The Last Days of Disco

Year of Release: 1998             Directed by Whit Stillman.     Starring Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, Matt Keeslar, Tara Subkoff, and Robert Sean Leonard.

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As a Catholic, frequenting the sacrament of confession has been a fairly regular aspect of my life.  And for the most part, I have spent a good portion of my life confessing the same sins over and over again, despite my best intentions not to continue committing them. I think of that when Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), who spends a good portion of this film blissfully unaware that she tries to control others’ lives while cattily judging them, reflects on the beauty of Amazing Grace. As she proceeds to sing the first two verses, we see some of the costly consequences of her and her friend Alice’s (Chloë Sevigny) mistakes as well as opportunities for second chances. And after this moment of moral insight, in the next scene, she returns to being a bitch toward her friends.

That mixture of trying and promptly forgetting to try to do what’s right is what gives The Last Days of Disco an endearing balance of comedy, pathos, and insight. As Eve Tushnet wrote:

“There are ways of doing tragedy or satire where it’s about people willfully being awful, but I think my favorite tragedies and satires are about how many important things we botch when we’re trying very hard not to.”

From the very first scene, we watch all the characters stress and meticulously calculate the most probable way they will gain admittance to the prestigious disco club in Manhattan. After walking to the club, Charlotte and Alice decide it will look more prestigious if they arrive in a cab, so they hail one to drive them less than a block. Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), whose advertising firm has given him the odd ultimatum to get clients into the disco club or be fired, frets over the best way to make a good impression on the bouncer, and he goes so far as to give one of his clients his coat to mask the gaudy plaid jacket the man is wearing. Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) is going along with Jimmy, and he ends up getting into the club by the luck of escaping the bouncer’s notice. For all the worry of these characters about proving the value of their social lives by entering the disco club, whether they succeed, to a large extent, comes down to luck.

Last_Days_of_Disco_3R_Feature_Current_originalThe aura of prestige surrounding disco serves as a reminder that there are things worth striving for and that even a genre as reviled as disco may have more value than its detractors give it credit for. The titular words, “the last days” suggests a time that is passing and worth remembering, but it also suggests that the characters should think about a future outside of disco.

 

One permanent fixture at the club is Des, (an endearingly complacent Chris Eigeman) whose job is some sort of back entrance bouncer and other miscellaneous tasks. Eigeman perfectly captures the film’s heart of trying and failing by trying for all the wrong things. He puts his energy into making sure his ex-girlfriends still like him by telling them he’s gay, or might be gay, rather than putting energy into the relationships. He spends more time rationalizing why he’s the best for his job instead of doing his job. Ultimately, he does have a brilliant and amusing moment of insight when he turns an oft-misquoted Shakespeare line on its head:

“You know that Shakespearean admonition, “To thine own self be true?” It’s premised on the idea that “thine own self” is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if “thine own self” is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, not to be true to thine own self? See, that’s my situation.”

As Charlotte and Alice, Beckinsale and Sevigny make a compelling screen duo, anchoring the ensemble and portraying a friendship and rivalry of two young women both working in publishing in New York. They both want to support one another, and the scene where they put down a patronizing male co-worker makes for great comedy, but neither wants to disadvantage her career or social standing by helping the other too much.

Alice is a more reserved person who clearly has less partying experience, and her hesitance in ordering drinks and only naming one or two cocktails with which she’s familiar is funny to anyone who’s been in a bar for the first time and only knows a couple of drinks, if any. Alice’s desire for a dating life leads to regrettable consequences as she tries her hardest to go about it the culturally “right” way. Charlotte’s insists that she and Alice will be good friends, even as she pushes Alice into awkward scenarios for the sake of boosting her ego. Nearly all of their behavior contributes to that central character flaw of trying the wrong way and repeatedly making the same mistakes.

Finally, the film is loaded with subtle moments of humor, which I must confess, I totally missed on my first viewing several years ago. The comic awkwardness of trying to do what is expected while being totally unsure what that is comes across beautifully, and it makes all these characters loveable as they try, despite their propensity for messing up. Because after all, we have a God who loves us despite our messing-up the same way over and over again.

 

Content Advisory: Brief full frontal nudity, a fleeting shot of an interrupted sexual encounter, casual discussion of sex acts, and some drug use.              MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Arts & Faith 2016 Top 25 Films on Mercy

The Arts & Faith Community has released their 2016 Top 25 film list, and the theme for this year is films on mercy. That theme was partially chosen as a way of participating in this year of mercy, as proclaimed by Pope Francis. I’m proud to say that I nominated the theme of films on mercy, although I doubt it would have been chosen without some serious lobbying from Deacon Steven D. Greydanus of Decent Films. So thanks, Deacon SDG!

