15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)
15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)
Anti-Catholic Philosophy No Objection
This is not a family movie, but it is a very powerful Catholic movie.
Father Stu tells true story of Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg), a failed boxer, struggling actor, and generally a charming lothario. He traumatized by the death of his young brother and his strained relationship with his estranged father Bill (Mel Gibson) and his cloying mother Kathleen (Jacki Weaver). While in Hollywood trying to make it big, he falls in love with a Catholic girl named Carmen (Teresa Ruiz). When she stipulates that she cannot date someone who isn't baptized, Stuart goes through the motions of become a Catholic. All of this is done only so he can jump through the requisite hoops in order to become physically intimate with Carmen. However, Stuart gets into a traumatic accident but miraculously survives. He attributes his life to God's intervention and decides to become a priest.
I remember back in college I started writing a script about a priest and a teenage girl have a all-day conversation about faith. Looking back on it, I did not have the required skill to make the story work. But I do remember including a great deal of vulgarity in it. At the time, I felt that most Christian movies were so sanitized that it bleached out the stains of real life. What was left was something that didn't speak to many people's lived experiences.
I bring this up because this movie made me think of that abandoned script. It is incredibly vulgar. Not only are there F-bombs that fly all over the place, but there is a lot of frank sexual talk. And especially early on in the movie there a great deal of casual blasphemy. At one point, a drunken Stuart punches a statue of Christ.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, though I think children should be cautioned from seeing this. In fact, this is part of what makes this movie work so well. It doesn't flinch away from this aspect of Stuart's life (although I've heard that in real life he was not nearly as vulgar, but I'm getting that third hand). There is a scene later in the movie where Stuart and another seminarian Jacob (Cody Fern) go to speak men in a prison. Being unfamiliar with this world, Jacob stumbles and stutters. The convicts mock and dismiss him. But Stuart talks to them as someone who has spent some time behind bars, who has lived a rough and tumble life. He brings with him a sense of authenticity and believability.
The script by writer/director Rosalind Ross does two things very well and two things not so well.
First, the story does something I have seen so few Christian movies do: it shows that conversion is not sanctification. As my friend the Doctor reminded me, many of our Protestant brothers and sisters sees justification and sanctification as simultaneous once you accept Jesus. But the story of Stuart shows how that is often not the case. Stuart has a life-changing conversion, but he still has a long way to go. You can see him work out his bullying and violent tendencies even in the seminary. Conversion is where you turn your life to move in a new direction. But getting to the destination of Christ is the journey of sanctification. And Stuart is thrown for a loop when that journey involves an indescribable amount of suffering.
Even though this was revealed in the trailer, Stuart develops a muscular disease similar to ALS. This breaks him down until there is almost nothing left. Just when he was getting his life together God lays on him this heavy cross. He doesn't understand why he has to go from someone so incredibly able to someone who cannot even go to the bathroom by himself. But in there is part of the glory. Throughout the movie, Stuart keeps saying that if he works hard enough he can accomplish anything, whether it is an acting career or becoming a priest. But as his physical strength wanes, he learns he has to surrender to God and to the aid of others. This humiliation leads to some beautiful humility)
The second thing the script does well is that all of the characters have three dimensions. Carmen is devout, but she is also fallible and will give in to sin. The head of the seminary Monsignor Kelly (Malcolm McDowell) could have been a one-note bureaucrat. Instead, we see all the contradictory feelings he has about Stuart play out in a very sympathetic way. Stuart too is no simply a villain turned hero. All throughout there is light and dark fighting for dominance in him.
The script struggles when it falls into the trap that a lot of biopics do. There is a pressure to hit important elements of Stuart's life so it all sometimes feels like it is shoe-horned into a two-hour story structure. So things like the actual movement to conversion are covered in an awkward montage rather than in the time that it needs to be fleshed out. The second issue is that very often Stuart's post-conversion dialogue feels a little cliché. He breaks out this little spiritual zingers, but feel a bit artificial and not organic.
The performances are phenomenal, some of the best I've seen all year. This is Wahlberg's best performance, hands down. He is own of the few actors that can go effortlessly between comedy and drama, and that is no small feat. He takes you on a complete journey of Stuart's interior life and everything is completely believable. He does an amazing job of making Stuart relatable without turning him into saintly statue, too distant to understand. Wahlberg shows some great emotional range, which would be over-the-top in some places, but he makes it work and feel honest.
