FILM FORUM: Into Great Silence, Zodiac, Black Snake Moan, and Wild Hogs

Welcome to the first installment of Looking Closer’s Film Forum!

Yes, Film Forum has moved from Christianity Today Movies to Looking Closer, and things are going to change somewhat. It’ll include links to a wider range of reviews, from the religious press to mainstream film criticism. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive list of reviews, but rather just a journal of the reviews that caught my attention with some arresting observations or opinions.

We have oh-so-many mainstream reviews that tell us what we can hear anywhere else. And we have oh-so-many religious press reviews that warn us about how these movies will contaminate our lives. But art is about examination, contemplation, and discovery. I want some of that action.

And what a lively week to begin! Let’s start with a few notes about excitement in movietown…

* * *

The Oscars happened last week, of course, for better or worse. Where most ceremonies drag on, this one was positively sprightly: light on its feet, funny, entertaining, and full of surprises and memorable speeches. All five Best Picture contenders were powerful films with meaningful stories, so it was a win-win situation.

And when the show was over, author Dick Staub hosted an “after-party” in which I joined my fellow Christianity Today film critic Stefan Ulstein, and filmmaker/film-festival organizer Jennifer Spohr, for a spirited (in several senses of the word) discussion and debate about the five primary contenders. You can hear the whole thing on The Kindlings Muse podcasts. (Dick Staub, meanwhile, has some thoughts about the Oscars and American imperialism… and a couple of interesting comments on what evangelicals are saying about William Wilberforce and Amazing Grace, at his blog.)

I also shared some thoughts on the five Best Picture nominees at Relevant, explaining why I think all five contenders were worthwhile films. Thanks to Jesse at Relevant for the invitation to contribute!

And about that Best Picture winner… folks, The Departed is a remake. It is very, very similar to the original. Some scenes are almost shot-for-shot copies And that has Alan Mak Siu-fai, co-writer and co-director of 2002′s Infernal Affairs, a little disgruntled. Shouldn’t the Academy voters have considered The Departed’s remake status carefully when comparing it to Babel, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Queen? Basically, The Departed is just Infernal Affairs with a higher profile cast, a different ending, and a lot of extra time devoted to great actors unleashing torrents of attitude and profanity. In my mind, that means it just shouldn’t be given the same kind of credit as an original work. (Did anybody give credit to the makers of Infernal Affairs? Was it even considered for awards in 2002?)

There’s been a lot of talk about how this year’s Oscars brought Hollywood back to the winners’ circle. But we should keep in mind, America’s “best picture” was a rip-off of a Hong Kong film… albeit a stylish rip-off. Once again, we show that it’s the American way to take something from someone else, pretend like we thought it up, and pat ourselves on the back for it, while the Real Deal goes unappreciated. Sad, really. And I say that as a big fan of both Infernal Affairs and The Departed.

Also worth noting: Fr. Robert Barron is YouTubing about Fargo and The Departed.

* * *

And now, on to the Forum!!

Into Great Silence

My friend and colleague Steven D. Greydanus called me right after he stepped out of the theater from seeing the documentary Into Great Silence. He called just to say, “I have seen the first great film of 2007!”

Into Great Silence, by director Philip Gröning, explores life and meditation at the Grande Chartreuse monastery, the head monastery of the Carthusian order, located in the French Alps between Grenoble and Chambéry.

I’m still waiting for it to reach Seattle. (It’ll be at the Varsity on March 30.) But it is showing up here and there, and now Greydanus’s review has been published.

His enthusiasm has not altered. “Its achievement virtually defies commentary,” raves Greydanus at Decent Films. “Aa critic has only words with which to illuminate a film, but how can what is wrought in silence be illumined by words?”

He continues, “Filmmakers from Bresson to Tarkovsky to Malick to the Dardenne brothers have sought creative freedom in formal austerity, assiduously stripping away the superfluous and superficial to create space for the essential, the transcendent. Into Great Silence is both a work in a kindred spirit, and an immersion in a divesting of inessentials, not merely as a creative discipline or aesthetic philosophy, but as a total commitment, a way of life, a world unto itself.”

And then he concludes, “Ultimately, Into Great Silence reveals itself to be about nothing less than the presence of God. So many spiritually aware films — The Seventh Seal, Crimes and Misdemeanors — are about God’s absence or silence. Here is a film that dares to explore the possibility of finding God, of a God who is there for those who seek him with their whole hearts.”
He has also posted his interview with Philip Gröning.

