Jojo Rabbit

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There’s a very poetic scene near the end of Jojo Rabbit in which men, women and children are charging blindly towards certain doom. The camera slows down time, capturing these figures in all their pitiful foolishness. Here they are, the self proclaimed master race, dying for a cause that’s not only evil, but stupid. Perhaps they deserved it. Jojo Rabbit makes fun of Nazis by painting them as buffoons, but it also humanizes them as creatures to feel sorry for.

The friendship that Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) eventually build is based off an understanding of one another as God’s fellow creatures, united not as much in what they have but in what they’ve lost. There’s a beautiful scene in which the two kids stare out the window, the night sky tinted by explosions, and discuss their pain. It has taken time and effort to arrive at this point; Jojo and Elsa had to go through many misunderstandings, but finally, in their darkest hour, they found the solace of each other’s company.

The message “we’re all human, so be kind to one another” is far too simplistic, reducing people’s experiences to mere hurdles that can be easily overcome with enough love. Thankfully that’s not what Jojo Rabbit does. While certainly both human beings, Jojo and Elsa are quite different from each other. By the end of the film their differences haven’t vanished, and they’re both their own person. They did not learn to look past each other’s backgrounds, but came to love them.

Jesus Christ famously cried out “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’ve done” as Romans drove nails through his limbs. It’s a nonsensical response to a heinous act until you realize it was based on love. Jojo Rabbit invites us to look at our enemies, yes, even the Nazis, with love. For they know not what they do. But what if they do know exactly what they do, and just don’t care? Dear reader, I dare say we love still.

Jojo Rabbit had me sobbing my eyes out because I remembered how tough it is to love our neighbor, and what a rotten, dirty, unjust world we live in. It also filled my heart with so much joy because there are things that can make everything so much bearable. Small things, like looking into the eyes of the ones you love and dancing.

A+

The Edge of Democracy

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It’s the story of our world. A person decries the unethical actions of those in political power and then, years later, when the person has achieved political power for themselves, via the ballot or the gun, said person engages in the same type of behavior they used to criticize before.

What’s stupefying is not that men and women keep on doing this; it is in our fallen, human nature to be deceitful, after all. What surprises me is how everybody else keeps thinking that their candidate is the chosen one. Everyone thinks government sucks because it hasn’t been done right, but with their candidate, everything will be made right. Nobody learns, so we are doomed to repeat the cycles of history, and on and on until the world finally stops spinning, and God finally rescues us from this madness.

1917

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Jude Law, in one of the best performances of his career, says that he is weary of war and the way fools get sent off to it with a flag and a lie. The line is uttered in Cold Mountain, a decent movie that I somehow keep remembering. Maybe because of that quote.

What compels me is not that 1917 is a bravura feat of filmmaking, or how entirely suspenseful and engaging it is. What compels me is how it understands how the dead are the only who ever get to see an end to war. Our protagonist runs, jumps and hides. The people he meets along the way wish him luck before they too must carry on with their mission. Too often war movies make it a point to say “this was the most important battle of the war”, or something along those lines. Like what we are seeing was vital for the course of history.

1917 has no such pretenses. It just presents a soldier’s journey from point A to point B, and how he’ll have to do it all over again the next day, and the next day. It elucidates the futility of combat, and shines a light on what a sorry species we are.

A

Memorable Moments 2019

The following is a list of movie sequences, scenes, and moments that percolated in my mind long after the credits rolled. In no particular order:

 

VICE – We live in confusing times

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Vice lays out its thesis with enormous clarity in its opening minutes. We are all slaves to a system of governance that is sick and broken, and we are the only ones capable of doing anything about it. But we won’t because our jobs exhaust us, our bills stress us out, and it’s easier to chill with Netflix than to engage with our putrid reality.

 

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) – Lunch

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A father sits across the table from his son, and they try to converse. But the father is too blinded by selfishness and delusion to truly connect with his son. The son knows this, and still he powers ahead, trying to make his dad notice him, be proud of him. It’s an extraordinarily moving moment in a film that zeroes in on father-children relationships like very few in recent memory. 

