Four of the finest movies this year so far

It’s one of the highest rated movies of the year — people love this thing — but I wasn’t enamored with Marvel’s “Black Panther,” a slick, savvy vehicle that got predictably bogged down in mythical mumbo-jumbo, comic-book convolutions and contrivances that I hadn’t the energy to follow or care about.

I’m pretty sure my Marvel/DC movie days are behind me. The films are tedious, head-rattling, kind of stupid and rarely fun. That said, I crushed on last year’s tough-minded “Logan” and relished the smart-alecky wit writer-director Taika Waititi smuggled into the whomping cacophony of “Thor: Ragnarok.” (If that movie amused, see Waititi’s whip-smart “What We Do in the Shadows,” a hilariously deadpan vampire mockumentary whose cult-classic status continues to swell.)

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Brilliant spoof “What We Do in the Shadows”

So even skirting the lumbering, stumbling franchises — sorry “Solo” — I’m still behind on this year’s movies. I haven’t even seen Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” which I expect to be a mild amusement, more cracked smiles than snorts and giggles. I will see it, more because I like dogs than I like Anderson. 

I also haven’t seen these films atop my list: “A Quiet Place,” “Loveless,” “The Incredibles 2,” “Leave No Trace” and a slew of other gushed-over indie titles, from “Let the Sunshine In” to “Lean on Pete.” And I’m keenly looking forward to Bo Burnham’s dramedy “Eighth Grade,” coming July 13.

What I have seen of note are four features that regaled with smarts and originality. To wit:

Mister Rogers was a badass. Twinkly television host, child advocate, public broadcasting pioneer, musician, writer, Presbyterian minister, seat-of-the-pants puppeteer, colorful cardigan fetishist and all-around super fella, Fred McFeely Rogers (McFeely!) held a special passport into fledgling hearts and minds to become a noble pied piper of cheering children across the land. 

He worked his educational magic with a voice of honey and silk, a lilting, cooing instrument so soothing it could place you in a spontaneous coma, and a dapper dependability that made him seem like the safest person in the world. He was made of gumdrops and hugs, and soaring imagination. 

Not a scintilla of this hagiographic portrait is tarred in the straightforward, illuminating and touching documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a critical and audience smash that follows the self-styled teacher of tots as he crafts his TV programs, mainly the paste-and-plastic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran from 1968 to 2001 on PBS.  

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Henrietta Pussycat and Mister Rogers, a sweet couple in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

It’s an adoring snapshot, a trippy bit of time-travel effusive with nostalgia and bolted together by Rogers’ nearly A.I. perfection. His virtuosity almost cloys: he was a wonderful husband and father (no! Not gay!), and his Midas touch with preschoolers was no fool’s gold. In the sphere of pedagogy, his sainthood is locked.

You slip behind the scenes of the papier-mâché realm of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and meet the show’s gallery of ragged thrift-shop puppets (the meow-meowy Henrietta Pussycat looks like a relic of the Victorian age), actors and crew, with lots of laughter and nary a wisp of negativity. Showered in praise, Rogers’ native humility pops open like a big umbrella.

It’s all here, all fascinating, all squeaky-clean. The movie’s about the imperishable legacy of Mister Rogers, who died in 2003, that’s cheery, oozing empathy and strenuously loving till the very last huggy squeeze.

Rogers was a smiling, sugar-dusted Presbyterian minister — a whole other animal than Ethan Hawke’s furrowed, profoundly conflicted Protestant minister in Paul Schrader’s searing spiritual drama “First Reformed,” one more knockout picture of the season.

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Ethan Hawke has burning questions in “First Reformed.”

The underrated Hawke, in his most hoarse, laser-beam performance, plays Rev. Ernst Toller, a plainly clinically depressed man of enforced solitude who is too enmeshed in overwhelming epistemological questions for all that mainstream life stuff. He lives on the margins. He lives for God. He lives to save others, if not himself.

Schrader taps into his unshakable lodestar — Bergman and Bresson’s transcendental cinema of existential turmoil, spiritual struggle and personal despair — and fashions a dire universe for Toller, one consumed by crises of faith, guilt and penitence. Toller drinks too much. He suffers ominous stomach pains. He keeps a troubled diary. He meets a woman.

Eco-terrorism, love and redemption crash his cloistered life, which Schrader portrays with verbal maximalism and visual minimalism. And he leaves you with an ending that invites either bewilderment or overdue catharsis.

Like Toller, viewers will find themselves entangled in the film’s philosophical and theological brambles. Austere, glacial and bruised, “First Reformed” is not an easy picture. But it feels like a necessary one.

Pain is also a prevailing theme in another of the year’s best, “The Rider,” but it’s physical rather than psychic pain, the kind inflicted when the hoof of a bucking bronco jackhammers into your skull.

That’s the case for young Brady (played by non-actor Brady Jandreau with heart-pulping sensitivity), a one-time rodeo hero whose injury in the ring has sidelined him for good. Lost, his story is one of recovery and rediscovery, of a stubborn cowboy trying to compromise in a desolate, hardscrabble environment that’s unforgiving that way.

