REVIEW: Nine Days

How long would you think it would take to determine whether a person deserves to live or not? According to writer/director Edson Oda, it could be done in about Nine Days. In this feature length directorial debut, Oda creates a world between worlds where potential people are evaluated on their ability to participate well in this thing called life. It’s a smaller film that asks some pretty big questions about what makes life worth living and how, in a fallen world, even the best of us get torn down. It’s also about the teeny tiny moments and elements that make life what it is and how we can appreciate them more.

Winston Duke and Bill Skarsgard in Nine Days (2021)

Leading these evaluations is Will, played with a still, stern resolve by Black Panther’s Winston Duke. In this universe, the evaluators have a select number of lives to watch over, and, when one expires, it is their job to find a replacement. The film begins with Will’s favorite life meeting an unceremonious end. He had thought maybe he has perfected the selection process, but now he’s not so sure. In comes a rogue gallery of trendy and familiar actors, all who bring a lot of their best to the roles.

Fighting to live are the likes of It’s Bill Skarsgard, Veep’s Tony Hale, and Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz. Helping Will in this task is a fellow in-betweener, Kyo, played by Doctor Strange’s Benedict Wong. It’s worth highlighting all of these players because it is in this cast that the film shines. Nine Days very much plays like a character-driven stage production. This same cast could easily bring some Shakespeare fare to life. With Oda’s material they all get to exhibit vulnerability, conceit, and whimsy as they wrestle with the prospect of living or, in most cases, not.

Nine Days writer and director Edson Oda.

If the premise sounds slightly akin to Disney/Pixar’s Soul, you’d be right, but it also feels at times like a weird combination of Charlie Kauffman surrealism and a James Wan horror/thriller. Will is an imposing, enigmatic figure that might drive some mad with how little he reveals to the candidates. It isn’t just a test for the would-be humans, it’s also a test for us. You may like certain characters more, but are they better suited for the real world than others? If Will’s past selections haven’t panned out, what does it really take to survive in our fallen world? If you were in this godlike position, could you make the choice of who lives and who drifts into nothingness?

One of the most brilliant touches in this slower, methodical film comes when the burden of these questions becomes too heavy. This happens periodically throughout the rhythm of the film. As the candidates are being evaluated and the stress and mysteries of life are piling up, the movie slows down and switches gears into delight and whimsy. One of the main exercises in this contest is to choose aspects or moments of life that the candidates find most appealing. When they then are eliminated, Will and Kyo try their best with very few resources to deliver that moment to those moving on. It gives each candidate (and us) a chance to savor these snapshots of living before we dive back into the nitty gritty of what happens in the world outside of those moments.

Nine Days is a movie about a world before living but it’s really about life itself. It’s about this cast of characters being evaluated as a potential human life but it’s actually an opportunity for us to evaluate our own. It’s a good occasion to wonder just why each one of us individually were created. Why were we chosen to experience this world and the life in it? Oda’s kind of morality play isn’t so much about what we achieve in life, but more about the smaller moments that make up a life. The memories that bring flashes of joy. The decisions we make that cause ripples in our lives and the lives of others. If someone asked you what you appreciate about life, what would you say? Would you even have an answer right now? After watch Nine Days, you just might.

Nine Days is available on VOD right now.

Wonder Woman 1984: Train wreck or Triumph?

“Life is good…but it could be better!”

We often hear directors say that the location of their film is a character in the story, for WW84 that can be said of the backdrop of the 1980s. At first, we could be tempted to think that setting the sequel in the 80s is just a fun excuse for great outfits and nostalgia for the dying shopping mall. But director Patty Jenkins deserves more credit than that. The 1980s was a time of booming prosperity, big hair, big guitar solos, big promises. Promises from politicians, scheming businessmen, televangelists, and fitness instructors that our dreams could come true if we just followed them. If we gave them our vote, our money, more money…all our desires could be fulfilled. And then what happened? The cynicism and moodiness of the 90s. A social bursting bubble when we realized not all that glitters is gold. WW84 sets out to explore the promises of the things we believed, and the cost of their deception.

The film opens with young Diana (a delightful Lilly Aspell reprising her role) learning an important lesson back home in Themyscira. That cutting corners and taking shortcuts is appealing in the moment, but you’re only deceiving yourself and others with that approach. There is no honor or achievement without the truth. This shapes a huge part of Diana’s character and future trajectory. Wonder Woman is very much defined by a love for honor and truth, most obviously expressed by her wielding the Lasso of Truth.

As we catch up with Diana in 1984 America, her origin continues to shape her career. She frequently saves the day as Wonder Woman, but moves in public as Diana Prince, senior anthropologist specializing in Mediterranean civilizations at the Smithsonian. Not only is she using her superpowers to serve others, she is also using her extensive knowledge of ancient Greek mythology and culture to serve academia. This is who Diana fundamentally is, a woman who utilizes her talents and abilities to pursue truth in the world.