This is also the best Gibson performance I have seen in a long time. It was so powerful to see his character's rough, atheistic persona slowly melt away in the presence of his son's faith. The same can be said of Weaver's performance as she constantly tries to "unbrainwash" her son from the Catholic faith. Ruiz also shines. You can absolutely believe a man would change religions for her, but she does not idealize her or make her impossibly inhuman.
Ross does a very good job of directing, giving a strong visual sense of the different stages of Stuart's life. While nothing is sanitized, there is a rough beauty to everything
(My only strong objection is that there is a scene where Stuart as a seminarian playfully touches a woman's bottom as a joke. Even though it is played for laughs it bothered me a bit to see him behave immodestly)
Finishing the movie I was struck by what a gift the priesthood is and how our priests give their lives away for us. They are called to model Christ, especially in His suffering so that we can model ourselves after Christ too. The movie reminded me in a beautiful way that no one is beyond redemption and that if we give ourselves over to God, He will not only transform our lives, but the lives of the people around us.
I highly recommend this movie.
“Company, villainous company, hath been the spoil of me.” In this comedic line, Falstaff blames the people around him for his vices. While he may be stating this simply to deflect his own personal guilt, there is great truth in what he says. The company you keep shapes your character.
St. Edith Stein was a brilliant philosopher. She wrote extensively on the human person. She was particularly interested in how the people around us shape who we are. She claims that a person’s community greatly influences our own identity. As we grow and change, the people around us are like the shaping hands of a potter. To be sure, we have great freedom in how much we allow this influence on us. We are not simply passively made by others. But we would be foolish to think we are completely self-made men and women. Many people, particularly the people in our company, help shape us.
You can see this in our popular fiction. Han Solo begins Star Wars as a greedy smuggler. He’s only involved because of selfish profit. But in the end, he becomes a selfless hero. That is because Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia awakened something noble in his character. They opened his eyes to the reality that there is more to life than money. Without them, he would be another smuggler outlaw.
In the Harry Potter books, Voldemort is held up as a constant foil to the main hero. They both have a great deal in common, they both feel like life has been unfair, and they are often taken by a strong sense of rage. In one of the best scenes in the entire film series, Harry is being tortured by Voldemort and the young wizard is especially tormented by how much he has in common with the Dark Lord. But then Harry sees his friends and he says to Voldemort “You’re the weak one. Because you will never know love or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.”
With that, he is able to exorcize Voldemort’s influence. The main difference between the two is that Harry knows love. He has Ron and Hermione as well as his other friends. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore says that “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” These choices are influenced by the company we keep.
That isn’t to say that we are PURELY social animals with no interior and individual identity. But the the company we keep helps to shape even those internal experiences. In The Confessions, St. Augustine writes about his moment of conversion. He was by himself when he heard a voice says “Tolle Lege,” which means “Take up, read.” He followed the voice to a Bible that as open to Romans 13. There he read, ” Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Romans 13:13-14).
Augustine had been on the road to conversion before this point. But he was struggling because he loved have sexual encounters with as many women as he could. But the he could feel in his heart something changing. It finally hit a turning point when he read the passage. He has this solitary experience of reading from the Scriptures and having an internal conversion of heart. Even though he is by himself, I would argue that he would not have had the openness to those words if it had not been for the influence of those in his life. Before his conversion, Augustine had run away from home and was taken in by the Manichean cult, which told him that he could give into all of his sexual desires and still be a moral person. He remained with them for ten years, but he found he was not happy. This villainous company almost completely ruined him. But he had the influence of others who came into his life. His mother, St. Monica, was a constant source of prayers and spiritual strength. St. Ambrose had taken Augustine under his wing. Ambrose not only demonstrated great holiness, but Augustine could see in him the faith and reason bound in a harmonious bond. Without them, I do not know that Augustine would have had the openness to God in his private encounter with Scripture.
Even in our private moments, our tastes, our dispositions, and our perspectives are shaped by our company.
On a personal note, I am still best friends with people from grade school, high school, and college days. I remember on the last day of high school, one of my friends said on the car ride there, “You are my best friends. I grew up with you and because of you.” It was a beautiful statement about how friendship shapes our lives. My friends help support each other in virtue, but we also share many of the same vices. We must always be on guard that we are not being led down path of vice or (possibly worse) we are not leading others into our own vices. Friendships carry with it this danger and we would be foolish not to acknowledge this.
But my friends are such a defining part of me that I do not know who I would be without them.
The same would be true of my best friend: my wife. When God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genes 2:18) I believe it is a reflection of Stein’s point. We need another person to help shape the borders of our being.
