Monday, February 15, 2016

mar 2 + 4-10 | numb | jason goode, aleks paunovic

Pacific Theatre audiences will remember Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, and Aleks Paunovic's frightening, vulnerable performance - directed by Jason Goode, a friend of PT for a long time. A year ago Jason shot a feature film here in BC, with Aleks in the lead. It premiered at the Whistler Film Festival, and now the show gets a Lower Mainland run! 

Landmark Cinemas 10, New Westminster | tickets
Sneak Preview: Mar 2
Regular screenings: Mar 4-10

When a couple in financial distress discover GPS coordinates that promise to lead to stolen gold they must partner with a pair of mysterious hitchhikers to enter the remote winter wilderness to recover the coins.

DIRECTOR: Jason R. Goode

Aleks Paunovic (iZombie, This Means War)
Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Gallactica, Law & Order UK)
Marie Avgeropoulos (Tracers, The 100)
Stefanie von Pfetten (Cracked)


Saturday, January 16, 2016

jan 17 | ingrid bergman & roberto rossellini at viff | stromboli & journey to italy

Ingrid Bergman & Roberto Rossellini at VIFF
Sun Jan 17
Stromboli | 3pm
Journey To Italy | 6:50pm
both screenings at the VanCity

When I was immersed in writing about Soul Food movies, there was one European master of cinema whose work was virtually unavailable. Occasionally on the big screens of art houses, and any time on the small screen in your home, it was easy enough to see pretty much anything by Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, Karl Theodor Dreyer, Krystof Kieslowski, or – if your tastes ran to a distinctly nordic brand of angst and doubt – Ingmar Bergman.

But Rossellini? Good luck. Almost no prints available for public screening, and many titles not available at all. On video, aging VHS tape or low-budget worse-quality semi-legal DVD copies, all of them badly subtitled - when you could find them at all.

In the fall of 2006, Cinematheque Ontario hosted the first major retrospective of Rossellini's films. I blogged about the month and a half series, which moved on from Toronto to Los Angeles and New York, writing "whether it will ever reach Vancouver remains to be seen. For now, we'll just have to enjoy the catalog, and try to restrain our envy…" That post includes curator James Quandt's notes on Making The Rossellini Retrospective as well as a passage from another of his essays, dealing with Rossellini's Catholicism.

For those of us who couldn't get to Toronto, New York or Los Angeles I transcribed everything Martin Scorsese had to say about Rossellini in his very personal film essay My Voyage To Italy. It's great stuff: here's a link.

In spring 2007 I made my first trip to New York, and spent time at MoMA looking at the rare posters, photos and papers relating to the Rossellini Retrospective that was finishing up there. The photos in this post are from that visit.

In 2010, Criterion made Rossellini's War Trilogy available on DVD; Rome Open City (1945), Paisan (1946), and Germany Year Zero (1948). "This is a momentous occasion. We have been working on our five hundredth release for either ten or twenty-five years, depending on how you look at it. No project has been more challenging than this one, but we could not be prouder to mark our twenty-fifth birthday by offering you spine number 500, Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy…" More about Rossellini and that DVD set here.

Even then, the New Yorker's Richard Brody wrote "But there’s one boxed set, a natural to compile, that doesn’t exist, and its absence from home video is perhaps the single most grievous cinematic blind spot in the marketplace: the five features and one short film that he made with Ingrid Bergman (whom he married in the course of their collaborations), between 1949 and 1955."

Eventually Criterion released 3 Films By Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman; Stromboli, Europa '51, and Journey To Italy. And tomorrow, an opportunity for Vancouverites to see two of those films on the big screen at the home of the VIFF; Stromboli screens at 3pm, Journey To Italy at 6:50.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

now playing / coming soon

Lots to see these days, and with the Blue Jays out of the post-season, I've got the time. Here's what's on my list just now…

"Bowing to the principle that there can never be enough films about criminal fraternities…" etc. Anthony Lane. Just in case that principle is right, I think I'll check out Johnny Depp's latest. "But are we watching a warped force of nature, as was certainly the case with the real Bulger, or an acting master class?" Either way, I'm in.

6th week, good for probably only one more
International Village: 7:35 10:35
SilverCity Riverport: 10:10
a couple others

Egoyan directs Chris Plummer as an aging Holocaust survivor, slipping memory, growing confusion, who sets out to bring a Nazi war criminal to justice. Review snippets sound like it's largely unsuccessful, mundane, perhaps predictable, but I might give it a go because of the inverted REFUGE OF LIES themes.

Fifth Ave 1:00, 4:00, 6:30, 9:10 / Thu 1:15, 3:45, 6:15, 8:55
International Village 2:20, 4:50, 7:05, 9:45
Riverport Sat Sun Tue 12:05 2:25 5:00 7:30 10:05, varying times Mon Wed Thu
other cinemas

Luci liked it. Probably has dates. Definitely has Tom Hanks.

Week 2, will be around for a while
International Village 1:20, 4:20, 7:20, 10:30
Riverport 12:30, 3:50, 7:10, 10:30
Rialto White Rock 1:15, 4:00, 6:50 (+ 9:35 Sat Oct 24)
and others

"Matt Damon's strongest performance in a decade" - Time.  That's saying something: 2006, The Departed. 2007, Bourne Ultimatum. 2009, The Informant!  2009, Invictus. 2010, True Grit.  2011, Margaret.  2012, Promised Land. 2014, Interstellar.  I'll see it, if only for the line “I'm going to have to science the shit out of this.”

Week 4, probably around for a while
random times at Riverport (3D), Park, others

Was going to skip it: Man On Wire more than sufficed.  But 3D?  Yeah, this is the right story for the gimmick. May check it out. Love the old school poster. If they used Mayer Hawthorne for the theme song, I'd be there in a minute.

Week 4
International Village 1:30, 7:15, 10:05 (4:25 is 2D)
Riverport  1:25 only

Mexican border drug wars, probably brutal.

Week 4
Riverport 1:20, 4:15, 7:10, 10:05

Somehow mountain climbing and the whole Everest thing has never grabbed me. But with a screenplay by William Nicholson (Shadowlands) and Simon Beaufoy (who impressed me in an extended interview about his screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire), I just might check it out. Probably has dates. "Solid, if too squarely beholden to standby scenes of worried wives weeping at home while the menfolk follow their mad bliss" - Lisa Schwarzbaum

Week 6. Probably only a couple more weeks to go
International Village 1:45, 4:40, 7:40, 10:30
Riverport 4:25, 7:15 except Thu, 10:30
other cinemas


I was going to skip it. Software guru bio, who needs it? Social Network was NBD, for me, after the opening scene. But Danny Boyle directed (never seen a Danny Boyle I didn't like), Aaron Sorkin screenplay (I know, I know, Social Network, blah blah blah). // Now I've seen a Danny Boyle I didn't like. Should have listened to my qualms. Considerably less memorable than The Social Network. Which was considerably less memorable than I would want in a movie. I guess films about relationally impaired software developers aren't my cup of tea, as beguiling as that premise may sound.

Week 2
Fifth Ave 12:30, 3:30, 6:50, 9:50
Riverport 1:30, 4:25, 7:20, 10:15
Rialto 4:15, 6:45 (+ 1:45 Sun)

Jumped right over the shark into Shyamalan territory. Lurid, over-wrought, cartoonish, derivative, silly - and that's accentuating the positive. Camp only works if it works, and while your mileage may vary, I felt it very much didn't work. I'm good with the over-the-topness of it, if only it had been well done: I'm afraid del Toro just lacks taste. Poor dialogue, awkward performances (except the three in the poster, who range in descending order from strong to no big deal to uneven, red to black to white), unconvincing all round. Except the ghostie-monster creatures, who were genuinely disturbing and threatening. Truly, the attempt to create a new story in a Shelley / Stoker / Bronte world, with nods to Rebecca and The Shining, is fine with me - but it just didn't work.  What a terrible fall from Pan's Labyrinth.