Spoiler Warning

This is where things start to get dicey. Diana and her colleague Minerva (played wonderfully by Kristen Wiig) come across a strange artifact. From the beginning, the artifact is giving us clues about its nature. It is a stone that appears to be valuable but is actually cheap and common, frequently used for counterfeits. It is mounted on a gold ring inscribed with Latin, indicating that it is a “Dreamstone” and that those who hold it will be granted a wish. But the glittering Dreamstone holds a dark secret. Eventually Diana realizes that it was created by the Greek god Dolos, a god of deception and treachery. The promise of the granted wish is actually a trick. The bearer will indeed receive what they desire, but it will cost them that which is most precious. In the attempt to take shortcuts to attain our desires, we lose much more than we receive. Diana unknowingly wishes for the love of her life, Steve Trevor, to return to her. He does, but it begins to impact Diana’s powers. And Steve isn’t truly restored to her, it is only his soul that is inhabiting the body of another man. A counterfeit for the real thing. It is a deceit that posits itself as a loving reunion but is costing Diana her ability to help others and costing the anonymous man the life he was leading.

The stone falls into the hands of Maxwell Lord, a pondsy-scheme-would-be oil baron determined to use the stone to give himself the status and power and acceptance that he has always craved. The movie shines with Pedro Pascal in this role, he creates a character that is layered with arrogance, desperation, insecurity and sadness. He wishes to become the stone itself, transforming him into a granter of wishes and stealer of worth. As he tricks more and more people to make selfish and thoughtless wishes, the world around them descends into chaos. People make wishes based on self-interest and what they believe will make them happy and secure but the ripple effects damage everyone else. The stone takes far more than it gives, making those in its power believe they have it all.

This theme is an insightful exploration of the 1980s, the deceptions that we believed and what it cost us. It is also a powerful exploration of spiritual idolatry. As Christians, we believe that to worship anything other than God is to worship idols. To place our trust in something that promises us security and fulfillment. Wealth, achievement, relationships, acceptance, substances, political power. Things that glitter and make us feel on top of the world, but which erode us from the inside out.

15 The idols of the nations are silver and gold,

    made by human hands.

16 They have mouths, but cannot speak,

    eyes, but cannot see.

17 They have ears, but cannot hear,

    nor is there breath in their mouths.

18 Those who make them will be like them,

    and so will all who trust in them. – Psalm 135:15-18 (NIV)

As the psalmist says, we become like that which we trust. If we place our trust in things that are lifeless and empty, that is what we will become. But the Deceiver never stops with us. The real cost of idolatry is on the people around us. Those who love us, those who follow our influence, those under our care are the ones who suffer most. As Andy Crouch says in his excellent book Playing God, “idols ultimately claim our children.” It is the vulnerable in our lives and in our society that pay the highest price.

Maxwell Lord almost sacrificed his child in the pursuit of his own desires. It is only when Diana renounces her wish and walks away from the false shadow of Steve that she can see the truth about her situation and invite others into seeing the truth behind the glitter. The truth is hard, and costly, and humbling, but never so costly as living as a prisoner to lies.

This was true in the 1980s and continues to be more resonant then ever in 2020. Leveraging lies in order to attain and retain power have been rampant. Spinning false and dangerous narratives about the pandemic and about the outcome of the election have been driven by selfish desires for power. It is the vulnerable in society who have paid for this deceit. The next generation of young Christians are the ones who will be left to pick up the pieces of a Church in ruins. The children are the ones being most damaged. The truth is rarely comfortable, it is certainly rarely easy, but in the truth lies freedom. Freedom cannot be found in power plays, in shortcuts, in counterfeits of how we wish things were. It is only when we face and accept the truth for what it is and put others before ourselves that we can find genuine flourishing.

REVIEW: News of the World

What does your current relationship with the news media look like? According to Gallup, most Americans don’t trust the mass media. Odds are, even if you do it’s not completely. Not only is trust an issue, but as we enter digital spaces it becomes easier and easier to build echo chambers. Essentially, echo chambers are “situations in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttal.” This concept has gained momentum as researchers have explored our relationship to social media and mass media, but, functionally, echo chambers have existed for much longer than Twitter. If that is news to you, then Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass have something to share with you, their new movie, News of the World.

Based on a 2016 Western novel by Paulette Jiles, NOTW follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) who, in a post-Civil War Texas, makes his living travelling town to town reading the news to anyone whose got a dime and wants to hear it. What Capt. Kidd is really offering these isolated Texas towns is an opportunity to step outside their echo chamber. Imagine what communities in the American South were like in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, or even before. Without news from the outside world, there would be a lot of opportunity to stew in the defeat and regret of the battles and continue to hold on to the narratives that brought the country to war in the first place.

Alongside Capt. Kidd, is Johanna, a young girl that was kidnapped and raised by the Kiowa tribe after her family was slaughtered. Kidd becomes responsible for transporting her across Texas to her extended family. Along the way he must learn to communicate with Johanna, who only speaks Kiowa and mostly thinks Kidd is kidnapping her again. As Kidd is offering the news from town to town, Johanna is offering him an opportunity for a second chance at life. The Captain got his rank from fighting for the confederacy in the war and that role left scars on his body, heart, and mind. Johanna’s presence challenges Kidd to reckon with his past and the current state of the world complete with folks hanging on to the confederacy and intense fear of indigenous people.

The Reconstruction Era is a fascinating backdrop that probably should be explored more in film. I wonder what echoes of that time still ring in present day America. It is in the exploration of that time period that this movie shines. There are moments when you can see the impact that the art of story has on a community. The simple act of reporting the news can build bridges to life beyond what the people can see in front of their faces. Perhaps my favorite sequence in the movie involves Kidd sharing with a struggling community the story of a mine accident in Pennsylvania. You can see him trying to bring these two very fractured parts of the country to some common ground and it changes people.

