Film

Small Screen, Great Drama

IT’S A TRUISM to say that television is outpacing cinema for entertainment quality and depth of exploration. Since The Wire appeared a decade ago, studios have been realizing that there is an audience for long-form storytelling that is willing to think.

Recently I’ve been struck by the set-in-the-’80s espionage thriller The Americans, the deeply haunting police procedural True Detective, the hilarious pathos of Louie and Veep, and the sly, shocking Hannibal, a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs: All hugely entertaining, dramatically credible, and challenging both as works that require sustained attention and in terms of what they say about life. The Americans is really an exploration of marriage and cultural identity wrapped up in Cold War cloaks-and-daggers; True Detective is a lament for the broken parts of America, and an affirmation that friendship endures above almost everything else; and Hannibal is a postmodern delving into Dante’s Inferno, looking at the underbelly of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s assertion that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

What’s most exciting is that it’s now considered viable to make drama that actually asks real questions about life and is prepared not to answer them pat. Along with the vast amount of social media conversation about these works, what we have is more akin to ancient forms of public entertainment that required a kind of audience participation—theatrical catharsis meeting gathered conversation to produce a community hermeneutic. When we talk about TV and cinema, we’re talking about ourselves.

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REVIEW: HBO's The Leftovers, a Grim Take on the Limits of Grief and Faith

“The Leftovers” is an American television series that premiered on HBO in June. Photo court. Paul Schiraldi, HBO/Warner Brothers

HBO’s “The Leftovers” is the feel-good series of the summer, if your summer revolves around root canals and recreational waterboarding.

Indeed, it’s pretty grim stuff — but quite engrossing and worth your time, thanks to intense performances by Justin Theroux and Christopher Eccleston, and the way creators Tom Perrotta, who wrote the book on which the series is based, and Damon Lindelof, best known for screwing up the end of “Lost,” unflinchingly tackle the nature of grief and the limits of faith.

Can you call it an apocalypse if you can still get a decent bagel afterwards? It’s three years after what has been termed the Sudden Departure, when 2 percent of the world’s population — Christians, Jews, Muslims, straight, gay, white, black, brown, and Gary Busey — suddenly disappeared.

'Punk Jews' Highlights Judaism's 'Myriad Flavors'

"Here's how you bring light into the world," says a scruffy-bearded man in shirtsleeves and a knit cap on a Brooklyn rooftop. "First, you get up in the morning and you scream!" His mischievous grin melts into something more ethereally content as he screams. At length.

He's had plenty of practice screaming — he does it for a living.

The man is Yishai Romanoff, lead singer of the hassidic punk band Moshiach Oi and one of the half-dozen artists, activists, and culture-makers profiled in the documentary Punk Jews.

The phrase can seem like an oxymoron: The essence of punk is to challenge inherited convention, yet adherence to rich traditions of convention is the common through-line of all of Judaism's myriad flavors.

Maleficent the Feminist? A Cautionary Tale

Image via Maleficent Facebook page

Image via Maleficent Facebook page

If the new Disney Studios movie Maleficent is, as some are saying, a feminist attempt to redeem images of weak and powerless women in fairy tales, then it is a cautionary tale. Feminism has always been its own worst enemy when it strives to create women in the image of men rather than encourage women to abandon rivalry with men and seek their flourishing elsewhere. This is a story about the redemptive power of a mother’s love. I wonder how many feminists will embrace that message?

Viewing Community

THERE ARE apparently 2,000 film festivals around the world, so the format of red carpet arrivals, gala screenings, and Q&A sessions that appear all but scripted in advance have become well and truly entrenched. The best festivals recognize that their purpose is to cast a spell over filmgoers and filmmakers alike, inviting them into a spacious place where the heart of the dream that led to the film being made and the audience’s reason for watching it can beat in a community of people who thirst for art that gives life. Unsurprisingly, the biggest festivals find it hardest to pull this off—asking for contemplative mutuality at Cannes or Sundance is like looking for a Buddhist tea garden at Disney World.

Yet film festivals can be places where small is indeed beautiful. It’s only the movies that need to be big—or at least their capacity to alchemize with the viewer’s autobiographical narrative. The trappings of VIP lounges, paparazzi, and celebrity gossip are just that: They trap the aesthetic air, creating distance between people and art. Smaller festivals may be more capable of nurturing something that really feels like community.