Globe & Mail: "The story of a woman kidnapped by a man only known as Old Nick and held captive in a soundproof garden shed for seven years, where she gives birth to a son, Jack. One of the bestselling Canadian novels of the past decade, with sales exceeding two million copies around the world since it was published in 2010. Booker Prize finalist. The film adaptation, an impressive distillation of everything that made Donoghue’s novel great." PTC Rec
May open Oct 30 in Vancouver

Los 33 (The 33)
Opens wide Nov 13
Based on a true story about the collapse at the mine in San Jose, Chile that left 33 miners isolated underground for 69 days.

The Stanford Prison Experiment
VIFF Nov 27 - Dec 2
Twenty-four male students out of seventy-five were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.
Nov 27 8:20
Nov 28 6:20
Nov 29 7:50
Nov 30 6:30
Dec 2   8:15

The Revenant
Jan 8 2016
Alejandro González Iñárritu
In the 1820s, a frontiersman, Hugh Glass, sets out on a path of vengeance against those who left him for dead after a bear mauling.

Midnight Special
Mar 18 2016
Directed by Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Mud, Take Shelter)
A father and son go on the run after the dad learns his child possesses special powers.


Cop Car
Aug 7 2015
I'll see anything with Kevin Bacon in it. Two kids find themselves in the centre of a deadly game of cat and mouse after taking a sheriff's cruiser for a joy ride.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

YEFF 2014 | MCN + Metacritic | Combined List | Jan 1 2015

Canadian film won Jury Prize at Cannes 2014
Screens at Vancouver Intl Film Centre tonight at 6:50 ONLY

As of New Year's Day, here's where the Critic Top Ten List tallies stand in our very unscientific meld of Movie City News and Metacritic tabulations. (Unscientific because the two meta-lists undoubtedly overlap.) Both tabulations agree on eight of the top ten films, with Boyhood and Budapest #1 and #2 respectively, and juggling the next three: my Top Five would also include Boyhood, Birdman, Budapest and Whiplash, with Skin yet to be seen. 

Beyond that, MCN likes Dardennes better, Meta favours Fincher. I'm still intrigued to see LEGO, ranking as high as it does, and am baffled that my beloved Homesman makes only a couple MCN lists, and none on Metacritic. I stand corrected. (As if...) 

There are notes on some of the films here.

1. Boyhood                            (709.5 = 456.5 + 253) iTunes
2. Grand Budapest Hotel          (386.5 = 266.5 + 120) Netflix
3. Birdman                            (277 = 182 + 95) Fifth Ave
4. Under The Skin                   (272.5 = 185.5 + 87) Netflix
5. Whiplash                            (256 = 184 + 72) Intl Village closes tonight 

6. Selma                                     (192 = 130 + 62)
7. Inherent Vice                            (159 = 114 + 45)
8. Ida                                     (155 = 98 + 57) Netflix
9. Two Days, One Night          (134.5 = 104.5 + 30)
10. Mr Turner                            (132 = 93 + 39) Fifth Ave

11. Nightcrawler                   (129 = 82 + 47) 
12. Gone Girl                            (119 = 72 + 47) Intl Village
13. Only Lovers Left Alive         (111.5 = 77.5 + 34) iTunes
14. Foxcatcher                            (111 = 79 + 32) Intl Village
15. Goodbye to Language         (107.5 = 73.5 + 34)
16. Snowpiercer                   (105 = 73 + 32) iTunes
17. Citizenfour                            (102 = 78 + 24) 
18. LEGO Movie                   (97.5 = 64.5 + 33) iTunes
19. Force Majeure                    (95 = 59 + 36) 
20. Guardians of Galaxy          (81 = 52 + 29)

21. The Immigrant                            (71 = 39 + 32) iTunes
22. Leviathan                            (65)
23. American Sniper                   (60)
24. Winter Sleep                   (53)
25. We Are The Best                   (49.5)
26. Edge Of Tomorrow          (44)
27. Babadook                            (38.5)
28. Calvary                            (37.5) 
29. Interstellar                            (35.5) SilverCity Scotiabank
30. Listen Up Phillip                   (32.5)

31. Love Is Strange                   (30)
32. National Gallery                   (29.5) VIFF Jan 3
33. Stray Dogs                            (28)
34. Life Itself                            (26)
35. Last of the Unjust                  (21)
36. Imitation Game                   (20.5) Park Riverport Scotiabank
37. Nymphomaniac                   (19)
38. God Help The Girl          (18)
38. Manakamana                   (18)
38. Mommy                            (18) 6:50 tonight VIFF only showing
38. Night Moves                   (18)
38. Overnighters                   (18)
38. Wild                                     (18) Fifth Ave, Intl Village

44. Missing Picture, The          (17.5)
45. Most Violent Year          (17)
45. Starred Up                            (17)
47. Theory Of Everything          (16) *
47. Weekend, Le                   (16)
47. Wild Tales                            (16)
50. Obvious Child                   (15.5)

Homesman (11.5)

Saturday, December 27, 2014

YEFF 2014 | Movie City News + Metacritic | Combined List

Each year, Movie City News compiles tons of critic top ten lists at the end of the year and comes up with a pretty good tally of what was great. This year Metacritic is doing the same. The lists differ somewhat - they've input some different lists - so I've totalled the number of points each calculated to come up with a very unscientific Top Twenty. (I've posted brief notes on some of these over here). Unscientific because there are undoubtedly lists that show up in both tabulations, and other lists that show up in only one.  For now, so what: it's a swell guide to films worth seeing, and with several key films only just recently released - Inherent Vice, Mr Turner, etc - there'll be lots of shifting around over the next few weeks. But for what it's worth... 

1. Boyhood (381.5)
2. Grand Budapest Hotel (197.5)
3. Birdman (173.5)
4. Under The Skin (135.5)
5. Whiplash (129.5) probably in its final week at International Village

6. Selma (124) hasn't opened here yet
7. Ida (116.5) Dec 30 only at VIFF
8. Inherent Vice (84.5) hasn't opened here yet
9. Gone Girl (77)
10. Foxcatcher (76.5) 

11. Citizenfour (72.5) gone
12. Goodbye to Language 3D (72) 
13. Mr Turner (68.5)
14. Nightcrawler (67) gone
15. Snowpiercer (59)

16. Force Majeure (58) gone
17. LEGO Movie (51.5)
18. Only Lovers Left Alive (49.5)
19. Two Days, One Night (47.5)
20. The Immigrant (41) Dec 29 only at VIFF

Those in red are screening over the next week in Vancouver, those in black boldface are available on Canadian Netflix or iTunes.

Three other films figured in the MCN Top Twenty;

#12. American Sniper
#15. We Are The Best
#20. Interstellar

Here are some other films now playing in Vancouver or online that also show up on the lists;

Theory of Everything
Imitation Game
Mommy Jan 1 only

Saturday, December 13, 2014

YEFF 2014 | Movie City News | The First List

The Year End Film Festival kicks into higher gear with the first MCN tabulation of critic top ten lists (12/10). The results are always highly skewed this early in the process: not only a small sample size, but also it's early, nobody much has seen Inherent Vice yet (for example), but once they do it'll be top five, dontcha think? Mr Turner? Etc. But it has begun: a fine guide to the movies not to miss. (Red are my top picks. I've also added results from Metacritic's tally of Top Ten Lists (to 12/12): as MCN and Meta tally more and more lists, I bet their rankings will converge.)

1 Boyhood | iTunes, VIFF Jan1
d. Richard Linklater, summer release. Twelve years in the making, tracks a family through the son's school years. Sight & Sound #1, Guardian #2, Metacritic #1.
Extraordinary. My #2.

