A View from The End of the World

Seeking “the meaning of life” is as human an activity as breathing, and wrestling with why things aren’t as good as they could (should?) be follows close behind. For better or for worse, I can’t stop reading books that propose to answer the pervasive sense of foreboding about the status quo that so many of us feel.

As someone who stands up in church every Sunday to confess that I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting, this habit of watching for the end of a certain world seems a bit incongruous. I’d like to think I’m in good company with prophets (like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Micah) and apostles (like Peter and John) in looking for the Day of the Lord. They remind us that it is possible to raise up a Jeremiad with joy and to temper handwringing with hope.

So I keep reading and listening. This is true whether these works come from a political science perspective (like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed), a sociological perspective (like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart), a religious perspective (like Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option), a personal memoir (like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me), the agrarian (all of Wendell Berry’s work), the poetic (like W.H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety), the dystopian (like P.D. James’ Children of Men), and even the historical (like Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning). Look in any direction and it’s existential crises for days, but there’s always something to learn.

One thing all of these books have in common is an explanatory posture—they attempt to make sense of the loss and the dread and offer some semblance of a way to the good (looking back for some, forward for others, and grasping at things not yet seen for a few). Most start from a place of reminding the reader what society stands to lose if we’re not careful, a warning to the privileged that their inheritance is spending down faster than it is accruing value. Others point out that what we’ve inherited was never what we thought to begin with.

Of all the “here’s what’s gone wrong w/America” takes, however, Chris Arnade’s recent book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is one of the most honest I’ve seen. Though the author (a former Wall-Street banker who also holds a Ph. D. in physics from Johns Hopkins) possesses greater privilege than many others in this group of writers, Dignity takes pains to  center with humility and humanness those for whom America has gone most wrong. Those who are being ground up get the focus and the voice here; those who’ve lost already, not those who merely fear what they may lose.

Some of this comes from the book’s format. It’s not an academic or even a narrative work, but rather a travelogue weaving episodes and itinerant thoughts with personal stories from all over the U.S. It’s also a sort of coffee-table book: Arnade is an accomplished photographer, and the faces and places he encounters feature prominently throughout the book, giving the words flesh and feeling.

At first, Arnade appears to be launching into memoir as he recounts the beginnings of this project in his long walks in New York, farther and farther afield from his Manhattan office. At some level, he never leaves this mode, stickA1UfDx8SR9L copying around to narrate, to tie together disparate interviews, and to offer an epilogue of his visit back to his hometown.

His voice, though, isn’t the thing you take with you. It’s the words of Takeesha, Imani, Luther, Jeanette, Beauty, Fowisa, Jo-Jo (all street names or pseudonyms to protect their identities), and the others you meet in these pages. It’s the drugs, chemicals of every kind that can be swallowed, snorted, smoked, or shot up. It’s the emptiness of homes, factories, cities, and towns that once held a fuller life. It’s the inexplicable persistence of community in McDonald’s, churches, bars, abandoned buildings, and parks. It’s the clear-eyed pictures of racial injustice that still pervade America and the ways its evil seeps into and drives other class and culture issues.

The photos-and-snippets motif Arnade chose invites comparisons to Depression-era narrative shapers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. He is justly in their company in terms of his photographic eye, but his artistic aims are more subdued. He paints people not as victims in need of assistance or pawns in a political game, but as they are—human beings, broken and beautiful, navigating the life they’ve got with the tools they have. This gives the book a strikingly agenda-less quality. Yes, he addresses globalization, crony capitalism, automation, family fragmentation, drug policy and other macro-level trends that have contributed to the plight of his subjects in some way, but he shies away from any prescriptive action steps. Some may find this (and the attendant lack of concrete “solutions” to “problems”) frustrating, but I think it is a critical posture for the observations Arnade makes to be taken seriously.

Throughout the book, he presents the key divide in American society as that between the “front row” (educated, workaholic, powerful, cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile, rootless) and the “back row” (underemployed, powerless, bound to place, loyal, struggling). Arnade uses these terms descriptively, but neither is intended derisively—front row and back row America both have values and vices, but their cultural currencies and drugs of choice differ widely. Both can provide meaning and community, but both battle despair and can be toxic to outsiders.

It is in the question of values—or rather value—where Arnade makes his most helpful contribution to our national conversation. The front row, he says, lives by “credentialed” value. A person is welcomed into that community based on their gifts and abilities, their degrees, their accomplishments, and their contributions to others’ well-being and success. This world is competitive and rewarding, but also insecure. In the back row, value is “non-credentialed.” Your identity and worth comes from things you are born with (family, ethnicity, work-ethic, local roots) or from belonging to groups that are accessible to almost anyone willing to join (a church, a drug community, a gang, becoming a parent).