Greengrass is most known, and most commonly touted, for directing the heart-pounding action of the Bourne franchise. If you are expecting Hanks to take down his foes with some martial arts and a rolled-up copy of the “Houston Chronicle” you’re going to be disappointed. NOTW is a much slower, more methodical kind of action. Afterall, Kidd’s character in the book is 71 and Hanks plays him as someone who has more than a little bit of hitch in his giddy up. Did you know that Tom Hanks can act? Well, he can and is classic Hanks here. He’s warm and folksy with some of both Captain Phillips and Woody under his cowboy hat. Still, the film overall is telling a very complex story and may have benefitted from more focus on either the power of the news or the redemption of Capt. Kidd. It struggled to encapsulate both.

I can’t imagine this is going to be the flick that will keep the kids’ attention through the holiday, but the movie could act as that hardback history book we all bought our dads one Christmas or another. In the world of a thousand streaming services, maybe Hanks is creating a lane as the king of the dad movie. Our bright, white Air-Monarch-wearing public will probably find a lot to like in this old school Western, but for others it is interesting to contemplate how we absorb our news. Mass media might not be the answer, but echo chambers aren’t either. We have to keep building bridges and sharing our stories. That is ultimately the power that news and technology offers us, pictures into the lives and experiences of others. We have the ability to reach out across miles and miles of space and time to learn, care, and grow. If we don’t, then I’ve got some bad news for you, not a lot about our current world will ever change.

News of the World releases in select theaters on Christmas Day.

REVIEW: Soul

The number 42. That is the answer author Douglas Adams gives to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. What is the meaning of life? It’s a big question given a very simple answer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Would that it were so simple. Though many have tried over the eons, this question continues to baffle generation after generation. Now our up-and-coming millennials and Gen Z have an answer all their own, work. Barna Research Group found that among the top priorities of our next generations “Finishing my education” and “Starting  a career” topped the list. We are guiding our young people to assign their worth and value to the search for their purpose, passions, and work. What are they meant to do with their lives? What if their chosen path doesn’t provide for them and their families? What if they get into their career and hate it? No wonder anxiety about the future is also on the rise in these generations. It’s these massive questions of life, the universe, and everything that Disney and Pixar try to tackle in their new film, Soul.

Pixar Soul GIF

Soul centers around jazz musician and middle school music teacher, Joe Gardner, brought to life by Jamie Foxx. Joe is stuck in a cycle of chasing gigs around New York in a quest to be a professional musician. He’s been at the gig game for a while but is so laser focused on his passion that he even balks at the chance for a stable career at his middle school. Just when Joe thinks he has found his big break, a tragedy sends him into the soul realm where he faces the great beyond. In soul world, he discovers how human’s souls are crafted with their personality traits and passions. That’s when he meets 22 (not to be confused with 42) who is an unfinished soul in need of mentoring and just might be Joe’s ticket back to the real world.

In 22, voiced by the iconic Tina Fey, we get to explore all of the things that create our identities as people. Identity, aren’t we all on a never-ending quest to find ours? We so desperately want somebody, anybody, to tell us who we are and what we’re supposed to do. How many Buzz Feed quizzes can you take? We’re all a little of each Harry Potter character, aren’t we? How many different numbers on the Ennegram scale are you going to say, “That sounds like me”? These are complicated questions, but Pixar is used to diving into these deeper questions about how we work. Soul will undoubtedly receive many comparisons to Inside Out, and, much like Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore, they really could be sister projects. Where Inside Out was looking deep into human emotion and the role our emotions play, Soul is looking at humanity itself and the role we all play in society. Its looking at what does it actually mean to live. It is fascinating the way the film asks you to decipher the fine line between passion and vocation and between pursuing your dreams and stalling out.

Pixar Soul GIF 2

Many have tried to define such ambiguous terms like purpose and passion. Maybe you have a definition that works well for you. I often come back to Andy Crouch’s article on “The Three Callings.” Crouch focuses a lot on what it means to be an image bearer of God. The concept of the image of God as outlined in the very beginning of scripture and threaded throughout, is that if you are human, you have been made in God’s image. What’s so beautiful about that is that we are all so different yet somehow encompass this form together. That means God cares about the things that you care about! God cares about art, math, video games, music, engineering, fashion, microbiology, quantum physics, basket weaving, professional ping pong, etc. What’s so fun about Soul is that it invites you to examine the activities, the people, and the work that sparks your passion.

Pixar Soul GIF 3

Rarely has asking some of these bigger life questions been so much fun or looked so beautiful. Pixar, once again, pushes the boundaries on animation as they blend three-dimensional and two-dimensional art as well as mixing the abstract with that grounded in reality. You wouldn’t be wrong to expect other familiar Pixar traits as well such as cross-generational humor. Yes, they say the word “butt” to make the kids chuckle but there’s also a very classy “pizza rat” reference and a pointed jab at all of you megalomaniacs out there. Don’t be fooled by Soul skipping theaters and heading straight to streaming on Disney+ without Mulan’s premium fee. Disney is giving its subscribers a gift with this one. Our next generations need to watch and learn that there is grace in finding and pursuing their passions. They need to see what it looks like to pursue life outside of the work that defines them. It was as if they decided to animate Morgan Freeman’s famous line from The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy livin’ or get busy dying,” and I am absolutely here for it.