2 Whiplash |  Intl Village etc
Training of a jazz drummer. Guardian #4, Meta #6.
Next on my watchlist. Can't wait.

3 Birdman | 5th Ave, SilverCity etc
d. Alejandro González Iñárritu. Meta #6.
Wow. Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, especially Edward Norton! My #3.

4 Selma
Historic civil rights march. Meta #8, New Yorker Top 30.

5 Grand Budapest Hotel | NetflixCDN, VIFF Dec26
d. Wes Anderson. Sight & Sound #6, New Yorker #1, Meta #2, Guardian #9.
I loved it, second only to my beloved Moonrise Kingdom among Wes's works. My #4.

6 Nightcrawler | IV, SC etc
Jake Gyllenhaal as L.A. crime journalist who crosses the line. Guardian #7, Meta #8.

7 Snowpiercer | iTunes
d. Joon-ho Bong. Gritty sci-fi, lots of fans. Meta #12

7 American Sniper
d. Clint Eastwood. New Yorker #6, Meta#17.

9 LEGO Movie | iTunes
Guardian #10.

10 Interstellar | Park, SC etc
d. Christopher Nolan. My friend Rick Bonn's absolute favourite. Meta #17.

11 Under the Skin | NeflixCDN, VIFF Dec27
Extremely stylized Brit flick. Sight & Sound #5, Guardian #1, Meta #3..

12 Theory of Everything | 5th, SC etc
Stephen Hawking biopic. Meta #11.

13 Gone Girl | IV, SC etc
d. David Fincher. New Yorker Top 20, Meta #10.
Lots of strong elements: in true Fincher fashion, ends up being about more than just the story. Still, didn't stick with me.

14 Only Lovers Left Alive | NetflixCDN
d. Jim Jarmusch vampire pic. Meta #12

15 Calvary | Black Dog, iTunes
d. John Michael McDonagh, brother of In Bruges guy. Surprised this ranks so high: it won't last. Definite Soul Food: film maker sets out to tell story of a good priest, and - for all the fallen humanity - sticks to it. And Brendan Gleeson's portrayal is memorable. Refs Diary Of A Country Priest. But I found the script mannered, and the story remarkably lacking in drama despite the high stakes, ultra-dramatic premise. Then found it pulled together in the last lap, very much so in the home stretch, and in retrospect even find myself interested in seeing it again, to my surprise.

16 Imitation Game
Alan Turing cracks Enigma code, WW2.

17 We Are The Best | iTunes, VIFF Dec28
d. Lukas Moodysson. Rambling, sweet-spirited story of three high school girls, wannabe punk rockers in eighties Stockholm. I liked it fine: not Top Ten material.

18 Fury | SC etc
Brad Pitt in a Sherman tank.

18 Edge of Tomorrow | iTunes
Tom Cruise vs aliens.  Huh?

20 Inherent Vice | Toronto release Dec 25
d. P.T. Anderson. Joaquin Phoenix, Owen Wilson. Guardian #3, Meta #5.
Dying to see this, judging only by the trailer. Even moreso reading Indiewire 10 Films To Watch Before You See Inherent Vice, including Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, To Live And Die In L.A., In A Lonely Place, Breathless, Cutter's Way. But this one looks much funnier.

Listed, not yet Top 20, notable;

Olympic runner in a life boat and a Japanese prison camp. Chariots Of Fire / Life of Pi / Bridge On The River Kwai? But everyone insists it's good.

Foxcatcher | IV, 5th
Best Director, Cannes. Strange biopic about multi-squillionaire and Olympic wrestlers(!). Movie pal Peter Norman's #4, Meta #12.

The Babadook | VIFF Dec27
Debut feature of Aussie director about anguished single mom, monstrous six-year-old, and storybook bogeyman. VIFF: "Most impressive debut feature of the year also happens to be the scariest. At different times will remind you of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion, Poltergeist, Don't Look Now, Paperhous and Candyman, The Shining, Psycho and The Exorcist."

Two Days, One Night 
Dardenne brothers. Guardian #6.


Non-MCN Top Films of 2014

1,000 Times Good Night | Dec 13 15 17, Jan 3
d. Erik Poppe, Norway. I liked his Hawaii, Oslo. Juliet Binoche as war photographer.

Citizenfour | IV
Snowden doc. Met #12.

A Girl Walks Home Alone
Top VIFF recommendation from my pal Karen.

The Homesman
d. Tommy Lee Jones.
My #1 favourite of 2014: alas, gone from the cinemas, not yet available elsewhere.

Ida | VIFF Dec30
Sight & Sound #9, Guardian #8, Meta #12.

The Immigrant | VIFF Dec29
New Yorker #5. VIFF: "Arguably the most underrated US movie of the year." Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Marion Cotillard, mean streets of 1920s New York.

Russian reworking of Book Of Job. Sight & Sound #3, Guardian #5.

Mommy | VIFF Jan1
Canadian winner of Cannes Jury Prize, Canada's Best Foreign Language Oscar nom. Troubled mother-son, visually stunning.

Mr Turner | Dec 19 limited release
d. Mike Leigh. Timothy Spall won Cannes Best Actor as Brit landscape painter. Sight & Sound #11.

National Gallery  | VIFF Dec 26 27 28 31, Jan 3
Doc about London's National Gallery. Sight & Sound #11.

The Overnighters | VIFF Dec 17 30
Doc about crisis when North Dakota pastor opens church to homeless migrant workers. VIFF: "The Overnighters is remarkable for taking social documentary into the realms of ethics and morality, asking if the lip service our society likes to pay towards forgiveness, tolerance, rehabilitation and compassion holds up in the real world. It’s also ultimately a very moving portrait of a man embracing the example of Jesus Christ, but bound to fall short."

Winter Sleep | VIFF January 16 17 18 19 20 22 23 26 29
d. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey. Cannes Palme d'Or. Sight & Sound #7.

Friday, December 05, 2014

top 2014 films | dec 5 + 6 etc | force majeur + babadook

The YEFF is upon us. Lots of the year's top films show up on local screens from mid-November through mid-January, and year-end Top Ten lists appear to help ferret out the best films we've missed during the rest of the year.

Two that may be showing up on such lists are Force Majeur and Babadook. Both onscreen today and tomorrow at the Vancouver International Film Centre (aka VanCity).

(aka TURIST, 2014, Sweden, Ruben Ostland)
fri dec 5 @ 8:20
sat dec 6 @ 4:45
mon dec 8 @ 6:30
thu dec 11 @ 8:20
sun dec 28 @ 3:45

VIFC: "If you enjoyed the psychological intensity of Denmark’s The Hunt you must check out this riveting Swedish drama, another film about a middle-aged man whose world crumbles around him. In this case the inciting incident is an avalanche at a ski resort. It’s a near-miss for Tomas, his wife Ebba, and their two young children. But their narrow escape is over-shadowed by Tomas’s instinctive urge to run for his life without a second thought for his family. It’s a sight Ebba just can’t shake… Tomas, for his part, is inclined to deny it ever happened. “It’s very interesting,” he says. “You have your perspective, but that’s not how I experienced it.” Unfortunately this belatedly brave stab at historical revisionism can’t persuade his wife to love him or his kids to trust him, and over the next few days the ski holiday comes to resemble a kind of three-star purgatory of humiliation, dejection and rejection for all concerned, but especially the red-faced patriarch. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Force Majeure is how funny it is. Admittedly the humour is rather uncomfortable, especially if you’re a husband and father and not entirely confident of how you’d react if push came to shove and a wall of snow, ice and rock was hurtling down on your head*, but fast-rising writer-director Ruben Ostlund (Play, 2011) has fashioned what amounts to a comedy of manners here – or perhaps the opposite, because there’s nothing like a brush with mortality to make good manners look irrelevant."
* the avalanche, incidentally, is a cameo from Whistler-Blackcomb’s snowpack, and very impressive it is too.

