The Boy Who Believed in Airplanes

This is Jeffrey Overstreet’s last post as a regular contributor to Good Letters. We thank him for the thoughtful words and reviews he has shared so faithfully and wish him well in his next pursuits.

Matthew was a high school senior, two years ahead of me. He was a gifted musician, a generous friend, and not too cool to hang out with a sophomore like me. I learned a lot from him. His interests in books, music, and movies influenced mine.

But one Saturday afternoon in 1987, as we emerged from a matinee of Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, Matthew startled me into silence by complaining about the movie. He was smarter than me, a better talker. I was too intimidated to respond. But I disagreed. Fiercely. What he found dispiriting (and “way too long”) I found enthralling and transcendent.

It may have been that afternoon, as I wished for the eloquence to argue, that I began my journey into film criticism. [Read more...]

The Hobbit on Steroids

In a public library, there waited The Hobbit. And in a cineplex, there screened The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

These two things are related. But only somewhat.

I vividly remember Mrs. Tuttle, a children’s librarian in Portland, Oregon, putting a book by J. R. R. Tolkien in my hands when I was only seven years old. The book began simply, introducing me to a hobbit and his habits. Bilbo Baggins was a likeable, fastidious fellow, fond of good food, smoking, and safety. I liked him. But he was clearly a little too comfortable and contented, lacking any interest in engaging the world beyond his neighborhood.

The excitement in Tolkien’s narrative began with the arrival of a wandering wizard on Bilbo’s doorstep. That led to a parade of unexpected visitors—dwarves gathering to plan their quest eastward into a dragon’s lair to regain their conquered kingdom. Bilbo became their reluctant accomplice, accepting the risky job of “burglar.” [Read more...]

Holy Motors’ Motor Skills

As Holy Motors begins, a sleepwalker leans against his bedroom wall, upon which a forest is painted.

Or might it be a real forest after all?

The sleeper—played by filmmaker Leos Carax—moves into it, like Lucy stepping into Narnia, where he finds a strange movie theater and a catatonic audience.

Here comes an ancient dog—both magnificent and menacing—stalking down the theater aisle. Perhaps he’s a portent of the death of cinema in the age of digital media. Perhaps he’s Carax himself, transformed, an old dog come to show us some new tricks.

And wow, does he have some new tricks. The wallpaper forest and the phantom dog are only the first of this movie’s many big-screen wonders. It’s a mesmerizing, multi-genre marathon, as if the director knows he’s dying, and so he’s showing us trailers for all of the films he’d make with world enough and time.

Still, this isn’t just a series of incongruous short films. Common threads bind these vivid sketches together with the sense of an urgent appeal. [Read more...]

A Tale of Two Rivers

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others…”

Whether you’re a moviegoer or a reader, I suspect you’ll recognize that passage. It opens A River Runs Through It, and Robert Redford reads it with appropriate reverence in the beloved big-screen adaptation he directed.

It sets the stage for a story about a family living between the rivers of religion and art. And although I’ve always been a city boy, this story set in the great outdoors, has felt like a gift meant for me. In fact, the film opened on October 9, 1992 — my twenty-second birthday.

Last week, I sat my forty-two-year-old self down to watch this twenty-year-old picture once again, and it moved through me more powerfully than ever. Basking in Phillipe Rousselot’s patient, observant, Oscar-winning cinematography, I experienced a mysterious solace. [Read more...]

Wrestling The Master

I found myself in this strange conversation this week….

Interviewer: Do you recommend The Master?

Jeffrey Overstreet: Not yet. I need time to reflect on a film as challenging as this one. I need discussion. I need to see it again.

Reviewing movies is a tricky business. It’s like recommending a pair of shoes to an audience. The shoes may be well-made, but people may dislike their style or misunderstand their purpose. Even the best shoes will only fit certain people.

Interviewer: First impressions?

JO: Difficult, but often riveting. Cinematography, music, editing . . . the artistry often reminded me of Kubrick, Malick, even Welles. Joaquin Phoenix was astonishing. The fragmented narrative demanded hard work. Some scenes amazed me. Others… [Read more...]


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