"The Raid: Redemption" is practically a how-to guide for action moviemaking, with each macro story and micro action beat clear, clean, concise, comprehensible, contextualized and kinetic, motivated and meaningful. It's a big, bloody, brutal, breathless ballet of fight choreography, and, while the story may be thin, it's thin by design--simple, potent, functional, with exactly the amount of characterization and human drama necessary to move us along and keep us invested (and little more). An amazing accomplishment of action movie athleticism and effective economic storytelling.
Jared and Jerusha Hess' latest tells the story of Don Verdean, a biblical archaeologist noted for such remarkable discoveries as the shears used to cut Samson's hair. When a local pastor offers to finance Verdean's expeditions, however, things get complicated (filthy luchre ruins everything), and things spiral out of control as Don starts finding ways to fill the demand even when there's no real supply.
The movie is comedy, but it's plotted like a thriller--albeit a really bizarre, screwball thriller (and Don definitely owes a lot to Indiana Jones, if not in his image, exactly, then definitely in his work). It's not the Hesses' funniest film, which isn't necessarily a bad thing--there are sporadic belly laughs and a number of chuckles throughout, but, for all the goofy costumes and accents, this is a movie about ideas, and deceptively sincere in its commitment to wrestling with questions about religion in the 21st century--specifically, where and to what degree (if at all) truth claims and historicity actually have (or should have) anything to do with religion. In that way, this is yet another incredibly Mormon movie from the Hesses, though, despite the Utah geography, Mormonism is never directly mentioned (but the movie is almost a comic riff on the Mark Hoffman story--and about as bonkers on screen as that sounds on paper). Not everything works, not every joke lands, not every idea is developed as completely as it could be, and, though he completely steals the movie, there's something undeniably weird about seeing Jemaine Clemant's prosthetic-nosed money-grubbing Israeli as the antagonist, and something a little uneasy about a movie where his accent winds up being the funniest gag.
Still, DON VERDEAN is a fascinating movie--not the Hesses' most consistent, maybe, but one of their most interesting for sure, both building on and departing from their previous work in compelling ways. I've yet to see GENTLEMAN BRONCOS, but between NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, NACHO LIBRE, and now DON VERDEAN, the Hesses seem more and more like the most Mormon of Mormon filmmakers, even when they're not actually making "Mormon movies."
"Last Days in the Desert" is not a Bible movie, it's a midrash movie, recounting an untold episode in Jesus' 40 days in the desert as he meets a family on his way back to Jerusalem and prepares for his calling as Savior--and wrestles with what that even means. The film begins with Yeshua (Ewan McGregor) in isolation, seeking his Father, plagued by insecurities, and haunted by Satan (also Ewan McGregor--a sort of shadow extension of Yeshua's doubts and confusion and inadequacies), who challenges him to untangle the complicated knot of conflicting and competing wants and needs in the small family Yeshua encounters. It's sort of a trial run, which begs the question, "Can anyone really redeem the sins and problems of all mankind when the problems of just one family seem so completely, impossibly insolvable?" Yeshua approaches the problems--which include sickness, (possible) sin, temptation, and just plain, ordinary conflicts of interest--tentatively, not sure where to step back and where to intercede, while Satan continues with the temptations to sin, to reject his calling, to be too proud or else too timid, to think himself an all-powerful God or to think himself just a man, every answer feels like the wrong answer, but meanwhile, a slow, gradual, quiet revelation is taking place: Jesus sees himself in both the father and the son (and, of course, as both the Father and the Son), he finds love and compassion for the mother, and, ultimately, he realizes that to love God is to love others, to love God is to love life, that to love life is to accept death, that it's not just Satan who's in there wrestling inside him, but also the God he's been seeking.
I love this movie. I love what it's saying and I love the way it says it. Lubezki's desert cinematography is just gorgeous, and the minimal, string-based score by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi is some of the finest movie music in recent years, complimenting and enhancing the images and helping establish the quiet, contemplative, meditative, mysterious mood that makes the movie such a beautiful experience. It's a movie that's like going into a church in all the best ways--it creates a context in which to meditate on the experience of being alive, the nature of God and Jesus, the ways in which we love and serve others, the process through which we find God in ourselves and in others and in the land around us--everywhere we turn, in fact, is the God who always seems to evade our grasp. It's a mystical gospel of abundance and imminence, a Jesus movie for today that also feels ancient, and one of the best religious movies in years.
SELMA is a movie about process, about the gruntwork and strategy and planning and procedure of staging a civil rights campaign, about how change is enacted through through careful swaying of public opinion and deliberate framing of a compelling narrative on TV screens and in newspapers around the country. In a similar way to Spielberg-Kushner's LINCOLN, it's thrilling to see a movie that gets at the practical political mechanics behind an easily romanticized revolution. But, for a movie about strategy and power dynamics to work, it needs, more than anything, the couple of things that hurts SELMA above all.
The first of those is subtext. This is a movie almost entirely made up of people standing in rooms explaining what they are going to do. It's historical drama Christopher Nolan-style. It's a problem in the writing and it's a problem in the direction--nowhere is there an inventive variation on the dramatic dynamic to make things interesting. Contrast this with a film like LINCOLN, which is all about how people lie and cheat and make deals and barter and trade and wheel and deal. These are obviously two very different films about two very different sets of characters in two very different sets of circumstances, but it's that lack of subtext, that lack of dramatic layering that keeps the whole thing playing on one level. And, seemingly opposed to this, but actually tied directly to it is the second point...
A driving sense of clarity. Clarity in the drama. Clarity in the objectives (both macro and micro) and in the tactics. In the obstacles. In the sense of cause and effect. In each character's particular motivations and where and why and how they clash in any given moment. Clarity in the timeline. Clarity in even something as basic and seemingly irrelevant as screen geography (I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie that crosses the line so frequently or so carelessly, and the lack of establishing shots in almost any scene only adds to the confusion--especially when much of the film plays out in a series of pretty nondescript rooms and curiously-framed, and coldly desaturated medium close-ups). When SELMA has this clarity, it is exciting and engaging--some of the conversations between Dr. King and President Johnson are among the highlights of the film precisely because the negotiation is so thoroughly grounded in such clearly articulated stakes (probably not coincidentally, this subplot is drawing some heat for taking some dramatic license with the events).
The finale, aided by some actual documentary footage, is rousing and moving in the way it should be. But there are long stretches that do little to advance the story in actual story terms, content instead to reiterate the same dramatic beats without providing any further context or elaboration. The movie's ambitions are admirable, but it's never as smart as its subject matter, and the result is some often deflated drama. Still, this story is important, and continues to be discouragingly relevant in all kinds of ways. It's a story we need to hear, but I wish it was better told.