Favorite Movies of 2016

My predictable lateness with my best movies of 2016 comes with the same usual excuses.  Not getting to movie theaters hardly at all anymore, I’m reliant on Netflix and Red Box for checking out films that have a chance of being my favorites of the year.  Thus, the latest best movies of the year list ever.

By the way, a great resource for tracking various film critics “best movies of the year” listings is at metacritic where they compile movie critic’s lists from across the country and assign a point value based upon the rankings.  If you are a film buff, this will give you solid ideas on things you can seek to stream at home or add to your Netflix queue.

My best movies of 2016:

10) Knight of Cups- Director Terrence Malick is an enigma and the reactions to his movies are very harshly divided.  Many people will not like this movie and I don’t mean that to be snobbish.  Malick employes a stream-of-consciousness type filmmaking that often features whispery voiceovers.  I appreciate his style because there is literally no one else who makes films like he does and there is always a mystifying spirituality in his work.  “Knight of Cups” is no exception on both points (Fully reviewed by me here.)  Diving into “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and tarot cards, Malick has main character Christian Bale (Rick) lost and spiritually alienated in the shallow Hollywood culture/system. His family fractured and his relationships with women broken, he yearns for a deeper grasp of his own existence.  One of the closer things to gospel that Malick has ever done.  Bale’s Rick learns from a priest that God loves him even when he is suffering.  Suffering binds us to something higher than ourselves is the message.  Through this truth comes the last segment of the film that is titled “freedom”.

9) Sing Street- Not being a fan of music from the 1980s generally, I was quite surprised by how much I loved “Sing Street” which is about a kid, Conor, in the mid-1980s who forms a band to impress a girl that he likes.  The plot may sound typical but the way that director John Carney (of “Once” fame) constructs the film elevates the work beyond the usual.

8) The Birth of a Nation- A raw, brutal and uncompromising biographical portrayal of slave turned leader of a bloody revolt was brought to the screen by writer/ director Nate Parker.  Parker also stars in the film as Nat Turner a literate preacher who reaches a breaking point with the antebellum south of Virginia over the treatment and condition of slaves.  The rage is a slow boil but once things come to fruition, the blood starts flowing.  There are many fascinating moments in Parker’s film including a Bible verse battle over slavery between Turner and a slave owner each offering their own verses to justify their positions.  The legacy of Turner and his men still lives on today and the movie links his ideas and actions during the 1830s to the coming Civil War.  One can point out some narrative flaws in the film but I’m willing to forgive those for the sheer passion that brought this unlikely-to-be financed movie to the big screen.

7) Loving- Part one of the year of Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) who has become one of the most exciting filmmakers out there.  In “Loving”, he examines the relationship of Mildred and Richard Loving who were at the center of the Supreme Court decision (Loving v Virginia in 1967) which affirmed their interracial marriage.  Wisely, Nichols (who also wrote the screenplay) does not center this film on a big dramatic courtroom showdown.  The narrative never flinches from being about the Loving’s and how a state reprehensibly intruded into their lives, attempted to de-legitimize their humanity and destroy their marriage.  Anger from many audience members will be palpable as they witness police officers break into the Loving house, seize them from their bed and place them under arrest for being married to each other.  Rather then leaving people in rage, Nichols threads the fine line as his film leaves us with hope and awe of the love and commitment this couple, who just wanted to be left alone, have for each other.

6) Hell Or High Water- To call this a modern day western will draw the ire of some who believe that westerns are more defined by a setting that is before the industrial revolution.  I would describe “Hell or High Water” as a western because it meets the genre criteria thematically.  This is an excellent film that succeeds in creating no protagonists or antagonists but seeks for the audience to understand the motives of all sides of the conflict.  Tanner and Toby Howard (played respectively by Ben Foster and Chris Pine) are brothers who pull off a string of armed robberies at banks with the goal of paying off a reverse mortgage that, if not paid, will forfeit their recently deceased mother’s ranch.  On their trail is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (the always great Jeff Bridges) and his deputy, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).  The climax is surprising and really there are original threads all along the way throughout Taylor Sheridan’s expertly crafted screenplay.  The audience is really not sure how they want this one to turn out as we come to understand all the characters involved that are headed toward a fateful confrontation.

