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.

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.

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…

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!

Being There: A Vision for Family–Part 2

Read Part 1. Standard caveats apply.

Much as we imagine ourselves teachers and teachable, so many of the most important things I’ve learned have come by chance. Comments overheard, asides, throwaway phrases that, for a peculiar moment, sank deep in my soul. I’m too busy (or too proud) to ask for advice, and these snippets disperse that self-assured fog.

Several years ago, I was representing my organization at a large international missions conference hosted here in Chattanooga. Hours of shaking hands and repeating talking points while standing on concrete in dress shoes left me jelly-kneed and looking for a seat. I ducked into a breakout session with a local pastor, Joe Novenson. If Brother Joe reads this, he may correct my recollection of this story, and he’d certainly point all the credit away from himself, but it sticks with me nevertheless.

I couldn’t tell you what he actually spoke on that hour, but in a brief Q&A, I was floored with a reflection on parenting (I don’t even remember what point he was illustrating). In the midst of sermon preparation, he had a flash of wonder as to the outcome of life for his kids. One at a time, he asked them into his study, looked them in the eye and inquired, “What is the most important thing you’ve learned from me as your father?” His oldest son answered, “Do the right thing.” His second child likewise. Seeking signs of the Gospel of grace working in their lives, he was despairing at hearing his own moralistic instruction coming back to him. When his youngest, a daughter, came in, though, she replied, “Oh daddy, to love Jesus, of course.”

A sweet story, out of context, trite. To me in that moment, wrestling with the challenges of how to “do the right thing” by my young family, it was a devastating blow. A call to die to selfish worry. That was two kids ago.

With young children, it’s easy to believe the doctrine of original sin. There are days I’d give my left leg to have them say that “doing the right thing” even registers as a good idea. In spite of that, I have never doubted for a moment that they love me. They can refuse to obeyGals-4-15 over a thousand petty grievances and go to bed in a huff; but at breakfast all they want is to smother me with hugs.

Discipline and order (how I love order!) are most needful, but they will come with training. Love is something that must be cultivated and allowed to flourish. It is ready to grow, but is so easily trampled. The long race of raising children is completed by the daily steps of acknowledging their love for you and making sure they know you love them back. Without that foundation, all the moral instruction in the world will, at best, produce well-mannered pharisees.

Neither does breadwinning alone constitute faithful fatherhood. Professing your love and devotion while working every waking hour to “prepare for the future” is not the strategic move it seems. A friend quipped, “I can’t be a provider for my family if I don’t provide them with myself.” Financially, settling for less may give you more than you ever dreamed.

Of all the roles and responsibilities of dads, loving presence is both the most important and hardest to maintain. Time spent with your children is its own reward. Truth can be taught, food and clothes can be bought, but all the truly worthwhile skills in life only come through apprenticeship.

The kids are watching.

Hope and Hazards: A Vision for Family–Part 1

I have neither qualification nor desire to lay another “how-to” straw on the bending back of my fellow parents. Given that raising children is my daily life right now, writing about it from time to time is inevitable. For those of you likewise on this roller-coaster, I offer the following as encouragement, food-for-thought, and the beginning of discussion.

When God grants us stewardship of the next generation, our first and longest task is to remember why. Pursuing that, every other responsibility begins to take form.

As long as men and women have borne children, we have sought to control the outcome of the juggernaut that is “growing up.” Surely even Adam and Eve, raw to their new world of sin and death, wanted the best for their sons—somehow to escape the chains of evil fixed from the womb. Their firstborn murdered his brother, unleashing thousands of years of horror among the rest of their descendants. Children, always the repository of our hopes and dreams, have a fair shot at becoming instead withered cisterns of our fears, disillusionment, and re-enacted mistakes.

Just as often, however, the results come back positive. The rub comes as we wrestle with how to determine one product over another. We all know perfectly wonderful people who sprang from the cradles of awful parents. Likewise, we know those parents who “did everything right,” yet managed to go to their graves panged by the choices of one or more wayward children. Perhaps this sword pierces your own heart also.

Parents are pulled taut in every direction, preyed upon from all corners by those nourished on their fears. A thousand voices cry out, promising the cure for uncertainty—this diet, that discipline scheme, this medication (or avoidance thereof), that education method, my routine, will set you free—delivering your offspring safely to well-adjusted adulthood. Do this, and you’re off the hook. No sooner does one of these fads gain traction with the hopeful masses than a counterinsurgency roars to life, cleansing again the temples of parenthood.

Would that it were this easy.

Would that it were this easy.

Thus distraught, manipulated, and marketed to, what are parents to do? Finding ourselves as still-young men and women vested with this incredible responsibility, the pull to choose a parenting camp and do battle on their behalf is strong. Many (most?) of us hesitate, though, with mounting doubts. Fear closes in whenever silence allows, outmaneuvered only by fatigue. Like Elijah, we find ourselves despairing in the cleft of the mountain, doing our best to ignore the quotidian earthquake and tune out the whirlwind of “solutions.” But the still, small voice breaks in yet, calling us to take courage for He has not forsaken us. Continue reading