Shotgun Stories (2007) is downright Shakespearean

About ten minutes into Jeff Nichols’ 2007 movie Shotgun Stories, I asked my husband, “Am I crazy, or is this, like, Shakespeare?”

Check it out: In rural Arkansas in the heat of summer, a woman knocks on the door of a shabby house. Her son opens, and she announces, “Your father’s dead.” The three brothers inside respond to this news in various ways, according to their natures. They next turn up at the funeral held by the dead man’s newer wife and his four newer sons, who enjoyed comfort and security after their father gave up alcohol, took up religion, turned his life around — and abandoned his first family entirely. The oldest son interrupts the eulogy to tell the world “You think he was a good man. But he wasn’t,” and he spits on the coffin. The upgraded family doesn’t take kindly to affront, and they take their revenge — and the bitter feud inevitably unfolds from there.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdVw3_FclyY&feature=emb_title
 

“He made like we were never born,” says the oldest son; and then he spends the rest of the film showing the world that, now that the father is dead, the first son is here, and he will not retreat. It is as if he cannot. Later, when his estranged wife finds out that there was a fight at the funeral, she asks him, “You think that was wise?” and he answers, “Doesn’t matter.” All the men in the movie are caught up in a violent drama that rolls out inexorably, as if it’s beyond anyone’s control. It is very hard to fault them for any of the choices they make, even when they will clearly lead to suffering, because they are behaving as one must in their world. It is as if the death of their father abruptly demands a higher, more elemental way of responding to the world — acting, rather than just enduring. (At the same time, at least some of the sons want the next generation to have something different.)

The three sinned-against sons are drawn in a few deft strokes that make fully-realized characters: One ambitious but prideful, one passive but single-minded, and one meek but intensely loyal. They are, you gradually realize, named “Son,” “Boy,” and “Kid,” (even the family dog has a more human name), while the upgraded family of sons are named after the father and after apostles. There is even a “fool,” a meth cooker named “Shampoo,” who cruises in and out of scenes delivering news, badgering, and instigating more drama. We never even see the father, dead or alive, but we know him well, through the memories of the seven sons he left behind.

There may possibly be an Old Testament/New Testament story being played out between the two families, working through themes of fathers who abandon us and yet somehow ordain our every move. I need to watch it again, because I know I missed a lot the first time around. Here’s a trailer that gives a pretty fair overview, although it doesn’t include the other two brothers, which is a shame:

 

What’s extraordinary about Shotgun Stories, and what also blew me away in Mud, also directed by Jeff Nichols, is the sense of place. Rarely, rarely have I seen such a true and real and immediate world through the lens of a movie camera. When the three brothers slump dejectedly in the street of their cracked, tired old town, I feel like I’ve lived there all my life and I’m sick to death of it. When Son reaches down to clear out the drainage pipe in the fish farm where he works, I feel the mindless weariness of it my sore elbow and my damp shirt cuff. I see exactly which parts of the tract home were fixed up by Son’s fed-up but not heartless wife, and which parts have fallen under the fate-haunted influence of the three brothers. The movie is clearly filmed on a shoestring, but it doesn’t look cheap, just true. 

What I haven’t mentioned is how funny the movie is, in unexpected spurts. The third son, Boy (Douglas Ligon), a gentle, pudgy, part-time basketball coach who lives in a van down by the river, tries at one point to hook up a full size air conditioner to his van; and ever since his attempt, his radio will occasionally start blaring cheesy power ballads, and there’s nothing he can do about it. He endures this several times, at the worst possible moments, and it is only after the fourth time that he thinks to turn the volume down. But it is Boy who eventually becomes the center of the action after Son can’t protect his brothers anymore.

The casting is, as in Mud, impeccable, and the acting is flawless. Michael Shannon as Son is tremendous, infuriating and heartbreaking at once, his face conveying three layers of emotion for every word he tightly utters. Like the dead father, the shotgun of the title barely makes it on screen. Instead, you see scars of the past, and are waiting throughout the entire movie to see whether or not it will go off again, and what will come of it all. You will not be able to take your eyes away.

Shannon is also great in Boardwalk Empire (a flawed but fascinating show) and Knives Out. If you read his IMDB page, you’ll be amazed at how many and what varied things he’s been in.  

Rated PG 13. Some violence and fleeting foul language; very intense in mood; suitable for teenagers. Highly recommended!

Where to watch Shotgun Stories

14 family movies we streamed and liked this summer

With museums and movie theaters and amusements parks out, we decided to lean into watching movies — a continuation of our mandatory Friday Lent movie party, but this time, anything is fair game. Damien and I pick something the kids at least might enjoy and appreciate, but that they probably wouldn’t pick on their own. Every few weeks, we let the kids pick what we watch. The idea is to expand their palates a bit and also to have some regular time together, which definitely doesn’t happen on its own.

Our definition of “family movies” may differ from yours! We have a lot of teens and older, so we tend to err on the side of movies that are a bit too old for the minority. We watched a few of these without the youngest kids. In this post, “little guys” refers to kids ages 8 and 5.

We streamed all of these movies, and paid a few dollars for most of them. The information about where to stream movies changes so often, so I just linked to their pages on ReelGood.com and it will show you where you can currently stream them.