5) Eye in the Sky- The final film to star the legendary Alan Rickman (Harry Potter series, Die Hard) is a hard-hitting political thriller surrounding the use of drones.  Months after watching the movie, it still feels haunting to me.  Colonel Catherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is a UK based military officer in charge of a drone program which seeks to capture terrorists in Kenya. Upon discovering a suicide bombing plot, the mission is escalated to killing the terrorists pre-emptively that are planning the bombing.  When they are getting ready to attack, a 9 year old girl enters the kill zone and sets off a raging international dispute reaching the highest levels of the American and British governments.  “Eye in the Sky”, directed by Gavin Hood, aims for an unsettling discussion on the morality and localized implications of modern warfare and takes us right into the middle of it.

4) Midnight Special- The year of Jeff Nichols part two.  “Midnight Special” stars Nichols’ muse Michael Shannon as Roy.  Roy is trying to protect his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), from multiple groups who are after him for special powers he possesses.  In a sense, this is a more realistic comic book type movie with a heavy nod to spirituality.  Roy and Alton escape a cult who worships the child for his powers but they also find themselves being chased by the government (including the National Security Agency) who are naturally “curious” about the child’s abilities. Although a cat-and-mouse thriller for sure, Nichols digs deeper to portray a powerful father/ son relationship while also pointing to a transcendent reality beyond this world.

3) OJ: Made in America/ 13th- Cheating a bit, I decided to combine two superior and important documentaries into one entry as they both have the theme of examining race in America.  The first, “OJ: Made in America”, impeccably directed by Ezra Edelman, not only re-examines the infamous court case but tracks one of the most intriguing and loathed celebrities in American history throughout his life and football career.  Not only that, OJ Simpson’s life is looked at through the larger perspective of race in America.  This is one of the best documentaries one could ever watch.  In our age when documentaries seem more akin to polemics, Edelman genuinely examines the perspectives on OJ and race from multiple angles and is largely fair to all sides.

Ava Duvernay’s “13th” is more of a polemic documentary but welcomed for the powerful and passionate argument that she creates while looking at the American prison system and the longer history of racism in America. She interviews college professors, activists, liberals and conservatives.  Newt Gingrich even makes an appearance and has, what some will think, are surprising remarks.  From chattel slavery, the Civil War, the 13th Amendment, to D.W. Griffith, the tragedy of Emmett Till, Martin Luther King Jr, Civil Rights, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, an arc of history is traced on this explosive topic and the audience will come out challenged, informed and prayerfully motivated.

2) Arrival- The opening frames of “Arrival” (the new Denis Villeneuve masterpiece reviewed by me here) evoke an overwhelming sadness.  Images show us Louise Banks (the masterful Amy Adams) playing with her young daughter in flashbacks.  Now, Banks a linguist professor lives alone in her house by the lake and we are tipped off to a horrible tragedy.  While Banks is teaching her class, alien aircrafts invade the earth with mysterious motivations.  The military arrives and wants to recruit Banks and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to attempt to communicate with the aliens.  The result, as I have noted before, is nothing short of a mind-bending masterpiece.  An intelligent and brilliantly crafted film that has massive surprises waiting.  Villeneuve is directing the sequel to Blade Runner next and I think fans of that old Harrison Ford film can anticipate greatness.

1) Silence- The best movie of the year is yet another Martin Scorsese epic effort in world class filmmaking.  We are transported to the 17th century where Japan has outlawed Christianity and faithful followers of Jesus are being horribly persecuted.  Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield in the best performance he has ever given) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) arrive from Portugal in search of their missing mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson).  They have heard that Father Cristovao has renounced his faith after intense torture.  The situation that they arrive too is beyond what they could have thought and beyond what we as an audience could even understand without the experience.  Scorsese’s film is not a simplistic Sunday school lesson. This is a deep meditation and intellectual engagement on the nature of faith that thematically flows from what someone might confess with their mouth versus what is in their heart.  “Silence” is not a feel good faith movie either.  It is deeply unsettling, troubling and Scorsese never dodges the tough questions of this unfathomable situation.  Not only the best of the year but one of the most compelling, honest and raw films ever made about the Christian faith.

 

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Coen Marathon: Miller’s Crossing

A black fedora drops onto the screen right in front of us.  Sprawling out in front of the camera is a wooded scene with leaves and tree debris stretching out to the far edge in the back. The hat is lifted off the ground and randomly twirls toward the back of the screen until it disappears out of view.

