They

Women.

Gays.

Black people.

Trans.

Americans.

Brits.

Young.

Europeans.

Old.

Africans.

Asians.

Football fans.

Hooligans.

‘Out’ voters.

‘In’ voters.

Liberals.

Conservatives.

Lefties.

Perpetrators.

Victims.

Men.

Abusers.

White people.

Muslims.

Fundamentalists.

Migrants.

Christians.

Terrorists.

Atheists.

Image-bearers.

Divinely created.

Sinners.

Died for.

Loved.

Called.

Beckoned.

Invited.

Offered forgiveness.

Grace receivers.

In Christ.

Saved.

Adored.

Sisters.

Brothers.

Yours.

Mine.

You.

Me.

Judge not.

The Revenant: awe-inspiring, brutal and spiritual

I’ve heard tell of children in the urban West who don’t know that milk comes from cows. They’ve never seen a cow; they just can’t see the connection. I don’t know if it’s an (urban) myth, but it makes a point about the increasingly urbanised nature of our lives. We’re cut loose from our roots and rhythms; we have established new ones in the urban contexts, but we’re no longer creatures of the earth and dust.

The Revenant is a counterpoint to this, a film more in touch with the nature of … nature … you could not expect to see. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Oscar winning director of Birdman and staring Leo DiCaprio, it tells the story of an 1820s American frontiersman left for dead by his colleagues as he struggles to recover from a bear mauling. It’s a brutal, visceral tale of survival and, though this only really comes to the fore in the film’s final act, a quest for revenge.

Many have said it’s brutal – and it is. The Revenant’s portrayal of the natural world is of one red in tooth and claw; physical, weighty and oppressive. There are very few concessions to CGI  – apart from in the bear attack itself, which is understandable, but doesn’t detract from the sequence’s extraordinary impact. DiCaprio’s character – and the actor himself, presumably – really suffer here. Bones crack, joints grind; winds sweep and howl; cold seeps into every crevice; food is gleaned from the land and from dead animals. The cinematography is nothing short of extraordinary; the cold colours gleam with a tangible frozen bite; the takes are long and fluid, following the movie’s central character to emphasise that he’s stalked as much by the forces of the land as by his own mortality or people who would do him harm.

There’s a spirituality here. It’s a spirituality of the Native American cultures, one wedded deeply to the earth from which the people draw their life. Tellingly the only reference to Western spirituality is a ruined church being overrun by the elements; the only way DiCaprio’s character is going to survive his trial by snowbound fire is abandoning everything he knows – including any semblance of familiar faith – and embrace a mode of being that’s at once hostile and essential for survival.

Contemporary Christianity has much to learn here. As our planet becomes increasingly urbanised we lose our connection to the rhythms of the pastoral life from which we have drawn our roots. That’s not a bad thing – nor a good thing – in itself. It necessitates a reinvention, though; a rediscovery of theology, spirituality and worship that connects to the way we live and is true to who we are and who we find ourselves to be. Sections of the church are wrestling with this; but some still run, crying about heresy or lost tradition. All the while, people thirst for lack of vision.

Back to the movie. DiCaprio – for me one of the most underrated actors of his generation – is magnificent here. He’s as physical here as he was to very different ends in The Wolf Of Wall Street; long stretches of this film pass wordless, his body and face speaking volumes. He can be a remarkable actor, and his lack of major awards recognition demonstrates how conservative awards judges like to be. They do like their talent to suffer for their art, though, and that alone will probably ensure trophies on this occasion.

It’s a good, remarkable film. It’s not – I suspect – a great one. My sense is that it will not translate so powerfully to the myriad smaller screens on which films are now viewed post cinema release. I may be wrong, but it feels as if the film relies so much for its power on overwhelming you with the beauty and hardness of the environment that the small screen will shrink it in more ways than one. In this era, a great film needs to be great on screens big and small; I suppose we’ll all just have to watch it on our phones to answer that one.

There are other problems with this film – and the director’s work in general. The biggest of these is his treatment of women. Here the women are off-stage, in memory, or a victim of violent rape. They have precious few lines. In the context of a career thus far where his films largely focus on the masculine in different expressions, this gives cause for concern. The director has questions to answer, and they can’t simply be answered by saying that what he produces is very good in its own terms. It is; but in the era he’s working, he needs to do more with half the human race.

The Revenant is remarkable, thrilling, stimulating – and ultimately hard to love. For all that’s impressive and awe-inspiring about it (and I use the word awe in its religious context), it’s not going to lodge in the heart; it fed my soul, but if I tried to live on it I’d be in trouble.

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

 

Injustice for whom? The unexplored link between #justpray and the sexuality of ministers-in-training

It’s sometimes said that the internet in general and social media in particular is nothing more than a vast echo-chamber where the user can find any personal nuance of prejudice or point of view confirmed and re-stated. If that’s the case, then the last couple of days give an alarming picture of just how off-message we Christians can become.

