Tag Archives | movies about faith

Movie Review: Rogue One

The Star Wars prequel, Rogue One, induces fatigue. Though based on a major plot point in the original Star Wars film in 1977—and prominently featured in the marketing campaign—the studio asks for no spoilers and I promise this review is intended to inform and enhance, not distort and detract from, one’s cinematic experience.

That said, I wish I had known more about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in advance. Coming so soon after last winter’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a better movie which takes place after Return of the Jedi, Rogue One starts in a haze of sameness that the uninitiated or occasional series viewer may find disorienting and confusing.

It’s not merely that both pictures sport a British-accented brunette in the female lead. There is also a scientist named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) on strike from developing the Death Star who’s a farmer with a wife and kid on the farm like Luke Skywalker’s uncle in the 1977 movie. Other scenes are strikingly derivative, too, to the point that Rogue One feels like a stew of Star Wars movies you’ve seen before. It’s always on the verge of tying into some previously known plot point.

Aligning everything Star Wars comes at a cost. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this while seeing the current crop of series films (1977-2015) in theaters, but, whenever something remotely familiar in the Star Wars universe (no matter how obscure) appears on screen, certain audience fanatics audibly react, taking me out of the movie and making me stop and think about what connection, if any, what I may have seen (or missed) has to the story and series. It’s mentally exhausting. There’s a lot of that here, and I’m not supposed to say what. A movie should stand alone and Rogue One does, in some respects, but audience response from series fans may get in the way.

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“Trust the Force” is Rogue One‘s meaning, which is neither more complicated nor more logical than that. Tracking Erso’s daughter (a bland character ably played by Felicity Jones), the tale of mild intrigue revolves around the rebellion’s efforts to halt construction of the evil Empire’s Death Star. As a girl, Erso’s daughter Jyn witnesses an act of heroism and it’s implied that she gets some sort of training (and there’s a kyber crystal) but, more than Rey in The Force Awakens, she inexplicably becomes an adult who’s suddenly imbued with technological, weapons and combat superiority and a curious blend of cynicism and idealism. Lacking sufficient development, Jyn’s journey runs rather flat.

This is not to say that all is dull. Indeed, parents best bear in mind that the Death Star as a means of mass death is fundamental and Walt Disney Pictures’ Lucasfilm doesn’t go soft in this regard. Rogue One reminds everyone that the series created by George Lucas is extremely dark and death-driven. The body count climbs pretty high.

With balmy beaches, jungles, rainy weather, Imperial walkers and destroyers, all kinds of new and familiar aliens, returning cast members, computer generated surprises and new characters, such as a blind monk who may have a same-sex partner (it’s a bit vague) and a drone dubbed K-2SO voiced by Alan Tudyk (42) that’s both less prissy and more jaded than C-3PO, Rogue One has a lot to look at and listen to. Among the new ride-alongs with hard-charging Jyn are a cagey rebel named Cassian played by Diego Luna (the most developed, consistent and interesting character). A pilot named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) seems half-stoned for most of the movie. But even an urban scene evoking Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner channels the series’ proclivity for hooded, cloaked and caped creatures.

All the rebels are divided over an “extremist” (Forest Whitaker, Arrival, Phenomenon, Black Nativity) who proves crucial to the cause, though he’s not in Rogue One for long. Writers Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies) do their best and cram heaps of plot, character and action, especially in the battle-heavy third act, to dramatize the rebellion converging to win the star wars.

“The Force wills it,” someone says in a climactic battle, and Rogue One may be the most explicitly religious of the Star Wars movies, turning the Force into a catchy new chant. An infidel converts to mysticism. So Rogue One is more about having faith than it is about going rogue. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla remake) downplays compelling and ethically and politically-charged points—questioning unchecked government surveillance of communications, what constitutes peace and security and why self-sacrifice is the series’ highest virtue—in favor of the generic idea that buying time for the good to prevail requires faith, sacrifice and mass death, with hope and dry humor sweetening what’s at root a dark and bitter deal.

Movie Review: Spotlight

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Church, state and the press form the core of a simple tale set in Boston in what begins in the year of America’s Bicentennial, 1976. The economically written Spotlight does not fully account for, let alone take on, the corrupt Catholic Church on the topic of its systematic conspiracy to sanction priests molesting children, especially boys.

Instead, unlike the universally themed Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), it narrowly focuses upon the role of those who ought to speak out; in this case, the media. Those looking for reckoning, catharsis and moral judgment, which that earlier picture supplies in abundance, rightly condemning an entire country, may be disappointed. In Spotlight, the goal is merely to examine what it means to throw the switch, so to speak, and activate one’s mind to exercise absolute free speech, the basic principle upon which the freedom of the press rests.