"An ice cold knockout. Brilliantly perceptive and frostily funny." Aaron Hills, Village Voice

"Damning, frequently hilarious study of imploding male ego." AV Club

"Visually stunning. Emotionally perceptive." Variety

(2014, Australia, Jennifer Kent)
fri dec 5 @ 10:35
sat dec 6 @ 10:15
fri dec 12 @ 10:40
sat dec 13 @ 10:30
sat dec 27 @ 9:30

VIFC: "The most impressive debut feature of the year also happens to be the scariest. This tale of an anguished single mom (an incredible performance from Essie Davies), her monstrous six-year-old, and the storybook bogeyman who terrorizes their home is guaranteed to chill you to the bone.
Jennifer Kent is clearly well schooled in horror movies. The Babadook at different times will remind you of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, of Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion, Poltergeist, Don't Look Now, Paperhouse and Candyman, The Shining, Psycho and The Exorcist. Yet she has synthesised these influences into something organic and original, a movie that is at once a psychological study of mental breakdown and a grisly fable, a film about grief and parenthood that is also a movie about horror movies — why we are drawn to confront the darkness, and why we shrink from it."

"What's been delivered here is a potent brew of psychological terror mixed with a genuinely spooky story, making The Babadook easily the best horror movie of recent years."
George Byrne, Irish Independent

"Manages to deliver real, seat-grabbing jolts while also touching on more serious themes of loss, grief and other demons that can not be so easily vanquished."
Scott Foundas, Variety

Monday, June 02, 2014

jun 2/4/5 | we are the best! | lukas moodysson

Three chances to see this one, featured in the May issue of Sight & Sound. "A pair of disgruntled punks - shy 13-year-old Bobo and outspoken 12-year-old Klara - have a mission, even if they have slightly missed the boat on punk's glory days: they will form a band. It doesn't matter that they can't play a note because they have a plan: to press-gang their serenely friendless Christian classmate Hedvig - who can actually play the guitar - into joining their group."

We Are The Best! 
Vancouver International Film Centre (VanCity)
Mon Jun 2 06:30
Wed Jun 4 06:30
Thu Jun 5 06:30

In We Are The Best!, music is treated as an essential form of self-expression but is also fertiel ground for discussing a variety of issues, including spirituality. Moodysson is a committed Christian and includes a number of scenes - alternately hilarious and touching - in which the girls wrestle with issues of faith. Young Klara has a near-messianic commitment to atheism, and declares of Hedvig: "We'll influence her away from God... That's what punk's all about - influencing other people." For an ostensibly light film, it's weighty stuff.

Lukas Moodysson (Together; Show Me Love) adapts his wife Coco’s graphic novel about three young misfits growing up in early ’80s Stockholm. Pixieish, mohawk-sporting Klara (Mira Grosin) and her best friend Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) are 13-year-old rebels looking for a cause. Despite having no instruments-or discernible musical talent-the two put all their energy into forming an all-girl punk band, recruiting their shy, classical guitar-playing schoolmate Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) as the third wheel. With tender affection for his young characters and the period in which his film is set, Moodysson paints an ebullient and sharply observant portrait of DIY spirit and growing up different.

"A joyous, heart-swelling tale of youthful rebellion." Manohla Dargis, New York Times

"A joyous time capsule. Captures the DIY empowerment of punk rock and the bond of female friendships in one blissful swoop. For those of us who’ve been hoping that Lukas Moodysson would return to the tender touch of early movies like Show Me Love and Together, the wait is over." David Fear, The Village Voice

"A gloriously funny coming-of-age comedy – although age itself is squeezed almost entirely into the margins, crowded out by the film’s raucous, window-rattling love of being young." Robbie Colin, Daily Telegraph

Friday, May 02, 2014

may 2 & 16 | sagrada

This puts me in mind of the first fully staged Pacific Theatre production, in the spring of 1985. THE ZEAL OF THY HOUSE, Dorothy Sayers' play about architect William of Sens and his construction of Canterbury Cathedral. 

Sagrada - The Mystery of Creation
VanCity / VIFC
May 2 @ 5pm
May 16 @ 3pm

"Arguably the most popular building site in the world, the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona is still a work in progress, 125 years after the first stones were laid. Designed by the controversial Catalan genius Antonio Gaudi, the Sagrada is a testament to Faith… Faith in God, in the natural forms that so inspired the architect, and also in man, for Gaudi always knew this work would have to be completed long after his life-time." VIFC

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Season One just arrived at Black Dog. As I said when I first heard about this from Jeff Overstreet, it might just slip past my aversion to television. If I can find a place I can view it. And free up the eight (?) hours to watch it. (How do you TV people find the TIME?)

"Anne and I have finally reached the end of the BBC murder mystery miniseries event BROADCHURCH and... wow. It's not just good — it's Gospel. Do not miss it. I thought TOP OF THE LAKE was the best series of this kind, but BROADCHURCH is better. The acting and writing are excellent throughout. David Tennant (Anne's favorite Doctor) is great, but this is Olivia Coleman's show. She's awesome. BROADCHURCH is be the most beautiful, truthful depiction of grief that I've ever seen. It's also a harrowing depiction of the havoc wreaked by tabloid-news culture. The writing in the closing episode surpassed my highest hopes." Jeffrey Overstreet

Friday, March 21, 2014

the police officer's wife

from "A Tale Of Two Festivals: Venice" by Olaf Moller
Film Comment, Nov/Dec 2013

"...the Special Jury Prize for Philip Gröning’s The Police Officer’s Wife — outraged the middlebrow arbiters of taste for daring to demand something from their viewers instead of simply giving them what they supposedly want...

"...Which brings us back to the bruised bodies and battered souls of ... The Police Officer’s Wife. For all the unease and disquiet it provokes, [the film] is a remarkable achievement: a darkly cruel antipode to Gröning’s lightly festive 2005 documentary about monastery life, Into Great Silence. This tale of domestic violence escalating to infanticide is also structured around seasonal and religious cycles and rituals. The aesthetic device of beginning and ending every chapter with a title card was maddening to most—and there are a lot of chapters, some consisting of only one or two shots. Gröning’s rigor might look self-serving or vain, but these fade-ins and -outs are the film’s meter: regardless of what happens in the scenes and from one scene to another, these identically timed intervals recur with absolute regularity—another ritual, so to speak. As religious cinema, The Police Officer’s Wife is an extraordinary meditation on suffering and sacrifice as the bedrock of Christian belief..."

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

oct 26 29 30 | wings of desire | cinematheque

Wings Of Desire is certainly one to see on the big screen, if at all possible: and Cinemathque is making that possible, even for free if you're lucky! Also clearly one of the Soul Food masterpieces: indeed, director Wim Wenders came to faith during its filming, as he describes to filmmaker Scott Derrickson in this interview for IMAGE Journal. It also happens to be the favourite film of Jeffrey Overstreet, which is something - he's seen one or two movies. Roger Ebert also a fan - also saw lots.

Wings of Desire
West Germany/France 1987. Director: Wim Wenders

Pacific Cinematheque
Sat Oct 26 | 6:30
Tue Oct 29 | 6:30
Wed Oct 30 | 8:40

Cinematheque: "Angels perched atop the buildings of Berlin listen in to the innermost thoughts of mere mortals in Wim Wenders’s lovely, lyrical Wings of Desire, a soaring high-point of the famed German director’s cinema, and a highly moving, melancholic elegy to a Berlin still divided. Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are two brooding, compassionate angels who eavesdrop on the secret pains and fears of ordinary peopled going about their daily business in the city. When Damiel falls for a beautiful trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin), he decides to renounce his immortality to return to earth as a human, hoping to attain a love that will transcend life in the heavens. The stunning cinematography — crisp black-and-white, lurid Technicolor — is by French great Henri Alekan, whose many credits include Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Inspired by the poems of Rilke, and dedicated to Ozu, Truffaut, and “other fallen angels,” Wings of Desire earned Wenders Best Director honours at Cannes in 1987. “Remarkable ... A film about the Fall and the Wall, it’s full of astonishingly hypnotic images ... Few films are so rich, so intriguing, or so ambitious” (Geoff Andrew, Time Out). B&W and colour, 35mm, in German with English subtitles. 127 mins."