We are nearing the end of April, so it's time to look forward to one of my favorite seasons of the year: Summer movie season.
Ron and Jack did not like each other when they first met.
But their stories were more alike than they realized.
Both were orphans. Ron and his brother lost their father very young. Ron's mother fell into poverty and sent her sons to live with relatives in South Africa while she worked herself to death back in England. Jack lost his mother to cancer when he was a child. This caused him and his older brother to stray away from their faith.
Both loved stories of fantasy. Ron had a love of all things Anglo-Saxon and grieved at the lost mythology caused by the Norman invasion. Jack was particularly fond of Norse Mythology. He and his best friend from childhood, Arthur, became close over their shared obsession.
Both fought in World War I and lost friends. Ron had a small group of pals that called themselves the "Tea Cup, Barovian Society." Almost all of them died except Ron and his friend Christopher. During basic training, Jack became friends with fellow soldier Paddy Moore. Both made a pact that if one died and the other didn't that the survivor would take care of the other's parent. Jack made it back. Paddy didn't.
Both pursued a life of academics. Ron was a genius at languages and philology. He achieved the title of "Professor," which is one of remarkable prestige, at the relatively young age of 33. He specialized in Anglo-Saxon. Jack had a love of literature. Nowadays, this is a common pursuit at university English departments, but in his day it was considered spurious. But he eventually was able to find a place teaching at the same university as Ron.
It was at this English Faculty Department meeting on May 11th, 1926 that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien first met "Jack" Clive Staples Lewis.
And as I said, they did not seem to like each other.
I find this tends to be the case with people who have strong personalities. In their own ways, they were strong-willed and precocious. Though Jack published his books under "CS Lewis," none of his friends called him Clive, a name he detested from his earliest days. When he was four-years-old, he walked up to his mother and father and declared that he would no longer answer to the name "Clive" but would only be called Jack or variations of this. I'm sure many of us have made defiant declarations like this at that age, but Jack stuck with it until the end of his days.
When Ron was 16, he fell in love with a 19-year-old fellow orphan named Edith. Born illegitimately and living in the same boarding house, she attracted him and the two became very close. But Ron's guardian forbade him to marry her until he became a legal adult at 21. Edith moved away and eventually became engaged to another man. But at midnight on his 21st birthday, Ron sent a letter to Edith declaring his love and his desire to marry her. She broke off her engagement and soon married Ron. They were together for the rest of her life.
On the night Ron and Jack first met, things did not go well. Alan Jacobs describes the meeting in his wonderful book The Narnian and Jack himself makes mention of it in his diary and autobiography. In Surprised by Joy. Lewis writes, "At my first coming into the world, I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist [i.e. Catholic], and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist [i.e. someone who studies the history of language]. Tolkien was both."
Ron was only six years older than Jack, but he had already achieved an incredible level of success and prominence that Jack was only hoping to attain. Perhaps there was a bit of jealousy on Jack's part. Ron didn't help himself in this matter. As Jacobs points out, Ron never really learned the art of tact. He was by some accounts a prickly personality. He could be incredibly warm, especially to his friends, but to others he could appear standoffish. He told Jack that the literature side of English was rubbish and shouldn't be taught at Oxford, thus dismissing Jack's entire field. In his diary entry that night, Jack wrote of Tolkien, "He is a smooth, pale, fluent little chap... No harm in him: only needs a smack or so."
I don't think either of them knew how important this meeting would be and how it would change the imaginative and spiritual lives of millions around the world for decades to come.
When I was a child, I loved CS Lewis. I read all of The Chronicles of Narnia multiple times in grade school. In fact, I would make it a point of pride to find the book series in my school library, check to make sure they were arranged in the proper order on the shelves, and then make them pop out from the rest of the books.
In junior high, a teacher lent me a copy of The Hobbit. After I read it, she proceeded to give me copies of each part of The Lord of the Rings. The trilogy was much harder to read than Narnia or The Hobbit, but I could feel how I was being taken up into a larger world. Narnia and Middle-Earth loomed large in my imagination. These were worlds of epic adventure, astounding magic, and selfless heroism. It wasn't until I was doing research for a project in high school that I first learned that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were friends. The revelation of this blew my mind.
It wasn't until much later that I realized how special this friendship was.
