Category Archives: Movies

Winter’s Bone and Rodney Clapp

I’ve only seen a couple of movies this year that I really loved, and at the top of that list is Winter’s Bone (the list also includes Toy Story 3 and Babies. And Crazy Heart, but that’s officially a 2009 release). My review of Winter’s Bone was posted on the Rabbit Room on Friday – click hear to read it – and in the review, I quote from a book I’m reading now that I’m really loving, Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction. His discussion of the role music plays in our lives, the part I quoted from in my review, is very good, but what interested me most about the book, when I first picked it up, is this thought from the first chapter, America’s Southern Accent.

“The strongly southern accent or inflection of democracy as we now know it in the United States may helpfully be discerned by way of contrast. By way of broad and rough contrast, I want to suggest that American democracy is composed of two dominant strains: the democracy of the parade, based predominantly in the North; and the democracy of the revival, predominantly of the South.”

I picked up Rodney’s book just after reading the manuscript for a book my uncle is finishing up on the roots of American Fundamentalism, told through the story of our family, and Rodney’s book provided helpful ways of thinking through some of the things that came up as I read my uncle’s book, as has another book I’m working my way through, Richard Niebuhr’s Social Sources of Denominationalism, published in 1929. If you’re at all interested in the questions of why we believe what we believe and how our surroundings shape what we choose to believe, I highly recommend both of those books. And I’m sure I’ll be writing more about my uncle’s book as it makes its way towards publication.

Movie review: Jeff Bridges’ “Crazy Heart”

My review of the great new Jeff Bridges film, Crazy Heart, which I wrote with a friend shortly after I saw the movie last month, was just posted on the Rabbit Room blog. Here are a couple excerpts:

I’d have to say, though, there was one thing I liked above everything else about the film, and that’s what I want to spend more time talking about here: the glimpse Crazy Heart gives us into the world of music superstars, both at the height of their career and when they’re down on their luck. Working as an arranger and music copyist in the Nashville music industry, I get occasional glimpses into that world. Watching Bad Blake play for a packed house at a corner bar, seeing how he related to the crowd and how he performed, I thought of the time I was in the studio with legendary rock singer Bob Seger.


Continue reading Movie review: Jeff Bridges’ “Crazy Heart”

500 Days of Summer: A Story about Love

Talk about discouraging people from seeing a movie. In one of the first write-ups about 500 Days of Summer that was posted on a blog back in January, the reviewer compared it to Slumdog Millionaire, Juno, and Little Miss Sunshine. Slumdog Millionaire was a terribly overrated piece of staggering mediocrity, and while Juno and Little Miss Sunshine were both enjoyable, they weren’t really anything to write home about. Fortunately, 500 Days of Summer far surpasses the standards set by those films. It’s a surprisingly good first feature film from director Marc Webb, and stars one of my favorite actresses, Zooey Deschanel, as Summer, along with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom. And I just found out a friend of mine, Jessamyn Land, a co-worker from my days working for a television station in Chattanooga, was a Set Production Assistant on the project.

How does one describe 500 Days of Summer? Well, it’s part romantic comedy and part breakup story, for starters, and yes, those do go together. When the lights dim and the story starts, we hear the narrator say, “This is the story of boy meets girl, but this is not a love story.” It’s a tale of someone deeply in love with someone who simply likes him, and all the ways those feelings accompanying the beginning of a romantic relationship color how we see the world. Our two protagonists meet while working for a company that creates greeting cards, and there’s one priceless scene where Tom, played by Gordon-Levitt, has a meltdown in the middle of a brain-storming session for new greeting card ideas. He decries the entire greeting card industry, saying something like, “We give people words to say so they don’t have to say what they’re really thinking.” Continue reading 500 Days of Summer: A Story about Love

Free Music from Randall Goodgame

So you know that new Randall Goodgame EP, Bluebird, that I’ve blogged about? The one I wrote a couple string arrangements for? Well, if you act fast – before the end of the day – you can download the whole EP for free from Randall’s website. It’s been available for free download for about a week, and I kept forgetting to blog about it. Be sure to sign up for his mailing list so you hear about this kind of thing the next time he does it.

Download link

Expelled: No Grays Allowed

When the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, featuring Ben Stein, hit theaters back in April, I didn’t go see it. In fact, I made it a point to deliberately avoid it, mainly because I’m not a fan of propaganda movies from any extreme, whether they feature Ben Stein or Michael Moore. And when you have the primary figure in the documentary, Stein, claiming in an interview with TBN that, “Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people,” it’s not hard to guess what the main point of the movie will be, what kind of statement they’re trying to make. Whenever I hear representatives of opposing ideologies blame the other for atrocities and claim their opponent’s philosophy is what led to those acts (in this case, Stein claiming Darwinism is to blame for Hitler, and Richard Dawkins – interviewed in the film – asserting the root of evil is religion), I always think of two kids standing in the middle of the schoolyard, pointing and yelling at each other, “nuh uh, it’s your fault!”