To enter to win tickets to see Wings of Desire, email your contact info and preferred screening to:
Contest ends noon, Thu Oct 24. Two pairs of tickets will be given away, winners will be selected at random. Good luck!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

oct 18-23 | nostalghia | pacific cinematheque

tarkovsky + big screen = soul food
enough said

Okay, I'll say more. This Tarko isn't as explicitly about matters of faith as, say, Andrei Rublev or The Sacrifice. But a mystical Christian aesthetic informs every one of his films, and the images in this one are without parallel. Don't go eager for narrative: this is all about image. There is story there, but take my word: you'll be in the right frame of mind if you go to look at moving pictures rather than a movie: at visual poetry rather than a story onscreen. But if you're up for that... 

Italy/USSR 1983. Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Pacific Cinematheque
Friday, October 18, 2013 - 6:30pm
Saturday, October 19, 2013 - 4:00pm
Saturday, October 19, 2013 - 9:10pm
Sunday, October 20, 2013 - 7:00pm
Wednesday, October 23, 2013 - 9:10pm

30TH ANNIVERSARY! NEW 35mm PRINT! ► A true gift to cinephiles: a new 35mm print of an unsurpassably gorgeous film by one of cinema’s greatest visionaries! We’re pleased to present the Canadian premiere of this deluxe 30th-anniversary re-release of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia. Shot in Tuscany, and co-written with prolific Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra (who also co-wrote Antonioni’s L’Avventura), Nostalghia was Tarkovsky’s first film made outside the USSR — he had finally tired of Soviet censorship — and proved to be his penultimate work. (1986’s The Sacrifice, made in Sweden, would be his last film.) While in Italy researching the life of an 18th-century Russian composer who died there, a Soviet musicologist has a sexually-charged but unconsummated relationship with his beautiful translator, and meets a mysterious madman (played by Bergman regular and Sacrifice star Erland Josephson) who is convinced that the world is about to end. Nostalghia is suffused with an almost overwhelming sense of longing and homesickness, and is composed of some of Tarkovsky’s most astonishing imagery. It shared, with Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, a special Grand Prize for Creative Cinema at Cannes in 1983 (given that year in lieu of the best director award). “Extraordinary ... Nostalghia is not so much a movie as a place to inhabit for two hours ... A world of fantastic textures, sumptuously muted colours, and terrarium-like humidity. This is a film that turns the spectacle of an ancient, leaky cellar into an image as memorable as any this century” (J. Hoberman, Village Voice). Colour and B&W, 35mm, in Italian and Russian with English subtitles. 125 mins.

"Tarkovsky's films remain so important today because of their ineffable spirituality."
Slant | full review

oct 16 | tyrannosaur | pacific cinematheque

Here's one I had long ago flagged as potential Soul Food - perhaps in the same sort of register as HARDCORE, REVANCHE, or the films of Lars Von Trier. Dark, but sometimes that's where even dim light shines brightest. Anyhow, it's screening tomorrow night at Pacific Cinematheque - sorry for the late notice. 

Great Britain 2011. Director: Paddy Considine
Pacific Cinematheque
8:15 wed oct 16

Cinematheque: "In his first feature as a writer-director, British actor Paddy Considine plumbs the depths of human fallibility (not to mention his own straitened childhood on a Midlands council estate) in an auspicious debut that references the “kitchen-sink” realism of directors such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Set in gritty blue-collar Leeds, Tyrannosaur stars Scottish actor Peter Mullan as Joseph, an unemployed, hard-drinking widower whose inchoate rage leads him to commit acts of unspeakable violence. One afternoon, on the run from a fight, Joseph ducks into the closest refuge — an empty thrift shop - where he meets Hannah (Olivia Colman) a gentle Christian woman who offers to pray for him. Convinced she is nothing but a smug middle-class do-gooder, Joseph angrily rebuffs her, yet finds himself drawn back to her shop the next day. A tentative friendship develops, one that is challenged when Joseph learns the truth about Hannah’s relationship with her abusive husband James (Eddie Marsan). From this least likely of places, a story of grace and possible redemption gradually emerges. “A visceral, considered dissection of abuse and rage ... The performances of Mullan, Colman, and Marsan are excellent and create a compelling human drama” (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian). Colour, HDCAM. 92 mins."

Warning: Contains scenes that may be upsetting to sensitive viewers.

Monday, September 09, 2013

sep 26 - oct 11 | viff

One of the great pleasures of September - compensating in part for summer's end and the return to work - is the Vancouver International Film Festival. Combing through the titles, making lists, adjusting schedules. I'm always watching for possible Soul Food movies - films with a spiritual flavour. If they were plays, we might stage them at Pacific Theatre. That sort of thing. Here are a couple I (and friends) have spotted so far.

There Will Come a Day ("Un giorno devi andare" Italy/France, 2012, 110 min)
Sep 27 12:00 pm | Centre for Performing Arts
Oct 07 06:15 pm | Centre for Performing Arts

The Amazon is a major character in Giorgio Diritti’s heartfelt, piercingly beautiful There Will Come a Day, a superbly made and very affecting film about a young woman searching for herself while working as a missionary in Brazil. Her spiritual and physical journey leaves her—and the audience—profoundly changed.

 “Giorgio Diritti has no fear of the astounding image; the opening shot is of a night sky with a half-moon, against which is superimposed the sonogram of a fetus. The baby will not survive. A woman is heard crying. Augusta, a thoughtful, intense young woman [with a face worthy of Botticelli], is traveling by boat along the Amazon in Brazil, ministering to the “Indios” along with Sister Franca, an Italian nun of the old-line Catholic stamp. Why does Franca care, Augusta asks, whether or not the Indios perform the sacraments of the Church, when they don’t understand what they’re doing? It is a bond with God, Franca says; understanding is irrelevant. They are an odd couple, not destined to last. But what is, Augusta wonders. She has been abandoned by her husband because she cannot have children, and has left Italy for missionary work in search of answers… Diritti addresses a number of topical issues, including the rise of Third World evangelism, the displacement of poor Brazilians (in preparation for the World Cup and Olympics), the ecological disasters brewing in the Amazon and the widening disparity between rich and poor. Technical credits are first-rate, especially the work of d.p. Roberto Cimatti, who captures in his camera a suggestion of divinity.”—John Anderson, Variety

A Place in Heaven ("Makom be-Gan Eden" Israel, 2013, 117 min)
Sep 27 04:30 pm | Vancity Theatre
Oct 03 01:40 pm | International Village #10
Oct 06 06:45 pm | International Village #10

When a retired general lies on his deathbed, bitter and alone, his estranged son, an ultra-orthodox Jew, tries to save his soul from hell. This quasi-Biblical, epic drama spans the history of Israel through 40 years and three wars, yet, like director Yossi Madmony’s previous film Restoration, it is, at its heart, about father-son relationships.