At present, the high places of cultural influence and power are open only to the front row, and the non-credentialed bona fides of the back row aren’t likely to earn you a seat at the table or a steady job. If there is an ax to grind here, it is Arnade’s persistent message to his fellow front-row-ites that the meritocracy at the helm of American society today is a much, much more closed system than they’d like to believe. His forays into the back row—whether in Bakersfield, Calif., Johnson City, Tenn., Selma, Ala., Portsmouth, Ohio, or even neighborhoods of front-row cities like New York—demonstrate how the solutions of the front row (“get an education,” “move away,” “get clean,” “learn new skills,” etc.) are much higher mountains to climb from this different perspective. What seems like common sense to one group is to another group a command to turn one’s back on everything they’ve ever known. The repetition of this theme comes both from his desire to make this known, but also because his interviewees so frequently have been confronted by this stark divide.

Dignity matters, not as another explainer of “how we got Trump” or a push for better government and nonprofit programs for poverty alleviation (though it has implications for those discussions), but as a step toward helping us as a country see all of our neighbors as brothers and sisters. Arnade does not claim to be a Christian, but he is implicitly calling us to recover the imago dei as the final arbiter of one another’s value.

Arnade’s lack of professed faith also makes his assessment of the real value of congregational life and earnest beliefs in the churches (and mosques) of the back row that much more remarkable. In an excerpt from the book published in First Things, he writes: “My biases were limiting a deeper understanding: that perhaps religion was right, or at least as right as anything could be…. On the streets, few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know.”

His chapter on religion hit closest to home for me and the work that I do. The churches he visited in the back row certainly don’t check all the theological or cultural boxes front row Christians deem necessary, but they all reflect the person of Jesus Christ in loving their neighbors and being faithfully present with them. Too often, front-row Christianity (whether conservative or liberal in theology, whether high-church or low-church in polity) has trouble doing this—we’re not quite sure what we’d do if someone from the cultural back row walked in and wanted to join. We don’t often have a story of change that would work for them. Doctrine, expected behaviors, and appropriate political positions we can get our minds around; Jesus gives us heartburn.

So where do we go from here? How do we build up? As I said, Dignity is long on observation and short on solutions. Many others are starting to digest the realities on the ground and work toward tying some of these threads together in ways that can repair the breach and bring people back to the wholeness we were designed to experience together. I’ve highlighted some of these on Twitter (that paragon of civil discourse), and in other writings, and I’m sure it’s a theme I’ll take up again. Moreover, this is no small part of the mission of the ministry where I work.

For now, though, let Dignity soak in and open your heart to those you might otherwise be tempted to forget.

Image: Abandoned farm equipment, Channel Islands National Park, California, June 2019

 

2018 Reads & Recommendations

So, another year has come to an end, and it’s time for another list of books I’ve read since January. As with each year’s list (see 2017, 2016, and 2015, for reference), these are not necessarily books released in 2018 (though some are), but books that I encountered this year. Short reviews follow for a few, clustered around some broad categories.

Theology and Practice

The Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren
This small book is a straightforward, elegant, needed reminder that the balance of faithful Christian lives around the world are lived in the everyday grind of waking, sleeping, eating, working, and caring for others. Warren crafts a framework of routine tasks that most will encounter in some form each day and explores their spiritual significance, teaching us to turn our work and worries back to worship. If we are to walk faithfully with the Lord, she contends, we must be encouraged to see His grace and provision (as well as our dignity and significance) in our mundane daily walk just as clearly as in heroic deeds of faith.

Playing God and Culture Making by Andy Crouch
Both these books were quite good and helpful. Andy is more philosopher than theologian, and that works in his favor for books like this, where he takes a high-level idea (power and power dynamics in Playing God, creativity in Culture Making) and brings it back from its cultural captivity to enable a more theological understanding of it to emerge. In Playing God he explores power as God’s character, and our image-bearing as a calling to use power rightly. Culture Making presents his thinking on the purpose, potential, and limitations of creative work. Though these books were written several years apart, they complement each other. There is much here to think on in the midst of a distracted world and our Western “cult” of productivity.

Black Religion, Black Theology by J. Deotis Roberts
Roberts, one of the leading African American theologians of the 20th century, deserves to be known as a leading cultural theologian more broadly. He shares much in common with James Cone and Black Liberation Theology’s critique of Western Christianity’s complicity in oppression and the selective biblical application that has helped prop up systemic sins. Roberts, though, critiques BLT for losing the “universal Christ” (i.e. a Jesus who transcends all earthly cultures and points us to God) in their zeal to rescue Christ from the powers that be on earth. This is a far-too-brief summary, but the essays collected in Black Religion, Black Theology provide a good overview of Roberts’ work. Insofar as culturally captive Christianit-ies hold sway in the U.S. and elsewhere, Roberts ought to be required reading for any pastor and theologian practicing today. A goldmine.

