The Perks Of Being A Wallflower

I really can’t make up my  mind about this film. In may ways, it’s an entirely conventional high-school movie about people who don’t quite fit in with the school norms finding a group of friends where they do fit. It’s filled with the kind of agreeable dialogue which sounds great but we all know is a long way from how school students actually speak. The music is terrific, though probably rather cynically aimed to draw in an older, white, male demographic. That would be me, then.

For the most part it meanders along with a light-hearted, entertaining spirit that’s not as deep as it would like to think it is but is no less enjoyable for that. Towards the end it becomes something else entirely – a character’s moment of self-realisation about a previously repressed incident in the past takes the film to a new place. Suddenly we’re in darker, harder territory – the effect of traumatic past events on our present and future, the nature and dangers of repressing pain and how we might heal from it. Which is fine, but it’s been so repressed throughout the film that it’s too much of a shock, too much of a change tone too late in the day for us to properly absorb. That’s the nature of making a film about repression, I guess – if you’re going to be true to the subject then maybe the moment of revelation has to come completely out of left-field.

Or maybe there are other ways of doing it – run stories from the past and present in parallel, for instance. Either way, what we’re left with is an engaging, but ultimately insubstantial film that’s trying to punch above its weight.

I rated this movie 6/10 on imdb.com and 3/5 on rottentomatoes.com

 

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Star Trek (2009)

Re-watching this on DVD for the first time since I saw it on cinema release, it felt of a piece with its sequel in all the ways it should. It’s an origins story that reboots the whole Star Trek universe – we see the birth of Jim Kirk, him and everyone else enrolling in Starfleet Academy and the origins of their finding themselves on-board the Enterprise for life. It, like the sequel, is a joyride of a film; at pains to point how far its come from the cheap TV original with every swoop and swish and dash of lens flare (which is slightly less annoying than its omnipresence in the 2nd movie).

This is an action movie, not just a TV franchise now, so we have bigger set-pieces and buddy moments of a type we might not have expected: a Bond style skydive, a slightly irritating Spock/Kirk bromance and beefed up roles for bit-part players from the TV show. The effects sparkle, the sequences with Leonard Nimoy are a joy as opposed to what could have been horribly self-indulgent, and it all goes to show that J J Abrams really is the natural inheritor to Spielberg’s crown as cinema’s great entertainer.

I watched this on DVD on my laptop.

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

This is the latest in a line of reboots – except this time we’re not dealing with a comic-book superhero, but a flesh and blood person. Jack Ryan was the central character from Tom Clancy’s multi-million selling series of doorstop size thrillers. These books sold in serious quantities, telling old school stories of technology, terrorism and CIA spying; one novel famously culminated in an airliner into a Washington government building. Some were filmed with varying degrees of success; then the franchise dried-up, 9/11 and Casino Royale and the Bourne movies happened. Ryan just didn’t fit any more.

Times have changed again, and now Ryan is getting the reboot. The film opens on 9/11; Ryan (Chris Pine) is an American student in London who sees the fateful day as the spur to a life-change. He joins the army, gets seriously injured in Afghanistan and finds himself in rehab. That’s where he meets his future wife (Keira Knightly) and he’s tapped up as an undercover CIA economics analyst by his mentor figure, Kevin Costner. That’s the new foundations laid: he’s still a Tom Clancy creation, but in an uncertain new world. What follows is an efficient, entertaining old-fashioned sort of thriller in a recognisably new world. Which all makes it sound a little dull, predictable.

Which it isn’t; mainly down to director and main villain-playing Kenneth Branagh. To do what he’s done with his Shakespeare films – to make them accessible to people who don’t like Shakespeare – there’s one thing you have to understand: the audience. He brings out the humour of Shakespeare’s comedies, the universality of the tragedies and the grandeur of the histories – all in ways newcomers can understand. That’s the same target that he’s needed to hit with these more recent big-budget films he’s been direction. With both Jack Ryan and Thor the key to success is in understanding what the audience of these films wants, and giving it to them in a way that will draw others in. Whilst this film isn’t quite as much a resounding success as Thor, it still does everything it needs to. The action set-pieces are well delivered without being violent or gory; the most exciting is an expertly delivered sequence which cuts between a break-in and the most awkward over-the-table dinner discussion on film for a while. It’s an excellent example of drawn out tension and the way intelligent editing can ramp up tension and audience engagement more effectively than expensive effects.