When Greydanus gets this wound up, well… I’ve learned to pay attention.

Other critics are impressed as well.

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, “By alternately combining a painterly formality … and a verite intimacy, Groning skillfully captures the textures and rhythms of this highly structured existence. Many will find the film’s austerity and nearly three-hour length overly demanding, but for those viewers willing to give themselves up to it, they’ll be rewarded with a rich cinematic and spiritual experience.”

At The House Next Door, Annie Frisbie writes, “I’ve used far more than five words but haven’t even come close to what Gröning achieves through silence and imagery. The film has no non-diegetic sound, and Gröning composes his shots to achieve maximum stillness. Even so, Into Great Silence roils to life—despite its simplicity (and its length) it’s an immensely engaging, riveting, even entertaining film. I hope I haven’t ruined it by opening my mouth.”

GreenCine Daily is also monitoring reviews of Into Great Silence. And there’s always RottenTomatoes.

UPDATE: 5/15

The new issue of Commonweal includes one columnist’s thoughts on Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence and the Viriginia Tech massacre. The writer (I can’t find his name on the page) says,

The film has been a huge hit, not only in New York but also in allegedly secular Europe. Its success reminds me of the rave reviews given to Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful, quiet, and unabashedly Christian novel Gilead. There is a spiritual hunger that goes deep. Some of its expressions can be shallow, but the need is heartfelt and real. Many churches may not meet it, but some places and ways of life (monasteries and monasticism, for example) attract people because they offer the hope that there is an answer to an eternal, deeply felt need.

Not everyone is so enchanted by the film. Susan Dunne (Baltimore Sun) complains,

… [T]ry as I might, I could not love it, because as a piece of cinema, Into Great Silence would try the patience of a saint. … It is clear that Groning is using this structure to get viewers into the same simple, contemplative frame of mind in which the monks live day to day. But the fact is that men enter ascetic monasteries because they are that sort of person already, and in that they are uncommon. Expecting filmgoers to be that sort of person, for 164 minutes no less, is asking too much.

Her conclusion:

…this is a monastery; there aren’t 164 minutes worth of things to see.

Well, not unless you’re looking closely.

I’m sorry that the film proved so frustrating for Susan, but I’m also surprised that, as a film critic, she found it so taxing. Maybe she’ll prefer the nearly three hours of action in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, where there’s more stuff to look at in the first ten minutes than Into Great Silence can find in three hours. But will Pirates serve up even a fraction of the food for thought offered by Silence?

Gröning’s film isn’t about what we see, but rather… how we see it.

I don’t think Gröning “expects” anything. He invites. Those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see… let them hear and see. Those who have patience… let them be blessed. Those who don’t, let them miss out.

In fact, I think it would be interesting to read Susan’s comments again, and then read all of the quotes collected and arranged so perfectly last Thursday at Opus, right here.

Am I being too harsh?

Zodiac

In August 1969, a serial killer began a campaign that cast a shadow of fear over San Francisco. He wanted fame. He wanted respect. He wanted to be noticed. And he wanted somebody to make a movie about him. He got what he wanted.

In David Fincher’s meticulously detailed dramatization, Zodiac, cops (Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards) and journalists (Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gylenhaal) become obsessed with tracking him down.

It’s a riveting recreation, and a thought-provoking film about the damage that fear can do to a person, a family, an organization, and a society. But if you want a movie that ends with a sensational “We’ve got him!” finale, you’d better think again. This film goes somewhere altogether different. (And if you know what happened in the true-life story of the Zodiac, you know what I mean.)

Here’s my review at Christianity Today Movies.

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says that this “is not a violent exploitation film. Rather, it’s a solid, well-acted crime story…. Fincher has given his film a convincing period look, and handles the murders, horrific though they are, with admirable restraint and minimal on-screen gore.”

Is Zodiac about crime? Is it about post-9/11 suffering? Or is it, as Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) writes, about families? Hamaker calls Zodiac “the first great ‘family film’ of 2007. No, it’s not appropriate for anyone other than adults, but at its heart, Zodiac is about family values. Its main subject isn’t death, murder and crime, although those elements make up the bulk of its plot. Instead, the movie shows how we protect, or fail to protect, our children against a media onslaught that desensitizes and dehumanizes.”