Embodied Hope by Kelly M. Kapic
The problem of evil supposedly keeps theologians and (especially) atheists awake at night. This is not a book about that. Kapic takes both a fallen world filled with pain, suffering, and injustice and the infinite goodness and power of God. His focus is on what meaning there is in pain, and particularly, how we should approach suffering in the church: how we should acknowledge pain individually and corporately, and how we should consider our responsibility to those who suffer. This small but rich book is worth reading for anyone who has experienced suffering or is living in it now, who loves someone who has experienced suffering or is living in it now, and for those who may someday experience it.

Disruptive Witness by O. Alan Noble
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has proven to be an indispensable text for grasping the social and theological import of our present moment. James K. A. Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” trilogy stands as the premier exposition of Taylor (though he is not, by far, the only thinker represented in that series), translating his insights for a wider audience. Others have followed in Smith’s wake to riff on Taylor’s work of criticism, and a new wave of writers is working on building up a path forward for Christians living in a post-religious world. Alan Noble jumps into this latter category, inviting believers to lean into countercultural (yet historical) disciplines of prayer, worship (including observance of the church calendar), service to and reverence for others, etc. that both anchor us to faithfulness and present an alternative report on the nature and purpose of life than the one our culture adheres to. A persevering church made up of faithful believers is able not just to withstand cultural forgetting, but to catch the world off guard and with the fullness of the Gospel message.

History/Biography/Cultural Observation

Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins & Dominique LaPierre
In the aftermath of World War II, the new Labour government of Clement Attlee began to divest the war-spent and indebted United Kingdom of its overseas holdings—to dissolve the British Empire. The crown jewel of that empire was the Raj of India, a vast territory covering all of what is today India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. With the native populations of those regions crying out for independence from the crown and seething with internal cultural and religious divisions, the British opted for speed rather than stability in that process, unloading power and partitioning the countries in a matter of months and unleashing a bloodbath in the process. Collins and LaPierre had unprecedented access to Louis Mountbatten, and the family and archives of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohandas Ghandi and tell the story with impressive detail from multiple angles, focused on the year between Mountbatten’s appointment as the last Viceroy of India (January 1947) and the assassination of Ghandi (January 1948). There is somewhat of a Western bias to the tale, but the level of nuance makes it worth the telling.

How to Think by Alan Jacobs
Jacobs, literature professor in the Baylor honors program and a rather prolific author, has a knack for mining 20th century literature for perceptive critiques of contemporary culture and habits, and his 2017 effort, How to Think, is a reminder for our politically and socially fractured age if ever there was one. Jacobs stitches together threads from C. S. Lewis, Daniel Kahneman, David Foster Wallace, and George Orwell (spiced, as Jacobs’ work so often is, with input from W. H. Auden) to declare that “thinking”, properly considered, is the curated ability to calmly evaluate an opposing viewpoint. This, Jacobs argues, is the antidote to tribalism—even if tribes themselves must always exist—and inflexibility—even if there are certain convictions to which we always hold tightly. 

I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown
The memoir as a genre is overplayed these days, and, I fear, is forcing other forms of creative writing into the background of cultural dialogue. Surely not everyone who feels called to write also thinks their personal story is the thing we most need to hear from them, right? That said, a memoir that combines a compelling narrative with an incisive reading of a cultural moment is often exactly what we need to hear. Brown tells a story of growing up into an increasing awareness of what it means to be African American in an evangelical world that, as she puts it, assumes a monocultural (and largely white) perspective on everything from fashion to entertainment to worship style and is all-too-often fearful of any alternatives. Given some of the emotional pain she unveils here, this could’ve been sent out as a gut-punch of bitterness, but is instead a plea for grace and truth from a place of love and joy.

Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen
Deneen observes some of the contemporary travails of Western Society—political gridlock, elimination of local culture, erosion of self-governing habits, technological replacement of nature, intense social stratification, etc.—and looks for their causes in history. In digging beneath the standard left-right blame game to explore the roots, he finds the sources of our malaise in the underlying ideology of the Hobbesian-Lockean Liberalism that birthed the modern world. For a short book, it’s remarkably thorough, conversant with other major voices in the “all’s-not-right-with-the-world” camp (from Neil Postman to Robert Putnam to Charles Murray), and tying up their various loose ends into a compelling thesis. Deneen is also mindful that any solutions to the problems he diagnoses must be inherently small-scale and long-range activities of culture-making, sidestepping the classical liberals’ key error of believing they could remake the world.

