Friday, December 31, 2004

Critical Consensus: The Films Of 2004 (MCN)

Critic Top Ten Lists - 2004
compiled by Movie City News

1. Sideways (1207.5)
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (877.5)
3. Million Dollar Baby (797.5)
4. The Aviator (699.5)
5. Before Sunset (602.5)
6. The Incredibles (566)
7. Kinsey (398)
8. Hotel Rwanda (335)
9. House Of Flying Dagger (332.5)
10. Fahrenheit 9/11 (323)

11. Hero (317.5)
12. Maria Full Of Grace (309.5)
13. Finding Neverland (295)
14. Bad Education (286)
15. Spider-Man 2 (256)
16. Ray (253.5)
17. Vera Drake (230.5)
18. A Very Long Engagement (230)
19. Motorycycle Diaries (225.5)
20. Collateral (217.5)

21. Kill Bill 2 ( 216)
22. Tarnation (186)
23. Closer (143)
24. The Sea Inside (140)
25. Dogville (136.5)
26. Moolaade (120)
27. Garden State (117)
28. The Life Aquatic (116)
29. Touching The Void (100)
30. The Passion Of The Christ (94.5)

31. I Heart Huckabees (89.5)
32. Notre Musique (86.5)
33. Phantom Of The Opera (86)
34. Napolon Dynamite (85)
35. Shrek 2 (81.5)
36. Goodbye Dragon Inn (71)
37. Team America: World Police (71)
38. Super Size Me (70)
39. The Saddest Music In The World (68)
40. Harry Potter 3 (66.5)

41. Door In The Floor (66)
42. The five Obstructions (57.5)
43. Shaun Of The Dead (54.5)
44. Control room (53)
45. Crimson Gold (52)
46. The Return (52)
47. The Big Red One (51)
48. Metallica: SKOM (51)
49. Friday Night Lights (49)
50. The Dreamers (44)

Data compiled January 23, 2005

A&F Top Ten Lists - 2004
compiled by Ron Reed

1 Dogville 376
2 Eternal Sunshine 364.5
3 Before Sunset 220
4 Incredibles 213
5 Passion of the Christ 191
6 Spider-Man 2 163.5
7 Hero 163
8 Return 139
9 Kill Bill 2 130
10 Mean Creek 129.5

11 Finding Neverland 121.5
12 Collateral 110
12 Story of the Weeping Camel 110
14 Aviator 96.5
15 Sideways 88
16 Hotel Rwanda 85
16 Vera Drake 85
18 Million Dollar Baby 78.5
19 Maria Full Of Grace 73
20 Garden State 71.5

21 Motorcycle Diaries 66.5
22 Distant 62
23 Time of the Wolf 58
24 Saddest Music In The World 55.5
25 Napoleon Dynamite 51
26 Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow 48
27 Life Aquatic 44
28 Café Lumiere 40
29 Merchant Of Venice 38
30 Rivers & Tides 37

31 Tarnation 35
31 Village 35
33 Fahrenheit 9/11 34.5
34 House of Flying Daggers 34
35 Bourne Supremacy 33.5
36 Holy Girl, The 33
37 Saved! 30
38 Five Obstructions, The 29.5
39 Polar Express 29
39 Blissfully Yours 29

41 Baadasssss! 27
41 Harry Potter 3 27
41 Primer 27
41 Spartan 27
45 Riding Giants 24
46 Spring Summer Fall Winter 23.5
47 Mean Girls 23
48 America's Heart & Soul 21
48 I Heart Huckabees 21
48 Sea Inside 21

Last tabulation March, 2005

Friday, December 03, 2004


SEE GRACE FLY (2003, Canada, Pete McCormack)
Listen kids, when I was at this school the world was a different place. So, to further amend my valedictorian speech: I was wrong about the future. There isn’t one. Forget jobs, forget education – pray your ass off.

In an evocative and assured opening sequence, we hear an urgent conversation about a top secret hi-tech project that must be completed within days. “He” arrives Friday, and there is much left to do: equations to be reworked, data to be confirmed and, most importantly, people to be warned – “that’s part of the deal.”

The stakes are high, the hushed voices intelligent, businesslike, rational – apart from odd non-sequiturs like “we’re still in the duality of here and now” that slip past us in a flow of technical detail and scheduling issues we can’t quite track with. The camera pans across walls and tables covered in paper: elaborate blueprints littered with yellow and pink sticky notes, documents filled with formulas and geometric diagrams, detailed DaVinci-like drawings of what seems to be a space ship or flying machine. A voice remarks “this might feel like an act of faith right now, but it is backed by fact,” and we see a Bible, held open with a black document clip.

It turns out that these preparations are for the arrival of Jesus, and the voices are inside the troubled mind of Grace (the extraordinary Gina Chiarelli), a fortyish woman who has designed a flying machine to transport the faithful out of this world at the moment of Christ’s return, scheduled for ten o’clock Friday morning.

That also happens to be the time set for her mother’s funeral – a cover for the Second Coming, according to Grace. When her brother Dominic (Paul McGillion, looking like a less-weathered Mel Gibson) returns for the funeral haunted by his mission work in war-ravaged Sierra Leone, Grace disappears into the streets and alleys of Vancouver to evade hospitalization and to spread the word about the Lord’s imminent return.

If the film treated Grace’s religion entirely as a symptom of her mental illness, it would hold little interest. But SEE GRACE FLY presents us with something much trickier and more truthful – a legitimate faith, masked by the symptoms of mental illness. For all Grace’s confusion – documented in painful detail by Chiarelli’s fearless and celebrated performance – we are never allowed to forget that there is a real human soul in there, an intelligent and compassionate woman who is operating with complete sanity in a world that seems to her to have lost its grip on the truth.

But the real fascination comes when screenwriter-director Pete McCormack adds one more level of complication. Could it be that Grace is not only an authentic Christian, but also that she is right? She’s right about a lot of things – things she couldn’t know by ordinary, rational means, a fact that forces Dominic to examine his own faith, earthbound, weary and detached. The triptych of believers is rounded out by Father James, a robustly human Catholic priest who’s a long-time family friend (an unaffected and appealing Tom Sholte)

As refreshing as it is to see a film which sets aside all the galling Bad Missionary stereotypes perpetuated by such everybody from Peter Weir to Barbara Kingsolver, the Dominic character ultimately rings false, in spite of a convincing performance by McGillion. He felt more like an NGO worker than like any missionary I’ve known. I buy (and appreciate) his compassion, his smarts, his weaknesses and doubts, but somehow his faith felt tacked on, not organic. I recognize that a certain relational detachment is essential to the character – he’s “the king of walking away” – but that could play just fine in a character with a more authentic faith.

The Dominic problem comes to the fore in a sexual scene late enough in the film that I’m wary about spoiling things with too-precise details. It’s not that a Christian wouldn’t be sexually tempted, or that some of the scene’s wonderfully surprising consequences might not occur – our God is wildly unpredictable, more interested in drawing people to Himself than in dotting every moral “i”. But the character’s response to the experience simply doesn’t convince: there’s no wounded conscience, no sense of a moral compromise that needs to be worked through. It’s as if the writer simply doesn’t understand why such an experience would be any real problem.

A great strength of McCormack’s writing is a certain sense of humour and proportion, the way in which Weighty Moments are punctuated by a self-deprecating comment or just plain old reality. I love Grace’s flashes of lucidity and frankness about her own mental difficulties, and the truths she speaks in the midst of her mania. One sequence in an elementary school is a particular gem; “So, to further amend my valedictorian speech, I was wrong about the future...”

Sometimes SEE GRACE FLY suffers from First Screenplay Syndrome. Some of the theological musings and psychological insights are a bit too on the nose. There’s also a tendency to toss too many ingredients into the narrative stew. Some are particularly jarring, such as an incest reference that needed to be developed or cut, and an utterly peripheral sperm donor sidetrack that seriously misjudges the tone of the scene where it’s inexplicably introduced.

I also can’t help second-guessing the film’s concluding scenes, which reach for ambiguity and mystery but seem merely indecisive, the result of post-production compromise rather than a clear and precise choice that would give the poetic resonance and complexity McCormack was after. Instead of choosing among several possible resolutions, the film gives us a couple and leaves us to sort things out.

