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

October_2_24_92_99_18.eps

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?

Classics Revisited: Literary Limericks

East of Eden
When your father has dubious means,
And you’re not too sure of your own genes,
Your mom is a witch,
And you’re a snitch,
You can’t buy anyone’s love with beans.

Pride and Prejudice
Hearing the truth quite often hurts one,
But ignorance is even less fun.
Darcy and Bennett
Might take a minute
To figure out just who they should shun.

The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor Pavlovich was some kind of a jerk.
His three (or four?) sons each a unique piece of work.
Grushenka lived loud.
Katya was proud.
Priests rot, but in the loud dark, both death and hope lurk.

The Power and the Glory
Everyone’s sin is a nonstarter.
Church on the lam; wine on barter.
You shouldn’t get drunk
When you’re the lone monk,
For conscience will make you a martyr.

Les Misérables
Said Hugo, “No one can write bluer,
But ev’ry injustice I’ll skewer.
Valjean’s the hero;
All others zero.
Wait! I forgot about the sewer.”

Ebcosette

Image credit: Émile Bayard engraving for 1886 edition of Les Misérables. Public Domain.

2017 in Pages

‘Tis time again for the annual stroll down library lane. As always, what follows is not an exhaustive list, but a selection of some of my favorite reads of the year sorted by genre. Also as usual, most of these were not published within the year, but I encountered them for the first time in 2017.

History/Biography

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow
This is superb biography. Thorough and unflinching. Alexander Hamilton’s reputational resuscitation—from forgotten financial guru to Broadway inspiration—owes pretty much everything to Chernow. His mining of records from Hamilton’s childhood and deep familiarity with his personal correspondence yields a detailed, engaging story that presents the fullest picture of this founding father yet produced. His thought (on human nature, financial systems, geopolitics, etc.) is well-explored, and his failures are given full airing. Hamilton is unquestionably one of the most consequential figures in Western history, and it’s hard to imagine the United States becoming a global power without his influence at the beginning.

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
Hindsight is 20-20, so they say, and in American hindsight, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were the height of moral clarity, with waves of virtuous young athletes staring down the Nazi machine and beating the “master-race” on their own turf in nearly every event. Rose-colored memories notwithstanding (if everything was so cut-and-dried in 1936, one wonders why World War II had to wait three more years), there are plenty of inspiring stories from those games (e.g. Jesse Owens taking four golds). The U.S. victory in men’s eight-oared rowing is perhaps one of the most improbable, and Brown’s retelling dives deep into “why”, exploring the rocky upbringings and incredible efforts of Joe Rantz and the rest of the boys in the boat. A bit floridly written at times, but earnest and beautiful all the same.

Cultural Observations

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher
From my review: “Some of his observations and recommendations may strike readers as good common sense (such as deepening the way our lives are structured around the historic rhythms of church life or a call to support the businesses of our fellow believers). Others may be hard to swallow (as a fellow homeschooler, I am sympathetic to Rod’s call to pull our children out of both public and status-oriented private schools, but many will bristle at such a brusque suggestion). Dreher is at his finest in the two chapters on sex and technology, where the culture holds most sway within the church, often without our notice. You may react with shock, but you cannot deny the clear and dire warnings he lays out there.”

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Stevenson’s narrative of abuse of the death penalty and life imprisonment in the supposedly “post-racial” era shines a light on just how far the U.S. has to go in pursuit of civil rights for all her citizens. This is a powerful book on the merits of the subject matter alone, but Stevenson’s style and depth of personal experience take these hard truths and make them into urgent pleas for action. “Why must we kill all the broken people?” he asks. Simply devastating.

The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander
This should be required reading for every American. Alexander’s thorough research is compiled here in a relentless drumbeat of indictments against every level and branch of government (with equal shame heaped on both major political parties), popular culture, civil rights and community leaders, and the “colorblind” complacency of Americans of all races. The mass incarceration of non-white men, she argues, is a de facto caste system, trapping for life those caught in its web for even the most minor offenses. We are all complicit, and we must all work against it. Whereas Stevenson tugs at the heart through stories, Alexander presents an unrelenting barrage of facts that demand a verdict. Both are effective, and both are needed.

Fiction

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
“Grumpy Old Swedish Man” doesn’t do it justice. This is a story the West needs to hear right now. There is more to life than individuals and the administrative state, and that the people we do not want to “bother” us (neighbors, co-workers, and those in need) are precisely those whom God puts in our path to save us from despair. Backman weaves very modern tale with intense heart and a Wodehouseian love for the absurd metaphor. What a joy!