I’m gonna cheat and include summaries stolen from various sources:

The Music Man 

Where to watch

When Harold Hill (Robert Preston), a traveling con man, arrives in River City, he convinces the locals to start a band by purchasing the uniforms and instruments from him. His intention is to flee as soon as he receives the money. Librarian Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones) suspects Harold is a fraud, but holds her tongue since her moody brother, Winthrop (Ronny Howard), is excited about the band. As Harold begins to develop feelings for Marian, he faces a difficult decision about skipping town. (Wikipedia)

What a weird movie! Dancing great, music great, really funny stuff. It’s one of those movies you can just enjoy for the syncopation and the choreography and the spectacle, or you can think a bit about who these people are and how they got to be there. I’ve seen it before, but the line “I always think there’s a band, kid” made me cry this time. This was also the first time I thought, “Wait, is Winthrop actually Marion’s secret son?” He could be a change of life baby, but he could also be a secret grandson. Marion tells her mother that the problem isn’t that her standards are too high; it’s that she falls in love too easily, and what she really wants is for someone to stay. There is an awful lot of unacknowledged frenetic sexual energy in this town, as you can see by how easy it is to get everybody dancing like lunatics, but there’s also a heavy layer of refusal to acknowledge it, which amps up the tension.

Anyway, solid, entertaining movie. Some of the kids liked it; some acted like they hated it more than I think they actually did. 

All ages.

North By Northwest

where to watch

North by Northwest is a tale of mistaken identity, with an innocent man pursued across the United States by agents of a mysterious organization trying to prevent him from blocking their plan to smuggle out microfilm which contains government secrets. (Wikipedia)

This is one of Damien’s favorites.   I’ve definitely come to appreciate Cary Grant more over the years. I used to find him so slick and repellant, but he’s much more of a comic actor than I ever realized. This character a man whose life was in trouble long before he accidentally got caught up in foreign intrigue. 

All ages, but younger kids will struggle to follow the plot. 

Young Frankenstein

where to watch

Respected medical lecturer Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) learns that he has inherited his infamous grandfather’s estate in Transylvania. Arriving at the castle, Dr. Frankenstein soon begins to recreate his grandfather’s experiments with the help of servants Igor (Marty Feldman), Inga (Teri Garr) and the fearsome Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman). After he creates his own monster (Peter Boyle), new complications ensue with the arrival of the doctor’s fiancée, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn).(Wikipedia)

The most perfect movie ever made. About 40% of the things we say to each other in this house are quotes from Young Frankenstein. If you have seen this movie and didn’t think much of it, I don’t know what to say to you. If you’re one of those, “Oh, I love Mel Brooks! Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men In Tights are the best things I’ve ever seen!” people, you can just leave. The best Mel Brooks movies are the ones where he’s satirizing genres he knows intimately and loves ardently; the worst ones are the ones where he’s clearly just cashing in on a popular trend. 

All ages, although it’s bit risqué for the younger kids, but I think most of the naughty stuff went over their heads. Younger kids may find it scary.  

Galaxy Quest

where to watch

A parody of and homage to science-fiction films and series, especially Star Trek and its fandom, the film stars Tim AllenSigourney WeaverAlan RickmanTony ShalhoubSam Rockwell and Daryl Mitchell. It depicts the cast of a fictional defunct cult television series, Galaxy Quest, who are visited by actual aliens who think the series is an accurate documentary, and become involved in a very real intergalactic conflict. (Wikipedia)

The kids chose this one. I’ve seen it a few too many times, but it’s entertaining and solid and ultimately very sweet. Great casting, and nice to see a movie where nerdy kids aren’t dunked on. Same plot as The Three Amigos, which I also wouldn’t mind re-watching. 

All ages. There are some scary scenes of chasing and torture. 

Key Largo

where to watch


This classic film noir by John Huston stars Humphrey Bogart as World War II vet Frank McCloud. Visiting Key Largo to pay his respects to the family of his late war buddy, McCloud attempts to comfort his comrade’s widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall), and father, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), who operate a hotel. But McCloud realizes that mobsters, led by the infamous Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), are staying in the hotel. When the criminals take over the establishment, conflict is inevitable. (Synopsis by Google)

This movie makes you feel like you’re going cuh-razy. Such fantastic tension and atmosphere and sense of place. Apparently Clare Trevor’s wretchedness and nervousness when she’s forced to sing for her drink were only partially her acting, because she wasn’t given the chance to practice beforehand, and they just filmed a raw take, which was mean but effective. It’s a noir film that shows gangsters as gross and pettily cruel rather than glamorous. It’s so unfair that Frank McCloud has to fight at home after he’s done fighting in the war, but evil be like that. Very satisfying ending.  

All ages, but younger kids may be a bit bored. There is a lot of action, but much of the tension comes from characters having to face interior choices. The kids were, for some reason, fascinated at Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall essentially wearing matching outfits. 

Knives Out

where to watch

The circumstances surrounding the death of crime novelist Harlan Thrombey are mysterious, but there’s one thing that renowned Detective Benoit Blanc knows for sure — everyone in the wildly dysfunctional Thrombey family is a suspect. Now, Blanc must sift through a web of lies and red herrings to uncover the truth. (Google synopsis)
 

The best new movie I’ve seen in years. I had no idea what was going to happen, right down to the last drop, and it worked out so much better than I could have hoped. So funny and weird and exciting. Immensely satisfying and original. Everybody liked it. Totally earned all the accolades it got. It was very tense and fairly violent, so the little guys didn’t watch it, but its moral compass was right on.

This is a movie to own and re-watch. 

Night of the Hunter

where to watch

The Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a religious fanatic and serial killer who targets women who use their sexuality to attract men. Serving time in prison for car theft, he meets condemned murderer Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who confesses to hiding $10,000 in stolen loot. Released from jail, Powell is obsessed with finding the money, and he tracks down Harper’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), and her two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). (Google synopsis)

Watch it just for the sheer beauty. If your kids are resistant to watching black and white movies, this might be a good intro. Unforgettable. We had some good conversations about the sort of surreal stylized aesthetic and how some of the characters delivered their lines. It occurs to me that one of the main themes is responsibility: What do you take on and what do you shuffle off on other people? Maybe the real villain is Ben Harper, hmmmm? The preacher, who thinks of himself as some kind of willing vessel of God’s will, is not entirely wrong about being just an agent. There are lots of villains of different degrees in this story. 