As a member of A&F for several years now, I am happy to have voted in this list, and I think it is one of our finest lists yet, with titles spanning 93 years, 4 continents, and 10 countries. As Steven says in his excellent introduction:

“Watching these films, we may reflect on the scope of – and the need for – mercy in our own lives. In the face of the latest crushing evidence of man’s inhumanity to man, the Top 25 Films on Mercy remind us that the way it too often is isn’t the whole story, or the way it has to be.”

I think all these films have the potential to challenge and uplift, and hopefully make us think about mercy and what it means to be merciful, from the mercy of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp in the bleak world of City Lights and The Kid, to the second chance offered to a troubled youth in The Kid with a Bike, and to the umpteenth attempt at reunion and forgiveness which plagues a broken family in Pieces of April – one of my favorites titles to have been included.

And now, make sure to check out all the films which made the list!

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Maggie’s Plan

Year of release: 2016    Directed by Rebecca Miller.   Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Travis Fimmel, and Maya Rudolph.

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Portraying different perspectives can be difficult in film. In writing the technique is natural – the author just switches to a different narrative voice. However, a film’s story is primarily told through the camera, which usually acts as a sort of third person observer, independent from the limited perspective of a specific character. One of the most remarkable aspects of Maggie’s Plan is the way director/writer Rebecca Miller shifts the narrative perspective from that of the titular protagonist to an independent third person observer over the course of the film.

The first act of the film is told from the perspective of Maggie, played by Greta Gerwig with her typical awkward charm and effervescence. Since Maggie is headstrong and somewhat blinded by her determination, she sees the world in clear terms of black and white. As a result, her friends and acquaintances appear almost as caricatures, or slightly too much for the story – a criticism she levels at her lover John’s (Ethan Hawke) novel.

However, after an unexpected shift coupled with a chronological jump of a few years, the narrative perspective of the film pulls back to that of an independent observer and allows us to see all the characters as they are. Maggie is determined, organized, and very optimistic, but she is also a control freak, or “bossypants,” as called by her friends’ young son. Ethan Hawke’s John is an accomplished scholar and lecturer, but something of a man-child and a workaholic as well. John’s wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) first appears as an oppressive witch, but as we learn more about her, her strong will is mitigated by her compassion and concern for her family.

MV5BNjUzMDgyODE0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTMzMjc2ODE@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_In order to fully reflect the shifting narrative perspectives, the actors subtly alter their performances. When we first meet Georgette, Moore speaks with an over-the-top accent for the shrewish foreign wife. That accent naturally mellows as the audience sees her from a perspective other than Maggie’s. With her seamless fluctuation between stony and sensitive, Moore nearly steals the movie. When Maggie is infatuated with John, his immature ticks come across as cute, but Hawke makes those ticks more exaggerated when we are meant to see him as less mature than we initially thought.

Maggie herself is highly organized, independent, and seemingly in charge of her life. The film opens with her planning to become a single mom via artificial insemination and avoid the pitfalls of a romance. Her best friends (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph) express some hesitance at her headstrong confidence that everything will go exactly as she wants, but she shrugs them off because she knows she is in control. As Maggie’s manipulative scheming makes a mess not only of her life, but John’s and his family’s as well, the irony of the control freak masterminding a scenario in which she has no control is highly apparent. I particularly appreciated the honesty of the film in depicting the pain and difficulty caused by divorce, affairs, and artificial insemination.

My biggest complaint is that the ending ties all the plot points together too neatly. While I appreciate the ending’s inclusion of a character who had been out of the film until then, the simple solution it offered undermined the messy consequences that the characters had all learned to live with. As a result, it returned to the too-muchness of the beginning when we only saw characters via Maggie’s perspective.

Maggie is another successful creation of Gerwig’s. She may not be as strong and as loveable and funny as Gerwig’s recent collaborations with Noah Baumbach, but Gerwig’s naturally joyful persona successfully anchors this story about learning to let go of control, and she’s bolstered by strong performances from the rest of the cast as well.

 

 

Content Advisory: Brief sexual activity with partial nudity, frank discussion of artificial insemination including a non-graphic depiction of the procedure, and casual rough language throughout.               MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: B

 

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Eye in the Sky

Directed by Gavin Hood.         Starring Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, and Aisha Takow.