REVIEW: Hillbilly Elegy

Something happened during the 2016 election. As a country, we watched as droves of voters in rural, white, working class counties that often shone blue turned a deep red. How could this happen? Looking for a quick and satisfactory answer, many folks gravitated towards a singular work, J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.” Though the book does touch on the sociopolitical trends of white rural poor in America, it may not have been totally fair to pin the decoding of this turning of the political tide on Vance’s words. At the end of the day, “Hillbilly Elegy” is one man’s story. Eventually, people aware of the book realized it didn’t actually solve the riddles we were puzzled by in American society. The comfort found in the book post 2016 election quickly soured into anger that evils like white supremacy haven’t gone away.

It wasn’t Vance’s goal to completely confront America’s history of racism or deconstruct current patterns in the 24 hour news cycle. “Hillbilly Elegy” doesn’t actually wrestle with many of the broader issues present in America in 2016, 1776, or 2020. Vance planted a foot in his past and his context and tried to tell the world what he was seeing from his point of view. There are deeply destructive trends in white rural communities all over America and Vance was able to shed light on them by tapping into his personal experience. Still, the book carries the weight of that particular moment in history and it’s public perception suffers for it. So when Netflix dropped the trailer for the film adaptation directed by Ron Howard and starring Amy Adams and Glen Close, many feared that the story would continue to give people incomplete answers for centuries old questions. The problem with the film Hillbilly Elegy, isn’t the societal pressure placed on the source material, it’s that it’s not a good movie.

There have been some truly incredible films lately that have taken audiences, and awards voters, into the lives of America’s most marginalized and poverty stricken. The Florida Project is a great example because it takes the context of Disneyland and contrasts it with the many people struggling to survive outside the Magical Kingdom’s gates. Even a film like Moonlight has a lot in common with Elegy in terms of subject matter and non-linear storytelling. These movies were focused, subtle, and pulled you directly into the lives of their subjects. There is nothing subtle or focused about Elegy. There is an old moviemaking adage of “show don’t tell.” It dictates that filmmakers should rely on visual communication to get their story across instead of a device like voiceover or flashback. Hillbilly Elegy seems to subscribe to that philosophy, and then some. The film shows, tells, shows some more, shows a few more, and then tells you again.

The film enters Vance’s story through one specific moment during college paired with several key moments from his childhood. Most of it centers around how Vance’s people, his family and community, help each other out when life is throwing punches. The J.D. in the film then must wrestle with the tension of trying to help himself as well as trying not to help his mother to the point of enabling her addictions and behaviors. We catch up with adult J.D. after his military service in the Marines, after his undergraduate studies at Ohio State, and some time into his career at Yale Law School. He’s in the midst of interviewing for a very important internship when he gets a call from home. Life had thrown another punch. We then see flashbacks of traumatic events revolving around his mother’s destructive and abusive tendencies.

Throughout the drama J.D. also interacts with the greatest source of support in his life, his grandmother. Real life J.D. credits his grandmother for a lot of his success. It’s because of Mamaw that J.D. is able to pull his bootstraps all the way up and march towards Yale. Of course, this is shown in a Rocky-style montage of taking out the trash and studying really hard. See, says the film, anybody can just work hard and make it. Even Vance admits that that’s not the foundation of his story. He made it because he had someone to help him. Not everyone has that, but again, this movie is not interested in subtlety or complexity.

When I mentioned those punches that J.D. takes throughout the movie, that is another example of the film’s lack of much needed subtlety. Nearly every moment in the film is played as a haymaker making sure that idea that J.D. has a hard life is beaten into our minds. Yes, sometimes when life is very difficult it does feel like hits keep coming one after another, but life is often way more nuanced than that. There is a brief moment in flashback that shows J.D. making breakfast with his girlfriend. He asks for syrup in his accent and she gets on his case for the mispronunciation. It’s a moment of humanness and levity that gives us a break from the punches. Elegy needed more of that.

In The Florida Project, between scenes depicting drug abuse and hunger, the young protagonist, Moonee plays and escapes into her imagination. In Moonlight, Chiron finds himself in moments of love, joy, and happiness around the dinner table of a neighbor. If we don’t have these moments to humanize everyone in the story, then the characters come off as one-note and unlikeable. Elegy gives you almost no reason to like J.D.’s mother or even to like the place he grew up. It relegates some of the more complicated, but important, components like breaking cycles of generational poverty and abuse to footnotes as it yells through the screen that J.D. and his family are poor and hopeless.

There are moments where the movie hints that it could have been something greater. Stressed about finding a rehab facility for his mother, J.D. engages with some friends who all have a suggestion. They know the area facilities like they’re local restaurants. Each of them have had friends, family, or neighbors that have dealt with drug and alcohol abuse. I was expecting someone to stop and say, “Wow, I guess we’ve all had someone close to us enter rehab.” Thankfully, they didn’t. We were given a clear, but subtle picture of their lives. Finding a rehab facility is normal. There are people in these regions of America crying out to be seen, crying out for help. Help like J.D. found in his grandmother. She saw him and decided she would step in and give him a chance at a better life. In 2016, when Vance’s book was making its initial rounds, there was a moment where our eyes were on Appalachia, but I fear with this adaptation people may just want to look away.