The film was made on an excruciatingly tiny budget, and unfortunately that shows. While there are great-looking scenes and several strong visual images, overall the film looks bland and badly lit. But the guerilla-filming tactics also yield some of the movie’s most extraordinary moments, such as an unforgettable sequence where Grace distributes yellow sticky notes to drivers stopped in traffic: real drivers, real traffic, real risk and energy.

The film’s fans – and they are many, just check out all those festival awards – feared that technical problems would hurt its chances for theatrical release, but heart and artistic ambition have triumphed. SEE GRACE FLY opens in selected Canadian cities in November and December, and will soon be available to American viewers through

I celebrate this film for its independent spirit. I’d rather see a flawed but gutsy film like SEE GRACE FLY than the kind of plastic perfection so often served up at the multiplex. Leonard Cohen wrote about the cracks in things, “that’s how the light gets in.” The consumer-tested design and polished surfaces of so many commercial films render them unlikely to bring us much spiritual truth – at least, not the incarnational kind of truth that shone through when Jesus took on flesh and lived out a dusty, sweaty life in Palestine. But where the big money projects fail, a rough and passionate project like this one might just succeed. Whatever you make of the film’s other artistic and technical merits, there is no denying its passion and integrity, and the power of Gina Chiarelli’s heart-hurting performance.

Originally published at Christianity Today Movies

Friday, October 08, 2004


BRIGHT LEAVES (2004, USA, Ross McElwee)
The preacher, what does he say about the present tobacco situation?
Just about like the rest of us, he actually don’t know what to say. He’s got mixed feelings about it.

This soft-spoken Ross McElwee documentary takes as its point of departure the possibility that a minor Gary Cooper feature may have been a fictionalized biography of the film-maker’s great-grandfather, who made and lost a fortune in the North Carolina tobacco business. His highly personal films are like the smart, sardonic personal essays you’d find in Harper's magazine or on NPR's "This American Life." If Woody Allen were a laid-back Southerner instead of a wired-up New Yorker, and if he made rambling autobiographical documentaries instead of tightly-constructed autobiography-disguised-as-fiction commercial features, he’d be Ross McElwee.

Exploring the connection between his great-grandfather's story and that of his father, a physician, McElwee interviews his dad’s patients who suffered from tobacco-related illness. One woman remembers Dr McElwee's visit to her own father’s bedside the night before major surgery, when the two men prayed together. McElwee seems surprised: "My father did? I never heard that story." To which the woman replies, "Oh well, sometimes daddies don't talk about things like that." We cut to the woman's aged parents harmonizing "Silent Night," then to a faded home movie of his father listening to that same couple singing that same song over the telephone decades earlier, an annual Christmas tradition. It's not apparent at first, but when the senior McElwee turns his head we see that, inexplicably, he is wearing a yarmulke. "Right after I filmed this I kept meaning to ask my father why he, a staunch Presbyterian, was wearing a yarmulke here. Was it just a somewhat odd Christmas present from a grateful Jewish patient? I kept forgetting to ask him, and now it's just one of those things I'll never know." McElwee gravitates to mystery.

McElwee's south is, as Flannery O'Connor described it, "Christ-haunted." BRIGHT LEAVES brings us people of faith, cancer victims and tobacco farmers alike whose faith in Jesus helps them with – or perhaps diverts them from? – the difficult questions posed by life in general, or by this inquisitive film-maker in particular. Whether it's a heartfelt "Silent Night" offered as a Christmas appreciation, or gospel quartet numbers like "Gospel Ship" or "Ship Of Zion" sung by a tobacco grower who wonders how his religion and his work fit together, the film frequently uses music to introduce a spiritual context for its subjects. And if McElwee questions the consistency of a Christian who earns his living from the bright leaves that bring death to so many, he does it with a light and respectful touch: his affection for these good and faith-filled people is obvious, and he never condescends or passes judgement.

Perhaps McElwee's films are nothing more than mildly diverting video journals, their insights and inter-connections insubstantial and insignificant. On the other hand, it may be that these films are marvels of loving observation and understatement that work on us slowly and subliminally, teasing awake a slumbering curiosity about the ordinary details of our own lives. If there are profundities, they are offered in a self-effacing and amusing way that grows more precious as the avalanche of non-fiction media grows ever more shrill, opinionated and superficial.

Available at Videomatica

Complete review at Christianity Today Movies

Friday, September 24, 2004


THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994, USA, Frank Darabont from Stephen King story)

If Steven King writes your nightmares, then this is the one where they send you to jail for a crime you didn't commit. But, as in so many of his stories, King wants to do much more than scare us out of our theatre seats, and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION also charms and intrigues and inspires us.

Maybe that's why the film currently stands at #2 in the Internet Movie Database Top 250, an ongoing poll of IMDb users. A remarkably faithful Frank Darabont adaptation of King's novella "Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption," the movie lost money at the box office but went on to bag seven Oscar nominations, and by the time it was in the hands of video vendors, those golden statues that it didn't quite get and the platinum word of mouth that it did get turned it into a genuine phenomenon.

People love this movie. Christians love this movie. My first time I liked it okay, but re-viewing it in advance of its limited theatrical re-release this Friday I joined the ranks of its fans. I love the film's easy pace and the welcoming, let-me-tell-you-a-story voice of its narrator – a star-making performance by Morgan Freeman who, after a couple decades of steady work in mostly smaller roles in mostly minor films, hit big with stand-out stuff in UNFORGIVEN, then SHAWSHANK, then SE7EN. I love the agonizing tension between how bad the place is and how good the things that happen there can be. It's dark as hell inside Shawshank prison, but I love watching Tim Robbins soft-spoken banker Andy Dufresne kick at it – quietly, relentlessly, over the span of decades – until it bleeds daylight. Tim Robbins shares his co-star's ease and calm within the role, and director Frank Darabont deserves huge credit for getting performances from every one of his actors that are far removed from the melodrama and hysteria we might expect in a Steven King pot-boiler.

Of course, if that's all we expect from Mr King, we're not paying close enough attention. The central character in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999) is an eleven-year-old girl lost in the Maine woods, whose hope comes from imagining herself as her hero, the gritty Red Sox relief pitcher who points to heaven after every save. We Christians who were sure we sensed something capital-T Transcendent in the story sensed right: in a letter accompanying review copies, the author wrote ”I have been writing about God - the possibility of God and the consequences for humans if God does exist - for 20 years now, ever since The Stand,” twenty-one years earlier.

He grew up poor in a series of small towns, his mom working endless crummy jobs to keep her two fatherless boys in food and clothing. He won a Bible for memorizing verses at Methodist Youth Fellowship, watched a lot of movies and spiked countless rejection slips onto a nail he pounded into his bedroom wall, proud testimony to his persistence as he submitted story after story to an endless series of pulp magazines.

Always he had an eye for the horrors and cruelties to be found in the mundanities of life around him, the maggots that bred in restaurant linens he cleaned at an industrial laundry or the soul-crushing oppression visited on an impoverished classmate when she got herself some pretty new clothes and tried to rise above her circumstances. "Someone made a break for the fence and had to be knocked down, that was all. Once the escape was foiled and the entire company of prisoners was once more accounted for, life could go back to normal." (On Writing, pg 81)

That high school episode fueled the writer's first best-seller and hit movie Carrie, the story of a girl whose torment leads to horrific, if unintentional, retribution for her tormentors – a less than divine judgement that's not proportionate or just, but which has the horrible finality of one of Jesus' more stark and startling parables: "Fool! Tonight your soul is required of you."

King's description of that episode also points to one of his central pre-occupations: a life stripped of freedom can be hell, the kind of hell you find in a prison cell. But that's not the whole story: even in such a place, hope can see a person through. The hope of freedom, freedom that's found in books and music, in hard-won ice-cold beers on a rooftop on a hot and hard-working afternoon. Most of all, the hope that works itself out in friendships, that works itself out in long and persistent efforts to make things, and to make things better.

In THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, Andy painstakingly fashions chess pieces out of rocks scrounged from prison workyards. He's told it's hopeless, but year after year he sends off letters to state legislators, requesting books and funds to improve the prison library (I can't help thinking of the persistent hope of that young boy, mailing off stories to editors of pulp magazines). He teaches reading, he gives free tax advice, he asks the name of an anonymous prisoner who's been beaten to death. Andy bears up under terrible oppression, becoming a favourite target of "the sisters," inmates who subject him to years of painful abuse (again, echoes of high school oppression and impossible retribution). And over the years, hope grows: in Andy, in the other prisoners, and especially in the character through whose eyes we view the story. Morgan Freeman's Red is an institutionalized man, a lifer who knows he's guilty (something most other inmates won't admit) and who has come to accept and even rely on the very prison walls that keep him from true freedom.

Viewers who aren't put off by the inescapable violence of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION may want to check out THE GREEN MILE, another Steven King prison story where the violence (and everything else, spiritual themes included) is much more explicit. Also directed by Frank Darabont, it's not nearly the film his first one was, marred by a stylistic heavy-handedness that's on its way to being as glossy and smack-you-in-the-face manipulative as 1999's THE MAJESTIC, where the director tries for Capra but gets mostly corn: it looks and feels more like an ad than a movie.

As King himself suggests, THE STAND is also loaded with things for Christians to chew on. Indeed, some reviewers who don't believe any of this stuff are quite put off by it all. It's one of those post-apocalyptic survival yarns, where the stark setting and life-and-death situations force characters to make impossible moral choices with their survival on the line. In THE STAND, those revealing decisions are clearly shown to have spiritual consequences, as people gradually align themselves with 108-year-old Mother Abigail or the demonic Randall Flagg. True King Fans tell me the big fat novel is a much better bet than the sometimes fascinating, sometimes tacky 1994 mini-series (available on DVD), but it's got its draws: watch for cameos by people like Ed Harris, Kathy Bates and even Sam "Evil Dead" Raimi.

By far the greatest film derived from a Steven King story is Stanley Kubrick's treatment of THE SHINING. Die-hard fans of the novel may be bothered by Kubrick's departure from the book at key plot points, but most film buffs agree this is a prime example of a truly great film being made from a potboiler novel (see also GODFATHER, THE). The director zeroes in on the family dynamics here, and finds the real terror: what's it like for a boy to fear his father, a wife her husband? Isolated in the snow-bound Outlook Hotel, Jack Nicholson plays an increasingly obsessive writer whose white-knuckle sobriety doesn't look like it'll make it to spring thaw. If the film isn't clearly "spiritual" it certainly ends up supernatural, but what matters here is the auto-biographical: King's life and family were very nearly destroyed by his own alcoholism, and you have to wonder whether it wasn't his recovery process that got him relying on the Higher Power who begins showing up with greater and greater frequency in his stories from then on. On Writing includes his understated account of surviving a near-fatal accident, which seems suffused with a sense that he may have been delivered from death in an almost miraculous way.

It's dodgy to try reading testimony into someone else's story – just about as dodgy as drawing assumptions about an author from the things his characters say or do, or the way his stories play out. Those who look to Steven King for the latest celebrity conversion are likely to be disappointed: as much as hope and faith, even Christian faith, are constant themes in his books and movies, he's quite direct about the whole business when he writes "while I believe in God, I have no use for organized religion." (I can't help thinking Jesus himself may have had similar thoughts, but never mind.)

But believe in God he does. Many of his stories – especially SHAWSHANK – are filled with hope in the face of horror. With a sense that evil is real, and must be resisted – but that it is mostly overcome not through magic or violence, but in the heart. The real battle against evil and despair is fought in the hard everyday decisions of ordinary, faithful people who choose not to give in.

In Dreamcatcher, one of King's most recent novels (filmed in 2003), a character talks about God, "who had crept back into his life over these last few months... who sings the lullaby, helps us to go to sleep when we’re sad and scared.” That sounds like the God I know.

Available at Videomatica

Originally published at Christianity Today Movies

Friday, July 30, 2004


THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (2004, USA, Jonathan Demme, screenplay by Daniel Pyne & Dean Georgaris from 1962 George Axelrod screenplay and Richard Condon novel)
Pauline Kael said that the original 1962 treatment of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE might be “the most sophisticated political satire ever made in Hollywood,” and that it brought John Frankenheimer to life as a director. More than four decades later, Jonathan Demme comes back to life as a director at the helm of one of the finest and most inventive remakes ever to take the screen.

Calling a film “one of the great remakes of all time” sounds like faint praise indeed. Most celluloid retreads are bad ideas, badly executed. Either the first go-round wasn’t all that good to begin with – so why waste everybody’s time and money a second time? – or else it really was great, and the new version is at best a decent knockoff – so why bother? Rent the original DVD instead.

Not so with CANDIDATE. Rent the 1962 DVD, by all means – but only to see how dazzlingly inventive a remake can be. The further the story progresses, the more obvious it becomes that this really is the right movie at the right time – again. In 1962, with Cold War anxieties everywhere, McCarthyism a not-distant-enough memory and the Korean conflict a pretty good stand-in for the escalating troubles in south-east Asia, a movie about a war hero who’d been brainwashed by the Reds and placed like a time-bomb in the center of the American democratic process was close enough to plausible to send real shock-waves through a fearful nation.

In 2004, we’re again preoccupied with enemies on the home front, confronted with the very real threat of neighbors who may turn out to be terrorists, an anxiety that’s only compounded by an unsettling mistrust of governments and government agencies – not to mention multi-national corporations, who prove to be the real Bad Guys this time around. Now Manchuria isn’t a place, it’s an entity – Manchurian Global, a vast organization that buys and sells everything under the sun, presumably including private armies, biotechnology and the souls of politicians. We trust these men in suits like we trust the guys from Enron, or the organized crime families they are made to resemble. Pictures of burning Kuwait oilfields are to the Second Gulf War generation what Korean images were to almost-draftable Baby Boomers in ’62, and a street-level remake of “Fortunate Son” invokes that very specific, cynicizing Vietnam-era helplessness and rage. Our latest traumas get stirred up when video experts review security tapes of assassins making their way through metal detectors. This is a MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE for another fearful time, and it makes perfectly legitimate Cold War fears look almost naïve from the perspective of another four decades of trouble and disillusionment.

It’s eerie to revisit the highly-praised original – recently released as an affordable DVD – and realize that its scenario of covert manipulation and presidential assassination plots screened in America a year before the Kennedy shooting and the endless conspiracy theories it spawned. The savvy ’04 edition plays on all those fears and more: knowing references to lone gunmen and nuclear brinkmanship evoke Cold War worries that seem suddenly pertinent again, and one character makes a compelling (and troubling) argument when she says “Americans are terrified, and we can arm them” – with a war hero as Vice President. Set slightly in the future, the ever-present news reports ratchet up the tension with reports of international crises and War On Terror rhetoric, civil liberty suspensions, “touch screen voting” protests leading to security crackdowns, suicide bombers, and unexplained references to events like “Bloody Friday” and U.S. bombing raids on African countries pointing to an ever-edgier future.

There’s a deeper disquiet evident now that makes one nostalgic for the simple Sixties brand of paranoia. Back then, all Marco needed to do was bring forward some good rational arguments to the basically decent folks in Army Intelligence, they’d realize he wasn’t a nut after all, and right away they’d put him in charge of a co-operative team of military, CIA and FBI agents he could rely on to get the job done. These days, though, the suspicion runs deeper: even a war hero can never be entirely sure who to trust, and when he advises another troubled Gulf War veteran to take his concerns to the authorities, it sounds like very bad advice indeed.

Audiences who don’t know the original are guaranteed a tense and tricky ride, pretty much free of the gaping plot holes that usually mar these twisty suspensers. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief to buy the admittedly goofy idea at the center of the story – “Sci-Fi Lite” in a Michael Crichton sort of way, no less implausible than the brain-washing premise of the original – the actual story mechanics and character motivations hang together remarkably well.

