Category Archives: Movie Reviews
Count me as one of those people who usually “gets it” with multi-layered, highly symbolic and open-ended books and movies. I liked songs in the Seventies that ended on a minor not-home chord to depict “ambiguity. And I was dazzled by Terrance Malik;s glorious “The Tree of Life” link and consider his talents profound.
His latest movie, “To the Wonder” therefore hit me in multiple ways. I was frustrated in many places—mostly by the fact that most of the dialogue takes place inside the heads of the main characters. Olga Kurylenko is Marina, a divorced woman who meets and falls in love with Ben Affleck, an American, while he is traveling in Paris. Neil (Affleck) commits to her and invites her and her 10 year old daughter to live with him Read the rest of this entry
We prefer a safe mediocrity to a persuasive truth telling.
Baptist news wires recently carried the story about a successful protest by a Baptist preacher to remove a movie from Lifeway stores. The movie is “The Blind Side,” starring Sandra Bullock. It was based on the book by the same name by Michael Lewis, who also wrote, Liar’s Poker and Moneyball.
I happened to meet Michael Lewis years ago when he was writing the book, and he told me he was working on a “really interesting story.” It was about a young man from the meanest streets of Memphis who was adopted by a family and placed in a white private Christian school. The story is well known by now—Michael Oher went on to be a football star at the University of Mississippi and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens.
I bought and read the book when it came out, and went to see the film. Football movies are pretty well required viewing in Alabama. So I was more than amused with all the other moral problems at the moment—debt, wars, racism, the disintegration of families, and do I need to go on?—that a PG-13 movie could cause such an uproar. According to the report,
LifeWay Christian Stores will no longer sell videos of “The Blind Side” after a Florida pastor proposed a resolution for next week’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting protesting the sale of a PG-13 movie that contains profanity and a racial slur…[the stores decided to] pull the movie, an inspirational film starring Sandra Bullock that tells the true story of a white Christian family that adopted a homeless black teenager who went on to play in the NFL, to avoid controversy at the June 19-20 SBC annual meeting in New Orleans. [The pastor who brought the resolution] said there is much about the film to be commended, but there is no place in a Christian bookstore for a movie that includes explicit language that includes taking God’s name in vain.
I get it. It’s Baptist to speak your mind. I know language has become debased and misused. And, it’s the right of any store and its owners to sell or not sell what it wishes. Still, it stirred a few thoughts about the mostly non-existent tie between Christians, especially evangelical ones, and the world of the arts. And why fewer people want to be Baptists.
Walter Brueggemann once said that in the book of Leviticus, which for some odd reason has become a moral center for a lot of people today, there is an emphasis on holiness as “purity.” There are other forms of holiness in scripture—moral and ethical righteousness, for one, that sometimes comes into conflict with the notion of purity. Jesus encountered this among the Pharisees, who could not do the deeper right things for fear of disturbing their own ethic of remaining personally removed from what might compromise, taint and violate their ethic of purification holiness.
I have thought a lot about Brueggemann’s distinction since I first read it. Somehow, a fully biblical notion requires more than avoiding “impurities.” Yet purity is important. An obsession seems to lead always to a rather puny moral energy that dispirits more than it inspires. Inevitably, it ends up with an account of morality that is always boycotting, removing itself from sinners and sin, and circling the wagons.
“Blue Like Jazz” arrived at selected theaters this past week, an odd stepchild among usual movie fare of aliens, vampires, and things that go boom. Derived from Donald Miller’s book by the same name, “Blue Like Jazz” is a story of life and faith during a young man’s first year of college. Don, the main character, is son of a bible believing single mother who wants to protect her son and an atheist father who is emotionally disconnected, mostly absent, and religiously hostile.
Donald’s Dad wangles an acceptance from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a school filled with intellectually brilliant and morally unfettered not-quite-adults. After struggling with it, he heads to Reed and Portland instead of the Baptist college his mother wants him to attend. Soon life is filled with Political Correctness, drugs, booze and moral haze. The professors challenge every aspect of life, and students engage in protest and outrageousness as an extracurricular activity.