Depicting this fundamental choice to think and act by speaking or writing begins with the arrival of an outsider, an unwed Jew named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber in an outstanding supporting performance) who takes over the stodgy, incestuous newspaper as a top editor, takes stock of the characters and methods of its staff and declares: “We can do better.”

Can they ever. Not only are the Boston Police in on the Catholic child sex conspiracy—and anyone that groans about conspiracy theories should watch this movie—really, the whole city of Boston including its entrenched Baby Boomer journalists are complicit, too.

Telescoping mass Christian acts of injustice into an investigation in the summer of 2001, Spotlight, taken from the name of one of those obscure newspaper sections that few people read, isolates each member of the enterprise team. The movie tracks them, one by one, as they reluctantly or enthusiastically follow leads into the facts of accusations against many of the city’s Catholic priests charged with sexually assaulting boys (and, to a lesser degree, girls).

Among the most eager is a reporter (portrayed by Mark Ruffalo) who tells another journalist when asked that he is “just curious” about a certain fact. Rather than the question being welcomed at this leftist bastion of this leftist city, he is told to “go be curious somewhere else”. Indeed, Spotlight dramatizes that leftist media are antagonistic to the question “Why?” when it applies to their dogma and sacred cows (i.e., the vastly leftist U.S. Catholic Church) and, more to the point, when answering does not have an obvious connection to taking down someone or something prejudged by leftist intellectuals as privileged.

Spotlight doesn’t frame these observations, but scorn and contempt for inquiry and investigation of the Church is evident everywhere in the newsroom, which functions as an extension of the backrooms, hidden booths and secret chambers of the Catholic Church. To this journalist, the basic ethos in this vaunted newspaper (a publication, it must be noted, owned at the time by the New York Times Company) stinks and made me nauseous. Honorable and decent people should be so forewarned. Especially if you are or know someone who was assaulted.

Deep mistrust for media is displayed in a character portrayed by Stanley Tucci (Captain America: The First Avenger, Burlesque, The Hunger Games) who is an attorney, which makes the point stronger. He seems to sense through decades of silence and complicity that the press cannot be counted on to ask, answer and report the truth of this widespread war on boys. In a series of meetings with Ruffalo’s dogged crusader, arcing through the whole movie, he never puts his clients at the full mercy of those he sees as the silent party to the crime.

Another journalist on the team, portrayed by Rachel McAdams (Midnight in Paris, A Most Wanted Man, Aloha), is similarly undaunted by the backlash that ripples across Boston in proportion to the rise of the questions among the investigative staff. Dramatizing that progress is made first by the individual, in decisive steps, the team fans out across the city to canvass and gather facts, compile data, gain records and interview victims and others implicated in what clearly becomes apparent is a big city government-church conspiracy. Spotlight is foremost a procedural plot of bureaucracy, conspiracy and the individual willing to, in heroic editor Baron’s words, “stand alone.”

In fact, given police and judicial complicity, the whole city is a functional half-theocracy, as parishioners, bureaucrats and citizens all but take and follow tacit orders from all the way up to the Vatican. But Spotlight shows how today’s media guards, rather than doubts, the status quo. It’s involving, despite knowing the outcome in advance.

This episodic movie offers an example of an entire population turning the other cheek.

Spotlight leads to the September 2001 attack by religious fundamentalists to mark the film’s tension-packed climax, as the basic conflict between those who silently and, in some cases, explicitly sanction the notion that ignorance is bliss—”People need the church” as a crutch, one admonishes—and those who seek to enlighten come into plain view on opposing sides.

Spotlight shines upon power lust, cronyism, and the insular subculture of those three powerful hierarchies—media, church and state—though, unlike Judgment at Nuremberg, it stops far short of exploring the reasons why some are driven to act against all human decency to deliver innocents into mass abuse and lifelong despair. But one gets the gist, if not the gruesome details and aftermath. For example, one of the cronies confronts the editor leading the team of freethinkers, thoughtfully portrayed by Michael Keaton (Birdman), with a forecast, or veiled threat, of impending professional doom, asking Keaton’s character: “Where are you gonna go?” which in that context means where are you gonna hide if you print the truth?

This is the essence of the evil from which the good man must choose to break away. When you’ve been party to acts of evil then, in the instant that you become aware of the guilt you’ve earned, when you start to think about making amends and seeking forgiveness, the perpetrator lines up to remind you that you’re part of the problem. Do you give in or break off and, in Spike Lee’s words, do the right thing?

