Tag Archives: movies

Finding Flannery among the Three Billboards

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Sermon on loving your enemies  (link)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a top contender for an Oscar this season,  in a field with several other great films like Get Out (perhaps the best horror movie I’ve ever seen) and Dunkirk (chilling sound design + interesting manipulation of the timeline in the storytelling), this festival darling has gotten a lot of attention since the turn of the year.

Three Billboards has sparked controversy too regarding whether it exhibits blind spots about race and police brutality. I figured I’d have to wait for rental since the film is completely off-market here in the South for the types of movies that open at our theaters, so I was pleasantly surprised it finally opened here.

Three Billboards is a raw film, a brutal and unflinching observation of human nature at war with injustice.  ]

Briefly (spoilers): the plot centers on Mildred, a working-class single mother whose teen daughter was raped, murdered, and burned seven months ago in a little fictional town in Missouri. Mildred gets the idea to put up three huge billboards calling out the town’s police chief for not cracking the case, leaving her daughter’s killer at large and herself with a gaping hole and a lot of anger.  The film is told through the perspectives of several characters, mostly Mildred and the police chief Willoughby and his deputy Dixon.

In an early shot, a supporting character reads from Flannery O’Conoor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The homage to Flannery’s work in this film is unmistakable.  Martin McDonaugh, the writer and director, is Irish, but he’s clearly a fan of Southern Gothic themes.  And I’d say her stamp on this film is critical to understanding the story rightly, lest the viewer misunderstand the layers of irony at work. Were Flannery alive today and writing film scripts, I’d easily say this one were hers.

Why is the film controversial? Well, language for one. Mildred in particular is quite unhindered in her vulgarities, caring little whether her language or behavior offends her audience. For her, the injustice of an unsolved brutal crime makes social “rules” irrelevant.  In one scene, she screams at high schoolers who mock her son and wear their parents’ judgmental stance as their own. Her words escalate to physical violence. It’s a “balls to the wall” moment, but not without cost. When grief and anger drive one’s actions, a lot of people get hurt who don’t actually deserve it.  That’s a central point of this film, one that the writer put on a billboard so you couldn’t forget it.

Some have criticized the film for offering only a white woman’s POV of crime and injustice, when the narrative repeatedly refers to Deputy Dixon’s racism and brutality as a cop without providing details. Several times he is accused of or admits to “torturing” a black suspect in custody but this part of his story is left unexamined. Some have suggested this is a flaw: Is not the systemic injustice of police racism worse than an individual mother’s loss? Black bodies are threatened with violence almost constantly, yet we are asked to watch this particular white mother rage at her daughter’s murder.

I think that criticism is missing the point here. In Flannery’s Southern Gothic storytelling, the reader is usually presented with a whole set of character flaws to consider, operating as a backdrop to egregious evil that’s not always showing up holding a sign to announce its presence. In Three Billboards, the problem driving the story is Mildred’s relentless drive for justice. But that’s not the only problem in Ebbing that needs to be addressed.  I don’t think it’s a flaw in the writing that McDonaugh expects his viewers to recognize evil when they see it (like a racist deputy) and draw their own conclusions – all while wrestling with whether individuals suffer more because of individual crimes or systemic ones.

Those same critics suggest that Dixon is offered a cheap redemption arc in the second half of the film and this makes his racism all the more inexcusable for the writer to gloss over. Dixon isn’t a good man – indeed, any good man (or woman) is hard to find in this town.  He’s also a product of a racist and uncaring upbringing (highlighted via the scenes with his mother, who seems more hateful and racist and cruel as Dixon). But every human possess the power of choice, and Dixon uses his in the second half of the film to express a bit of sympathy, perhaps a desire for real justice for Mildred’s daughter.

Again, I think the viewers who charge that Dixon is given a redemptive arc he didn’t earn  are missing what McDonaugh is trying to do – and why he made sure we saw Flannery O’Connor’s name and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” on the screen at the very outset of the story.  In the end, Dixon and Mildred drive off to execute vigilante justice – should they even get that far.  Is that actually justice?  Another great question, one that we aren’t allowed to ignore.  As a viewer, I do feel better about Dixon, a bit, by the end, but by no means do I like him or sympathize with his unemployment and broken  life. Nor do I feel comfortable with Mildred, who so thoughtlessly injures the people around her as she lashes out. Her suffering does not give her permission to inflict pain on others.