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The principle of double effect, as proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas,  is frequently discussed both in freshman philosophy classes and in Catholic theology classes. The classic hypothetical which is used in these discussions is when the train is rushing down the tracks and about to go off the rails unless you pull the lever to redirect the train onto the intact tracks. The catch is that there is one guy standing on the intact tracks, and there is a high probability that redirecting the train, and thus saving the lives of all the people on it, will regrettably kill him.

The problem with hypotheticals is that they do not take into account practical, real life scenarios when one has to make the best decision possible within a short time frame under intense duress. While a fictitious film is still a hypothetical, Eye in the Sky plays out in an intensely realistic fashion which gives credence to both sides of the argument and constructs a scenario in which the difficulties of either course of action are vividly realized. Even more remarkably, after making a strong case for one course of action, the film turns around and makes an equally strong case for the opposite.

The hypothetical in question in Eye in the Sky was made clear in the trailer. British intelligence has numbers 2, 4, and 5 on the most wanted list in their sight; through a hidden camera they can see those terrorists assembling two vests for suicide bombings; they have the ability to launch a drone strike eliminating that threat; however, a young girl is in the street next to the house, well within the fatality zone of the missile.

For a scenario which sounds like it could become riddled with clichés and a moralizing sermon regarding the War on Terror and the US drone program, Eye in the Sky avoids both. It explicitly acknowledges the danger that terrorists pose to the world, and it makes what might be the most compelling argument in favor of the drone assassination program. At the same time, the cost of that program on families, nations, and individuals is powerfully realized, so much that even if the principle of double effect justified the proposed strike, one could still question its prudence or legitimacy.

It is rare to see a film that refuses to take sides in an argument and maneuvers through both sides of that argument as skillfully as Eye in the Sky does. In doing so director Gavin Hood tells his story and leaves the conclusion with the viewer. It is easy to understand the reasoning which says drones are the best way to minimize the violence of terrorists, yet the concept that violence begets violence is always juxtaposed with any arguments in favor of using military force.

Hood’s decision to cast himself as an American colonel who calmly weighs all the options, but has no qualms about following orders, however unpleasant those orders may be, carries that balanced storytelling approach to the cast as well. The other cast members are the typical characters one would expect in such a wartime story. There are two green American drone pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) who have never had to fire a missile before, one of whom is starting her first day as a soldier as the titular “eye in the sky.” An on the ground agent in Kenya (Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips) is trying to get as close to the target as possible to gather information without blowing the cover of the mission. There are various officials, all of whom wish to refer the decision up to their authorities so that they do not have to take responsibility. Finally, Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman portray a colonel and general respectively who wish to avoid as many casualties as they can, yet are both pragmatic enough to dread wasting this opportunity.

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The film’s ensemble of characters is admittedly large, but Megan Gill’s sharply focused editing makes it easy to keep track of all the characters and maintains a taut pacing which does not relent. One of the most effective moments is when the British intelligence loses one of their cameras; the cut to black symbolizes the dread and mounting tension perfectly. Similarly, the use of silence in place of music for some of the most harrowing moments makes the tragedy and tension all the more palpable. The commitment of both Mirren and Rickman turns their functionally written characters into complex conflicted human beings torn between two bad alternatives.

Finally, the portrayal of the young girl Alia (Aisha Takow) who will be endangered by a missile strike and her family is a beautiful portrait of the world as it should function and how war destroys that. The opening title card states that truth is the first thing lost in war, and while the film depicts rationalizations replacing the truth, nothing is as tragic as those rationalizations being applied to the potential loss of innocent lives.

The desire to minimize the casualties of war is a moral and necessary impulse. However, the way in which we achieve that is every bit as important. That importance is at the center of the moral conundrum in Eye in the Sky, and the film’s choice to eschew both easy answers and demonizing of different opinions makes the cost of war heavily felt as Eye in the Sky relentlessly accelerates toward the end of its mission.

 

Content Advisory: Gruesome shots of the aftermath of violence, a few utterances of harsh expletives under duress.                MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

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The Young Messiah

Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh.            Starring Adam Greaves-Neal, Sara Lazzaro, Vincent Walsh, Finn Ireland, Christian McKay, Lois Ellington, Agni Scott, Sean Bean, Jonathan Bailey, and Rory Keenan.

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How does one go about creating a story centered on the untold life of the child Jesus? There is no evidence in the Gospels about what happened between the flight into Egypt and His Baptism almost thirty years later, other than the finding in the temple when He was twelve. And furthermore how does one believably and compellingly portray a child who is fully God (and thus perfect and omniscient) and yet also fully human with a human mind (and thus has limited knowledge and must learn like any other child)?