East of Eden
by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck is one of those authors (like Hemingway) considered to be near the pinnacle of greatness for a certain generation of American literati. I’ve read much of Steinbeck in the past, and none of his work ever “clicked” with me in the emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually satisfying way truly great books tend to. All of that probably explains why I missed reading this one until now. This is truly his magnum opus, one of the masterpieces of American story, an epic homage to home and the ways sin and hate co-mingle with love and redemption in the secret sauce of family. East of Eden redeemed Steinbeck for me.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
I picked this one up out of love for the man responsible for its publication, Walker Percy, who read the manuscript and championed its printing at the behest of Toole’s (reportedly obsessive) mother some years after her son’s suicide. This is one of the funniest novels I’ve read, with lots of of laugh-out-loud scenes. It’s also quite insightful into the brokenness of social systems and the seamier side of life in New Orleans. Despite the excellent writing and well-drawn characters, none of them ultimately rise to the level of care and concern for the reader…which, I suppose, is Toole’s point. Still, it’s grown on me as it marinates after reading.

Theology & Practice

The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch
I heard Andy Crouch deliver a condensed version of the content in this book at a conference earlier this year, and made a point to buy a copy. Like most of Crouch’s work, this one is winsome, accessible, at times painful, but much needed. There is far more here than a stern warning about screen time for young children (though he makes a good case in that direction). The book is truly a meditation on Sabbath keeping, wherein we truly rest (not just take leisure) after pursuit of creative work (not just mindless toil or frittering). His is a prophetic call to resist the “easy-everywhere” idolatry to which our devices tempt us.

Practicing the King’s Economy by Michael Rhodes & Robby Holt with Brian Fikkert
Among the perks of working for and with authors is that you get to read, edit, and comment on books before everyone else sees them. This is the case with this volume, due out in April 2018 from Baker books. Rhodes & Holt make a compelling exegetical and practical case for a biblical reorientation of our economic lives around a vision of Christ’s already-but-not-yet kingdom. This is explored through six keys (worship, community, work, equity, creation care, and rest) each bolstered with thorough study of scripture and real-life, attainable examples. I read a lot, and this book makes me very excited, and I’m not just saying that because I love the three guys who wrote it!

Memoir

The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry
I think rather highly of Wendell Berry, but find his oeuvre somewhat uneven. When he is on to something, he is prophetic. When he is cranky about a hobby horse, it shows, and his prose suffers. This short book, which I only recently heard of, is among the finest of the former category. In traveling back through his childhood experience of America’s racial caste system, he cuts to the heart of the social and economic dislocation crushing the American soul. Jim Crow and slavery are only the half of it. Though this book is nearly 50 years old, it seems even more incisive now than I’m sure it must have been then.

The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key
I met Harrison and heard him speak at this year’s Walker Percy Weekend. When I stopped laughing, I bought a copy of his memoir of growing up as masculine misfit in Mississippi. Key is by turns crass, juvenile, and silly, while simultaneously managing to be spiritually insightful and deeply moving. It’s a neat trick if you can do it.

Re-reads

C.S. Lewis wrote in “On Stories” that “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.” Armed with that exhortation, I’ve made a habit of revisiting books that hit the mark to see if they stick. Here are a few that came back up this year.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
There’s not much one can say about O’Connor that hasn’t been said, but it’s all true. Her stories are always on my nightstand, ready to deflate any bubbles of self-importance and remind me that I only pursue righteousness through the benevolent violence of God’s grace. Overall, I prefer Everything that Rises Must Converge, but this volume contains plenty of gems as well.

The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy
It just gets better and better with age. All of Percy’s work feels more or less prophetic, as humanity has still not fully come to terms with the dislocation of the individualized, technological society birthed by WWII, but The Last Gentleman sums up his philosophy best of all his fiction. I read this for the fourth time this year, in preparation to lead our book club in a discussion of it. The “New South”, the old South, the sexual revolution, cultural Christianity, and so much more comes under his withering eye.

