The following represents probably half of the films I had the privilege of enjoying this year. You can consider this ‘The Exhausted Dad’s Incomplete Guide to 2017 Films’. There’s a ton I missed this year, the least of which not being Novitiate, Lady Bird, Three Billboards, Justice League, Shape of Water, etc. I am counting on less time-consumed contributors to make up the difference…so, stay tuned for more comprehensive lists than mine…I hope! With that said, here are seven movies in no particular order with regard to quality of direction, acting, cinematography, and of course law/gospel themes. Enjoy!

LOGAN

The 10th film in which Hugh Jackman portrays the Wolverine conveys a dark texture and macabre overtone as repeatedly, we are thrust into vicious encounters between Wolverine and a group called Alkali-Transigen attempting to locate him that they might reclaim access to a group of genetically engineered children they attempted to train into war machines. Appropriately, a burial service in a cemetery facilitates the setting wherein Gabriela Lopez, a nurse who formerly worked for the above mentioned biotechnical company has sought out Logan and requested his help in transporting a little girl named Laura (whom we later discover is his genetically engineered daughter) to a safe place in North Dakota called Eden. The Biblical implications of such a haven of refuge bearing this name speak for themselves…

Logan’s cynicism disables his belief that there exists such a safe place in a world where mutants are mistrusted and virtually extinct. His friends are gone, the professor is dying, and his powers and identity as the Wolverine are fading. It’s not only that he refuses to believe that in the 2029 setting of the film, mutants yet exist… he refuses to believe that life has a redemptive side. The irony lies in the fact that Professor X, whose mental state wanes, still has faith. He believes he has connected with and is communicating with a new mutant. His faith proves to be more than senile imaginations when Laura eventually materializes.

Laura brings out Logan’s humanity. Quirky yet organic interactions at truck stops, in hotel rooms, and in the home of a religious family of hardworking farmers reflect a genuine dynamic between Laura, Charles, and Wolverine as they flee assailants and attempt to retain anonymity under the guise of being a tri-generational family. As we view a previously sequestered Laura clumsily attempting to engage the very mundane world of shopping for candy and trinkets at gas stations, watching a motion picture for the first time, and listening to an MP3 player, we join her in her amazement at the ordinariness of the very childhood experiences that Transigent’s Project X23 limited her from enjoying.

Logan eventually finds a safe place at Eden. The remarkable aspect of their arrival at the rendezvous point is that the other children who await them literally have to airlift Wolverine into the mountainous cabins. He has become completely inept. And that is how faith finds us. When all of our faculties and capabilities have completely dissipated. Faith begins where we in our strength and certitude die. We are treated to a very tender moment between father and daughter as Logan completes one last sacrifice that secures freedom for the young militants. The safe place Logan finds is… death.

The makeshift funeral the child soldiers conduct for Wolverine in which they tilt the cross over his burial site into the formation of an ‘X’ reminds us that in an unpredictable world of unrest, violence, turmoil, and tribulation, we who are in Christ have one place of rest – our union with Jesus through death. We have died and are dying daily as we navigate the troubles of this present age. Like Logan, we may be attempted to bury ourselves in addictions, in jaded disengagement from reality, in our jobs, etc. It is death however that finds us and frees us our attempts to justify ourselves. It is death that creates for us what we cannot create in ourselves or for ourselves… the childlike faith to believe there is a safe place beyond this bleak and disenchanting world – His name is Jesus and his sacrifice bring us into an Eden better than that depicted in Logan

SMURFS: The Lost Village 

I am not altruistic enough to take my kid to a movie purely for her enjoyment of the film. I struggle to find films that are safe viewing for 6 year-olds, yet also retain some measure of auteur quality and/or bear some redemptive implications along the lines of law/gospel distinction… but I’ll also settle for something reminiscence of the Biblical story line. Well, last summer it was down to two movies – Boss Baby or Smurfs… En route to the theater, I missed my exit on the expressway, so we were consequently left with the latter for our matinee options.

Disclaimer: This is not a great or even slightly above-average film. However, I was delightfully surprised by the density of solid theology it contained. In the film’s opening prologue, we learn that the character Smurfette was originally created by the smurfs’ arch nemesis Gargamel. The nefarious wizard initially intended that she would infiltrate Smurf village and bring about its ultimate demise. What he didn’t count on was the superior magic of Papa Smurf who countered his diabolical plan and turned her into the familiar lone female smurf every 80’s kid who ever watched Saturday morning cartoons recognizes.

