Tag Archives: film

Unbecoming (2016): A Review

Continuing their theme of locally sourced film art, the poster for Unbecoming was created by Columbia, SC artist (and personal friend) Daniel Machado.

Chris & Emily Reach White write and produce carefully crafted films, a fitting outgrowth of Greenville’s craft scene within the work of storytelling.

What I love about Chris & Em’s films is that they offer us such richly nuanced visions of the world. A moment can hold a world – and often when these two are involved, it’s true. (Check out their latest feature Cinema Purgatorio, a funny and warm look at the independent film world.)

Chris’s latest project is a set of five short films released April 3 as Unbecoming.  Through these five tales, we stare at a kaleidoscopic view of loss, through a lens sharply ground to precision by Southern Gothic humor and insight.

I adore short stories. To me, they represent a nearly perfect genre: concise and measured yet high-impact. The best writers are brief to the point of almost miserly with their details. Unlike novels, short stories don’t require 20 pounds of details to drive home their point. A gesture, a glint of light, a glance: we learn everything we are intended to know only through careful observation of the tiniest details.

And Unbecoming delivers those carefully curated details to us as the stories move us through moments in the lives of these otherwise-unrelated characters. We all understand that gut-punch of a breakup; we’ve all wondered if this fight is the one that will end it all; we’ve all got a skeleton or two in our career closets; we’re all trying to run from the final unbecoming, the day when our worldly journey stops with a period instead of hinging on a hopeful semicolon. At times, we are all “unbecoming” – ill-fitted to the moment where we find ourselves. Eventually, we are each “undone.”

Short films, like short stories, demand more of their audience. Chris White doesn’t let us off the hook easy. It’s like being offered a steak dinner in a world saturated by corn-syrup media: welcome, filling, satisfying.

Tied together by look, feel, solid acting, snappy dialogue, story themes, and Carolina locations, the five shorts that form Unbecoming work together to leave an impression far weightier than the 40-minute runtime might suggest. As an honest Southern storyteller, Chris White gives us both wisdom and folly, laughter and regret — and then sends us out to chew on the details for far longer than we spent watching him spin the tales.

Unbecoming premieres in Tryon, NC on April 3, 2016. Visit ChrisWhiteHQ for more information about where to see the film during the coming weeks.


Mad Max: Fury Road is Great. Here’s Why It’s Also Important. | Tor.com

Great read. And marvelous film. Go see the movie, then read this analysis. (The whole thing.)

Much as silent film used to be able to reach across cultures and languages, Miller’s focus on action and emotion over dialogue and exposition allows us to experience the story in a direct, intimate way. The people who referred to this film as a “Trojan Horse” were completely correct—but Miller wasn’t smuggling feminist propaganda, he was disguising a story of healing as a fun summer blockbuster. By choosing to tell a story about how a bunch of traumatized, brainwashed, enslaved, objectified humans reclaim their lives as a balls-out feminist car chase epic with occasional moments of twisted humor, George Miller has subverted every single genre, and given us a story that will only gain resonance with time.

via Mad Max: Fury Road is Great. Here’s Why It’s Also Important. | Tor.com.

Discussion ideas for Ex Machina

Warning: Don’t read this post if you haven’t watched the film Ex Machina, because 1) you really really should go see this movie* even if you don’t think you’ll like it, and 2) therefore, I don’t want to spoil it for you. 

OK?  Ok.  *N.B.: The film earns its R rating with some language (no biggie) and some shots of full female nudity. It’s a story about a female robot, so the images make sense within the narrative and I wouldn’t call them gratuitous. But I don’t want anyone to show up and be shocked (especially if they took their teen sons with them.)

from the movie website
from the movie website

Ex Machina (streaming on Amazon) is a cerebral sci-fi film, taking us deeply into questions about human intelligence, sentience, consciousness, gender identity, and scientific morality. A well-crafted story in its own right, the sparse cast (only 4) and single location suggest the film is closer to ‘indie” (made on a very tight budget) than anything that usually hits our screens. That tight budget still paid for 4 fantastic actors and some incredible VFX work.

I think Ex Machina is one of the best discussion films I’ve seen in a while – stories that are well worth taking apart afterward (and if I’m with over-21s, a pint is a necessity). Below are the questions and ideas that occupied our in-hosue talk the day after we saw the movie.

I invite you to see the film and talk it through, or include it in classroom discussions (on the college level) in classes ranging from gender studies and feminism to tech ethics and artificial intelligence.