All ages, but haunting and may be upsetting for youngest kids. It shows a drowned woman and includes an execution, and the whole movie centers on kids in terrible peril. Those child actors were SO GOOD.

District 9

where to watch

Thirty years ago, aliens arrive on Earth — not to conquer or give aid, but to find refuge from their dying planet. Separated from humans in a South African area called District 9, the aliens are managed by Multi-National United, which is unconcerned with the aliens’ welfare but will do anything to master their advanced technology. When a company field agent (Sharlto Copley) contracts a mysterious virus that begins to alter his DNA, there is only one place he can hide: District 9. (Google synopsis. This isn’t a very good synopsis, fyi.)

Just for the high school kids. Quite violent and disgusting and upsetting, but also one of the most thoughtful science fiction movies I’ve seen. It really worked through how modern people might behave under the circumstances; and they did a wonderful job showing emotion on entirely alien faces, and showed a persuasive change of heart via ordeal. Also very funny. But, I must stress, disgusting. 

Shazam

where to watch

We all have a superhero inside of us — it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In 14-year-old Billy Batson’s case, all he needs to do is shout out one word to transform into the adult superhero Shazam. Still a kid at heart, Shazam revels in the new version of himself by doing what any other teen would do — have fun while testing out his newfound powers. But he’ll need to master them quickly before the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana can get his hands on Shazam’s magical abilities. (Google synopsis)

This movie was a little messy, but we all really liked it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie focused on the foster care system before. As such, it was a bit precious, but it is also a kid superhero movie, so I think they earned some wiggle room to portray people in a somewhat cartoonish way, though the lens of an immature person (and in this, they achieved what I think Jojo Rabbit tried and failed to do, and it definitely nailed the way two teenage boys would explore the sudden acquisition of superpowers. The opening scene is pretty violent and shocking, but the rest is scary and tense but not inappropriate for younger kids. We all agreed that, while the seven deadly sins were neat, most of them were just portrayed as generically creepy, when they could have been vividly individual. We loved the scenes where the two boys are testing out the limits of the superpowers, and we liked the very realistic crisis of conscience Billy faces. The kids picked up on how his memory of his mother differs subtly from her own memory, and we talked about people doing their best when their best just isn’t very good. Not a perfect movie, but thought-provoking and entertaining. Definitely worth a re-watch.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

where to watch

Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are high school buddies starting a band. However, they are about to fail their history class, which means Ted would be sent to military school. They receive help from Rufus (George Carlin), a traveler from a future where their band is the foundation for a perfect society. With the use of Rufus’ time machine, Bill and Ted travel to various points in history, returning with important figures to help them complete their final history presentation. (Google synopsis)

Although I was 14 when this movie came out, I have somehow never seen it. Unexpectedly sweet and funny stuff, and I know it’s not just the nostalgia factor that made me laugh out loud. Some mildly naughty humor, and of course the heroes are not exactly role models, but they kinda are. Really cute.

Yojimbo

where to watch

A nameless ronin, or samurai with no master (Toshirô Mifune), enters a small village in feudal Japan where two rival businessmen are struggling for control of the local gambling trade. Taking the name Sanjuro Kuwabatake, the ronin convinces both silk merchant Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara) and sake merchant Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura) to hire him as a personal bodyguard, then artfully sets in motion a full-scale gang war between the two ambitious and unscrupulous men. (Google synopsis)

This is another one of those movies that makes you feel like you’re going crazy when you watch it, in a good way. You feel like you have grit in your clothes and you feel like a murderous wind is blowing on your sunburned cheeks. Also, I could stare at Toshirô Mifune all day and I don’t care who knows it. Anyone who wants to make a “complicated hero for complicated times” movie should watch this first. Just watch the way he’s always scratching himself, and his posture. 
I kind of wish I could re-score it, though. The music is so dated, it became intrusive after a while. 

All ages. Some of the kids found it just too foreign – not just because it had subtitles, but that is one heckin different culture. I think most of the kids found it at least interesting.

Cast Away

where to watch

Obsessively punctual FedEx executive Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is en route to an assignment in Malaysia when his plane crashes over the Pacific Ocean during a storm. The sole survivor of the flight, Chuck washes ashore on a deserted island. When his efforts to sail away and contact help fail, Chuck learns how to survive on the island, where he remains for years, accompanied by only his handmade volleyball friend, Wilson. Will Chuck ever return to civilization and reunite with his loved ones? (Google synopsis)

This is another movie that had more on its mind than I remember from last time I watched it. Rare to see a movie where there aren’t any bad guys, just reasonably decent people who could be better, and decent people in bad situations. The island is his ordeal, but his main struggle is, of course, actually with himself . . . or, you know, with life itself; and the same is true of his wife. Really interesting stuff.

We watched this with kids age 9 and up, and they found some scenes terrifying, but not unmanageable. Some left the room during the tooth scene, but everyone liked the movie overall.

True Grit

where to watch

After an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) murders her father, feisty 14-year-old farm girl Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a boozy, trigger-happy lawman, to help her find Chaney and avenge her father. The bickering duo are not alone in their quest, for a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is also tracking Chaney for reasons of his own. Together the unlikely trio ventures into hostile territory to dispense some Old West justice. (Google synopsis)

Well, this movie is just heartbreakingly good. Maybe the Cohen brothers’ best. So many appealing and appalling characters, such gorgeous camera work, such impeccable pacing. GOR-GE-OUS.Thrilling and funny and unforgettable. Fairly violent, so probably for middle schoolers and up.