Literature/Poetry

American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes
This book of 70 identically titled poems is the first volume of contemporary poetry I’ve ever picked up. I’ve learned to love poetry in the past few years, thanks largely to Christian modernists like Eliot and Auden, but Hayes’ effort here was the first book of poems I’ve read start to finish. It is both raw and polished, crying out from the anguish at an America that has never fully respected the personhood of black citizens while simultaneously exulting in dignity with pride. This isn’t for the faint of heart (as Hayes’ “raw” includes some explicit sexual references, and overarching themes of violence and loss), but worth the effort for an incisive look at our cultural moment. It’s made me want to write more and better poetry of my own, for some things that most need to be said pass beyond the realm of argument.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
What can one say about the greatest of books? To sum up or “review” seems petty, worthless. As has been said, one does not read the great books, they read you. Tolstoy’s tale of unhappy families is a striking morality tale, but also a political treatise and a master class on storycraft and character development. I suppose, like all the classics, it contains the world entire, without succumbing to pedantry or plotlessness.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville
I’m all for a good grounding in literature that exposes students to the best of what their culture has to offer throughout their education. This, even though I was a terrible reader until midway through my undergrad years. Of course, based on my experience, I can also say that the best books of any literary tradition are not meant to be read until adulthood, or at least not fully appreciable. I’m convinced that I’d have found this tome tendentious and boring as a high school or college student. In my mid-30s, though, it’s plain that this is one of the top 5 or 10 masterpieces of American literature. Even though the world described by “Ishmael” (19th Century Whaling) is long deceased, it feels fresh and real in narration. The symbols and themes are evergreen, and the peripatetic foreboding of the story is still haunting—Shakespeare at sea, almost.

Re-reads

“We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” – C.S. Lewis, “On Stories” 

Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
It seems like O’Connor has been hyped and analyzed to death in recent years, but her short stories and essays continue to yield fruit for Christians working in the arts. She will always hold a special significance for me as the first author I discovered who could keep the faith while facing the evil of men with a clear eye and balled fist. Converge remains my favorite of her short story collections, and “Revelation” is perhaps the perfect short fiction, and grows in force with each passing year that I fail to fully heed its message of grace. As long as I live, I’ll be trying to come up with a line as powerful as: “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Cather has become an indispensable part of the American canon for me, as no one seems to understand the significance and contradictions of our country quite so crisply—both as the thief and plunderer of the native peoples and as a haven of opportunity for peoples from around the world. Death Comes for the Archbishop is so beautiful; as I’ve written on it before, her descriptions of land and sky here make you stop and re-read paragraphs for the sheer wonder of it. Re-reading this after spending a few days in Santa Fe this year, I’m even more in awe of Cather’s descriptive powers. This story is as intimate as the friendship between its main characters, expansive as the New Mexico sky.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
An excellent novel, bringing together historical and theological threads through the lens of family, and of particular interest in humanizing the profession of a Christian minister. This 2004 book solidified Robinson’s reputation as America’s queen of letters (with Barack Obama a noted member of her legions of admirers) and earned her a Pulitzer. Its success gave me hope that people would still read spiritual fiction today. It has, I think held up well in the years since I last read it. I’ve written more on Robinson’s fiction here.

Also-reads

Not necessarily “second class” in any way, I just can’t review ’em all. Listed here in alphabetical order. Also, I started a seminary degree program this fall, so not every book I’m reading to that end will show up here (though the ones that have general application certainly will).

The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin
Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream*
by Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
I Dared to Call Him Father by Bilquis Sheikh
Deep Work by Cal Newport
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind by Thomas C. Oden
The House of Bondage by Octavia V. Albert
Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
King Lear by William Shakespeare
Light in August by William Faulkner
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
The Negro Church in America by E. Franklin Frazier
Notes from Underground 
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah
Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon
Rooting for Rivals
by Peter Greer and Chris Horst
The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1 by Justo L. González
Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

* Forthcoming (March 2019)

A Day Late and [Several] Dollar[s] Short IV: Back to the Future

As is my wont from time to time, I [briefly] review movies. Not movies that are new, which the watching public may be eagerly awaiting information about, but usually movies that were new recently—and which I’ve finally gotten around to watching (most often on DVD, thanks to the local library).

For this go-’round, though, we’re hopping in the Wayback Machine to revisit a few movies that are not new at all, and others that, though new, focus on the past for their subject. The only thread holding these together is that I’ve watched them within the past few months. Those marked with an asterisk were re-watches. So, without further ado:

 

Gandhi-poster

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Ghandi
Often, movies that are universally acclaimed in a given awards season (or dare we say, deliberately crafted as “Oscar-bait”), do not age well. The 55th Academy awards (honoring films made in 1982) were all aglow with Richard Attenborough’s 3-hour, giant-budget, biopic of Mohandas K. Ghandi. It swept the major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography), winning 8 awards in all. I decided to dig this one up and watch it based on reading a few books about India (specifically the independence movement) this year.