The meaning of the title emerges as a tale within a tale that begins shortly after the founding of modern Israel. When a brave, much admired officer, dubbed Bambi (Alon Aboutboul), returns to base after a daring mission, the cook’s assistant, a young rabbi, tells him enviously that he has earned a place in heaven for endangering his life on behalf of his Jewish brethren. As a secular Zionist, Bambi scoffs at this notion and notes that he would gladly give up that place in exchange for his favorite spicy omelet. Since religious law permits the trade of such an abstract concept, the cook draws up a contract. Such impulsive behavior, typical of the arrogant, young Bambi, proves to have long-term consequences…

Like the flawed heroes of the Old Testament, Bambi registers as achingly human, no more so than in his relationship with son Nimrod, who rejects his expectations and turns to other father figures in order to forge a life of his own as a religious Jew. In the end, this probing fictional biography provides an intimate portrait of an obstinate man whose principles come before everything else. And just the right hint of Madmony’s characteristic mystical overtones adds to its allusive weight.


The Dostoevsky source for With You, Without You may signal Soul Food content: who knows.  The Priest's Children looks like a Soul Food long-shot, but hey....

*   *   *

The Missing Picture

Other films have caught my eye, if not necessarily on the Soul Food portion of the menu. Last year some cinema pals and I watched Mark Cousins' 17-hour The Story Of Film: An Odyssey in a two-day marathon: this year we'll reconvene at his latest, A Story Of Children And Film, which surveys everything from The 400 Blows, Kes, ET and Fanny and Alexander to selections from Finland, Iran, Japan and elsewhere. The aesthetic strategy of The Missing Picture reminds me of Kamp, a memorable Holocaust theatre piece I saw in the PuSh Festival a couple years ago, and The Act Of Killing which screens at the VanCity prior to the film festival, on Sep 16, 18 and 19. Also at the fest, the deadpan quirk of Matterhorn appeals, as does Finding Vivian Maier, a portrait of the celebrated street photographer whose work was unknown in her lifetime. And Time Goes By Like A Roaring Lion clicks with certain of my own fascinations (should that be "chronophobia" or "chronophilia"?). 

Most Telling Blurb: "With its culture of intimidation, the playground has always resembled a prison yard." German film? Yup.

Friday, September 06, 2013

son of the return of soul food movies

Okay. A couple posts ago I mentioned The Movie Discovery Of The Summer.  But I didn't mention what that discovery might be.

Public libraries.

A year ago, after a long DVD drought coinciding with a protracted period of mourning for Videomatica, I started weekly visits to Black Dog and Limelight - the two surviving great Vancouver video stores - availing myself of their 2-for-one Tuesdays and five-for-$10 Wednesdays, revelling in the experience of standing among shelves of movies and chatting Whit Stillman with the guy behind the counter.  In January I stopped decided to move on from the memory of Videomatica's DVD-by-mail service, and signed up for - which has a lot of gaps, and about a zero percent chance of being sent anything within the first six months of its release, but still, if you dig deep enough and make a long enough ZipList.  And I started watching DVDs again.

But this summer I discovered the Vancouver Public Library.  You go to the website, you search for any given movie, 80 or 90% of the time they've got it - I'm not kidding, their collection is vast - you put a hold on it (free, for your first fifty holds, then 50 cents each after that - and they deliver it to your local branch and email you that it's arrived.  That simple.  Wow.  (Okay, same problem with new releases, but if you can't wait, there's always iTunes or Black Dog.) (I've also gotten a ton of movies from the Richmond library, but it's only fair to say that their selection is a lot more limited. Very interesting, but much, much smaller.) (And you should never put two bracketed sentences back to back.)

So. There. You want to watch movies again, and not just settle for what flows through the interweb conduit...  Get a library card.

Also a couple posts ago, I mentioned The Soul Food Good News of the Month.  Two Good Newses, actually.

The first comes up next week at Pacific Cinematheque - Krysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy, Blue, White and Red.

Sep 9 - 6:30 Blue | 8:30 White
Sep 11 - 6:30 White | 8:30 Red
Sep 12 - 6:30 Red | 8:25 Blue

Equally highly regarded as high water marks in spiritual cinema as Kieslowski's  Decalogue project (ten 1-hour films, each dealing - however obliquely - with one of the Ten Commandments), these three films are far more visually appealing, replacing the aptly dour look of the Eastern European TV project with a richer, more vivid cinematography.  (The trilogy was shot, and set, in France). The opportunity to see these on a big screen is particularly appealing. And like Eric Rohmer or Woody Allen, the director has a fascination with beautiful women, and these three films centre around Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob. So there's that.

Like The Decalogue (or Dekalog, if you aspire to the highest echelons of cinephilia), these three films have placed in all five iterations of the Arts & Faith 100.

The second Soul Food Good News of the Month item, advertised on the back of the Cinematheque schedule for Sep/Oct, comes along September 22, when the three great Rossellini Soul Food films finally become available.  It's always been nearly impossible to see any of the great Italian auteur's collaborations with Ingrid Bergman - Stromboli, Europe '51, Journey To Italy - films which are also among the film maker's most explicitly Christian. Not only have they been unavailable except on bootleg DVDs (hard to get, low quality), but they have rarely been screened even at cinematheques and art houses.

I've only seen portions of the three films, in the Martin Scorsese documentary My Voyage To Italy.  I couldn't make it to Ontario Cinematheque in 2006 when they screened there as part of a complete retrospective of Rossellini's work, and though I saw the MOMA exhibit of Rossellini-Bergman posters and documents (including the letter of introduction she wrote him, asking to be in one of his films, and his reply), my New York visit wasn't timed right to catch any of the screenings.  I even requested a screening of at least these three films at our local Cinematheque, but was told that they were unavailable to be programmed.

So this is a bit of a Big Deal.  Rossellini's spiritual themes come through in some of the short segments of Paisan, and in the landmark neo-realist picture Rome, Open City (both available in the Criterion boxed set of the War Trilogy) and certainly in the eccentric-but-wonderful The Flowers Of St Francis (also titled Francesco, giullare di Dio - Francis, God's Juggler), but are apparently most evident in the three Bergman films.

I can't wait.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

the return of soul food movies

I've always loved film. For about a decade - let's say 1997 to 2007 - it was my Big Non-Theatre Obsession. (I cycle through those.  Six months to three to ten years each on, say, The Beatles, baseball, hard-boiled detectives, the life of Christ, the history of jazz, New York city, etc, etc.)  For that stretch - a particularly fertile one for movies in general, and for spiritually-themed movies in particular - I worked away on a book, and a blog, called Soul Food Movies.  Made thousands of posts to the Arts & Faith conversation board.  Saw everything that came out that was good, or had some sort of spiritual angle. And wrote about them.

Then I had to set the book aside - at that point it was PT or the book, and I know the difference between a marriage and a fling.  And around the same time, a certain cultural moment passed.  The internet - which had super-charged the whole cultural conversation about the movies - started to kill the print media, and career film critics fell like Aussie soldiers at Gallipoli. Around the same time, TV series started to be the big rental item at video stores, and people started watching thirteen or fifty hours of Seinfeld re-runs rather than a couple dozen real movies.  (I will restrain myself from making gratuitous comments about the Anti-Christ.)  And then the internet got the whole streaming and down-loading thing figured out, and between illegal tormenting and legal netflicking and iTuning, the video stores died, and the cinemas finished dying, and...  And now it's now.

The other day I had a chat with a friend who'd been a movie nut last time I saw him.  I didn't even ask him what movies he'd seen lately: I asked him if he was still watching movies.  And the answer was, pretty well, no.  So we chatted about cultural forces, and the death of Roger Ebert, and Hollywood economic forces, and the stuff I already mentioned in that last paragraph, and...  That was that.

But afterward I thought about this summer's discovery that's got me mainlining DVDs again. And about the fact that there are still films worth seeing in the theatres - I saw several this summer that I really liked. And that even Netflix has the occasional film that people ought to know about.

And then at the coffee shop I picked up the latest copy of the Cinematheque schedule. And realized there's still Soul Food Movie news that's fit to print.  Most definitely.

