Film

Projecting Possibility

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THE FIRST-EVER Movies and Meaning festival recently took place in New Mexico, bringing 250 people together to experience the possibilities of the most dream-like art form for making the world better. I was privileged to host the festival, which featured a huge screen, a contemplative audience, around a dozen films, and magnificent assistance from the voices of Richard Rohr and slam poet Jessica Helen Lopez. It was a dream come true after a lifetime of loving cinema and being compelled by the idea that art can create change.

Movies and Meaning wants to challenge how movies rarely get the chance to breathe in multiplexes or be engaged with rather than merely noticed, and to promote and facilitate better conversations about, and responses to, cinema—and all art, really. It was a happy surprise that the key word that emerged from the festival was “empathy,” a concept that Rohr told us didn’t even have a name until just about 100 years ago. There’s an intriguing irony there, because cinema itself isn’t much older, and one of cinema’s most important innovations is the experience of observing stories about strangers told in a way that maximized the possibilities of actually seeing them.

What we empathized with at Movies and Meaning was what happens when we reframe our stories as ones in which human beings are capable of cooperating to heal wounds and make life better.

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What ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ Ignore About War

Screenshot from 'Little Boy' trailer/YouTube

Screenshot from 'Little Boy' trailer/YouTube

The decision to focus just on the Christian relationships takes away from the complex and morally grey issues surrounding war. As a younger viewer, I left the film with a series of questions: did the directors think the U.S. intervention in Vietnam was justified? Should we have left at an earlier time? How do we deal with the ethical atrocities that were committed by U.S. forces, such as the use of napalm?

While Little Boy and Faith of Our Fathers are films made by different teams and creators with different interests, they both reflect an intrinsic tendency in the Christian film industry to "clean things up." Both films ignore the darker moral implications of the symbols they choose. While the filmmakers clearly want to remember the people who fought in these wars, their attempts at cleaning up history so that it’s family friendly doesn’t do the veterans the justice they deserve.

Reality TV’s ‘The Briefcase’ Looks at Line Between Need, Greed

Photo courtesy of ©2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc / RNS

The Wylie family from Rio Vista, Texas. Photo courtesy of ©2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc / RNS

If a briefcase of money fell in your lap, would you keep it, share it, or give it all away?

The new reality show The Briefcase is asking that question. But viewers and ethicists are asking more:

How could CBS put this on the air? Are there better ways to address the financial challenges of the middle class?

The hourlong show, which airs its fourth episode June 17, introduces two families each episode with the struggles of bills and not enough money coming in to achieve all their goals — whether dealing with a lost job, medical bills, or the potential costs of in vitro fertilization.

'Jurassic World' and the Problem with Hollywood Reboots

Image via Jurassic Park on Facebook

Image via Jurassic Park on Facebook

Among the big releases this summer, two films offer new installments of iconic franchises. One, Mad Max: Fury Road is a master class in how to do it right. Made as a labor of love, not a studio cash-grab, it uses a familiar setting and hero to explore new artistic territory, and still maintains an insanely entertaining level of action.

The other is Jurassic World.

The Ultimate Threat

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON asks what happens when you give a computer the ability to think for itself. To which we could add, what happens when you make a science fiction film that assumes the audience can think for itself?

Sadly, in the case of Age of Ultron, writer-director Joss Whedon’s serious attempt to make a smart blockbuster collides with corporate cookie-cutting and the belief that stockings are best overstuffed, even if what’s in them is just cotton wool or dead weight. Too much is going on, and not all of it is good. Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, and the other guy with the arrows are still looking for a magical object, but when they find it we’re none the wiser about what it’s for. Bad guys still threaten the safety of the world, and the Avengers still think that only maximum force can secure a result.

So Tony Stark builds Ultron, a supercomputer with a body—the super-est of supercomputers, to be sure—whose job will be to “protect the earth” and end violence. I think. I’m not being snarky—the film is so overpaced that it mostly misses the opportunity to nurture plot points or emotional beats.

One exception is a funny sequence in which the team tries to lift Thor’s hammer, revealing their personalities in a competition between alpha (and omega) males—and Scarlett Johansson. Here Whedon (witty, politically intelligent) gets to be Whedon, and it’s clear that there was a more interesting movie intended behind, and even trying to break free from, this one.