MIDSOMMAR – Intro

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This is the second year in a row a scene from Ari Aster shakes my very bones. Not even 10 minutes in and we are introduced, in a chilling way, to our heroine and the scars she’ll wear for the next two hours. Not only does the scene set the stage for the nightmare ahead, but it dives head on to the themes of loss and grief that the film explores, to varying effect.

JOKER – The Murray Show

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The most celebrated comic book villain of all time has always existed within the realm of fiction. Even Heath Ledger’s personification of the character in The Dark Knight did not step out of the screen into our real. Not so with this joker. The scene at the late night show, in which he comes clean to his sins, is chilling because you see this villain, for the first time, as existing in this very moment, perhaps somewhere close to you. It is a picture for our troubled times.

AS GOOD AS IT GETS – KITCHEN LETTERS 

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As aching, beautiful, and tender as cinema can get. Already wrote about this moment in my initial review, but it is worth mentioning again. A treatise on motherhood, singleness and loneliness that spans but a few minutes, this scene is one of the finest in years.

THE RETURN OF THE KING – DO YOU REMEMBER THE SHIRE, MR FRODO?

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Boasting an amount of gravitas that modern blockbusters can only fantasize about, the heroism of the hobbits Sam and Frodo is moving. In this moment, at the end of all things, it reaches its apex when a weary Sam literally carries a moribund Frodo on his back, on their way to a mountain of fire that may very well mean their doom. There’s a couple other sequences from this trilogy that could have made this cut, but I settled on this one since it concludes the story on an uplifting note. 

INCEPTION – GROW OLD TOGETHER

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“I miss you more than I can bear, but I have to let you go”. 

VOX LUX – AMBULANCE RIDE

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Vox Lux begins with a student walking into his classroom, taking out a shotgun and shooting all his classmates. One of the students is put into an ambulance, and for the next five minutes (I timed it) the camera stays there. It shifts from an exterior to an interior shot, the camera swirling around the vehicle, capturing the highways, the vegetation next to it. Then it captures the young victim, as the first responders attempt to keep her alive. Meanwhile, Scott Walker’s mournful score plays over all. 

THE DEATH OF STALIN – I HAVE PAPERS ON ALL OF YOU

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Were this not played for laughs, a sharp satire shining a light on the events occurring immediately after Stalin’s death in Soviet Russia, it all might be too horrific. It’s more bearable and entertaining this way, since we get to mock the disgusting human beings who were in power then, without having their atrocities in the foreground. But then there’s this scene, in which one of the leaders confronts the rest of the committee with all the nasty things everyone else has done. There’s still some jokes here and there, but you cannot help but be in awe at the lengths our species will go to for power’s sake. 

THE LAUNDROMAT – PRAYER OF DELIVERANCE

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I think most genuine believers, at one time or another, have prayed or will pray a supplication similar to the one delivered by Meryl Streep here, as she sits in a church pew. This moment only works because of what precedes it: 2 wealthy bankers say that the prayers of the rich and powerful are monetary contributions to political campaigns. Only suckers, and the rest of us, attend church to make our prayers. And right now our prayers aren’t being heard. Or they are being answered in a way not of our liking. Whatever the case, please God, deliver your perfect justice. Amen. 

Best Films 2019

My mom watches movies in segments. She divides her attention between her phone, the screen, the kitchen, the weather and the neighbor’s dog. It takes her literal days to finish watching movies sometimes. My dad watches one movie every month, sometimes every two months. I joke with them by asking how I can possibly be related to them when our movie watching habits are so dissimilar. But sometimes I don’t joke. Rather, I look Godwards in gratitude. Surely I’ve done nothing radically different from my parents that would cause me to live cinema in a way that breathes vigor to my bones. Yet here I am again with the yearly list of the best films watched in 2019. 160 they were, a surprisingly high number considering I spent many months traveling. There must have been some nights in which I watched more than one, more than two. I recall these moments very, very fondly. And the following films even more so. 

