Goin’ Coen: Film Reviews

N.B. These are reviews, not recaps. If you want plot summaries, hit up Wikipedia or IMDB. Still, a *minor* spoiler or two follows.

Movies make me happy. Not for the sake of entertainment, but in the particular punch of storytelling that only feature-length Hollywood can deliver. I have no patience with bad films (which are legion), and cannot tire of re-watching a good one.

As previously stated, time to spend on movies, particularly new movies, is a rare commodity, and movies worthy of that precious investment are few and far between. Even so, Rachel and I managed to sneak in a date night recently to watch a new film at the theater, and managed to snag another new release at home. These two features don’t have much connection beyond that fact that we just saw them both and that both involve the input of Joel & Ethan Coen.

Hail, Caesar!

Writing a genuinely funny film that keeps all the humor on key for two hours is an accomplishment. Doing that these days without swiping at the low-hanging fruit of crude or sexual exhibitionism is even more impressive. Pulling it all off while weaving deeper emotional heft into the film is a triumph.

Hail, Caesar! marks the first time in a very, very long time that I’ve left the theater after a comedy without the least cringing or regret. That’s not to say there is nothing off-color here, but that most of it is tasteful and all of it works to advance the plot.

This is a tongue-in-cheek-in-cheek work, marrying the Coen brothers’ carefully crafted sense of absurdity with their wide-ranging fascination with Hollywood history. Inside jokes layered upon inside jokes abound. For me, a classic film junkie, nearly all the winks hit home—I am fairly certain I was smiling or laughing for every second of the running time.

The beauty of this work, however, is that it is so well timed and acted that it would be almost as funny to someone who missed all the layered meanings, who knew absolutely nothing about the old studio system, all the hushed-up scandals of yesteryear, or the plots of the many great movies parodied in this sprawling sendup. It is that rarest of animals, the “highbrow-lowbrow” comedy. Who, afteCaesarr all, can hold back a snigger when a director tells his star in a biblical epic to “squint into the grandeur”, or when a man confesses that he “struck a movie star in anger” to his baffled priest?

Though Caesar! has been only a modest financial success, critics have found it endearing, particularly within conservative (here, here, and here) and Christian media. The film seems to take certain aspects of its story (the value of work, the role of entertainment in society, and yes, religion) fairly seriously, while still being able to crack wise about them.

What those reviews intuit is that this is not just a good comedy (though it is not less than that) but that the Coens have tapped into something deeper. Caesar! is Hollywood’s soul-searching, born of deep doubts about the growing irrelevance of movies in an instant culture, wondering if the wealth and power they enjoy is fading and, ultimately, wasted. This paean to the “golden age” of movies is stirring precisely because people miss it. We miss when “pictures” were important, not merely checked-out entertainment but enjoyable and poignant shared experiences of our culture.

Many of the so-called culture makers are content to live on as Baird Whitlock (George Clooney’s character in the film), making money hand over fist while caring not a whit for the craft and gladly babbling regurgitated pseudopolitical talking points to feel good about themselves. Others are, no doubt, like Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) and his co-conspirators, using the pull of entertainment to subliminally indoctrinate the masses. Viewers are left to wonder, however, if “good guys” like Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, who is outstanding as the core of this story) and Hobie Doyle (an impressive Alden Ehrenreich) still exist, or ever did. Even that is one of the Coens’ best jokes—the real Eddie Mannix was an utter scoundrel, an exact doppelgänger of the man Brolin brings to life here.

Seeing this movie just prior to (an attempt at) watching the Oscars, brought these themes immediately to mind. The self-absorption that has always more or less characterized the industry is on humorous full display in Caesar!, but there are still adults in the room keeping things together and making the system work. Today’s Hollywood has so completely swallowed itself that the “scandal” of #OscarsSoWhite consumed the entire ceremony, overshadowing the honorees of the night (which included several accomplished films that actually tackled issues of substance with artistic merit).

Bridge of Spies

The second Coen-spun film we watched recently was Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (for which the brothers, along with Matt Charman, wrote the screenplay). Though not as remarkable an achievement overall as Hail, Caesar!, this was nevertheless a solid, enjoyable movie. It certainly further cements Spielberg’s status as America’s “Slightly Fictionalized Historian-in-Chief” in the tradition of Schindler’s ListAmistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Lincoln, etc., belting out the ballad of the unsung hero.

Tom Hanks, playing his usual highly-capable everyman, guaranteed some level of success, and endearing (now Oscar-winning) Mark Rylance gives heart to a tale of espionage, treason, Cold War brinksmanship, and good old American dealmaking. Somehow though, it manages to rise above even those stalwart expectations, unabashedly praising the inherent goodness of republican democracy and rule of law in an era when we have all but lost faith in all our institutions.