Hamilton

where to watch

It was . . . good. We let all the kids watch it, despite the cussing and the plot that includes adultery and whatnot. I thought it was good, really. Well, probably I should write up a separate review just for Hamilton. 

Okay, that’s it! I know I’m missing some, so maybe I can do a part 2 by the end of the summer. I feel better about the c r a p the kids often watch when I know they’re also watching things I think are worthwhile. 

How about you? Seen anything remarkable lately? 

 

 

 

‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’: A searing but flawed film about abortion

I suppose America asked me to review “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” because I am pro-life but critical of the mainstream pro-life movement. I especially reject pro-lifers who demonize women and make excuses for men, and who refuse to understand why abortion feels like the only choice for some women. Things are slowly changing, but much of pro-life culture is still propaganda. I abhor propaganda, even when I agree with the message it delivers. If I’m watching a movie, I want a work of art, not a wheelbarrow for dumping a message at my feet.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” written and directed by Eliza Hittman, is no wheelbarrow. It is a deft, delicate and sometimes searingly painful and realistic portrayal of two teenage cousins, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and Skylar (Talia Ryder), who travel from their rural Pennsylvania town to New York City, where Autumn can get an abortion without parental consent. For a longish film, it is short on plot and dialogue, relying heavily and successfully on glances, murmurs and laconic comments. The script and acting are superb, flawless. This film never tells, only shows, and it does it so well.

Maybe too well. Read the rest of my review for America Magazine.

Lent movie review Vol. 5: LILIES OF THE FIELD

I knew next to nothing about Lilies of the Field (1963), and had never seen Sidney Poitier act. I was unexpectedly delighted on both counts. You more or less know the whole plot from the first moments, but how it plays out is a pleasure to see. It’s a sort of “stone soup” story, but it’s populated with real people, all more or less decent, but each with their individual character kinks to work out. 

The plot: A cheerful, unattached fellow (Poitier) is driving through the Arizona desert and stops at a tiny, austere convent to fill up his radiator. The overbearing mother superior (Lilia Skala) persuades him to do a little work, and he quickly becomes unable to extricate himself from her grand plan to build a chapel despite having no money or materials. The five German nuns and the rest of ragged congregation need some place better than the back of a truck to celebrate Mass, and Mother Maria thinks Homer Smith, a black baptist, was sent by God to make it happen.

Mother Maria has a rock solid faith in God, but her life of struggle (only fleetingly alluded to) has made her hard as a rock, as well, and she doesn’t bend even when she should. When Homer, slowly resigning himself to see the project through, kindly turns up with cartons of groceries to feed the near-starving sisters, she goes through some kind of brief emotional difficulty and then shouts at him to wash his hands and face. As he leaves the room, she thanks God for the food. 

“How about thanking me, too, eh?” asks Homer. She answers, “No. I thank Him. You, you couldn’t help yourself.”

Which is apparently true! And we’ve all met women like this, who somehow make people do things, good things, almost entirely against their will. I so appreciated seeing on screen that people who get things done are not always people you enjoy hanging around with. But she, too, gets a small but powerful moment of comeuppance before the end, and it comes about so slyly and so naturally, it made us laugh out loud. 

Homer himself clearly has some things to work out with God, mixed up with his ambitions and his pride. In the end, he writes his name where only God can see it, and you can see that some interior need has been satisfied.

The trailer makes the movie look slapstick-y and even minstrel-y, which is misleading. It is a comedy, but in context, Poitier is a very subtle actor, and you can see his character deliberately sliding in and out of different personas depending on what’s called for. And there is a lot of complexity to manage, for a guy who tries to keep things simple and above-board. He’s a black baptist trying to hold his own with a German mother superior, a condescending white boss, and a crew of Mexican laborers. It’s a comedy, as I say, but I was surprised at how many real notes it struck along the way as it showed the interactions between people who don’t share a race, a religion, a social class, or even a language. In this way, it fully earned the hijinks and broadly joyful tone.

One funny point: In the last movie we watched, Babette’s Feast, the Catholic world is presented as being incarnational and alarmingly, joyfully fleshly.  In this one, the “Baptist breakfast” is lavish and satisfying, but a “Catholic breakfast” is a single egg. It just goes to show, I guess. 

I also loved the character of the faithful but disenchanted traveling priest in his sloppy RV, standing before the altar in his vestments and sunglasses. Very real.

My tiny quibbles: they should have picked someone else to dub Poitier’s singing. The voice (Jester Hairston, who wrote the song) doesn’t really match his speaking voice. But Poitier (who apparently was totally tone deaf) does a pretty good job of making it look like it’s coming out of his mouth. A counterpoint is that the sisters singing (which was apparently also overdubbed, but in this case to make them sound worse, not better) sound like normal women singing, not like an etherial choir, which I appreciated. 

I also giggled to myself as the Mexican lapsed Catholic diner cook speaks (Stanley Adams). Most of the time, his Mexican accent won the day, but his undeniable Brooklyn accent got the upper hand a few times. 

At one point, Poitier, in a sort of cultural exchange, teaches the sisters the song “Amen” and they instantly begin singing back to him in harmony, which injects a tiny false note; but the scene is still completely charming and effective. They use the device of Smith singing out the entire life of Jesus to the backdrop of the sisters repeating, “Amen, amen” to great effect throughout the movie (and now I’m hearing my kids singing it to themselves, which is great!).

