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.
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.
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.
What do Inglorious Basterds and The Blindside have in common? On the surface they would seem to be opposites but what connects them is how they make the audience feel at the end. Revenge fantasy exploitation films and overly simplistic heart-warmers both offer a sense of resolution and justice when the credits roll. The bad guys have been punished; the good guys won. The problem that caused the conflict has been solved. You the viewer can leave feeling like all is as it should be. Promising Young Woman is not this kind of film.
Because this is a spoiler review, I’m going to assume that if you are still reading right now then you have already seen the film so I’ll skip the recap. Perhaps the biggest reaction that has been coming from theaters and On Demand viewers is a wide polarity in how people feel about the ending. Some people hate the twist of Cassie being murdered and feel like it ruined the whole movie. It is an ending that leaves us feeling deeply unsettled and grieved. While it was not the ending I desired, I think the entire arc of the film is quite brilliant. Let me unpack some of the motifs and themes that director Emerald Fennell develops, and what her storytelling choices are meant to communicate.
Reversing the male gaze
From the opening shots of businessmen in khaki pants shimmying and gyrating on the dance floor, Fennell is signaling that a lot of movie tropes are about to be subverted. I immediately laughed out loud as the scene played out because it was such a satisfying parody of literally every music video club scene ever. Think about how many times you have seen women filmed in exactly the same manner, all butts and hips and crotches and thighs shot in slow motion close-up. The female body objectified and dismembered for the gratification of male viewers. PYW is a movie that turns an unwavering gaze squarely back onto men. Cassie torments men, not by physically terrorizing them, but simply by looking directly at their worst intentions and not looking away. From Cassie staring down the harassing construction workers, to confronting would-be assailants in the moments when they think they aren’t being monitored, to Ryan having to face his past attitudes and actions, the men freak out when their actions are exposed for what they truly are. The horror lies in having your true self revealed to you. It is incredibly telling how uncomfortable being watched makes the men in the movie and the men in the audience. It shows how much men are accustomed to being the watchers, not to being observed and seen. A huge point of the movie is to make men feel for a couple of hours the way women feel as we move through the world. The objects of unwanted attention, exposed, vulnerable, stressed.
Khakis and the “good guy” effect
I loved all of the set designs and costuming, there was so much wonderful attention to detail. Hopefully you specifically noticed the khaki pants motif and the casting choices. At some point all of the men are dressed in “normal guy” khaki pants and button-down shirts, appearing harmless and nice. All played by beloved male actors that we all think of with fondness and trust. Seth Cohen or Schmidtt or Dell or Bo Burnham could never do such terrible things. These are all men that we have been conditioned to believe the best of. As a result it is very hard to tell who the “bad” guys are and who the “nice” guys are. And that is because they don’t know either. They all think they are good guys. Studies show that when men are asked “Have you ever raped anyone?” they nearly all say no. But when questions are less direct, “Have you ever had sex with someone when they were drunk?” the answers start to change. No one wants to think they are the villain, and society has allowed so many other narratives to surround male toxicity. “We were just kids”, “Boys will be boys”, “She knew what this was.” PYW does a phenomenal job of showing how easy it is for men to spin narratives for each other so they can victimize others but continue feeling good about themselves. And women often get pulled into perpetuating these narratives with them. If we can blame the circumstances or the victim, then we feel good about ourselves as well. It makes us think something like that could never happen to us because we are better or smarter. So men are enabled in their predatory behavior and allowed to move on and achieve with their fragile psyches intact. While women are left trying to pick up the pieces in their wake, at times supporting and at times undermining each other.
Woman as disposable
Cassie’s death is profoundly disturbing, but it illustrates the ways that our patriarchal society treats women as disposable. It did not matter that two intelligent and capable women dropped out of medical school as long as the men were able to continue pursuing their careers. Especially when women are poor or engaging in any kind of behavior that is seen as unbecoming, their lives and mental health are valued far less than their male counterparts. Women will always be penalized harshly for any perceived mistakes, while men will be given countless benefits of the doubt. As soon as the reputation and livelihood of the male characters was threatened, it was incredibly easy for them to sacrifice women to protect themselves. They could be confident that they would be chosen over the women. The behavior of Al and Joe is so horrifying because they clearly think they will get away with it. It takes an excruciatingly long time for Al to kill Cassie (I had to mute my TV after the first few seconds), plenty of time for him to realize what he is doing and stop. But he doesn’t stop because deep down he believes that his future is more important and worthy than hers, and he believes that others will agree. The same can be said for Ryan as he blatantly lies to the detective. He can blame Cassie’s mental health knowing that people are quick to believe women to be unstable and that his status as a pediatrician will protect him with credibility and sympathy. So those “good guys” found out who they were as soon as they risked losing their status. They did not hesitate to choose themselves no matter what it cost the women around them.