Questions for initial discussion

  1. Is Nathan a reliable or unreliable narrator of his own motives and story?  What can we say with certainty that we know about him or his actions in the film?
  2. Does Caleb ever do anything we would consider truly unethical? Does he “deserve” his end?
  3. Speaking of the ending – how many legitimate storylines can you draft for the final scenes in the film? (“Legitimate” means the words and actions on screen as well as the previous scenes can support the storyline you suggest without breaking people’s expectations for story structure, honesty, or common sense.)
  4. Do you think there are any plot holes in the film?
  5. Before Ava “puts on” the skin of the other robots, do you think she passes the Turing Test? In other words, is her sentience / conscious awareness enough to allow her to exist with humans, or must she also take on the form of humanity?
  6. Kyoko is a disturbing character to watch. What do her interactions with the other characters show us about Nathan, Caleb, and Ava? And about herself?
  7. If you say it fast enough, Bluebook sounds a lot like Google. The similarities were thinly veiled. What does the film say to us about the dangers of our technophilic world?
Need to watch the film? Click through to find this film on Amazon Prime

Themes for discussion

Scientists never work only for the benefit of objective “knowledge.” There’s always an element of personal interest.   Nathan is a rich and disturbing character. We don’t know whether he’s lying about himself or being lied about. But one thing seems to be clear: He created these robots, so he does not view them (or treat them) as human. But Caleb doesn’t fare much better in his attempts to assess Ava “objectively.”  She nails that when she asks, “What will happen if I fail your test?”

We create in our own image. I think Ex Machina is, at its core, an “image of the Creator” story. There are plenty of these – the Avengers: Age of Ultron film is exploring some of the same ground. But Ex Machina does this theme really well. The ending leaves us with many questions.  One of them (to me) is to wonder whether Ava is merely acting out what she learned from the only two humans she’s ever met. (He who sets a trap will fall into it, as the Proverb says. Maybe that explains her actions toward Caleb in the final scenes?)  If so, is she morally responsible for her choices?

Parallel reading: It’s hard to beat George R. R. Martin’s short story “Sandkings” when you’re looking for an example of just how bad an idea it is for humans to “create” in their own image.

It’s extremely difficult to define human-ness, or even consciousness. The film forces us off-balance, constantly observing (just like Caleb) and assessing Ava. Is she “human enough”? What would that even mean? Scientists keep changing the rules of the original Turing Test as our AI’s get smarter and more useful. We’re struggling to define the edges of consciousness.

Alex Leadbeater wrote an excellent discussion of this theme on What Culture. I recommend checking it out and adding his article to your discussion material.  He also delves into some of the nuances of the characters’ actions and choices, and offers a few explanations for the ambiguous ending.

And, of course, for those who view humanity through the lens of Christian theology, the questions get even more interesting. Can humans create an intelligence that’s “better” (morally, ethically) than we are in our brokenness? If we hold to the idea that the imago Dei principle must extend to our own creative efforts – that we cannot escape making an intelligence in the shape of our own humanity – does that intelligence have any chance of choosing a higher moral ground? Or will an AI drive us all to extinction or termination (as nearly every sci-fi story seems to fear)?

To put it another way, would it have made the story stronger or weaker if Ava had shown mercy to Caleb in the final scene and released him from what seems to be a death trap?  His own trap, but one he set on her behalf. (Leadbeater suggests an alternate reading of the ending that makes Ava less of a cold blooded killer.)  Anyway, I’m glad the film doesn’t send Caleb and Ava off into the romantic sunset to live out some kind of weird AI – human relationship.  But I was a little stunned by her actions in the ending. That was disappointing too. Must all of our AI’s be dragged down by original sin, too? I s that the fate of human creation?

Ava’s journey also reminds us that true sentience must involve self-will, and that means (from the perspective of the human creator) loss of control.  Is that what we fear most from the idea of artificial intelligence – that we will lose control? Why don’t children terrify us the same way?

Perhaps – if humans ever do create a genuinely conscious AI – we will begin to understand much more about the paradox of free will vs determinism (especially when that question rolls into theological realms and takes up the mantle of “the problem of evil“).

Ava’s final scenes show her applying “skin” to her frame, examining her appearance, putting on clothes, and blending into humanity. Her conscious intelligence cannot take her into the realm of humans safely. There’s a lot of feminist imagery in those final scenes, as she is “born” into the world of men through her rise to the surface. Worth discussing.


Cross-Posted with revisions to IdeaPeople, my site for teacher resources

A couple good films for your February

Instead of just grousing about how Christians often fail to recognize excellent, biblically normative art when they see it, I’ve got a couple films to recommend to you for February viewing.

I’m pretty sure both of these are rated R. The first is just for a couple uses of the F-word and some mild violence. The second has adult content and I would recommend that parents screen it before showing to kids.