The black fedora in the woods appears near the beginning of the third Coen feature “Miller’s Crossing“.  We are in the 1920s prohibition era and an advisor to an Irish Mob boss is about to be caught between two rival gangs.  Tom Reagan (played by gangster-ish looking Gabriel Byrne) is that advisor for Leo O’Bannon (a young Albert Finney) who runs an unspecified city of the eastern coast of the US.  Leo is carrying on a relationship with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) and Verna is also having an affair with Tom.  Got all that?

Verna’s brother is Bernie (John Turturro in the first of recurring roles in Coen Brother movies).  Rival mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) puts out a hit on Bernie who is a bookie.  Going against the advice of Tom, Leo (again the other mob boss) extends protection to Bernie thus continuing the gangland war.

The Coens (who wrote the screenplay as they nearly always do) again mess with genre (as they did in “Blood Simple”) with “Miller’s Crossing” taking on a slow-burn mob picture and mixing the overall work with aspects of film noir.  A viewer has to make it through the first half an hour to be rewarded with what the film has to offer later.  The front half of the movie is definitely talky but lurking later are mobster assassinations, 1920s-style shootouts and the trademark Coen dark humor.

If I’m putting my critic hat on, I have to say that the mixture of these thematic elements do not always feel even.  The seriousness of a mob rivalry in the Prohibition-era with hits and assassinations out in the woods is interwoven with scenes such as when Leo gets the jump on rival gang members trying to kill him.  He shoots a would-be assassin from the driveway of a home in the back through an upstairs window.  The assassins’ body convulses as it is riddled with bullets and the tommy gun of the assassin starts firing in a pinwheel motion spraying ammunition into the ceiling and the floor as his arms move in a circle.  It is a scene that is outrageous and funny and completely absurd.  And yet, we are dealing with the Coen Bros.

For the unevenness though, “Miller’s Crossing” is a considerably original gangster movie that has its own flavor.  Richard Corliss, the legendary Time Magazine film critic, in 2005 listed the movie as one of the top 100 movies ever made since the inception of the magazine.  The third Coen feature is also consistently listed as one of the best gangster movies of all time (though certainly not anywhere near as good as “The Godfather 1 and 2” and “Goodfellas”).  As good as the movie is, this is probably over praise.

SPOILER: At the end, when Leo and Tom have made up over the double crossing after the funeral of Bernie, Leo praises Tom for his well-thought out plan of turning against him (Leo) in order to orchestrate all these events.  As Tom walks with Leo in the woods of Miller’s Crossing, he states something along the lines of, “you know that feeling where you act and you don’t even think things through” suggesting that the entire “plot” of Tom as simply random.  As random as a black fedora being blown around in the woods. No accident the Coens return again and again to this theme.  END SPOILER

A random note:  look for a young Steve Buscemi in a small role in this movie.  Of course, he would become a famed Coen player (especially later in “Fargo”).

My friend Jake mentioned that I should give actual ratings to my reviews and suggested a “Lester Lauding Level (LLL)” so I’m start employing that.

LLL for “Miller’s Crossing”= 4/5

Ranking of Coen Bro Movies (so far):

Miller’s Crossing

Raising Arizona (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

 

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Coen Marathon: Raising Arizona

What is the greatest Nicholas Cage movie of all time?  The Coen Bros second feature film may very well be a contender.  Every once in awhile, I see lists about the funniest films of the 1980s and I don’t recall seeing “Raising Arizona” on any of those lists.  It should be.  Set in the rural desert in Arizona (southwestern culture becomes a character in the Coen canon) and featuring a prison convict falling in love and getting married to his prison photographer, the terrain finds the Coens in pure screwball comedy mode.

Idiosyncratic dialogue, Biblical references, and occasional wild camerawork season this story revolving around H.I. McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) settling down with Edwina “Ed” (Holly Hunter) after the prison stint.  They reside in their mobile home out in the rural desert of Arizona and tragically learn they cannot have children.  Adoption is out of the question as well because of McDunnough’s criminal record.  Here we get an economic lesson from the film:  it is so unfair that some people have so much and others so little.

The wealthy Nathan Arizona, Sr (Trey Wilson) and his wife, Florence Arizona (Lynne Dumin Kitei) have five children.  McDunnough and Edwina judge this is too many kids for them to have and they should share so they hatch a plot to kidnap one of the children to have one of their own.  The couple escapes from the Arizona home with one of the babies.