If you do know the original, chances are you’ll enjoy yourself even more. Apart from the fact that card games make only a token appearance, it is astonishing how many story elements are intact, how many of the memorable set pieces remain – though they’re almost always inverted or subverted somehow. The film begins with a barrage of recognizable touch-points to the original – character names and situations, slightly re-arranged or deftly adapted to the more-than-modern setting, a fireworks display of inventiveness along the lines of a Baz Luhrmann ROMEO + JULIET. The fresh-but-faithful approach is never more charming than in the Eugenie-Rosie dialogue, which comes straight from the original (in fact, it’s right out of the Richard Condon novel), right down to the Eldorado phone number she gives him, “the old-fashioned way.” In the early sixties, Senator Iselin dressed up like Abraham Lincoln: now, presidential candidates get carved into digital Mount Rushmores. We even get a nod in the direction of the “go jump in the lake” scene, with all the jokiness removed.

But just as we make this out to be a clever but essentially straightforward updating – perhaps a sort of reverent tribute by producer Tina Sinatra to Uncle Frank, who starred in the first edition – screenwriter *** takes a series of sharp, shocking turns and we realize everything’s up for grabs: the story heads wildly and unpredictably off in several of its own directions, and even when the old and new story-lines converge again in the final half hour, nothing means what it used to mean, because all the rules and roles have changed. Masterful.

Angela Lansbury was Oscar nominated for her portrayal of the character who, curiously and significantly enough, is never named, referred to only as “Raymond’s mother.” She played wonderfully against type, but even that fine performance is out-shone and out-nuanced by Meryl Streep, whose recent turns in ADAPTATION and THE HOURS mark something of a comeback for a first-rank actress who really never went away, but who again commands attention as a performer with incredible range and presence. She brings a flirty sexual energy to the role that makes just that much more sense of the novel’s Oedipal psychologizing, and she’s got the intellect to convince us that this woman can sway electoral strategy committees as readily as she can a son who mostly hates her. Her mix of sexuality and vaulting ambition is perfectly realized, just attractive enough to be all the more deeply repellant: Streep finds in Senator Shaw everything that would make for a truly great Lady Macbeth.

As her son Raymond, *** *** is at times uncanny in his resemblance to Laurence Harvey who created the role, but neither is this a carbon copy: *** finds more colors in his portrayal, and – also true for Denzel Washington over the much-appreciated Frank Sinatra – ultimately succeeds in creating a far more complex, believably human and even empathetic character than his predecessor.

The sound score is a marvel, often using collages of odd and out-of-context sounds rather than music to create a deeply disquieting atmosphere: disparate sounds suggest the thin walls and crowding of a tenement apartment, but aren’t anything quite that naturalistic, and if the ratlike rubber-on-steel squeaks of the Albanian scientist’s lab end up having a real-world source (or do they?), for the longest time they’re just disturbing squeaks and squeals. The film has loads of visual style, from the only-slightly-revved-up TV news graphics to the nods to other films and film-makers, from the Hitchcock look of the mom-and-son scene late in the movie (come to think of it, there’s more than a little Bates in the Shaws, isn’t there?) to the Coppola-pastiche of the “Your god is money” scene between Mom and the Manchurians, or the SEVEN-ish journal jottings of Corporal Melvin. (I wonder what other, deeper fears are being touched on with the MEMENTO-esque felt-penned reminders, in case of memory loss: the same fear that’s being played out in so many films this new millennium, from ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND to 50 FIRST DATES). And the “politics as show biz” themes of the Frankenheimer film – with its way-ahead-of-MTV editing of the nominating convention – comes into its own in this much-higher-tech 21st century treatment.

It’s a long time since director Jonathan Demme startled with his break-the-mold innovation that was AFTER HOURS, then claimed ascendancy with the stunning SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – a pot-boiler of a novel transmogrified into a brilliant motion picture. More recent projects failed to fulfill that early promise, and it seems nobody liked his most recent stab at retrofitting an old-model story, *** *** ***.

That all changes with THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Demme gets entertaining, believable and multi-faceted performances out of all his actors, he layers sound and image with tremendous assurance and inventiveness, and in every way capitalizes on a brilliant screenplay. There’s endless attention to detail that may or may not be essential to the story, but makes a rich world for the story to live in: the Elvis impersonator at the library computer terminal, Sidney Lumet’s cameo as a political pundit, beautiful presidential daughters hauled in to help campaign.

I don’t suppose this movie is telling us anything about politics, war or corruption we don’t already know: it’s entertainment, not groundbreaking political commentary. In one of the summer’s other newsy flicks Michael Moore sets out to instruct, and ends up (at best) entertaining and provoking: CANDIDATE sets out to entertain, and ends up unsettling us far more than we might have expected.

We’re too knowing to be surprised by anything this movie has to say. But that’s not necessarily a flaw: it’s not here to teach, it’s here to play. The thing is, what it’s playing on is our fears. And they’re real enough.

When one character asks if there were casualties, another replies “There’s always casualties in war, sir.” And I could only think of what somebody else said: that in war, the first casualty is always the truth.

A timely movie indeed.


Some second thoughts after posting this one. Darn those 15-hour deadlines. The ending of the new film just isn't right. The last thing in the world I want to do is give the least hint about the ending of a film that is so thoroughly about story, secrets and surprise, so that's all I'll say - except that it is very much of its time, and falls far short of the original. 'Nuff said.

Available at Videomatica1962 and 2004

Originally published at Christianity Today Movies

Wednesday, July 07, 2004


No man fears to kneel before the God he trusts. Without faith, without belief in something, what are we?

If you don't expect much from summer movies, this one may not disappoint. And if that sounds like faint praise, I'm afraid it's all I can muster.

KING ARTHUR sets out to tell the true story behind the Arthurian legends that are familiar to most of us only through movies and children's books, and while its claims to history are pretty questionable, I got a kick out of seeing bits and pieces of the well-known stories juggled around and fit into an unexpected historical context.

Even though the setting is primitive celtic instead of shining-armour medieval, we start spotting unusual twists on familiar stuff right away. There's Arthur – some folks call him Artorius – and half a dozen knights, some with familiar names like Galahad, Tristan (though I don't think Isolde ever shows up) and Lancelot. Merlin gets name-dropped pretty quick, Arthur's sword gets called Excalibur, and eventually we even get a convincing enough rendering of the sword in the stone business. We even get a damsel-in-distress Guinevere (a feisty and fetching Keira Knightley, the best thing about the movie) – and though she definitely fits the "fair maiden" bill, this warrior princess is more Lucy Lawless than Vanessa Redgrave. Kinda fun.

The idea here is that the knights of the round table are Roman conscripts, the sons of fierce warriors who were the only survivors of the empire's military campaigns in Sarmatia – think Afghan horsemen and you won't be far wrong. Nearing the end of fifteen years service protecting Roman interests in the south of Britain, these boys want only their freedom. It's time to go home.

Turns out the Romans are feeling pretty much the same way. It's half past 300 AD, and the empire is a bit over-extended. After decades of fending off nasty northern natives who paint themselves strange colors – think BRAVEHEART and you won't be far wrong – and now faced with Saxon hordes who've invaded the north and are bent on the destruction of everything non-Saxon – think orc-wannabes and you won't be far wrong – the Romans are wondering whether discretion might not be the better part of valor, and maybe it's time to head back to their Mediterranean villas.

On the day of their promised release from service, Arthur (played by a humourless Clive Owen) and his not-so-merry men are handed one last assignment: go to the heart of enemy territory and rescue a Roman family, one of whom is destined to be a great leader in the Roman church. It's practically a suicide mission, but Arthur is a soldier under orders – and a committed Christian, interestingly enough – and his men are the only ones capable of carrying out the assignment. So off they go.

It's a bad sign when you keep thinking of other films that are "just like" the one in front of you. It's a worse sign when each movie you think of was a lot better than the one you're actually watching. In the early stretches, as we see this Dark Ages Magnificent Seven ride to the rescue, arrayed in various picturesque formations – seven is a good number for that kind of thing – there's some pretty nifty soldier banter amongst Our Heroes that begins to distinguish one amazingly gifted warrior from the next. It's sort of SEVEN SAMURAI, transported to the wilds of ancient Britain instead of the wild west of not-quite-so-ancient America. One problem: this kind of movie depends on well-drawn, interesting characters who we come to care about as they carry out their various heroics, but in KING ARTHUR, most of the character development that starts out so promisingly – Bors (Ray Winstone) is particularly well drawn, and the soldierly comraderie convincing – falls completely into the background once the main plot kicks in.

