Thursday, April 07, 2016

Defending Your Life

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (Albert Brooks, 1991)

Having been struck head-on by a bus after going left of center in his new car, Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) comes to in a place that looks a lot like the western United States but is not on Earth. In DEFENDING YOUR LIFE the Los Angeles advertising man learns that he is dead and has been brought to Judgment City for a four-day review of his life. As all of his life has been recorded, the trial-like setting will feature the prosecution and defense presenting footage of his actions in an attempt to prove to two judges what motivated his actions. If he is determined to have lived with courage, he will proceed to whatever comes next in the universe’s design. If Daniel is found to have lived in fear, he will be returned to Earth to try again.

Daniel is a neurotic sort, so naturally this process, which his defender Bob Diamond (Rip Torn) insists is not a trial, makes him anxious. He can’t fully enjoy what Judgment City has to offer, from the chance to discover one’s past lives to the ability to eat all you want without gaining weight, because he wonders how his life will be assessed. Daniel is somewhat able to take his mind off of this whole ordeal when he meets Julia (Meryl Streep), a woman of the same approximate earthly age. He finds himself quickly falling in love with her, yet he resists to a degree because of his expectation that she will be moving forward while he will be sent back to Earth.

Perhaps the cleverest and funniest conceit of DEFENDING YOUR LIFE is that Daniel has no firmer grasp on how things are supposed to work in Judgment City than any of us do in our mortal lives. He can look for meaning in his surroundings, but without understanding how the place works, it’s all conjecture. Daniel is just as insecure in this way station, worrying about how the number of days being reviewed in his case and the modesty of his accommodations might be indicative of the verdict that awaits him. For this short period he is in a spot where fear should not be a factor, yet it continues to drive his choices and outlook. To make matters worse, everyone assures him that he doesn’t need to fret about anything. As writer, director, and star, Brooks taps into the nagging feeling that everyone knows something that you don’t, especially when they appear unconcerned.

Brooks has fun with the idea of a bureaucratic layover on the spiritual plane. Waiting room coffee table books are all photographs from God’s eye view, even of Judgment City. While the deceased are taken to places that resemble where they are from, there’s something amusing in the thought that mundane urban and suburban architecture would be soothing for souls in transition. Brooks also humorously envisions that even in death one can be made to feel small. Daniel has to sit through a blooper reel of his pratfalls and mistakes. Bob pokes fun at humans like for the low percentage of their brains they utilize compared to Judgment City’s residents like him. Insecurity, it seems, is something to be overcome to progress in the eternal.

While Brooks’ character has a nervous energy about him, DEFENDING YOUR LIFE provides a warm, funny space to consider larger questions of existence. Brooks challenges the notion that courageous and fearful behavior are clear cut from one another. Rather, what can appear cowardly may be a sign of internal strength and what seems brave may just be a survival instinct. Streep bestows a peaceful air upon Julia, who lived less fearfully than Daniel, yet even she is not wholly free of hang-ups. Typically an exploration of self doubt would wrap with a skeptical or ironic tone, but Brooks finds a way to conclude DEFENDING YOUR LIFE that feels hopeful and honest without betraying the protagonist’s cautious nature.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Knight of Cups

KNIGHT OF CUPS (Terrence Malick, 2015)

KNIGHT OF CUPS follows Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter lost in the wilderness of Hollywood and all of the temptations it has to offer. Writer-director Terrence Malick compares Rick’s experience with a story about a father who sends his son west to retrieve a pearl, except the boy forgets his mission as he is seduced by what this new land puts before him. Success has brought money and an unending flow of beautiful women to Rick, but it has separated him from his wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett) and brought tension between him and his father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley). Like Rick, who is referred to in the title, every significant character is given a chapter named after their corresponding tarot card. Each segment looks at how each person affects the wandering dreamer.

Malick continues to push his style to greater abstraction in KNIGHT OF CUPS. This film may show the limits of its utility. Malick employs a thin line of narrative for hanging his meditations in voiceover about the pursuit of God and love and alienation from it amid a world that distracts from the eternal by making beauty and novelty easily accessible to stave off boredom. Characters are heard on the soundtrack before they’ve been introduced and often sound the same, so it can be difficult to parse whose thoughts we’re hearing, although Malick may be more interested in the totality of the statements than assigning any to particular voices. The technique is freeing in that it allows the viewer to float along with the experience and confounding when trying to understand specifically what Malick is saying. For better or worse, the actors are symbols, even more than in his previous film.

After THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER, how much one is willing to submit to the ride probably depends on one’s tolerance for Malick’s mystical poetry. The film unspools like a waking illusion, with Rick hazily roaming through the dream factory rich in material things and impoverished spiritually. It helps that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s ravishing imagery of manmade opulence holds interest even if one loses the threads of philosophy and theology that hold KNIGHT OF CUPS together. It’s a staggeringly beautiful film in which the camera swoops among the people and tilts upward as if in worship and humility.

Christian or faith-based cinema tends to be narrowly defined to the kind of pat homiletics in stuff like MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN. Certainly those very straightforward types of films are more accessible on an aesthetic level than the sound and image pastiche Malick favors, but both are searching for something higher. KNIGHT OF CUPS dwells in the sinful entertainment capital to understand how one can be led astray and might be led out. If there can be multiple denominations within the predominant western religion, why can’t there be different ways for art to contemplate the nature of the divine too?

Grade: B

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Miracles from Heaven

MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN (Patricia Riggen, 2016)

In MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN the Beam family appears to have as close to a perfect life in their spacious ranch house in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas. Christy (Jennifer Garner) and Kevin (Martin Henderson) feel blessed to have three daughters and an ever-expanding number of dogs, although mom may not be thrilled every time a new one is brought home. Kevin has opened a big veterinary clinic. Christy worries a little that they might have overextended themselves in launching the business, but she and her family are regular churchgoers with faith that God will see them through whatever may come.

Christy finds that faith tested when middle daughter Anna (Kylie Rogers) becomes sick and seems to be getting worse despite medical professionals assuring her and her husband that there’s nothing seriously wrong. When Anna is finally diagnosed correctly with an intestinal disorder, the news could not be more disheartening. The condition is incurable and does not permit Anna to eat. Christy is distraught, finding her only comfort in the hope that a Boston specialist will take Anna as a patient and be able to alleviate her considerable pain.

MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN treads lightly as a story of tested faith, but it allows Christy to have the space to turn away from the church in a manner that makes sense even for believers. The strain of her daughter’s struggle, the lack of hope, and the cruel judgment of others as to her piety and how a deficiency in it might be responsible for the situation provide sufficient reasons for Christy to turn away from religion. Because this film’s purpose is to witness, MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN is careful to avoid Christy rejecting God outright but instead has her distance herself from a higher power, like putting something in storage that she does not have use for currently. God is there if she needs it, especially when she doesn’t think He can or will intervene.

While MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN makes room for that doubt, it is saddled with the narrative and filmmaking problems endemic to faith-based films, particularly those grounded in evangelical Protestantism. Primarily this is a matter of message above all. Randy Brown’s adaptation of Christy Beam’s real-life account of what happened to her daughter has two clear purposes. It is to assure those who are born again that their faith is the one true way, and it is to welcome non-believers to the light without being too Jesus-y. The first intention shows in doctors broadly dismissing Christy’s protests that something serious is wrong with Anna because, after all, they are the experts. This gets complicated when one doctor is a comfort to Christy and Anna, but the film reminds that he’s no match for God. It also comes across in the sense of superiority over a father who doesn’t his sick daughter tainted with that God stuff. In the film’s view prayer is like a wish slot machine that you just have to keep pumping enough quarters into until you hit the jackpot.

It’s no surprise that MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN plays best when it’s taking it easy on the sermonizing and merely letting the characters inhabit the stressful circumstances. The middle portion with Christy and Anna in Boston succeeds best because focuses on a parent and a child coping with hard things. A better film would have looked closer at the financial problems this medical predicament would put them in, especially when it just pays lip service to their stretched bank account mentioned early on. Although Anna’s illness is an emotional drain on the rest of the family, the film deals with them with a token scene or two. Perhaps most distressing is how MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN seeks to glorify God in on Anna’s unexplainable healing without fully appreciating the smaller kindnesses she and Christy received throughout the trying times. The message may be to open one’s eyes to how God is reflected in the words and deeds of others, but the film prefers something showier.

Grade: C-