Long after other Best Picture nominees of 2014 have been forgotten, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, starring David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., will still be watched, appreciated and talked about.
Want to know the truth behind the “Devil’s Bible”? Or the Dead Sea Scrolls? How about one of the Old Testament’s two famous arks? Curious about UFOs, Bigfoot or the Bermuda Triangle?
Very few historical films so successfully deconstruct the Great Man view of history while nevertheless offering a credible portrait of a leader who was, in fact, a great man.
If an actor in a faith-based indie like Son of God told you he felt God had told him he was meant to play the role in question, you might not bat an eye. It’s more striking to hear such a thing from the star of a $20-million Hollywood film like the civil-rights drama Selma.
Selma achieves something few historical films do: It captures a sense of events unfolding in the present tense, in a political and cultural climate as complex, multifaceted and undetermined as the times we live in.
Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is an honorable movie about an inspiring true story. It is impeccably crafted, with a raft of remarkably talented people behind it. It is a celebration of the old-fashioned virtues of duty, grit, fortitude and honor. In the end, it tips its hat to faith, forgiveness and reconciliation. The film I just described is a film that, on paper, I should love.
Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde’s 30-year-marriage gets the Wikipedia treatment, if Wikipedia were prettier, and sanitized.
A self-described atheist, Sir Ridley Scott has developed a generally bleak vision of religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian tradition, throughout his work, above all in historical sagas like Robin Hood (2010) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992).
What if I were to tell you that there has never until now been a major historical motion picture about the slave experience in America? Could that possibly be true?
The award-winning film 12 Years a Slave, now in theaters, isn’t just an astonishing film about an important subject. It’s also a rare and valuable film of a kind I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before.
42 in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
Hyde Park on Hudson in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
Steven Spielberg’s masterful Lincoln might more accurately have been called The 13th Amendment — and while the choice of the more marketable title is easy to understand, the more crucial decision to limit the scope of the film to the last few months of Lincoln’s life, and to focus less on Lincoln himself than on the political machinations of bringing about his most enduring legal legacy, must have been harder to make.
The fact-based premise is almost enough to sell Argo by itself. Argo opens and closes as a tense political spy caper, but it’s also an affectionate send-up of the movie-making process. The old advice to writers to “write what you know” is applicable to movies about movies, from Singin’ in the Rain to The Artist, and few subjects inspire Hollywood — or appeal to movie fans and film critics — more reliably than Hollywood itself.
For Greater Glory tells a story of religious freedom and oppression that is far too little known, and that would be important and worthwhile at any time, but is strikingly apropos in our cultural moment.
For Greater Glory in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
In War Horse Spielberg harkens back to an earlier cinematic age, creating something more like a Golden Age Hollywood epic than any film I’ve seen in years, the one other notable example being Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.
The life and work of J. Edgar Hoover offers grist for a dozen different movies or more, and Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar wants to be all of them at once. It’s the sort of staidly respectable, competently directed biopic that gives a bad name to competently directed biopics, and possibly to respectability.
Based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling 2009 novel, The Help is largely about the daily humiliations and injustices to which black maids and nannies working in white homes were subject, and the invisibility of these humiliations to their white employers, until, in this fictional account, their stories are told, first in secret and then in public.
If you don’t have 30 seconds to spare, here’s a spoiler: There aren’t really any dragons.
As played by English actor Charlie Cox (Stardust), Josemaría emerges as a likable, dedicated, virtuous young man much loved by his circle of friends, the first generation of Opus Dei. There are a few evocative scenes, such as the impression that a barefoot friar’s tracks in the snow make on the young Josemaría. Yet despite a line or two about Opus Dei spreading to other countries, there’s little sense of Escrivá himself as a figure of any particular note.
Credibly researched by screenwriter James Solomon and beautifully filmed by Newton Thomas Sigel (The Usual Suspects, Three Kings, Valkryie), it’s a rare historical drama that credibly captures a sense of another era while allowing its characters to breathe and talk and argue like men and women living in the present tense.
Xavier Beauvois’ sublime Of Gods and Men is that almost unheard-of film that you do not judge—it judges you. To one degree or another it defies every attempt to put it in a box, to reduce its challenge to a political or pious ideological stance to be affirmed or critiqued.
Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora is a work of hagiography, and, for that matter, of anti-hagiography. Among its burdens are that Hypatia of Alexandria, the celebrated neo-Platonic philosopher and mathematician, is worthy of veneration, and also that Cyril of Alexandria, saint and doctor of the Church, is not. Neither of these theses is without prima facie plausibility, or unworthy of serious-minded and nuanced exploration. Agora is serious-minded to a fault, but nuance, while not absent, is lacking.
Exactly 70 years ago today, on March 5, 1940, Josef Stalin and the entire Soviet Politburo signed an order to massacre tens of thousands of Polish prisoners of war: officers, mostly reservists; doctors, academics, civil servants, clergymen of all faiths—the cream of the Polish intelligentsia.
Developed in Rome during the Nazi occupation, shot in the Eternal City shortly after the Nazi withdrawal, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City stunned audiences the world over who saw in it an unmediated authenticity more evocative of the documentary quality of wartime newsreels than of the artificiality of earlier, more conventional WWII dramas.
How do you weigh the cultural heritage of a nation against the value of human life? That’s the subtext of The Train, a wholly persuasive, intelligent thiller crisply directed by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) with documentary-like realism and emphasis on action and problem-solving.
Man’s own shadow, as much as the moon’s, lies across In the Shadow of the Moon, David Sington’s moving documentary of the U.S. Apollo program. An eloquent testament to the grandeur of creation as well as man’s unique place in it, In the Shadow of the Moon offers a remarkable look at the history and technology of the Apollo program, but an even more extraordinary glimpse of the men who lived it and made it happen.
Where Paul Greengrass’s brilliant United 93 crafted a documentary-like anatomy of events without presuming to get inside people’s heads or explain actions or motivations, World Trade Center is a more conventional Hollywood film, with dramatic dialogue, characters following clearly plotted arcs, and a swelling soundtrack to reinforce the mood.
Whatever monument is eventually built at Ground Zero or anywhere else, United 93 is as fitting and worthy a memorial to the victims and heroes of September 11 as one could hope for.
Sophie Scholl is one of a very few films that accomplishes one of the rarest and most valuable of cinematic achievements: It makes heroic goodness not just admirable, but attractive and interesting.
In an age when we rely on computerized directions and GPS devices to drive to the next town, it seems an almost mythic scenario: brilliant men calculating outer-space trajectories on the fly with pencils and slide rules, keeping life and limb together literally with duct tape, flying to the moon and back simply because they could.
Downbeat, intelligent, and compelling, the film is brilliantly constructed and acted, bringing lucid, forceful moral argumentation as well as emotional sympathy to both sides without tipping its hand until the powerful climax. Tribunal justice Dan Hayward (Spencer Tracy) is the ideal foil for the film’s rhetoric: a self-deprecating, folksy American circuit court judge with no ax to grind and a winsome appreciation for his own obscurity, knowing he’s sitting in judgment of defendants no one else wanted to judge.
For German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, the appeal of making The Ninth Day, a fact-inspired film about a priest in a Nazi concentration camp who is briefly released, goes back over five decades to Schlöndorff’s film-club days at a Jesuit boarding school, where he first encountered Carl Dreyer’s silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc.
The Ninth Day digs beyond rote charges of ecclesiastical complicity and counter-arguments to explore various levels of resistance and protest — and their consequences.
Not in the now-distant mythology of World War II, with the iconic evil of the Nazi regime pitted against the warriors of the Greatest Generation, or even the likes of larger-than-life Oskar Schindler. Here is a horror within living memory of nearly anyone old enough to watch the film, a holocaust without the cover of a massive bureaucratic machine or industrialized, sanitized gas chambers.
As he first did decades earlier with Jaws, Spielberg reaches past our defenses by suggesting rather than showing: he knows there is as much horror in a mountain of shoes and personal effects whose owners won’t be needing them again as in a mountain of bodies. In fact, one of the film’s most ghastly moments is nothing more than a mere rude gesture from a small child.
A haunting, harrowing war movie, an emotionally devastating character study, and an extraordinarily restrained example of animé or Japanese animation, Grave of the Fireflies is a unique and unforgettable masterpiece.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.