2012

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I was, of all places, in Political Science class. It was November 8th, 2016, and the three and a half hour lecture that night consisted of watching different news channels. Our professor had the familiar news outlets projected on the whiteboard, on the computer, and he allowed the students to pull up our phones to follow along. What I haven’t forgotten are the reactions of the pundits. All their technological wizardry, their up to date scientific models, all the money in the world had failed them, and they did not know how to process it. Rooms full of intellectuals and savants suddenly gone quiet, their knowledge valid for nothing in the face of an event they proclaimed was not possible.

Somebody says in 2012 that “all our technology and we still could not predict this”. Is that what we’ll all say, I wonder, upon the day that every knee must bow and tongue confess that the man coming down from the clouds is Lord of all?

B

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GoodFellas

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The more I make my way through Martin Scorsese’s filmography, the more convinced I am that Silence was the picture he had building towards to his entire career. In every work of his that I’ve seen so far, from the double crossing of law enforcement to the excesses of Wall Street, the same themes keep popping up, either on the surface or on a deeper reading.

So how does Goodfellas, a work of a master who’s in absolute control of every aspect of the film making craft, fit into Scorsese’s body of work that points towards faith in the divine? A relatively straight-forward account of the rise and fall of a mid-level mafioso, the film doesn’t possess much qualities that ignite the religious or spiritual intellect like some of his other efforts. One can point towards the plot being one epic morality tale in which the allure of earthly pleasures numbs the soul until it’s time for the devil to cash in. And while it is certainly that, and there’s many a great discussion to be had regarding the choices Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his circle of trust make throughout the movie, I want to focus on something else.

One of the final sequences of the movie, where the camera tracks the last 12 hours of Henry Hill as a free man, is incredibly effective at creating a sense of suffocation. It is a sense that has hovered over everything for the past 2 hours: the feeling that at any moment something can happen that will obliterate any peace. Sudden outbursts of violence, verbal and physical, are manifestations of this. In the gangster life, peace is ephemeral, lasting as long as the next high or score. This sense of suffocation reaches the apex during this sequence, putting you in the frame of mind of a man whose world is collapsing all around him.

The only religious symbolism present throughout the movie, not counting some of the Irish crosses that make appearances every so often, is a photo portrait of the Virgin Mary. “Mom, put away the religious stuff will you”, Tommy (Joe Pesci) tells his mother before he goes off to become a made man. Those are the last words he tells her; a few seconds later Tommy is murdered, betrayed by those he trusted the most. Of course the director is not being blatant in signaling that a dismissal of religious symbols will get his audience killed; but when put in context with the rest of the story, something starts to make sense.

Maybe if one adheres to the code of conduct brought about by religious dogma, instead of following the one crafted by men(who is evidenced consistently turn on one another), maybe then we can have peace

A+

Vice

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I recount here the life decisions of a 23 year old woman who I consider to be one of the best people I know.

Born into an affluent family, and raised as such, she went to a private high school, and then got a scholarship to a liberal college in the East. Before graduating, she was interning for a very respected European vehicle manufacturing company. She was dating somebody who after interning at Amazon during the summers was set for a cushy first gig at the online retailer. Everything was set for them to get married, have a comfortable existence where money would never be in short supply, and pass it on their children.

“I know I’m probably going to be very poor, but the freedom and joy of serving God for a living outweighs anything else in life”, she tells me.
She long ago broke up with her boyfriend, who was never as interested in mission work as she was. She moved to Albania as a short term missionary first, and then long term, after she met a youth pastor who grew up in an orphanage and doesn’t have a penny to his name.
“His zeal for the Lord is contagious”, she says.

I suppose better to have zeal for God than for money, as the characters of Vice do.

B+

Top Characters in Film 2018

Carrying on the yearly tradition of listing the characters which caused an impression-sometimes good, sometimes bad, always memorable-, 2018 is a bit different: the list stops at 5, instead of the usual 10. This is certainly not due to a decrease in offerings; watching 130 films per year provides many candidates for this list. It’s just I did not find myself drawn to many of them the way I did in years past. Whether that’s a byproduct of the emotional and mental anguish 2018 had on me is debatable, though the inclusion of not one, but two characters who end up committing suicide on screen might be telling.
The 5 most memorable characters in film, in alphabetical order:

Dean and Cindy – Blue Valentine

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Making this list for the second year in a row, Ryan Gosling plays Dean, the once knight in shining armor to Michelle William’s Cindy. Alternating timelines between the effervescent exuberance of first love, and the soul crushing mundanity of living with the same person for the rest of days, Dean and Cindy make the picture come alive. You will never again listen to “You and Me”, by Penny and the Quarters, without thinking of the pair in a seedy motel. Raw and vulnerable, Dean and Cindy are the year’s most unfortunate role models, there to remind us that there’s more to love than the magical first kiss.