Randomly entering the movie shortly thereafter, the lone biker of the apocalypse Leonard Smalls (played with a menace by Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) roaring on his motorcycle down an otherwise deserted patch of southwestern road (straight out of hell presumably).  Out of a cloud of smoke, his motorcycle flying through the air only to land on the pavement, the lone biker is armed with big guns, features grenades attached to his vest and is decorated with tattoos.  He lobs grenades at wildlife and shoots lizards on rocks as he rolls past.  Naming his price at $50,000, he offers to find Mr. Arizona’s missing child which puts him on a collision course with McDunnough and Edwina.

One of the funniest sequences that the Coens’ have ever done happens a little ways into the film when McDunnough goes into a grocery store to steal diapers.  Donning a nylon stocking over his head, he attempts to hold up the store but things go awry and he finds himself running from police with a cop hanging out of his police car window firing at him, an eager teenager with braces holding a magnum, packs of dogs that he attracts along the way and all of this while carrying a pack of diapers.  The soundtrack music during this sequence features yodeling by John R Crowder.  When I first saw this scene, I laughed so hard that I’m not sure I have ever laughed harder in a movie.  It is Coen magic where they are at their most zany and insane.

Things eventually get resolved, we get voiceover narration over the final scenes and the final line is just about perfect when held up to everything that has come before.  The most hilarious movie in the Coen canon?  One can certainly make a valid case.

Next:  “Miller’s Crossing”- a prohibition-era gangster film done Coen-style and also vastly underrated.

Ranking of Coen Bro Movies:

Raising Arizona

Blood Simple (my review is here).

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Make America Read Again: My March Book List

March has come and gone.  Still working on my admittedly low bar of 24 books for the year.  Last month’s offerings:

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

Only having experienced Malcolm Gladwell’s writing in “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking”, I thought of him as a guy who is a good writer who uses interesting stories (often true life ones so he claims) to state rather obvious themes and conclusions.  These conclusions may not always be scientific.

The main thematic thrust of his “David and Goliath” book is in the title:  smaller organizations and/or individuals can often “win” against bigger organizations or bloated corporations because they are leaner and meaner (one of the reasons would be a lack of bureaucracy).  A person walking down the street may be able to spout this off the top of their head but Gladwell makes the concept sound fascinating, dressing up his message in clever analogies and accounts, while sounding profound in the process.  As the book moves on, particularly toward the back half, the reader becomes less and less convinced that the information Gladwell is selling and the analogies he drenches throughout his narrative necessarily line up with what he wanted to do from the outset.

Gladwell talks about underdogs playing basketball, how a significant percentage of CEOs and other leaders have dyslexia, children who lose parents, students who attend mediocre schools and even individuals who are discriminated against.  His argument remains that these disadvantages can be turned to advantages hence the Biblical account of David slaying the giant.  Some of his writing seems a little neat and tidy compared with the roadblocks that society puts in front of some people that is entirely out of their control.

All of this to say, there are still fascinating gleanings that we can take from the work.  I have read the actual Biblical account of David and Goliath dozens of times and have heard sermons on the encounter between the shepherd’s boy and the giant Philistine but I have not delved into the expert analysis of the episode.  To be sure, Gladwell is not representing even the mid-range of scholarly commentary at the beginning of this book when he talks about David and Goliath but the ideas he brings out of the text are interesting to consider.  He theorizes (as others have) that Goliath had poor eyesight while being an intimidating brute in combat. The poor eyesight condition, according to Gladwell, could have come from acromelagy, a disease of the pituitary gland.  Gladwell also talks about the necessary component of “slingers” in those battle times and those would be individuals who had slingshots to fire at the opposing armies and some perhaps could sling a rock from 200 yards toward their target.  There are other issues that are not addressed by Gladwell (as Goliath wearing a helmet and why not?).  Some even ponder if Gladwell chose the right “moral” to bring out of the David and Goliath account.

If someone enjoys Gladwell’s work, they probably will enjoy this book.  For others or for those compelled to learn more about David and Goliath, I would recommend looking elsewhere.

Here are some quotes:

“Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.”

“Any fool can spend money.  But to earn it and save it and defer gratification—then you learn to value it differently.”

“We spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that prestige and resources and belonging to elite institutions make us better off. We don’t spend enough time thinking about the ways in which those kinds of material advantages limit our options.”

“The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.”

“When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters—first and foremost—how they behave.”

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell

The inaugural book by Rob Bell came out in 2005.  The popular author/ speaker and occasionally controversial pastor has had quite the interesting spiritual journey since then.  As I was reading this book, I realized I could refer to this as the period of Bell’s life when he was more orthodox in his Christian faith.