So neither the cinema, nor God at the cinema, nor either on one's home video screen, are in fact dead. Movies, and movies dealing with matters of faith, may not be at the centre of the cultural conversation the way they were maybe a decade ago.  But hey, I'm used to that - I work in live theatre, after all.  Who needs to be at the centre of the party?  I'm quite content to chat off in a corner, thank you very much. That's where the best conversations happen, anyhow.

There won't be any full-fledged revival of the Soul Food Movies project.  But from time to time...

Monday, June 17, 2013

SUPERMAN (1978, 1980, 2006)

SUPERMAN (1978, USA, Richard Donner, screenplay Mario Puzo, David & Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, Tom Mankiewicz)
SUPERMAN II (1980, USA, Richard Lester & Richard Donner, screenplay Mario Puzo, David & Leslie Newman, Tom Mankiewicz)
SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006, USA, Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris)

Even though you've been raised as a human being, you are not one of them…. It is now time for you to rejoin your new world and to serve its collective humanity. Live as one of them, and discover where your strength and power are needed… They can be a great people, Kal‑El. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all — their capacity for good — I have sent them you. My only son.

Battles rage, wars are waged over whether SUPERMAN RETURNS is a worthy successor to its predecessors. Over where the franchise went wrong, over who was the best Lois Lane or Lex Luthor, over whether Supe is a Christ figure, or whether he's a worthy one, or whether it matters. Over whether SUPERMAN and its sequels and siblings saved a foundering seventies film industry, or whether the adolescent adventure blockbusters from the Whiz-Bang kids (Lucas, Spielberg, Donner et al) were commercial kryptonite to the golden age (or would it be a silver age? I can never keep such matters straight) of seventies auteurism (Scorsese, Coppola, Schrader et Altman). I'm inclined toward a third theory: that the seventies were an abysmal time for movie-goers, that apart from the occasional masterpiece there wasn't much on the big screen that you'd want to watch any given week, but that as refreshing as Supe, Indie and Skywalker's gang may have been, they also resuscitated a dying studio system whose resurrection was mostly bad news for good movies. You can pick your own myth.

What's obvious about this new generation of nostalgia-tinged adventure flicks is that they were just plain fun: they didn't take themselves too seriously, they lasted longer than a theme park ride and you didn't have to travel to Orange County to get your thrill. What's maybe not so obvious is that all three of the fin de seventies "Just A Movie" franchises offered audiences something more than just a movie. Along with thrills and chills and good triumphing over evil (in morally ambivalent times), they offered – or tried to offer, or could be interpreted as offering – Faith. Transcendence. God.

It had been a long, long time since Christians had found much at the movies that connected with their faith. Not since the Good Priest movies of the forties or the Bible Blockbusters of the fifties had the silver screen reflected much Light. Cinematic dreamers dream the dreams of their culture (check out David Mamet's Writing In Restaurants for more on this), and for a couple decades there our collective consciousness had pretty much decided God was dead, or at least too boring to be in a movie. Christians who loved the movies and yearned to see some sort of onscreen representation of their faith – or any sort of faith – had to gain what soul sustenance they could from dour and doubting Europeans. Christian film books pretty much orbited around Bergman, Bresson, Fellini and Dreyer (how could they miss Rossellini?), or settled for spelunking for moral nuggets deep beneath the surface of Oscar-contending American fare.

Maybe that's why we all seized so hard on what Robert Short called The Gospel From Outer Space. Suddenly, from the place we least expected it, there was all this religious stuff. Righteous quests, spiritual mentors, mysticism and transcendence, the affirmation that there might be something higher than cold rationalism and reductive science. Christ figures even! The coolest movies out there, the ones everybody wanted to see, also carried this secret (or not so secret) message, and if you knew how to decode it, the right answer was… God!

Somehow it was validation. It was like finding out the most popular kid in your high school was a Christian! So maybe you weren't such a geek after all.

I think something like that accounts for the immense amount of attention these movies attracted in religious circles in their day – and for the rather underwhelming spiritual significance that's apparent when when you re-examine them today, in a time when religious faith is once again permissible onscreen. You'll find people (guys, usually: they were between ten and twenty when their favourite came out, probably while they were going to a Christian school) who spin elaborate theologies out of the Star Wars or Indiana Jones or Superman movies, and as interesting as their arcane and intricate and well-supported theories may be, you can't help feeling the case is being over-argued: the movies weren't as good as they're certain they are, and the spiritual import of the stories isn't all they crack it up to be. The rest of their tastes have grown up, they've discovered Kieslowski and Kurosawa and Kaurismaki, but when the talk turns to Quasi-Spiritual Blockbusters Of The Late Seventies, the perspective shifts. They take on the unreasoning (or over-reasoned) intensity of benign conspiracy theorists. They've seen these films more times than they've read the gospel of John. And that's saying something.

No doubt they're onto something. In the original SUPERMAN film, when his father sends baby Kal-El away from the dying planet of Krypton, Dad's blessing has undeniable Johannine overtones: "You will carry me inside you all the days of your life… The son becomes the father, and the father the son." Discovering an apparently abandoned toddler near a meteorite crater, Ma Kent speaks of her prayers that "the Good Lord would see fit to give us a child," and when young Clark comes of age he leaves his earthly family behind to head into the wilderness and learn his true nature. At thirty, in obedience to the words of his heavenly father, he goes out into the world "to serve its collective humanity." In the words of Jor-El (echoed in the series-reviving SUPERMAN RETURNS , which makes a point of taking up and embellishing the orginal film's Christological imagery), "They can be a great people. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all I have sent them you. My only son." (Woulda been better with "only-begotten son, but whatever…)

It's at this point – a full fifty minutes into the story – that SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE goes suddenly astray. In the portrayal of Superman's origins, on the dying planet Krypton and in the Kansas cornfields, there is a commitment to evoking the mythos of the original DC comics, being faithful to a context in which the sheer goodness (and even, perhaps, the Goodness) of the hero rings true, in which the mythic themes resonate, in which simple heroism can carry the day. But when Our Hero hits the big city and encounters Real Evil – a guy stealing a tomato? wacky newsroom types unsure how to spell "massacre" and "rapist"? – the film descends to corn and camp, and for this viewer at least, its capacity to stir the soul is lost. Some appreciate Christopher Reeves' penchant for physical comedy: it struck me as embarassing and, as much fun as Gene Hackman is sneering his way through Lex Luthor (splendidly reprised by the impeccably-cast Kevin Spacey in the 2006 revival, though with a nastier edge), the whole tone increasingly veers into the kind of dismissive camp I knew enough to hate when the Batman TV series did the same to my other DC hero – when I was only nine! Fans of the films protest when less-than-fans say these movies are "for kids," but can they really deny that much of the writing here is utterly juvenile? From Clark's goofball act to the smirking "dirty joke" tone of Lois and Clark's first date to her unbearably mawkish monologue as Superman takes her flying ("Do you know what it is that you do to me? Holding hands with a god, quivering like a little girl shivering, you can see right through me, wondering why you are all the wonderful things you are…"), it's really embarassing and juvenile. Sorry.

SUPERMAN 2 compounds these sins. In an attempt, I suppose, to make the too-good-for-the-times Superman "a guy we can all relate to," a situation is contrived for the no-longer-quite-so-super man to sleep with Lois – hey,everybody was doing it – and the whole Messiah Of Steel thing has pretty much fizzled away to nothing. The mighty had well and truly fallen, unadulterated goodness trumped by good old adultery. How disappointing.

Two more sequels followed, each lacking more lustre than its predecessors, and for a couple decades it seemed Superman was deader even than God – who, incidentally, was making something of a comeback at the cineplex in the absence of the Krypton Christ. Which in turn may have prepared the way for Bryan Singer's re-theologized franchise-resurrecting SUPERMAN RETURNS in 2006.