Struggling under the weight of trying to define ‘what is a Smurfette?’, our beloved protagonist finds out she cannot escape her predestined evil purpose. Throughout the numerous adventures upon which she and three other renegade smurfs embark as they seek the location of an alleged secret smurf village, she inadvertently causes one mishap after another that continually places the blue clan into progressively greater danger and misfortune…and in the process compounds her guilt. She finds no freedom until she accepts the inevitability of her evil design (cf. Rom 7:24), accepts that she’s not a ‘real’ smurf, and literally experiences death. A critical and pivotal moment portrays her willingly offering herself as a sort of a sin-bearer for the other smurfs as she requests of Gargamel that he unleash the full strength of his sorcery upon her in an effort to transform her to prototypical state as his servant. When she reverts to the lifeless, formless lump of clay whence she was shaped, Papa Smurf searches the Smurf playbook struggling to find something he can ‘do’ (read LAW)… ironically, it is Brainy Smurf who says, ‘you’re not going to find answers in a book…’ (ahem…refutation of LAW) and off they go to the funeral… the place of accepting death…And, yes, we get a resurrection…incidentally, my daughter’s favorite part of the movie!

MOTHER!

Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! abounds with religious metaphors via cryptic symbolism impossible to definitively decipher. A mishmash of surreal imagery combines with increasingly compounding absurdity that drives our extremely visceral experience and nearly plot-less depiction of a woman’s gradual psychological unraveling as she struggles to restore her idyllic rustic house after a fire has apparently razed it. Jennifer Lawrence portrays the titular character who seeks security, affection, and ultimately a child from her artistically gifted, yet aloof husband, Javier Bardem’s “Him”.

Touted as an allegory of Gaia (mother earth) and her alleged relation to a creator god, Mother! serves as a classic case of the human capacity to imagine and reinvent God in our own image – the essence of what the second command in the Decalogue condemns (see Exodus 20) and the very predicament with which Romans 1 indicts all of us. Bardem’s Him whom we are to regard as ‘God’ in this narrative more closely resembles fallen, broken humanity than the sovereign, omnipotent, just, and merciful God Scripture describes. He craves human approval and desecrates the value of the human soul…He sacrifices humanity in order to validate himself. The God of the Bible literally takes on humanity (the incarnation) and sacrifices Himself as a human in order to elevate the dignity of created persons.

If there is any grace that pervades this film, we see it in Mother… who indiscriminately gives, gives, gives, and gives to Him until she can give no more…literally offering Him to dig into her chest to remove her heart as the final divestment of her very being. She reminds me of a better mother, what the apostle Paul called the heavenly Jerusalem, “the mother of us all” (Galatians 4). Loosely implied in this expression is the ancient promise God made to the people who destroyed His perfect home, His perfect world. You see, there’s a true and better narrative in which the unraveling of the world began when a stranger evoked doubt in a woman’s mind…the restoration of that world would come because God promised to redeem all things through that woman’s womb. “And I will put enmity between you and the woman…between her seed and your seed…he will crush your head and you will bruise his foot”.

SUBURBICON

Suburbicon’s depiction of the 1950’s portrays an iconic American vision beneath the subterfuge of which lie corruption and moral decay. An uneven blend of social commentary and pulp fiction, the film attempts to connect two unrelated narratives by employing the visual motif of a fence that separates the homes of Gardner Lodge and Mr. and Mrs. Mayers, the first “colored” family to integrate the titular neighborhood.

A Leave it to Beaver-esque tone undergirds the opening scene as we follow the classic congenial mailman going about his usual route, gleefully greeting all the familiar neighbors in this safe, pristine suburb until his demeanor literally drops upon discovering that the Black woman who receives the mail addressed to Mrs. Mayers is not in fact the maid, but the matriarch of the house herself. From this point on, Suburbicon’s lily white façade diminishes, an angry town hall meeting ensues, neighbors vehemently express their disgust at integration, and we consequently see a progressive tension of threats and harassment replete with marching bands and throngs of pious citizens singing religious hymns… a mass demonstration that ultimately eventuates in the riotous destruction of the Mayer home. The kind residents of this picturesque Mayberry-like town manifest and project onto their new neighbors the very societal disintegration they feared would occur as the result of what they perceived as an African American invasion.