Ron was a devout Roman Catholic. On their first meeting Jack was an atheist. In addition to this, Jack was burdened with an anti-Catholic prejudice that he never fully overcame in his life. Even their teaching styles were different. Ron would write out his lectures and recite them word-for-word in class, taking no digressions. Jack, with his booming voice, would engage in lively discussion and debate with his students. Their differences were incredibly pronounced. But the funny thing about friendship is that it isn't like romance. The attraction between two friends rarely begins by an attraction to each other. Instead, friendships often form by a mutual attraction to something else.
For Ron and Jack, it was Norse Mythology, just as it was with Jack and Arthur. Ron started a club called the "Kolbitar," meaning "The Coal Biters." This is an old Norse expression for those who would stay up all night until they would talk by the burning coals of the fire. The purpose of the club was to explore the old Norse myths in their original language. Since Jack had a lack of expertise in the language and Ron did, Jack jumped at the chance to join.
And as often happens with a blooming friendship, they found that they could talk about more than just Thor, Loki, Odin, and Balder. As Jacobs points out, Edith came to know that she should not wait up for her husband if he was off to see Jack. The two would talk until the early morning hours. Their mutual love for the old stories drew them ever closer.
But Jack had a problem: as an atheist, he rejected the myths as remnants of a superstitious trait of humanity. But as a man, he could not help but love myths. Ron tried to reach his friend in the best way he knew how: by writing a poem.
Jack had always wanted to be a poet. Moreso than being a professor of philosophy or literature or even an author of prose, Jack wanted to be known for his poems. Unfortunately, his poems never seemed to rise to the level of beauty or popularity that he desired. But Ron understood how important poetry was to Jack and so he wrote for him the poem "Mythopia."
In that poem, Tolkien wrote how those that only see the things of this world as a composition of their material parts do not actually see the things as they are. There is more to this world that physical parts of the universe. Myth opens us up to the deeper truths that are just hidden behind the veil or matter.
But the real change occurs on a night where Ron and Jack were talking with another friend named Hugo Dyson. It was on this night that Jack had to confront a truth in himself: he loved the myth of the dying/rising god in every mythology and religion he encountered except Christianity. He found the myths moving, but the story of Christ is a myth that is also a fact. He concluded that all of the non-Christian myths were God's truth expressed abstractly. But in Christ, God's truth is expressed concretely as both myth and fact.
From that point on, Jack was pulled by the gravitational force of Christ back into the Christian faith. To this day, he is one of the most quoted and referenced Christian apologists of the 20th century. And I am convinced that none of this would have happened without Ron. In friendship, we share so many things. And yet I believe that many of us are shy about sharing our faith. Perhaps we don't want to come off as judgmental (something that can be very poisonous in any conversion process). But if we don't share this part of us that is so important, we could be robbing someone of that life-changing experience of friendship with Christ. If Ron had kept quite, Jack may never have found Christ and neither would the millions who have found Christ through Jack.
Their friendship grew more and more. They developed a strong fellowship with a group of friends that have been called the "Inklings." Very often they would share their literary works with each other. Ron and Jack lamented that people were not writing the stories that they wanted to read. And so they embarked to fix that themselves.
Jack had become a bit of a celebrity during World War II. He had given a series of radio addresses defending the Christian faith that would eventually become Mere Christianity. He had already published a successful novel Out of the Silent Planet as well as his incredibly deep, yet easy-to-read The Problem of Pain. Ron had also found surprising successes with his own story for children: The Hobbit. In 1949, Jack was about to begin his most famous fictional book: The Lion, the Witch, and Wardrobe. This was delayed, because he suffered a bit of a breakdown. He was taking care of his alcoholic brother Warnie as well as Mrs. Moore, Paddy Moore's widowed mother. The utter demands of that as well as his work as an Oxford don was a bit much for him.
However, Jack pulled through and started his wildly popular series, much of which he read to his Inkling friends. Ron had a harder time of it writing. His publisher wanted a sequel to The Hobbit. It started as the adventures of Bilbo's son, Bingo Baggins, and what happens with Bilbo's magical ring. Ron would read passages from his work to the Inklings. He had very extreme reactions to criticism: Ron either argued with you as to why you were wrong in your critique or he would completely scrap the entire section that he wrote.
Ron started, stopped, and started over his Hobbit sequel several times. He often chose to give up the entire endeavor, but Jack would have none of it. Jack knew that Ron had something really special beneath the surface and kept encouraging him to write more.
What we got because of this was The Lord of the Rings. Jack could not have been more effusive in his praise. He wrote that "here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. They will know that this is good news, good beyond hope.”