The problem with catharsis
I had no idea what would happen when Cassie walked into that cabin. I think most people were expecting a violent bloodbath and were getting ready to cheer the demise of all those bad guys. But instead, we are left feeling sad and scared and on edge. And I think that is exactly the point. No revenge fantasy exploitation movie is going to tear down the patriarchy. Which is why PYW may actually be the most brilliant revenge movie ever. The revenge isn’t enacted on the villains, it’s enacted on the audience. We don’t get to walk away and forget and move on with our lives. Especially for any viewers who have knowingly or unknowingly participated in the degradation of women, you walk away reevaluating every interaction you’ve had and wondering if you really are a good guy (or girl) after all. Now we are the best friend who must keep going and try to make the world a more just and equitable place. We are not released and resolved; we are reminded of how much work we have to do. I wish Cassie didn’t die. I wish violence against women was a thing of the past. But that’s not going to happen until we start seeing ourselves and each other with unflinching honesty. Until we gaze directly at the systems and narratives that got us here, and sacrifice that which shields toxicity rather than those who are harmed by it.
Maybe I shouldn’t admit this publicly, but we watched over 220 movies this year. Most of them were older ones I’d never seen because it was a weird year for new releases. A lot of titles got pushed back to 2021, some have been on streaming for months but were just small features without much hype, some are available on VOD but cost $19.99 to rent which feels hefty. So nearly all of my top ten picks are smaller movies that you may or may not have heard of yet, because that’s what came out in 2020.
It was an also a phenomenal year for documentaries! I have a theory that the rise of reality television transformed documentary filmmaking. When I was a kid, docs were seen as pretentious snooze-fests about the migratory patterns of bees and whatnot. Things that most people could not access or find interesting. But the art form has developed by leaps and bounds, encompassing so many more topics and having far more intricate structures. No longer are they something you have to drag yourself through just so you can say you are informed, now they are engrossing and emotional and complex. So my list is heavier on documentaries than usual, but give them a chance. They might be some of the most moving content you’ll see this year.
10. Miss Juneteenth – I heard a lot about this movie during the summer when our country was talking about the holiday of Juneteenth, but we weren’t able to see it until December. This story is a much-needed makeover of the pageant genre. It follows some traditional tropes of a mother and daughter story where the mom won the pageant in the past and is pressuring her daughter to participate and win like she did. But the themes of Miss Juneteenth are far deeper and more nuanced. It is also a story about Black ownership and what it looks like to carve out something for yourself against the odds. It’s about the struggles and pressures that Black women face in trying to hold themselves and the people around them together. And it’s about generational failures and hopes and how we create and keep a legacy alive. The making of the film reflects these very themes with writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples who was given opportunities by Ava DuVernay. DuVernay (Selma, When They See Us) created a wonderful show called Queen Sugar and used that platform to give other women entrances into the film/TV industry. Many new and talented creators received a leg-up from directing and writing with DuVernay and what she carved out for herself and others. Miss Juneteenth is the product of what can happen when Women of Color are given the opportunities and support they deserve. Available to rent on demand.
9. Feels Good Man – Everything about this documentary was a mystery to me before watching. In the early 2000s cartoonist/artist Matt Furie created a chill character named Pepe the Frog. Pepe lived a normal existence on MySpace for a while, then became a huge meme on the blogging site 4Chan. Still pretty harmless. Then Pepe morphed into a major symbol for the Alt-right and Trumpism and was registered as an official hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. How did that happen?? The doc unpacks this progression with terrific detail and insight, exploring online culture and how and why it intersected with Trumpism. It also follows Matt and the impact it had on him personally and professionally, and how Pepe finally reclaimed his froggy identity. Even if you aren’t very interested in politics, this is a fascinating look at how things take on a life of their own online and how the internet shapes our lived reality. Available to rent for a small fee on demand.
8. All In: The Fight for Democracy – Like many of us, I was obsessed with the election this year. There were a couple of particularly good documentaries that unpacked big themes and factors of our political moment. This doc follows Stacy Abrams’ activism in the fall-out of the voter suppression that took place surrounding the gubernatorial race in Georgia in 2018. It also provides a succinct and helpful overview of the general history of voter suppression in America, specifically of Black and Brown voters. Available on Prime.