Ink (2009) – Jamin Winans

When I first stumbled across the excellent indie film INK on Netflix a few years ago, it punched me in the stomach with Grace, just like a good Flannery O’Connor story.

A band of supernatural beings called Storytellers race to rescue a little girl kidnapped by a bad spirit who’s desperate to make it into his own “league of evil,” while in our world the girl’s father buries his failures under layers of anger, bitterness, and numbness.

The film is inventive, visual, snarky, thoughtful.

Favorite scene: when the blind Pathfinder changes the rhythm of the world so as to “shake the shit out of” the girl’s father, giving him an opportunity to be something better than he is.

Lo (2009) – Travis Betz

If you mixed a Broadway play with a rom-com AND a horror movie, you get LO – a winsome and disturbing and heartwarming story of love in the face of hell. Literally.  Justin, a lovable loser, finds his life changed when he meets April …. until demons show up and take her to hell. So he does the most desperate thing he can think of to get her back. It looks like a horror movie mixed with a stage play (and there actually is a stage version) but really … this is a movie all about love.

It’s hilarious. It’s interesting. It’s …. kinda sketchy in places. And it’s one of the best love stories I’ve ever watched. Perfect antidote to all the sappy Valentine’s Day stuff.

Unfortunately, neither INK nor LO are streaming on Netflix right now, but you can rent INK on Amazon Instant Video. Both are available through Netflix DVD or for purchase at the films’ websites.


Article: Why are Christian movies so painfully bad? – Vox

This is a great article. I’m so tired of Christians being satisfied with bad, “preachy” movies and books and music because those feel “Christian enough” while truly Christian, challenging art shoots over the head of the average person.

It’s a childish view of the work of the artist, grounded in our Protestant failure to value story and image as highly as we love propositional, systematic statements. And while we are certainly People of the Book, we need to realize that God is telling a single, amazing, vast, nuanced Story of Redemption, one that encompasses within itself everything from erotic poetry (the Song) to apocryphal visions.

Recognize that “Christian art” finds its Christian-ness down in the bones, not on the surface. LikeTo End All Wars is one of the most “Christian” films I’ve ever seen, but it’s rated R.

Let’s support better art.

A couple great quotes from the article – please do read the whole thing:

Any person even vaguely familiar with Evangelical subcultures will recognize the trend of copying and sanitizing whatever pop culture is doing. This trend belies a certain impulse within Evangelical Christians to separate the entire world into two categories: sheep and goats, wheat and chaff.

A good deal of contemporary Christian art is predicated on the sacred/secular divide: As Christian film critic Alissa Wilkinson noted, “Christians, and evangelicals in particular, have been really, really prolific in making pop culture products that parallel what’s going on in mainstream cultural production.”

The end result is that the Christian product seems like a knock-off, a cheap alternative.

Even if Hollywood films do contain embodied messages, they’re not always as explicitly drawn out as they are in Christian movies. That’s because, says Godawa, many Evangelical Christians, who are people of the Good Book, have come to value words over images. “They don’t know how to embody their messages in the story,” he says. “They have to hear the literal words [of the Gospel].”

As with the bifurcation between sacred and secular, so, too, do contemporary Christian artists divide form and content, believing that what a piece of art says is of infinitely more importance than how it says it. The thing communicated is more urgent than how it’s communicated.

Of course, this perspective overlooks the fact that how a thing is communicated is the thing that’s being communicated. To put it in Marshall McLuhan’s terms, “The medium is the message.” That is, when you communicate an idea through the medium of film, the aesthetic quality of the film subsumes the idea, fundamentally altering its narrative shape.

via Why are Christian movies so painfully bad? – Vox.

2014 in Film: My View

I’ll admit it, our household is all about stories.  We read them, watch them, occasionally write them, dream up really funny ones, play games built around them…. and go see them on the big screen.

I don’t know how The Man lucked out to get a wife as awesome as me, who loves action movies, war films, sci-fi, drama, superhero movies, and honestly funny & ironic comedies, while eschewing rom-com nonsense and chick flicks.  (Mindnumpingly dull!)  But he did.  🙂 So we go see movies.