From that point we follow Don as he struggles with the pain of the life he has left behind but the faith that won’t leave him alone. He is ashamed of that identity, and tries to fit in, but never really does. The church is an ambiguous presence throughout the movie. The childhood church that Don leaves behind is a stereotype of tacky children’s sermons and fear of the world. The youth pastor is glib, a know-it-all, self-assured, and, it turns out, secretly sleeping with Don’s mother, which brings a crisis into his life later in the story. Read the rest of this entry
Here in Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of our great treasures. You can still go to Monroeville, Alabama and see a live re-enactment of the story every year by the local citizenry. You start out in the yard, then move inside the courthouse, and it is eerily reminiscent of the movie because Hollywood built a replica of it for the film. When I went with friends a few years back, I felt a flash of shame and pain when the n-word was uttered while African American locals up in the balcony were in our presence. I was embarrassed. So we’ve made some progress, I guess. As a child in North Carolina the word was uttered around me thoughtlessly, as a part of an unquestioned culture of resentment and vulnerable entitlement. Read the rest of this entry
Gary Furr Reviews
“The Tree of Life,” a film by Terrence Malik http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0478304/
I, as did Rabbi David Wolpe[i], was immediately zoned in to the opening scenes of Terrence Malik’s movie, “The Tree of Life” when the haunting quotation appeared from In Job 38: 4 and 7, where God asks Job “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together?” I leaned over to my daughter Katie, who came to see the film and said, “Uh, oh.”
Every good seminary graduate watching this movie, and especially those of us who saw, “The Thin Red Line,” know what’s probably coming—mystery and unexplained mystical reflection. This movie is an exercise in disappointing usual movie expectations. An impelling story of a very average family in Waco, Texas (where, I believe, Malik grew up and I myself lived for seven years in grad school) is haunted by a tragedy that is never fully resolved, and never completely explained. It dissolves into mystical reflection.
The tone of “Tree of Life” often reminded me of “2001, A Space Odyssey,” which from the time I originally saw it until now I have no clue about what it means. Therein the similarities end, however. “Tree of Life,” is superior to “2001.” And the Job reference set me up to receive it.
Perhaps, I reflected later, the lack of biblical competency in our current time accounts for the difficulties expressed by the viewers sitting around us in the theater as they were leaving: “Huh?” “You mean we paid $7.50 for that?” “I didn’t think that nature scene would EVER end.” “I hate movies like that.” And some just looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders.
The book of Job ends similarly. Job finally gets his day in God’s court and God never breathes a word of his wager with Satan, his faith in Job or the purpose of life. He backs Job into submission with a long rehearsal of creation, full of wonders in the sky, mysteries in the earth and giant monsters that send shivers down the human spine. “If you were there for all of these things,” God says to Job, “I will tell you how it all fits together. Otherwise, trust me.” And Job does. What else can he do?
This is a movie that left me unsatisfied at first. I wanted all the storylines of part B, the microcosm story of the family in Waco, resolved and explained, and it is not. I realized as I continued to reflect on it that this was a good thing. The movie was like actual life—with prayers and sinful thoughts interwoven, bad people (Brad Pitt’s father character) also capable of beauty and tenderness. The movie is a stream of collective consciousness ride that carries the viewer in and out of cosmic, primeval and intimate thoughts of the most ordinary and extraordinary sorts. It soars at times, especially visually. The long interlude about the universe, creation and evolution of the world is one of the most brilliant film sequences I have ever seen–I don’t know how else to describe it. And you won’t enjoy it unless you quit worrying about the smaller storyline of the people in Waco.
I think a lot of people will not like this movie. Not because they are not smart people or anything that condescending, but because they don’t go to movies for these kinds of experiences. For some people movies are simply for fun, and that’s completely okay. I go to predictable romantic comedies for the same reason. This is more like every time I have stood by the south rim of the Grand Canyon and looked without speaking, or walked into the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Anything you say at those moments feels inadequate.
Malik’s visionary exploration (and I have avoided saying much more about the story in Waco so that I will not spoil it) is stunning. It’s a movie that perplexed me, but then I have kept thinking about it, always a sign of a great film for me. If you know the book of Job well, particularly those final chapters, I think it will make more sense to you—that things don’t, can’t, won’t make “sense” as we insist they do, but some instinct in us says, “They will and they do.”
The small story of the little family is well-acted– a frustrated musician-inventor husband played by Pitt, who turns another in a catelog of great performances; Sean Penn as grownup son Jack, whose inner struggles as a child are a significant part of the story; Jessica Chastain as Pitt’s graceful, loving wife, who is the embodiment of grace and faith counterpoised against Pitt’s character with his more brutal “nature” view of life.
You may not like it. You may choose to wait and watch it on cable or UVerse, which would be a mistake unless you have a home theater screen, because the nature images in this film are IMAX material. The cinematography is that good. If you just want to be entertained, save your bucks and see something else. No one should think badly of you. But if you want to walk into a cathedral and sit down for a while and listen to the universe, you may find this film worth your while. And when you walk out, it will walk with you.
[i] Rabbi David Wolpe, “The Religious Meaning of Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-david-wolpe/tree-of-life_b_868717.html I waited to read Wolpe’s review until I had already read my own, so I would not be influenced by his interpretation.