Saturday, March 31, 2012

Higher Ground

Corrine gave her heart to Christ as a child at Vacation Bible School, but without a supportive home environment, didn't really start following him until after she was married.  The "Jesus People" came to town, and Corrine and her husband became involved in a fundamentalist church.  Higher Ground depicts Corrine's struggle with her faith over the next several years.  She wants to embrace the faith, but it never becomes real to her, and the sense of detachment grows.

The tongues just aren't happening for Corrine.
Corrine's struggles are real, and common.  Many Christians, in their honest moments, probably share her struggles.  We have to laugh with her as we watch her reactions to some familiar Christian quirks, like her surreptitiously wiping the communion cup before she drank from it, or locking herself in the bathroom and attempting to come up with a prayer language.  While the Bible studies and church services seem for the most part quite genuine and heartfelt, the movie does fall into the common trap of portraying Christians as self-righteous and superficially pious.

As Corrine continues to feel more distant from her faith, her best friend gets a brain tumor.  She survives, but is severely disabled.  Who doesn't share her questioning, as she hears songs and sermons about God's power and God's plan?  How can that be in God's plan?

She finally reaches a breaking point.  As she sits in her car listening to Keith Green's "Create in Me a Clean Heart, she pleads, "Lord help me.  Because I can't feel you.  I feel nothing.  Draw near to me, Lord, where are you?"  Then she proceeds to leave her family, starts driving a convertible, fixing her hair differently, and flirting with the mailman.  While I certainly share Corrine's struggle, and have prayed that prayer with her, this is the kind of message that drives me crazy in this kind of movie or book: the answer is to break away from this confining lifestyle and find freedom away from Christ.

In spite of what I perceive as a bias against conservative Christian theology, Higher Ground is to be commended for its questions, if not its conclusions.  I don't think I'm alone in sharing Corrine's feelings, as expressed in a speech toward the end of the film.  This just might bring you to your knees:

I invited him in.  "Welcome," I said, and I gave my heart outright.  And I'm standing here today, and I'm telling you, I'm telling you today, that I'm still waiting for him to make himself at home.  You know, I call and I call, and there have been times where I know he answered me. . . . But other times, I've got the porch light on, and he doesn't come.  And I feel like I live in an empty place. . . . I need all of this to be real, and I don't always know how to make it real.  
Higher Ground in interesting, thought provoking, and maybe even convicting and inspiring, but be warned: it earns its R rating with language and sexual references.

By the way, Higher Ground is based on the memoir This Dark World, by Carolyn S. Briggs, who also wrote the movie screenplay.  I have not read the book, but the title alone makes me think Briggs's story is even more bleak than portrayed in the movie.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days)

In the midst of World War 2, a significant student movement arose opposing Hitler's policies and the Nazi regime.  They believed that Hitler had Germany on a suicide path and that his policies were going to drag Germany into the disdain of the rest of the world.  Of course they were right, but it's easy to see that from this end of history.

The real Sophie
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days tells the story of Sophie, her brother, and other martyrs to the cause (There's a spoiler--now you know she dies.).  Sophie and her collaborators, known as die Weiße Rose, or White Rose, mostly students at the University of Munich, are considered heroes today for their resistance to the Nazis.  Seven of them were executed, and many others severely punished.

The film shows Sophie's resolve as she and her brother distribute leaflets on campus and are arrested.  Sophie owns up to her actions and attempts to deflect blame from the other White Rose students.  The heart of the film, with its long segments of interrogation and brief "trial," show her defiant commitment to the cause of nonviolently bringing down Hitler.

Julie Jentsch was wonderfully intense as Sophie.
My favorite scene shows her passion in the interrogation room, as she criticizes the Nazi's practice of killing the mentally ill (which, in the parlance of the day, would include people with many types of intellectual and mental disabilities).  She asks Robert Mohr, her questioner, "Do you realize how shocked I was to find out that the Nazis use gas and poison to dispose of mentally ill children?"  Defending the policy, Mohr responds, "These are unworthy lives!"  He goes on to insist that Scholl, who had trained as a nurse, should recognize their unworthiness.  Scholl objects,
No one, regardless of circumstances, can pass divine judgment.  No one knows what goes on in the minds of the mentally ill.  No one knows how much wisdom can come from suffering.  Every life is precious!
Powerful words indeed from the lips of a 21-year-old college student.  (Much of the film is based on trial transcripts.  I don't know if these words actually were spoken by Scholl, but they certainly reflect her motivation in opposing the Nazis, belief in the dignity of all people and objection to Hitler's mass killings.)

I loved this movie.  Because so much of the story plays out in the interrogation room, Sophie's cell, and at the trial, it's dialogue heavy and light on action.  Although clearly committed to the historical record, the events provide plenty of drama to keep this from feeling like a dull documentary.  This is definitely one worth watching.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Big Miracle

You gotta love a feel good movie like Big Miracle.  Everyone loves whales.  Big Miracle follows the story of a family of whales trapped in the ice in Alaska.  Those of you who are old enough, and who have a decent memory, will remember the media circus around these whales in 1988.

The story revolves around a reporter who first found the whales, his Greenpeace activist ex-girlfriend, and the head of a big, bad oil company who wants to drill, baby, drill.  As it turns out, they can all work together, with a ton of help from the locals (whale hunters, no less) and even some evil (this was before the fall of communism, after all) Russians.
A great subplot: this traditional grandpa passing on the ways of his people to his modern-minded grandson.