Friends can do this in such a special way. They can see our potentials even better than we can. And if they give the right kind of encouragement, they can help us achieve a greatness that may have otherwise been beyond our reach.
Now, I wish I could say that Ron and Jack stayed the closest of friends until the end of their days.
I wish I could say that.
But I cannot.
While their relationship never deteriorated in enmity, they lost the closeness that they once had.
There were several reasons for this. As stated before, Jack had become a bit of a celebrity for defending the Christian faith. As a pre-Vatican II Catholic, Ron found this to be highly inappropriate for the laity to be so publicly involved in apologetics. To Ron's mind, this was something only to be done by the clergy.
The second thing was the introduction of Charles Williams to the Inklings. Williams was a writer and a dramatic thinker. Jack was drawn to him and the two started to spend more and more time together. You can see the influence of Williams on Jack's writing. If you read the first two books in his Space Trilogy, you can feel how different the final book (That Hideous Strength) is from the others. The final book reads much more like Williams book than a Lewis book. The closer Jack and Charles became, the more Ron felt pushed out.
Ron even wrote Jack a long, rambling letter trying to express himself. For a man who was a master of words, the letter lacks clarity and cohesion. It is simply a cry from the heart. And it ends with this simple sentence: "I miss you very much"
Jack did not feel the same. When Williams died suddenly, Jack wrote "Now that Charles is dead... I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves." Jack thought that Charles, even in how he brought out a different side of Ron, helped bring them closer together as friends instead of further away. Obviously, Ron did not think so.
And while this cooling of the friendship was bad, it became a heavy break when Jack married Joy Gresham. Ron was already horrified by Jack's theology of marriage, but this was too much for him. Jack had met Joy, an American poet, years earlier. She was seventeen years younger and unlike most of the women he had met. She divorced her husband and immigrated to England with her two sons. In order to stay in the country, she asked Jack to marry her in a civil ceremony. Jacobs argues that Jack was already deeply in love with her at this point, but the two lived separate lives and kept their marriage a secret.
But tragedy struck when Joy was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Not wanting to lose out on what time they had left, Jack married her in a Christian service. Ron was not told. He had to hear it second-hand from one of their mutual friends. As Ron believed in the indissolubility of marriage, he thought that it was immoral to for Jack to marry a divorced woman. Jack, for his part, believed that Joy's first marriage was invalid because her husband was previously married and divorced.
This point in the story always makes me incredibly sad. When I was in high school, I wrote an article in the yearbook about how my biggest fear was losing my friends after graduation. By God's grace, this has been the case for the most part. However, sometimes people do drift away and leave your life. Whenever this happens, it always feels like a piece of myself dies. And in a sense that is true. Our friends help shape who we are. When they leave us, that part of us that comes alive by their presence also goes with them.
Jack and Ron did not speak much after this point. Jack spent his time taking care of Joy and her sons. So late in his life, he did not think he would ever find true romantic love. But he and Joy "feasted on love" so completely that it was better than either of them could have imagined. He wrote "I never expected to have in my sixties, the happiness that passed me by in my twenties."
Before this, Jack had run into professional problems. He had passed over for a professorship at Oxford, which would have given him more money and less work. When this happened, Cambridge decided to offer him a Chair position and make him a full professor. He turned down the offer because he thought he was too old and he thought his responsibilities at home were too much.
But Ron found out and broke his silence to Jack. He encouraged Jack about the job the way that Jack had encouraged him about The Lord of the Rings. Ron personally wrote to and lobbied the members of the committee until they relented and hired Jack. And Jack spent the rest of his professional days as a Cambridge professor.
What I love about this part of their story is that even though friendships cool, real friendships never really have to end. This happened to me a few years ago. I was going through some financial difficulties and was experiencing more stress and anxiety than I had ever felt before. But then out of the blue, a friend who I had not spoken to in years called me up. He gave me great advice about selling some of my collectibles. He was also incredibly kind and encouraging. Our conversation was free and easy, as if no time had passed.
I think with true friends, no matter the space or barriers between us, those invisible strings of fellowship never keep us forever apart. It reminds me to not despair when friends leave our lives. If the doors remain open, they may one day walk through again.
These happy days were not to last for Jack. When Joy eventually died from her cancer, he was devastated. He struggled with the grief that threatened to twist his faith and crush his spirit. Thankfully, he would not have to wait long to be reunited with her.