All in all, highly recommended for the whole family, and genuinely funny. I plan to seek out more Poitier movies, too. 

Next up: Probably we’ll do a double header, and have the little guys watch The Miracle Maker and then send them to bed so the older kids and adults can watch something rougher. I’d like to watch Silence or Calvary, but we shall see.

Lent movie review Vol. 4: BABETTE’S FEAST

Last week’s Lent film party pick was a change of pace from . . . pretty much everything else we ever watch, especially the kids. It’s the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast.

Heres the trailer:

Here’s a synopsis, which I lifted from Google:

Beautiful but pious sisters Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) grow to spinsterhood under the wrathful eye of their strict pastor father on the forbidding and desolate coast of Jutland, until one day, Philippa’s former suitor sends a Parisian refugee named Babette (Stéphane Audran) to serve as the family cook. Babette’s lavish celebratory banquet tempts the family’s dwindling congregation, who abjure such fleshly pleasures as fine foods and wines. 

One would-be suitor would have made one sister a diva; the other would have abandoned his own wealth and status and lived a simple life. Both end up wondering if their chosen path was right. But the sisters’ pious lives are also lacking, it turns out. Simply abjuring their tiny, puritan congregation to love one another isn’t working, and even in their old age, the people are full of spite, wrath, jealousy, and regret. But they think the real danger is exterior, in the wine, rich sauces, and strange meats offered to them by Babette in the feast she insists on cooking to celebrate their father’s anniversary. Despite their misgivings, they accept it out of an unwillingness to hurt Babette, who, she points out, has never asked anything of them in all the years she’s lived among them.

The food and especially the wine opens their hearts in spite of them, and there’s a wonderfully sweet scene where the white-haired flock, newly reconciled, join hands and dance and sing around the well under the light of the stars. Notably, the song they sing is the same song they have always sung, longing for Jerusalem. 

Many reviewers have compared Babette’s transformative and sacrificial feast to a Eucharistic meal, with Babette as a sort of servant-God who gives everything she has, trading her wealth and near-divine culinary genius for voluntary exile among sinners, and saving them from their error and woe. But it’s a mistake to see the story as a condemnation of asceticism and praise of Catholic sensuous excess, and it’s definitely a mistake to see it as some kind of allegory or lesson. It is a very Catholic story, but it’s a story about the bewilderment of free will, and the forthright, uncomplicated graciousness of love.

“We get back even what we have rejected,” says the aging general. He is the only one who has tasted these fine foods and wines before and recognizes what they are, but even though Babette remembers that she used to make people happy for a short time when she fed them back in Paris, it’s hard to imagine her brilliance would have had the transcendent, transformative effect on the Parisian elite as it did on the stolid, fearful Danes. Even the fearsome patriarch, who imposed the congregation’s austerity and selfishly kept his daughters from blossoming, is clearly not simply a villain, but actually walked across the water to bring the word of God to his people, at least as he saw it. Everyone in the movie has rejected something, even Babette — some for good reasons, some for bad reasons, some for only a faint ghost of a reason. Everyone has erred; and God is good to everyone, according to their need.

The general stands up and makes a speech with the final glass of wine:

“Man in his weakness and short-sightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no, our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when your eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us and everything we have rejected has also been granted. Yes, we get back even what we have rejected. For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”

It stands out as an oddly specific and articulate monologue in a story that’s told mostly through long shots of people walking, working with their hands, singing, spooning out soup. It’s hard to resist pouncing on this passage and analyzing it to pieces; but really all he’s saying is that goodness is real, and we’ll receive it when we’re ready. (I love the fact that many of the people at the feast don’t even know the wine is wine, but it works its magic anyway.) That’s the best way to watch the movie: Just sit and receive it. 

The whole family watched it, and the only one who didn’t enjoy it to some degree was the five-year-old, who couldn’t read the subtitles. It’s quiet and slow, but not dull. It’s absolutely gorgeous to look at, strange, gentle, and very funny, too, and the individual characters are drawn so deftly. So many wonderful faces. Just a joy to receive. 

We streamed this movie through Amazon for $3.99. Other movie reviews in this series:
I Confess
The Robe
The Trouble With Angels
Next up: probably The Keys of the Kingdom or Lilies of the Field

 

Lent Movie Review Vol. 3: THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS

See previous installations of our Friday Night Lent Film Party series: I CONFESS and THE ROBE

Everyone disliked The Robe pretty thoroughly and we wanted something very different, so we went with The Trouble With Angels (1966). No one in our family had seen this one before. We streamed it through Amazon for $3.99. Warning, this post will contain a spoiler.

 

The plot: Mary, a born leader and troublemaker (Hayley Mills), and Rachel, a willing follower (June Harding), are high school girls deposited at St. Francis Academy for Girls, where they immediately begin to hatch “scathingly brilliant ideas” for how to subvert the peace and stability of the school. The imperturbable Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) is their particular nemesis whose patience is put to the test more and more.

The story is an episodic series of pranks and escapades, but it is gradually revealed that the various teaching nuns aren’t just all quirky in their own ways, but many of them have poignant, sometimes tragic pasts that led them to the convent. This is not lost on Mary, even as she continues to torment them and flout their rules. Eventually, Mary and Rachel’s mischief goes too far; but when their guardians are called in for an expulsion interview, Mother Superior discovers that Mary, too, has her reasons for being the way she is, and she has mercy on her (and sees promise in her). At the end, when the girls are graduating, Mother Superior announces that two girls will be joining the convent as novices, and one of them is Mary. Rachel is furious and feels betrayed, but Mary is at peace with her decision, and it’s clear that she can be who she is but may still have a true vocation. 