Mildred’s actions don’t solve the murder. They just bring more pain. At first, we stand with her against the townspeople who hate her for making them remember this crime. They hate her for implying it’s the police chief’s fault. Woody Harrelson makes Sheriff Willoughby  pretty likable without letting us forget that he’s not without blame here too. Like Mildred, his own story is both tragic and sympathetic. His suicide complicates matters for Mildred, after her public shaming of him and disregard for his terminal cancer diagnosis. In his final words to her, he seems to forgive her for it. Should his daughters be so gracious toward her? Or would that be cheap mercy?

O’Connor’s unflinching and brutal stories of Southern self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and Grace are not for the faint of heart. While I would say her themes are some of the most Christian that we can find in early 20th century American literature, many of my Christian friends cannot stand to read her. They find the violence and grotesque characters in her story too off-putting to be “proper.”  They miss – as do some of the viewers of Three Billboards – the truth that Grace is sharp. It has teeth and claws and a backbone. Real Grace, the kind that can undergird Cross-death and self-sacrifice, changes the receiver as well as the giver. It’s nothing like the cheap religiosity which permeates Southern culture, where God and guns and college football and family pride are worshiped at individual shrines. Cultural Christianity – the fake kind – has little beyond platitudes to offer Mildred in her aching grief and searing anger.

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a dysfunctional family goes on vacation, gets lost thanks to the self-centered and foolish grandmother, and falls prey to a murderer on some backwater Georgia country road. The killer and the grandmother engage in one of the most memorable fictional discourses about existential good vs evil and human choices. She all but begs for the killer to find the good in his nature to spare them. He’s far more prepared than she to identify her Pharisaism and denies her mercy. The story title warns us there won’t be any good people in this tale, and there aren’t.

In Three Billboards, Mildred seeks justice for her daughter because it’s been denied thus far and she’s desperate. Does she also see her own flaws and own them honestly? We see flashbacks that any parent could relate to- and feel guilty about. She’s not really a great parent, before or after her daughter died.  But she also didn’t ask for her daughter to be raped, murdered, and burned. Nobody deserves that.

We see Mildred at the outset of the film as heroic. We’re expecting a to like this “nasty woman” on her quest, hard as nails and relentless. McDonaugh turns our expectations sideways, making us squirm as we realize we can’t feel entirely sympathetic for anybody on the celluloid before us. The dividing line between good and evil runs through us, not around. Southern Gothic writing – even when written by an Irishman – is always at its best when holding a mirror before our faces, forcing us to see humanity as it really is.



The Backstory: Reborn for the 4th of July

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.

When I was a teenager, I watched Born on the Fourth of July when it finally showed on TV. I doubt my parents would have let me watch it if I’d asked them for permission, but they weren’t around at the time and I thought it was a war film, so I watched it. The story disturbed me deeply for a long time.

I gaped at the screen as the soldiers shot up a Vietnamese village in the haze of war (and bad decisions). I watched as Ron Kovic, the central character, fell apart after the war was over, screaming in rage at his disability and his broken life. We didn’t talk about PTSD in my household. My dad considered the Vietnam vets ‘soft’ – too fragile to handle war like his Korean buddies or World War II relatives had done.  I didn’t know how to process Kovic’s protest at the RNC – in my life, Republicans were good guys (though my parents’ relationship with the political parties was a lot more complicated than I realized). It was a provocative film that hit me when I wasn’t at all used to being provoked.

I was raised in a sheltered environment by parents with strongly conservative viewpoints on most issues. B4J challenges the American mythos surrounding war, military service, and veterans even as it plays into the stereotype of Vietnam vets as baby killers and mentally ill.

At the time I had no background or preparation for handling the ideas that I had encountered, whether it was the sex, the language, or the attack on the simplistic view of America as entirely good and right (always on the winning side, always the righteous side). And I didn’t feel like I could really talk to my parents about it, since some of what bothered me so deeply was the content that they would have banned me from seeing in the first place.

So it lodged deeply in my mind and I tried not to think about it, though the ideas would surface occasionally and create an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. It would be decades before I learned enough history to come to grips with how Vietnam altered  American consciousness of the late 20th century; how film is its own rhetorical form, demanding assessment and critique and a recognition of the storyteller’s own bias; and how Americans tell ourselves myths about our own heroism to bury our national guilt that we should be feeling about our own nation’s imperialism and oppression.

