Archive for September, 2015

Mistress America

MV5BODI2ODc5NzY3Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjg1NzUzNjE@._V1__SX1303_SY579_Year of release: 2015.                       Directed by Noah Baumbach.                        Starring Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Matthew Shear, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Heather Lind, and Michael Chernus.

Everyone knows the classic storyline in which an awkward protagonist ends up feeling betrayed by the unique newfound friend who gave said awkward protagonist a new confident outlook on life, because that friend, who had been overly idolized, makes an asinine mistake. What this film presupposes is: what if the newfound friend was never overly idolized and what if the awkward protagonist is the one who makes the asinine mistake?

Mistress America is a film that defies any simple genre classification. Sure, it’s certainly a comedy, highlighting the humor in perfectly ordinary situations, exaggerating and laughing with the characters at the small everyday blunders everyone makes. (Panicking over what type of pasta to buy for a casual gathering is one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year.) At the same time, the film is keenly aware of the brokenness and hurt that small acts of selfishness cause, acts which most people don’t even think about. Consequently, it takes a sobering dramatic turn, which briefly threw me for a loop, even though the more I think about it, the more perfectly that turn ties the film together.

Tracy (Lola Kirke) is our awkward protagonist, who desperately wants to be accepted into the cool lit-club as she begins her freshman year at college in NYC. Shy enough not to get invited to parties, confident enough to fall asleep in a twelve-person class, and self-conscious enough to be overly guarded around anyone she wants to impress, Tracy seems like a fairly typical college student: fairly intelligent yet anxious and lost regarding to how she fits into the world.MV5BMTYzMTI4MTg4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjg1NzUzNjE@._V1__SX1303_SY579_

Brooke (Greta Gerwig) has no qualms about how she fits into the world. As she haphazardly descends into Tracy’s life (literally, that’s Gerwig’s first entrance), she inspires the fledgling writer with a passion for life and confidence in her abilities. The two are soon to be step-sisters, as Tracy’s mom is marrying Brooke’s dad, and they bond better than many sisters, as Brooke unreservedly welcomes Tracy into her life, showing her the city and the odd collection of jobs she works, all the while dreaming of opening a restaurant.

Brooke’s happy-go-lucky lifestyle is naturally perfect for Gerwig’s effervescent screen persona, even going so far as to reference one of her repeated quirks from Frances Ha with an easy to miss cameo. However, small cracks appear in the world which Brooke has constructed and which Tracy eagerly accepts. None of Brooke’s grand plans ever seem to come to fruition. All of her money is precariously tied up in the restaurant, which could fall through at any moment. An old high school acquaintance of Brooke runs into them in a bar, and her bitterness at Brooke’s past teasing of her clearly reveals real hurt, even as Brooke downplays the incident and refuses to apologize for something she barely remembers and doesn’t really believe was wrong.

At the same time, Tracy is careening down a path which will soon place her in a similar situation to the one Brooke was in with her former high school acquaintance. Tracy may be enamored of Brooke when around her, but when she writes her short stories (inspired by one of Brooke’s failed ideas) she’s acutely aware of Brooke’s imperfections and unhesitant to dramatize them. The result is a scene familiar to any film about a budding friendship, yet played out from an unexpected point of view, humorously providing more than one side to a multitude of characters.

As Tracy reads her story via voiceover, the story highlights the aspect which Brooke and Tracy share, which makes their friendship so natural and believable, as unexpected and unusual as it may be. Both of them try to fit into the world both as it is and as they want it to be, aware of its imperfections, yet overlooking their own, believing that they have the power to change it through a story or a restaurant even as they let other aspects of their lives fall apart. The desire to cast oneself as a superhero, saving the world on the side like a “Mistress America,” is a folly which I think is fairly common. The reality is other perspectives exist all around us, and we often chose not to perceive them, and the consequences of our selfishness are funny and sad, but only because we recognize how we have messed up and how we have an opportunity to do better.

Throughout all the screwball shenanigans Mistress America maintains whimsical tone, finding humor in both joy and sorrow. It may not quite be the masterpiece that is Frances Ha, but it is another great film from Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, proving them to be one the best writer-director teams working today.

Personal Recommendation: A

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God’s Not Dead

MV5BMjEwNDQ3MzYyOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDE0ODM3MDE@._V1__SX1303_SY579_Warning: some spoilers

I debated for awhile on whether or not I should write a review of God’s Not Dead, last year’s surprise faith-based hit. On the one hand, it’s the type of movie at which it is easy to take cheap shots, which can be fun and cathartic, but at the same time, even if those shots are deserved, they can be unfair to the filmmakers and also unfair to people who genuinely like the movie and do not understand why it’s not only bad art but also bad theology.

