Friday, 31 August 2012

Hope Springs

Having seen the trailer for Hope Springs (which featured some of the film’s funny moments), and noting that the film starred Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell, I was expecting a romantic comedy. And no doubt the DVD case and some reviews will refer to Hope Springs as a very funny (maybe even “hilarious”) film and use the word ‘comedy’. This is a marketing ploy designed to attract the masses who are apparently looking for escapist comedies. But as the young couple sitting in front of us in the theatre discovered (to their obvious disappointment), Hope Springs is NOT a comedy. For us, if not for the masses, this was a GOOD thing. 
Hope Springs, directed by David Frankel, tells the story of a sixty-ish Omaha couple whose 31-year-old marriage, while superficially solid, is obviously struggling. Kay and Arnold have not had sex, or even slept in the same bed, in over five years. Kay gets tired of the same old same old and books a week in small-town Maine to get some intensive couples’ counselling from Dr. Feld (Carell). Arnold has no interest in this whatsoever, but reluctantly accompanies Kay, and their adventure begins.
Until the credits roll, Steve Carell doesn’t utter a single funny line. He plays this one straight and does a commendable job. Streep is always good and Jones is extraordinary in a very untypical role. While Hope Springs is a relatively light film and contains a fair bit of subtle humour, it works because it takes itself and its subject seriously. It is slow-paced, intelligent, remarkably frank and has a lot to say about how long-married couples communicate, especially about sex.
While Kathy and I are MUCH younger than the couple in the film, we have been married even longer (must have been an elementary school marriage) and could identify with some of the couple’s struggles (though thankfully not all of them). This is a film that will appeal primarily to those who have been married for at least ten or more years or who are over forty (unlike The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, another film about sixty-somethings, which could appeal to young adults). And I do recommend it to all such people, but not without some qualifications.
For all its strengths (and it certainly exceeded my expectations), Hope Springs has a fatal flaw: it tries to combine a serious, slow-paced honest film with ‘Hollywood’. I’m not saying such a thing is impossible or that Hope Springs doesn’t make a valiant effort, but this is a very difficult thing to accomplish. What such a serious film needs is the raw emotion and sting that would have been present in most independent or foreign films with this theme. Without it, Hope Springs lacks the passion and subtlety that would have left a lasting impression (and probably left viewers feeling drained). Still, for Hollywood, this is an impressive and refreshing effort and I give Hope Springs a solid ***. My mug is up. 

Friday, 24 August 2012

In the Family

What’s this? An independent film with a strong realistic feel that has almost no handheld camera work? Didn’t Patrick Wang get the memo? Or is he a radical among radicals? I heard he even had to distribute the film himself. Whatever, Patrick, you have my deepest admiration for your guts, your camera work and for this amazing, if not perfect, film.

In the Family was written, directed and stars Wang in his first film. To go it alone and make such an accomplished 169-minute film the first time around is quite the feat. Wang plays Joey Williams, a thirty-something man who, at the start of the film, has a partner named Cody Hynes and a six-year-old son named Chip (son of Cody and his wife, who died in childbirth). It is obviously a very loving family environment, with apparent support from Cody’s extended family (Joey has none). (warning: minor spoiler alert) But early on, Cody is killed in a car accident and his sister finds Cody’s most recent will, which was written prior to his relationship with Joey. Thus the foundation for this tense, thoughtful and excruciatingly slow-paced film.

From the opening scene, I was reminded of Stellet Licht, Carlos Reygadas’ slow-paced film from 2007. The stories are very different, but the slow pace, the camera work, the lack of score, the emphasis on real sounds and the overall realistic feel are very similar. Halfway through In the Family, most people will assume it must soon be over (which is why this is not a film that could appeal to the masses - there were two others in the theatre last night and the film only lasted a week), but there is the equivalent of an entire wonderful film yet to come. It is obvious that Wang intentionally made the film very long and slow, providing details of daily life that most films don’t make time for. I don’t mind long or slow, so I could appreciate what Wang was doing, but I do think the film would not have suffered if it had maxed out at 150 minutes.

The acting was solid. There were times when I thought Wang was perfect for the lead role and times when I wondered. Joey is a likable but slightly quirky character and so one is never sure whether or not the odd acting style is a deliberate way of underscoring the realism in the film. The film as a whole is so understated that the brief scenes of passion are jolting. This, too, adds to the realism, which is the key to appreciating In the Family.

While I found the film engaging throughout, it is the last half that will stay with me and that makes In the Family such a profound, wise and humanizing film. It’s about how we communicate and how we work together to make the world a better place. I am going to allow In the Family to slide into that rare **** territory, but just barely. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Viral Jesus and right-brained language

Apologies to those for whom a third book review is too much intrusion into our normally film-based fare. I promised a review for a book which was a little different than I expected and which triggered an interesting blend of thoughts. At least if you continue reading, you'll hear what I hope are interesting thoughts about right and left-brained faith.

Viral Jesus is an anecdote-filled guide to unleashing a house church movement that is unfettered by hierarchies and institutionalism. So far, I'm onboard, being somewhat critical of hierarchies and institutional church myself. The key, it seems, is harnessing the energy and dynamic of new believers. We're too afraid of messes, and this author is very willing to encourage messiness which more mature and responsible leaders can eventually guide and clean up. Still good. 