With a terrific supporting cast and sterling turns by Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams and Tucci and, in particular, Schreiber as the fountainhead of pursuing truth, Spotlight illuminates what informs, and only what informs, the guilty’s choice to name, face and defeat evil. In the most rewarding scene, with a poignant theme of setting things right when you’ve let things go wrong, two men meet on Sunday as the holiest day of all—not to pray, but to produce, with reverence for the truth, not falsehood, as sacred.

The Pope Proposes to Hollywood

The Pope has reportedly proposed a merger with Hollywood.

According to an industry trade publication report, Pope Francis wrote to top movie industry players and pitched a conference on influencing movies, television and show business to spread faith, religion and positive views of the Catholic Church. The proposed meeting, which the Pope apparently wants to include a powerful agent with connections to the Obama administration, would convene at the Vatican this fall.

Among those apparently on the invitation list are the brother of Chicago Mayor and ex-Clinton and Obama staffer Rahm Emanuel, Ari Emanuel, and his co-CEO at William Morris Endeavor, Patrick Whitesell, producer Brian Grazer (Inside Deep Throat), Oprah Winfrey (Selma), Matt Damon (Hereafter) and industry titan David Geffen. Pope Francis seeks to discuss “how the church is perceived by Western media influencers and ways to improve its portrayal in entertainment” according to the report, which also notes that the Vatican is apparently working with the nonprofit Varkey Foundation, a charity launched by Bill Clinton with ties to UNICEF, Oxfam, an Arab state, Amnesty International, the Clinton Global Initiative (Bill and Hillary Clinton‘s troubled charity) and something called the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

It’s bad enough that Big Government is expanding its pernicious influence and intervention in Hollywood, as I wrote when Mrs. Obama intruded upon the Oscars, and the mixture of Hollywood, faith and religion is not new, but an official convergence of faith, religion and state with the entertainment industry is truly a putrid notion to any respectable artist, studio or legitimate show business. Whatever the merits of their work and whatever their collectivist-altruist political philosophy, these titans of one of America’s greatest industries, with its dismal record of standing for individual rights including the freedom of speech unmolested by the state—especially a religious state—ought to break with its track record and reject this proposal in the strongest possible terms.

Pushing faith, religion and their strong influence on statism into movies, TV, publishing and music is an abomination which calls to mind Clinton’s proposed V-chip, the Moral Majority, Tipper Gore and the endless campaign of puritanical fascists such as feminist Gloria Steinem and traditionalist Phyllis Schlafly to impose the equivalent of speech codes, censorship—and today’s insidious version, a ban on “hate speech”—on everything Americans see, watch, read and listen to. Better artists and show business industrialists than this bunch ought to speak out against the Pope’s proposal. Bad ideas silently sanctioned by the worst purveyors of sludge and mediocrity can infect the rest of Hollywood. Having Winfrey, Geffen and Grazer bow before whatever robed mystic runs the Vatican this fall may pre-determine—and contaminate—what you read, watch and consume next fall and in the future.

Everyone decent in Hollywood (and the West), whatever his personal beliefs, should defend the principle of free expression and urge Hollywood to reject the Pope’s proposal to influence and propagandize the movie industry. In other words, speak up for freedom and turn the Pope down.

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max 4 posterAny doubt that dystopian movies are prologue to today’s increasingly bleak reality—the future that was depicted in the early nihilistic films—is erased with Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth in a motor gang quasi-snuff film series which opens as news breaks of motor gangs gunning people down to death.

Series director George Miller’s highly praised fetish-action film is economical in depicting a straight death chase featuring near-silent leads Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Charlize Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman) as slave pen refugees on the run. That previous sentence is the essential point of all I have to say about this action-packed movie. The rest of this is a review born of cultural observation and commentary. Some readers might say my reviews are all like that. This one is more so.

I saw the new Mad Max movie in Hollywood’s fabled Cinerama Dome, where I’ve seen the comparatively worst (Avatar) and best (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, How the West Was Won) pictures, which always enhances a moviegoing experience. Mad Max 4, as I call it, is not an exception. Every explosion and gunshot is exaggerated in the dome. Mad Max 4, which begins with a short narration by Hardy’s Max character, a mentally damaged character to the extent he’s a character, is a sensory assault based on the most primitive characterizations. The world is going and has gone primitive, in reality and on screen, so the faith-laced Mad Max series comes full circle in terms of life imitating art.