Kovic reminded me of one of my brothers’ friends, a man whose name I’ve since forgotten, who showed up at our house one day in a black T-shirt, aviator sunglasses, and a cowboy hat.  Visitors were rare, so this hard-drinking, hard-smoking man stood out. He was older than my brother by at least a decade or two, and nothing was ever quite right for him after his Vietnam service. My dad closed the door after they left and felt sorry for the guy, hoped he’d find his way eventually. The vet was dead (as I recall) a few months later, the victim of a collision with a semi that sheared off the top of his convertible.

My relationship with America grows complicated as I grow older. A nation is more than the sum of its citizens.  I now begin to understand those few places in the Gospels where Jesus talks about evaluating nations (dividing sheep from goats) as if that is a separate process from judging individuals.

I choke up at a booming fireworks display overtop “God Bless the USA” even as I tremble in anger at our callous destruction of Native peoples because our leaders believed God and political power were on the side of our “manifest destiny.” We like to paint ourselves as the hero in every picture, perhaps because America is barely a teenager in nation-years, and we’re too stubborn or arrogant to listen to the older nations around us.  My Italian grandfather fled one of those old nations to start anew in America a century ago, where he drank heavily and beat his wife and abused my dad who grew up in abject immigrant poverty. Yet here I am, a college graduate, thanks to the sacrifice of my parents.

With the upstart hubris of a Silicon Valley start-up whiz kid, America  blazed forward in the 20th century – and we’re unwilling to admit in the daylight that we might have gotten a head start over the rest of the developed world by not hosting two bloody and destructive world wars on our own soil, as if our own wisdom and not geographical realities had the most to do with it.

I’m proud of my nation and appalled, and those two feelings churn in my stomach – ever more so in 2017, this ridiculous, stupid year. Perhaps I’ll rewatch Born on the Fourth of July this holiday weekend to see if its effect stemmed from my adolescent naiveté or the power of its story. This time around, I know too much about the world to be shocked. I’ll just be sad.

Age of Ultron. Go see it.

The newest Avengers movie. There’s been banter about how it stacks up to the last one, whether you should go see it.  Here are my 5 reasons you should go see Avengers: Age of Ultron.

  1. Joss Whedon directed and wrote the script. Therefore, the plot holds together well, the snappy and funny dialogue makes you enjoy the quiet scenes, and the overall pacing is spot-on. With Joss, you’re never sitting there thinking, “Man, my butt is kind of getting tired.” [That’s the best test for story delivery in a long film: If I realize I’ve been there long enough for my butt to get tired, it’s too long. Or too slow. James Cameron and Avatar, I’m looking at you.]
  2. Nothing on this planet is as snarky and delicious as Robert Downey, Jr. playing Tony Stark. The swagger. And in this movie, Stark really effs up. So it’s snark with a shot of “Oh shit,” a position of vulnerability that makes snarkiness really defensive and (in this case) interesting.
  3. James Spader portrays Ultron, who is digitized in the film by mo-capping Spader (and it’s him delivering all the lines of course). Pure delight. Perhaps the only person in the world who can out-snark Tony Stark. If it weren’t a superhero action movie, you might find Ultron a little kitchy…. but it IS a superhero movie.
  4. For a second film in a trilogy, this is a very strong story. It’s thoughtful, delving into the back stories of some the lesser known characters, delivering more empathy for Bruce Banner/The Hulk, and forcing everyone to ask questions about intelligence, creation, and the way we humans react irrationally to our fears. And how fear of terrorism can often trump good sense. In other words, there are brains behind all the special effects actions scenes of New York getting wrecked.
  5. Everybody walked out of the first Avengers movie saying, “That was awesome!” and also “Who is that Hawkeye guy and why is he an ‘Avenger’ if all he’s got is a bow and arrow? What is this, Legolas from LOTR gets transported to the 21st Century?”  And as someone who never read the comic books, I said all of those things. Age of Ultron acknowledges the army of us who like Hawkeye (it’s Jeremy Renner after all) but wonder if he was the charity addition to the Avengers to meet some kind of weird affirmative-action quota for the superhero world (“Your stories must include 10% non super-people!”)  Joss knows this, and he gives us a rich story for Hawkeye, a contrast between the super-people with their detached lives and the rest of us.

I don’t expect to see this installment 3 times in the theater like I did with the first Avengers movie, but it’s worth a second watch on the big screen and later on Blu-Ray or Netflix.

And all of us need to drop to our knees and thank the Fates that Joss Whedon got to put his hands on these films. All of the Marvel films have to live up to this standard now of excellent writing, pacing, and dialogue. They’ve got a decade’s worth of stories laid out, so even with the departure of Whedon from the series, I’m hopeful.