It’s a matter of well recorded fact now that 3 of the UK’s largest cinema chains have refused to screen a 60-second film that shows a variety of people saying the Lord’s Prayer before the forthcoming new Star Wars movie. This is because, its attested, of the relevant company’s policy in the wake of public reaction to the screening of political themed adverts in cinemas relating to the Scottish Independence Referendum campaign; though there’s a bit of confusion as to if this policy was only applied late in negotiations.

The reaction has been vociferous. The Church of England has talked of the ‘chilling’ implications for ‘freedom of speech’; Christians across social media have expressed bewilderment, offence at other cinema content, and anger; bizarrely, Richard Dawkins has given his support to the film being screened (though it’s not so bizarre if you consider the long-game he’s most likely playing); the word ‘banned’ has been thrown around. The ante has been well and truly upped.

Let’s all take a breath. What started as a campaign to get more people praying may have got itself some extra eyeballs as a result of the press coverage (or maybe that was the plan all along?); an unwelcome side-effect is the association, yet-again, of church and Christians with what we’re against … are anger, bewilderment, offence and so on. Nothing about Jesus; little about the Gospel; relationship with God missed in the quest for more youtube hits. All over a not so bad, but not so great 60 seconds of film.

Apparently all publicity is good publicity, but that seems a bit simplistic. I’m sure a few extra people will be prompted to pray as a result, which is clearly a good thing. I’m rather less clear what the resulting big picture is. Any takers? Maybe it will emerge in time, maybe it will be forgotten in the wake of another fresh and terrible genuine crisis.

All this time that Christians are complaining about injustice received (something Jesus seemed reluctant to complain about when He received it), the UK church continues to place itself in morally tricky water. There are now reports of (evangelical) colleges that train people for ordained ministry discouraging already accepted ordination candidates from training with them if they are in a celibate same-sex relationship.

Logs and specks, and all that. Be wary of crying victim. It could come back to haunt us one day, now or in eternity.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

If it’s not hard enough to remake/reboot one of the more loved cult movie series in cinema history without alienating fans of the original, film-makers make it harder on themselves when the films in question are about talking apes. Tim Burton had already tried  – and largely failed – to recreate Planet Of The Apes in 2001, with a film high on visuals but low on most other things. So when it was all tried again – this time from the beginning – in 2011’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, expectations were not high. How wrong we all were. It was an intelligent, chilling, engaging triumph – most of all in Andy Serkis’ brilliant motion-capture performance of lead-ape Ceasar; but there was more. The human interest story worked; the performances worked throughout the story had a brilliant momentum. It was, at times, genuinely disturbing; and it never forgot to entertain or amuse.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes picks up right where the previous film left-off; a credits sequence portrayal of the spread of the simian flu virus setting us up for an advanced colony of apes outside of San Francisco and a decimated, bruised and battered humanity struggling in vain to make some kind of life for itself. From there human and apes come into contact, and conflict builds: between ape and human, ape and ape, human and human. Andy Serkis is back again, with a wider supporting cast of motion-capture performances. His colleagues are good – he remains utterly outstanding, and long overdue major award recognition. It’s a performance provoking awe, fear and joy in equal measure and is a masterclass of its type.

In a blockbuster season which again sees Michael Bay return to milk the Transformers cash machine with all attendant hype, cynicism and disregard for the viewer, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes represents everything the big blockbuster could and should be. Thrilling, intelligent, artful, entertaining – and not overlong. It’s a worthy sequel; not a perfect one. Like the predecessor, the script has weaknesses. Occasionally the inter-human interplay is somewhat forced. Other than that, it’s as it should be, and all the better for it. Entertainment with heart, guts and a soul.

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

American Hustle

American Hustle has everything: a cast of today’s hot talent, a director’s whose previous film (Silver Linings Playbook) was hard not to enjoy, 70s costumes and hairpieces to invoke instant comic value and gloss, a con-trick based plot which should provide intrigue, tension, social commentary and comic potential. It has everything, indeed.

Sad to report, then, that the film is itself a con. The performances are nearly faultless in this regard; none of the major players really puts a foot wrong. It’s easy to see why the film has been laden with nominations for the acting at least. What I find slightly more mystifying is the level of acclaim the film has received as a whole. It a film about con-artists and police entrapment, about people playing roles; people who play roles so well that we never see who they are. It’s impossible for the audience to really care about any of them because we don’t who they really are. To say something about the roles people play, you need to say more than simply state that they do so.

Then there’s the story. There are fine moments of comedy and tensions – but in the end, I didn’t really know what was happening. The layers of deceit aren’t peeled away so much as they are occasionally and carelessly ripped off, leaving strands of previous layers dawdling on top of each other. Double-cross on double-cross is one thing; by the end, though, its several revelations too far. I was too lost and too confused about people whom I didn’t really care to stay interested.

It’s a shame, as there’s so much I should like, and so much that could be said by this director and these actors making this sort of film. If it’s meant to reflect a shallow and empty hall of mirrors in American society, then it’s a disappointingly successful one. Sometimes you need to do more than reflect. Much to admire, but in the end relatively little to actually engage and enjoy.

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

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