Late December apparently inserts a nostalgic gene into the water, so here were some of our favorite bit-screen experiences of 2014 (in no particular order):

Fury. A film starring the only ruminating German Tiger tank, also starring Brad Pitt.   Saw it twice.  There’s a long scene in an apartment with two women and the tank crew that’s just stunning – displays the utter brokenness of war, in the civilian victims as well as the soldiers who had to wield the weaponry.  Genuinely violent, but that’s what you should expect in one of the most accurate war movies I’ve ever seen.
Interstellar. I *felt* that movie as much as watched it. Yeah, some parts were cheesy (5th dimensional Morse code, anyone?) but I thought the overall effect was masterful.  I felt that movie in my soul for days after seeing it….  it sat there, in my mind, and brooded. Loneliness, exploration, love, time.   Can’t get enough of the soundtrack (we listen to it regularly now, especially when playing board games; makes every move So Epic).  Helped that we saw it in IMAX to appreciate the gorgeous cinematics.
Birdman. Laughed out loud several times at this witty, ironic, “meta” film. The drum soundtrack got on my nerves (sorry, Stevo!) but Edward Norton was a dream. Laughed so hard I snorted at one point ….
Snowpiercer. We had to go all the way to NYC to see this one. Seriously. I don’t know if it ever came to SC. Stupid state.  This was a great thriller of a tale all the way until the last 5 minutes. Then I was like, “What?” Still not sure sure if we were left with two frozen popsicle people or a polar bear snack, but I guess I’ll be the American optimist and assume they made it.  “Captain America” (never remember his name) was the star; Tilda Swindon was pure genius. The scene in the kindergarten was ridiculous.
Lego Movie. Brilliant.  We quoted this for weeks.  I still make fun of Batman and shout SPACESHIP! SPACESHIP! SPACESHIP! awkwardly in social situations.
Guardians of the Galaxy. Dude. This movie hit all the right points for a summer comic book blockbuster. I cried when Groot made his tree-nest at the end. “We are Groot.” Yes, Groot, we are. I cried. Right there in the theater.  Unashamed.   I don’t know that a sequel will live up to this film, but I’m happy to see them try.  And that soundtrack!
Edge of Tomorrow. Because in my heart, Tom Cruise is still a teen heartthrob and I’m still 16. Also, Emily Blount is badass. And it was sci-fi. Support the cause…. Woulda been a better film (to me) if the damn trailers hadn’t given away the story before we got to see it – I dunno why the film companies have to beat us to death with a review of the story before feeling assured enough to release a film.  *rolls eyes*
Grand Budapest Hotel.  I’m lukewarm when it comes to Wes Anderson (I just can’t take The Royal Tennanbaums, sorry Joey) but Moonrise Kingdom and GBH are winners in my book.  The story is a lovely one and told with the precision of a watch maker.
The Theory of Everything.  One of the best biography films I’ve seen, plus a constant interplay of faith vs science questions, and the realities of loving someone with a significant disability.
Fun films that really aren’t that important to Life And Stuff but we saw them and liked them anyway:
  • Mockingjay (hey, I like the books. Go read them)
  • The Mazerunner (felt pretty adolescent, but it’s a good tale)
  • Divergent (because somehow we need three teen dystopian movie series out for it to be a normal year)
  • The Hobbit part 3 (finally done with Peter Jackson’s masturbatory return to Middle Earth in the guise of telling a Tolkien Story)
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (because I’ll never pass up a chance to see Patrick Stewart & Ian McKellen & that cute guy who plays the young Professor X)
  • Captain America: Winter Soldier (would have been un-American to miss it, right?)
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2 (still cute; great use of 3D)
  • Into the Woods (funny to me how many people are pissed because this “happy ending” fairy tale actually makes them think)
  • Godzilla (I thought it was a good monster story, and I’m not particularly a Godzilla fan)
  • John Wick (what? Keanu Reeves still has a career??)
  • Jack Reacher (see note re: Tom Cruise, above)
  • The Legend of Hercules (more faithful to the mythology than any Rick Riordan Percy Jackson series, and probably more fun)

Yawns of the Year:

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  300: Birth of an Empire (*sighs*); Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (doesn’t have the magic of the original); Non-Stop (why is every Liam Neeson story the same now?); A Walk Among the Tombstones (ditto)

Missed These and Hope to See on DVD:

Noah (I’m curious);  Maleficent (ditto); Lucy (ScarJo); Under the skin (more ScarJo); Robocop (old time’s sake); Muppets Most Wanted (it’s the MUPPETS!);  Foxcatcher;  Monuments Men;  The Drop; A Most Wanted Man (goodbye, PSH :/ ); Only Lovers Left Alive (it’s showing up on a lot of “best movies” lists).

On my list for right now in theaters:   Big Eyes; The Imitation Game; Big Hero 6; Unbroken.

OH AND — not to be overlooked —

Best film by local filmmakers:
Cinema Purgatorio, by Chris & Emily White.  A pair of indie filmmakers (who are husband & wife) set out to impress Bill Murray at a 48-hour film festival where he happens to be judging, in hopes of launching into the big leagues…. or they’re giving it up for good. It’s funny and warm and quirky and delightful and YOU SHOULD TOTALLY SEE IT.  (Trailer below; the featured image for this post is a still from the film.)