It’s a long movie, to be sure, and hagiographic, and a trifle preachy, but it does still hit all the right notes. Ben Kingsley as Ghandi deserved every bit of his Oscar (even beating out Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie). The pacing is remarkably quick and lightfooted for such a ponderous subject, and feels attuned to the humor and wit with which the Mahatma went about his calling. Mostly it works in that it doesn’t feel dated. Much of what Ghandi (or Kingsley’s version, at least) spoke about and fought for has surprising relevance today. As long as there are powerful people who ignore the poor and downtrodden, this movie will have a shelf life.

Shorter Ghandi: Ben Kingsley 4 Prez.

 

Capote_Poster

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Capote*
A dark and stormy movie if there was one. This 2005 biopic centers on a few-year period of author Truman Capote’s life during his fascination with and investigation of the 1959 Clutter killings in rural Kansas and subsequent publishing of his “nonfiction novel”, In Cold Blood, in 1966.

Far from a procedural drama about the writing of a book, the film maintains an intense focus on Truman’s conflicted motives about forging an increasingly close relationship with one of the murderers, while juxtaposing the quiet grief of Holcomb, Kansas with the glib self-promotion of the Manhattan literati. Art and life intertwine and dissociating them becomes nearly impossible. Philip Seymour Hoffman is pitch perfect (and was rewarded with a well-deserved acting Oscar), but none of the rest of the cast Catherine Keener (as Harper Lee), Clifton Collins, Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, and others, are phoning it in either.

Shorter Capote: There’s a dark side to life that only gets darker if you ignore it. Also, Philip Seymour Hoffman, we hardly knew thee.

 

Chappaquiddick_(film)

Courtesy Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

Chappaquiddick
On the theme of biopics focused on a slice of a life as representative of the whole, it is hard to think of anyone more defined by the events of a few moments as Ted Kennedy—the only remaining son of a legendary family who had watched his older brothers die, young and violently, one by one, and followed in their footsteps in public life as much from compulsion as calling. He was expected to run for president, to complete the family legacy, when a car accident and a fear-driven response to shade the truth ultimately ended a dynasty.

In spite of a bit of slow pacing in spots, this film works well with a very capable ensemble cast, and focus on characters decisions as much as their actions. Remarkably, Kennedy here is revealed simultaneously as a cowardly lowlife and an oddly sympathetic character (in the face of his father’s roiling disappointment). For this achievement alone, this is worth a watch.

Shorter Chappaquiddick: Moments matter, and truth is often subject to power.

 

Thetreeoflifeposter

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Tree of Life
There are directors, there are auteurs, and then there is Terence Malick. His ambition is undeniable, but, for most audiences, a bridge too far for enjoyable cinema. His movies are so layered, so detailed, so allusive, that their meaning is elusive without lots of re-watching. Every frame is like a painting, every music choice (with a heavy emphasis on classics) carries a part of the story.

Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life is generally considered his magnum opus, and also one of his more financially successful ventures (#2 behind The Thin Red Line in terms of box office). Like a great novel by a Tolstoy or a Hugo, this film contains multitudes, taking a story that ostensibly takes place within a single family in a single neighborhood and expanding it to the universe itself. The family drama alone is luminous, unpacking so much mystery and beauty.

Shorter The Tree of Life: There is glory in the everyday, and a person doesn’t have to be spectacularly (or predictably?) broken to create tremendous trauma in others.

 

Cry_the_beloved_country_ver2

Courtesy Miramax Films

Cry, the Beloved Country*
I’m not generally fond of adaptations of literature into film. Novels and movies are just different media and each suited to different types of storytelling that don’t often overlap.  Sometimes they’re not half bad, and can get enough of a story across to spark viewers to go find the book, but even a good adaptation can take the timeless themes of a good novel and anchor them in a specific time due to the filmmaking styles that (consciously or unconsciously) mirror the zeitgeist.

This is the case with 1995’s Cry, the Beloved Country, based on Alan Paton’s 1946 novel of the same name about sorrow and injustice in a South Africa then on the verge of apartheid. The film earns a certain pathos simply from being one of the first major movies made in the country under the “new management” of Nelson Mandela. A strong cast of both Western (James Earl Jones, Richard Harris) and African (Tsholofelo Wechoemang) actors turn in powerful performances, and the story generally hues to the book’s narrative, though its contours are less nuanced and the production decisions (pacing, music, shot-shaping) do feel very 90s at this remove.

Shorter Cry, the Beloved Country: Faithful adaptation, but the book has aged better.

 

The_Social_Network_film_poster

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

The Social Network
Hype is a dangerous thing for a filmmaker. It can build up movies that aren’t worth the attention, and suck attention away from good ones. In 2010, all they hype as awards-season approached was around David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network, about the building of Facebook by then Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg. The hue and cry when this new-school drama lost best picture to a very old school film (The King’s Speech) was a sight to behold.