Singer and his writers pay tribute to the 1978 original with abundant (some would say overly abundant) references and riffs while dialling down on the camp and picking up on the Christ. When Superman returns to earth after a five year absence seeking his father's home planet, Ma Kent cradles him in her arms in an obvious pieta image. Lois has won her Pulitzer Prize but lost her hope, writing an acclaimed article "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman," telling her live-in partner "The world doesn't need a saviour, and neither do I."

But this film is convinced that, actually, she does, and it goes an extra mile or two to polish up this particular Superman into something closer to the image and likeness of a savior. Superman responds directly to Lois's cynicism: "You say the world doesn't need a saviour, but every day I hear them crying for one." In the film's most affecting image, a world-worn Superman flies high above the earth to surrender himself to the life-restoring light of the sun, then to listen to the sounds of human life rising up like prayers to his all-hearing ears: at the sound of evil or suffering, he soars back earthward to bring at least a limited sort of salvation.

Like the earlier films, this one also goes some way toward putting human flesh on the man of steel, and for some reason I appreciated the way that theme was handled here in pretty much exact inverse proportion to how I felt about it in the earlier films. Clark/Supe is clearly in love with Lois (and far more convincingly: Clark isn't so pre-adolescent goofy, and Lois loses her shrill and salivating silliness), but he's kept from inserting himself back into her life by the fact that she's got a pretty good relationship with a pretty decent guy, who's being a not-too-bad stand-in father and provider for the child Supe/Clark fathered in that previous one-night-stand. (Yup, in the new Superman moral universe, even those sorts of actions have consequences.) In his loneliness, he yields to temptation and uses his super-powers to watch and listen in on what he shouldn't - not to leer through Lois's clothes (as every teenaged Superman reader fantasized, and the earlier films toyed with) but simply to watch her leave in an elevator (a gorgeous bit of filming), or to torment himself by eavesdropping on a scene of peaceful domesticity with Lois's new family. The earlier film told us Kal-El would be isolated and alone: this film shows us that, let's us experience it at least a little bit.

But still. What sort of Messiah is this Man Of Steel? In even the best of these films (whichever you might personally prefer), or in the Superman uber-myth that overarches them all? How much of a saviour is Superman?

Maybe not much of one. For starters, there's a big difference between saving somebody dangling from the edge of a building, or even a planeload of somebodies hurtling toward their mortal destruction, and doing anything about anybody's immortal souls. I suppose that's self-evident, and everybody knows that even at their most intentional superhero movies would never claim to have anything more than a parabolic, metaphoric resonance with bigger, realer stories of salvation. But this 1979 Newsweek points up a potential problem with that sort of thinking;
People can croak "Entertainment! Entertainment!" until they're blue in the face. The fact remains that films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, SUPERMAN, and even STAR WARS have become jerry-built substitutes for the great myths and rituals of belief, hope and redemption that cultures used to shape before mass secular society took over.
In settling for heroes who offer only salvation from physical danger, in conflating invented, simplistic earth-bound myths of strong men coming to the rescue with truer, eternal myths of redemption through sacrifice, the kind of strength that's only shown in weakness and surrender, do we subtly lose track of those essential truths, swapping them for something that's a pretty cheap substitute?

In 1983, Robert Short drew out the nervous-making resonances between Neitzsche's superman and the more familiar guy in the cape and tights, going on to point out how different either were from the Guy from the sky the latter sought to invoke: "There is a significan resemblance of Superman to Christ in the man part. But an essential difference is in the super….
Jesus was very cautious in using the 'super-powers' of his Father, although he obviously could have at any time. "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?"… Why did Christ generally refrain from this kind of outwardly obvious use of supernatural power?
Short points out not only that Jesus avoided offering signs or proofs of his divinity in order to put the focus on who he was and what he taught, but also that
Christ doesn't let us off so easily: he rejected the role of a superman… He was a humble rabbi, a meek and lowly shepherd, the carpenter's son, whose mother and brothers and sisters the people also knew. To believe in this man requires a radically deep sacrifice on our parts… God did not send our Savior to us in the form of a superman, but rather in the form of a servantman, a lowly man of sorrows who finally would not even save himself from the torment, the humiliation, the death, of the cross.

To be fair, as sharp a commentator as Roy Anker is quite content to delight in the incarnational resonances he finds in SUPERMAN without building an entire (and misguided) theology on them. In his very fine book Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies, he identifies this as "a Jesus story – significantly, not the Jesus story," and demonstrates how "the shape and substance of these contemporary religious fables" fits them quite specifically into Catholic film scholar Neil Hurley's designation of "christomorphic" fiction (which Hurley developed from the work of Theodore Ziolkowski). Citing films that range from John Ford's THE FUGITIVE or Bresson's DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST to Ken Russell's TOMMY and Rosenberg's COOL HAND LUKE, Hurley identifies and finds value in a specific type of film by considering "formal patterns of resemblance and not…the theological substance of the life of Jesus as we find it in its exemplary expression in the gospels."

Anker in turn brings considerable skills as an interpreter of literature to his exploration of this particular film franchise, and if we disagree about Christopher Reeve's "splendid physical acting and nuanced manipulation of voice and face" or Anker's assertion that Superman's first public miracle "is perhaps the finest comic moment in a golden age of American film, 1970s cinema," it's nevertheless a pleasure to bask in this erudite (and theologically sophisticated) writer's detailed enthusiasm for a favorite flick:
The whole of the film serves to elucidate and impart the surprise, wonder, and delight of the fantastic possibility of an incarnation of divine love itself… no simple miracle-working trickster in a cape or spider webs but a notion of God that features an extravagantly loving servant who comes out of nowhere to suffer and triumph for bedraggled human creatures. To the filmmakers' credit, they do indeed, in Frederick Buechner's words, "get the joke," the high humor of the Incarnation, "the hilarious unexpectedness" of the impossible actually happening.

But if we're going to haul in Roy Anker as a witness for the defence, we need to consider consider the estimable Robert Jewett for the prosecution: he's got real problems with Superman and all his buddies. In Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil and The Myth of the American Superhero, co-written with John Shelton Lawrence, the boys go kinda easy on Supe while finding the whole American fixation on superheroes the root of all kinds of evil. You'll think they're nothing but kill-joys when I tell you they don't like the fascist politics and spirituality of STAR WARS (huh? what?). But you know? They make a lot of sense. They see Superman as the pivotal dude, the guy who added "super" to the earlier vigilante heroes of Lone Ranger ilk, and led to the proliferation of an anti-democratic, counter-Christian monomyth where leaders are always weak or corrupt, the community helpless and truth and justice entirely in the hands of the lone, zealous outsider who overcomes evil with violence – a distinctly American "pop fascism." Shame on you, Shane! (I'd be curious to know what Bob and John think of SUPERMAN RETURNS, where some just plain folks actually do follow the hero's lead and get heroic themselves, filling in the part of the job that the man of steel can't quite manage on his own.)

So anyhow, that's SUPERMAN, weighed and wanting. Look for too much theology and you run into trouble. Supe just ain't that great a Christ figure, and his movies just ain't that great either. These are pretty slight cinematic fare, and their underdeveloped Christ The Kick-Butt Rescuer theology isn't really going to feed anybody's soul, won't sustain for the long journey.

Or will it? Because, having said that, it still feels like there's something there, and to dismiss these movies out of hand would be to dismiss something this story (in its many incarnations) actually does manage to get right, at least in its better moments.

Maybe it just comes down to this. For all the times the movies fumbled it, for all the ways the Supe-as-Saviour metaphor falls short, for all that other superheroes may be more complex or more conflicted or more human or more identifiable-with-in-their-human-fallenness… I think this contributor to the Arts & Faith conversation (he goes by CrimsonLine) got it right: "I've always been a Superman fan. He set the example that I always aspired to - pure self-sacrificing nobility."

Maybe it's that simple. Maybe that's all the soul food we're really going to get from Superman. And maybe that's enough.


first posted 2006