7. Mangrove – I really liked The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) this year and for a while it was on my top ten list. Then I saw Mangrove. Part of Steve McQueen’s film anthology on Prime, Small Axe, each tells a story about the context of his childhood which was West Indian-British communities in London in the 1970s-1980s. A very unique and personal project, they’re all free-standing stories, the only thing that connects them is the general context. Mangrove follows a true-life courtroom drama surrounding Black-British protestors who are being unjustly prosecuted over their protest. This story eloquently unpacks what it feels like to know the system is against you and to feel helpless rage in the face of it. Letitia Wright turns in an incredibly good lead performance that I believe should garner her a Best Actress nomination and shows her range outside of Marvel. (Pro tip: Turn on the English subtitles as you watch. The actors are speaking English but with thick accents and use of slang that may be hard to follow for some viewers.)
6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – I was nervous to watch this because Viola Davis’s makeup is so extreme and the pressure of it being Chadwick Boseman’s final performance made me wonder if it could live up to all our high hopes. I need not have worried. Deftly steered by Tony award-winning Broadway director George C. Wolfe the film feels like a play but still comes alive in an authentic way on screen. Based on the play by August Wilson (author of Fences), the story follows real-life Blues singer Ma Rainey as she records a few hits, including “Black Bottom.” The setting is a Chicago recording studio where Ma and her all-Black band try to work with each other and navigate the relationship between them and the all-White management. It is a powerful exploration of the power dynamics involved in creating Black art, and the impact it has on Black artists when those power dynamics are heavily unequal. With both Davis and Boseman turning in wonderful performances, I hope this will get significant awards attention. Available to stream on Netflix.
5. Dick Johnson is Dead – No movie has affected me so emotionally this year as this documentary. On the surface it’s a quirky doc made by a daughter whose father is dying and the family is trying to get used to the idea of him being gone by filming dramatic and humorous staged deaths. But more broadly it’s about memory and loss and how to say goodbye. It is also just the most heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of a loving and emotionally present father who would do anything for the daughter he loves. If you have lost someone close to you then be warned that this could be extremely emotional to watch. But emotions aren’t always bad. Available on Netflix.
4. Driveways – We almost missed this one, a very indie and small but beautiful film about a mother and her socially anxious 9-year-old son who come to clean out her older sister’s home after she dies. The sister had lived next door to an elderly man living alone after his wife died, played with a kind authenticity by Brian Dennehy in his final performance before his death this year. The synopsis sounds heavy and perhaps boring, but the film has a wonderfully gentle and sweet quality that winsomely draws you in. And the 9-year-old, played heartrendingly by newcomer Lucas Jaye will have you rooting for him every step of the way. Available on demand for a small rental fee.
3. Minari – Maybe it’s because we now live 20 minutes from the border of Arkansas, but this film about a Korean immigrant family living in rural Arkansas in the 1980s was resonant. A quiet and empathic look at family dynamics and the costs of chasing a dream. Ivan wrote more about the film and the themes of manhood and fatherhood. Unfortunately, it’s not slated for wide release until February (we saw it at the Indie Memphis Film Festival at the drive-in) so keep an eye out for it in early 2021.
2. The Assistant – This is one that unfortunately got lost for most people during the summer. Streaming on Hulu and led by the wonderful Julia Garner, this is a subtle story of being a young woman trying to work in an exploitative environment. There are plenty of stories about women being harassed in the workplace, but this was the first I’ve seen about the female bystanders who are co-opted into the oppression by their presence in the organization, and who must wrestle with their role in changing or engaging in the system. Not all abuse is direct, some happens by leveraging and pressuring you to maintain “how things are.” Garner perfectly captures confusion, powerlessness, anger, and tense observation. This is a thorough exploration of the ripple effects of harassment and exploitation without needing to depict the abuse itself.
1.The Sound of Metal – Available on Prime, this is a story of a musician who suddenly loses his hearing. Featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Riz Ahmed, this movie immerses you in what this experience would be like. The sound design is incredibly creative without being dominant and weaves between the world of sound and hearing loss. This story also does a wonderful job of elevating and honoring the deaf community. It depicts the struggle and identity crisis that would accompany such an abrupt loss but does so in a way that highlights the dignity and autonomy of those who are deaf. It is emotional, powerful, compassionate, and informed.
Honorable Mention Documentaries
Athlete A – An incredibly important and well-told doc about USA Gymnastics and the abuses of Larry Nassar. This is essential viewing for anyone who has or works with kids. It is survivor-focused and uncovers his abuse without retraumatizing the viewers. You will be horrified by the system that protected him but inspired by the many women who stood against him to tell the truth together. Available on Netflix.