Paralleled with this based-on-true-events vignette is Gardner’s story. Matt Damon portrays a typical middle class business professional burdened by mafia debt and consequently ensnared in a plot to kill his wife, cash in on her insurance policy, and relocate to Aruba with his complicit mistress…who happens to be his wife’s twin sister (Julianne Moore incidentally portrays both characters). Reminiscent of vintage 1940’s film noir like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, the plot also calls to mind 1996’s Fargonot surprising as director George Clooney basically referenced a 1986 Joel and Ethan Coen script when assembling this film.

Grace transcends in this film as neighboring boys, Nicky Lodge and Andy Mayers disregard racial differences and instead opt for genuine friendship. They catch garden snakes, talk about the idiosyncratic implications of their religious denominations (‘I’m Episcopalian’ becomes somewhat of a running joke among other characters in the film as well), they have a secret hideaway…and the concluding scene in which they play catch across the fence insinuates their youthful innocence holds the key to overcoming the violence inherent in racism and the dividing we naturally do as sinners when we dehumanize and distance our neighbor as merely ‘other’ and ‘alien’.

Overall, Suburbicon flows like two entirely different movies side by side and never realizes its potential to explore a complex and extremely relevant subject. Ironically, the one thing Clooney’s film does get right is its expose of human nature as being utterly base and depraved, and we see this most explicitly communicated through another, redeeming quality: Damon’s acting. His range fluidly moves from reticent, straight laced authoritarian figure dad to calm, self deceived psychopath. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to carry an otherwise lopsided and improperly balanced story.

 

VIETNAM WAR 

Ken Burns’ latest PBS documentary utilizes ten episodes narrated by Peter Coyote’s dry monotonous drone set against Trent Reznor’s signature soundtrack. We get the unfolding history of the seeds of war beginning in 1945 with America’s concern over potential Communist encroachment in South Vietnam as well as the rise of Ho Chi Minh as a perceived national hero who led the successful military campaign resulting in the eventual expulsion of French occupation from North Vietnam.

Burns employs personal narrative as a diverse group of individuals who lived through the hellish experience depict the emotional and psychological toll they suffered as they literally faced death daily. Discussion abounds concerning the political implications of the first era in American history where public discontent with the government’s involvement and endorsement of the war became both acceptable and the norm.

Viewing this documentary not only served as an historical lesson for me, but also a confirmation that our present culture of protest and distrust of governmental leadership in many ways spawns from this dark chapter in US History.

One of the more salient points that came across concerned the fluidity of the boundaries we trust with regard to identity and the manner in which especially in the midst of a war, we can move in and out of ethnic and national markers pertaining to ‘who we are’. Black soldiers recount facing discrimination, being denied rank promotions, and coming under unjust regulations while stationed in the camp…but the same bigots calling them nigger and proudly displaying confederate flags joined them in solidarity on the front lines fighting the Vietcong. Suddenly being ‘American’ superseded historic Black-White tension and the greater concern became mentally dehumanizing and literally eliminating gooks in the name of protecting the abstract principles of Capitalism and Democracy – i.e. The American Way.

Humans are good for that, you know – making distinctions, drawing lines, creating us/them dynamics…and we do it on any basis we can find (often in a concurrent manner): economic, religious, denominational, gender, racial, cultural, national, etc. Though largely considered one of the more if not most shameful US foreign entanglements, Burns emphasizes a surprisingly redemptive ending to a bizarre and drawn out conflict that spanned at least 5 presidential administrations and 4 decades. After the famous fall of Saigon officially signifying American defeat and loss, various US veterans gradually began to return to Vietnam with the specific intent of bringing about reconciliation, restoration, and healing. Former American and Vietcong soldiers forgot why they were fighting one another initially and instead remembered the humanity of one another as they laughed together, shared anecdotes about grandchildren, celebrated one another’s cultural traditions and rituals–and found peace, even if not total closure.

BABY DRIVER

I greatly appreciated the concept of ‘law’ in the form of the character, Baby, a 20-something kid who literally couldn’t function without setting his iPod to the right playlist. His soundtrack and mixing/sampling hobby were his way of mediating and viewing a world where you have no control. A world where a random car crash can kill your parents and leave you with no explanation as to ‘why’. Director Edgar Wright unintentionally reminds us that The Law never relents (see Matt 5:17)… Once Baby finally fulfills a long owed debt to an extremely personable, yet caustic crime boss portrayed by Kevin Spacey, he discovers … it’s still not over. Yes, he has finally run enough errands as both heist getaway driver and coffee-run boy to repay the alluded-to Doc for having robbed him while yet an impulsive and confused teen, but according to the underworld don, he’s got more work to do–or suffer permanent crippling for non compliance. The law promises me life if I do what it says, but then, the more I do, the more I have to keep working (consider Jacob and Laban in Genesis 29 & 30).

