The Shack

cxxccxcxReview: The Shack / Running time: 132 mins Rating: M Content may disturb

Having sold over ten million copies, William P. Young’s best-selling novel, The Shack, has a reader fanbase that unsurprisingly, has now been tapped into by the movie industry. It is an interesting story of one man’s very personal journey through great loss, depression and redemption.  But does the film handle this story with the gravity it deserves?

Mack (Sam Worthington) and Nan Phillips (Radha Mitchell) have three children.  They are the quintessential all American mid-west God loving family; but when their youngest daughter is murdered, Mack spirals into depression. Then one day a mysterious note is delivered, inviting him to the place of his daughter’s death.  There he meets the personification of the Christian Holy Trinity (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit).

For the most part God is played by Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures), a homely African-American woman speaking soft social wisdoms as she bakes. Such representations of mystery incarnate have become a cliche since The Matrix presented the disarming Oracle (played by Gloria Foster).  Her motherly (rather than fatherly) portrayal might ruffle some feathers in the Christian fraternity, but given that her persona is someone Mack knows from earlier in his life, it seems that in this instance the personification of God is personal to Mack rather than a middle finger to theology.

At times Mack’s conversations with God raise more questions than they answer. Frustratingly, it had me wanting to dive through the screen and throttle Mack for not asking some obvious ones.  However, the film settles for a curiously satisfying Christian philosophy rather than a Bible-bashing theology. And, it’s important to note that one doesn’t have to be a Christian to understand and benefit from its message.

The very American setting eschews its international production which offers talent from around the globe — the only clue being Sam Worthington (Avatar). Try as he might, he still hasn’t nailed an American accent and his smokey voice sounded at times like he was auditioning for an Australian version of Batman. English director Stuart Hazeldine (Exam) plays it very safe and perhaps misses opportunities to explore the book’s darker themes. The resulting tone constantly errs on surreal beauty (a visual style reminiscent of Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come) and its lush backdrops have all the synthetic beauty of a stock wallpaper for an Apple device. So yes, it’s a little smarmy in parts, trite, and laden heavily with saccharin, but The Shack’s emotive qualities caught me off guard and the result was very affecting.  Certainly worth seeing if you’d like a good cry.

3 stars

 

Is there a beating human heart in Silence

                                                                                      – one Christian’s perspective.

My knee-jerk reaction to The Shack is to compare it to Manchester by the Sea, although this is perhaps unfair.  Both films are about a father struggling with the grief of losing a child, but that is where the similarities end.  And, although I found Manchester by the Sea a more personally affective film (you can read my review here), its protagonist Lee, is dealing with the different side of grief … one that he cannot beat.  For this reason Manchester issues a grittier, darker style for the majority of the film’s length, in contrast to The Shack‘s serene beauty and heaven-like surroundings. Nonetheless,  Manchester triggered a certain sense of grounded realism within my film-going experience, one that I took away with me post-viewing … digesting and mulling over its story for days after. Unfortunately, The Shack‘s “trite and laden heavily with saccharin” moments detached me from such grounded realism. So instead, post-viewing I was left thinking about how they could’ve made the film better – it felt like an opportunity lost.  This is a shame, because The Shack deals with a very real God, a very real afterlife, a very real Heaven, yet the emphasis on its dreamlike qualities felt like a misstep.

To be fair, such qualities were necessary to promote the story’s ambiguous “was it all a coma-induced dream” ending, and from what I’ve heard it followed the book fairly closely, so …


Do you think I’m way off the mark? See something in the film you want to get off your chest? Just want to chat about film? If so then feel free to leave a comment. All opinions, comments or discussion points are welcome.

The Case for Christ

tcfcReview: The Case for Christ / Running time: 112 mins / Rating: PG Coarse language

My reticence towards films that champion fundamental Christianity in contemporary society is that they tend to be preachy and often err on the side of sentimentality and over simplification.  I’m sure there are exceptions but I’ve yet to see any.  The Case for Christ, thankfully, is not one of those films … at least not entirely.

Directed by Jon Gunn (My Date with Drew) with a screenplay written by Brian Bird (Captive) and based on the autobiography of the same name by Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ tells the story of its author’s journey from atheism to a faith based belief in Christ.