Three years later, Jack himself took ill from a heart condition. In his last days, he stayed at home with his brother Warnie. On his deathbed, Ron came to visit with his son John. They talked about King Arthur and trees. It reminds me of how most of my conversations with my friends are not so much about the things of our friendship but on the things we love in common. Jack found that in his friendship with his old "coal biter" friend all those many years ago and they closed out their friendship sharing the things they loved.
When I was in the hospital after I broke my back, several of my friends came to visit. Rarely did we speak about our friendship. Instead we talked about movies, pop culture, and the many adventures that we had. These things are the bridge we build together where friends can share the life they have.
And that his what Ron and Jack shared in their last moments together. Jack died on Friday, November 22nd 1963. Few people took note because it was also the same day that John F. Kennedy was killed.
Ron would experience Jack's pain when his own beloved wife Edith died in 1971. Ron would have to wait less time than Jack did to be reunited with his spouse. Ron left this world in 1973.
I like to imagine not only Edith waiting for Ron in heaven, but also Ron's good friend Jack. I like to imagine that all of the strain and hurt and distance would all completely evaporate and that all that remain between them is the love that they shared on earth.
I hope this for me as well. For all the friends that I have loved, and especially to those who have drifted apart, when we enter the Kingdom we will be filled with only the love that grew between us. I hope for this because this is the hope of all friendship. Fellowship can form permanent bonds that will not break no matter how strained and battered and attacked. And if those bonds stay strong, then when we all see each other again, as I hope for the fellowship of Ron and Jack, then it can be truly said of our earthy friendships:
They lived happily ever after.
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature
Readers of this blog know that I love Steven Spielberg. But I was baffled by his choice to do a remake of the much acclaimed and beloved West Side Story. My best guess was that this was a kind of "bucket list" item for him, to take a stab at the one of the greatest movie musicals.
So how does he fair in this experiment?
Visually, the movie is stunning. It's the script that almost sinks the entire project.
For those unfamiliar, West Side Story takes place in the middle of the 20th century in New York. There are two rival gangs: the Puerto Rican "Sharks" and the white "Jets" who are fighting over the streets. As tensions build, one of the founding Jets Tony (Ansel Elgort) falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), who is the sister of the leader of the Sharks Bernardo (David Alvarez ). Things go from dramatic to tragic when Bernardo rumbles with Tony's best friend Riff (Mike Faist) which leads to the sad resolution to the story.
What elevates West Side Story as a musical is the music. Leonard Bernstein's iconic songs and score capture the vibrance, romance, and chaos of the human heart while staking its claim in its own unique sound. There is no other musical that sounds like West Side Story. Spielberg was wise to not touch the score, but let Bernstein's music show itself off to a new generation.
As I said, Spielberg has not lost a beat when it comes to visual storytelling. The first few minutes not only give a feeling of the geography and the squalor, but you get a strong sense of the look and tone of the entire film. I'm not a fan of the decision to keep the colors more muted and desaturated, but Spielberg uses this to great effect when he wants to fill you with ecstatic feeling by over-saturating the colors during scenes like when Bernardo's girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) sings "America." The choreography is also utterly fantastic. (on a random note, I hate how they foley in the sounds of the feet during the choreography. It is incredibly distracting).
The scene where Tony and Maria meet is particularly effective. In the original, the two enter a dream-like sequence where the world disappears. Spielberg opted not to do this and instead go for a more realistic interpretation. However, his scene loses none of the ecstatic romance. His use of light and shadow expertly sets the emotional tone of love at first sight.
I have to say as well that some of the performances are quite excellent. The biggest surprise for me was Elgort's Tony. Based on the trailers, I was incredibly skeptical that he could pull off this iconic role. I was not a fan of his, especially in movies like Baby Driver, where he exuded almost no charm or charisma. However, I was completely wrong. Elgort might be the best part of the movie. He his charismatic, charming, and incredibly likable. He does this while holding back strong masculine power mixed with a little bit of danger.
Zegler is also very good, moving from innocence to tragic wisdom. The two of them have wonderful chemistry, as do DeBose and Alvarez. DeBose recently won an Oscar for this role, and it is well deserved as she does an amazing job of taking us on Anita's journey from confident optimism to utter despair. Rita Morena plays a new character Valentina in place of "Doc" from the original. This is more than a cameo from an original cast member. She brings a quiet dignity to the part with a strong moral center. However, Faist's Riff is nothing to write home about. He never pops off the screen the way the others do. In fact, I have trouble even picturing his face.
So how could the script bring all of this down?