There’s nothing life-changing or especially profound here – it’s just a good thriller, doing its job well and not outstaying its welcome with an overlong running time. There’s clearly potential for more films here, and if that’s how this pans out, then it will be interesting to see how the series develops. For now enjoy this for what it is – decent entertainment, confidently and efficiently delivered. Enjoy.

I rated this film 3.5/5 on rottemtomatoes.com and 7/10 on imdb.com

Closing The Circle: Social media’s subtle temptations and opportunities

Dave Eggars’ latest novel, The Circle is on the face of it straightforward. It’s an easy to read yarn about a woman taking a job working for a fictional hybrid of Google and Facebook, telling a gripping story of conspiracy and manipulation on a grand scale. This is Dave Eggars, though – a self-consciously brilliant writer (his first book, a kind of memoir, was called A Hearbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius)  – and he’s always as much about ideas as he is about story. That this book manages to twin the two so well is testament to his skill.

The book holds a mirror to our digital culture and invites us to consider if we like what we see. The fictional company  – The Circle – has combined online shopping, social media and web searching and seems to be on an unstoppable run of innovation and invention. It’s moving towards total market domination of more or less everything – what will it mean when ‘the circle is closed’? What will that look like, and what will it do to us? It’s an ultimately chilling conclusion.

In the process we see a series of different realities reflected to us. The novel portrays the desire to record and log everything we do, the measuring of viewpoints and popularity by ‘hits’ and ‘likes’, the addiction to screens and surveillance, the habit of experiencing great things second or third hand rather than directly, the need to present to the world a transparent picture of happiness, integrity and balance. The digitized life is well and truly under the microscope here.

It’s an achingly real vision of where we are and where we might be going. So much so that I was stunned to discover that many consider this to be science-fiction; I really don’t see it that way. It seems to me to be simply one perspective, only marginally exaggerated for story purposes, on where our society is headed. I’ve visited the Google campus in California twice; I can tell you that the workplace depicted in Eggars’ novel has roots in real life bricks and mortar. What’s on-screen in the novel’s world is equally recognisable.

Most of us use social media, but increasingly – especially in Christian circles (there’s that word again) – it has a bad reputation as something at best to be wary of, at worst something that’s eating us alive. Whether it’s privacy issues, cyber-bullying, the breakdown of ‘real’ community (a conveniently ill-defined term in the debate), the by-the-back-door marketing, or dangerous #neknomination style crazes, Christians are being warned frequently about the dangers these technologies present.

All of which obviously makes me think about playing music backwards. When I was a young Christian the biggest danger was, apparently, heavy metal. If you listened to it you were worshipping satan; there were messages so subtly written into the songs that they could only be discerned by playing the songs backwards. Slowly. But no matter! Listen to music often enough at the right speed, forwards, and the messages would seep into your soul and soon you’d be sacrificing kittens or killing yourself. Seriously.

It was absurd, of course. Not that there wasn’t destructive music out there, but everyone was looking in the wrong direction. So called Christian music was dangerous for sucking people into an artificial sub-culture of sub-standard music which took them away from the very people amongst whom they were meant to be salt and light. You didn’t have to listen to it backwards to see the danger, but that seemed irrelevant to most. Stick a Christian label on it and it must be kosher.