It’s 1980 and Lee Strobel, played by a very moustachioed Mike Vogel (Cloverfield, The Help), is an award winning investigative journalist for the Chicago Tribune, and a devout atheist. After his wife Leslie (Erika Christensen) converts to Christianity (the fundamental type), Lee attempts to debunk her beliefs by undertaking an investigation into the crux of the religion — the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Meanwhile their marriage teeters on the brink of breakdown.

I have read Strobel’s best-selling book and as someone who examined faith through a similar lens I found his investigation a fascinating one. However, here the detailed arguments in the source material have been somewhat glossed over by Bird to allow for its packing down into a two hour film. The unfortunate (but perhaps unavoidable) result leaves its meaty arguments vague at best. However, it does allow the film to explore Lee’s relationship with Leslie. Unfortunately,  the depiction of Lee’s marriage as well as his investigation into Christianity presents two plot lines that feel disparate and neither appear fully realised. Furthermore, the film’s delivery is not without its fair share of mis-steps, cliches and awkward moments. Despite this, Vogel and Christensen do a convincing job of a married couple in torment, but its investigative concerns fall well short of contemporaries like Spotlight or Zodiac.

The Case for Christ does however prove a little more engrossing than most films of its denomination and raises some intriguing questions. One might posit that the more Strobel investigated the Christian world the more he succumbed to its rhetoric — a sort of Stockholm Syndrome for journalists. Or perhaps Strobel dug up some genuine truths. Thankfully, it focuses more on the story than the pulpit.

Rating: 2.5 stars

 

Is there a beating human heart in The Case for Christ

                                                                                      – one Christian’s perspective.

My problem with The Case for Christ is a matter of style and substance.  Its doesn’t escape the tell-tale Christian filmic style, and its substance is hampered by an over-simplification of complex issues which weakens its impact.

Let me unpack this a smidge more.

Style: When compared to its secular equivalents (Zodiac, Spotlight, and All the Presidents Men are a few that immediately come to mind but I’m sure there are plenty more), The Case for Christ appears forced. It comes across as mimicry rather than fresh.  I can see it trying to shake off the “Christian” filmic style so it can appeal to an audience outside of the Church, but it doesn’t quite get there. It still suffers from the soft focus on women, the all inclusive framing, and other stylistic “ticks”.  However, this is something that, while distracting, is not a game changer.  Besides, many Christians (myself obviously excluded) will love its more conservative style … but it does make me wonder who they are trying to sell the film to.

Substance: It bites off way too much and as a result suffers from what I mentioned in my review – notably over simplification.  It has to gloss over some considerably complex issues to fit into a two hour film.  In this instance it would’ve been better served if the film was a ten part miniseries.

In summary, The Case for Christ seems to be confused about its target market and as a result gets neither right. Great films that champion fundamental Christianity in contemporary society … my search continues.


Do you think I’m way off the mark? See something in the film you want to get off your chest? Just want to chat about film? If so then feel free to leave a comment. All opinions, comments or discussion points are welcome.

Silence

silence

Review: Silence / Running time: 161 mins / Rating: R16

I am always wary when a film of notable scope and pedigree such as Silence is largely ignored during awards season. Either I’m reading too much into its lack of critical chatter, or the film is a dud. I was hoping the former.  After all, master director Martin Scorsese has had this film in the oven on slow-cook since the nineties, so my hopes were high.

Silence is based on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 historical novel about the persecution of Christians in 17th-century Japan. Two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), leave for Japan in search of one of their own (Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson) who’s believed to have renounced his faith and “gone native”. In doing so, both have their faith tested as they encounter extreme torment in a land that is “like a swamp” and incapable of adopting the Christian faith. Shūsaku Endō’s story is remarkably similar to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which also received cinematic treatment with Apocalypse Now.  But where Apocalypse Now was a personal film for Ford Coppola due to hardships he encountered while filming, Silence is a personal film to Scorsese because the source material clearly resonates with his own faith.  However, this might’ve clouded his filmic judgement, because like its protagonists, Silence tests your patience.