That doesn’t mean that Bell doesn’t significantly challenge the status quo and that “Velvet Elvis”, while meandering around in parts, is not a good read.  To the contrary, Bell introduces important concepts to re-visualize the Christian faith while being fairly bold with his own doubts and struggles while being a mega-church pastor.  This book simply felt different from anything that a mega-church pastor would write.  More raw, real and honest.

The “Velvet Elvis” is reportedly a figure that Bell had in his basement.  A relic. Out of date.  He compares this old figure with the American church.

The book continues with Bell describing the doctrines of the Christian faith (which he affirms, if questions, in the book) as akin to the springs on a trampoline from the outset of the book.  People are jumping (experiencing) the doctrines on the trampoline and inviting others to join in.  A kind of cheesy metaphor but Bell starts here at the outset of the book before launching into his challenges of “American Christianity” while not really explicitly saying that is what he is doing.  He calls the different segments of his book “movements”.

Different episodes are captured such as when he is wrecked by doubt between services on Easter.  Is Christianity actually even true?  He contemplated getting in his car and driving away between services while he was intensely doubting and struggling.

Questions, grace, forgiveness, phony pastors, salvation all are covered in Bell’s book.  The best thing about the work is Bell’s knowledge of Judaism and how he repeatedly uses the facts of Jewish cultural traditions to illustrate Jesus’ teachings and bring different elements of the gospel alive.

I don’t agree with Bell on a lot theology currently and that is why I liked this book.  As I mentioned, this is the period of Rob Bell where he was more orthodox.  While he always has challenging and interesting thoughts rather on paper or on his podcast (the Robcast), a part of me wishes he would circle back around to an embrace of these few baseline beliefs of the Christian faith.

“Velvet Elvis” is a smooth and conversational read that will both challenge and affirm faith in Jesus.

Here are some quotes:

“If there is a divine being who made everything, including us, what would our experiences with this being look like? The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God. We are dealing with somebody we made up. And if we made him up, then we are in control. And so in passage after passage, we find God reminding people that he is beyond and bigger and more.”

“Your job is the relentless pursuit of who God made you to be. And anything else you do is sin and you need to repent of it.”

“Whether we are reading the Bible for the first time or standing in a field in Israel next to a historian and an archaeologist and a scholar, the Bible meets us where we are. That is what truth does.”

“Think about some of the words that are used in these kinds of discussions, one of the most common being the phrase ‘open-minded.’ Often the person with spiritual convictions is seen as close-minded and others are seen as open-minded. What is fascinating to me is that at the center of the Christian faith is the assumption that this life isn’t all there is. That there is more to life than the material. That existence is not limited to what we can see, touch, measure, taste, hear, and observe. One of the central assertions of the Christian worldview is that there is ‘more’ – Those who oppose this insist that this is all there is, that only what we can measure and observe and see with our eyes is real. There is nothing else. Which perspective is more ‘closed-minded?’ Which perspective is more ‘open?’

“It is such a letdown to rise from the dead and have your friends not recognize you.”

“Whatever those things are that make you feel fully alive and like the universe is ultimately a good place and you are not alone, I need a faith that doesn’t deny these moments but embraces them.”

“For Jesus, the question wasn’t, ‘How do I get into heaven?’ but ‘How do I bring heaven here?’

“But the first Christians didn’t see Jesus this way, as if God were somewhere else and then cooked up some way to solve the sin problem at the last minute by getting involved as Jesus. They believed that Jesus was somehow more, that Jesus had actually been present since before creation and had been a part of the story all along.”

“This is why it is so toxic for the gospel when Christians picket and boycott and complain about how bad the world is. This behavior doesn’t help.  It makes it worse. It isn’t the kind of voice Jesus wants his followers to have in the world.  Why blame the dark for being dark?  It is far more helpful to ask why the light isn’t as bright as it could be.”