Ironically, Baby is rescued in prison! There’s this moment on a bridge after a high speed police pursuit has exhausted his options for escape, where Baby tosses the car keys (that have for years epitomized his identity) into the river as if to indicate, “I’m done running…” We all run from the law (just ask Jonah). Then we transition to Baby’s prison life… it’s here where again he conforms to ‘routine’, but we for the first time in the film discover his name… He earns leniency in court based on the testimonies of ‘good character’ from various individuals with whom he interacted even in the midst of doing evil deeds.

Miles consequently reunites with the love of his love, Debra the waitress for whom he falls early on and whose name immediately calls to mind a favorite pop song. The two get to live out their picturesque postcard dream of ‘driving down the road without a plan… nowhere to go’ (something like that). While not an exact representation of how grace works (we are set free because of Another’s good and perfect character), I did find it interesting that the very organic memory of his mother (whose recorded voice consisted of the most prized tape in his collection) featured her singing “I’m Easy like Sunday morning…”. Jesus’ yoke is easy, and once Baby/Miles lost the excess baggage of the tape collection, the entanglement with the crime underworld, and ultimately the need to keep working and running, he began his true life.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI 

Imagine the psychologically darker aspects of Empire Strikes Back…on LSD. Quite honestly, I’m still not sure how I feel about the 8th installment of the beloved space saga. In one respect, it is a better crafted film than 2015’s The Force Awakens – overall, it’s more thorough, complex and doesn’t drag as much… yet at 2 hours and 38 minutes, it feels really long. As a friend of mine aptly noted, comedic gags arrive at inappropriate and awkward moments creating a sarcastic tone of self conscious, self reflexive parody – a reviewer who drew parallels with Spaceballs confirmed my assessment of the almost slapstick, screwball nature certain scenes contained.

The most unique and oddest Star Wars film to date offers unresolved and anticlimactic answers to mysteries and questions we’ve waited since Episode 7 to have answered. A slew of critical characters remain undeveloped, while we get a heavy emphasis on the metaphysical, the ethereal, and the abstract. I suppose Jedi deserves an “A for effort” for pushing the boundaries stylistically on what you officially can and can’t do in a Star Wars film, but that simultaneously serves as the film’s greatest weakness. It pushed Star Wars to new dimensions, but I’m afraid also lost the franchi$e, I mean series, in the midst thereof. Last Jedi feels more like the creation of a David Lynch (who incidentally almost directed Return of the Jedi), a Stanley Kubrick, or even a Christopher Nolan. It resembles a weird hybrid of Lucas’ THX1138 and American Graffiti more than it does the well known celestial Arthurian legend set in a galaxy far, far away…

But all this complaining could be my disappointed nostalgic expectations talking. Perhaps the new direction in which Star Wars is clearly moving leaves me as cranky and cynical as Luke Skywalker is when Rey first confronts him on his monastic sea island replete with frog nuns, upright hippopotamus cows, and a familiar Red -5 X wing submerged near the rocky shore. Yes… we finally get a darker, jaded, self-righteous Luke. And the storyline characterized by this multidimensional, nuanced depiction of our favorite protagonist may be the film’s saving grace.

A gazillion concurrent plot lines abound, many of which seem to go nowhere while they lead us through some uninteresting places (sorry, but Canto Bight lacks the gritty character of Mos Eisley as well as the classy vintage appeal of Bespin). But to be fair, we do get a couple of moments of heroic self sacrifice that prove pivotal to the plot’s turning points. And we conclude with the last jedi completing his hero’s journey in a literally transcendent manner as he makes amends with the past, reminds the villain of the superiority of left-handed power, and learns that failure is the greatest legacy he can pass on to the next generation of galaxy defenders.

 

Really good stuff I saw…but for which I didn’t have time to thoughtfully provide commentary:

  • After the Storm 
  • Coco
  • Lego Movies: Batman & Ninjago
  • Captain Underpants 
  • Marshall 
  • Get Out