Here’s to the Mess We Make

Movies I watched this month

In the spirit of our passion to explore life’s big questions, we’re launching a movies column. But rather than reviewing individual films, we’ll look at a month’s worth of them at a time, new and old, with the thought that movies often “talk” to one another.

Saw in theaters

La La Land

Manchester by the Sea

Arrival

The Accountant

Saw at home

It’s a Wonderful Life

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Almost Famous

A Night at the Opera

Saw via screener

Silence

As you now know, La La Land tied a record with 14 Oscar nominations. Everyone loved La La Land yet hated its ending, a new phenomenon for a movie this well-liked.[1] It’s perplexing, isn’t it? I read (in the wonderful L.A. Times Oscars special section “The Envelope”) a short interview with the choreographer who said the only initial instructions for the you’ve-gotta-think-will-prove-to-be-legendary opening number of the movie were something like “EXT Freeway/ The greatest opening number in movie history.” And indeed. That said, my theory is that Damien Chazelle got his idea for the ending from another musical and that his imagination failed him here. The rest of the movie is so earned and inventive that the ending—which, yes, has its own dazzling sequence—stands out.

We saw it (as a whole family) a couple of days before our annual It’s a Wonderful Life viewing, and they made for an interesting conversation. La La Land is about the awesomeness of going for your dreams, whatever the cost. “Here’s to the ones who dream!” In that respect, it seems like a movie made by a young person and, indeed, Chazelle is 31. It’s a Wonderful Life, the first movie Jimmy Stewart made after returning from serving as a bombardier in World War II, seems like an answer to Chazelle. George Bailey is every bit the dreamer as Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling. He wants to leave his dead-end town behind and see the world and build great buildings—as a start. But when world events and family tragedies prevent him from getting started on those dreams, he needs to learn that doing the right thing and loving his neighbor can create a kind of meaning beyond mere dreaming, can create a wonderful life. Talking with my family, the consensus was that La La Land was dazzling (everyone hated the ending—but two of them bought the soundtrack on their phones[2]), but It’s a Wonderful Life was wise.

Silence immediately tanked and we now know that its long-shot hope of a reprieve from a Best Picture nomination didn’t happen. That said, it was an unexpected treat. We had an L.A. moment related to it. My wife is in a families support group with a movie director from the 80s and his wife. When they heard we were pastors, the man wanted to know what we thought of Silence, which hadn’t been released at the time. He loaned us his Academy Awards screener and we watched it the next night. Does Scorsese intimidate you the way he does me? I’ve seen most of his movies, but I always need to brace myself. So when Silence began with a gorgeous image—that looks like a Renaissance painting—of three severed heads on sticks, I had to re-up for the experience ahead. That turned out to be a great call as, by the very end, it struck me that Silence was not only among the greatest faith-based movies I’d seen (a Martin Scorsese movie! Who knew?), but was also perhaps the best-yet dramatized picture of Peck’s Stage Theory (we talk about this a fair amount in the Blue Ocean Faith world). And who knew about Scorsese and faith? This is from his interview in The Envelope.

Q: What does Christianity mean to you now, after "Silence"?

A: It means a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour relationship with Christ that's been given to you. And that's not easy. This is purely a layman talking. I'm not a theologian. I can't argue the Trinity. But that relationship with Christ, that's not something to take for granted. And then you try to live your life as reasonably and considerately as possible. And maybe more. That's what Christianity means to me. You have to give an example of who you are and how you behave and how you treat people. And maybe someone will say, "I want to be like him."[3]

Andrew Garfield, the lead actor, did the Jesuit Spiritual Exercises—the 30-day training that prepares initiates for the Jesuit priesthood. He’d grown up secular. When interviewed by a Jesuit about what he’d gotten from the experience, he sounded a lot like Scorsese in his answer.

When I asked what stood out in the Exercises, he fixed his eyes vaguely on a point in the near distance, wandering off into a place of memory. Then, as if the question had brought him back into the experience itself, he smiled widely and said: “What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing.”

He fell silent at the thought of it, clearly moved to emotion. He clutched his chest, just below the sternum, somewhere between his gut and his heart, and what he said next came out through bursts of laughter: “God! That was the most remarkable thing—falling in love, and how easy it was to fall in love with Jesus.”

When the movie was over (a little longer than I’d anticipated—screeners don’t have run times on them and I’d unwisely started watching at 10:30 p.m.) and Grace and I were duly awed, I—ever-prescient—wondered who the audience for the movie was. Clearly Grace and I were in the sweet spot. But would Scorsese’s usual fans come? Would audiences for God’s Not Dead 2 like it? Evidently this had been a 30-year passion project for Scorsese, but passion projects often tank—the reason they take decades to get made is that they’re so quirky to the filmmaker. And alas. It also—did I mention this already?—might be the greatest movie about faith ever made.