Spielberg and the Coens mined an era (the late 50s and early 60s) and events (the U2 incident and East German prisoner swap) not well plumbed by popular history, to show how the truly key players in world-shaping are often inconsequential middlemen. That, in itself, is a testimony to the American experiment—living proof of man’s equality with man.

Though I am of two minds (at best) of most of the Coens’ oeuvre, both of these fine films strike needed notes in an increasingly troubled time. With all the bluster of uninformed political rhapsodizing from the centers of culture, is it any wonder that a nation of moviegoers is staring into the void of a very real political crisis dominated by vapid celebrity? In the age of Trump, perhaps Hollywood should fully weigh what it lost when it gave up trying to lift up and inspire America with stories that cut across the lines that so define us now. When the powerbrokers are asleep at the switch, we desperately need to recover the tenacity, decency, and trustworthiness these pictures hold up for acclaim.

Reflected Reality: Art in the Mirror

It has become commonplace for American Christians talk about the power of story and the need for art to shape the cultural conversation. On many levels this is commendable, and I’ve been a more than willing participant in the exercise. Stories are important (whether in words or on the screen), and those that captivate us shape our thinking both directly and subtly. What we enjoy, we embody; our entertainments become our axioms.

This has been long understood, fleshed out for evangelicals of a certain stripe as a carefully curated distance from mainstream popular culture. The line has sometimes been drawn even farther back—in 7th grade, my small Christian school had a minor dustup over whether to include The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia in the library, what with the witches and all. It is easy enough to go off the rails with this approach, driven by fear as much as faith. Still, its appreciation of the catechetical role of literature and media is laudable, as is the sound desire to protect the Church and its institutions from secular influences.

More recently, sentiment has shifted to a warmer embrace of the popular and a desire to befriend and become culture-makers for the sake of mission. How can we, the new conventional wisdom goes, have real relationships with our unbelieving friends and neighbors if we can’t converse with their favorite shows, movies, music, or books? As in the other stream, there is a heart here to be praised, but the danger on this side lies in forgetting to “take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

This is in no wise a thorough discussion of the subject, but it should move the chains far enough for us to take a shot at thinking about art and theology. Whichever path is taken, we are often reluctant to make room for the best art, because to do so is to open doors of uncertainty.

Good stories well told stretch and strengthen our faith, and create space in the wider cultural imagination for the truth of the Gospel to thrive. They can also drive those already wrestling with doubt to walk deeper into it. The pull of art itself is powerful—there are more than a few stories of how the God-given drive to create can draw people away from the faith of their fathers (see Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, for example)—so the Church needs to be a place where those gifts find fulfillment rather than shame. There will always be real tension between robust doctrine (without which there is no Church) and the need for creative freedom (without which there is no art).

Trying to walk that line, we slog along, tepidly applauding a middling work of fiction here and a mediocre “Christian” film there. These are stereotypes to be sure, but they come from someplace. I can’t help but feel that if a manuscript for something like  To Kill a Mockingbird showed up on the desk of a mainstream Christian publisher, they would cut 2/3 of the book, add an emotional conversion scene at the courthouse, and then wrap it up with a newly-chipper Bob Ewell dropping all charges against Tom Robinson and throwing a town picnic.

IMG_2445The best of literature and visual art, of course, mirrors life as it is—filled with sin, darkness, and despair as surely as hope and joy. In Jesus’ parables, there were characters and scenes of the most unsavory nature (renters who murder the landlord’s son, a child who tells his father that he wished he was dead so he can have his inheritance now, etc.). The entirety of the Old Testament shows the depravity of nations, especially that of God’s own chosen people. The world is a horrible place and we are horrible people, but what a blinding light is God’s holy justice and mercy at the cross of Christ!

It is this juxtaposition that makes the best art in service of the Lord. All our creative work only really “works” insofar as it draws parallels to this story, likening the things we know all too well to the glory we see now through a glass darkly.

Lately, I can’t seem to stop talking about the new novel Laurus. I fell so hard for the writer’s vision there, because he came closer to crossing through that looking glass than anybody I’ve read in a while. Beyond that, his humility as a writer spoke volumes. My wife and I laughed to hear his story about how he told his wife that no one would read his book; we could see ourselves saying that if I ever finish the things I’m working on, and it is so easy to look at the mainstream and despair of finding a market for that kind of work. He said it touched a nerve because people are hungry for something more, that they “need other things to live by.” That hunger comes as the Holy Spirit is drawing men to Christ, and the right piece of art at the right time can indeed be another stepping stone on their journey to rest in Him.

