Charles Dickens Still Haunts Christmas

Originally published at ChristianityToday.com, December 1, 2017

At 31 years old, Charles Dickens was already a novelist of international renown. He’d also hit upon a career slump—a string of three commercial flops—and needed to deliver a hit to escape mounting financial pressures.

In the winter of 1843, the author struck on the idea of a Christmas ghost story that would be released in time for the holiday. However, his late-fall moment of inspiration left him almost no time to get his book to press—only half a dozen weeks for the story to take shape, for an illustrator to supply drawings, and for the printers to supply them to stores.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is the story of those six weeks of breakneck creativity during which Dickens wrote perhaps his most beloved work. The movie is a thoroughly pleasant, sometimes funny, and occasionally reflective story with a PG-rating and storybook aesthetic that recommend it as the go-to family film of this holiday season.

Dan Stevens—once a star of Downton Abbey—delivers an eccentric, anxious, animated young Dickens to the screen. He gets incredible mileage out of his expressive blue eyes and conveys Dickens’s writerly flights of inspiration with a near crackling energy. Better still, Stevens’s Dickens finds an equally entertaining foil in Christopher Plummer’s Scrooge. Something peculiarly pleasing occurs the first time Plummer appears, equipped with top hat and cane, shuffling through a London cemetery. I felt as though I’d unwittingly been waiting for a long time to see him in this role, so much so that his first “Bah. Humbug!” evoked a satisfied sigh of “at last!”

Much of the fun in this film hinges on similar moments of recognition as the story weaves familiar details from A Christmas Carol—names, events, phrases—into ordinary moments of Dickens’s life. For example, the movie proposes that he collected interesting names of day-to-day acquaintances in a notebook, building a list for his christening of fictional characters. Dickens explains that only after he’s chosen just the right name will that character appear. Rather than leave that description as a mere figure of speech, the film plumbs it: Dickens’s creative process is externalized with characters that actually appear once they’re rightly named, make themselves available for conversation, and as his deadline draws near, harass him to return to work.

In the exchanges between Dickens and Scrooge, The Man Who Invented Christmas brings to life a creative process at once whimsical, mercurial, and manic. A growing cast of characters from A Christmas Carol breaks into the mindscape of Dickens like so many waking dreams. These scenes have a distinct aesthetic and moral sensibility; the world of the famed author’s fiction is at once more colorful and more severe than the flesh-and-blood London that he occupies. As Dickens takes measure of his protagonist’s life, Scrooge is prompted by each ghost to reflect on his attitudes and actions. Persistent appearances by Plummer’s Scrooge—even when the novella isn’t being penned—suggest that Dickens’s conscience, too, is being haunted just as he imagines Scrooge’s to be.

As many readers will recall, A Christmas Carol addresses themes of loneliness and friendship, self-interest and generosity. Visitations from the “ghosts of Christmas past” make stark the relational and moral poverty of Scrooge’s wealthy life. Rather than reveal a single grave sin or Gothic secret to explain the hardness of Ebenezer Scrooge’s heart, Dickens’s novella imagines a kind of cardiac sclerosis setting in over the course of his character’s decisions, actions, and inactions. For both Scrooge and Tiny Tim, the consequences of Scrooge’s selfishness are spelled out clearly, the stakes as high as life and death.

As the film shows elements from this story breaking into Dickens’s biography, it highlights moments of moral consequence. These novelistic interruptions give us signposts for how ordinary life—though less dramatic—is also a working out of convictions and values, of bitterness and sins that accumulate and shape our character.

Dickens redeems Scrooge by having him recognize and repent of his habitual selfishness. The screenwriters redeem Dickens using much the same strategy …

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The Moral Truths of ‘Suburbicon’

The film Suburbicon begins with a shot of an opening storybook, a convention used at the start of classic fairytale films like Snow Whiteand Cinderella. The kings of these castles, however, are mid-20th century, middle-aged white guys, and their kingdom is a splendorous landscape of freshly mowed lawns, freshly built homes, and freshly waxed sedans sitting in driveways.

Directed by George Clooney and written by Clooney, the Coen brothers, and Grant Heslov, Suburbicon uses a fairytale setting as a cheeky backdrop for the chilling misadventures of the Lodge family. Headed by corporation man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon, largely hidden behind glasses and inscrutably broody), the household also includes his disabled wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), and their young son, Nicky. Rose’s twin sister, Margaret (Moore again), is in for a visit—one that soon stretches into a longer-than-expected stay.

The pleasingly pastel visual uniformity of nearly identical homes and nearly identical twins doesn’t last long, however. First, an African American family, the Mayers, moves in behind the Lodges, integrating the neighborhood and setting off less-than-neighborly scuttlebutt. The main story, however, begins later that night when young Nicky Lodge is roused from his bed by his father. Burglars are in the house. Despite Gardner’s assurances to his son, neither Nicky nor we viewers really believe that things will be all right ever again.

