movie review

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.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Trials and Tribulations

THE EXTRAORDINARY film Leviathan takes place in a tiny coastal town on the other side of the world, but it relates to all our dreams and fears.

A man is tormented by bureaucracy, as the authorities try to take his house. He has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and a very unhealthy one with his partner. He works on people’s cars, does favors for people who ask him, and tries to raise his son as best he can. And he’s caught between the wheels of historic oppression and emerging forms.

Leviathan, this year’s Russian nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a work of uncommon cinematic bravery, for the people who made it take on the corruption of their current political masters. Vladimir Putin appears briefly, as a portrait looming over the office of the mayor trying to take our hero’s house. But the graft, selfishness, and cruelty of Putin’s imperial reign are palpably present in the mayor, who has been fighting the householder for years to get his property, for reasons that owe more than a little to the legacy of Soviet-era patriotic ideology. Communism has been replaced by a heady mix of nationalistic pride and elitism religion, whose boundaries are enforced with no mercy. Pussy Riot’s punk prayer gets a mention in a priest’s litany of things that are undermining Mother Russia. It’s the same old story, there and everywhere—keep the nation pure, confuse spirit and law, and wreck your own life by denying the glories of human diversity.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Shooting in a Moral Vacuum

CLINT EASTWOOD has made films about the sorrow and repeating pointlessness of war, as seen through the eyes of both aggressor and aggressed-against, with empathic performances and unbearably moving impact. His American Sniper, about the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, bloodied in Iraq and struggling at home, is not one of those films. At best it’s a valuable character study of a confused warrior, revealing the traumatic effect of his service. At worst it’s a jingoistic and xenophobic attempt to put varnish on a terrible national response to the horror of 9/11, a response that became a self-inflicted wound creating untold collateral damage.

A decade ago, Eastwood made Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, which saw World War II soldiers as propaganda fodder and had the moral imagination to show both sides as courageous and broken without denying the difference between attacker and defender. These films are respectful and thoughtful, but American Sniper is arguably a work born in vengeance. Its reception (becoming one of the biggest January box office weekends ever, and a quick right-wing favorite) is part of the failure to deal in an integrated way with the wounds of 9/11, or to even begin to face the reality of the war in Iraq: an imperial conquest using the cover of national trauma as a justification.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Moved, or Moved to Act?

FOR TWO YEARS in a row we have seen significant films about oppression and struggle nurture public consciousness. Selma and 12 Years a Slave invite us to reimagine iconic moments closer than we usually think, their protagonists more like us. Slavery had not been portrayed in such visceral fashion in a mainstream film before 12 Years. Before Selma, images of Martin Luther King Jr. had never quite transcended the almost superhuman projections that accrue from his martyrdom and decades of being co-opted by cultural mavens from Apple to Glenn Beck.

These films create new benchmarks for the mainstream depiction of black history, black struggle, and wider perceptions. But entertaining portrayals of inspiration contain a powerfully dangerous substance that needs to be handled with care. The cathartic tears shed at a film about other people’s suffering and heroism can also be a narcotic, implying that the work has been done. Think of all the talk about freedom struggles after Braveheart, or challenging the principalities and powers after The Matrix. The problem was, most of it was just that. Talk.

Countercultural critic Armond White suggests that the danger of such films is that viewers “are encouraged to profess an inheritance they do not earn”—watching Selma is not the same thing as participation in social struggle. This is a problem, not just for the personal integrity of audiences, but for the world, because feeling something is not the same thing as doing something. Schindler’s List swept the Oscars in 1994, where speeches invoked the plea that “never again” should genocide be permitted. It was only days before the Rwandan genocide began.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

A Year of Great Films

THIS PAST MOVIE year I’ve been delighted by, among other things, nonviolent resolutions, a guy talking in a car, an Irish priest trying to do the right thing, and a five-dimensional bookcase. Here’s my list of the 10 best films of 2014 (many more are worthy, but 10 are all that will fit).

10. Pride. A delightful and stirring celebration of marginalized people turning their woundedness into helping others, as LGBTQ activists support the Thatcher-era British coal miners’ strike.