However, last weekend saw the latest offering of “Christian Cinema,” War Room, top the box office, (which I have not seen and hope not to) and I decided I should comment on the movie which proved to Hollywood that “feel good” movies targeted to Christian audiences can be huge financial successes.

If you’re wondering why a self-proclaimed Catholic film critic is so emphatically negative towards a low budget film by Christian filmmakers that was intended to promote the Gospel, then please bear with me as I explain. I chose the title “Catholic Cinephile” for this blog for two reasons. First, I believe all the Catholic Church teaches and professes to be revealed by God, and that influences my movie watching. Secondly, I believe in the power of art to transform, inspire, and move us closer to the divine. Good art makes the world a more beautiful place, and bad art makes it uglier. Cinema is an art form, for which I have cultivated a love and which I wish to study in order to recognize and appreciate beauty and truth as presented by the artists who make films.

As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his 1999 letter to artists:

Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God”, and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous “material” of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of His own surpassing wisdom, calling the human artist to share in His creative power. Obviously, this is a sharing which leaves intact the infinite distance between the Creator and the creature, as Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa made clear: “Creative art, which it is the soul’s good fortune to entertain, is not to be identified with that essential art which is God himself, but is only a communication of it and a share in it”.

As I said above, the unfortunate reality is that movies such as God’s Not Dead (and Fireproof and Facing the Giants) are very bad art. As a result they neither contribute to the beautification of the world nor spreading the Gospel (which the filmmakers presumably hoped to do with said movies.)

If there is any doubt that God’s Not Dead is terrible cinema, here are some examples from the script. A woman is diagnosed with cancer; when the doctor tells her, she responds: “I don’t have time for cancer; I’m too busy.” When that woman tells her boyfriend, his response is: “Couldn’t this wait ’til tomorrow?” In case it’s not obvious, both of those characters are atheists, and in the world of God’s Not Dead, atheists are terrible selfish people with no social skills or basic human decency, which makes it odd that many of the atheists have prestigious jobs, because one usually needs those skill sets to acquire such positions. The reality is human beings do not speak as either of those characters do, but the makers of God’s Not Dead are not interested in portraying atheists as human beings, but rather as fictitious boogeymen out to crucify poor defenseless Christians, as blatantly reinforced by naming the pastor Reverend Dave (against atheist Goliaths). To which I reply: if one cannot love the atheist they have seen, how can they love God whom they have not seen? (cf. 1 John 4:20)

Nowhere is the disdain for atheists more apparent than the climactic scene, when Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) who challenged college freshman Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) to prove God exists or “commit academic suicide” and then blackmailed Josh outside of class, and is somehow next in line to be the department head, has been humiliated in front of his class, spurned by his girlfriend, and finally gets hit by a car. As he’s fatally injured, the film cuts to a God’s point of view shot (angling the camera downward at a ninety degree angle), suggesting that God has willed the vengeful humiliation and death of the antagonist, because in being injured he repents and accepts Jesus as his savior. My advice to anyone who thinks this portrayal of God as a petty, vengeful middle school bully is something to celebrate is to read Ezekiel 33:11. (I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked…)

I’ll mention three other examples of horrendous filmmaking. First is a scene in which a Muslim girl is secretly listening to Christian sermons on her iPod. The movie needs her extremist father to angrily throw her out of the house, so for no reason at all, as she’s quietly sitting in her room after school, her little brother sneaks in and takes the iPod and shows their father. Next, when Josh cites a renowned theist to correctly call Stephen Hawking’s argument against the existence of God an example of circular reasoning, Josh then turns around and uses circular reasoning to “prove” the existence of God. His philosophy professor, who’s supposedly very intelligent, fails to notice this. Finally, the woman who is diagnosed with cancer discovers her car with the window smashed in and her GPS stolen. She says, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” That’s a good summary for much of the film, because in reality, the word which most actual human beings would use in such a situation is one that rhymes with duck (or maybe odd slam hit).

Art cannot and should not exist in a vacuum. Consequently, good art will be aware of the condition of the world. A whitewashed world where you can tell heroes from villains by who looks forward to a Newsboys concert is neither realistic nor does it share in the divine creativity of God, because it ignores the reality of God’s greatest creation (humankind) in favor of contrived messages and code symbols designed to give those in the know a feeling of superiority.