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July 2015
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'Good Kill' Aims Deep, But Only Skims Surface

Screenshot from 'Good Kill' trailer.

Screenshot from 'Good Kill' trailer.

Addressing moral injury in film is important. Addressing pertinent political issues like drone warfare is also important. But Good Kill doesn’t say anything an editorial wouldn’t, and takes about three times as long to say it. With this film, Andrew Niccol tries to create a sense of disassociation similar to what his drone pilot protagonist would feel. Sadly, the end isn’t compelling enough to justify the means. Good Kill ends up being a ponderous slog, a film that wants to be a conversation-starter but doesn’t introduce any new or interesting entry points into that conversation.

The Cheery Optimism of 'Tomorrowland'

Screenshot from 'Tomorrowland' trailer.

Screenshot from 'Tomorrowland' trailer.

It’s both ironic and appropriate that the new Disney film Tomorrowland is being released exactly a week after Mad Max: Fury Road. The new film from director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) is the polar opposite of post-apocalyptic. It’s a film that’s hugely optimistic about the future, and our ability to fix the world’s problems through good old-fashioned ingenuity. The movie occasionally veers towards overly naïve, and its internal logic doesn’t always work. But despite some problems, it remains a refreshing alternative to a summer movie season that’s otherwise been filled with darker worldviews.

The film starts not with a jump forward, but backward, to the 1967 World’s Fair, where boy genius Frank Walker arrives with a homemade jetpack and hopes of winning an inventing competition. There Frank is befriended by a mysterious girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who takes him to the magical world of Tomorrowland, a colorful futuristic place full of advanced discoveries and retro-space age design.

The Redemption of Don Draper

Photo via Michael Yarish / AMC / RNS

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in “Mad Men.” Photo via Michael Yarish / AMC / RNS

Mad Men transported us to the pivotal decade of the 1960s and dealt deliberately with the advent of Madison Avenue and the heyday of the advertising industry. This was the time in our nation’s history when our materialistic fates were sealed: We became a people defined by things, things produced in mass quantities to feed an insatiable cultural appetite. And that appetite was fueled by advertising.

Don Draper, the quintessential ad man, describes advertising early on in the series as “selling happiness.” In the boardroom, Don repeatedly does exactly that — creating scenarios that attach emotional, if not transcendental, value to otherwise common products and services. He brings his clients to tears or laughter or both, and opens their wallets besides. Deals are closed, Clio Awards are won.

The Sneaky Progressivism of 'Mad Max: Fury Road'

Screenshot from 'Mad Max: Fury Road' trailer.

Screenshot from 'Mad Max: Fury Road' trailer.

But this isn’t just a movie about brooding wanderers and spectacular car crashes. The women of Fury Road are the ones who get most of the attention, and who are undeniably the heroes of the film. They are tough, and know how to take care of themselves, but also represent their world’s best hope for change. The film frequently juxtaposes the difference between their compassionate, renewal-focused instincts, and Immortan Joe’s destructive excess.

Maria and the Rabbi

IT’S THE 50TH anniversary of The Sound of Music. I never thought I’d write about it here, but someone recently offered me the kind of gentle admonishment that Maria might have given to the von Trapp children. Maria is usually right, and my friend is too. One of the wisest film critics I know, a man dedicated to contemplation and activism and who doesn’t shy away from the more challenging edges of cinema, still considers it his favorite film.

Don’t get me wrong— it’s not the greatest movie he’s ever seen (that’s usually an entirely different category to “favorite”). But The Sound of Music did something unique for my friend—it showed him that there was a bigger world out there. My friend was suffering constant night terrors. When The Sound of Music finally showed up in his town, it was the first film ever to be approved by the local religious authorities. He felt safe to watch it (as did many other townsfolk— it played at their local theater for six years without a break); it became a bath for his soul. The scale, the energy, the sheer heart seemed to leap off the screen. The night terrors stopped, and never came back. He says he’s seen it nearly 60 times in the last 50 years. Lest we forget, the story is one of hope trumping almost unimaginable odds.

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