josh & Benny Safdie, we see a man torn between these two ways of living and unsure of what type of person he wants to be. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a (Jewish) jewelry store owner who, from the beginning of the film, is working overtime to pay off his gambling debts at the same time that he’s trying to find the money to place his next big bet. As we follow him through a series of failures and new ideas, we find ourselves exhausted at the energy Howard must put forth to build his empire, try to satisfy both his family and his mistress, and keep ahead of his creditors and their goons. The Safdies do a great job of keeping the tension ratcheted up at an almost unsustainable pace.

In the middle of the film, however, we are treated to a peaceful scene that happens in the home of Howard’s father-in-law. His extended family is celebrating Passover together and we watch as they go through the motions of the traditional meal, at one point having Howard name each of the plagues- blood, frogs, gnats, locusts, etc…- while dipping a finger in their wine and throwing it on their plates. This Passover ceremony is a snapshot of the film as a whole, as we follow Howard, the materialist who can’t stop working to achieve, through close call after close call (plague after plague), hoping that he’ll finally stop making bad decisions and begin valuing relationships over money before he gets to his own final plague. While the film doesn’t go as literal as the 1999 film Magnolia, with its frogs raining from the sky, it does still clearly give us visual hints of the plagues, as when a character pours red Gatorade into Howard’s fish tank (Exodus 7:20-21).

One of the key images in the film is the door to Howard’s jewelry shop. This door, with bulletproof glass windows, automatically locks so that people can only get in after someone inside the shop buzzes them in. Halfway through the film, however, the door starts to get stuck, and after using a hammer to try to jolt it into working, Howard uses some metal shavings above the door to get it to open. Without giving away spoilers, the dramatic highlight of the movie comes when the shavings above the door are swept away and a literal bringer of death is summoned through the door.

Whereas Moses, the human protagonist of Exodus, “[chose] rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:24-25), Howard simply has to choose to slow down and live the rich life he already has. At certain moments, as when he is talking to his wife and daughter, Howard gets close to giving up his greedy schemes and settling in to a restful contentment with the good life he already has. But, ultimately, he is seduced by the way of empire, the way of Pharaoh and every other world builder whose avarice is unlimited, believing that that way of life is the best way to be truly alive. And we know, as we watch his folly, that there must be a better way of living- that our hearts were made for relationship, and the God who wants our hearts also gives us the rest that we need.

Check out more of Jonathan’s reviews at:

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