In our Reviews section, we try to post at least one review per week, usually written by me, Elijah Davidson. Since adding Jessi Knippel to our roster of contributors, we’ve been able to up that by a couple of reviews a month. Still, there are many more movies released than we could ever hope to cover. We miss many.
As 2013 comes to a close, I am trying to catch up on a number of films that I’ve heard good things about from friends and from other critics over the year. Some of these interested me because of their storytelling style, other because of their subject matter, and others because of their potential to surprise me. In any case, here are five brief reviews of films which, for a variety of reasons, haven’t been reviewed on our site before which I think are worth your time. Three of these films are available on Netflix Instant, one of them is easy to find on dvd, and one of them ought to be available soon.
This Is Martin Bonner
This Is Martin Bonner is a simple story about a man, the titular Martin Bonner, who works for an organization that helps men recently released from prison readjust to society and a man in his care. The film is modest in every sense except in the complexity of its characters.
Martin is a recently divorced man well past middle age with a degree in theology who was fired from his job as the business manager for a church because of his divorce. The Reno, NV, based ex-con ministry is the only organization that will hire him. He’s trying to piece back together his life and his relationships with his east coast-based children from far away.
His charge (via happenstance, not assignment) is a man, Travis, who has just been released from a 12 year sentence for involuntary man slaughter. He too is now sojourning in Reno and trying to piece back together his life and relationships distant from his loved ones.
This Is Martin Bonner is a film full of grace – of its characters for each other, of the story for its characters, and of the film for its audience. It’s the kind of film that suggests in form and content that the hope that really matters if found not in platitudes and easy fixes (of the kind we see in most films that are this complimentary of Christianity), but in being honest with each other, in being there when it matters most, and in helping others feel that they belong no matter where they’ve been.
This Is Martin Bonner is only 83 minutes long, it’s on Netflix Instant, and you should watch it tonight.
The Place Beyond the Pines
In his book, Cinematic States, Gareth Higgins states that most American movies are crime stories. If that’s true, then the most American movie of the year might be The Place Beyond the Pines, a multi-generational story about the American Dream, socio-economic and racial oppression, crime, and the violence that erupts as a result of the mixing of all of the above.
The story is told in three parts. The first is about a man, Luke (Ryan Gosling again as stoic as John Wayne but with a darkness the Duke only twice dared to show), trying to provide for his newborn son and his son’s mother by robbing banks. His is a story of economic desperation and maladjusted masculinity like Walter White’s in Breaking Bad.
For generations now, we’ve been told that the worth of a man is in his ability to provide for his family. As our economic malaise continues, we need to pay attention to these fictitious stories and especially these factual ones about men denied identity because there are no jobs to be had. There are probably men like Luke and Walter in your community. Their distress at being out of work isn’t a sign of a lack of faith or humility. Luke’s cry in this film after his first robbery haunts me. It’s the cry of a man denied a place in respectable society who must find his place outside it.
The second story is about another man, Avery, the cop who is instrumental in stopping Luke’s robberies. His story is about a man trying to do right in a world where anything except ambition is an anathema. Though he is encouraged to do so by the ones he loves, he chooses ambition over humility in order to survive, and eventually loses the ones he loves.
The tension between ambition and diligence is at the heart of the American Dream. We’re taught that if we keep our heads down and work hard, we can be anything we want. In recent years, it seems greater emphasis is being put on the later part of that equation at the expense of the first. More kids want to be famous now than they want to be anything else, and that trend isn’t particular to children. They’re just, perhaps, the most honest about it. We err when we equate fame with success and forget that success is the product of diligence, and diligence does not care about or depend on fame. Avery’s story is tragic – he loses everything that really matters – and his story threatens to become our society’s story if we don’t wise up.
The final part of The Place Beyond the Pines deals the repercussions of Luke and Avery’s life on each of their sons. This segment is a little more convenient than the first two segments, but the moral is worth mentioning. Perhaps because our country was founded on violent revolution and solidified following an unimaginably bloody civil war, violence seems to be at the core of the American identity. It wasn’t long ago that a generation of Baby Boomers was lamenting the fact that they didn’t have a war like the World War of their parents to prove their maturity and guarantee them a place in the world. So they chose Vietnam, because better an unjust and ill-advised war than no war, and therefore no identity, at all.
Violence moves in cycles. It feeds itself. For the cycle to break, offended parties have to refuse to answer violence with more violence. “If you live by the sward, you’ll die by it,” warns Christ. In The Place Beyond the Pines, a life seeded in violence reaps violence, and it’s only when one character genuinely apologizes and another shows mercy that the cycle is broken. The film ends with a question mark, not knowing what comes next, and maybe that’s because we’ve been running around the hamster wheel of violence for so long, we don’t know what a world without it might look like.
The Place Beyond the Pines is available on dvd and blu ray everywhere. I borrowed the copy I watched from my local library. Public libraries are awesome.