Well, The King’s Speech is still endearing (if saccharine), but this movie seems a mess to me. Perhaps it is because none of the main characters are likable (not necessarily a problem) or remotely relatable (trust-fund kids suing other trust fund kids for IP and breach of contract isn’t exactly broad American culture). Perhaps it is because, in the intervening years, Facebook has managed to practically destroy civil discourse and undermine trust in society (well, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but). Either way, it falls flat as a story for me.

Shorter The Social Network: Why did people rave about this movie?

 

Won't_You_Be_My_Neighbor_

Courtesy Focus Features

Won’t You Be My Neighbor
When I was a kid, television consisted of two pillars—Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and Sesame Street. One of these is still running and has spawned a multi-million dollar product licensing and merchandising empire that is, at best, a distraction from the ideals of childhood learning the show set out to deliver. The other feels today like it’s from another planet, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood notwithstanding.

The Fred Rogers that Morgan Neville displays in Won’t You Be My Neighbor is no quaint throwback, though, but a clear-eyed warrior for a better world—in particular, one in which children, no matter how young, are taken seriously as persons and given the courtesy of wrestling with hard realities and big ideas rather than being sentenced to second-class status and kept at bay with endless cartoons and video games. There is real educational and parenting meat here, but perhaps the biggest takeaway is that Fred Rogers really was Mr. Rogers. His on screen and off screen life weren’t so different as is too common in television, and his widow, children, and staff appear in the documentary to attest to this.

Shorter Won’t You Be My Neighbor: Mr. Rogers might have been an honest-to-goodness angel, or at least a humble saint.

 

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Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Solo: A Star Wars Story
At this point, it’s remarkable that any Star Wars fans remain. We’ve been bludgeoned by George Lucas with three ridiculous and unnecessary prequels and watched as Disney has cranked out new movies with lightning speed. We used to have to wait three years to be cruelly disappointed; now it happens annually. The most die-hard devotees can be forgiven for fatigue (though 2016’s Rogue One was worthwhile).

Even at all that, I had high hopes for Solo, based on three solid theses: 1) Ron Howard had ridden in on a white horse to rescue the troubled production, 2) Alden Ehrenreich (of Hail, Caesar! fame), Donald Glover, and Woody Harrelson, and 3) the fact that Han Solo was always the only truly human character in the original trilogy. Those hopes were, I’m sad to say, dashed by a glommed-together story that spends ridiculous amounts of time on forgettable side characters and “Mos Eisley Cantina” vibes (world-building based on gross-out CGI and costuming, vaguely sexualized aliens, and loud music) producers of recent Star Wars installments seem to think constitute the only fan draws. I’d watch another heist flick with Ehrenreich, Glover, and Harrelson any day, but they are drowned out by the clutter, never given a chance to shine.

Shorter Solo: Dear Disney, please stop destroying Star Wars by majoring on minors.

 

Templegrandin

Courtesy HBO

Temple Grandin*
Films about disability typically come loaded with moral high-horses and themes of empowerment designed to deify the victims of disability and leave viewers feeling abashed for their unnamed prejudices. To be fair, the way that persons with disabilities are often treated in our communities justifies no small measure of this treatment in popular culture as a counterweight. Where both the daily reality and the film world fail is in treating the disabled as fully-formed human beings worthy of our attention because of their inherent dignity.

Mick Jackson manages to craft an intensely human portrait of neurological disability through the life of livestock scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin. Relying on faithful storytelling, and a stellar cast (Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, Catherine O’Hara, and David Strathairn), and some fun cinematic flourishes of his own design, Jackson paints a picture for the neuro-typical among us that makes autism, SPD, and the like seem less like curses and more like superpowers, if properly understood and channelled. Every time I re-watch this one, I find I learn something new about my own attitudes, habits, parenting, etc.

Shorter Temple Grandin: HBO (and television more generally) is doing the heavy lifting in the entertainment industry these days, pulling off what major studios won’t touch.

***UPDATE***

Mary_Poppins_Returns_(2018_film_poster)

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Mary Poppins Returns
We took the kids to see this one on Christmas, with hopeful nostalgia welling up in equal measure to contemporary “children’s” film dread. I’ll let you guess which won by what follows.

Measuring up to one of my all-time favorite movies (and, I think, the greatest film ever produced by Walt Disney studios) was not going to be easy, but director Rob Marshall and co. didn’t really seem to give it much of a try—the cast is decent (The biggest shoes to fill here are, obviously, Julie Andrews’, but Emily Blunt’s Poppins is the film’s strongest link), the production values are OK, even the bones of the story aren’t awful (to be fair, some of the elements shoehorned into this story that work least well came directly from P. L. Travers’ books). What’s missing here is the soul. This sequel almost deliberately works to undo all the most important elements of the 1964 film. Moral lessons are swapped for look-inside-yourself drivel; honest reckoning with the difficulties of life takes a back seat to a contrived problem and pointless villain; taking children seriously as persons devolves to another recycled children-as-savior message.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment for me was seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda given so little space to be, well, Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’d have rather seen the whole project handed over to him—a hip-hop Poppins’ set in East Ham with Idris Elba as Bert would’ve at least had some natural heart….