 

HARRY POTTER SAGA

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Simultaneously a tender look at being a teenager and a parable of the biblical story of Jesus and Satan, the Harry Potter series is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Watched over the course of four spellbinding days, the level of engagement it stirred within me is unparalleled. Unmatched too are the echoes of the Gospel story present throughout, from the Messiah-like Harry to the astute ways the evil one assails our commitment to the cause. I won’t soon forget the night in which, after finishing my dinner, I rushed to my bedroom to watch Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince. I sat in bed for five hours, bewitched by every little thing. The next day I told my mom that I was going to finish watching Harry Potter that night, and she apologized for not allowing me to watch them years before. I told her there was no need for an apology because it had turned out to be for the best. I discovered Harry Potter at just the right moment in life. 

THE FOUNTAIN

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Here’s something I’d never done before. Once the credits started to roll, I hit play and watched The Fountain all over again. A feast for the senses, The Fountain is a tragedy of lost love. It is also a triumphant reminder that one need not be crippled by the fear of death, for together we will live forever.

THE IRISHMAN

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The most elegiac film of Martin Scorsese’s storied career, The Irishman mourns the lives that are lived in service of all that is ultimately inconsequential. Subverting the expectations created three decades ago with his masterpiece Goodfellas, in which crime was glamorized and life was fast paced, The Irishman is a film only an old man could make. Rueful, wise, patient. Scorsese, pushing 80, has never shied away from his faith. The confession scene is not only for his protagonists, not only for his audience, but also for himself.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK

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“Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you’ll never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. Even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope for something good to come along. Something to make you feel connected, to make you feel whole, to make you feel loved.”

MARRIAGE STORY

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2019 delivered some of the best acting by men I’ve seen in a while. You couldn’t take your eyes off Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Robert DeNiro was phenomenal in The Irishman. And Adam Driver was absolutely superb, the best he has ever been, in Marriage Story. You watch him slowly disintegrate as the film progresses. The scene in which he pretends he’s fine after cutting himself by accident is a marvel. 

LISTEN TO ME MARLON

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Ten months ago, reviewing this documentary for the first time, I wrote that “Brando’s story is our story, the small details varying but the overall picture looking the same: a life in a world with pain as its principal currency, with every soul aching for a more permanent release than wealth, or family, or sex”. No more needs to be said.

INGLORIOUS BASTERDS

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His films tend to be fun and easy to watch, but Tarantino outdid himself with this one.

COLUMBUS

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It happens, almost imperceptibly and not to everybody, but it happens. The moment you discover your parents, the people who were meant to nourish and see you thrive, are suffocating you. They don’t do it out of any ill will; they love you, after all. And you love them, and now you’re compelled to see them thrive, compelled to nourish them. It’s a reversal of the natural order, and it hurts your little heart. But it cannot be this way forever for you are young and you must leave them behind. This hurts your little heart some more. Columbus is a perfect distillation of this. 

SET IT UP

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In an age in which the rom-com is all but dead, here comes Zooey Deutsch to breathe new life into it and make it soar, soar, soar. 

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

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To call this the best superhero movie I’ve seen might be faint praise, considering my slight indifference towards most movies of its ilk. But it is anything but. Into the Spider-Verse is a colorful, hilarious, inventive and strangely moving picture about the hero’s journey. One, it turns out, we’re all in. 

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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The word “fan”, short for “fanatic”, is derived from the Latin “fanaticus”, meaning insanely but divinely inspired. No wonder then, that the most common use of the word is associated with religion. Indeed, “fanaticus” originally pertained to a place of worship, a temple, places marked by intense, uncritical devotion.

To be a fan is no bad thing. We should all be so lucky to have something or someone we deem worthy of our loyalty. History shows certain fans’s troubling behavior towards others, albeit usually in a small scale. Fandoms, general wisdom goes, are pretty harmless. It is not until the advent of the internet when cracks begin to crumble the facade.