So why exactly do we watch movies? Clearly we’re hoping for different types of pleasures from different types of films. And so both Manchester by the Sea and The Accountant belong to this category of things called “movies.” I like trashy thrillers—I endorsed the wonderful Denzel Washington trashy thriller The Equalizer on a recent Blue Ocean World podcast—and I liked The Accountant even as it seemed like the strangest major release movie ever. It’s about an autistic assassin who’s also a crack accountant who works with international criminals but has his reasons and cannot show emotions but, whatever we might think of his assassin-ness and his working with (to quote a character) “the worst people on the planet” is a good guy and our hero. I’m told this was a famous unproduced script and that, when it did get greenlighted, Ben Affleck called the producers to let them know he was aware of the script and would love to play the lead. I saw it because I have a family member who’s autistic, so that aspect interested me. And the preview looked both incomprehensible and fantastic. When it was done, I asked my 20-year-old son what he thought. “I liked it!” (Pause.) “I’m not sure I, like, understood it…” Exactly. The autism stuff, while not exactly applying to my relative, was fascinating. And it has one of the great autism-related, late-revealing plot twists ever.

Manchester by the Sea, as you’ve heard, is—in an understatement—a downer. Like La La Land, everyone seems to love this movie and it—along with Moonlight—looks to be LLL’s main contender for the Oscar. Grace and I saw Kenneth Lonergan’s first movie You Can Count on Me in the theater when it came out and loved it and it came up in our conversations for years. Years. Loved it. And this new, acclaimed movie was set in Massachusetts, a place we are nostalgic for. This was set up for us. But, trying not to actually name the tragedy that drives the movie, I mean, my God. Who can handle this movie? In particular, what parent could handle this movie? Yes, the movie is Lonergan’s usual wonderfully observant script with rich characters in a vivid setting. (And it was amazing to be on Boston’s North Shore in winter. The theaters in L.A. are pretty much all state-of-the-art, so wintry Manchester by the Sea looked and sounded spectacular.) But, I mean, did I say this? My God. Who can “enjoy” this movie in a conventional sense?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has been criticized for being a coming-of-age story of a privileged white American woman against the wacky backdrop of war-torn Afghanistan. Seems fair enough. It also has real challenges with its tone early on. It’s a Tina Fey movie, so it goes for broad laughs in the first ten minutes that it largely and wisely abandons from that point forward. But—reconfirming me as a person of questionable moral standing—as I watched it with my 13-year-old daughter, we both liked it a lot. She talked about it for days afterwards—maybe because it was a picture of a strong woman doing amazing things and, in the miseries of middle school adolescence, she’s looking for those models. Yes, the challenges of cultural sensitivity in a movie like this are immense and I’m an easy sell for anyone who feels that the movie fails on this front. But the filmmakers are at least aware of those challenges and do give them the old college try.

And what shall we say about Arrival (loved it, but it took me two viewings to start to make sense of it) or Almost Famous (you already know how good that is, although its legendary speech about being uncool from Philip Seymour Hoffman seems like its lasting legacy). And the Marx Brothers. This will not sound like genius, but what most struck me in seeing A Night at the Opera again this month was the cynicism. Of course I loved it and of course Groucho in particular is among the most unique and charismatic movie presences ever. It came out in 1935—dead center in the Depression. It was their first movie at MGM after their years at Paramount ended with the box office failure of Duck Soup, now their most critically-acclaimed film. Irving Thalberg at MGM demanded changes if they wanted to work with him.

Unlike the free-for-all scripts at Paramount, Thalberg insisted on a strong story structure that made the brothers more sympathetic characters, interweaving their comedy with romantic plots and non-comic musical numbers, and targeting their mischief-making at obvious villains. Thalberg was adamant that scripts include a "low point", where all seems lost for both the Marxes and the romantic leads. He instituted the innovation of testing the film's script before live audiences before filming began, to perfect the comic timing, and to retain jokes that earned laughs and replace those that did not. Thalberg restored Harpo's harp solos and Chico's piano solos, which had been omitted from Duck Soup.

Many of those elements are now the things people dislike about Marx Brothers movies—the drippy lovers and the songs that stop the movie flat. Groucho initially was resistant to Thalberg’s meddling, but he came to regard this and their next movie A Day at the Races as their best work, and I agree. But my goodness are they cynical! Prefiguring the 60s, “the man” is always an idiot who is unknowingly being taunted by the brothers, Groucho in particular. (It’s said that he was the inspiration for Bugs Bunny.) But I suppose there’s pleasure to sticking it to the idiots. One wonders if Marxes for the Trump years will arise.

 

[1] It’s also gotten a number of complaints about its whiteness—another conversation, another day.

[2] Some critics have thought the music is a weak spot in the movie. This is not a critique in my family.

[3] As I read this quote, I was also reading the very fun new George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones. As Jones tells it, Lucas in the 70s despised Scorsese, regarding him as a womanizing drug addict. Which, combined with this quote, makes for a fascinating psychological portrait.

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