It’s a balance which The Young Messiah pulls off brilliantly. The imagination initially sparked by Anne Rice in her novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt is preserved and developed by director Cyrus Nowrasteh along with his wife Betsy, who co-writes this adaptation with her husband. From the diligent work of Rice and the Nowrastehs, The Young Messiah emerges as a thoughtful, original, and theologically sound story which provides reflection on an often un-thought about period of Jesus’ life.

The very first scene of The Young Messiah demonstrates that the film is the hands of skillful and sensitive storytellers. The seven year old Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal) is playing with his cousin Salome (Lois Ellington) in the streets of Alexandria, only to be bullied by two older boys. Jesus does not fight back, but only defends himself from the blows. As one of the boys prepares to chase after Salome, Jesus orders him to leave her alone. As the boy ignores him, a sinister cloaked figure tosses an apple on the ground which the boy trips over, hitting his head on a rock and dying.

That sinister figure then convinces the other boy to accuse Jesus of murdering the child. At this point, the film cuts to the perspective of the bystanders, revealing that Jesus is the only one who can see this demon or the apple.

When Jesus’ family arrive, the portrayal of Mary and Joseph (Sara Lazzaro and Vincent Walsh) is wonderful. Neither one doubts the innocence of their son, both being fully aware of his divine nature as told to them by the angel. However, they have not told him, being afraid of how the world would receive him and unsure how to “explain God to His own Son.”

At the same time, as a curious and alert seven year old, Jesus knows he is different, and at Salome’s request he does that “special thing he did with the dead bird” for the bully, namely, brings him back to life.

From this sequence alone we see a child who refuses to sin, is conflicted regarding his identity, has a supportive family who helps him grow in holiness and whom he obeys, who extends compassion to his enemies, and who is haunted by a demonic figure. In other words, the filmmakers have created compelling characters and a theologically fascinating conflict to drive the narrative. Additionally, there are clever references to later events in the life of Jesus from the Gospels. All of these elements will feature throughout the remainder of the film, and it is to the credit of the Nowrastehs how seamlessly the story blends these defining aspects of the young Jesus’ life.

The overall story is very episodic, flowing from one segment to another as the Holy Family (both immediate and extended) returns to Nazareth from Egypt. The episodes all contribute to the overarching narrative of Jesus’ human nature gradually coming to understand his divine nature, and all the episodes are intriguing in their own right as well. Indeed, the one conflict which overshadows the film at times feels a little forced. Sean Bean (whom I’m always happy to see in a movie) plays a centurion ordered by Herod (a wonderfully creepy and immature Jonathan Bailey) to find the rumored seven year old miracle worker and repeat what his father Herod the Great did in Bethlehem. The conflict gives the film an added sense of urgency, and on paper its resolution makes perfect sense, but in execution it felt slightly forced, even if it did give the film two great performances.MV5BMTUyODgwOTY5M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzE5ODYyODE@._V1__SX1303_SY576_

The other performances are all equally fantastic. As the seven year old Jesus, Adam Greaves-Neal perfectly captures a sense of reverence, curiosity, playfulness, and kindness without becoming supercilious or obsequious. As Jesus’ cousin James, Finn Ireland conveys the resentment of an older child who knows why Jesus is special, but deep down still loves his cousin and wishes to help him. As Cleopas and Miriam, James and Salome’s parents, Christian McKay and Agni Scott successfully round out the ensemble with variants on the enthusiastic uncle and supportive aunt. Finally, Rory Keenan maintains a sinister air as the devil who knows the child Jesus is destined for greatness, but is unsure why.

One of my favorite aspects of The Young Messiah is the portrayal of the Holy Family. Mary and Joseph trust God so thoroughly, and they love their son so completely that it is easy to see why the Holy Family should be a model for all families. Even when threatened, they always maintain their virtue and their trust in God. I honestly cannot think of a single movie about Jesus which has a better portrayal of the Holy Family than The Young Messiah.

The movie soars with its inspired dramatic and theological reflections on the childhood of Christ. References to incidents in the Gospels like the Baptism in the Jordan and the Wedding at Cana strengthen the storytelling prowess, and they add a profundity to the depiction of Jesus’ human nature becoming more aware of his divine nature. For more information about the growth of Jesus’ human knowledge, make sure to read this excellent piece by Steven Greydanus, and check out his fantastic review as well.

The Young Messiah‘s reverence for the Scriptures which inspired its story is on full display through the entire film, and the wonderfully imaginative narrative makes this one of the best films about Christ that I’ve seen in years.

 

Content Advisory: Several non-graphic shots of crucifixions, an out of frame stabbing, violence between Roman soldiers and Jewish rebels, and a potentially creepy satanic figure.    MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Kids and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A-

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