Real life J.D. Vance

REVIEW: Minari

What are some of the earliest memories from your childhood? As a child of the 1980’s, I remember how dark every room of our house seemed with our shiny wood paneling that was all the rage then (and that still persists behind a recent coat of white paint.) You know the kind. It is the first thing torn down on every home improvement show. All of the spaces I inhabited as a child felt so big, filled with different textures and fabrics from the leafy forest patterns of our living room cushions to the sticky, red faux leather of my family’s car seats. What did your world look like? What were you absorbing and learning as a child? Minari (pronounced MEE-NAH-REE) is a recent film that may just have you revisiting your own childhood and evaluating your own family.

The movie depicts an experience that is, as star Steven Yeun puts it, “deeply American.” Yet, it might not be the American experience you know. Through the eyes of David, the youngest child of a Korean American family in the 1980’s, we see a snapshot of their experience trying to carve out a piece of America they will call their own. The story comes partially from the memory of director Lee Isaac Chung, whose own family immigrated to America and settled in California before relocating to the middle-of-nowhere Arkansas. In Arkansas, David’s father, Jacob procures a larger piece of land then they could have ever had in California. Jacob’s desire is to eventually leave his current job of gendering baby chicks and grow a commercial farm on his new plot in Razorback country.

The cast of Minari

Prior to 1965, the US was limiting the percentage of immigrants that could reside in the country. Once the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 lifted those restrictions, there was an incredible rise in Koreans moving to America. From 1970 to 1980 that Korean population in America rose from 39,000 to 290,000. David’s family was a part of this wave, but this isn’t the story of them moving to America. As we see Jacob and his wife Monica interact, it’s obvious that this family has been working and trying to forge their path in their new country for a while. There’s tension, exhaustion, and unbalanced expectations.

Monica was comfortable in California. She thought they had decent jobs and a community that helped them feel like they were a little closer to home. For her, Arkansas feels so much farther away from everything. There is a lack of security in the couple’s relationship in the film and that particularly puts pressure on Monica to combat her husband’s lofty dreams. These dreams, though, also carry an extra weight for Jacob. Tied into his tomato plants and irrigation wells is his entire masculinity. With these parcels of land, Jacob is gambling with his manhood, his reputation as a father and provider. He has to prove that he can do this on his own. Jacob is determined to do it without the help of neighbors, friends, family, other farmers, or God.

Steven Yeun in Minari

It would be hard for David’s family to avoid faith. The Korean Presbyterian Church was a staple in Korean American communities. In the film, it is one of the first things on Monica’s mind. She clearly has found security in the church before. However, church in rural Arkansas is very different from what they’re used to. This is best expressed through Jacob’s somewhat one-sided partnership with Paul, a local laborer who wants to help Jacob succeed, and just be Jacob’s friend. Throughout the film we see Paul praying in tongues, anointing things with oil, casting out demons Jacob doesn’t see, and bearing his own literal cross every Sunday. In many ways, the church service they do attend in Arkansas feels like the most unfamiliar place they’ve been yet.

Really David’s family is trying to figure America out. What is good about this place? What is familiar? Where can they thrive? How can they survive? It is that daily grind that pulls you in. Minari is a wonderful film. Chung’s story is filled with innocence and complexity. We are trying to make sense of everything right along with David. Most perplexing to him is his maternal grandmother who curses, plays cards, and does many things different from the picture America has given David of what a grandma should be. He also doesn’t understand why he would drink a potent Korean tea over delicious Mountain Dew. The audience is guided through this drama by probably the best performances I’ve seen all year. From tiny new-comer Alan S. Kim to Remember the Titans’ Will Patton, this cast has so much to offer. Yeri Han, who plays Monica in the film can make you cry as she feels so stranded and not at “home” and then tear your heart completely out as she throws verbal and non-verbal daggers of disappointment at Jacob. You really do feel this family’s struggle as the story progresses.

The film’s title comes from a plant often used in Asian cooking. At one point, David is dragged by his grandma into a damp creek bed to plant some. It is said that minari grows wherever it is planted. It is a resilient herb that can thrive in shade or sun as long as it has water. It grows fast and is a cut-and-come-again plant that just keeps coming back. What makes David’s family keep going? There are moments in the movie that feel like things will never recover. Chung’s real-life family persisted, and so many immigrant families before and after his have as well. America is supposed to be fertile soil, but sometimes the ground is hard and dry. Thankfully, the roots of hope, faith, and family can often grow in harsh conditions.

Young Alan S. Kim in his film debut

REVIEW: A Hidden Life

There is a lot of flashy, star-studded content about World War II out there. Rightfully so. It was an era when the world stood up together against a very obvious and treacherous evil. The conflict begs to be adapted again and again. Just this year, Jojo Rabbit approached the time period with humor and heart and Amazon Prime’s sci-fi series Man in the High Castle, that depicts how the world might have been different if the Axis Powers won, entered its final season. Over the years, audiences have followed Patton, banded with brothers, and saved Private Ryan through tons of explosive battles and even more explosive Tom Hanks performances. Now, into the catalog of World War II fare, comes the quiet and contemplative A Hidden Life.

A Hidden Life Church

Director Terrence Malik has been to WWII before with the fondly remembered The Thin Red Line, but this time he avoids the traditional trenched and barb-wired battlefield. That often-used setting is traded in for the Sound of Music-esque Austrian countryside. Malik adapted this story from the personal letters between farmers Franz and Fani Jägerstätter. He uses his signature style of frenetic edits and wide-angle lenses to pull the audience into this family’s quiet opposition to Hitler’s regime.