9. The Lego Movie. This turned out to be both the most unpredictably fun and one of the wisest films of the year. A brilliant critique of consumerism and political tyranny, with an ending that inverts the myth of redemptive violence.

8. Love Is Strange. A lovely, mournful romance, as a couple forced apart by prejudice teaches us the meaning of commitment. John Lithgow soars.

7. Interstellar. Extravagant adventure cinema, misunderstood as sentimental. Looked at more closely, the exploration of time is an intelligent grappling with not just how things work, but what God might be—a transcendently loving consciousness wooing us into a rescued future.

6. Ida. A beautiful, aching film about the post-Holocaust transitional generation and the meaning of religion.

5. Birdman. Crazy and deep, Michael Keaton’s finest hour, and a wild ride into the soul of an artist: The vocation that causes its stewards to fly, or crash, or fly while crashing.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

A Better Kind of Good

TOOTSIE, the 1982 Dustin Hoffman comedy in which a failing actor cross-dresses to win a part on a soap opera, is a lovely, problematic film (and just released in an excellent home edition from www.criterion.com). It’s controversial in some quarters for playing the idea of a man dressing as a woman for laughs: The joke is on any male-bodied person who challenges macho stereotypes. As when The Da Vinci Code attracted criticism for portraying a character with albinism as an insane assassin, like almost every other comparable movie has treated albinism, Tootsie represents a time when the extent of mainstream cinema’s engagement with what it thought constituted “trans” was to portray cross-dressing for laughs. But a cisgender straight character dressing up has little or nothing to do with the real stories of the “T” in LGBTQ.

Cinematic LGBTQ characters seem to evolve one step forward and a half back—beginning with their invisibility, then moving through psychopathy (the “evil queer” of Hitchcock’s Rope still shows up in The Lion King and The Avengers); martyrdom (Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain); safe best friends (The Prince of Tides and My Best Friend’s Wedding); and eventually redemption (Milk, the wonderful recent Pride). The evolution continues: George Carlin’s gay best friend caricature in The Prince of Tides was in good faith, but would not pass muster today. We’re shaking off the idea that LGBTQ characters can only be suffering or sassy.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

'Rich Hill' Gives a Voice to Rural Missouri

Andrew peers out at the Missouri countryside from the back of a truck.

“God has to be busy with everyone else. And hopefully he will come into my life. I hope it happens. It’s going to break my heart if it don’t.”

So says Andrew, one of the three teenage subjects of the documentary Rich Hill, currently playing in theaters across the country. While film refrains from any sermonizing on poverty, or any direct call to action from its audience, it’s mighty hard for socially minded Christians to hear these words and not feel compelled to react. Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo’s documentary is an unflinching portrait of poverty in rural America, and its sympathetic portrayals give heartbreaking examples of neighbors in need. 

The film follows a year in the lives of three boys: Andrew, Harley, and Appachey. They don’t know each other, but they have much in common. Besides living in the small town of Rich Hill, Mo., all three come from troubled families living well below the poverty line. Andrew is the most hopeful of the group. He’s got a family he loves, and a father who means well, but whose unrealistic dreams keep the family moving from place to place and dodging unpaid bills. Thirteen-year-old Appachey and 15-year-old Harley, however, come from darker situations. Harley is a victim of sexual abuse (his mother is in jail for attempting to kill the man responsible), while Appachey’s violent behavioral issues are simply too much to handle for his single mom, overwhelmed with his siblings and a dilapidated house filled to the rafters with junk.

First Look — 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'

Dave M. Benett/WireImage/ Getty Images

Cast attend the Royal Film Performance of 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' on Dec. 12.Dave M. Benett/WireImage

This will be a night to remember! 

On Monday, I had the opportunity of attending an advance screening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with a good childhood friend of mine. I sat in my favorite movie-watching seat (a few rows back and dead center), munching on free popcorn and drinks provided by a fellow moviegoer who wanted nothing more than to ensure that his entire row in the theater was happy and well-fed (not too unlike a Hobbit, really).

Just before the lights dimmed, I remember thinking how perfect the whole moment was. However, as exciting and as wonderful as those final moments of anticipation were, I also couldn’t help but wonder if I might be setting my expectations too high for the film that was about to come.

It turns out I needn’t have worried.

Subscribe