 

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“Magic”

Listened to this song from the Boss this morning on my walking/ train commute to downtown Seattle:

“I got a coin in your palm
I can make it disappear
I got a card up my sleeve
Name it and I’ll pull it out your ear
I got a rabbit in the hat
If you wanna come and see
This is what will be
This is what will be

I got shackles on my wrists
Soon I’ll slip and I’ll be gone
Chain me in a box in the river
And rising in the sun
Trust none of what you hear
And less of what you see
This is what will be
This is what will be

I got a shiny saw blade
All I need’s a volunteer
I’ll cut you in half
While you’re smilin’ ear to ear
And the freedom that you sought
Driftin’ like a ghost amongst the trees
This is what will be
This is what will be

Now there’s a fire down below
But it’s coming up here
So leave everything you know
Carry only what you fear
On the road the sun is sinkin’ low
Bodies hanging in the trees
This is what will be
This is what will be”

-Bruce Springsteen from the album “Magic”

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Coen Marathon: “Blood Simple”

The first time I encountered a Coen Bros movie was in high school when my friend, Jake, recommended we check out “Fargo” from our local movie rental store “Video Update” (remember when we had movie rental stores?).   Watching the film at the house I grew up in (south of Seattle in Kent), I couldn’t shake how zany and wild “Fargo” was after we saw it.  The next movie of theirs I watched was “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” while I was a junior at Grace College in Indiana.  After that experience, I was a full-fledged fan.

The strange thing is, I can mostly recount where I was and who I was with when I first saw each of the Coen Bros movies and I’m not at all like that with other filmmakers.  The Coens strong production values (even sometimes on indie budgets), originality, bizarre (and sometimes dark) humor, and their existentialism (they have to be existentialists, right?) have always been compelling to me.

Recently, Michelle and I decided to watch all of the Coen Bros films in a marathon of sorts (this certainly does not mean back to back to back).  We would start at the very beginning with “Blood Simple” which came out in 1984.

Blood Simple

When one has experienced seeing other movies in the Coen catalog and watch their debut movie, it is like seeing glimpses of a blueprint which harken things that would come.  “Blood Simple”, the aforementioned debut, belongs squarely in the genre camp of film noir.  However, the Coen’s invent unconventional ways to handle the story and even exhibit some of their diabolically dark humor from their career beginnings.

Julian Marty (played by a man who exudes sliminess Dan Hedaya) owns a Texas saloon and hires a private eye (M. Emmett Walsh) to kill his wife and her lover, Ray (John Getz) who is one of the bartenders at the saloon.  Ceiling fans become an ominous harbinger in one sequence where Julian stares at the circulating ceiling fan in his office at the same time that Abby stares at a fan in the home as Ray sleeps in the other room.  Making her cinema debut as Marty’s wife (Abby) is Frances McDormand who married Joel Coen back in 1984 (they are still married to this day).  She gives a brilliant and measured performance exhibiting why she would become a mainstay in many Coen films after this and an Oscar-winning actress.

The stories of the characters get more entangled and complex. The private eye decides not to kill Abby and her lover and instead opts to collect the money from Julian and off him in his saloon.  Who would happen upon the dead body of the scumbag husband then Ray?  Realizing that the clear murder of the man of whom he was having an affair with his wife might not look so good to him and Abby, Ray decides to dispose of the body.  A famous Coen Bros theme is birthed.  The imperfect but normal-ish person who makes a very stupid decision to involve themselves in a crime (somewhat innocently) ends up creating an even more terrible situation.

One of the elements of a Coen Bros film that is sometimes overlooked is that the setting becomes its own sort of character.  “Blood Simple” takes place in the dead heart of Texas (a marketing tagline for the movie made reference to this phrase) and is embodied by multiple shots of the headlights of cars illuminating a flat road extending out into blackness.

SPOILER:  By the time of the conclusion where the private eye is trying to take out Abby sniper-style, she turns off the lights in the room she is in forcing the would-be assassin to enter that very space.  This leads to the most famous scene of the film that involves Abby attempting to hide from the private eye. He reaches around a wall, trying to see if he can grab her, and she nails his hand to the wall.  Flailing he attempts to remove his hand from the wall and the way that he has to get out of this predicament creates both a painful reaction from the audience as well as laughter.  Pure Coen bliss.  By the time the private eye gets himself freed, Abby has located a gun and shoots him.  The gunshot propels him backward and he lands under a bathroom sink.  As he lays there dying, his eyes focus upon a lone drip of water coalescing around a pipe that is about to drip on his face.  The screen cuts to the credits.  From the outset, the Coens were into ending their movies, not with some glorious concluding shot but rather suddenly.  END SPOILER

A considerable debut film for future Oscar-winning and critical darling filmmakers, “Blood Simple” delivers quite a statement with a cocktail mixture of thriller and laughs.  When this came out, it was wholly original and marked a new, unique signature on the noir genre.