What once was like an odd blend of sexualized violence, Mad Max (1979), taking off as a cult film on cable TV at the peak of the punk rock era, when nihilism seemed a quaint, distant notion, became popular with subsequent sequels (The Road Warrior, Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome) and influential with an entire genre that, with each Terminator or other death premise picture, became insidiously more realistic. While the death premise genre’s dystopianism was irresistibly recognizable, fueling the realism and popularity, audience response to the plots—which grew more callous and desensitized in proportion to the dumbing down of the plots—assured that more such empty, bloated vessels would get made and released. Mad Max 4, a tidy piece of psychotic punk nostalgia, finally achieves critical and commercial success as much as it represents the rise of freakish death culture that loomed a few decades ago.

The death cult’s future is here, tracked by this final cut of Wagnerian rock opera with touches of Planet of the Apes and every other Mad Max movie—with nods to its many inexplicable symbols, marks and horrors—with Miller’s same vacant philosophy intact. As Hardy’s mentally singed Max meets Theron’s avenging heroine, and they bond over a quintet of supermodel types held as birthing vessels for a dictator, the ensuing chase as the tyrant seeks to recover his breeding slavemistresses is the type of cleverly conceived, nonstop, overwrought action of the other movies, mostly reminiscent of The Road Warrior though any of this could be cut from any Fast and Furious film, with spikes, flames and gussied up cars, trucks and bikes added.

The bad guys have faith in the dictator-deity, who keeps the masses under control by treating water as a scarcity, and they’re eager to sacrifice themselves like mujahadeen for the sake of going to an afterlife. The good guys have been reduced to physically or mentally deficient pieces of flesh fighting for survival, with no real values at stake, though a few cling to boxes of material possessions from bygone days. They, too, usually end up maimed, dying or dead. Mad Max: Fury Road is, in this sense, like an anti-movie movie; the opposite of a Cecil B. DeMille epic with grand ideals and larger than life sets, characters and action. Its ideas—faith, hope and a weary sense of charity—are as ancient as the barbarians are primitive. But the big sets, hyped up action and relative intelligibility of the plot have everyone, critic and audience alike, treating this nihilistic fare like it’s as good as King Kong (1933).

It isn’t. But when the cineplex choices in a dying civilization are navel-gazing movies such as Birdman or idiotic movies like Avengers 2, and the world is busting out with mass murder every other day, including today’s motorcycle massacre in Waco, Texas, Mad Max 4 seems suddenly relevant and pretty close to reality. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which, judging by the mindlessness of the audience response at the Cinerama Dome, goes unabated until the lights finally go out. Mad Max 4 is a skillfully made two hours of pictures about nothing but shopworn slogans and hardcore primitivism for a public that seeks to escape its descent into mass murdering death cults by seeing movies about mass murdering death cults.

I realize that the fanboy is likely to breathlessly object: ‘But, but, but Mad Max refuses to submit to being branded and he’s, he’s, he’s like really like a hero.” But the hyperventilating critic, or fanboy, as usual, is wrong. Mad Max—the character, the franchise, the new movie—is as empty as he was when he was introduced by George Miller in 1979. The world has simply plunged during that period of time to the point that most people no longer know the difference. What was parodied as primitivism 36 years ago is dramatized as primitivism today and closer than ever to becoming reality.

 

Movie Review: Ida

Ida posterWith stark, distinctive black and white photography, Ida, a Polish film with subtitles, grabs attention to its story of a would-be nun who discovers that she is Jewish.

The unusual premise sustains interest in the bare pictures of the convent where the young woman paints a statue of Christ in earnest and prepares to take her vows of chastity, obedience and poverty to become a full-fledged nun. Striking images without music capture the stillness of a winter in Poland, land of the Warsaw native writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski, in the Sixties, as the reality of what had happened to Jews in Poland set in. The young Catholic Jew Ida is highly focused on her task when she first appears. Her concentrated acts of faith never stop. Ida faithfully depicts what some might describe as her relationship with Jesus Christ.

The film is so faithful that it depicts with cold, calculated exactness what one must strive for and achieve here on earth in order to become wedded to God, as nuns are said to be. In this age of debate over what properly constitutes marriage, it is easy to forget that a fundamental idea within any religion proposes communion with a supernatural being. This is Ida‘s dramatization.

The part about being Jewish serves to underscore her character’s devotion to having faith. The Mother Superior or head nun tells the dewy-eyed woman-child to go meet her last living relative before she takes her final vows. This takes place a couple of generations after the mass extermination of Jews by the Nazis, who of course conquered and occupied Poland. Ida, or, by her Catholic name Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), does this, traveling to meet her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) for the first time. As with almost everything in this strangely interesting but slow foreign movie, the facts, circumstances and setting are muddled. For instance, the time frame of the story is unclear. At first, I thought it was taking place just after World War 2. Then, it became clear it’s in the early or mid-60s.