In the chapter The Church is Responsible for So Much Injustice, in his book, The Reason for God, Tim Keller writes,

“Violence done in the name of Christianity is a terrible reality and must be both addressed and redressed. There is no excusing it. In the twentieth century, however, violence has been inspired as much be secularism as by moral absolutism. Societies that have rid themselves of all religion have been just as oppressive as those steeped in it. We can only conclude that there is some violent impulse so deeply rooted in the human heart that it expresses itself regardless of what the beliefs of a particular society might be – whether socialist or capitalist, whether religious or irreligious, whether individualistic or hierarchical. Ultimately, then, the fact of violence and warfare in a society is no necessary refutation of the prevailing beliefs of that society.”

I ended up watching Expelled last week with some friends, and later wished I hadn’t wasted the time. One big problem I have with films like Expelled is that they deliberately paint a black and white picture, ignoring the fact that issues are complicated in real life and hoping their viewers don’t have the mental capacity to see past their broad brush statements. Stein has stated in interviews that they deliberately chose people to interview on the extreme sides of each issue, avoiding people in the middle because they “didn’t want to confuse people.” I would have loved to have seen an interview with Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project, a Christian and a highly respected scientist, who also happens to believe in evolution, explaining his beliefs included in this film. Instead we get the producer claiming in a New York Times interview that Dr. Collins holds his beliefs only because he is “toeing the party line,” an assertion Collins calls “ludicrous.” (On a side note, click here for a fascinating interview with Dr. Collins about his work on the human genome project and his belief in God, among other things.)

At the end of the day, though, I fall in line behind author Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time, Walking on Water), who said in an interview, “Somebody once asked me in a college setting what I thought about creationism versus evolution. I said, “I can’t get very excited about it. There’s only one question that’s worth asking, and that is, did God make it? If the answer is yes, then why get so excited about how?”

Guillermo del Toro on metaphor and small decisions

As I mentioned in passing in an earlier post, I saw Hellboy II: The Golden Army on opening night with a couple of friends. I thought it was a great movie, a lot of fun (especially the scene involving a Barry Manilow song). Jeffrey Overstreet offers his thoughts on the movie and links to other reviews he found insightful here.

I just came across this interview with Guillermo del Toro in USA Today where he makes a number of comments I found interesting, as well as offers details about his future projects.

“I’m eager to explore themes that lend themselves easily to metaphor,” he says. “The fantastic is the only tool we have nowadays to explain spirituality to a generation that refuses to believe in dogma or religion. Superhero movies create a kind of mythology. Creature movies, horror movies, create at least a belief in something beyond.”


“People tend to think that big things only happen to big people,” he says, finally. “That 11-year-old girl is powerless. That 12-year-old kid is a nincompoop. The great quests, the great decisions only happen to great people. I think that is not true. The small decisions we make every day define who we are and define the world around us. … I’m interested in the essential importance of the small decision. … You can be a cashier at a 7-11, or you can be the person at the Kentucky Fried Chicken counter. But I bet to you there is a decision every day in your life where you affect somebody else. I bet that is true.”

Festival of Faith and Writing – Jeffrey Overstreet – “Through a Screen Darkly”

(Sorry for the delay in blogging the rest of my notes from the Festival. I’ll try to get the last four or five posts up sometime in the next week or two.)

Jeffrey’s second session was Through a Screen Darkly: A Memoir of Gradual Bedazzlement and Dangerous Moviegoing. Even if Jeffrey’s sessions had not been one of the reasons why I wanted to attend the Festival this year, I would have been at this session because the description in the program included a Buechner quote – “Frederick Buechner says, “If we are to love our neighbors, we must first see our neighbors with our imagination as well as our eyes. That is to say, like artists.” In a tour of movies from around the world, Overstreet examines the ways in which art – however simple, dark, or strange – can give us new perspectives and transforming encounters with beauty and truth.”

A lot of what he talked about can be found in his book, Through a Screen Darkly – Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies, that I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet. And his blog, the Looking Closer Journal, can be found here.

My favorite quote of the session was Jeffrey’s explanation that, “Art speaks about things that we cannot reduce to paraphrase.”