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Make America Read Again: My February Reading List

After January, I had a head start.  Completing two books in the first month of the year, I had started a few others but I slacked in February.  Definitely should have completed more than two books.  Maybe in March…

Genesis:  History, Fiction, or Neither   Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters  Edited by Charles Halton/ Contributors:  James K Hoffmeier, Gordon J. Wenham and Kenton L. Sparks

Having read parts of this book for research for my Genesis sermon, I figured I should just finish the book and I’m glad I did.  The parts I read prior to my message didn’t connect with me but I think that has more to do with the information not being quite what I was after in compiling notes for my message.  The scope of this book has to do with Genesis 1-11 (i.e. pre-Abraham) and my sermon was addressing Genesis 1 exclusively.  Once I was able just to read the book (with no assignment attached), I got a lot more out of the work.

As I mentioned, three scholars dive into the Bible’s earliest accounts:  creation, Cain and Abel, the Nephilim mixing it up with earth women, Noah’s flood, the Tower of Babel and the table of nations.  All three scholars consider themselves evangelical(ish) and hold the Bible to be the Word of God.  The takes and interpretations on these early Biblical chapters certainly differ among them.

Hoffmeier definitely weights the first 11 chapters of Genesis to be actual history.  With the existence multiple genealogies in those chapters, he rationalizes that this is an accurate family history of Israel that communicates theology (specifically Israel’s relationship to the true God).

Wenham’s view of Genesis 1-11 is more complicated.  He argues that the text is “proto-history”.  The genealogies represent an expanded history of Israel and it is less important, in his view, that events “may not be datable and fixable chronologically, but they were viewed as real events”.  Emphasis on “viewed” or one could say believed to be real events.  Wenham moves a little bit away from an importance that every story in these opening Biblical chapters actually happened in history or perhaps if an event did happen, it has been recorded with hyperbole and certainly is not impartial.  He would uphold the theological teachings and messaging to be truth.

Sparks would be considered the most “liberal” of the three scholars.  His belief is that the opening chapters of Genesis are ancient historiography.  From his perspective, while Biblical writers probably intended to record historical events, the opening chapters of Genesis “do not narrate closely what actually happened. . . . There was no Edenic garden, nor trees of life and knowledge, nor a serpent that spoke, nor a worldwide flood in which all living things, save those on a giant boat, were killed by God”.  Sparks, like Wenham, would uphold the theological teaching of these chapters as the Word of God and maintains their value in communicating humanity’s relationship to God but would argue against their literal history and general scientific assumptions.  He would ask:  does something have to happen literally in history for it to be considered theologically (or philosophically) true?

Of the three perspectives, Sparks seemed the most reasoned and persuasive of the arguments…and I don’t agree with him on some of his points.  Attempting to weave a theological truth with modern scientific consensus and an understanding of anthropological history is not an easy task and Sparks comes the closest to actually pulling this off.

A few excerpts.  Hoffmeier wrote the following in response to Sparks:

“Human evolution and the biological sciences are by nature descriptive.  They cannot tell us what caused or who made it happen, and what or who made matter and transformed inanimate material living to organisms.  Even if one recognizes that biological evolution occurred, the Bible demands that we view this as how God created.  God is the who behind the processes and He sovereignly controls them creating according to His will.  Scripture answers the real questions the humans long to have answered.” (page 144)

“Augustine was very explicit that one should be open to changing one’s mind when it comes to the book of Genesis: “(I)n matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision…we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.  That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.’  The Bible, like every other text, is not self-interpreting.  Augustine, along with those mentioned above, realized that humans construct interpretations from Scripture and these can be, and often are, in error.  In his view, we should attempt to conform ourselves every closer to Scripture, not to human constructions derived from Scripture.  Readers have an active role in forming the meanings and understandings that they embrace.  The questions they ask of a writing, the ways in which they formulate synthetic conclusions, the methods they employ, the interpretive frameworks they bring, and even their emotional states and personal histories affect how they construct interpretations.  The emotional needs of readers may be the most overlooked shaper of interpretive outcomes because they often work on a subconscious level.  And as Roger Scruton observed, in many cases emotional needs precede rational arguments and shape theological conclusions in advance.  Often times the conclusions we draw from the Bible have more to do with our emotional disposition- our fears and wants- than they do about the data that is in front of us.  this is true when we read Gen 1-11 and this is one of the reasons why Christians often disagree over matters of Bible and theology.  We bring different emotional needs to these debates.” (Page 158)

If anyone is interested in scholarly debate on the first eleven chapters of Genesis, this is a highly recommended read.  The book is assessable (only 163 pages in the paperback) and introduces the audience to the interpretative challenges of Genesis in our modern era.

Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore

“The shaking of American culture is no sign that God has given up on American Christianity. In fact, it may be a sign that God is rescuing American Christianity from itself.”

Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, spawned some waves during the 2016 presidential election when he took a fairly hardline stance against republican candidate Donald Trump.  In a Washington Post editorial, he eviscerated the Donald’s worldview and moral actions as he claimed that Trump had snuffed out the religious right.  Before these series of editorials from Moore, he wrote a book called “Onward” in 2015 about how Christianity should engage a “post-Christian” America.  Obviously, a lot of politics are discussed.

Welcoming a growing secular age in America, Moore seems to say “bring it on” in the sense that a Christianity with conviction will make a roaring comeback up against what was, in large part, a national civic religion.  He writes:  “The problem was that . . . Christian values were always more popular in American culture than the Christian gospel. That’s why one could speak of ‘God and country’ with great reception in almost any era of the nation’s history but would create cultural distance as soon as one mentioned ‘Christ and him crucified.’ God was always welcome in American culture. He was, after all, the Deity whose job it was to bless America. The God who must be approached through the mediation of the blood of Christ, however, was much more difficult to set to patriotic music or to ‘Amen’ in a prayer at the Rotary Club.”

Moore is still fiercely conservative.  He is unapologetically pro-life, believes same-sex marriage to be sinful (but has numerous quotes about loving and being good neighbors to LGBTQ people) but seems less convinced that the best way for the church to go about politics is trying to legislate or elect the correct leaders.  “We receive celebrities simply because they are ‘conservative,’ without asking what they are conserving. If you are angry with the same people we are, you must be one of us. But it would be a tragedy to get the right president, the right Congress, and the wrong Christ.” The book was published in August 2015 and this specific quote seems haunting now.  He continues:  “Our vote for President is less important than our vote to receive new members for baptism into our churches. . . . The reception of members into the church marks out the future kings and queens of the universe. Our church membership rolls say to the people on them, and to the outside world, ‘These are those we believe will inherit the universe, as joint-heirs with Christ.’”

A big theme of the book is the Kingdom of God. That this Kingdom is transcendent and is made up of people all over the world.  Moore condemns racism and recognizes oppression that certain minorities face which must be made right.

If anyone is a Christian and interested either in cultural or political issues, this is a vastly important book to contemplate.  Moore is onboard with emphasizing less of a power religion (in the political sense) and more of churches living out the meaning and calling of the gospel.

Some other quotes:

“Our story is that of a little flock and of an army, awesome with banners. Our legacy is a Christianity of persecution and proliferation, of catacombs and cathedrals. If we see ourselves as only a minority, we will be tempted to isolation. If we see ourselves only as a kingdom, we will be tempted toward triumphalism. We are, instead, a church. We are a minority with a message and a mission.”

“Our life planning ought to be about the next trillion years, and beyond. If we assume that what’s waiting for us beyond the grave is a postlude rather than a mission and an adventure, we will cling tenaciously to the status quo, or at least the parts of it we like. . . . Our lives now are shaping us and preparing us for a future rule. Our lives now are an internship for the eschaton.”

“The kingdom of God turns the Darwinist narrative of the survival of the fittest upside down (Acts 17:6-7). When the church honors and cares for the vulnerable among us, we are not showing charity. We are simply recognizing the way the world really works, at least in the long run. The child with Down syndrome on the fifth row from the back in your church, he’s not a ‘ministry project.’ He’s a future king of the universe. The immigrant woman who scrubs toilets every day on hands and knees, and can barely speak enough English to sing along with your praise choruses, she’s not a problem to be solved. She’s a future queen of the cosmos, a joint-heir with Christ. . . . The first step to cultural influence is not to contextualize to the present, but to contextualize to the future, and the future is awfully strange, even to us.”

“Let’s model what happens to a culture when the kingdom interrupts us on our way to where we would go, if we were mapping this out on our own. Let’s not merely advocate for causes; let’s embody a kingdom. Let’s not aspire to be a moral majority but a gospel community, one that doesn’t exist for itself but for the larger mission of reaching the whole world with the whole gospel. That sort of kingdom-first cultural engagement drives us not inward, but onward.”

“It may be that America is not ‘post-Christian’ at all. It may be that America is instead pre-Christian, a land that though often Christ-haunted has never known the power of the gospel, yet.”

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