So, this is a very 1966 movie. It’s very mannered, and some stretches are tedious, and the some of the sight gags are painfully dated. There are some uncomfortable moments where the camera lingers on young girls’ thighs and bottoms for laughs. The accents are a mess, and it’s unclear exactly where the school is. There’s not a scrap of subtlety in sight.

At the same time, the movie doesn’t steal any bases. All the elements are there for the story of Mary’s gradual maturation, and Mother Superior’s growing affection, to make sense and feel real (and it is, in fact, based on a memoir, Life with Mother Superior by Jane Trahey). Haley Mills is a much better actor than I realized, and there were a few truly moving moments, as well as several funny ones. I liked that it showed true friendship between the nuns, as well. I would have liked it better if they cut about twenty minutes out, but I did like it.

Overall, recommended. The animated opening and closing credits are a lot of fun, too.

Next up: I don’t know! I’ll probably push for Babette’s Feast.  The kids somehow manage to read subtitles when they’re watching their Dragonballs, so they can’t beg off on those grounds.

Some of us also re-watched Hail, Caesar, which I appreciated even more after having seen The Robe. I love Hail Caesar so much. The Cohen brothers are upfront about not knowing what to do about God (“Divine presence to be shot,” it says on the screen of the religious epic they’re filming, to mark the place where they’ll add in God later), but it’s less nihilistic and less yearning, overall, and very sweet and very funny. Everyone is just doing their best, according to their very varied abilities. Recommended all to pieces, probably for ages 10 and up.

 

 

Lent Movie Review #2: THE ROBE

We watched our second Mandatory Lent Film last Friday. It has come to my attention that I titled the first post in this series “Lent Film Movie Review #1: I CONFESS.” If you don’t see anything wrong amiss with that title, then you, too, need to get more sleep rest, too. 

No one in our family had seen The Robe before, but we are all very fond of The Ten Commandments, so we were prepared for it to be similarly spectacular, clunky, cheesy, and heartfelt. But we all came away feeling icky and discontented. Here’s the trailer:

They set about to make a movie about the early Christians, beginning with just before the entry into Jerusalem and ending after the Ascension. You never really see Jesus; you only see Him pass by briefly in a few scenes. Instead, the story follows people who have seen Him, and whose lives are changed forever because of it.

Do they pull it off? No, they do not. (I have no idea if the novel on which it’s based is any better.) 

The plot: An alleged ne’er-do-well Roman tribune, Marcellus Galio (Richard Burton), pisses off Caligula by arrogantly bidding against him for a Greek slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), and is punished by being sent to Jerusalem. Demetrius, who sticks with Marcellus out of honor, sees Jesus pass by on a donkey, makes eye contact, and converts on the spot. But Marcellus is ordered to crucify Jesus, and then wins his robe in a game of dice. Sadly, the robe (The Robe) apparently makes him go cuckoo, and this causes no end of troubles for him, as cuckoo tribunes are not considered the best tribunes, even in Very Degenerate Rome.

He staggers around the middle east and Capri for a while, and meets a bunch of Christians, including a gauzily serene Peter (“The Big Fisherman;” Michael Rennie) who has the highest cheekbones on the whole continent and who glides around like he’s on castors. Eventually Marcellus comes to realize that his problem isn’t The Robe; it’s guilt. Marcellus then feels better and stops pawing at himself all the time.

But Demetrius gets captured. Marcellus stages a putatively daring rescue, and Peter heals Demetrius, who has been tortured almost to death. This impresses Marcellus’ girlfriend, Diana (Jean Simmons). To be fair, everything impresses her. I’m not sure she even has eyelids.

Diana, introduced early on as his childhood sweetheart, was originally supposed to marry Caligula, but is in love with Marcellus, so she pulls strings to get him out of trouble, but then risks her own hide to stick up for him when he’s eventually arrested for treason against Rome. I forgot to mention her sooner because the chemistry between Diana and Marcellus is like the chemistry between, I don’t know, a piece of toast and a yoyo. You can push them up against each other, but nothing much happens except a sort of dry crunching sound. 

This lack of chemistry partially explains is why the ending was is so distasteful. Marcellus refuses to renounce Christ, so he’s sentenced to die, and Diana sticks with him, so she has to be executed, too. She doesn’t know much about Jesus, but she [checks notes] just loves Marcellus so much, especially the way he’s always gripping her by the upper arms. In the final scene, off they go, up a sort of celestial ramp of spiritual winning, looking drugged out of their gourds while a chorus screams hallelujah. And that’s the end. 

What the movie was supposed to show was the widening circle of influence that Christ has. He’s so compelling and life-altering that people he meets meet other people and they become Christians too, and it spreads and spreads, because it’s so powerful and new.

But you only know this because people keep saying so. The Christianity the show you in The Robe is incredibly weak tea. It’s vague idea of justice and freedom and something better. You do see some example of people being good to each other, and you see a lot of blissed-out, thousand-mile gazes, but that’s it. The dry, crunching sound of zero chemistry is how the movie presents the entire faith. Nothing I saw on screen would explain why anyone was willing to give up power and prestige and family and die for it. If the movie were about a short-lived cult that, through the use of some dubious magic tricks, inexplicably made a ripple for a few years before dying off, it would be a lot more persuasive.  

Richard Burton is painfully miscast, and never stops looking uncomfortable (even for Richard Burton). You know almost nothing about him, before, during, or after his conversion. His guilt is manifested mainly as Shatneresque convulsions and shouting, and his newfound faith is simply the absence of convulsions, with calm shouting. By the end of the first hour, I was ready to lean on my influence with the emperor to get him off that movie set.  

