Few movies at the multiplex are worth the time, their screens dominated by commercial blockbusters, though the second volume of Guardians of the Galaxy is entertaining enough as popcorn comic book fare goes. I gave one thumb up to the sci-fi thriller Life, a South By Southwest Festival premiere. Last month’s Tribeca film festival also had several selections — The Circle, The Dinner — arrive in theatres, about which more next week. Before I get to films on Christ, cats and the camino, a few other recent releases are worth noting:
Logan: Sure it’s the violent superhero genre but Hugh Jackman’s swan song as the Canadian “Wolverine” gives a powerful almost elegiac twist to this franchise-closing episode. A young girl also stars but this is definitely not for children. (Nor is The Fate of the Furious, the eighth in that bombastic franchise which Charlize Theron makes almost watchable.)
Beauty and the Beast: I’m not sure we needed another remake but it’s box-office gold and with Emma Watson as the beauty Disney serves up some enchanting moments.
The Zookeeper’s Wife: The amazing true story of how Jan and Antonina Zabinski saved hundreds of Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland by hiding them in their Warsaw Zoo would have been better served by a less Hollywoodized production (as the imitation accent of Jessica Chastain portraying the animal-loving Antonina kept reminding me). Still the narrative elements stand as a testament to the couple’s remarkable courage.
The Last Word: The inimitable Shirley MacLaine is the reason to see this tale of a wealthy aging solitary woman, a former advertising executive who has soured on life, as she implausibly engages a young reporter (Amanda Seyfried) to create a flattering obit for her passing.
Maudie: Sally Hawkins inhabits the role of Maud Lewis in this biopic of the impoverished disabled self-taught Nova Scotia painter whose folk art gained international attention, and Ethan Hawke is convincing as her gruff antisocial husband Everett.
Born in China: Disneynature offers its annual Earth Day profile of adorable animals in the wild — featuring pandas, golden monkeys, and snow leopards. Take the kids.
The Lost City of Z: James Gray directs this epic account of the controversial explorations of British Col. Percy Fawcett (an excellent Charlie Hunnam) in the Amazon region in the early decades of the 20th century, an era of imperial conceits and the exploitation of native peoples by rubber barons. Robert Pattinson is almost unrecognizable as right-hand man Henry Costin who also served with Fawcett in the First World War. Obsessed with finding a lost civilization, Fawcett and son Jack (Tom Holland) disappeared on his third adventure in 1925. See it for the fascinating true story and stunning cinematography.
The Case for Christ: Recent Easters have seen the release of “faith-based” movies that, usually lacking artistic merit, tend to preach to the converted. Sam Worthington’s and Octavia Spencer’s efforts can’t quite save The Shack in which a grief-stricken man has a personal encounter with the Almighty. Fortunately director Jon Gunn’s The Case for Christ, a dramatization of the eponymous book by former Chicago Tribune journalist Lee Strobel (who serves as an executive producer), takes a more straightforward approach, one that’s more effective than the “God’s Not Dead” formula.
Strobel (Mike Vogel) is a hotshot investigative reporter and confirmed atheist when a potentially fatal incident involving his young daughter Alison has life-changing consequences. Alison is saved by the intervention of a religious African-American nurse, Alfie (L. Scott Caldwell). While Lee puts it down to coincidence, his wife, Leslie (Erika Christensen), is drawn toward Alfie’s belief that God meant her to be there. Gradually accepting Alfie’s evangelical faith, Leslie becomes a baptized Christian over Lee’s strong objections. A provoked Lee becomes obsessed with the historical Jesus, specifically with debunking the resurrection. That pursuit intersects with his coverage of a crime story involving a police shooting and wrongful conviction for which he feels responsible. The strains on the marriage grow intense. Lee is also troubled by an estranged relationship with his father. When unable to definitively disprove the resurrection, Lee abandons angry atheism to take a leap of faith. He will become a pastor and author of bestselling Christian books. Converts can make the truest believers.
While I doubt skeptics of divine intervention will be swayed, the movie is well acted and offers a credible account. As Scott Kelly writes in Reel World Theology, “redemption is always possible, even for a studio like Pure Flix,” given this production’s careful factual presentation of how the Strobels’ lives were indeed changed.
Kedi (https://www.kedifilm.com/): OK, I confess to occasionally watching cat videos . . . the furballs are just so darn cute. But Turkish director Ceyda Torun’s wondrous documentary (“kedi” is Turkish for cat), which follows seven distinctive unowned felines through the streets of Istanbul, achieves a whole other level. No doubt too many unowned and feral cats (estimated in the millions in Canada) can become an urban problem (see the Maclean’s magazine April 2017 feature “Cats Gone Wild”). But the vast numbers that roam Istanbul are appreciated as part of the city’s culture. Says one resident, “Without the cat, Istanbul would lose part of its soul.” And they are good to be around. Says another, “People who don’t love animals can’t love people either.”
Kedi benefits from some remarkable cinematography and a beautiful musical score. I love the way its four-legged stars go about their real lives, contrasted with treacly fantasy like A Dog’s Purpose. And as this felicitous film observes: “Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t. Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will. They’re not ungrateful. They just know better.”
Looking for Infinity: El Camino (http://lookingforinfinityelcamino.com/): Aaron Leaman’s one-hour documentary about the ancient Way of St. James across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela gets to the heart of why it has become the world’s most popular pilgrimage, each year attracting hundreds of thousands to follow the path primarily on foot. Readers may recall the series I wrote about my own camino experience in 2013. Providing simple direct and intimate testimonies from pilgrims along the Camino Frances — the most travelled route — the film is a great introduction to what makes the camino special as a form of spiritual seeking. For some it is life-changing. Many return. There’s a young man who’s decided to live beside the camino with only the bare necessities. In capturing the feeling of being there, the film’s emphasis is on the inner journey. As one person puts it: “You walk the camino for your soul.”
*For future review, also coming to theatres is Tristan Cook’s feature-length Strangers on the Earth: A Reflective Film Journey on the Camino de Santiago.