He described his work writing reviews for Christianity Today, saying, “At Christianity Today, we have a group of critics who have signed up to regularly receive boatloads of hate mail.” Jeffrey and others were trying to offer alternatives to the existing websites that declared that they alone offered The Christian Reaction to a movie. “There are a lot of websites already out there that say why you can’t watch certain movies.” In a comment that elicited knowing laughter, referring to the type of movie reviewer who determines the appropriateness of a film by counting swear words and body parts, Jeffrey said, “My sexual education occurred by reading Christian film reviews.”

He said that movies like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are popular, that we like seeing that kind of story played out on the big screen because, “the way myth works is to appeal to our longing for something more, to tell us that there is hope after death.”

Describing the evolution of his film-watching habits, he told us about seeing Chariots of Fire for the first time. “Chariots of Fire showed us what we want to see – A Christian as the central character who gets to preach the gospel to the masses and wins the race. That’s what we want to see, Christians as the ideal.” As the range of films he has appreciated has grown, he realized that, “sometimes we learn about glory by its absence.” And sometimes movies can even wake us up by showing us evil. “[The movie] Closer is like the billboard I see on my way to work every day with the cancer-eaten lung and the cigarette. Some people need to see it.”

“Eternity is written in the hearts of saints and fools,” quoted Jeffrey, and then continued, saying, “It’s in their movies too.”

He talked about the ending of Match Point, one of my favorite movies and the basis of an essay I wrote back in November, Why I Believe in God. And showing us why superficial dismissals of movies are never a good idea, he quoted part of this paragraph from the introduction to Roger Ebert’s book Awake in the Dark (emphasis added): “A movie is not good because it arrives at conclusions you share, or bad because it does not. A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it: about the way it considers its subject matter, and about how its real subject may be quite different from the one it seems to provide.”

At the start of the festival, on Thursday evening, while having dinner with Jeffrey and another acquaintance from, I told Jeffrey I was looking forward to both his sessions. He asked why I was going to be at the one on film, since I’d already heard pretty much everything he was going to say, and I replied that I would be there in part because I enjoy seeing other’s reactions, especially when it is to something I know is coming up. For instance, Jeffrey told one story at both lectures that I love and that got a similar reaction both times. Here’s how he recounts it in his essay The Eagles Are Coming: “It can be discomforting to find glimmers of hope in the world outside of the church. After writing about the themes of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, I received a letter from a woman who condemned fairy tales, calling them invitations into witchcraft and occultism: “If you think anything meaningful can be conveyed by pagan mythology, you’ve just opened Pandora’s Box!” What could I say? She had just found a “pagan myth” useful in conveying her ideas to me.”

Thanks, Jeffrey, for leading many of us into a wider appreciation of movies, for pointing out lessons you’ve learned from seeing beauty, truth, and evil on the big screen and for showing us how to do the same, for reminding us to look for the echoes of eternity in everything we take in.

Movies, Hope, Language, and the Rabbit Room

For some reason, I have a hard time trying to explain my view on art to people who hold the same viewpoint I grew up with. It’s easy for me to get frustrated talking about art with someone who thinks Harry Potter is evil, or who doesn’t agree with Philippines 4:8 (“whatsoever things are true”) and wants all their movies to present a fake, saccharine, sanitized view of life, to be like animated Thomas Kinkade paintings. So I’m glad when guys like Andrew Peterson, a friend who comes from a similar background and with whom I’ve had this discussion several times, take time to try to explain their views to others.

Andrew wrote a post on the Rabbit Room two weeks ago about Once, one of my favorite movies of last year. Since it is an Irish movie, Andrew included a disclaimer about some of the language used that doesn’t have a negative connotation in Ireland but does in other cultures, letting people know they should pass on it if that is a hurdle for them. Most of the comments were in agreement, until one guy, who hasn’t watched Once, called everyone else out claiming that a movie that uses the “f word” couldn’t be “recommendable or beneficial” and that it was “certainly unbiblical”. Andrew responded with a really great post about language, He Said a Wordy Dird, that he stayed up until 3AM writing, a response that both articulated his beliefs (and mine) well and yet was sensitive to those who disagreed with him. Here are a couple excerpts:

First of all, I think there’s a difference between Cursing and Using Foul Language. We tend to lump them together, but they’re not the same, I don’t think. Cursing, at least in the Biblical sense, has more to do with wishing death and evil upon someone instead of life and goodness; it is meant as the opposite of blessing. According to two concordances, the word “curse” is used in the New Testament only nineteen times, and after a quick read of each case it looks to me like that’s the sense in which it’s used every time. It doesn’t have to do with the use of certain words that society deems foul, but with wishing evil on someone, by using the inherent power of words to hurt and not to heal. Like I said, I’m no exegetical guru, so if I’m reading this wrong, by all means let me know.