Everyday Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis
Like many American Christians, I confess to being overly comfortable with my culture and overly sensitive to perceived threats to religious liberty and biblical values. It is easy to see the Church’s influence waning in our society and be tempted to anger or despair, especially when so many of my fellow believers still seem intent on pursuing purely political solutions to fundamentally spiritual/cultural problems. Speaking into that frustration, Everyday Church is an excellent wake-up call, breathing Gospel life back into my understanding and expectations of the Church and its relation to culture. Chester and Timmis both serve as pastors in the United Kingdom, a country whose Christian heritage has all but disappeared, so their sound scriptural advice is also given the weight of experience.

Also-Reads

The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks
Howards End by E. M. Forster
The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out a Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
Twelve Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke
The Second Coming by Walker Percy
A Meal with Jesus by Tim Chester
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
At Home by Bill Bryson
The Age of Anxiety by W. H. Auden
A Legacy of Spies by John LeCarré
Silence by Shūsaku Endō
ReSet by David Murray
Onward by Russell Moore

If you wonder what I thought of these, find me on Goodreads.

Photo: Library, The Biltmore Estate, December 2017.

Vide Bellum: A Vietnam Reflection

Earlier this month, Rachel and I carved out ten evenings to watch The Vietnam War, the new film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, as it aired on PBS. Burns is the master documentarian, but this is a new high even for him—a peripatetic funeral march for the death of America’s virtue, such as it ever was. I hope every American invests the 17+ hours to watch this, particularly those of us who did not live through the period.

We were born less than nine years after the fall of Saigon, but it’s only been in recent years that we’ve even begun to hear people talk about the war. Growing up, no one I knew well had served, except for a distant cousin—the cousin who thought it was a good idea to bring a loaded service sidearm (Colt .45) to a family reunion and let 9-year-old me and another 10-year-old cousin shoot it into the creek behind the family homeplace.

Vietnam always felt like a shameful family secret; a box buried in the attic we knew existed but had been trained never to open. What remembrance and restoration there has been has been muted and not publicly embraced. It’s a sore spot we still don’t like touched. The war left us nothing to celebrate. No Yorktown. No Gettysburg. No Armistice. No D-Day. Only the dead, wounded, and a million might-have-beens.

None of this American angst begins to touch the devastation the war brought to Vietnam and her people, for whom every victory was also a defeat, and whose land bears scars still. This aspect comes through well in Burns and Novick’s work, with Vietnamese veterans (from both north and south) speaking their piece and helping fill this complex story with rich context. The war did not come about or escalate in a vacuum, and the pains that flowed into and out of it (from colonialism to civil rights) are given their fair shake.

Moreover, the personal tragedy of young lives snuffed out and veterans wracked with physical or emotional disabilities is brought front and center, with a wide cast of interviewees from every corner of the country and every branch of the military. The same young men who were sent off to die under the aegis of patriotism and honor impressed on them by their families and communities returned home as outcasts. The cause they served no longer seen as just, their sacrifice was turned into a stain on their conscience. No forgiveness. No lament. Only forgetting.

The full film is an impressive study in human nature, hubris, and groupthink, and none of the parties involved (on any side) come away unscathed. Yet I can’t help but notice that the United States has learned so little from that experience in how we conduct ourselves in the world. We persist in meddling beyond our expertise, using ethnic tensions or economic attachments as pawns in geopolitical chess. The specter of another Vietnam is always lurking in every pot we stir, every airstrike casually called in for political show. Now, as then, it is the young, the poor, the minority, and the “enemy” who pay the price for such games.

A movie, however good (and Burns & Novick have put everything they could into this one), is no truth & reconciliation commission, but my prayer is that it can be a spark to remind us of what lies at the end of the way of ignorance, callousness, and unconfessed pride.

Watch the movie. Talk to a veteran. Talk to someone who didn’t fight. Never vote for military force on a whim or to make a point.

Of course, the larger, unspoken target for this movie at this moment in time may be the political discord currently animating our national mood. We may not be at the gates of 1968 again quite yet, but The Vietnam War is a not-so-subtle reminder that it only takes a few well-placed sparks in a room full of gasoline to do a lot of damage.

As Walker Percy put it, describing his comic dystopia Love in the Ruins (which he wrote during 1968-1970), “What I really wanted to do, I guess, was call a bluff. For it has seemed to me that much of the violence and alienation of today can be traced to a secret and paradoxical conviction that America is immovable and indestructible.” During the latter stages of the war, that conviction was stretched to breaking. It’s hardly seemed as shaky since, but I fear we’re getting close.

Image: Movie poster, courtesy of PBS