Shorter Mary Poppins Returns: Impractical and imperfect in so many ways. What postmodern dreck.

 

A Day Late and [Several] Dollar(s) Short III: Newborn Edition

As is our custom, my wife and I go in fits and starts when it comes to movies. Life gets busy with multiple kids, and free time to give to feature-length movies at the end of tiring days gets slim. In other seasons, time gets more flexible, but energy wanes—such as Rachel’s recent pregnancy and our present late nights (and early mornings) with our newborn fourth daughter—and grabbing a DVD from the library or taking a month-long spin with Netflix starts to seem like the most one can accomplish of an evening.

As is my custom, here, in no particular order, are brief reviews of some of the films we’ve watched in recent months. Most are from the batch of 2017 releases that made it into the annual crush of awards nominations. A few are from years past, and one is from 2018.

Phantom Thread

Phantom_Thread
Courtesy Focus Features

Daniel Day-Lewis’s last collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson, the tooth-grittingly intense There Will Be Blood, is among the most impressive displays of acting in modern film. The plot of that film is almost irrelevant, absorbed into the supermassive roles filled by Day-Lewis and Paul Dano. With that in the rear-view mirror (albeit 10 years ago), I had high hopes for this one.

The story Anderson crafts here is similarly sparse, but whereas Blood fills the world entire with its characters, Thread shrinks the world until the small, self-absorbed characters can stride their petty domain (set in the fawning high fashion scene of postwar London) with seeming omnipotence. The key plot twist opens a way out of that world through a cruel, nearly murderous caprice that becomes a strange ritual for the central characters.

Shorter Phantom Thread: Beautiful to look at, and of interest for those trying  figure out how to love a prima donna, but overall somewhat forgettable.

Black Panther

Black_Panther_film_poster
Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

I don’t do superhero movies (except Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy), but Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther became such a phenomenon that I gave in. The hype was not a mistake, and I couldn’t contain my enjoyment. I saw it twice, but several friends saw it 3, 4, or 5 times.

The story is intriguing. The characters, their histories, and their motivations are well-rounded and believable keeping a pace that lingers over the tender and the poignant while barreling forward with the energy we expect from action flicks. The social justice messaging is all the more powerful for being central to the plot. Hollywood learned quite a lesson about the power of offering a dignifying, culturally mainstream vision of themselves to marginalized groups (as of this writing, it is the 9th highest grossing film of all time).

Shorter Black Panther: Easily the most thoughtful, creative blockbuster in decades.

Darkest Hour

Darkest_Hour_poster
Courtesy Focus Features

World War II movies are a staple of cinema in a way that other wars never have completely attained. A combination of the timing (arriving in the midst of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”), the fact that so many top-tier actors and directors served in the military, and, and the emergence of so many larger-than-life characters on the world stage through battle heroics and political machination. Even now, as veterans of that struggle are rapidly fading from the scene, the collective imagination sees that fight as a fountainhead of stories of virtue and valor.

Winston Churchill, more than any other figure, is the avatar of the free world’s resistance to tyranny during the war. When an acclaimed director and beloved actor (Gary Oldman) team up to paint a new picture of Churchill, there will by hype, and Oldman, at least lives up to it—growling and cigar-chomping his way to an Oscar. Still, the film as a whole succumbs to poor pacing, self-importance, and some foolish historical gaffes that undercut its strengths.

Shorter Darkest Hour: This year’s version of the “one-man-show-does-not-a-story-make” vehicle.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Roman_J._Israel,_Esq.
Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Denzel Washington has enjoyed tremendous acting success over the years, and, with 2016’s Fences seems to have come into his own as a director as well. In other words, at this point in his career, he can do whatever he wants.

In some ways Roman J. Israel, Esq. feels a bit like a vanity project, with Washington cast as a long-suffering defense attorney who dreams of overturning  unjust sentencing practices in a civil rights suit. Rather than succumbing to preaching, though, the movie takes a sharp turn when Israel loses hope and gives into a grave temptation (essentially trading the moral high ground for cold, hard cash). This move almost redeems it from the failures of uneven pacing and a weak supporting cast.

Shorter Roman J. Israel, Esq.: A scruffy, can-do civil rights story that falls a bit short of its aspirations.

Coco

Coco_(2017_film)_poster

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

It’s been a while since I’ve seen, let alone appreciated, a Pixar movie (Inside Out was good, the last great one was Toy Story 3). That said, I was prepared to be disappointed by Coco. Far from being the simplistic, culturally-appropriative fare that has made Walt Disney, Co., a multibillion dollar gorilla, this one represents a return to Pixar’s pre-acquisition form.