There are some fighting and action scenes that are complete snoozers. Clang, clang, clang, you really just don’t care. And the corn was just SO CORNY, even for a 1953 Biblical epic. Early on, we meet someone any halfwitted cat would immediately understand is Judas, but it takes several minutes for him to announce that he’s named “Judas,” and then when he says his name, there is such a deafening clap of uh-oh thunder, Cecil B. DeMille would have gasped at the excess.

Oh, here it is. The kids laughed their heads off. 

There were parts I enjoyed. Despite myself, I liked the scene where the gal is sitting in a house with new Christians, strumming a lyre and singing about Jesus. It was corny and faux-exotic, but it was also kind of nice, and I can believe that this was how the Gospel was spread at least sometimes. I liked Demetrius’ conversion, and his character was pretty solid in general. He was one character who seemed to have some specific personality after his encounter with Christ. I liked the kid who just kept shouting, “KICK HIM! KICK HIM!”

I liked the crucifixion scene best. It was eerie and upsetting, and Victor Mature did a good job with a not-much role. (Careful, don’t touch the screen. The paint is still drying on the mountains.)

 

The sets were fakey fun, very dramatic and nice to look at. And oh my heart, those costumes. If you are the kind of person who will watch anything as long as it’s draped well, then this is the movie for you. So many miles and flowing miles of silk and linen. So many shimmering colors. It really made me want to be a wealthy ancient Roman, which I don’t think was the goal. 

Welp, that’s it. It was just a turkey. Now we know. 

We streamed it through Amazon for $3.99. Have you seen this movie? What did you think? If you like it, how old were you when you first saw it?

Next up: Probably Babette’s Feast or Calvary. The older kids really hated The Robe, so I want to show them something good. We’ll probably watch Calvary first on our own, so we can decide which age group it’s appropriate for. 

 

Lent Film Movie Review #1: I CONFESS

We are watching an edifying, religious-themed movie with the family on Fridays in Lent. Complete list here. Review #1: I CONFESS (1953). Every time I number something, it peters out pathetically, but this time will be different. I can feel it. 

Honestly, I didn’t expect a lot from this movie. I expected some rather stilted drama and rushing around and dramatic lighting, but not a lot of plot. Silly me, it’s Alfred Hitchcock. It wasn’t absolute Grade A Hitchcock, but it was tightly constructed, compelling, a little weird, and unpredictable throughout the whole movie, with lots of yummy dramatic camera work. I wanted the kids to see a movie where the priest is the hero, and it did a good job of portraying a priest (Montgomery Clift) who is pretty noble and brave, but is also a regular guy. Not only does it show him struggling with the choices he has to make, but it shows him before he was ordained, as a soldier and as a normal guy with a girlfriend.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, but once the painfully suspenseful part is apparently over and Fr. Logan has come out victorious, and you think, “Ah, he’s passed the test and done what a good priest ought to do!” . . .  that’s when the really awful part begins for him. It doesn’t last long, but it’s pretty rough! Good stuff. A solid and engaging movie, and the final scene packs a good punch. 

The whole family watched this (youngest is five and oldest is 21) and they all seemed to follow it easily. Some of these kids do get squirrelly when we try to show them a black and white movie, but they seemed interested and engaged throughout.

It turned out a few of the kids were a little wobbly on the details of the seal of confession, so we did stop the movie a few times and reinforce that what they were seeing on screen was accurate (if somewhat more dramatic than what most priests face). They were impressed.

The only weensy theological complaint I had was that, when Fr. Logan is staggering around Quebec going through his agony, he doesn’t run to the tabernacle for solace, which is what I would expect a priest in dire straits to do; but he just kind of suffered around town.  He speaks and behaves as if God is very real to him, but it doesn’t actually get shown much in the movie itself. He does pass under a statue of Christ carrying the cross at one point. I just would have liked to see more of the spiritual side of his suffering. What we see is mostly the emotional side. But it’s not really that kind of movie, I guess. 

Oh, and I feel the gal (Anne Baxter) ought to have had a lot more comeuppance than she got, but in a Hitchcock movie, you should just be glad he didn’t have her skinned and made into slippers or something, I guess.  

It was odd and sad to see everyone on screen behaving as if a Catholic priest is the last one you’d ever suspect of doing something wrong (and there are so many priests! Just priests everywhere!). But the central plot was a good reminder that the priesthood itself hasn’t changed, and I know priests nowadays who would absolutely do just what Fr. Logan did. They just don’t happen to look like Montgomery Clift.

All around, entertaining and yes, edifying. Recommended. 

We watched this through Amazon Prime. It was $2.99 to stream it as a rental. 

Next up: Either Song of Bernadette or Babette’s Feast.

Ain’t no party like a Lent film party, ’cause a Lent film party is MANDATORY. 

During Lent this year, we’re going to watch an edifying, well-made family movie every week, possibly on Friday nights. That means everyone has to watch it. That means you can’t be on Instagram or drawing BTS fan art while you’re watching it! My stars, how penitential can you get? 

We haven’t watched many of the typical Catholic movies that Catholic families watch, so this is probably a pretty basic list. There are seven Fridays in Lent this year, but I guess we’ll skip Good Friday. Here’s my list so far. Suggestions welcome!

 

I Confess

“With the brand of Alfred Hitchcock burned into every scene!” Sold! I could go for a “priest as hero” movie. 

Song of Bernadette. I have never seen this movie, but we are way, way behind on our apparition education. The kids know about Our Lady of Guadalupe and I think that may be it, oops. People tell me this movie holds up, if you can put up with some dated acting, and it has Vincent Price in it. Good enough for me. 