I think someone uttering and meaning the words “I hate you” is much more offensive than thirty nine casual uses of the F bomb. I’ll say that again. Words are the overflow of the heart, so words spoken in anger, hatred, and bitterness are far more damaging and dangerous than the flippant use of words that are thought of as dirty.

I made the disclaimer about the movie because I realize that we’re all at different stages on the journey. We all have unique baggage that we’re lugging around, and some things that you might not think twice about will send me up the wall like a cat in a dog pound. If I had watched this film when I was in Bible college, I would have been offended to my core. I know what it’s like to be sensitive to foul language, and I sympathize. I’m not writing this to convince you to not be offended. Let the Holy Spirit speak to you, seek counsel, be humble, love wisdom, and pray that I’ll do the same. I have come to know Christ much better over the fifteen years since my Bible college career began, and I find that I am much less worried about some things and am much more sensitive to others.

That post is now up to 89 comments, with a lot of great discussion taking place. Unfortunately, the author of the comment he was addressing from the first post, as well as a number of other commentors, look as if they just skimmed Andrew’s post to see that he still disagreed with them and didn’t consider any of his arguments. One of the best comments came from Jason Gray who gave one of the best summaries I’ve seen about the different reasons that people watch movies:

Another thought I had on this issue is the different ways that people experience entertainment. Going to movies as a form of escapism is different than going as a means of engagement to the mysteries of your own life. My wife and I, for instance, often watch movies with different goals in mind. She is very deep (and in a lot of ways smarter than me) and we love the same books and movies, but sometimes after a long day with the kids she just wants to unplug and enjoy a fun romantic comedy. On the other hand, I find it hard to relax and enjoy a romantic comedy. I feel like much of the tasks I do throughout the day make me feel disconnected from my inner life, and so when I watch a movie I want it to help me re-engage with my own life. I want it to remind me that stories are important, that maybe even my story is important. I want to see again that in the midst of the all that’s ugly in the world beauty can still flower in unexpected places. I want to cry, to feel, to be challenged to see the world differently. I want to be afflicted. I want to be moved.

Yes, yes, yes. Here is that last sentence again, if you skimmed over it: “I want it to remind me that stories are important, that maybe even my story is important. I want to see again that in the midst of the all that’s ugly in the world beauty can still flower in unexpected places. I want to cry, to feel, to be challenged to see the world differently. I want to be afflicted. I want to be moved.” I walked out of a movie recently after it had finished, a current blockbuster, with a knot in my stomach. I’ll be surprised if I see another movie this year that I hate as much. And I don’t know why I had such a strong reaction to it. I think it was because it was so pointless, especially since the trailer billed it as something more. None of the violence meant anything – it was all there just to entertain, par for the course for a “good action movie”. And I don’t want to waste time watching something like that. I want to “see again that in the midst of all that’s ugly in the world beauty can still flower in unexpected places”,to be reminded that “stories are important, that maybe even my story is important.”. That’s why some of my favorite movies last year were There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, why I love Wings of Desire, A History of Violence, and Dogville.

Ron Block, another of the contributors to The Rabbit Room, followed up Andrew’s post with a post on Sin in Movies – Seeing the Heart of Art, that has also generated a good number of comments. So this post doesn’t get any longer, I’ll just give you the link with the encouragement to read it when you have some time. And if you haven’t added The Rabbit Room to your list of daily reading yet, believe me, it is time well spent.

Two new favorites

My list of favorite movies of 2007 will be coming soon – I’m holding off on posting it until I’ve had more time to mull over Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood which I just saw with a friend Monday, as it is sure to secure a spot – so for now, check out Jeffrey Overstreet’s list, if you haven’t done so yet. I agree with Jeffrey about many of his picks, including his number one selection which will also be toward the top of my list.

I did want to write a little about my two favorite older movies that I saw for the first time in 2007. And I owe a word of thanks to Jeffrey for bringing these films to my attention, through his excellent book Through a Screen Darkly – Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies. Both of these movies are now on my top 10 all-time favorite movies list.

The first is Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue. While I love all three films in the trilogy (Red and White being the other two, each representing colors of the French flag and also symbolizing, in turn, liberty, equality and fraternity), this one stood out to me, and not just because the main character, Julie, is a composer, as is her husband. In Through a Screen Darkly, Jeffrey points out that “When Americans make films about liberty, they usually tell stories about the glory of independence and the need to break away from the expectations of others and follow a personal dream. Kieslowski’s portrayal of one woman pursuing liberation gives us a strikingly different impression of individualism. The more Julie tries to break free, the more she imprisons herself, cutting herself off from her relationships and her calling.”