Jackson Maine – A Star is Born

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Resigned and weary, he sighs “maybe I fucked that up”. All too familiar with his failures, Jackson Maine, as embodied by Bradley Cooper, stopped giving himself any credit a long time ago. He hates the bottle, but it’s the only way he can feel, even if it’s only shame, because something is preferable to nothing at all. Jackson Maine is the manifestation of my greatest fears, those nights in which God is nowhere to be found and which all I’m good at is messing up.

Joe – You Were Never Really Here

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I’d name two actors who are unmatched at displaying differing levels of dejection. The first is Ryan Gosling, and the other is Joaquin Phoenix. The latter plays Joe in You Were Never Really Here, inhabiting a character that is full of sorrows, battling his demons with every breath he takes. There comes a point where watching Phoenix is actually discomforting, his character having already exhausted every possible outlet for his pain without finding any solace. And just when you think death is the only alternative, a girl reminds him that it is actually a beautiful day. If Joe can be saved, maybe so can all of us.

Patrick Kenzie – Gone Baby Gone

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Patrick Kenzie sits at the couch next to the girl now found, and asks about her favorite doll Mirabelle. “Annabelle”, the little girl replies. The enormous effect of this one line cannot be stated without effectively summarizing the entire picture. Suffice it to say that it’s an added burden on Patrick, as he silently stares into a television screen, before everything turns to black.

Peter Graham – Hereditary

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The scene which shocked every viewer that was brave enough to walk into Hereditary would not have been nearly as successful without the full, unbearable weight of regret that Alex Wolff brings to Peter in the seconds following an unspeakable tragedy. The camera, set on his frightened visage until it becomes his gaze, captures the pain of somebody with a million thoughts racing, each one concluding that his life will never be the same again. The way he asks, but doesn’t finish the question since he already knows, “are you okay?”, is haunting.

First Reformed

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Christian movies never succeed on artistic merits because their sole purpose is to regurgitate familiar examples that will confirm the viewer’s understanding of Christianity. The bad guy accepts Jesus on his death bed; pray and eventually your family will turn to Christ; love your hateful neighbor.  These movies are marked by a stupefyingly superficial approach to faith, the Gospel for the supermarket believer.

First Reformed, like Silence before it, is aware that Sunday hymns will probably not keep you afloat when the inevitable deluge of despair submerges everything you once thought secure. First Reformed is an occasionally maddening picture that at times feels like an indictment on contemporary American Christianity. The mega church, the youth group confessional sounding like every generic testimony ever given at these activities, the coffee shops within the building.

But it’s also a more nuanced examination of faith, daring the audience to hold two opposing beliefs at the same time: the presence of hope does not invalidate a sensation of despair. It posits that perhaps this is the only way for believers to keep their sanity when the darkness of the world eventually encroaches over everything; look at Jesus in the Garden, trembling for what’s about to come yet resting in His Father’s will.

A-

 

Widows

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Widows is a visual representation of the oft-quoted phrase by Christians, “we live in a broken world”.
That generically vague statement does not really mean much by itself, but now believers can point towards an entertaining piece of evidence to back it up. For anybody who is interested in expanding this idea, I will break it down next.

The setting: a Chicago neighborhood.
The characters: a dozen Chicago residents, of all color, ideology, socioeconomic status

Ultimately, the motivations of every character in the movie are driven by the desire to improve their circumstance. There is nothing wrong with aiming to better oneself, yet Widows displays that in a world in which the systems of governance and justice are rotten to its core, having been invented by human beings with the same flaws as everyone else, humans will tend to gravitate towards themselves. The characters live for themselves, foregoing their neighbors and family. Ironically, this lack of compassion for our neighbor perpetuates the system that keeps everything the way it is.

Steve McQueen holds tight on a pastor’s face as he delivers a rousing sermon on the importance of love. “Love your neighbor!”, he roars. “Strive for excellence with love as a motivator!”, he goes.
And McQueen, by now crowned as a director possessing a rare knowledge of the follies of man, then shows the same pastor embroiled in a nasty political race. Yes, it is love that motivates this man, but not the selfless one Jesus exemplified, but the other one, the common one, the love of money.

More than anything, Widows shows just how pitiful we all are. It shows humans as children trying their best to navigate the messiness of life, their best efforts to save themselves falling short. It emphasizes the need for a way that is bigger than any of us.

A-

Into the Wild

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Nowhere is the astonishing hypocrisy that led to Christopher McCandless’s (Emile Hirsch) demise evidenced as clearly as in a pair of scenes that take place a little over halfway through the film.