As the story winds tighter and tighter, Fani and Franz share these letters that are so rich with faith and love. Austria has never looked so lush with deep greens and bright blues, but soon it becomes a frigid, isolating prison. All I could think of were those infamous sweeping shots of Julie Andrews spinning while taking in fresh air and music from the hills. In A Hidden Life, Fani claws with her bare hands screaming her suffering into those same blades of grass as their village ostracizes her. Franz, eventually, finds himself behind actual bars locked away from any color at all. The world has left them both pale, cold, and empty. Yet they reach out to each other with warm, comforting blankets of scripture. This is where they find their freedom.

A Hidden Life Scenery GIF

In order to do what Franz and Fani did, you would have to have a foundational belief that nothing on this Earth can take away the freedom we have in Christ. They deeply loved each other, their life in the rolling hills, and their beautifully precocious daughters, but, once their consciences flare in the face of true evil, they have to put their hope in an eternal good. Friends, neighbors, family, priests and lawyers tell them that they could compromise a little and be set free. To that Franz replies that he’s already free.

Another frequent appeal to get Franz and Fani to give in is that no one will ever know the stance they took. What they are doing won’t change the course of the war or send the population of Austria into revolt. If Franz doesn’t give in he will die just as he lived, quietly. What an interesting question for today. What makes a protest worth it?

What comes to mind for you when you think about modern social activism? Much of our social activism is criticized today because so much of it takes place online. On the surface, it often feels like the ability to post online or, as many call it, to hide behind a keyboard, doesn’t cost the tweeter anything. If only we could ask journalist Jamal Khashoggi if posting his opinions came with a cost. Even though the face of modern day social activism is a tiny blue bird on our phones, there are so many people behind those birds screaming to be heard and often dying silently in the dark. But they continue to tweet. Why?

A Hidden Life Franz Arrest

Franz Jägerstätter (played beautifully and stoically by August Diehl in the film) couldn’t compromise. His beliefs planted him and his family firmly into the ground where he made his stand. Fani Jägerstätter (played with intense strength by Valerie Pachner) couldn’t ask her husband to pledge allegiance to evil even if it would bring him home. Even if their protest came with a cost, the cost of their very souls was greater and, they believed, the reward on the other side of righteous suffering, on this plane of existence or the next, was even greater still.

It had to be a challenge to tell the story of a family stoically making a stance. World War II has a lot of flashy stories to tell, but this is a very bleak and colorless one. Yet, Malik tells it in vibrant colors with a style that gives this small protest a grand scale. There isn’t a beach to be stormed or a rousing high note to be sung, but there is an incredible internal battle taking place not just on this farm in Austria but in the hearts of every person confronted with how to respond to true evil. Malik gives you time between the breaths of levity and punches of grief to ask that question of yourself. What is the cost of making a stand and what is the cost of not?

REVIEW: Jojo Rabbit

There is nothing funny about the Holocaust or the Hitler Youth or any of our current expressions of white supremacy. And yet, in the midst of the great divisions we feel in our world today, comes Jojo Rabbit, a satirical comedy from Taika Waititi who is known for comedy bangers like What We Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok.  He’s also known for pulling out the comedy in tragedy like he does in the acclaimed Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This is what he does with Jojo. Waititi tackles a horrific subject through comedy hoping that the laughs will keep our eyes locked on something we often turn a blind eye to.

Jojo is a young German boy who goes away to Hitler Youth camp as World War II is coming to an end. Even in the world of young Nazis in bloom, it’s impossible to escape the clichés of youth. Jojo is starving for acceptance, eager to prove his masculinity, and regularly bullied by the older boys. These are just distractions, though, because Jojo is there to learn how to be the best Nazi he can be. He’s swimming in a pool of indoctrination and sponging up every drop. This is a lot of pressure for little Jojo, but he finds strength in his imaginary friend, a version of Hitler formed in his young mind played by the film’s New Zealander director.

Waititi as Hitler GIF

In the role, Waititi gets to pinpoint the absurdity of hate. He’s not just playing Hitler, he is playing the personification of Jojo’s learned racism and fascism. He is Jojo’s sinful nature and he, along with the film as a whole, is brilliant. Calling out the senselessness of white supremacy is easy. People do it all the time on Twitter with short, jabby quips accompanied by the perfect animated GIFs of Kermit the frog sipping tea. Waititi doesn’t leave us with an impactful jab, though. With Jojo Rabbit, he offers a solution, because a quarter of the way through the film something unexpected happens.

In order to talk about some of the power of Jojo Rabbit, we’ve got to dig into spoiler territory. I’m going to spoil a major plot point, but I promise, even if you know it, there are plenty of twists and turns in the film. It is an important point to help draw out the film’s larger themes and, might just be a selling point if you haven’t seen it and you really should! Regardless, if you want to go into Jojo blind, stop reading now and come back!

Jojo Rabbit War GIF

Circumstances lead to Jojo being forced to stay home from camp where he discovers a young Jewish woman hiding in the walls. Jojo is terrified. He’s chilled to the bone, his veins streaming with the power of an irrational fear of the other. This fear was implanted in him by the counselors at camp and the national pride in the air. It is a fear that could only exist and be made stronger by Jews being an absolute mystery. As long as Jojo doesn’t come in contact with an actual Jew, he can maintain the picture of a hellish demon that has been fashioned in his mind. But then there is Elsa, played with such power by Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie. She’s thin from eating scraps, and dirty from hiding in the walls, but she is human and Jojo is now locked in the house with her. Proximity will now slowly, but surly, dismantle fear.