But I think writer-director Pawlikowski does this on purpose. He wants the piece of cinema to become stripped as naked as possible to its basic meaning. As the two women – a couple of Jews in search of Ida’s long-lost family, who may have been taken in by kind Poles in heavily Catholic Poland – meet, travel and investigate leads, their bond is formed by choosing to identify themselves by external factors beyond one’s control. In the case of the character of the aunt, Wanda, a Jew who became a Communist Party “judge” in Soviet-occupied Poland, this means she must come to terms with an irreconcilable conflict: am I a Communist (she is not really committed to the ideals) pledged to a future of enacting statism or am I a Jew tethered to an unspeakable past? In this formulation, the question who am I? is never properly posed, let alone answered.

Wanda is the more involving character. She drinks, she smokes, she likes men, music and sex. She understands the Bible better than her young niece Ida. She is wry and biting and this comes from surviving Nazis only to become indebted to Communists, who historically are much worse, which explains why Wanda is the only character in the film to make real progress as an individual, growing and changing before our eyes, through every line, tear and vacancy in her face. Wanda tries to be strong for Ida, hunting down Poles and Jew-haters in pubs, towns and farms who might have known the pre-nun’s family and help solve the puzzle of their mutually monstrous past. Anyone who grasps the meaning of Wanda’s plight and her corollary mission to liberate Ida from being Anna may sense what may become of such a vibrant, strong woman. When Wanda knocks on a door to find her marked, lost family, the happy warrior does so with vigor and certainty. When she comes back to demand answers again, her knuckles hit even harder against the closed door.

All of this is observable to the novitiate nun who wears what Wanda calls the hood and prays everywhere she goes in this gray land of muted sunshine where life is drained of color. Ida sees her aunt dragging on her cigarettes, wallowing in her drinks and tracking those who may have tracked down Jews and, she, too, doubts and becomes tempted. Ida flirts with the inscrutable lead character, who is innocently dimpled as her protective and maternal aunt Wanda points out, accepting her Jewishness. But Ida is not really about what it means to be Jewish, let alone coming to understand the horror of what was done to Jews and why. Ida is about having faith.

And, like Song of Bernadette, stripped of that movie’s idealism and romanticism, Ida has – and is limited to – faith, making this movie a near-perfect if placid depiction of what it means to have faith. When Wanda, for example, picks up a handsome saxophone player on the road to what will ultimately take Ida and her infidel aunt to Lublin, where the story climaxes, Ida shares a sweet, tender moment of joy and discovers the sensuousness of the male artist, as Wanda puts it. As Ida inches toward resolution, the question of whether gypsy artist and Jewish nun will reach a proper human state of ecstasy is answered. Ida literally descends a staircase down what may be a gateway to hell. Soon, Ida will choose between what she holds as sacred and what she holds as profane. She will have done so with knowledge of the full meaning of her acts.

That she answers without hesitation “yes” when her aunt asks when the two first meet whether she’s had any sinful thoughts is a clue to both her choice and its ultimate significance. Making choices is not what lingers after watching Ida, which rightly expresses that the choice between Catholic and Jew is not fundamental. Pawlikowski’s disembodied style of shooting only part of a face or body, holding on interesting wide shots and putting humans down screen, strongly conveys his sense that in faith one becomes emptied of human interest and wedded to God in Heaven. Ida for this reason is curious to the intellectual mind. There is a sense that Ida (and Ida/Anna) is leading to some inescapably urgent conclusion.

And this is partly true, though when it does, one feels nothing and, because by Catholic theology one should strive to be an empty vessel for God, feeling nothing is the point.

Throughout the film, until the moral climax at a graveyard when one falls to her knees as the other rises to the occasion, with bursts and glimpses – deliberately, only fragments – of art and glorious music toward a singularly indelible image of holiness with two people driving into the light, the fact of mass death hangs over the Polish villages and countryside and drains life from both Ida and Wanda. Finally, they are both left with nothing – the nil. How and why this happens and in what context this expression of nihilism matters (for me, not at all), depends on one’s philosophy. Whether Jewish Ida becomes Sister Anna – and the truth of what became of her family – or the nun Anna becomes vivacious Ida comes full circle toward a newly informed, slightly seasoned vow of chastity, obedience and poverty. Ida thus delivers the audience into what it essentially means to marry God.