I was reminded of this when I was thinking on a friend’s recent Facebook post. She lives in a different country to me, and her family was experiencing a horrible crisis. The way she communicated updates and requests for help and prayer was through Facebook. It was such a good way for us all to be connected and involved. As the emergency abated she posted ‘I know Facebook has a bad reputation but …’. She went on to say what a good source of support it had been for her in this hard season. It was that first part of the post that intrigued me – the bad reputation. Add to the mix that one American mega-church has seen fit to set up its own social media platform, which is how much of its material and information is released. Not a Facebook group, you understand. I mean its own equivalent of Facebook. You can only join the platform if you’re a signed up member of the church. It’s Christian social media – for Christians only.

What is going on here? It seems to me that what’s being missed is the simple truth that social media is simply another incarnation of an old Christian dilemma. We see a new thing producing bad fruit, so we retreat and build a Christian version of it. Which misses the point. We brand the thing as evil, forgetting it’s people who make bad choices, not pixels or musical notes. Putting a ‘Christian’ label on something doesn’t make it better; too often it’s just a pale, lifeless version of the original. Ever listened to a Stryper album next to a Metallica one? Don’t. In fact, just don’t listen to Stryper.

These things are what we make them. What social media gives us is a unique opportunity to shape a vision of life that’s true – or false. We can do the bland sun-drenched, Instagrammed version of life or we can do something more real. We can put struggles and confessions of sin up there alongside chilled white wine and cute puppies (don’t put those last two together; chaos would clearly ensue). We can do real debate alongside status-update moralising. A few weeks ago I got into a Facebook argument with someone (another Christian leader) who decided, ultimately to block me. He said he’d rather not engage with me at all than disagree publicly.

Really?

I – and he – handled that incident badly. However, does it really do any good, as Christians, to present to the world a fantasy of smiling agreement? Or do we do better to put our sin, brokenness and disagreement on display as we try to work out what it means to be Jesus-people here and now? We need boundaries, of course; as The Circle shows us there are some things we shouldn’t share, some sins that should be confessed privately, some areas that must remain private. We are made to have boundaries. I’ve also learned that for me, Twitter is a bad place to debate. It’s hard to say something helpfully and clearly in such a short space. We all have our limits.

We, though, are called to be living sacrifices, people who live with whole lives laid down before God as worship, open to His use and purifying fire. Shouldn’t that make us more open with the world, not less? Either we do the age-old dance of retreating into a Christianised ghetto, in reality no more than a baptised theme-park version of reality; or we’re so eager to ‘win’ the world and the culture that we present a version of ourselves and our faith and our relationships, so filtered through sunny idealism that it won’t stand real scrutiny away from pixels in actual flesh and blood.

Live life online and in flesh and blood. Like flesh and blood, your online life is what you make it. Be wise, but be honest. Close the circle, but close it with humble honesty not grasping control. Don’t hide your sin; confess it appropriately the move on. Don’t retreat or seek to win the culture war. Just be there, living life and living it well. On screen and in person.

In a word it’s called incarnation. Which has, I think you’ll agree, a noble history.

I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com

Lessons On The Way 5: I’m (a bit) like St Paul

And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut. 

2 Corinthians 11:28-29 (The Message)

Church leaders are controllers. Any of you who have been around churches for a while and neither heard that said nor felt it yourself? No? Exactly.

That those of us who lead churches are prone to excessive levels of control is a statement uttered so often that it’s taken on the status of indisputable truth. For good reason. I’ve been close enough to church leaders and seen enough of myself in this role to know that this is a real problem. Maybe it’s manipulating sound levels on the music to ensure worship ‘takes off’; dressing (or not dressing) a certain way; insisting on a certain title being used; micromanaging staff or volunteers; coming into the church office most days of a 3-month sabbatical; bullying of staff and volunteers … and so many other symptoms. If a church leader won’t admit control isn’t an issue or temptation for them, then they are either ignorant or untruthful.

There are many reasons for this. There’s always going to be some of the leader’s own brokenness at play. In addition there’s the strange dynamics of spiritual and ecclesial power, the projection of other people’s father/mother/brother/sister/power/church/god issues onto the leaders, the stress of working with volunteers, levels of pay that when can seem low compared to people with similar skills and qualifications in other sectors, the hours, the obligation to work when others are relaxing and partying.