Jeremy Lees and Steven Isaac (Plugged In) acknowledge that “It was … crafted in an effort to document a historical era, and it can be easily said that this is a film that carries the potential of deepening our understanding of who we were and are as a society.” But they’re uncomfortable with the fact that the film’s production fulfills one of the Zodiac’s hopes.

Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn) says, “Yes, Zodiac is compelling as entertainment—in spite of the fact that there are no chases, no signature Fincher mind-bends or camera-whirls, no wild sex scenes, and only a spattering of violent murders. Here indeed we find that Fincher can tell a story without relying on his inventive and spectacularly effective cinematic gimmicks and gewgaws. We even find out, to a degree, what makes Fincher tick, through his portrayal of Graysmith. This is character- and dialogue-driven mystery served straight up.”

GreenCine Daily has a great “film forum” going on the film, and Rotten Tomatoes is chronicling more mainstream buzz. There are a lot of opinions flying on this one. Check out Larry Gross’s review of the film as “self-critique”:

Zodiac is far more about our present and future than about our past. … Much in the manner of Kubrick’s forays into “period,” it uses the past as a theatre on which to get out our current and future anxieties and fears, into clearer simpler more mythic focus.

Black Snake Moan

Craig Brewer’s Hustle and Flowstirred things up a couple of years ago, with a tale of a pimp’s redemption through hip-hop. This time, with Black Snake Moan, Brewer’s causing even more controversy. He’s embraced the hyper-indulgent, politically incorrect approach of the exploitation film and packed it with so much quality and so much thoughtful storytelling that critics are taking it seriously.

Samuel Jackson plays Lazarus, a troubled Memphis bluesman whose wife is committing adultery. Down, depressed, and dangerous when drunk, Lazarus needs something to lift him up out of the pit.

Into his lap falls a half-naked (okay, more than half-naked) young woman named Rae (Christina Ricci) who misses her dearly beloved military boyfriend (Justin Timberlake) so much that she can’t control her sexual urges. Rae’s been sleeping with every available guy in town. So Lazarus, filled with moral outrageous and righteous anger, chains her up, determined to teach her a lesson. It’s not “sexual healing” that she needs. Lazarus is the father figure she never had, a sort of megaphone from God, determined to teach her not only that she needs to get some dignity, but that she is loved… truly loved.

The lesson hits home, and the last act of Brewer’s film is surprising, unpredictable, and actually rather touching. But it’s sorely compromised by the director’s willingness to tantalyze his audience with a super-sized helping of lurid imagery. He seems as eager to bait our appetite for sin as he is to cause us to consider the call of conscience.

And that’s too bad… because this is one of Samuel Jackson’s best performances in years.

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls Black Snake Moan “an extremely lurid, but ultimately redemptive, melodrama…. Brewer pulls out the stops with an intentionally florid style. When the film begins, the sordid milieu and characters are extremely off-putting, and some of the situations even risible, but as the narrative progresses, you understand Brewer’s intent.”

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) calls it “a depraved, at times despicable story devoted to sin, addiction, perversion and the fallen human condition. … For every redeeming statement or action presented, it seems writer/director Craig Brewer’s intent was to do everything he could to pulverize the message.”

Michael Brunk (Past the Popcorn) says, “With Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Lazarus, you can expect a healthy dose of his unique wit, and more than a little salty language to go along with it. It’s safe to say this movie has its raw moments as well, and that includes a few fairly graphic sexual scenes featuring Christina Ricci’s Rae. She’s a good match on-screen for Jackson, though. Still, if that’s all the movie had to offer, it would be easy to dismiss. Fortunately, wrapped inside is a touching story of redemption.”

Well, after a charge like that, you might expect that Craig Brewer would want to defend himself! That’s not likely to happen, as I doubt Brewer reads anything from Focus on the Family. But he does offer an explanation for why he made this film in Paste Magazine:

“I wanted to tell this story in a sexy, tactile way—and there wasn’t a better way to do that than through north Mississippi blues music. The rhythm down here personifies sin and salvation. You go out on Saturday night, you’re gonna get drunk and dance with the devil. The next day, you really do earnestly pray to God. You’re gonna sin again, but you truly want that salvation. The next week, you’re right back in that same place.”

“To get through the misery, you’ve gotta sing through it and move through it,” he muses. “That’s what the blues is.”

Huh. Okay. So… it really is about the longing for salvation. But if the Plugged In guys are representing the film accurately, than Brewer’s words still don’t explain why he would be so “generous” in portraying the sensuality of sin, which is more likely to lure people into trouble than the film’s message.