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In Remembrance: Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, public domain; illustration by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Maya Angelou, public domain; illustration by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

When I heard the news I wept.

“Renowned Poet and Author Maya Angelou Dies at 86,” read the NBC News headline.

My fruitless effort to hold back tears was proven vain as I made my way into the bowels of a D.C. Metro station — tears streaming. I felt silly.

“Why am I crying,” I thought. “I didn’t know Maya Angelou.” I met her once, but she wasn’t family or a close friend, yet I was reacting with the same profound sense of loss, as if my own beloved great grandmother had passed?

The New York Times called her a “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South” in the headline that announced Ms. Angelou’s death this morning. But for nearly four decades Dr. Maya Angelou served as a kind of great grandmother of the African-American community — a bridge between the ancestors and us.

Antonio Banderas May Be Cast as Pope Francis in Biopic

Antonio Banderas at a news conference during the 62nd Berlin Film Festival on Feb. 15, 2012. Photo:cinemafestival / Shutterstock

Spanish heartthrob Antonio Banderas may be cast in the role of Pope Francis in the first feature film to be made on the life of the Argentine pontiff.

Italian director Daniele Luchetti plans to make the $12 million Spanish language film, titled “Call Me Francesco,” with producer Pietro Valsecchi, who has made some of Italy’s highest-grossing movies.

Valsecchi’s Rome-based production house, Taodue Film, confirmed the news Wednesday, and a spokeswoman said the company was looking to shoot the film in various locations, including Argentina and Italy.

Banderas is one of the top Spanish-speaking actors being considered to play the lead role, she told Religion News Service.

Security State Superheroes

THE CLASSIC COMIC book hero is given a post-WikiLeaks spin in the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He realizes that he is being asked to participate in the extrajudicial killing of people whom a magic formula has decided might threaten the established order in the future. It’s intriguing that even Nick Fury, one of Captain America’s “bosses” at the superhero super-agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (lines of authority are never particularly clear when super powers are in play), almost goes along with this.

To build a new world, sometimes you have to tear the old one down, says character Alexander Pierce, played by Robert Redford in a role that both echoes and inverts the ones he often took in the ’70s—where, in films such as All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, he fought the system from within for good. This time Redford’s having fun as a bad guy, while Captain America (aka Steve Rogers) is the golden boy flirting with the audience and inviting us into his subversive politics (indeed the first words he speaks—the first words of the movie—are “on your left”).

So The Winter Soldier is striving for far more than your typical comic book movie and has been clearly influenced by the Dark Knighttrilogy in aiming for philosophical depth. There are interesting ideas here—S.H.I.E.L.D. being part of the problem and the character Winter Soldier’s name evoking the 1972 documentary Winter Soldier about Vietnam vets expressing regret. There are fun bits of business with Steve Rogers’ difficulties in adjusting to the contemporary world (such as the dawning reality that Star Wars andStar Trek are different things). And there’s real character development, especially in Rogers’ interactions with the Black Widow.

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A Matter of Misinformation

Via 'A Matter of Faith' website, amatteroffaithmovie.com

Via 'A Matter of Faith' website, amatteroffaithmovie.com

In just the latest evidence that a certain subset of conservative evangelical Christians really has no interest in occupying the real world with the rest of us, the trailer for a new movie called A Matter of Faith has hit the Internet.

The film follows the travails of a Christian father, who — horrified by the fact that his daughter’s college teaches the theory of evolution as a fact (gasp!) — challenges the villainous biology professor to a public debate that will no doubt settle the matter once and for all.

If this premise sounds strangely familiar, it could be that you’re remembering God’s Not Dead, a film released in March, in which a Christian student who — horrified by the fact that his philosophy professor is a committed atheist — challenges the dastardly nonbeliever to a debate on the existence of God that, no doubt, settled the matter once and for all.

(I’m told that the new movie was called Christians vs. the Straw Man II: This Time It’s Personal throughout production, before filmmakers decided to rename it A Matter of Faith.)

The similarities between the two pictures don’t stop there.

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