You see, when Arthur and his posse find the folks they're supposed to evacuate, they can't bring themselves to leave the family's serfs and slaves and such to be slaughtered by the savage Saxons. Of course it's impossible for the seven of them to safely transport all these village people to safety, pursued by the blood-thirsty enemy soldiers, but they can't leave these defenceless people to be slaughtered.... And then you think, no, this isn't Kurosawa or Sturges, it's Fuqua, and isn't this just TEARS OF THE SUN GOES TO SCOTLAND, without the passion?

There comes a point where the Roman-led forces stare down the fur-clad barbarian hordes, and I could only think that even though the tables were somewhat turned, we'd seen this before. When I got home I found out screenwriter David Franzoni also penned GLADIATOR, and I remembered where.

Enough already, you get the idea: for all its claims to be offering a fresh spin on the Arthur legends, this bit of summer bombast is mostly a massive cinematic recycling project. If you're content simply to get out of the summer heat and settle in for some more-or-less diverting riffs on about twenty familiar story ideas, you'll have a reasonably good time. There's lots of chilly mountain scenery, including a pretty cool (if ultimately improbable) showdown on a frozen lake. There's plenty of Legolasian archery, great horse riding and stirring adventure music, and all kinds of neat fighting (though the obligatory climactic battle scene ends up being a confusing mess that makes you realize how well-thought-out and well-directed the battle scenes were in THE LAST SAMURAI. Or LORD OF THE RINGS, for that matter. But the less comparison made with Tolkien the better...)

Most intriguing – and, when all's said and done, most disappointing – is the fact that KING ARTHUR also tries to deal with spiritual and philosophical issues. I don't want to give too much of this away, since part of the movie's interest lies in figuring out what's going on with the central character himself, but let me say that Arthur is torn between loyalty to his men (Central Asian conscripts), service to his country of allegiance (Rome), and an inescapable sense of identification with their enemy (the land and the people of Britain). It is to the movie's credit that the religious life of each of these groups is an important part of their identity, and I was fascinated to see that Arthur himself is passionately committed to serving the Christian god, even when he stands alone in that belief. Historical theology students will be intrigued at the medallion of Pelagius that Bishop Germanius finds in Arthur's quarters, but I'm afraid in the end that the character's – and the film's – spirituality ends up being mostly a way to talk about far more conventional themes of freedom, earthly and political.

That's the problem with the whole movie: it nods in the direction of tons of potentially interesting developments of plot, theme and character, but doesn't bother to follow through on any of them enough to pay off. It could have been a pretty good movie – heck, it could have been a dozen pretty good movies – but it settles instead for being merely good enough.

Originally published in somewhat different form at Christianity Today Movies
Available at Videomatica

Tuesday, June 15, 2004


TO END ALL WARS (2001, USA, David L. Cunningham, Brian Godawa screenplay from Ernest Gordon book

TO END ALL WARS is a film with something to say. Which turns out to be its great strength, as well as its greatest weakness.

I should have loved this film – it's about self-sacrificing heroism in the face of impossible circumstances, the power of forgiveness over hatred, the futile tragedy of war and God's way of peace in the midst of it. And I was pulling for it – ever since reading the glowing article in Books & Culture a couple summers ago, then hearing of the film-makers' travails trying to get it onto big screens or into video stores, I've been wanting this project to succeed.

The premise is a great one, and the story true, inspired by Ernest Gordon's auto-biographical Miracle On The River Kwai. It comes out of the same brutal prisoner of war camps that gave us the deeply affecting BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. The Japanese are striving to build a strategic railroad link to India, and they are willing to sacrifice their prisoners to build it on an impossible schedule. How will these men stay alive in such extreme and hopeless conditions?

The men begin a secretive "jungle university," teaching one another whatever they know best: the philosophy of Plato, the poetry of Shakespeare, or the radical teachings of Jesus. In so doing, they discover purpose and hope. Screenwriter Brian Godawa draws out the deepest of Christian truths in this horrific but anything-but-God-forsaken setting. There is a spiritual maturity here that very few films achieve. When a man like Ernest Gordon – who survived the camps and went on to serve as chaplain at Princeton University for a quarter century – speaks of the faith, his experience gives him immense authority, and Godawa brings a passion and wisdom to the task of rendering these truths into cinema that is in turn inspiring.

Unfortunately, it may be his very eagerness to convey these insights that undermines the effectiveness of the story he seeks to tell.

In his book Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom & Discernment, Brian Godawa insists that every film is, fundamentally, an embodiment of a philosophy, and that what Christians who watch films should really be watching – or watching out for – are the underlying worldviews. It almost feels as though he sees a movie as a bottle, and what really counts is the message inside: we need to smash the bottle, sift through the broken glass and dig out the message concealed inside so we can decide whether it's Christian or not.

TO END ALL WARS doesn't require much sifting or digging – the worldview is front and center, displayed in the way he fashions his characters and spelled out in an ever-present voice-over. The film-makers don't want this picture to be described as "a Christian film," but for all its strong language and refusal to solve every problem with a conversion, I'm afraid it still feels like propaganda. That's the real problem with "Christian films" – their preaching. Worse swearing and better theology and production values only provide a higher-quality varnish on what is, after all, still a pulpit. TO END ALL WARS doesn't hand us pat answers, but it hands us answers nonetheless, or at least theme statements, in a way that leaves little room for ambiguity or mystery.

This message-first approach results in a film that is far too easily reduced to a tidy character chart. We realize early on that Campbell embodies The Loyal-But-Driven Military Man, Dusty is the personification of Compassionate Self-Sacrifice, Ernest will have to choose between their two worldviews, and Reardon ("Yanker") will serve as the central character's irascible foil – and there just aren't enough surprises in the journeys of those emblematic central characters to create real interest.

Compare the baffling, but utterly convincing, character reversals in David Lean's KWAI movie, and the agonizing moral complexities that emerge – not to mention the way we are drawn into the story. The KWAI screenwriters don't explain how people ought to be, so much as observe how they are, in all their mystery and complexity. TO END ALL WARS deals with deeper truths, but it tells too much and shows too little.

Still, there is much to praise. I liked all the performances here, testimony not only to the actors but to the director who inspires such consistently good work from his entire cast. Mark Strong is the Christlike Dusty: trained at the Bristol Old Vic and seasoned in productions at the RSC and the Royal National Theatre, he fills even his silences with such a tremendous sense of presence and calm it's hard to imagine another actor in the role. Kiefer Sutherland gets the most unpredictable and dynamic role as the self-interested American whose true allegiance is often in doubt, and he plays him with an opaque changeability that keeps us guessing, providing much of the story's dramatic interest. I was particularly struck by Yugo Saso, who plays the interpreter with tangible compassion and intelligence.

I wanted to like this film more than I was able to. I applaud its sentiments, cheer its substantial theology – suffering before glory, cross before crown – and admire the persistence it's taken to get this labor of love to the audience it deserves. But it's not a story I should have had to stand outside of – not when the film's preoccupations are so close to my heart.

Should you rent TO END ALL WARS? Absolutely – it's far more worthwhile than 90% of the commercial product you'll find lining the walls of your local video store. Am I glad I saw it? Certainly – this is an important story, well worth telling, and I intend to watch it again. Its message of costly sacrifice and hard-won reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel, and the fact that this story is drawn from actual events demands attention. If only the film-makers had stuck to telling the story, and let the message take care of itself. If only they believed that dramatic action can speak louder than words.

PS Lots of people like this movie better than I did. There's a very good Books & Culture article that redresses the balance.