Saying his goodbyes to Tracy T (Kristen Stewart), the girl who’s been crushing on him since day one, he speaks what in his mind must have sounded like the words of a prophet. “And remember, if you want something in life, reach out and grab it”.
It’s an absurd philosophy.
Two scenes earlier, Tracy had tried to do just that. Wanting to be with Christopher, she called him into her room, took her clothes off, laid in bed, and then…stayed there while Christopher politely rejected her. She had tried grabbing what she wanted, and had failed miserably.

Of course such manner of platitudes sound good, and they may make us feel even better. To live fervently adhered to a moral code we believe superior than those of our neighbors is a rush; who doesn’t love being the smartest person in the room? Taking it to the extreme, Christopher exiles himself, far from the company of his lesser peers. And while most of us possess enough judgement to stray from such wild endeavors, there is something to be learned from all this.

All along, Christopher proclaims the urgency of the truth. The movie hammers home the importance of forgiveness. A character even declares that when we forgive, God’s light shines upon us. The truth is the only way to a happy life, then; I know what path I’m on. Do you?

B+

 

The Florida Project

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Shortly before feeding them, the Bible tells that Jesus had compassion for the weary and hungry multitude. Two thousand years later, the word has been almost eroded from our vocabulary; that’s maybe why Sean Baker’s camera seems to urgently remind us of it.

The Florida Project, one of the most moving and wonderful pictures of the last five years, brims with compassion. It is found on every shot of this Orlando set story, taking in the inhabitants of a stretch of highway that have been forgotten by locals and visitors alike, everybody so concerned with rushing to the self proclaimed most magical place on earth.
Most crucially, Sean Baker appears to understand the great irony of our species: the tragedy of humans is not that we are victims of this broken world, but that we are also complicit in it.

The film never romanticizes nor does it judge it’s characters, allowing them to exist fully and freely. It is this approach that makes the story, consisting more of episodes than a full fledged plot, a spiritual companion piece to another wistful film of Americana, Andrea Arnold’s lyrical American Honey.  The characters in that movie never felt like the inventions of  a screenwriter, and neither do these ones. Halley (Bria Vinaite) and Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) are breathing, living creatures that we happen to have stumbled upon. As such, there are moments which are truly unbearable to watch.

It is not only the abject poverty that defines Halley and Moonee that’s tough to watch, but their attempts to rise above it. Halley loves her daughter and will do whatever to see her smile, yet the way she tries to do it is toxic not only for Moonee, but for herself as well. Halley’s perpetual stare is of fury and resignation, which paired with the endless wonder that fills Moone’s eyes only serves to drive home the point that eventually the daughter will become the mother.

By the end of the film you’re keenly aware that, unless the film suddenly goes off the rails into the realm of fantasy, there exists only one logical way for the story to end. Indeed, I’d argue that this is a movie which cannot be spoiled, because reality has trained us to know certain basic realities of our world. And if it hasn’t, Sean Baker’s camera has been there to guide you with every shrug, scream, sigh and punch of his characters; with every weary look, eyes of love, and belly full of laughter.
And yet when it finally does arrive it’s effect is still devastating.

In truth, I had to avert my gaze from the screen. I could not bear to look up at the screen, yet even listening to the audio was agonizing. Was I hiding out of embarrassment or pain? To be honest I think I was praying.
When a few seconds later I lifted up my eyes, I was greeted to a final sequence so magnificent in its creativity, so majestic in its execution, so heart-wrenching in its implications, that I knew I was going to remember it until the day I died.

A+

Small Crimes

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“Can a person truly change?” might be this generation’s “can a person go back to their mother’s womb?”. Impossible both in theory and practice, but maybe the workings of the soul do not concern itself with matters of this material plane. Perhaps a genuine transformation of the self requires supernatural elements, so ingrained in our nature are our bad habits that the only thing that can save us must require superhuman effort.

B+

Revolutionary Road

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Soon after my confession of faith, I started to believe that a heart filled with the love of Jesus was enough to keep at bay the empty hopelessness. I’m sure this stemmed from the fact that my conversion occurred during circumstances that had devastated multiple areas of my life. Surely there would be no going back to such dark nights of the soul, now that God loved me?

While I still cling to the belief that there is nothing on Earth like the redeeming power of the cross, I am now unsure whether or not the empty hopelessness can be avoided, regardless of one’s faith.

Revolutionary Road is an extremely disquieting film, burrowing deep into your skin with images of the futility of existence. There are several shots throughout the picture with depressing implications, conveying in a few seconds the disenchantments of a lifetime. And above all, that empty hopelessness that hovers above everyday affairs. I have felt myself despairing, my prayers of little comfort to the aching of my soul. Throughout all, I love Jesus, and I trust Him; His love is persistent and odd-defying. However, I receive no hope from it.

God forbid I end up like the characters of this film, although now I believe everything is possible.

A-