Film

Do Evangelicals Worship the Same God?

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“One of the things I really see happening is as Christians in America, evangelicals are losing their cultural dominance, and I see a lot of fear associated with that. I see a lot of anger. I guess that’s almost like a god of dominance,” Midgett said. “And that’s in contrast to the god of suffering, the god who comes as a servant to die for us. Those two things are really two completely different paradigms.”

The Faith, and Fear, of 'Midnight Special'

Screenshot of 'Midnight Special' trailer/YouTube

Taken purely as entertainment, Jeff Nichols’ film Midnight Special is a smart, tersely constructed sci-fi adventure in the vein of classics such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That it aspires to those heights alone (and it comes very close) makes it worth seeing. But what makes Midnight Special great is that it’s also a film about belief, or the desire to believe — one that advocates for sacrificial love over fear and control, and is content with asking more questions than it answers.

Mocking Pretentious Power

Charlie Chaplin asThe Great Dictator
Charlie Chaplin as The Great Dictator.

EXTRAORDINARY British actor Mark Rylance has a noble theatrical reputation but has only recently found prominence in movies, most notably in the wonderful Steven Spielberg Cold War film Bridge of Spies, for which he recently won the best supporting actor Oscar. Speaking of Spielberg, Rylance made a beautiful point: “Unlike some of the leaders we’re being presented with these days, he leads with such love that he’s surrounded by masters in every craft.” This gentle wisdom—that good leaders attract good teams—echoes the message of Bridge of Spies, which illuminates the possibility of talking to each other across boundaries of militancy, misunderstanding, and fear. It is an invitation to loving leadership, criticizing a mutually destructive strategy by practicing something better.

Amid the noise of “some of the leaders we’re being presented with these days,” I’ve been indulging in a little comfort-watching, asking Charlie Chaplin to help me discern a way through. Chaplin’s brave, hilarious, and deeply moving film The Great Dictator does to authoritarianism what C.S. Lewis says the devil cannot tolerate: It mocks evil, revealing its pretensions. Chaplin’s courage has rarely been matched. Today his mantle may be held by Sacha Baron Cohen, whose trilogy of pride-puncturing, diversity-affirming films, Borat, Brüno, and especially The Dictator, is brave enough to challenge prejudice when it’s not safe to do so. These three are in the same tradition as Dr. Strangelove, In the Loop, Four Lions, Dave, and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, which make us laugh at the absurdity of political control, taking away some of its power.

If comic portrayals of bad leadership are comforting, serious cinematic explorations of bad leadership might help us learn how to avoid it. Nixon, Downfall, the Godfather trilogy, Citizen Kane, The Apostle, Beasts of No Nation, The Act of Killing, Leviathan, and There Will Be Blood all present warnings of what happens when leaders are self-interested, unaccountable to an emotionally mature community, and not mentored in tending to their inner lives.

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Halfway to Brilliant

The Revenant
The Revenant

WATCHING THE much-awarded film The Revenant is an ordeal, but its director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s films have such energy and compassion that I hoped the payoff would be worth the stretch. Iñárritu’s early films Amores Perros and 21 Grams rehumanize characters who make bad choices, with an attention to scale that might be described as Napoleonic.

The Revenant is the loosely historical tale of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an early 19th century fur trapper left by his companions for dead after a bear attack, agonizing his way to track his betrayer (Tom Hardy) through some of the most frozen wilderness in cinema. The commitment of DiCaprio and Hardy has been rightly applauded—this is a cold and exhausting way to make a film. And the craft is monumental—arrows seem to land on the audience, the bear attack is terrifying, the camera hardly ever stops moving. But the exploration of the futility of revenge at the heart of this story is confused.

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Review: '13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi'

In marketing the film, Bay and the real-life men he portrays have stated that 13 Hours is not a political film. The goal, they say, is simply to show what happened, as it happened, and to recognize the courage and sacrifice of the people on the ground that day.

But it takes a more nuanced filmmaker than Bay (the creator of Bad Boys, Armageddon, and the Transformers films) to take an inherently political story like this one and truly make it free from bias. While 13 Hours doesn’t specifically call anyone out, or criticize (or endorse) the decisions of any particular leader or party, Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan mistake those qualities as the only ones required to make the film “non-political.”

#OscarsSoWhite, and More Depressing News from This Year's Oscar Nominations

Featureflash / Shutterstock.com
Image via Featureflash / Shutterstock.com

For the second year in a row, every Academy nominee in an acting category is white.

Forget Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. Or Michael B. Jordan in Creed. Or Bernicio Del Toro in Sicario. Or Will Smith in Concussion.

The 93% White, 76% Male Academy wasn't interested.

Straight Outta' Compton was also lauded as a potential best picture nominee, but was only nominated for Best Original Screenplay, which was written by two white writers. Similarly, only Sylvester Stallone was nominated for Creed, a film with a black lead actor and a black director.

The Best of 2015

Shaun the Sheep
Shaun the Sheep

HERE ARE my picks for the best films of 2015. Honorable mentions for Creed’s operatic dignity and subtle advocacy of racial reconciliation; The Forbidden Room’s unabashed creative inspiration; Mad Max: Fury Road for being a pro-feminist action film; Spectre for James Bond going beyond an eye for an eye; Grandma, Lily Tomlin’s crowning achievement as an actor embodying that it’s okay to be different; and Room, part-thriller, part-existential exploration, honest about trauma and the lengths love will go to protect the vulnerable.

10. Shaun the Sheep. A delightfully inclusive, breathtakingly crafted story about humans, animals, and nature as one family. With frenetic comedy and an open heart, it honors the marginalized, critiques superficiality, and even lets the villain live to learn his lesson.

9. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. An indie comedy-drama that avoids cliché and makes heroes out of nerds.

8. Beasts of No Nation. Evoking Apocalypse Now, a harrowing story of child soldiers, the legacy of colonialism, and how violence is transmitted from one generation to the next.

7. Clouds of Sils Maria. A stark reflection on identity and the conversation each of us has with the voice(s) in our head. Olivier Assayas’ film asks if we are living from the inside out or for external reward.

6. Brooklyn. A poetic and compassionate painting of the paradox of finding home as an immigrant.

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'Carol' and How Identity Is Bound Up With Relationship

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Director Haynes and writer Phyllis Nagy (working from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt) understand that cinema, just like all forms of storytelling, is a window into someone else’s personal life. They tell the story of Therese and Carol’s relationship in such exquisitely realized detail, down even to the smallest carpet-fiber, that you almost feel as if you’re there yourself. When the world the characters inhabit feels so real, their experiences and emotions feel real, too — helped in large part by perfectly-pitched performances by Blanchett and Mara.

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