I’ve spent much of my adult life studying theology, not for academics, but to write pieces for Disciple Magazine and my day job at a missions organization and teach Sunday school. I find that the deeper I go into Scripture, into staring at the face of God (so far as we can do in our fallenness), the more I have had to get used to saying “I don’t know.” You only ever have to have faith when you encounter the Living God—all the lesser pretenders to deity are quite explainable.That is why Christ’s call is “Follow Me.” Until glory comes, we are not equipped to understand. The best works of literature operate on that level. You have to give yourself to the author until he is finished working out what he has prepared for you.

Far from causing doubts, that apparent ambiguity serves to draw me closer to Him. He wants us to know Him; we can know Him. Our knowledge is never fully realized in this life, but sufficient to point ourselves to Him. As we create, we must remember that there is only one story that actually gets us to Him. Art will not save, but it can steer us to seek the One who will.

A Day Late and [Several] Dollar(s) Short: Film Reviews

We have kids.

No surprise there if you know us or just read a few posts here. They bring many joys, and change your life in many ways. One of those ways, we’ve learned, is that we are no longer anywhere near the cutting edge of music, cinema, or culture. The last time we saw a movie on the big screen, it was Frozen, and that at the cheap theater 4 months post-release. But, as balm for entertainment-deprived souls, the public library comes through…if you are patient.

All that to say, over the last few weeks we’ve just now caught up with some of the popular films from late last year. By and large, we are glad we saved the money and waited. None of them were terrible, but it’s reminded us that well-done original films are such a rare treat. In the order we watched them, now, some brief reviews.

Selma
David Oyelowo as Dr. King was phenomenal. The supporting cast was great. The set design, costumes, etc., superb. The themes are clear, the story (small historical quibbles notwithstanding) doesn’t overly sentimentalize characters and events. This should have been a great film, but the pacing was so poor it struggled even to be a good one. I’d much rather have a film with layers of meaning applied so quickly that a few re-watches are required to get it all than one that drags out each scene longer than necessary.

Shorter Selma: Watch the 1987 PBS miniseries Eyes on the Prize.

Into the Woods
A well-made film adaptation, largely faithful to the dark-yet-playful vibe Sondheim pulled off so well. I’ve seen this performed on stage a couple of times, and, to Disney’s credit, they didn’t muddy it up with too many special effects, and chose a cast who could sing well. My beefs with the movie are the same I have with Sondheim’s original: there are definitely creepy and suggestive moments (including a child predator thinly veiled as the Big Bad Wolf), and the takeaway message is that people let you down, so you’ve got to trust yourself (“Witches can be right / Giants can be good. / You decide what’s right / You decide what’s good.”).

Shorter Into the Woods: Very Grimm, indeed. Well-done, but ringing hollow.

Unbroken
Slightly better than Selma in the “true story” category thanks to tighter editing. Great acting from a good cast, good cinematography, and very faithful to the parts of the story depicted. Therein lies the trouble. Louis Zamperini’s struggles against himself, his opponents on the track, Japan, hunger, thirst, sharks, his demons, and ultimately his sin is so much richer than a two-and-a-half-hour movie can pull off. Not a bad film by any stretch, but a clear case of “the book was better.”

Shorter Unbroken: Read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand instead.

Many of these scripts suffer from gravitational time dilation...

Many of these scripts suffer from gravitational time dilation…

Interstellar
I admire Christopher Nolan’s ambition. Really, I do. When the dog catches the car, though, the results can be…interesting. This movie tried to say so much, and came so close. It bogged down not in the science, but in its lackluster development of characters. There is no one to really care about–even if you buy his premise that love is a force that moves across time and space (I found it good food for thought). If Nolan shaved 45 minutes to an hour off this bad boy, leaving more to the imagination and focusing on the action, it might have been great.

Shorter Interstellar: For the “leave the earth to save it, but only love conquers destruction” motif, watch Wall-E instead.

The Theory of Everything
Give the man his Oscar. Eddie Redmayne went the full Daniel Day Lewis, and was handsomely rewarded by the Academy. Feel-good mush? Perhaps, but Redmayne works it and it works. Felicity Jones and the supporting cast are quite good also, and the clash of worldviews features prominently. Even so, the film as a whole spends too much time lingering over Hawking’s incredible disability instead of plumbing the depths of his relational and intellectual (spiritual, really) tension with his wife. Again, pacing is everything.

Shorter Theory of Everything: Acting Oscars seldom indicate that the film is equally superb.

Maybe by this time next year, I’ll have found time to watch five more movies. Make ’em count, Hollywood!