God and Other Strangers: Short movie reviews

God and Other Strangers: Short movie reviews April 28, 2018

Best one first!

Ushpizin: A poor, childless Orthodox Jewish couple in Jerusalem have no idea how they’ll afford to celebrate Sukkot (the Feast of Booths, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt), let alone how they might entertain any guests on this feast of hospitality. Their prayers are answered by a miraculous windfall of money–and then the guests turn up. But these guests have some nasty secrets connected to the husband’s troubled past….

This is a stellar film, heartfelt and prayerful. Depressed Moshe and gritty, hopeful Malli are played by real-life Orthodox revert couple Shuli and Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, and their love for one another shines from the screen. The depiction of hospitality and its trials adds a unique edge to what’s to some extent a fairy tale about trust in the Lord. There are twists and turns, the pacing is just right, the characters’ faith (however nominal or tentative) always feels as raw and real as their doubts, and I choked up more than once. Great stuff.

There are troubling theological undercurrents: Moshe and Malli are surrounded by a punitive worldview I’d always thought was mostly an American thing, where you have a duty to be happy (in an early scene, Moshe’s even commanded to smile), where poverty and suffering are signs that you don’t have enough faith. And you could argue that the film remains captive to that worldview. I don’t really think it does, though honestly, I’m willing to make any excuse for a film this warm, thoughtful, and tender. A must-watch, esp since I think my readers have an especial interest in forging communal bonds outside of the nuclear family. I’d love to show this to teens, since I think it’s the kind of film you can love at an early point in your *~*walk with the Lord*~* and then revisit with a chastened love once you’re older and more aware of how thoroughly you fail to live up to your own ideals. (This kind of sadism is why I don’t teach CCD, I guess….)

Once you’ve seen the movie, you might check out the spoilerous comments at The Groom’s Family (a now-defunct blog about Jewish Christians) & esp Diana’s note in the comments box.

Dead of Winter (1987): A fun Gothic thriller with plenty of doppelgangers and identity-switching. Not life-changing but I enjoyed curling up with this on an unseasonably cold spring night.

Truth or Dare (2018): I am a sucker for any and all truth-or-dare-based entertainment. This mediocre horror flick allows its undergraduate characters to genuinely care about one another, which did help me care about them. It does exploit the one thing you want from a truth-or-dare horror (which secrets are so bad that you’d die to keep them?) but the specific secret involved struck me as convoluted. In a way, that secret motivates the entire movie, so I can’t really call it “underexplored,” but it didn’t hit with the emotional impact that it should have. And the final “dilemma” is so underthought that it doesn’t actually make any sense. Not good enough.

The Backwoods: aka Los Hills Tienen Straw Dogs. I don’t know, man, I can’t do ’70s horror even when it was actually made in 2006. British tourists (including Gary Oldman!) and their foreign paramours travel deep into 1970s rural Catalonia, where they discover a shocking secret and get in way over their heads with the super-unpleasant local yokels. In the film’s only real twist, Gary Oldman’s hard-man character turns out to be the only one with even a slightly likable aspect to his personality. Otherwise the men are thugs or patsies and the women are shrews. I loathed watching this dark, rainy movie whose supposed central figure, the character whose existence sparks all the other characters’ (usually unpleasant) decisions, does absolutely nothing until the very end.

City of Lost Children: I didn’t love this weird, steampunk-nightmare flick about a mad scientist who steals children in order to suck out their dreams, but I suspect that’s my problem and not the movie’s. The look of it is awesome, carnivalesque and clockwork and spooky. It feels a bit Dido Twite, you know, Is Underground & those books. And the central friendship between young tough Miette (Judith Vittet) and circus strongman One (Ron Perlman) is quite tender. I also respect that it’s shaped like a children’s film and yet features extremely disturbing violence. This is the kind of kids’ movie American studios made back in the ’80s but I guess now we have to get them from the French.

The Cleaners: Overwrought, unfocused documentary about a fascinating subject: the content moderators whose job it is to scour Facebook, Twitter, and Google of everything from child pornography to political dissent. The music is awful and the setting, the intensely Catholic Philippines under Duterte, is fascinating but underexplored. I wanted to know so much more about the moderators themselves, and especially about their faith and politics. I wanted so much less CGI graphics and ominous voice-overs saying, “Ignore. Delete. Delete.” Definitely worth watching if you’re interested in the subject matter, but this should have been a lot better.

The Apartment: When I first saw this film I hated it. The dialogue acted like it was snappy but wasn’t quite–there’s basically one great line (“When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara”) and the rest of the time the movie’s trying to convince you that Yiddishisms are inherently funny and smart. But mostly I just could not understand why I should want these two self-pitying accomplices to adultery to get a happy ending. But they’re so quirky! was not really enough.

So yeah, I was totally wrong, although I think it was a semi-understandable wrongness. On rewatching I really fell in love with this film. It’s a romantic comedy where I really cared about the central couple, Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter and Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik. The first time around I was younger and more judgmental and also, in my defense???, super drunk and in denial of my alcoholism, not exactly the best mindset to watch a rom-com about the breakdown of denial. This time around I could be more forgiving of these two people who are surprisingly lacking in self-pity, and who feel trapped in sinful entanglements even though they’ve begun to realize how numbed and unhappy those entanglements are making them. Their quirks were a lot more charming once I began to buy the possibility that they were both my very favorite character type, the sleazebag with an aching moral backbone. By the end my heart was utterly warmed, I was charmed and touched, and I felt like Billy Wilder had given me, in all my ongoing sleaziness, a present of empathy and gentleness. (The dialogue is still not as sharp as it desperately wants you to think it is.)

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