Available at Videomatica

Originally published at Christianity Today Movies

To End All Wars: Books & Culture

I didn't much care for this one. But since that's a minority opinion among Christian cinephiles, here's a word or two from the other side...
To End All Christian Films
A movie that takes evil seriously.
Eric Metaxas
Books & Culture, July/August 2002, Vol. 8, No. 4, Page 6

Can a Christian film use the "f" word? Well, that's one question. But it begs another: what, exactly, is a Christian film? By my lights, it has become all too fashionable for sophisticated Christians to sneer at Christian artistic efforts. And yet, just between us evangelical chickens: how have things gotten to where reasonable folks will sneer at the mere mention of the phrase "Christian art," as if the juxtaposition of the words were somehow inherently cackle-inducing?

The movie that prompts these questions is To End All Wars, a powerful film that tells the absolutely harrowing tale of a group of Allied POWs conscripted by the Japanese to build the Burma-Siam railway during World War II. Based on a true story told by Ernest Gordon in his book, In the Valley of the Kwai, this movie is bloody, violent, and profound, portraying a raw, full-throated Christianity of the sort that hasn't been much in evidence since, say, Dostoesvsky. It is emphatically not the cinematic equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting.

As the story goes, Gordon, played with an inner luminosity by Ciarán McMenamin, is a 24-year-old captain of the 93rd Battalion of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, a decidedly Scottish outfit. Their commander is Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Mclean, played by the extraordinary James Cosmo. In anything Cosmo does he practically bursts out of the screen into a theater near you. He is the sort of sixtysomething tough- guy who might eat Jack Palance and Sean Connery for breakfast with kippers.

When Mclean and the 93rd are captured, they quickly realize that their Japanese captors will accord the Geneva Convention the same respect they accord Marquis of Queensbury Rules. When Major Ian Campbell (Robert Carlyle) receives a brutal beating, Mclean explodes in protest and is promptly brutalized himself. Afterward, the bleeding Mclean croaks his plan to his "good boys": they will make their escape as soon as he has healed. But some weeks later, after another impolitic outburst, the great man is killed by his captors, and the futility of escape from this isolated hell becomes quite clear.

Later, Gordon himself is savagely beaten for forgetting to bow to a guard, and is sent to the prison "hospital," known as the Death House, a miserable roach motel wherefrom none return. But a Christian POW, Dusty Miller (Mark Strong), attends to Gordon, giving him his own meager rations and quite miraculously saving his life. Soon thereafter one of the other POWs, knowing Gordon had planned to become a teacher, asks him about the meaning of all their sufferings. Gordon, still smarting from his time in the Death House, isn't interested in answering philosophical questions just yet. But Miller prods him to engage the man, to try answering these questions. "When a man loses hope," says Miller, "he dies."

So Gordon decides to start what he calls a jungle university. There, amid the ghastly stench of the Death House, where the Japanese will not bother them, Gordon kindles hope and life. He begins to teach a few willing pupils, starting with Plato's idea of justice. It is at once completely absurd and quintessentially, achingly human, this handful of broken POWs stirring in their tomb, in their Platonic cave, if you will. But they will not stay here for long studying the shadows within, for Sunday is a-comin', if I may mix Platonic and Christian metaphors (it's been done before). The pathetic group of them there inevitably evoke various archetypal images, from the Fiat Lux of Genesis to the light coming into the world in John's Gospel to Jesus' resurrection. In this cradle and crucible, meaning meets meaninglessness and throttles it, and Life says to Death, be thou removed.

Soon the lessons expand beyond Plato. Another prisoner teaches Shakespeare, and another teaches the men how to play music on instruments that they themselves have fashioned. It is moving and fanciful, and it all happened.

The fatally embittered Major Campbell will have none of this treacle. When he sees that the classes are giving the men another hope besides escape, he despicably tells the Japanese about the school, and they break it up. All the books, a Bible among them, are confiscated.

But Gordon and Miller don't pay Campbell back for his vicious betrayal. They somehow manage to love him, thereby heaping hot coals upon his head. It is to the film's inestimable credit that it can portray Christian love palpably and effectively. But this is only possible because it has portrayed evil effectively first.

We live in a culture where actual evil is almost never portrayed except to give us a frisson of something amid the nothingness, where it is still believed not to exist at all—pious 9/11 caveats notwithstanding—and where the bumpersticker aphorism, "Mean People Suck," is about as out-on-a-limb as most folks are willing to go in that judgmental direction. The innocents who cling to this attenuated version of what the Spanish call realidad would do well to sit through this movie, because the evil level in it is about two-and-a-quarter headspins shy of The Exorcist—and it is all the more affecting, because these horrors are not sensationalistic spookhouse shenanigans but solid, documented, historical facts.

And yet there is something literally demonic in the cruelty and inhumanity of the Japanese soldiers here depicted. Their code of Bushido—a hypermoralistic worldview that is unspeakably racist, unspeakably cruel, and utterly power-worshiping—is what gives the contrasting biblical outlook such relevance and resonance and punch, that gives the few heaven-sent beams of light a cavern of blackest darkness in which to play.

What Christian films—and Christian "art" in general—have lacked is a willingness to portray evil convincingly. It was Milton's Satan and Dante's Inferno that made them two of the most powerful Christian artists of all time. Because they understood evil and did not shrink from it, their depictions of goodness had power. In order to be redemptive, art has to convince us there is something real from which we need redeeming.

Conversely, much secular art in the last half-century illustrates confusion and pain brilliantly but provides no antidote. The screeching hell of marital discord in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives puts the viewer as close to seeing the need for God as any "Christian film" ever has, but stops there. Ditto John Updike's anti-paeans to adultery and suburban ennui; he limns the darkness all so well, so perfectly—too perfectly—and then splits for the golf course. We get universes of darkness without light, and from Christian "artists" we get watts of light without darkness. So it seems a little chiaroscuro is generally in order. Early on in the movie, at Mclean's funeral—which is a genuine Christian funeral rather than the papier-mâché facsimiles Hollywood usually gives us ("dearly beloved…ashes to ashes, dust to dust," and so on)—Miller reminds his fellow prisoners that "there is suffering before glory, there is a cross before the crown." That says it.

Kiefer Sutherland's character, Lieutenant Jim Reardon, is the only one in the film who himself makes the journey from darkness to light. Sutherland portrays the quintessential American, brash and independent to a San Andreas fault. Like some zonked-out Vietnam War GI 25 years ahead of his time, Reardon is content to hang back and groove on the rubble, as it were, figure out how to get by while everyone else sweats about the nasty situation. And so he engages the local black market, procuring rice alcohol and other amenities for himself—and if his selfish self-sufficiency hadn't backfired on him, he might have built a tidy capitalistic empire in the moral darkness. But it backfires badly, and then we see his other quintessentially American traits: heart and soul. Yet we are more inclined to sing "Amazing Grace" than "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

Reardon's journey and much of this film can be tough to watch, but when at the end of the movie Gordon's voiceover poses such questions as "At what price mercy?" and "Who is my neighbor?" we don't cringe, we engage. He, and the movie, have well earned the right to pose them. Earning this right separates this film from what is usually termed a Christian film.
Directing his second feature, David Cunningham bobbles the ball here and there: the dramatic arc can be a bit squirrely; the music prods us in spots; and the unshirted brutality might have been pulled back a whisker or three. But to hell with these nits; this is a powerful and profound movie, one that deserves praise and attention and discussion and emulation. The way I reckon, it is the Christian film to end all Christian films. Glory, hallelujah. Onward.

Eric Metaxas ( is the author of many children's books, including Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving (TommyNelson).

Saturday, February 28, 2004


THE BEST TWO YEARS (2003, USA, Scott S. Anderson)
It’s all about the work.

The poster gives the set-up. Against a postcard-gorgeous background of windmill and poppies walk four black-suited young missionaries. The first two stride purposefully forward, oblivious to all except their mission. The fourth sees only the book he studies intently. But it's Missionary Number Three who breaks the symmetry, his body turned away from us, snapping a picture as he walks.

Those are Elders Johnson and Van Pelt out front. They're men on a mission, quite literally, and all's right with the world. They've got girlfriends back home, their partnership is working great in a goofy, dorm-room put-down kind of way and most important, their numbers are up in all categories; Discussions taught, Books of Mormon placed, Referrals made, Proselyting hours logged and Challenges issued. (The Weekly Statistics form they fill out looks eerily like a baseball score card, which is, I guess, appropriate for this Made In America religion).