On a road to hell paved with selfish intentions and littered with a high body count, Gardner Lodge, we discover, has set in motion a plan to change his life at the expense of the people around him. His ruthless self-interest sets off a series of events: first home invasion then murder, infidelity then insurance fraud, and extortion topped off with yet more murder. The question of who, if anyone, will be left to protect and love young Nicky Lodge is a source of increasing anxiety.

While a series of atrocities unfolds within their home, the Lodge family draws no neighborly attention. For the Mayers, however, their quiet family life (truly—they have almost no dialogue) is increasingly scrutinized and surveilled on the basis of their racial difference alone. White residents keep a paranoid vigil outside the Mayers’ home on the family’s first night in Suburbicon. By the film’s end, fences ostensibly built to keep these black neighbors out of view become the last line of defense for the African American family. When a riot breaks out, the fence becomes a dam holding back violent white rage—an outpouring of the interior lives of fear-driven residents who’ve lost their mooring to reality.

As a film critic who appreciates the Coen brothers, Suburbicon was not the movie I anticipated. Given the Coens’ reputations for comedy, not just social commentary, the film certainly ranks among the least playful to bear their writing credit. Moments of Coen-ness peek through here and there but don’t last. (One of the longest gags in the film is a chase scene that features Damon’s Gardner riding a child’s bicycle as if his life depended on it—which it does.)

Despite being a tale of two families besieged by tragedy, the film fails to capitalize on all that dramatic potential and instead feels emotionally flat. Something is missing from Gardner, as well as the rest of Suburbicon’scharacters: Not only are few of them likable as human beings, none of them are all that enjoyable to watch. The quirky characters of Coen films are often developed with a certain affection or at least amusement—from Norm Gunderson of Fargo to the nihilists of TheBig Lebowski. In Suburbicon, by contrast, Nicky is the only character for whom we can muster any affection. The performances are serviceable but not engaging, the dialogue smart but not memorable, the characters idiosyncratic but not much fun.

After opening weekend, the film’s audience approval score on Rotten Tomatoes is hovering near an impressively low 25 percent. USA Today’s entertainment section has provided coverage of how bad the film’s reception has been. The parallel between the Lodge and Mayers families, in particular, has drawn heavy criticism.

Although the Mayers family subplot is often generally interpreted by critics as a forced and feeble reflection on the racist failures of the 1950s, I found that “watching-while-Christian” allowed me to see it as something more…

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This article originally published at christianitytoday.com, November 3, 2017

ICYMI ‘The Beguiled’ Reveals the Cracks in Our Imagined Selves

Sofia Coppola’s Cannes winner is all about the inevitable gap between who we are and who we claim to be.

The year is 1864. Somewhere in Virginia, a young girl walks through the woods, singing herself a sweetly imperfect melody. Viewers watch from behind as her small figure, head and shoulders framed by long brunette braids, bends, then bends again to collect mushrooms from the forest floor. The camera pans upward revealing tree branches arching and entwined, the vaults of a natural cathedral illuminated by the pale, even light of dusk. The girl walks unhurried down its aisle. The scene serves up a lush aesthetic world, stirring anticipation for what other visual delights await the viewer, even as it stirs anxiety for what awaits this forest wanderer.

The sight of a Union soldier propped up against a tree soon breaks the child’s reverie. A flicker of fear passes across both of their faces. Tension begins to ease as they grasp the common tool of social formalities and force an exceptional moment into following the script for making a new acquaintance. Miss Amy (Oona Laurence) and Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) introduce themselves: She is a student at a nearby girls’ school; he is a wounded runaway from a nearby battle.

Despite—or perhaps because of—his considerable charm, the Corporal comes across as only a little less vulnerable than the schoolgirl. He is, after all, bleeding profusely and hiding for fear of both the battlefield’s violence and the enemy’s capture. Guilelessly, Miss Amy assures him that the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies will take him in. Making their way toward the school, the hobbled man leans on the good graces and steady shoulders of the 12-year-old girl.

The Beguiled’s opening sequence is only the first of a series of compassionate and trusting interactions that lead to unsettling results. This artful and entertaining film meditates on the difference between how things appear and what they actually are. The action begins as a handful of Southern women nurse a wounded Union solider within the confines of their home. The man’s convalescence forces a series of difficult decisions about managing his presence, as well as when and how to ask him to leave. Ultimately, the matter of the Corporal’s exit incites crises of escalating intensity that drive the second half of the film toward a surprising resolution.

Director, screenwriter, and Cannes award winner Sofia Coppola’s dedication to sustaining a kind of visual enchantment is clear to the audience at once. So, too, is Coppola’s canny use of familiar character types to tell a story that hinges on hard-to-detect motives that lie within, like desire and dread. Coppola’s characters act on honorable impulses and risk trusting one another in the name of Christian virtues like charity, hospitality, mercy, and gratitude. Slowly, however, a space widens between the intentions they profess and the temptations which also shape their responses to one another. The theme of a duality between whom we tell ourselves we are and what our actions testify about us resonates throughout the narrative.