John Lewis: Good Trouble – We lost some greats this year, and John Lewis tops that list. He was a remarkable man who started out as a teenager but took every opportunity in front of him to advocate for justice and act in the hope that things could be better than they were. He became a giant through consistent acts of faith and bravery and was constantly motivated by his belief in God and the support of the community of faith. This will inspire you with everything that he accomplished and challenge you to see where you can follow his example. Now available on HBOMax.
The Painter and the Thief – A crazy and powerful story about the transforming power of compassion and love and choosing to see someone at their best even when they are at their worst. It has a very poignant and raw exploration of addiction that’s ultimately hopeful but emotional so be aware. See Ivan’s list for more info, available to stream on Hulu.
Boy’s State – At times scary and at times inspiring, this doc follows teenage boys in Texas as they create their own form of government. Ivan wrote about this here, and I also recommend it. Available on Apple+
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How have you been feeling about politics lately? Fearful? Hopeful? Angry? Energetic? How many times in the last four years have you heard some version of, “America is more divided than it has ever been”? If this very common sentiment is true, and has been for a while, then perhaps the only way to fix it is to do something different. What do we do differently, though, and whose responsibility is it to be different? It’s all too easy to assume that the next generation will bring change, but if Apple’s new documentary Boys State is a signpost of what’s to come, we may want to create a little more urgency in the here and now.
Boys State, from filmmakers Amanda McBain and Jesse Moss, won the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and documents the 2018 Texas Boys State program. Every year in every state the American Legion runs a leadership development experience for male and female high school juniors. The goal of the program is to educate young people on civic engagement and often includes perks like college credit or valuable college scholarships. The film opens highlighting some of the program’s more infamous alumni like Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Rush Limbaugh. Each young person is sponsored by their local Legion and are usually the sole representative of their high school. Following the leaders of the youth of our nation, what an incredible opportunity to see what they stand for and how they will engage in the political process! The issue is, once this week at the Texas state capitol begins to unfold, it’s not that different from what we see on our national political stage.
Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the survivors of the Parkland shooting standing behind podiums or Greta Thunberg addressing the world’s leaders, but the displays at this Boys State more resembles the worst comment threads on Facebook. Are abortion and gun control the most pressing concerns on the average 17-year-old conservative Texan? The answer, from the subjects themselves, is no, but it’s what they think they’re supposed to talk about. They may not even be able to tell you why, but they definitely think it will make them successful, popular, and, more importantly, elected. One young man even goes as far to admit that he believes the exact opposite of what he said in a debate because he knows it’s what people want to hear. They’re all getting ready to enter college or the workforce. Many probably do think often about the world they’re inheriting. Some of them probably have challenging family lives rife with relational and economic obstacles. Other’s minds are filled with dreams of tricked-out pickup trucks and queries as to who among them can do the most pushups. But you ask them to talk about politics and the only place their mind can go is the 2nd Amendment.
In this environment it’s hard not to notice the outliers. In the documentary, it is a young man named Steven who enters the narrative in his Beto t-shirt telling stories of his conversion to the political sphere by Bernie Sanders. Later we find out that Steven helped stage the “March For Our Lives” march in Houston. It’s not his progressivism that makes Steven different, though. He also knows in order to win the coveted highest office of Boys State Governor, he must reach across the aisle. When asked the primary role of a politician, Steven answers “public service.” He says again and again in his speeches, and during his quest to get the signatures needed to be on the ticket, that governing means he represents everyone, not just those who agree with him. The film spends a lot of time watching Steven go conversation to conversation, handshake to handshake, lunch to lunch, asking the same question, “What do you care about?” He’s not interested in changing his convictions to win, he wants to build a representative government.
The doc might look upon Steven with a tinge of partiality, but what if all of the other boys acted this way? What might be different about the platforms they produce or the races they run? The policies and campaigns end up looking all too familiar, though. There are guys who jump to impeachment at the slightest whiff of disagreement while others attempt a full-blown Texas secession just to be cool (the previous year’s Boys State voted to succeed and made headlines). There’s mudslinging, social media smear campaigns, and petty or goofy congressional resolutions.
If we are expecting the next generation to be different, then one Steven in a sea of 1,100 future politicians aren’t great odds. We may need to take some responsibility for what this next generation is absorbing. Think about someone like John Lewis who did have the burden of change thrust upon his shoulders at a young age, but he clung to his elders (though many weren’t much older) for an example. Now how many young people will vote for the first time in 2020 because they learned of his legacy as the world eulogized him? Lewis is encouraging more Americans from the grave than many who currently hold office. “My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation,” Lewis said in front of the crowd at the March on Washington in 1963. Boys State helps us see that we simply cannot wait to see what progress the next generation will bring or how they’ll be different. We have to be different right now or they never will be.
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.
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.
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?
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?