The one with the spectacles bringing up the rear is the newbie, Calhoun, a nerdish, over-eager convert who tries too hard and has no aptitude for the task at hand.

But Missionary Number Three would rather shoot pictures in the park than work his way through a tightly scheduled "To Evangelize" list. They're running late, but it doesn't phase Elder Rogers to take a sudden detour for Dutch baking from a roadside stand. When the squad returns home, he's the one who fools around with Dutch kids in the street. Rogers isn't pass up any chance to stop and smell – or at least photograph – the flowers.

K.C. Clyde is a winsome performer who's nicely cast as this story's doubting disciple. Low key and sardonic, he's at home in his body, eminently watchable. You have to like this guy. He's got a wryly observant sense of humour and an unforced charisma that leaves no doubt Rogers would be one heck of an evangelist if he'd only get his act together.

Which is precisely what our story's about. For reasons that are revealed over the course of the film, Elder Rogers long ago lost his original zeal, and now his very faith may be in question.

Clyde completely succeeds in winning us over with his portrayal of this refreshingly round peg in very square hole, and his work is clearly the film's greatest strength. Unfortunately, it also points up the movie's greatest problem.

Once Rogers regains his faith, he takes no more pictures, takes no more detours, buys no more stroopwafels. Either he or the writer can no longer take time for such peripheral self-indulgence. The character who insisted that numbers don't matter is now running up a record tally, and there's no doubt the movie wants us to take that as an unqualifiedly good thing. More likely, many viewers will conclude this whole Mormon mission business is a pretty driven and life-denying endeavour.

Frankly, Elder Rogers is the only one of these guys I'd want to hang out with. He's savvy, he doesn't get drawn in to the bickering of his dorm-mates, he seems to relish the world with an artist's appreciation, and he wears his top button undone. What's not to like?

But that all changes when he recovers his flagging faith. He gets with the program and, for all we know, becomes pretty much the same as his much less interesting fellow missionaries. Ultimately he tells his partner, "it's all about the work."

What a pity.

This is essentially a relationship story, so the film's other problem is the superficiality of these relationships. Wacky dorm-room shenanigans wear thin pretty quick, and they really aren't an adequate way to explore relationships or character in the first place. The final leave-taking is sadly unaffecting: is this a script problem, or are mission-field relationships really this shallow? These boys share months or years together, but to judge by this film, it's only "time served" – the friendships are only, in the final analysis, about the work, and there's less of a bond among them than I'd expect after a half-decent weekend retreat. Some of the performances play into this problem, going for a two-dimensional comedy that's too broad to work on screen.

The film does succeed in a number of ways, though. David Nibley is strong as Elder Johnson, and he does a nice job with Johnson's own long-awaited story reversal – if only it had come much earlier in the movie, we could have had some far more interesting character development there. Scott Christopher is just right as the potential convert, Kyle Harrison. The music is ear-catching, the exterior photography is eye-catching, and there are some effective uses of simple-but-nifty camera tricks, point-of-view and time-lapse shots that really enhance character development.

THE BEST TWO YEARS is very much a "Mormon movie" – it's about Mormons, by Mormons, for Mormons. The fascinating thing is that it may have real interest for evangelical Christians – especially those who are most likely to consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints a non-Christian cult, but who may have more in common culturally than they ever would have imagined.

Over the past decade or two, there has been an explosion of Christian involvement in theatre and film, with churches hiring ministers of drama and films being produced specifically for such a market. Box Office Mojo gives sales figures for movies "produced by Christians outside the Hollywood system to promote their principles" – and alongside THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, LEFT BEHIND, LUTHER and THE JUDAS PROJECT you'll find plenty of LDS titles, everything from THE BOOK OF MORMON and LATTER DAY NIGHT LIVE to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

Fact is, the live theatre tradition among the Latter Day Saints goes back much further than a couple decades, and out of their strong affirmation of performing arts is growing a niche-market film industry that is worth paying attention to. It's not uncommon for films like THE OTHER SIDE OF HEAVEN and GOD'S ARMY to show up on the shelves of neighborhood video stores – where you'll probably find THE BEST TWO YEARS once it finishes its limited theatrical run.

A number of reviewers are cautiously hailing this charming but flawed story as the best Mormon film so far. It's very much in keeping with the spirit of Mormon theatre – in fact, it began as a stage play that was wildly successful with Mormon audiences. It's about evangelism, but it's not primarily evangelistic, it's confessional. Like pageant plays about Mormon settlers making their way to the Promised Valley, this story celebrates the community by giving witness to its shared experience. The opening song makes that connection: "I believe that the Mormons make the best pioneers, so I'm going to the land of the tulips, I'll be knocking out my best two years...".

To its credit, THE BEST TWO YEARS shows a refreshing willingness to acknowledge the foibles and possible problems with some Mormon missionary practices, but the story ultimately comes round to affirming the value of the whole enterprise. Mainstream Christians may have deeper objections to Mormonism than this film acknowledges, but conservative evangelical viewers who can get past those concerns will connect at a human level with the sense of standing outside the prevailing culture, the passionate desire to have a testimony and share it with others, and the often painful tension between the mandate to evangelize and the immense personal and cultural barriers to carrying that out.

My own misgivings have always come down to the strong impression that, overall, this particular church doesn't really get grace. Whatever they may believe about the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, there still seems to be a pervasive belief that, from that point on, you have to earn your way – that you have to do certain things, not do other things, attain certain standards of righteousness and service, in order to qualify for various after-life perks, or maybe even eternal life itself.

I know individual Mormons who share my absolute conviction that Jesus' death wins us eternal life if we simply receive it from Him as a gift, and that nothing we can do will add to that in any way. That is the good news. Wherever individual Christians or specific denominations may differ, on that point there's just no wiggle room. Preach something different, you're not preaching the gospel.

Apart from my affection for the open-hearted charms of this film, or my qualms about questionable artistic choices and story-telling weaknesses, my real concern about THE BEST TWO YEARS is that it conveys a very dangerous message: you are what you earn. "Blessed are the spiritually ambitious, for by hard work they shall earn success." The soundtrack music calls Elder Rogers' predicament "a fall from grace," but I'm troubled by the cause it identifies: "I know deep down the truth is, I've been afraid to toe the line." I hear words about grace, but most of what I see tells me that, really, it's all about works.

I don't know if that's a problem with the film, or with the soil it springs from. But in either case, it just won't do.

An edited version of this review first appeared at Christianity Today Movies.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004


Observations on HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG

This is a film that sticks with you. It's rich and intricate, and the more you reflect on its specifics, the more its meaning and mysteries present themselves.

My wife has been mulling ever since we saw the film last night, and at one point she said she thought the film was like a poem. I think she meant that it was moody and sparse and evocative, that it engaged the senses and didn't always make its intentions known: we couldn't constantly see the machineries of plot grinding away. Her comment made me think, though, of film poetry in another sense: this movie rhymes. Over and over again, images and scenes "sound like" what's come before, and in that way the film gains a remarkable sense of unity and interconnectedness. Kathy stops (or is stopped?) on the threshold of "her" home to avoid getting blood on the floor: earlier, Behrani cautioned his son (who didn't seem to care) about getting blood on things when he came into their apartment with his knees bloodied from skateboarding. The plastic bag Kathy's foot is wrapped in is echoed by the garment bag at the end of the film. Nadi offers tea to Kathy – it is the (ironic) welcome of a hostess, it is an offer of friendship that (ironically, again) becomes a marker of cultural difference, but most importantly as the story progresses we come to see that it offers an almost sacramental peace, a healing calm and respite – also a dark irony. Mr Behrani takes tea as an act of meditation, to quiet himself: a slant rhyme to other drinking, which deadens pain. And when Kathy comes into the house a second time, Mrs Behrani has her take a bath to calm herself. The bath and the tea, and the release they offer, end up sounding very much alike by the end of the story. And of course the film's final stanza is deeply satisfying, structurally – a precise rhymed couplet to the opening lines, slightly elaborated.