I’ve written elsewhere how the internet has exacerbated virulent behavior in our species, but I now wish to revise that statement. By itself, the internet is a wonderful tool. Bullying, harassment, threats and violence are the result of our own failings, not some coding problem within the system. There’s a quote that goes something like, if you give a man enough power to do whatever he wants, and he ends up using that power for evil, then you’ll know evil is what he’s always wanted to do.

At this point you might be wondering, what does Latin, the internet and moral failings have to do with Star Wars?

Reddit and Twitter run the world. Perhaps one of the most baffling turn of events in this young century has been the capitulation of corporate America to the tumult of the internet. No sooner has a user lifted a complaint about anything, and there go multi billion dollar companies vowing to do better next time, swearing to make them happy in just the exact way they demand. There is no accountability in this process, just an endless litany of requests. This reveals corporations as spineless and amoral, breathing just to make a buck, and users as grandstanding self-appointed arbiters of good taste.

The Rise of Skywalker illustrates just how pathetic this new order we inhabit really is. Disney has destroyed every good thing that was built by The Last Jedi, not because it was bad but because some people kept making Reddit threads about how their immaculate childhood had been obliterated by a movie. Film insiders chose to appeal to angry people rather than continuing the threads of a good story. This movie means nothing, it stands for nothing, it is vacuous and soulless, a monument to cowardice. Any redeeming value it might have comes in the form of a warning. Today it was a movie that was dictated by the whims of social media. What’s it going to be tomorrow?

C

Marriage Story

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To call Marriage Story the most accomplished work in Noah Baumbach’s career risks implying that his filmography wasn’t already stacked with successes. Frances Ha remains one of the sharpest comedies of the decade, Mistress America possesses so much quirk it borders the genius, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is as perceptive of human behavior as I’ve seen in years. So what elevates Baumbach’s latest above his previous films?

Like Tarantino and Scorsese before him, Baumbach has slowed down. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood looks back at the passage of time and reflects upon it, simultaneously wishing for a better future. In The IrishmanScorsese employs the expectations that his classic Goodfellas set upon us and subverts them by delivering a picture tinged with regret, without any of the frenetic rush that was found in Goodfellas. Similarly, Noah Baumbach attempts something different. His characters still possess his trademark wit, but they’re not exchanging fast paced barbs with one another.

For the first time in his career, Baumbach allows his camera to rest on his protagonists without them saying anything at all. When they do speak, almost every word is painful, funny, real, yours. The script is phenomenal, and it makes me jealous that I’ll never be able to write something as stirring and true as this. Like with Tarantino and Scorsese, you realize that the unforgiving passage of time has taught Baumbach that everything dies. Thank God for cinema then, for reminding us of this utmost truth and spurring us on towards the only reasonable way to live.

A+ 

The Laundromat

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On October 17, 2019, the Pew Research Center released an update on America’s changing religious landscape. Since 2009, the last year the Center surveyed Americans, there’s been a sharp decrease in people who consider themselves Christians. At the same time, the number of those who claim to believe in no higher power has risen dramatically. At the current rate, it will only take two more decades for the number of Christians to be actually less than those who don’t believe in God.

These findings are aligned with the reality of our world. It’s not that people don’t believe in God anymore; adherence to an invisible Lord has been deemed foolish from the start. It’s that everybody is now aware that they have very good reasons not to. The rise of digital technology has brought people closer than ever before, and in so doing they have realized how deep and pervasive injustices run.

The Laundromat is a crash course on how the evil have no incentive at all to reform. It is technically a comedy, because if it weren’t it would be too depressive to watch. It is required viewing for everybody, not because of it’s quality, but for the urgency of its content. This is a movie that demands the viewer to be angry. It is a manifesto against unfettered greed and corruption, a call to arms in the name of a better planet. It might also serve as evidence by those who don’t believe in God. “Look at what goes on in our world”, they can say. “Why would an all-good, all-loving God allow such evil to thrive, and many more to suffer?”