The Beguiled is a tale of people and circumstances being what they seem yet also far more. The same can be said of the movie’s genre identity: What is evidently a period melodrama also proves a dark thriller with a surprisingly keen sense of comedy. Its first hour packs in as many awkward exchanges, subtle innuendos, and knowing glances as any good comedy of manners. (Each of the three dinner scenes would do Jane Austen proud.) Coppola’s writing does an admirable job of making these genre transitions smoothly by tying them to the evolving situation of Farrell’s McBurney: The vulnerable convalescent transforms into a charming houseguest, and then into something far more complex.

McBurney’s transformation happens subtly but steadily, despite his physical incapacitation. Having been installed on the fainting couch of the Farnsworth Seminary’s music room, Corporal McBurney is subject to the ministrations of the six women living in the largely abandoned boarding school. Literally locked away and convalescing in the same spot for days, he entertains a parade of pale, pastel-clad women of different ages at his bedside. Each one furtively enters bearing some bit of news or help—water for a bath, soap for a shave, fresh bandages for his leg, even an unbidden kiss. The youngest piously slips him a prayer book, explaining that he’ll need it to make confession since he’s wounded and, by her estimation, likely to die very soon.

The repetition of this scenario is important: It highlights the constraints of McBurney’s situation. His knowledge of the school, the women in it, and their dispositions toward him are meted out to him in uneven portions during the visits he receives at all hours. Immobilized and locked into his room, his experience raises questions once again about appearances and realities: He is at once fussed-about patient, caged curiosity, charming bachelor, and enemy prisoner.

Meanwhile, each member in the trio of headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and restless ingénue Alicia (Elle Fanning) is very much whom she appears to be and more. The women compose a triangle that slowly takes shape around Corporal McBurney. Not quite a “love triangle” (it has more angles, and the romantic claims are shifting and indistinct), the rivalry arises as a byproduct of the desire that each one has for a male presence in her life.

McBurney faces both the opportunity and misfortune of having triggered these women’s longings. The opportunity, initially, is to stand simultaneously as a placeholder in their fantasies. His misfortune, in the end, is that of being only one man, incapable of satisfying any of the three women once reality takes hold…

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originally run by Christianity Today July 11, 2017

Westworld Needs Christian Fans

Christians Have Good Reasons Not to Watch Westworld. Maybe Some of Them Really Should Anyway.

Early this month HBO launched its newest Sunday night drama. Glittering with big screen stars on horizons as vast as any classic Western, Westworld delivers the sort of small screen spectacle only the most generous pay-cable budgets can provide.

As immediately obvious as the size of its budget, however, are the size of Westworld’s ethical questions about the relationship between humanity and technology. Debuting just a few weeks before Playstation4’s new virtual reality head-set, the series asks how later generations of virtual reality technology will force us to recalibrate our ethics. How will creations a few iterations beyond today’s digital entertainments, bioengineering feats, and artificial intelligence confound our moral compasses? Continue reading Westworld Needs Christian Fans

ICYMI ‘Atomic Blond’ Delivers Female Action without a Hero

I’ve been Terrible about keeping blog followers in sync with my few essays from the summer.  Pardons begged for old news if you caught this on Christianity Today last month but also if you didn’t get word of it until now.  Thanks for following!

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After seeing the new spy thriller, I still don’t know what a female action hero looks like

Many moviegoers turn to the absurdities of comedy or the happy endings of romance when looking for an escape. I’m more of a guns and explosions kind of girl, so I’d been looking forward to Atomic Blonde, the Cold War espionage thriller starring Charlize Theron as MI6 operative Lorraine Broughton.

Atomic Blonde is a highly stylized, spy-versus-spy picture based on a graphic novel. Though shot in color, the film relies on a restrained color palette and boasts carefully blocked frames and noir-inspired lighting. Set in the divided Berlin of 1989, the film also draws on an array of ’80s references, from shoulder-exposing sweatshirts and stiletto ankle boots to a soundtrack so full of beloved ’80s hits that licensing them all ranks as one of the film’s most impressive stunts.

As if in tribute to the Soviet enemies of the Cold War, the film’s plot has taken the form of so many Russian nesting dolls: Each new layer of the tale opens up to reveal another hidden inside. The crisis that sends Agent Broughton to Berlin involves a murdered MI6 agent and a missing list of all the undercover intelligence operatives in the city. Both East and West are willing to kill for the list (and do), as it poses both a security threat to their operations and an opportunity to gain the upper hand.

The list is also believed to reveal the identity of a Soviet double agent who has infiltrated MI6. While the Brits know codename “Satchel” exists, they’ve been unable to find and eliminate the traitor. In addition to the female lead, the characters involved in untangling the plot include Broughton’s fellow British spy, David Percival (played as a charming maniac by James McAvoy), a handful of East German, West German, and Russian spies that become hard to keep straight, and the CIA (embodied by John Goodman).

The cageyness and cunning of spy films is part of their fun, but this film’s number of betrayals stacks up almost as fast as its body count. After one last clever reveal that comes in the final scene, viewers get the answers to all of the story’s riddles, save one: Why should I root for Lorraine Broughton? …

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