Where my interesting blend of reaction comes is to the very charismatic language and assumptions of the book. Having a long and conflicted relationship with the charismatic wing of the church, it is no surprise that this triggers mixed feelings in me. Like usual, there is something about it I like and something about it that frustrates me to no end. Having just completed Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary which comprehensively surveys research on the right and left hemispheres of the brain, I will use that grid to comment on this ambivalence. 

I believe we are desperately in need of powerful right-brained language. Educated, progressive believers may have the most trouble with this because they are so afraid of sounding like those who believe in a literal seven day creation or those who see demons as little creatures with horns. In other words, once we've come to know that right-brained language is meant to be understood as metaphor, those who take it all too literally can be a little, well, embarrassing. And I felt that embarrassment reading this book. I'm not sure if this is my problem or the author's or both. 

 It seems to me that many of those who write anecdotally about charismatic faith experience tend to write with arrogance - usually a kind of innocent arrogance, just very frustrating because it is so blind. All of the assumptions that are being made in order to maintain such faithful enthusiasm are ignored or even belittled. Everyone should get on board. And I'm embarrassed and conflicted because I feel the right-brained appeal while my left brain is offended. Like Rohde, we need to be able to speak a confident right-brained language to really engage with life, but I so wish it could be done with language that is less religious (in the sense of Charismat-ese) and filled with scary assumptions. One thing that keeps me humble in the face of this critique is that I suspect I could have had this reaction to Jesus at least some of the time. 

(Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book through the Speakeasy review network.)

Friday, 17 August 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

An odd independent film that I would compare to Brit Marling’s Another Earth and Sound of My Voice, Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed concerns three magazine writers doing a story on the man behind a bizarre newspaper ad. The ad is for applicants willing to do some time travel. The chosen applicant must bring his/her own weapons and understand that safety is not guaranteed.
It requires only minimal detective work to track down the writer of the ad (Kenneth, played by Mark Duplass). The next step is for Darius (played by Aubrey Plaza), one of the magazine writers, to win Kenneth’s confidence by applying for the position of fellow time traveller. The assumption of the magazine writers (Darius is joined by Jeff, her boss, and Arnau, a fellow intern from India) is that Kenneth is at least slightly mad, but there is rather more to Kenneth than a first meeting would suggest.
What makes Safety Not Guaranteed work are the well-drawn quirky characters, each of whom is on a unique journey toward something better. All four of those mentioned above are lonely insecure people searching for happiness, or at least a companion who will appreciate them in spite of their quirks. They don’t all find what they are looking for (and not all of these characters are sympathetic), but the few days they spend together will change them forever and it is a fascinating process to watch.
All of the actors (mostly from TV) do reasonably well here and their dialogue (written by Derek Connolly) is often funny and touching. The cinematography could have gone for handheld throughout but thankfully steered clear of that temptation. Until the second-last scene of the film, I had no idea where the film was going and I was thoroughly engaged. Unfortunately, that second-last scene, lasting about five minutes, did not work for me at all and I immediately guessed exactly how the film would end. Admittedly, this only spoiled the last ten minutes of the film, but endings are so darn important to me and Safety Not Guaranteed could/should have had a great ending. 
I am still going to give Safety Not Guaranteed ***+ for being another enjoyable quirky indie film with superior dialogue, so much better than the stuff coming out of Hollywood, like, for example, The Watch, which you could not pay me to watch. My mug is up!

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

This bizarre independent film is unlike anything else you will see this year. I give it a solid ***+. My mug is up!

My review can be found on the Media Matters website:

Monday, 6 August 2012

Hometown Prophet

What if an unexpectedly accurate prophet arose in the midst of the bible belt? And what if the bible belt wasn't all that thrilled? These are the questions which the novel, Hometown Prophet, pursues in this relatively surface exploration. The result is kind of like the Peretti novels of a generation ago except with better theology. 

Peter Quill is a young man who has not yet found his niche. Somewhat beaten up by church and world, he winds up aimless and living with his mom at 30. When his dreams kick into high gear with an alarming accuracy, his story becomes less aimless. It's not hard to cheer on the realistically imperfect, but likeable young hero; surely many of us have felt the urge to let loose a God-ordained rant at segments of the church, and the targets are fairly chosen if not altogether original. 

Even if your sympathies lie with the author, one can begin to feel that the overall story is a little too self-satisfied, however. One doesn't get the impression that the author was too surprised by God during the writing of the novel (though perhaps he was in the years prior, to be fair) and a sense of judgement towards characters like "Little Miss Perfect" slips through with only a smattering of grace. A good dose of nuance and humanizing touches would have added some useful depth. But seeing as Peter Quill's experiences must undoubtedly be a reflection of the difficulties that author, Jeff Fulmer, has faced in countering the commercialized and politicized Christianity of Tennessee (and many other places), one can appreciate the frustration that energizes the novel.

If you're looking for a light, readable story (I devoured the novel in a day - and, yes, I did get some work done that day too, thank you very much) and especially if you relate to growing up in charismatic, evangelical culture, you may well enjoy this novel which does have a prophetic message to share. 

(Disclosure: I received a complementary copy of the book through the Speakeasy review network.)