Movie Reviews: Chappaquiddick and A Quiet Place

We all know the story of Chappaquiddick, but to see it told on the screen in such a low-key fashion, examining the facts as we are aware of them, certainly dims whatever light survives of the Kennedy mythos. Jason Clarke portrays Ted Kennedy as a seriously flawed man, ready to abuse political power and privilege to maintain his position in the Senate. That he did survive and go on to be described as “The Lion of the Senate” rather boggles the imagination. We so want to believe Camelot and everything connected to it. I grew up on the East Coast in Connecticut–I was one of those who wanted to believe he was a good man, despite the damning facts. Although the movie is good, something did not quite gel for me–I felt several paces removed from the drama. Because of that, I’ll give it 4 out of 5 stars.

And then there’s A Quiet Place, far and away the best monster movie I have seen in a long, long time. I usually shy away from horror movies because so often they are either violence porn or blood and guts orgies. This film is neither. It earns its suspense and terror honestly. There is no back story–the movie begins with “Day 89.” All we know is that the monsters are among us. They are fast and vicious and locate us by sound. So we cannot speak, cannot play music, cannot bump around the kitchen. If we play Monopoly, we have to use felt playing pieces so we don’t tap around the board. For one family in an isolated farmhouse, it’s an excruciating ordeal. I was reminded of the first time I saw Alien in 1979, when my friend asked me if I realized I had run out into the parking lot when the credits began to roll. When this film ended, my grandson and I both exhaled and began chuckling, unaware we had been holding our breath through the final scenes. This is a truly terrifying film and I give it my highest recommendation.

From the Emmaus Road–Easter 2018

Every Easter season I take time to think about why I’m a Christian. I ask myself if I’d be a Christian had my parents not raised me in the church. And I think I would. The Christian myth speaks to my heart and my mind. Now before you object to my use of the word myth, let me explain. I use that term not in the sense of something untrue or something we tell only children about, like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. I mean it as explanatory story—in fact, the story behind all stories. For me, it is the story that makes the most sense of the world as I experience it. It is true in the deepest way a story can be true.

I put in my time as an atheist—about twenty years, as I recall. When I left the Catholic seminary after eight years, I chucked it all—felt I had been duped by a patriarchal religion. I immersed myself in Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus. Later I studied Eastern thought, especially Zen Buddhism, which doesn’t require a god. I hummed along OK until my divorce. That broke me. I didn’t go back to “Christianity” (or Christianism, as Gore Vidal called it) with my tail between my legs. I met a woman who introduced me to the Lord, slowly and gently. That relationship made all the difference.

I know that some say God is a crutch—a belief people cling to because they need assurance of an afterlife. “How can you face death without belief?” they say. The answer is heroically. My best friend Frank remained an atheist till the end. He said he could never find enough convincing evidence to believe otherwise. His oncologist found his bravery so inspiring that he came to his memorial service to share it with others. I understand that Carl Sagan died the same way. So no, life without God is not hopeless or impossible. It can be lived courageously.

So what is so captivating about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Some say that stories of the death and resurrection of a great hero predate the Christian story by thousands of years. They claim that the Jesus story borrows from them. I see it the other way around. Those other stories prefigure the Jesus story, where they meet their final revelation, because the hero’s journey (or heroine’s journey, as the case may be) is hard-wired into us. Joseph Campbell was on to something. Why do stories like the original Star Wars, Gladiator, the first Matrix resonate so much with us? I think they’re in our DNA.

During Holy Week, I’m reminded what compelling drama the last days of Jesus’ life are. Betrayed by a dear disciple with a kiss, no less; abandoned by all the rest of his friends (only the women were brave enough to hang on to the end); tried by a kangaroo court; sentenced to a death so horrific that a new word had to be invented to describe that kind of pain (excruciating—from the cross).

And then the resurrection. No bombastic special effects as we might see in a movie. Quiet, thoughtful. Again it’s the women who find out first. One hugs him. The men are still hiding out. (“I never knew the guy,” as Peter had said.) What is Jesus’ first act as a risen savior? He asks his friends for a bite to eat. Later, he appears on the beach and cooks breakfast for them. And what does he ask us to do? Not an arm-long list of do’s and dont’s as a religion might. He tells us to love one another as he loves us. And remember him in the bread and the wine.

The simplest, most prosaic elements of life are imbued with cosmic significance. And the result? As C.S. Lewis said, “We are surprised by joy.”

Happy Easter to all my family and friends.

 

Movie Reviews: The Shape of Water and Darkest Hour

Maybe I was having a bad day. Maybe we both were. My daughter and I went to see The Shape of Water expecting great things, especially with all the Oscar buzz and ratings of 93% and 84% on Rotten Tomatoes. We were underwhelmed. Instead of coming out of the theater thinking, “That’s on the way to Oscar night,” I looked at my daughter and we both said, “Well, that was a weird movie.” Now don’t get me wrong–I enjoy weird movies, but a love affair between a mute woman and a sea monster (think Creature from the Black Lagoon)? Is it an extreme parable condemning racism and xenophobia in our society? Perhaps. Neither of us are prudes with regard to films, but we weren’t prepared for the graphic nudity/sexuality and violence. Watching a woman masturbate in the bathtub or a man shove his finger into the bullet hole in a man’s face to torture him relegates this film to no more than “B status” in my opinion. But who am I? According to movie news it’s gleaned 7 Golden Globe nominations. Yes, it is entertaining–an exciting story, good actors, excellent monster effects. But for me it was more a guilty pleasure than the stuff of awards.

To cleanse my mental palate, I then went to see Darkest Hour.  I liked this film so much more than I thought I was going to. It is far and away one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Gary Oldman gives a virtuoso performance as Winston Churchill, determined to prevent the British people from caving in to Hitler and accepting the terms of a surrender brokered by Mussolini. He is vilified by his opponents and tortured by his conscience, recognizing that a great number of people will die, but also knowing “You can’t negotiate with a tiger when you have your head in its mouth.” Director Joe Wright can be forgiven for having one of his characters paraphrase JFK’s tribute to Churchill at the end of the film, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Darkest Hour is riveting entertainment–an intelligent and thoughtful alternative to the special effects movies that fill our theaters. I am happy to say that this film reminds me why I love cinema.