This is why Christ dined with sinners, touched lepers, and pushed his disciples into Gentile communities. Fear and hatred can create seemingly insurmountable distance between people, but that vitriol can only survive as long as that distance in maintained. What do you mean that a Samaritan can be good? How can it be that Paul, the ultimate Jewish leader who sparked such violence towards the Gentiles, would be their pied piper of salvation? Fear feeds on the unknown, and the best way to combat that is by making the unknown known. Being locked in proximity to Elsa gives Jojo a chance to see she doesn’t have horns, her heart is actually kind, and yes, she does bleed the same color red. It can be simple or easy for us to let go of distance and separation, but the problem is that fear and hate don’t so easily let go of us.

Just when the disciples were starting to warm up to the idea of the Gospel being for everyone, even the Gentiles, here comes Peter gripped with fear. In Galatians, Paul catches Peter engaging in conduct that “was not in step with the truth of the gospel,” and he is furious. Paul had been working tirelessly to close the distance between these people groups and Peter was driving the wedge again. Peter’s fear wasn’t letting go, and neither does Jojo’s. The more Elsa makes him smile, imaginary Hitler begins to frown. Waititi’s Fuhrer begins acting less like a cartoon character and more like the man of the news reels and propaganda.

Jojo Rabbit depicts the fight for a young boy’s very soul, and, in many ways, the fight for ours as well. Every laugh is followed by a cringe of reality knowing how many adorable little kids, and Jojo actor Roman Griffin Davis is adorable, have been, and are being, turned into monsters with time-tested methods. It is an absurd film, but one that is going to pull you through a gallery of tears. There are tears of laughter, tears of sadness, tears of pain, and tears of great, personal conviction. The film asks what devils of ignorance and fear are living in your own heart while it walks a very fine line between making fun of the hypocrisy and making light of the horrors. This line, however, is walked with a hope that maybe one day we can make hate a figment of our imagination.

 

 

 

REVIEW: See You Yesterday

What is it about time travel that brings storytellers back to the concept again and again? There have been countless movies, TV shows, comics, books, and songs inspired by it (Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” anyone?). Perhaps the biggest movie ever made, Avengers: Endgame, revolves around going backwards through time. Yet, so much of what we know about time travel stems from one source, Marty McFly, Doc Brown, and their flying DeLorean. Paul Rudd’s Ant Man lays out the rules of time travel in Endgame warning that his Avengers teammates need to be careful they don’t talk to their past selves or bet on sporting events, all references to 1985’s Back to the Future.

That singular movie has shaped so much of what popular culture thinks about time travel and has inspired other contributions to the culture as well. Rick & Morty, a cartoon loosely inspired by Doc and Marty, has gathered an enthusiastic, albeit occasionally problematic, fan base. This year Nike debuted its third major attempt at recreating the sequel’s famous self-lacing sneakers. The Nike BB Adapt will even be seen in a Back to the Future II colorway this year! Don’t forget our recent obsession with “hoverboards” and geocache scooters that have us all feeling McFly on the sidewalks. What about time travel itself, though? Why are we so drawn to the ideas explored in Robert Zemeckis’s landmark film?

See You Yesterday Title GIF

In the Netflix movie, See You Yesterday, a delightful cameo states, “If time travel were possible, it would be the greatest ethical and philosophical conundrum of the modern age.” This character, whom I’ll keep a surprise, goes on to ask, “If you had that kind of power, what would you do? What would you change?” There lies the magic of this classic sci-fi scenario. Time travel offers audiences the opportunity to dream about what could be, and the continued allure of Back to the Future may be in just how simple the film makes it look to change everything. Marty pinpoints all of his family’s troubles down to one moment from his parents’ past and it causes a butterfly effect that improves life for every McFly. It’s that easy. Marty wakes up at the end of the film and his parents are more in love than ever, his siblings are more professionally successful, Marty gets the girl and the cool car he could never afford, and, in general his family is more affluent. What if it was more complex than that? What if the issues holding you back reached farther and deeper than one specific moment?

See You Yesterday GIF

See You Yesterday follows teenage prodigies CJ and Sebastian, students at a New York science-focused high school. They are so brilliant that years before Tony Stark could, they’ve figured out time travel! In their first successful test, CJ inadvertently causes a ripple that leads to tragedy. In the wake of her mistake, someone attempts to comfort CJ by saying that we all wish we had the power to go back and change things. CJ and Sebastian have that power and are launched into a race against time to fix everything! It doesn’t take very long before CJ realizes she isn’t in Back to the Future, and that changing the world isn’t as simple as Doc and Marty have led us to believe.

Here is where See You Yesterday shines. Writer/director Stefon Bristol uses time travel to explore the systems in our world that simply cannot be undone in one move. There are times when the film is incredibly frustrating. CJ is trying to accomplish something no one has ever done before. There’s no rule book and the pressure to fix things is an incredible burden. Again and again and again it becomes clear that her past mistakes, the culture she lives in, the prejudices around her, and so much more are working against her. Every step forward feels like forty steps backs. One can infer, this is precisely the point.