The Miracle Maker (1999)

A stop motion animated life of Christ I saw several years ago, and was impressed by. It does have some scenes that would be alarming for little guys. I remember it as being not perfect but pretty gripping. 

Becket (1964)

Mehh, maybe not. I think the older kids have actually seen this one, so this is not high on my list. The one thing I learned from watching it is that excommunication is extremely dramatic and noisy, and it turns out it’s actually not, so I may have an unreasonable grudge against this movie. Gosh, I love Richard Burton’s face, though. I always want to bring him some hot milk and give him the day off. 

Calvary

Well, this looks really good. I somehow missed hearing about it when it came out. 

Looks like it would be for teenagers only. I am always drawn to movies that portray characters as fully human, but with great dignity. Looking forward to it. 

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Again, I think the kids have seen it, and I’ve seen it a few times. I’m not excited about watching it, but I’m not ruling it out. 

The Trouble with Angels (1966)

In my head, this is mushed in with The Bells of Saint Mary’s and other goofy, disposable Catholic kitsch, but Damien says there’s something more to it. So let’s find out!

Babette’s Feast (1987)

It turns out Damien hasn’t seen this! It’s very hard to find a movie he hasn’t seen. 

I haven’t seen this movie since college. I remember it as weird, funny, beautiful, moving, and nice and dark so the subtitles actually show up. Also, it’s not about priests or sisters, which makes it a standout on this list. 

The Mission (1986)

I haven’t seen this since college but a few scenes have stayed with me. Probably just for the older kids, right? It’s not actually high on my list, but I could be persuaded.

The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

Here’s one I know nothing about. Looks interesting. Anybody? 

The Robe

Damien and I have both neither seen this. (I know that sentence has some problems, but I’m on vacation. You know what I mean.) I guess I’ll sit and watch Victor Mature and Richard Burton try to out-act each other; twist my arm. I gather The Robe is essentially the movie they were making in Hail, Caesar (which I LOVED, by the way. We can watch that one after Easter, I guess.) I looked up a review and the first one makes scathing reference to “leftist Hollyweird,” and the second one is a complaint that it’s revisionist Christianity because it doesn’t make the Jews look bloodthirsty enough. Yeah, you know what, we’re watching it. 

Lilies of the Field

Another movie I know nothing about. I have never actually seen a Sidney Poitier movie, and that ain’t right. I gather this is about a Baptist trying to out-Bible a Mother Superior, and failing. I’m in.

Silence (2016)

I know this isn’t unusual or anything, but I will always give Martin Scorsese movies a chance. 

Probably another one for teens and up. 

Passion of the Christ is out this year, although I think it’s great. I’ve seen it often enough that I can call it up in my memory, and the older kids are mad at us for making them watch it at one point, so we’re taking a pass; may revisit in future years. I did review it here, and defend it against accusations that it’s gratuitously violent and inherently anti-Semitic

There Be Dragons.

Just kitten. I watched this once and I’m still mad.

Okay, what do you think? Have you seen these movies? Are there any egregious gaps on my list? The kids insist we watch The Ten Commandments during Holy Week most years, thereby getting our Vitamin Heston infusion for the year. 

 

Movie review: Jojo Rabbit made me laugh, but not cry

“Comedy is a red rubber ball,” said Mel Brooks, “and if you throw it against a soft, funny wall, it will not come back. But if you throw it against the hard wall of ultimate reality, it will bounce back and be very lively.”

With this quote in mind, I went to see Jojo Rabbit, which has been nominated for six Oscars. It is the latest applicant to an exclusive club: Movies that laugh at Hitler.

The film’s premise is, if anything, more audacious than anything by Brooks. It follows Jojo, a sweet and manic 10-year-old German boy who is absolutely wild for the Führer. In fact, he has made an imaginary companion out of him and spends his days palling around with a goofy, benevolent Adolph, who eggs him on and encourages him through every woe. One day, Jojo and his buddy Hitler are both horrified to discover that his mother has hidden a Jewish girl in the walls of their house.

What to do? Who to trust? Who to fear? From the very first scene, the movie puts in balance two monstrously weighty forces: Life and death, good and evil, loyalty and rebellion, hope and futility. It whipsaws back and forth between slapstick and horror, comedy and tragedy. I watched, enthralled, to see where it would land.

As a Jew, I am ready and able to laugh at the darkest of jokes. That’s how you make it through the dark. Mel Brooks managed this feat handily in his lesser-known “To Be Or Not To Be,” which contains one scene that shatters me every time.

Until this scene, “To Be Or Not To Be” is pure comedy; but then the weight shifts, and for a terrible moment, everything hangs in balance. The bumbling crew of actors must smuggle Jews out of a darkened theater bristling with Nazis. In desperation, they disguise the refugees as clowns, and it’s actually working—until one poor old babushka, her wrinkled face pathetically smeared with greasepaint, freezes. So many swastikas, so many guns. It’s too much. She’s weeping and trembling, and the audience realizes something is wrong.

So the leader of the actors looks the Nazis straight in the eye and shouts merrily, “Juden!” He slaps a Star of David on the old woman’s chest, whips out a clown gun and shoots her in the head. POW.

And that’s what saves them all. The Nazis roar with laughter in the dark, and the innocent make it through.

This scene carries the whole movie, because it has the nerve to set aside comedy and make the audience sit for a moment in naked peril: These men are killers. They do laugh at shooting an old woman in the head. The terror is real. “To Be Or Not To Be” earns the right to make Hitler jokes, because it doesn’t flinch away from knowing and showing what is at stake. The ball of comedy bounces because that hard surface is there to hit, however briefly.

There is no such hard surface in “Jojo Rabbit.”

Instead . . .

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image: Still from movie trailer