Computer Chess is one of the oddest movies I’ve seen this past year. It is partially a Christopher Guest style mockumentary about a mid-80s competition to build a computer capable of beating a human player at chess. It is also partially a surrealist nightmare about the terror of embarking into uncharted waters of human existence.
This weird little black and white film juxtaposes technological and sexual experimentation and plays with the anxieties associated with both. It’s easy to see the physical and technological aspects of our lives as separate. The technological is cold and rigid and automatic. The physical is warm and soft and unpredictable.
Computer Chess suggests, awkwardly, that machines are nothing more than extensions of our physical selves. There is a man in every machine, and a machine will never replace a man. We will simply port more and more of ourselves into our machines. We will replace them with ourselves. They will become more and more subtle extensions of our physical selves.
Furthermore, in Computer Chess, human touch is more powerful than any program, and though it is perhaps the epitome of eccentric, the film elevates human connections above all. If the film has a central character, it is a young graduate student negotiating new worlds of machine and machine, human and machine, and human and human interaction all at once. Since this film is set in the mid-80s, if people like him are now running our technological world, I have hope.
Computer Chess is available on Netflix Instant. I couldn’t sleep one night and began watching it at 4 AM. I recommend a more orthodox start time, though, given its surreal elements. Watching it in such a bleary-eyed state did make me question whether I was awake or asleep or something in between.
We’ve given Abigail Harm quite a bit of attention this year, even screening it as part of our Fall screening series on Fuller’s campus in Pasadena. The film was produced by Reel Spirituality co-director Eugene Suen, so any kind of objectivity regarding this film is impossible. As such, though it is one of my favorite films of the year, I haven’t officially reviewed it. I’m not going to do that now either, but I would like to offer a few thoughts on this unorthodox film, so that when you see it, hopefully, you’ll be better prepared to appreciate it like I do.
The film is about a woman living in some sort of post-apocalyptic New York City, I think, who has arranged her life so that she never truly interacts with another person. She reads for the blind. She avoids her father who is ailing. She tries her best to be invisible. Her insulated life is disrupted when she saves a man who is some kind of angel. In thanks, he offers her the chance to fall in love with another of his kind. She takes him up on his offer and gets to experience the heights and depths of true love.
Abigail Harm isn’t built on cause and effect. The film is elliptical, meaning scenes don’t really resolve as much as they simply establish tone or emotion and then end. Ultimately, this weaves a tapestry of emotions related to love. It’s parts aren’t always pretty or easy to handle, but the overall effect, for me, is a feeling of immense freedom. Abigail learns about love and begins to empathize with those in her life. It’s not an easy film, but it’s one that has enriched my understanding of love and my resolve to love the people God has given me to love with each viewing.
Abigail Harm will be available to own and stream soon, I hope.
The most easily enjoyable film on this list of films we originally overlooked is easily this final one. Frances Ha is the story of a twenty-seven year old woman in New York City still trying to figure out who she is. Yawn. I know. How many movies do we need about twenty-somethings having an identity crisis?
Well, we needed at least one more. Most films like this one frustrate me. As a person in my late twenties, I probably see too much of myself in the characters, and the complications and resolutions featured in other stories like Frances Ha‘s are too convenient and don’t ring true to my own experience.
Frances Ha is real, not “really real,” of course, but narratively so. I’ve known people like her. I’ve dated her. I’ve been her. She is plagued by the same insecurities I’ve known, and those insecurities are rounded out in her character with remarkable nuance. Listen closely as she speaks. Her very funny one liners often reveal profound truths about what it’s like to be twenty-something in America today.
My favorite – one night at dinner, Frances tries to cover the bill, giving the waitress her debit card. The waitress refuses it, stating that the restaurant only accepts cash and credit. Frances apologizes for not having a credit card. “I’m not a real person yet,” she says, humorously underlining that to be a “real person” in America means to have credit and the debt associated with it. Later, she gets a credit card and accrues some debt, but it doesn’t make her any more mature. In fact, it reveals a lack of maturity.
That Frances is such an ebullient yet determined person and that Greta Gerwig portrays her so winsomely help this coming of age story rise above other more maudlin fare. Frances is her own manic pixie dream girl, “undateable,” as the movie reminds us, but better for it since a romantic partner isn’t what Frances needs. There’s the promise of romance, sure, but she’s twenty-something. There’s always the promise, even if she needs something more than fate to make her ready for life-long companionship. This is just another way that Frances Ha is richer than most other stories like it.
I could go on and on. I could hypothesize what’s at the base of Frances’ issues (An ill-advised conviction that she is especially special? A proclivity to idealism that bleeds into foolishness? Arrogance? A lack of real struggle? A mistrust of authority? A preoccupation with self?), but to do so would be to needlessly simplify her character. She’s more than any of the things I might suppose about her. She’s just not sure what that “more” is yet. Like I said before, I know Frances. I’ve dated Frances. I am Frances. And Frances turns out ok.
Frances Ha is available on Netflix Instant. The film is 86 minutes long. Sit with Frances for spell. Don’t judge her. Let her pour some unaffected honesty into you life. We all need more of it.