The biggest problem is that Tony Kushner's screenplay insists on "correcting" the original. Movies made in the past are of their time. They do not carry with it our modern sensibilities. Kushner sees this as a problem. But the mixing does not work in the framework of the original story. It reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons when Stan Lee jammed a Hulk action figure into Database's Batmobile, destroying it.
Database: AHHHH you broke my Batmobile!
Stan Lee: Broke or made it better?
That is essentially what Kushner does to West Side Story.
To be fair, there are some things that are improvements. He gives Tony a more dramatic backstory for not wanting to be a part of the fighting anymore. This adds some interesting layers of depth. He also does an excellent job of fleshing out Chino (Josh Andres Rivera) to make him an incredibly intersting foil to Tony.
Other than that, the script is almost completely off of the rails.
In the original, the Jets and the Sharks are reckless youths, prone to pointless violence. However, you are invited to identify with them in their exuberant youth. That's why the original begins with a lengthy wordless sequence where we see members of each gang mess with each other in equal measure. This one begins instead with the Jets acquiring paint to perform a racist hate crime on the Puerto Rican flag. When the Sharks arrive, they are not portrayed as equal hooligans. Instead, the people of the neighborhood clap for them as their defenders.
This completely breaks the movie.
Due to the songs in the musical, we spend way more time with the Jets than the Sharks. We are meant to feel some measure of connection to them. To be sure, they are racists towards the Puerto Ricans in all the versions of the musical. But the original script was smart enough to let cumulative effect of their words and actions redound to the final tragedy so that you were able to follow their emotional journey down to the bottom. But if from the beginning they are the villains, it becomes impossible to really enjoy numbers like "When You're A Jet" or "Officer Krupke." In fact, the original "When You're a Jet" is staged in a way that you feel the links of brotherhood and camaraderie so that you see the appeal of joining this wayward gang. In the modern version, the Jets go around bullying the locals so that the song is an anthem of a hate group.
The script constantly does these "improvements." The character of Anybodys (Iris Menas) was originally a tomboy who wanted into the gang. Kushner uses her as a means to preach about modern issues of sexual identity. The original does not preclude these interpretations, but Kushner thinks that we need to be TOLD these things because we are too stupid to see those possibilities. Another example comes towards the end when Anita gets attacked by the Jets. In the original, this is where you see the complete degeneration of the likable Jets into beastial behavior so that Doc has to shock them into sanity. In the new version, Kushner has Valentina lose all subtlety, telling the Jets "You've grown into rapists." It's not that the line isn't true, its that Kushner thinks that we missed this point in the original and has to spell it out for us like children.
The movie is also oddly and specifically anti-American. While the original shows the ugliness of life in the big city and also the country's hope and promise, it allowed you to make up your own mind as to what conclusion to draw. Instead, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Anita concludes her arc by saying "Yo no soy Americana. Yo Soy Puertorriquena." This is a complete rejection of the idea of America and an acceptance of racial devisions. To be sure, the line is spoken just after she was attacked just for being Puerto Rican. But Kushner uses this as an opportunity to indite the whole of America.
Here's the thing: I have a tendency to excuse Spielberg and lay all the blame on Kushner. After all, the visual storytelling of this movie is fantastic. But I have to remind myself that Spielberg is not a work-for-hire director who gets pushed around by studio interests. All the things in this movie are there because he chose for them to be in there, including the elements of the script that are terrible.
And that is a shame, because if the script had not insisted on talking down to its audience, Spielberg could have pulled off the near-impossible task of matching the quality of the original.
But the experiment ends as tragically as Tony and Maria's romance.
One of the most famous images of Our Lord is the one where He carries the cross up to Calvary. We have all seen this very common image of the the entire cross laid on Jesus’ shoulder as He labors under its weight.
From my studies of Roman crucifixions, this was not the normal way in which a cross was carried. Instead, the vertical part of the cross beam would already be present at the place of execution. The horizontal part of the cross beam would be tied to the condemned person’s outstretched arms and this is what was carried through the streets.
To be clear, I am not here to contradict our traditional images. I wasn’t there. But I want to unpack what this traditional image of the cross symbolizes.
In the movie The Passion of the Christ, the two men who were condemned with Jesus were tied to the horizontal part of the cross beam in the common manner. But with Jesus, He is not tied to the cross. Instead, the present Him the entire cross to carry. Jesus then places His arms around the cross and one of the condemned men shouts: “You fool! Why do you embrace the cross?”
And here is the key to understanding this image of our Lord. The others have the cross fastened to them as an inescapable torture.