See You Yesterday CJ and Sebastian

For many people in America, even with the advent of time travel technology, they can only dream of something resembling Marty McFly’s life at the beginning of Back to the Future. They own their own home? They have working vehicles to begin with? They only have one relative that’s incarcerated? Life can be a lot worse, and for large portions of our population, it is. Where would you even begin to fix it? Would helping Bill Clinton draft a better crime bill help? Perhaps pre-empting cocaine flow into America in 1980’s would alleviate some problems? Would stopping the assassinations of the 1960’s fix it? Would going further back and stopping discriminatory housing practices post abolition do anything? Maybe we’d have to go back further and try to stop the Transatlantic Slave Trade? Or perhaps even further and give some pause to colonizers like Columbus? Or even further and stop Cain from striking Abel?

The reality is that CJ going back in time to fix her worst day won’t change things like it did for Marty McFly. The deeper this young, powerful black woman digs into the obstacles in her way the more they multiply. Her power, though, isn’t solely in her unique intelligence. CJ’s power is that in the face of these obstacles, she can still dream about a better world where other young women will have it easier than she did and people in her neighborhood and in her family stop dying too young. This is a power stories like See You Yesterday gives to our next generations. Providing platforms for storytellers from different backgrounds to play with these sci-fi concepts creates space for our young people to dream and those dreams might actually change the future.

See You Yesterday Handshake GIF

REVIEW: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Netflix)

What were you doing at 13? Many of us, our bodies entrenched in the chaos of puberty, were professional eye rollers. Discovering rebellion for the first time, we’d roll our eyes at the authority of our parents shirking off any kind of wisdom, instruction, or discipline they’d impart. These optical protests weren’t restricted to the home, of course, because school was also “such like a total drag, am I right?” At 13, we are taking significant leaps towards adulthood and recognizing our unique agency in the world and we often use it to act like we don’t care about anything. So we roll our eyes telling our parents and teachers to, “ugh, get a life.” Meanwhile, William Kamkwamba, at 13, was saving lives.

This is the story of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s based-on-true-events directorial debut headed to Netflix this week, The Boy who Harnessed the Wind. In the 2000’s, crushed by the growing global financial crisis and feeling the very real effects of a climate in chaos, Malawi was experiencing life-threatening circumstances. The harvest that the local economy rested on was dangerously light. Unregulated grain prices were causing hunger and violence. Every aspect of life was being torn apart. Land that belonged to families for generations was being sold off for pennies. Schools were shutting down. Families were being forced apart.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind - Still 1

All of a sudden, more so than ever before, insurmountable dollar signs were associated with every human need. It was the kind of tragic reality that made Kamkwamba and his family question their worth every day. In the film, Kamkwamba’s father, played by Ejiofor, is tortured by the decisions of how to use the family’s resources. Every move feels like a gamble, even investing in his children’s education. In their village, if you excelled in school it was a way out. So why would he spend money only to break up his family and lose his best help around the farm?

So education becomes a threat to their family, to tradition, and to their resources. Kamkwamba, however, saw great value in education and, despite what he saw around him, knew that his village, his family’s land, and his family itself were worth more than anyone thought. He had to keep learning. Without money for tuition, he had to sneak into school and his local library. In the film, there’s a scene after Kamkwamba gets caught and a teacher coming to his defense says that he’s not sneaking into the school, he’s sneaking out of the fields. It was in that library where he got the idea that would save his family and his village.

Life in Kamkwamba’s village was wholly dictated by the harvest, so much so that the film itself is framed by the seasons of planting. This is not unique to Malawi. In the Old Testament, much of the lives of God’s chosen people are controlled by the harvest. Even their calendar of festivals is framed by seasons of sowing, seasons of growing, seasons of harvesting, and seasons of hunger waiting for the rains to come. This rhythm of life put into perspective man’s reliance on God to provide.

Deuteronomy 16 describes the festival that ends their harvest calendar, “For seven days celebrate the festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.” With the harvest complete, the joy of God’s people was also complete. A fruitful harvest showed them that God was with them. So imagine how Kamkwamba’s village felt when the harvest dried up.

Thankfully William Kamkwamba was at an age when he was discovering his agency and self-worth. His optimism kept him searching for ways he could bring flourishing to the world around him. Where everyone else saw nothing but dry lands, he saw potential. Thus began a journey that led him to the TED stage and, eventually, across the graduation stage at Dartmouth College. His father thought education was the enemy of his family, but Kamkwamba’s time in that library restored his family and his village to their God given glory.

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The Boy who Harnessed the Wind is a movie about the importance of education, it’s a movie about family, it’s a movie about God’s ability to provide beyond our imagination, but it is also a movie about the growing influence we have on God’s good creation. Learning more about how the rest of the world economy depends on the health of America’s economy should make us consider more deeply our democratic responsibilities. Seeing a story about people whose lives are so impacted by the weather should make us think more about how we impact the weather.

William Kamkwamba sought to be a blessing to the world around him. His pursuit of knowledge saved lives. Ejiofor showed incredible talent in telling this story. It is exciting to continue to see Netflix give filmmakers the opportunity to make films you may not see otherwise. In his TED Talk, Kamkwamba suggests that there are young people out there that may one day watch his story and be inspired to change the world and believe in themselves. Now, on one of the most popular streaming services in the world, maybe his story will stop the eyes of 13-year-olds from rolling and instead looking for ways they’ll make the future better.