These, and other reasons, are all real – and ultimately not an excuse, but an explanation as to why factors of control can enter into a leader’s life. However there’s a fine line between control and natural concern. One of the manifestations of control I often get told about is leaders checking in with the church when they are away on holiday. Text messages or emails to those handling things while the leaders are away are often taken as examples of control. Leave it be and relax! Trust us! Let go and let God! Stop controlling! I’ve heard them all.

There’s a fine line though, and it’s one that is hard to explain but that I see referenced in that quotation above from 2 Corinthians 11:28-29. The simple fact is that going away and doing something fun for a bit doesn’t help you switch off. Not totally. We talk of this role as church leader as a vocation, a calling. We do the same with doctors; I learned recently that the Hippocratic Oath compels an off-duty medic to take action if she happens to find herself around a medical emergency. Now we leaders don’t have a legal compulsion like that, but it seems to me to be similar. We view this not simply as a job, but a life (that doesn’t mean you can pay leader pittance because ‘they aren’t in it for the money’ … think how much some medics are paid …  but that’s the subject of a future post). It is a job, but it’s also not. It’s something which consumes and shapes and draws on everything we do and are. Leading a church means your whole life is lived in public; it means that you allow people with less expertise than yourself in relevant areas know details of your pay, your benefits, your working patterns and then they have some kind of ‘right’ to tell you what they think of how you’re getting on. It’s why in many countries employment law just doesn’t apply to clergy because, quite simply, it would be impossible to justify the levels of pay against the hours worked in a legal setting. On a quiet week I’ll work 50 or so hours, and I don’t begrudge that all; but it’s not a legal arrangement if viewed in the ‘normal’ way.

The job of leading a church is not a ‘normal’ one. That’s what Paul is getting at there. You pour your life and soul and blood and sweat and tears  – all quite literally as well as metaphorically – into something that most people never see or understand but about which they are very happy to have strong opinions, often very strongly articulated when the leader is feeling most vulnerable. Turn it off whilst you’re on holiday? You might as well try to turn off the wind. It may die down or become strangely becalmed for a while. You can’t, simply can’t forget it or not think about it. It’s impossible. It’s not control. It’s love, and the reminder that this is of eternal significance.

Granted there’s a dividing line, which ultimately only an individual leader can answer for herself, often best judged in accountability to honest friends, counsellors, medical professionals or spiritual directors. Coming into the office most days  – or even at all  – on a sabbatical  is not good. Checking in with people looking after things when on holiday? Maybe controlling; or maybe just showing love and prayer and support. Only one person can answer that.

If you’re a church leader be honest with yourself about when you’re controlling and when you’re not. Get counselling or therapy – we all need it. It will help us be less of what we shouldn’t be and more of what we should.

If you’re not a church leader, please remember this. Your leader is a bit like St Paul. That’s sometimes delusional. Sometimes unhelpful. Sometimes just a fact of the life to which she’s called. What you experience as control may just be love speaking, refracted through your own brokenness or assumptions. Be kind. They will, after all, be judged more strictly than you will. If we don’t do our job properly we will be held to account. So by all means challenge examples of control, but do it thoughtfully and prayerfully. Disagree, vehemently. Get angry. But do it all in the consideration that they will be judged, no matter what; and do it all remembering they carry something so dear to them that it can’t be properly expressed. Your church leader is indeed a bit like St Paul.

Question. I wrote this on holiday. Is that wrong?

Also in this series: 

4: Tables and chairs are spiritual

3: The dangers and offensiveness of grace

2: How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

1: I don’t have to do it all

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

What is this film, exactly?

Sometimes that’s a good question to ask, and the answer is helpful. Sometimes we need to know if the film we’re contemplating giving time and money to see is the sort of thing which we might enjoy. Sometimes, however, to ask such a question can be reductive and simplistic. That’s the case with the strange, hypnotic, unsettling Berberian Sound Studio.