Jesus embraces the cross freely.
Everything that happened on that first Good Friday happened because Jesus freely allowed it. As the Son of God, He had the power to end His suffering at any moment. He was not powerless as the other condemned men were. Jesus freely chose to pick up the cross. And the only way He could carry it is if He embraced it.
In this way, it gives us a model for our own lives. We too, must embrace the cross.
Now, I say this as the least stoic person that I know. I am a baby when it comes to pain. The slightest headache has me running for the Tylenol.
And it should be clear that pain for pain’s sake is not good. God is not pleased by the increase in our own personal suffering. There is nothing wrong with taking pain medication or treating our suffering in ethical ways.
But regardless, we do suffer. It is an unavoidable fact of life. But we can embrace our cross rather than run away from it.
Jesus embraces the cross. He embraces all of its pain and shame.
Do we do the same with our crosses?
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature
Death on the Nile feels like sweeping murder-mystery in the classic Hollywood tradition, with a great cast, excellent direction, but falls a bit short because of its artificiality.
The film is a sequel to 2017's Murder on the Orient Express, where we once again have Kenneth Branagh direct and star as Hercule Poirot. And once again we have him placed in an exotic location along with an eclectic cast of characters that include:
-Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) - a beautiful heiress that has just her best friend's ex.
-Simon Doyle (Arnie Hammer) - Linnet's newlywed husband who has taken her on honeymoon to Egypt
-Jacqueline Belfort (Emma Mackey) - Linnet's former best friend who is stalking the wedding party all over the world.
-Bouc (Tom Bateman) - Poirot's friend from the first movie who is also invited to the wedding party.
-Euphemia Bouc (Annette Bening) - Bouc's mother who does not put up with his nonsense.
-Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) - a blues singer who Doyle hired for the wedding party
-Rosalie Otterbourne (Letitia Wright) - Salome's niece who also acts as her manager
-Windlesham (Russell Brand) - Linnet's former fiancé who has been invited to the wedding.
-and many others.
All of them are on a secluded luxury boat as a wedding party floating through the Nile. But then when a murder occurs, Poirot uses all of his considerable deductive powers to find the killer, though that journey will be painful for all involved as secrets are uncovered.
The script by Michael Green wisely takes its time to raise the tension but also to get us to understand all of the characters. With so many potential suspects, we get a chance to get a sense of their personalities and their relationship to the victim so that we can lay our suspicions on everyone as Poirot does.
First of all, the cast is terrific. Branagh does an excellent job of letting each member shine in the limited screen time that they have. This not only draws you to them, but lets you look them over with a suspicious eye. I was particularly impressed with Russel Brand. This is the first time I've ever seen him in a movie where he wasn't simply playing himself. He turns in an actual performance that is quite good.
As with Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh's Poirot is someone whose gift is also their curse. He cannot help but push hard to find the truth, no matter who it injures. One of the things I liked about this film is that it plays on our sense of familiarity with the first one in order to push some of the right buttons. This time we see that is his truly a scarred man, both inside and outside. His fears and affections are brushed aside in order feed his ravenous hunger for truth and justice, no matter the cost.
And just like the last movie, Branagh is able to take an exotic setting and make us really feel the environment. Instead of a train, this time we are on a luxury paddle boat/hotel. The geography of the boat is almost a character in itself and is integral to understanding the mystery.
Thematically, there are several very Catholic themes about love, jealousy, greed, and forgiveness. Poirot seems to have a reservoir of sympathy that is poured out, even for the guilty. That isn't to say that everything is purely moral. There are some hidden affairs and illicit activities that take place, not all of which are shown to be morally wrong. Also you have characters like Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) who constantly spouts Marxist talking points throughout the film. As it takes place in 1938, it would make sense that Communism would be fashionable among some and often her sentiments are challenged.
The biggest shortcoming of the movie is how artificial it feels. Instead of taking us on a journey to the actual Nile, it is clear that most everything is done on green screen. This may be a simple reality of budget, but it nevertheless takes a great deal of the majesty out of the movie. What should be moments of sweeping awe instead feel like cut scenes from a video game. Since Murder on the Orient Express takes place mostly in the snowy mountains, this wasn't really a problem. But because we want to see the great sights of Egypt, we want to also feel their reality.
Nevertheless, I found myself thoroughly engaged and entertained through until the big reveal, which I will not spoil here. But there were enough moments that I did not see coming that made this movie a surprise and a delight to watch.
|photo by Melinda Seckington|