It's a heart-warming tale, without being too sappy, which captures the spirit and climate of Alaska well.  I was surprised how respectful the film was toward all the parties involved, honoring the traditions of the native Alaskans, showing the friendly side of the news media, making me not hate Greenpeace, and making greenies not hate the oil company.  As a bonus, we get a cameo of Sarah Palin, the big-haired sports anchor, in all her 1980s glory!  Watch for her at the very end of the movie.

My one complaint: this is billed as a family movie, and there was a lot of mild swearing.  My 10 year old was appalled.  He wanted to leave the theater, but I insisted we stay (Does that make me a bad dad?).  At the end he gave me a tally: around 20 cusses.  I wish I could ask the filmmakers why they insisted on including such language (although to most people, it may seem like the language is unrealistically mild).

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen (The Forest for the Trees)

This was a painful movie to watch.  The Forest for the Trees is a good movie, but the pain of the protagonist and her professional struggles as a new teacher hit too close to home.  Melanie, young, idealistic, and a bit awkward, takes over a ninth-grade class at mid-term.  They are impossibly rude and unruly.  The other teachers and parents have no sympathy for her struggles in the classroom, making her school day miserable.  I totally related to her plight; my undistinguished teaching career fizzled out in the face of such students.  I hated every minute of it.
This movie reminded me how much I hated my students.
On top of her horrible school experience, she is a young, single girl in a new town.  She attempts to reach out to her neighbor for friendship, but makes a few too many faux pas, destroying that connection.  I have been lucky to have been able to make friends quickly, and to have a wonderful wife to share experiences with, so I couldn't relate first-hand to Melanie's social pain, but I think we all do feel lonely sometimes.

The Forest for the Trees is a very real, almost documentary-like, story of a common struggle.  Melanie, wonderfully portrayed by Eva Löbau, becomes everywoman or everyman, either reminding us of times we've felt the same as her in a new job, home, or social situation, or giving us pause to be thankful that we're not her.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Monday, March 12, 2012


Leo is a millionaire video game/internet/social networking guy (we don't get to see him at work, and all we really know is that some Asian investors are considering putting tens of millions into the company he started).  Ellen, his wife, works tirelessly as a surgeon in a big-city E.R., on the night shift, getting the hard cases.  Well, she does get tired actually.  They have a daughter, Jackie, who's cute as can be, smart and perfect, but who is mostly being raised by the Filipino nanny.  In a sense, they're the perfect little family, but Leo and Ellen are both so flaky that I can't believe they're so successful.  Sure, there may be some flukish internet millionaires who had a great idea but are nincompoops otherwise.  And a doctor doesn't have to have her life together outside of the O.R. to be successful in it.  But this pair is not credible.

That criticism aside, Mammoth turns into a pretty good story about family life.  Not all of us can relate to having a foreign, live-in nanny, but surely we can all stop and think about how much time we spend with our kids.  And not all of us are flying overseas for multi-million dollar investment capital talks, but we can all stop and think about how our business life affects our family life.  Thankfully, we, in the U.S., don't typically have to relocate halfway around the world, leaving our kids behind with relatives, while we struggle to earn money to send home so our family can have a decent life, but we can stop and think about what sacrifices we make for our families.
The perfect, not-so-perfect family.
Mammoth explores these dilemmas as Ellen cares for a boy who was stabbed by his mom while Gloria care for Ellen's daughter, as Gloria's children miss her and wonder why she can't come home, as Leo twiddles his thumbs and gets into some uncharacteristic trouble in Thailand while his wife is at home.  On a larger scale, the contrasts between Leo's family's struggles and the struggles of Gloria's family in the Philippines, as well the poverty Leo observes in Thailand send a strong secondary message.  Written and directed by Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson, Mammoth has a mood and pace that set it apart from most American films--in a good way.  The strings of the story come together in the end that may be a little too neat and clean, contrasting with the seedy, disturbing paths the characters traveled, but I was left feeling good about the pro-family message here.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Kærlighed på film (Just Another Love Story)

Here's a movie from Denmark that was unexpectedly compelling.  Jonas, not particularly happy in his marriage or his job as a crime scene photographer, witnesses a terrible wreck.  He assists the victim, Julia, young and pretty, but does not stay at the scene after emergency crews arrive.  The next day he heads to the hospital to see how she's doing.  As he's leaving, one of his colleagues asks if she's pretty.  Jonas admits, well, yes she is.  His colleague quips, "A beautiful woman and a mystery.  Isn't that how any film noir starts?"
Julia's family is so pleased to meet this man who clearly loves her.
And noir it is.  When Jonas arrives at the hospital, he is immediately assumed to be Sebastian, Julia's lover whom the family has never met.  She comes around, but with amnesia, so she starts thinking Jonas is Sebastian.  Jonas falls in love with Julia, and although he makes a few half-hearted attempts to disabuse them of the notion that he is Sebastian, he does not want to give up Julia.  As you might expect, Julia's memory starts coming back, and there is some question whether Sebastian is still alive. . . .

I have said before that movies whose whole premise is based on stupid choices by the main characters drive me nuts, and there's some of that here.  Why didn't Jonas tell everyone from the start that he wasn't Sebastian, that he was just a nice guy who wanted to check on Julia?  Well, if he had, we wouldn't have the noir, would we?  He keeps digging the hole for himself, and the suspense builds as we wonder how it's all going to come crashing down on him.  I liked it.

Bottom line, 3 stars.