If ever so slightly derivative (astute viewers will notice parallels [a nicer way to put it would be “allusions”] to Finding NemoMonsters, Inc., and even a bit of Back to the Future), the heart of this story is a powerful rebuke to the standard sage-kid-dumb-parents trope of so many children’s movies.

Shorter Coco: Even when they get a little lazy with the story, Pixar still brings the emotional heft.

Dunkirk

Dunkirk_Film_poster

Courtesy Warner Bros.

As mentioned above, I brake for Christopher Nolan films. The guy’s got a great eye, bringing old-school Hollywood camera magic to an age drunk with CGI and other whizbangery. When I heard he was working on a piece about one of the least appreciated events of WWII (though, it should be noted, that the aforementioned Darkest Hour covers a similar time period from the political, rather than the military side), I was ready to go. Somehow, though, I missed the theater run and had to add it to the video hopper.

No matter. It was still excellent (if less overwhelming on the small screen). Nolan uses silence, stoicism, and suspense to draw raw emotion from viewers, managing to convey the German attackers as more phantoms than men. The closing sequence alone is worth the whole movie.

 

Shorter Dunkirk: The most beautiful war film ever shot.

The Post

 

The_Post_(film)

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

The Washington Post as a publishing entity is a fine paper, and its reputation for in-depth investigative journalism in the nation’s capital is well-earned. It’s even been amply celebrated in film—1976’s All the President’s Men immortalized Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s exposé of the Watergate scandal. The Post, covering the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers and the legal/financial drama to which that exposed publisher Katharine Graham, promised a strong “Woodstein” vibe, a reminder of what American Journalism can do for the age of “Fake News.”

What we got instead was only OK. Hanks is Hanks, Streep is Streep, and Spielberg keeps trucking in his self-appointed “historian-in-chief” role, but the movie’s awareness of its importance cut its sense of narrative and pacing, making it fall rather flat. Not bad, but it should’ve been better.

 

Shorter The Post: Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep are phoning it in, but we all keep watching anyway. Also, Absence of Malice continues to be my favorite newspaper movie.

All the Money in the World

All_the_Money_in_the_World

Courtesy TriStar Pictures

In 1973, the grandson of oil magnate J. Paul Getty (at the time, the richest man in the world) was kidnapped in Italy and held for a colossal ransom. The trouble was that Getty had been somewhat distanced from that side of the family since his son & daughter-in-law divorced, and he refused to pay, much to the confusion and consternation of the small-time mafiosi responsible.

This high drama lends itself to a nail-biting thriller in the capable hands of Ridley Scott. The movie was subject to its own drama during production, when disgraced star Kevin Spacey was replaced at the last minute with the legendary Christopher Plummer (Plummer shot all his replacement scenes in just 9 days, and the film still released on its scheduled date). I expected this to be entertaining and exciting, I was surprised to find it also to be a profound meditation on the dangers of money.

Shorter All the Money in the World: Generational wealth is a curse; Christopher Plummer is amazing.

The Martian

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Courtesy 20th Century Fox

While on a Ridley Scott high after All the Money in the World, I finally picked up 2015’s The Martian (which, with Nolan’s 2014 Interstellar, could almost have started an entire “rescuing Matt Damon from other planets” genre). Set in the near future, this story attempts to take interplanetary travel from the realm of Science Fiction and bring it down to daring plausibility. It’s well acted, well paced, and quite enjoyable overall.

And yet…the past three years have not been kind to this movie. It feels already like a relic from another epoch, filled with the scientific hubris and international-relations optimism of the Obama presidency. In the world of Brexit, Trump, Xi, and the rise of national/populist strongmen across Europe and Asia, the “science” of The Martian feels much more like fiction. The glory days of NASA are long gone, and there’s no sign of their return anytime soon.

Shorter The Martian: Way, way, to high on “Science”, but still well done.

Cinema Paradiso

CinemaParadiso
Courtesy Miramax Films

I can’t remember the last time I cried watching a movie (not counting Les Misérables—since I cried at the theater when I saw it on stage first). 1989’s Italian masterpiece Cinema Paradiso will do it to you, though. It’s got family drama, friendship, tragedy, Ennio Morricone music, and a full-blown heartstring-tugging, memory-lane finale. Bonus: this is on Netflix currently.

Watching this one, though, what struck me most is how unlikely it is that an American director would come up with a story like this. It’s so small, bounded by its Sicilian village setting, and yet it swells to fill the world entire. Fittingly for a movie about movies, it reminds us that they can and should be an artist’s tools for beauty and contemplation, not simply vehicles for commercial escapism or social messaging.

Shorter Cinema Paradiso: Why don’t they make movies like this anymore?