I really wanted to like this film, but like an unrequited love, I found myself losing interest and giving up the chase. Large chunks were unengaging, slow, and dare I say it … boring.  Putting in extra effort to peel back layers of dubious Portuguese accents and gratuitous melodrama does reward the viewer with glimpses of Scorsese genius; his intentional use of the camera, his interesting treatment of sound — basically, Silence looks and sounds great.  But, that’s slim pickings for a film that promised so much more.

I have never felt this way about a Scorsese film before. So, like the Jesuit priests, I started to doubt my faith in the great director.  Must I apostatise like the film’s Christian subjects? Maybe I was lacking the piety of a true film critic. Or perhaps this was a test and so I should wait for enlightenment. Like any great cinematic journey, the destination only begins to fully reveal itself long after you’ve left the theatre.  So, wait I did … nothing. Waited further … silence.  Sorry Martin.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Is there a beating human heart in Silence

                                                                                      – one Christian’s perspective.

There is quite often a tension between quality and content. A comparison can be made between high-cinema with low values, and low-cinema with high values.  On the one hand, we have high-cinema: film that resonates with the viewer through the clever use of its artifice and successfully gets its point across. Such films might be enjoyable, beautiful, or even insightful, but the point they make is not necessarily of any moral worth.  On the other hand, there is the film where noble intentions are clouded by poor film making — where a worthy point is trying to be made, but due to false steps in the film-making process it misses the mark.  For me, Silence falls into this latter camp.

Ignoring issues of verisimilitude, can the viewer garner anything of value beyond Silence’s shiny veneer and filmic flaws?  Well, the answer is emphatically yes. Silence has plenty to say … but is it relevant to the average person on the street?  One might regard the context and setting of 17th century Jesuit Portuguese priests in feudal Japan as irrelevant today.  I certainly hope that any Christian is not among this group — one might as well dismiss Jesus on the same grounds. As any Christian should know, Jesus is just as relevant today despite his historical context.  More specifically, Silence speaks volumes about the nature of spiritual resistance and how a symbolic action, regardless how small, can take on significant spiritual meaning. This is very relevant in a world where committing simple actions that we know to be wrong is arguably easier now than it has ever been.  Actions have intent, and intent carries with it a spiritual component — your actions, no matter how small, are important. Thankfully Silence doesn’t leave us hanging on this point and ambiguously concludes on man’s tenacity and God’s grace and mercy, as the final shot of the film suggests.


Do you think I’m way off the mark? See something in the film you want to get off your chest? Just want to chat about film? If so then feel free to leave a comment. All opinions, comments or discussion points are welcome.

Moonlight

moonlight

Photo by David Bornfriend

Review: Moonlight / Running time: 111 mins / Rating: M

“Who is you, man?” — a question posed to the protagonist of Barry Jenkins’ latest feature film, Moonlight.  Issues of “identity” are often explored in film, but few offer such a fresh and unique take on the topic as Moonlight.  Jenkins both directed and adapted the screenplay from Tarell McCraney’s original story “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”.  It’s a shame they changed the title because it succinctly sums up the central metaphor to this film — that is, how you are perceived through the critical lens of others. More-so, how others will always try to define you.

The film is presented in three acts spanning the formative years of Chiron, an African-American, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. Growing up in a rough neighbourhood, his journey of self-discovery deals with universal themes of identity, sexuality, family, and most of all, masculinity. He discovers from an early age that certain feelings have no place in the hostile environment he lives in, and finds himself constantly on the outer. Chiron struggles to come to terms with his sexuality and his place in the world, all the while managing his drug addled mother (played by Naomie Harris).

Although such environments and topics often lend themselves to gritty social realism, Jenkins has instead opted to tell Chiron’s story with a vivid impressionistic style. The result is more akin to Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild and presents a very visual film that is striking but also utilises quiet moments and an economy of dialogue. Cinematographer James Laxton has done a wonderful job of getting his camera to tell Chiron’s story.  Skin tones are exquisitely lit and the beats of camera movement match the incredible musical score by Nicholas Britell (Whiplash, 12 Years a Slave).  The result is a sensory experience that had me spellbound.

Magical qualities are consistently present in all three performances of Chiron’s character, despite being played by three actors of different age and body shape. Director Jenkins explains that during the process of auditions he focussed on expression through the eyes; “find the eyes and you’ll see the soul, and if the soul is the same, then the audience will follow the character”. In actors Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes he found the same soul through three sets of eyes.  And indeed, I did follow their journey as one.