It’s set in an indeterminate year (though one that’s clearly analogue rather than digital) as we follow Gilderoy, an English sound engineer arriving in Italy to work on a film there. It soon becomes apparent to him that the film he’s working on is not what he’s expecting – though we never see what he’s seeing on the screens in front of him, it’s clearly a graphic and explicit horror film. Not Gilderoy’s cup of tea. What’s more, it’s clear that those in power at the film studio hold manipulative sway over those under them – especially the lead actresses portraying those abused and hunted on-screen. As we go on we witness Gilderoy’s distrubing journey as the material he’s working on starts to shape him rather than the other way round.

It’s a deeply unsettling film, in a very good way. As such it’s asking a whole series of important questions: what does portraying something repulsive do to those doing the portraying? When does vision become manipulation and abuse? What does it mean to follow your calling in a context you don’t understand and aren’t fully comfortable with? Not only are these questions asked, but we’re also confronted with some uncomfortable truths – the male drive to dominate and subjugate women being the most powerfully articulated.

There are two elements that lift this from being a strange, almost wilfully weird, piece into a very good  and accessible one. The first is Toby Jones’ outstanding central performance, almost note perfect from the initial eager-to-please Englishman abroad on a descent into confusion to compliance to … something darker and harder to define. The second is, appropriately, the sound. Gilderoy loves his trade, and so the makers of this film; in loving detail we see the older technology and the myriad fruit and vegetables used to reproduce life-like sounds on-screen. So this film’s sound design draws us deeper into a disorienting and confusing world, one which reveals layers like Russian dolls the deeper we go. The sound echoes and bounces, implies and suggests. What we hear but can’t see is far more worrying than what our eyes tell us. I watched this film with sound through a decent pair of earphones, a way of watching I really can commend. The isolation and immersion of that experience far more involving than most 3D visual spectaculars.

Berberian Sound Studio takes wings in your ears and asks you questions you’ll ponder for days. Seek it out.

I watched this film on digital download on my computer. 

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Death stings

I probably shouldn’t be asking this.

If death has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15), then why does it … sting?

Stings hurt. They bite. They cause pain. Death does that. So why does the word say that it doesn’t?

Another translation has it as about last words and so on, which makes more sense. But we still have to wait a long time for the last, the final word. It’s an age away, literally, when you’ve lost someone who’s not here any more.

Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote a great little book called Lament For A Son, a snapshot of his journey through grief after his death in a climbing accident. Wolterstorff is a Christian philosopher, one of those people who is supposed to have answers; or at least help us find the right questions. The most moving section of his book, for me, is where he talks about how doctrines that he thought would comfort him didn’t. What use is the resurrection (true as he holds it to be) if you can’t have a hug from your son?

That’s a hell of a sting to not have.

My murdered friend is gone now; I believe, utterly, that I’ll see him in the new creation. I really do. But it doesn’t help now. I need him now; not then.

Some will see this is a crisis of faith. I once heard someone explain his nervous breakdown as doubting the doctrine that some are elected, chosen to go to heaven and some aren’t. Once he’d accepted it was true he said he’d got over his breakdown. Well I’ve never believed that doctrine; I don’t see it in Scripture. Questions are not symptomatic of losing faith.

I need to ask, though. Death seems to me have a hell of a sting. The last but one word echoes for a long, long, long time before the last one is finally spoken.

It’s easy for God, risen and ascended as His Son is, surveying it all from the vantage point of eternity where it all fits together, what with being the one who from His perspective has uttered, will utter and is uttering the last word.

We’re time-bound, here and now, and we can’t see or hear the final reality of those last, final words. I have to accept that. I have to accept that I can’t know, can’t see my friend, can’t have a hug or an argument or sort something out with him.

Hard, though. It stings.

Is the Bible wrong? Or did I miss the point?

If you can’t cope with silence, don’t ask an unanswerable question.

Where is death’s sting?

It’s right here, right now, where I am and you are.

The sting will be drawn. In time.

For now we live with the sting.