The common objection to all these points is that faith-based films, such as God’s Not Dead, “made me feel good.” The question to ask oneself is “why did I feel good?” Is it because my preconceived worldview was confirmed as I was pandered to? Is it because an ostensibly Christian protagonist was vindicated, even if that involved clear hatred for one’s enemy? Joel Mayward fleshes this phenomenon out in detail, but he is absolutely correct here:

The response of “I liked it, so stop critiquing it” may be an indicator that our faith is placed in something less than the death-and-resurrection power found in Jesus and the reign of his kingdom values in our world. Jesus doesn’t invite us to be nice so that everything works out to make us happy. He bids us to come and die, to live a life of sacrificial love, compassion, justice, and mercy.

The belief that if you proudly stand up and proclaim your faith, God will reward you has an obvious appeal for Christians. Not only does God’s Not Dead twist that into be a jerk to your enemies, it also prevents a version of faith so naive that books of The Bible such as “Job,” “Lamentations,” and “Hosea” have absolutely no place in its world. Remember by what act Jesus draws the world to Himself (or uplifts us)? That is completely foreign to God’s Not Dead and many other examples of “Christian cinema.”

Personal Recommendation: F

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The Churchmen – Season 1, Episode 8

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The primary reason I quit watching Downton Abbey after the second season, and also watch very few television series in general, is that I dislike stories which do not end. In other words, I dislike when there is always some conflict which needs to be resolved, and there can never be a definitive conclusion or resting point. It seems to me that most television dramas can never allow all the character arcs and conflicts to cadence; instead, a new twist must always elide with any conclusive moment and serve as a cliffhanger so the audience will continue watching. Personally, a well told story that comes to a natural end would make me more intrigued to continue watching a new installment.

The finale of the first season of The Churchmen ends with a shocking cliffhanger that will need to be resolved in season 2. I would also wager a guess that some of the resolved conflicts will be revisited and undone in the beginning of the second season. (A look at IMDB’s list of the total episodes for each actor indicates to me that my guess is correct.)

Even though The Churchmen has fallen back upon some trite storytelling techniques for television drama, I do want to commend the writers for a first season which wrestles with themes of forgiveness, mercy, and repentance in ways that highlight the brokenness of all the characters and everyone’s need for God’s mercy, both for those we liked and for those we dislike.

As Ken wrote in his recap of episode seven:

The series does tend to lean a little heavily on the contrast between individual faith (good) and institutional structures (bad, bad, bad).

I think the decision to suggest the hierarchy of the Church is more concerned with appearances than with saving souls is a frustrating and unfairly one-dimensional portrayal, but the acknowledgement of the power of faith and forgiveness to change individual lives is sincere and moving. Enough so, that I choose to see this glass’ portrayal of the Catholic faith as half full.

The opening scene of episode eight is an effective reminder of that forgiveness and mercy which we all need. Raph has gone to see the judge in an attempt to drop the charges against his father’s illegal management of the country. As he tries to blame his now deceased brother, the first thought is: how low is he going to sink in his effort to save his family’s reputation? However, after his exchange with the judge, there is an immediate cut to a shot of Raph sobbing from the stress and tragedy he is experiencing, which manages to evoke sympathy for him, despite his selfish actions.

The other seminarians return to their lives at the seminary, some in a more roundabout way than others. Yann has recovered from his crisis of faith from the past several episodes, after being uncharacteristically nasty in the previous episode and then coming to his senses, sort of like the prodigal son. The homosexual tensions between Emmanuel and Guillaume continues to haunt both of them, and it continues to be the least interesting plot development.

With one exception, the aforementioned cliffhanger, the character arcs for all the seminarians come to uneasy resting points, so that should any one of the actors choose not to return for the second season, writing his character out would seem natural. At the same time, the door is left open to further develop each seminarian.

The vendetta between Fromenger and Monsignor Roman comes to a surprising conclusion, giving an unexpected character a new leadership role. That character’s first act of authority results in the seminary being raided by the police, and as he walks amidst the flotsam and jetsam of the aftermath, the show seems to be commenting on his tenure with a fair bit of snark, which is deserved despite the sympathy the writers have tried to create for that character in other scenes.

Finally, Fromenger’s last scene of the season gives him a natural and moving opportunity to give a speech to the entire seminary, paraphrasing Psalm 139: “[God] didn’t let me down. It was I who lacked faith in Him…He won’t leave you no matter what you do. Only you can abandon Him if you abandon yourselves. And even then, He will still know how to find you.” For a show preoccupied with mercy and forgiveness, that was a fitting and well conceived speech to climax the first season.

 

Previous Episodes

Episode 1 (1More Film Blog)

Episode 2 (Catholic Cinephile)

Episode 3 (1More Film Blog)

Episode 4 (Catholic Cinephile)

Episode 5 (1More Film Blog)

Episode 6 (Catholic Cinephile)

Episode  7 (1More Film Blog)

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