Moonlight is one of those rare movies that just doesn’t take a wrong step. It is an astounding piece of cinema that compassionately taps into a facet of American life that is not often explored.

5 stars out of 5

Is there a beating human heart in Moonlight

                                                                                      – one Christian’s perspective.

I read a comment on Facebook the other day.  It was a response to seeing Moonlight. It said; “Another 5 star movie for me this year, but perhaps not for everyone.”   The movie goer is a Christian and acknowledged that it was a good film. However, I’m unsure if the comment  “but perhaps not for everyone” was a warning to the conservative Christian fraternity to stay clear, or simply that the film, aesthetically, is an acquired taste. Either way, it raises some interesting points about how trawling the hard yards through topics that you are averse to is a learning process and can offer interesting and often heartfelt insights about people.  It’s an arduous lesson and I like to think of it as a form of tough love on the movie goer, a lesson, and a process that we as Christians should make dutifully in order to understand and love people. Indeed, not everyone will enjoy Moonlight, but I think everyone should see it. Certainly, I believe Christians (of which I am one) might learn a lot from the film’s compassionate account of humanity.  It is a film that for the most part doesn’t take sides on the topic of Homosexuality — it doesn’t appear to force any opinion on the subject, but simply gives an honest and authentic account of one man’s struggle with it.

Love thy neighbour.  Be more selfless. Empathise with people. Understand peoples desires and pain. Moonlight offers an opportunity to practice this.


Do you think I’m way off the mark? See something in the film you want to get off your chest? Just want to chat about film? If so then feel free to leave a comment. All opinions, comments or discussion points are welcome.

A United Kingdom

auk

Review: A United Kingdom / Running time: 111 mins / Rating: M

If I am honest I can’t say that I was particularly enthused to see A United Kingdom.  A story of love that ushered in the birth of democracy in Botswana certainly sounds intriguing, yet something in its trailer left me wanting. Nonetheless, a dull trailer sometimes offers the film a gain — as they say, under promise and over deliver.

Set against the backdrop of post-war politics in the forties and fifties, A United Kingdom is based on the true story of the relationship between Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white salesman’s daughter and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a black Bechuanaland (now Botswana) national who happens to be next in line to the nation’s throne. Racial concerns initially beset their relationship; however, disapproval from the British government as well as Bechuanaland’s current ruler cause further strain later in their marriage. Battle lines are clearly marked out and Seretse’s choice between love and duty is a conundrum that fully hits home in a stirring speech to his people: “I love my people, but I love my wife”. The waters are further muddied by the subsequent forced exile of Seretse which both separates him from his nation as well as the now pregnant Ruth. His desperation to return home sets up the film’s final stanza which thematically explores the conflict between entrenched institutions and progressive change.

Director Amma Asante (Belle) has entered the hostile territory of race relations and politics at a very personal level.  Her ability to tell a love story amidst the political turmoil of fringe post-war politics is handled confidently, and she appears to have drawn very heart-felt performances from Pike and Oyelowo, who both skilfully traverse the fragile path of mixing politics with the personal.

Yet, this very interesting story is let down by a very tame screenplay (by Guy Hibbert) that at times lacks subtlety and unfortunately doesn’t risk any opportunities where a nuanced approach might have worked better. There is no doubt that this is a crowd pleasing film and it appeared to win its audience over … at least in the theatre I was in. Moreover, it certainly engaged me on a personal level. But alas, the mild mannered approach to its political agenda left me wishing it had a little more teeth.

3 stars out of 5

 

Is there a beating human heart in A United Kingdom?

                                                                                      – one Christian’s perspective.

What is the film really about?

A United Kingdom is about many things — race, gender, change, and power, are themes that immediately spring to mind. However, at its core this is film about love and its arduous journey through the testing conditions of the aforementioned themes (race, gender, change, and power). Specifically, it explores what love means in the face of a seemingly impossible situation. Love is explored on a personal level (Seretse and Ruth’s love for each other) and at a corporate level (Seretse’s love for his people).  A United Kingdom offers the analogy of Christ’s love for the church: Just as Seretse loved his people, Christ loves the church.  Just as Seretse “loved his wife” the church is the bride of Christ.