I am not surprised Christianity is declining in America. It will continue to do so. But sadly, things won’t get any better. Eat the elites, destroy all the billionaires and millionaires, weed out corruption. In the end you’ll end up in the same place. Because it’s not a matter of a political or economic system, it’s not a game of culture or ethics. We are all flesh and bone, with indwelling sin. And as long as that sin is alive, we will be it’s slaves. Somebody mentions how society is now a slave to the wealthy and we don’t even know it. I say society is a slave to sin, and we don’t even know it. That’s why I pray I keep having the strength to trust and love God. Would it be nice if the good Lord descended and solved financial inequality? Absolutely. But money in my pocket will not really fix my sin. Only His love will.

B+

Requiem for a Dream

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This is where I confess to a shameful, possibly sinful question that pops into my head every now and then: if my heart can shatter over the pain of people I’ve never even met, why is God, who knows them intimately and loves them deeply, so indifferent to their plight? Going one step further, and making it about myself, why is God so quiet about my own hurts? If a broken, weak, sinful creature like myself can feel empathy over my own agonies, shouldn’t my Father who is in heaven be compelled to provide some sort of comfort and relief?

Requiem for a Dream is a gut wrenching, agonizingly brutal piece of cinema. Of the 1,150 movies I’ve seen since 2013, few have come close to the traumatizing effect this has on the soul. Indeed, so unrelenting is the pain it features that at one point I thought I was going to puke. In another, I actually lifted my voice up to the heavens and asked God to stop it all.

When are you going to come back, Lord? When will you make creation anew, and put everything in its right place? When will you wipe away all of our tears? Are you seeing this? Are you!? Sin is eating away all that is good in the world, sin is obliterating the natural order, sin is making us sad. Please God, do not delay any longer! Come, come and make things right!

But it is my duty as a new creature in Christ not only to pray for the salvation of His people, but to obey the command to go out into the world and preach the gospel of the glory of Jesus Christ to every living creature. There’s few films that elucidate that truth, and spur the soul towards that mission as masterfully as Requiem for a Dream. If your church wants to make missionaries of people, show them this film. If you think that people in America have it easy and don’t require to hear the good news, watch this movie.

I’m currently reading a book on four differing views on hell-conditional, literal, metaphorical and purgatorial. There’s intriguing insights into all four. But I think I have my own answer. Requiem for a Dream provides the clearest vision of hell I have ever seen. Hell is a life lived far away from the presence of God, and all the soul crushing realities of attempting to fulfill out your dreams on your own strength.

So, now that I’ve said all that, how do I answer the questions that opened up this post? I’d love to say that after experiencing the harrowing journey of Requiem for a Dream I’d have an answer. The truth is I don’t. I still struggle with the pain of children in the face of a good Father. It continues to hurt. This is what I remind my spirit: be of good cheer, for Christ has overcome the world. It’s fine if I don’t have all the answers, so keep trusting, dragging yourself if you have to, in the one who knows everything.

A+

The Lake House

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I’ve been spending a lot of time at church these past few months. I’ll go in maybe two, three times a week and remain there for a couple of hours. Yesterday I was there for nearly seven hours. The conversations I had with the pastors were monumental not only in length, but in the scope of its implications. It’s safe to say my life has been crucially altered.

After exiting the office, I said goodbye to Christina, one of the secretaries there. She’s seen me go in and out of the pastor’s office a lot this summer. And reader, the enormity of my pain must have been quite visible on my face, or in the way I conducted myself in those moments. For when I said goodbye to Christina, she gave me a look unlike any I’ve ever received in my entire life.

It was a gaze so heavy with tenderness that if my heart wasn’t already broken, it would have shattered right there. She looked at me with so much compassion that it hurt. What a sorry spectacle I have become. God have mercy on me.

B