While the film’s portrayal of loneliness and suppression of emotion struck a chord and gave me space to sort through my own thoughts and feelings, what stood out to me most seemed, at first glance, to be nothing more than a passing comment. When Julie is confronted with a situation involving someone she should hate, someone who has caused her much emotional pain, she doesn’t respond as expected. And her response elicits the statement “I knew it. Patrice told me a lot about you. That you are good. That you are good and generous. That’s what you want to be.” I plan to delve deeper into this topic in future posts, but for now I’ll say that I am becoming more conscience of how many things I do, or better, try to do, not because I necessarily want to do them but because the person I want to become would do them. I’d much rather act selfishly in this moment, but I don’t want to be the type of person I’ll become if that is my default behavior in the coming years.

Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Winders, is my other treasured discovery of the year. It tells the story of two angels in post-war Berlin, watching over man, and of the desire of one of them, Damiel, to become human after falling in love. So this post doesn’t become too long, I’ll wait to go into detail about most of what I loved later. I was so captivated by the dialog that, my first time through, I had to pause it several times so I could write down certain lines.

You know how, once something is brought to your attention, you start seeing it everywhere? Like when you want to buy a new car, and you notice for the first time how many other people have the car you want? I think that is one reason this particular scene in Wings of Desire is my favorite. Not long before watching it, I had a couple conversations, one with a friend and one with my pastor, about how all of us not only need someone to love us but need someone to love. Built deep into our psyche is this desire, this passion. After our conversations, I came across a passage in Frederick Buechner’s writings where he muses about this need for love and to love, and it stood out because it was on my mind. Likewise, this scene. Marion, the woman whom Damiel falls in love with, has just returned to her trailer after a rehearsal (she’s a circus acrobat). She’s sitting on her bed, lost in thought, while Damiel (who cannot be seen by her) tenderly watches her from behind. Through Damiel, we are allowed to eavesdrop on her thoughts:

Longing for a wave of love that would stir in me.
That’s what makes me clumsy…
the absence of pleasure.
Desire for love.
Desire to love.

And as she thinks “desire to love”, the film, which up to this point, forty-five minutes in, has been in black-and-white, suddenly, breathtakingly, is infused with color. And the world is new.

Three Colors: Blue and Wings of Desire have much in common with Into Great Silence, one of Jeffrey’s, and my, favorite films of last year. Again, writing in Through a Screen Darkly about Blue, Jeffrey notes that “every scene – in fact, almost every shot -unfolds like a poem. We are challenged to stop asking what will happen next and begin considering what is happening now. What can we learn from the moment? The more I watch the film, the more I’m learning to consider the movement of light, the color of a room, the brief hint of tension in the lines in Julie’s face… Kieslowski communicates so much with so little. If he were moving any faster, we would lose the detail and the fullness of his world”.

A couple pages later, he writes:

Images speak. Like music, they convey things that mere words cannot communicate. The power of the image is different from the power of the narrative. That’s a secret great filmmakers know…

Understanding the way that great art “speaks” is not just about interpreting the moral of a story. It takes patience and learning to do more than follow the narrative. A friend will watch a film that I have come to cherish, and he’ll come to me with an apologetic frown, saying, “I’m sorry, but it was just too slow for me. There didn’t seem to be much happening.”
I know what he means. But lately I’ve been increasingly grateful for films in which not much happens. Weary of constantly taking in information from the news, e-mail, web pages, television, movies, the telephone and radio, I find myself longing for a vacation. And that longing has led me to seek movies that satisfy in a very different way from narrative. This art is not about what happens next. It’s a style that gives me space to have my own thoughts while engaging the director’s vision. I’m not simply being led along – I’m a willing participant. It gives me pictures and sounds to consider rather than developments to anticipate.
Increasingly, I find myself preferring to see a great film again instead of a new release. I find myself drawn to slow, contemplative films than fast action movies. I take so much pleasure in discovering all that things can mean that I’m not so thrilled by the buildup to another explosion or surprise. Yoda would be proud – I’m trying to “unlearn what I have learned.” We can find new freedom when we stand still, when we stop running from one thought to the next, and give ourselves time instead to absorb each moment and explore it.

This isn’t about movies, ultimately. This kind of moviegoing is an education in how to live.

Did you catch that last sentence? “This isn’t about movies, ultimately. This kind of moviegoing is an education in how to live.” In this new year, join me in taking time to absorb more of this kind of movies, to watch movies not as a distraction or an escape, but as a helpful reminder to slow down and listen to our lives and the lives of those around us.