There are rhymes that are almost entirely visual. The camera takes its time to look at environments, especially the interiors of the various "homes" – there's an intricate rhyme scheme to be found in images of cleaning, the way we regard sinks and taps, the angles of walls and floors and doorways, the different beds these characters sleep in (even the bath tub). It also spends considerable time contemplating exteriors, mostly fog. (I had thought the title or the film slightly deficient in the latter respect, initially: the camera's preoccupation with the latter certainly illustrated that this was a house of fog, but how was it a house of sand? Of course, once we ask ourselves that question, the title seems utterly apt, even biblical.)

The film makers often use the outside environment, the weather in particular, as "pillow shots" between scenes: rather than cut directly from one sequence to the next, scenes are often "cushioned" from one another with images of the outdoors, mostly in fog, often rendered threatening by time lapse techniques. This gives us space to contemplate the events of the story, to let significance soak into us. It also provides a sense of structure and order, as the metre in a poem. And when this framing convention is subtly shifted, it provides another very significant rhyme: on two occasions I can remember, the sped-up cloud or fog imagery is unexpectedly imbedded in the middle of a scene, in such a way that we seem to be looking through the eyes of a character, who responds with alarm to this vision – in one case, Mr Behrani, in the other, Kathy. A potent camera technique which has provided space and structure suddenly becomes something more: not allowed to stand outside the story, like a frame around a picture, these images become part of the character's experience within the story. This vision is now shared by the characters themselves. They are seeing evidence that events are beyond their control and moving much too fast: time is out of joint, the natural order has been violated, the world cascades into the sea. There's something Shakespearean in this imagery of nature responding to wrong and dreadful choices of humans: "The night has been unruly. Where we lay, Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say, Lamentings heard i' th' air..."

The moment back in Iran when the colonel ordered that chainsaw to be fired up and those mighty trees were leveled, removing any impediment between him and the open sea, some terrible erosion began: there was nothing to keep their lives from slipping, tumbling off the earth and into the ocean like the fog. It was as if he invoked a curse at that moment: in his hubris, something dire was unleashed, and we glimpsed it on the face of the woman on the beach below, alarm and confusion and a helpless anger, her two children running from the sea in a sort of panic. Of course later we realize that these are the wife and children of the man himself, posed in uniform at the railing of his deck, surveying the tree-stripped horizon with satisfaction. And I think of his wife's eventual comment that it was his fault they had to leave their homeland: because we never see the actual events that led to their departure, I couldn't help thinking it was somehow because of the trees. Foolish, of course, but also true? The way a child might misattribute actual specific causes and effects, lacking information or good understanding of their parents' realities, but nonetheless seeing something in the pattern of behaviour. It wasn't this father's cutting of the trees that caused them to have to leave their home, but that act revealed something in his nature that we intuitively understand to be connected with his inability to function under the new regime – something forceful, proud, intransigent, perhaps visionary or idealistic, but also threatening and potentially destructive. There is another visual and narrative rhyme in the two railed decks that view two different seas, two sets of workers wielding tools, cutting wood, imposing Behrani's will on things.

There is a fatefulness in this story that seems close to Shakespeare's tragedies (and I suppose those of the Greeks, and Arthur Miller), and it is truly Shakespearean that the relentless inevitability of events (but not quite inevitability: at so many moments, changing the course of things seems within the characters' grasp) seems not only in the hands of some external fate or fates, and somehow inextricably interwoven with nature, but just as inescapably that it's to be rooted in the natures and consequent actions of the people themselves. Some of the apparent inevitability seems as threatening as it does precisely because these dark consequences arise out of the characters' choices, and we are led to wonder if the inevitability is build into their own hearts. (Another set of visual rhymes involves the times when the colonel – or, for that matter, the sheriff – chooses to don his uniform. Fateful moments all.) It is frightening to think our fates are in the hands of ineluctable natural forces or vengeful gods: when we consider that perhaps our own choices, and the choices of the people around us, are just as inevitably shaped by the darknesses in our hearts, that fear is compounded into real horror – the threat is so close at hand, so undeniable. Some actions will bring destruction, darkness will flow out of us – from our pride and prevarications, from our weakness and addictions, from our disrespect and disregard, from our certainty that we know how things should be and our blind willingness to do all we can to make them so, whatever the cost.


...And a few on 21 GRAMS

Massoud Amir Behrani turns to God when his own will and resources can no longer make the world bend to his desires. And God – if there is a god in the world of SAND AND FOG – will have none of it. It may be that there is no god here. It may be that God is powerless, or that this God is detached, uninvolved, or perhaps even vengeful: "Behrani has sought to make himself a god, he shall have the consequences." If there is a God in the world these film makers have made, he's apparently not a rescuing god.

In this I was reminded of Jack Jordan, Benicio Del Toro's deeply flawed character in another film that's all about tragic circumstances, and the violent consequences of tragic flaws in desperate people. He too calls on God to save him, and God doesn't come through. The estimable Jeffrey Overstreet commented that, in 21 GRAMS, "If there is a God, he's gonna hang you out to dry, especially if you try to serve him." His apt comment has led me to wonder how that's different from the God in THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG? Or the book of Job, for that matter.

Jeffrey's reaction to 21 GRAMS was negative: he found the film's emotional tone over-wrought, the narrative devices a smoke-screen for a thin and melodramatic plot, and he took issue with what he saw as a cynical portrayal of the Del Toro character's Christianity (inflamed by interviewer Jeffrey Wells' representation of the director's stance toward Christian faith). It's a completely understandable response, well-stated and well-supported: it just didn't happen to be my response. I thought the intensity of tone seemed suited to the horrific circumstances of the characters (which didn't seem so improbable to me), I found the shattered story-line engaging and invigorating, and I saw Jack Jordan as a violent and violated man clinging, white-knuckled, to the hem of Jesus' garment. From the outset he was haunted by his past, which was completely understandable. He was also grotesquely inconsistent at living out the faith he was clinging to so fiercely and awkwardly – which I also understand, from first-hand experience. And when he brought about a tragedy of unbearable weight, his newly awakened conscience was crushed. I could only wonder if I would fare any better in such a situation.

God didn't rescue him. All I can say is, sometimes God doesn't. God didn't take Mr Behrani's deal, either. I wasn't surprised: life is often like that. "Are we to expect only that which is good from the Lord? And shall we receive no misfortune?" To tell such stories – Job's story, Massoud's story, Jack's story – isn't necessarily cynical or God-denying: in my experience, sometimes God simply doesn't do as He's told. He doesn't behave as we think He should. Now, it's also true that sometimes God does rescue us: sometimes, Jesus saves. Sometimes he lifts us out of our agonizing circumstances, sometimes He works the miracle that calms the storm or raises our dead child from death. But sometimes He does not.

Sometimes we tire of the fact that there are so many stories where Jesus doesn't save, and so few where He does. But what else would we expect? That second truth isn't one that very many people really know, faced with all the hard things that are part of every life, including every Christian life. How many people are able to be wedded to Christ for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health? Following Jesus simply isn't something most people are going to do, at least not over the long haul. Not long enough to really get to know Him. Jesus said as much: the Way is narrow and few enter, the Kingdom of God is little like a mustard seed, all that. Most intelligent people clear out when Jesus says "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you" – only a dumb, devoted handful stick around at that point, having nowhere else to go.

A friend who has lived most of his past 20 years in Liberia and Ivory Coast has taught me the way African believers greet one another in those tormented places – a ritual conversation, a reminder, a small everyday liturgy;
You: God is good.
Me: All the time?
You: All the time.
Me: God is good.
That is deep wisdom, coming from people who have suffered it all, and who nevertheless persist in clinging to their God. In neither of these films do the characters know God quite so well. Few of us do. For the most part we count on God to make our circumstances pleasant, and if things in our lives get really nasty – as they do sometimes, in some lives, as in these two films – we are all too likely to conclude that God isn't there, or that He isn't listening, or doesn't care, or is powerless. We ask Jesus for an easy answer, He gives us a hard one, and we go away sad.

We want a God we can order around. We want to put on our uniforms, hire God like a contractor, and have him cut down the trees we don't like, build the deck we desire, free us from our addictions or raise our children from the dead. We'll pay the price if He'll do what we want him to. "And can You start today?"

Both HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG and 21 GRAMS are available at Videomatica