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.


Review: Django Unchained (revised)

Edit 1/6/13: The controversy about Django continues to build. Wesley Snipes and Spike Lee have loudly voiced their disapproval for the film and charged Quentin Tarantino with nasty racism. Others, including Samuel L. Jackson and comedians and pundits have defended the film for pushing the conversation about slavery and race to the front of American consciousness.

By the way, I highly recommend that post I linked to “comedians.” Here, let me link it again because you should hear what she’s saying, especially in the second half…  And while you’re at it, read this post too.

Samuel L. Jackson has offered several good interviews on his character in Django and the question of slavery in the film. I though his interview with MovieLine was very good.

Tarantino has no qualms about the film or the way he edited the story to make sure audiences can’t escape the brutality of slavery in America. He too has recognized that our societal mistreatment of minorities hasn’t really stopped — just read The New Jim Crow if you’d like sickening statistics to back that up.


Original post: Tarantino’s newest film Django Unchained has been running trailers since the summer, and that’s how long I’ve been waiting with the expectancy and excitement of a school kid about to hit summer vacation. Tarantino has won my heart with his cinematic homages to bygone film styles melded with sizzling screenwriting and incredible acting.

A caveat: this film is bloody. Objectionable. Unapologetic about presenting slavery and oppression in a horrible light, refusing to sugar-coat it under genteel society. But this is far from a history film or social piece. It’s first and foremost a great (albeit violent and bloody) story about love.

Poster for Django Unchained. Image source: http://www.filmofilia.com/new-poster-for-tarantinos-django-unchained-123943/
Poster for Django Unchained.
Image source: http://www.filmofilia.com/new-poster-for-tarantinos-django-unchained-123943/

If you brave the movie, I think you’ll really appreciate the snappy writing. Q’s scenes spark with fire, serving as both incredible examples of the craft of acting and pushing the story forward while building nuances into the characters. I’m amazed at his directing. How he gets these shades of meaning out of his actors stuns me. No wonder people love being in his movies. I can’t think of a weak link in the entire cast.  There had better be Oscar nominations…..

Cinematography is great too, echoing what you might see in classic westerns, except you aren’t tempted to roll your eyes at what would be a gimmick coming from another director.

Tarantino’s use of 1858 as a setting (primarily in Tennessee and Mississippi) hammers home the brutality of slavery in American history. Our sanitized documentary-driven viewpoint of that period can’t do justice to the actual social horror of taking human beings and trying to grind them down into nothing. We ought to be much more angry about it than we are, societally. I think Tarantino wants to make us white folk squirm a bit…. and question.

Back to the story. It’s just….great. That’s what’s totally awesome about this movie. A personal story with difficult moral questions, tension, characters unforgettable.  Happily the trailer did not reveal too much about the tale, so you will be pleasantly surprised.  If you like Tarantino, you owe it to yourself to see this great film.

Favorite moments: any scene with Samuel L Jackson in it. Also any scene with Leonardo diCaprio, who was phenomenal.

No hope for change….apart from the Spirit

Saw Funny People a couple days ago. Completely different than what I expected, actually. The trailer made it look like a thoughtful comedy about a comedian with cancer.  Turned out to be a thoughtful drama about a comedian with cancer.


I’ve not worked with enough people to really say I know the type of person who is purposefully self-destructive as a result of selfishness. I’ve encountered the sentiment occasionally (in myself and others at times), and it’s really frustrating to deal with.  But that’s a pretty normal life pattern for many folks. They are unhappy and dissatisfied with themselves and everything about their lives, yet they lack the power to effect any real change.  They openly use people around them for their own purposes, manipulating to get what they want and then throwing friendships away when they no longer provide the necessary perks.

Adam Sandler nails that personality type in Funny People. Seth Rogan is the moral, conscientious, lovable awkward friend who tries to keep Sandler’s character from imploding.  Fascinating story of an odd yet all-too-realistic friendship between two men.  Well, it’s not really a friendship … more of a constant irritation with a relatively happy ending. And the supporting characters add a lot of life to the film.

As for the film, I’m not sure whether I actually recommend it or not. Cons: It’s slow-paced and longer than necessary; very crass; and a little heavy. But the acting is great, and it’s a film that prompts a lot of reflections on dealing with people who, at their core, are nothing but selfish. The plot isn’t predictable either — which I appreciate.

So… not recommending. But have been thinking a lot since seeing Funny People