Nathan Lee (Film Society of Lincoln Center) is willing to stand up and defend the film as “visionary.”

Hustle & Flow was a (wack) hip-hop joint; Black Snake Moan sings the blues — hard, long, from the bottom of the gut, slushing around in bile and Jack Daniels and yesterday’s grits, wailing on a slide guitar, thunder, lightning, heartbreak, death, regret, baby Jesus, gravy. Life hurts bad, and Brewer doesn’t shy from real suffering. Snarky retro camp has nothing to do with it. There’s no condescension here. Rae’s road back to something like self-control is hard won, fraught with slippage, as serious and persuasive as the journey of L’Enfant. Brewer’s recipe is solid: home-cooked meals, hothouse blues, God’s love, patience.

Anybody else want to defend Black Snake Moan‘s rather vivid content? Or is Brewer exploiting this morality play, using it as an excuse to slap a bunch of lurid, inappropriate, excessive imagery on the screen?

Wild Hogs

Yes, Wild Hogs is as bad as the commercials implied. In fact, it’s worse.

Carolyn Arends (CT Movies): “If you’re old enough to relate to this premise, it will likely remind you of City Slickers. The bad news: Wild Hogs is no City Slickers. The good news: While utterly lacking in subtlety, surprise, or nuance, Wild Hogs has some genuinely funny scenes, and a decent enough cast (particularly the reliable William H. Macy) to mostly distract its audience from its mediocre script.”

John P. McCarthy (Catholic News Service) says, “…[T]he humor seems to be aimed at 13-year-old boys. Even if they don’t appreciate the message about holding onto one’s youthful dreams, it’s no doubt hoped they’ll go for the lowdown jokes and slapstick violence.”

Jeremy Lees and Steven Isaac (Plugged In) say, “Wild Hogs promises to take moviegoers on a fun ride with the wind in their hair. It tries to offer up messages about overcoming fear and standing up for your friends. But it ends up leaving you picking bugs out of your teeth. … Movies don’t have to be loaded with deeply profound and spiritual life lessons to be good. Sometimes you just want to sit back and laugh…. But while Larry, Mo and Curly fell down a lot and poked each other, Woody, Doug, Bobby and Dudley swear, brawl, get naked and burn down a bar.”

Christa Banister (Crosswalk) says, “I guess John Travolta, Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence must have really needed the money. Otherwise, no actor with even a shred of talent would sign on for a comedy so formulaic and decidedly unfunny.”

Jeff Walls (Past the Popcorn) agrees, calling it “a road trip/buddy movie that fails to meet even the lowest of expectations.”

If you need any more persuading… here’s the Rotten Tomatoes page.

MISC

David Denby (The New Yorker) has a lot to say about Amazing Grace.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet has two passions: writing fiction, and celebrating art — music, cinema, photography, literature — through writing and teaching. He is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” — Through a Screen Darkly. And his four-novel fantasy series, The Auralia Thread, which begins with Auralia's Colors, was published by Random House. He speaks at universities and conferences around the world about understanding art through eyes of faith. He is earning his MFA in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University, where he has worked for 11 years as an editor, writer, and communications project manager. His work has been recognized in The New Yorker, TIME, The Seattle Times, IMAGE, Ravi Zacharias International — and Christianity Today, where he served as a film journalist for more than a decade. He recently began a weekly column called "Listening Closer" for Christ and Pop Culture.

  • SolShine7

    I want to see Black Snake Moan. It’s seems like it’s a redemption story, gritty, but redemptive.

  • Sheila West

    Concerning Into Great Silence, Here’s one of the quotes in my sig at A&F:

    “I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”Ralph Waldo Emerson

    I come from a Charismatic backgroud, full of loud, fervent worship. But there have been a few times during a worship service or two in my life when a truly beautiful moment of silence befell the whole church. And I deeply sensed that perhaps the Holy Spirit wanted the assembly to linger for a prolonged season in that silence. But then someone suddenly babbled out a message in tongues, and then that same person also gave the interpretation: “If you do not worship me, I will cause the rocks to cry out! Worship me, my children!” And then everyone was suddenly spurred on into shouting and praising, and the silence was destroyed. That precise scenario unfolded in exactly the same fashion twice in the span of four weeks, with the same person giving that silence-destroying message which I believe was bogus both times. I was ready to storm out of the meeting hall after he did that the second time.

    Silence is such a beautiful thing some times. We shouldn’t fear it.


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