What is the protagonist’s core motivation?

Seretse’s core motivation is summed up in his heart-felt speech to his people: “I love my people, but I love my wife.”  In one sentence he sums up the anguish he feels over the injustice about not being allowed to love both.  There are many examples in the bible that tell of similar circumstances, where loving personally and corporately is met with conflict … the story of Moses is a classic example.

What is the film trying to tell us?

Indeed, why did director Amma Asante want to tell the story? In an interview with the BBC, she mentions that she is motivated by “beautiful films that mean something, that create discussion and inform debate.” A key component of A United Kingdom is that it is based on true events.  When the end credits role, we see stills of the real Seretse and Ruth and inter-titles that elaborate on the birth of democracy in Botswana.  The film is offering an example of what humans are capable of by virtue of its non-fiction nature.  It is saying “this is what really happened”.  When we read the bible, how often are we reminded that these are events that actually happened? If it was a made up story, then would it have the same impact?

Does the film use anything more than the story to convey meaning i.e. colour, framing etc.

Although it tries hard the cinematography appears to be disjointed and slightly distracting from the story.  The story is the key to this film, and beyond a vague attempt at colour grading London towards the negative, there is not much to remark with regards toward the film’s “technicalities”.

Does it promote turning towards or turning away from good?

A United Kingdom is a positive film that promotes good values.  It wears subtexts on its sleeve and is fairly transparent in its agenda.


Do you think I’m way off the mark? See something in the film you want to get off your chest? Just want to chat about film? If so then feel free to leave a comment. All opinions, comments or discussion points are welcome.

Welcome

My name is Toby Woollaston and I am a film critic for NZME.  This blog aims to take the films that I review and throw them under a Christian lens, exploring to what extent these films can be viewed as “prayers” by the secular. The goal is to break down the perceived wall between movies dedicated to God and movies done for worldly motivations — to understand that many secular films are an expression that is just as valid to Christian audiences as it is to non-Christian audiences.

Film as a medium provides such fertile ground for the communication of human expression.  As such, films are often more than just mere entertainment, but express very real feelings and tell stories about the world we all live in. However, I have met many Christians that shy away from “secular” cinema because, among other reasons, it represents a world that ignores God.

So what do I mean when I refer to the “secular”?

Secularism, particularly in film, is not a state of neutrality as some suggest.  When observing and analysing movies it is immediately apparent that there is no such thing as a neutral film.  By its inherent nature cinema expresses at least some form of opinion or view, be it bad, good, wrong, or right.  In brief, secular cinema is born out of some sort of world view-point.

American hiphop artist and Christian, William “Duce” Branch summarises that “conflict is inevitable in the Christian life between the so-called secular and the sacred. Some think that secular means ‘neutral.’ But that’s not true. Things done for the world, by the world’s standards, and without God in view are called secular, and they are trying to expand secularism. This is as ideological as the sacred things done to advance the recognition of God.”

Branch observes the common ideologies between both the secular world and the Christian world but acknowledges that there is conflict between them. However, we must constantly remember that God is sovereign over all life. God is in all life. The secular world and the Christian world — secular cinema and Christian cinema. Watching secular films garners an understanding of secular thinking. To understand the struggles of people who do not call themselves Christian is important. After all, if we as Christians are genuine about saving the lost then we must understand the world that we all share.

In his yet to be released book Movies are prayers: how films voice out deepest longings, film critic and editor of Think Christian, Josh Larsen, takes a selection of iconic films and explores the extent to which they are prayers on topics such anger, confession, lament, yearning, justice, obedience, contemplation, joy.  Larsen’s project challenged me about the films that I review and has been the impetus for this blog. My aim is to encourage the reader to see and understand filmic expression and its intention to communicate in much the same way that we as Christians view prayer. In doing so, I hope to peel off the outer layers of film and find a beating human heart within. Of course not all films will stand up to such an examination and I am expecting some films to be inherently flat and lifeless. Regardless, this should be an enlightening project and I hope that you and I will learn more about film … and more importantly about our relationship with God.