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Brady Jandreau and Apollo in “The Rider.”

Easily the most moving film of the year — I rhapsodized about how affecting this people-scale drama is here — “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie by writer-director Chloé Zhao. It’s probably my favorite movie of the year.

Staying in cowboy country but in an artificial version compared with the unflinching realism of “The Rider” is “Damsel” by the reliably off-kilter Zellner brothers, whose mischievous m.o. is to rock your equilibrium, and their own storytelling, with assertive peculiarity. 

Braiding the movie with trusty tropes of old-timey westerns — grit, guns, horsies and hangings — and that ineffable Zellner zing, the result is a lumpy kinda-comedy, kinda-drama in which both elements could have been amplified for the sake of coherence. 

A spirited Robert Pattinson, with a twang and one gray tooth, plays the heartsick pioneer Samuel who’s in search of his lost love, Penelope, played by a spunky Mia Wasikowska. He tows behind him a darling miniature horse named Butterscotch (an aimless visual gag) that he plans to give to her as a wedding present. Risking his life, he finally locates Penelope. Things get very messy from there. 

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Robert Pattinson and Butterscotch in the comic-western “Damsel.”

Its erratic pacing, pesky dead spots and jokes that don’t land hold “Damsel” from crackpot classic. It’s slapstick and slapdash, and keeps you watching if only to make sure lil’ Butterscotch fares well.  

If I didn’t love “Damsel” I appreciated it and its sometimes squiggly logic. It could be a lot funnier, but as it is — a shaggy road movie not fully sure what it wants to be — it’s an oddball original. Keep an ear peeled for the snazzy period-inspired score by whirlingly inventive The Octopus Project. And Adam Stone’s photography — you can’t miss it — is beyond lovely. It’s often ecstatic.

The dog’s search for meaning

It’s hot outside and the dog gallops up the stairs to the very warm attic, panting with a slashing smile, tongue flapping, teeth bared, eyes wide and wild, tail wagging. He looks “on,” like he’s just hit the stage to burst into a blazing showtune, or just won the lottery. He’s so very jazzed to be here. 

Realizing he’s just exerted that much energy only to run into me at the top, me, ordinary me, who has no food for him, just pets and pats for the good doggie, he quickly calms and collapses on the floor, seals his salivating maw, exhales one huffy breath through his nostrils and resigns himself to the humdruminess of life. Rip-off, he’s certainly thinking.

The dog is not alone in his deflation. The heat rises to the cozy attic and no fan, no matter its wattage, can disperse the vapors. But it’s an existential heat, too, one we all know at some point, here and there. The dog is in the throes of it, stretched out in languid dismay.

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The dog, gazing at me, pondering his existential predicament.

And so am I, to an extent, though I am not physically sprawled out, that would be ridiculous. Still, the dog and I are in moody concert, encased in ennui, a kind of life weariness, if just for this time. Trying to write, I turned to reading my book, “NW” by Zadie Smith, when the dog jogged up to say hello and discovered the groin-punch of nothingness.

Right now, his glass — or his water bowl — is half-empty, to borrow the old metaphorical measure of the optimist vs. the pessimist. He is slowly realizing that life isn’t a continuous (tennis) ball, that letdowns lurk, that existence precedes essence, that not all chew toys are created equal. These are things I learned years ago, that we make our own happiness, shape our own lives, that free will, not divine intervention, reigns, and that disappointments and satisfactions are divvied up about 65/35. The dog doesn’t know all this yet. He is a troubled soul.

In anthropomorphic terms, he’s displaying a glint of neuroses. Somewhere Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre are high-fiving over the notion that psychological and existential angst can be traced in a furry quadruped.

The dog seeks the meaning of life, this is plain from his searching brown eyes, furrowed brows and the alarming way he drags his butt across the carpet. Freud’s pleasure principle manifests itself in his frequent calls for belly rubs. Sartre’s theory, which states that our individual responsibility in defining our own lives is almost debilitating in its enormity, has the dog a little down. Knowledge of his own mortality is something of a buzz kill.

At times like this, a good, jaunty walk won’t cut it. Scooby snacks — nope. A ride in the car? He snickers. But the dog is resilient, and getting his tail wagging is not a demanding task. As with me, these moods of brooding despair and overthinking are intermittent. He’d rather eat a good meal or harass the cats than dwell on the insane, undeniable meaninglessness of his puny little life.

And the next time he does, I plan to start reading to him from Sartre’s daunting opus “Being and Nothingness” or Freud’s “The Future of an Illusion.” And when I myself plummet to pondering the philosophical conundrums, the dog can read to me from — this is an actual book — “Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog.”

Life’s too short for sulking. I know this. However, the dog, whose years are on the seven-year scale, meaning he’s about 21 to 28 in human years, resides on a shorter leash. But this canine savant is swiftly learning one of the essentials, no matter how fur-raising:

Self-realization — it’s a bitch.

The rational heresy of Sam Harris

“The problem with religion, because it’s been sheltered from criticism, is that it allows people to believe en masse what only idiots or lunatics could believe in isolation.”

“While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about.”

Sam Harris, philosopher, author (“The End of Faith”)

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The Church, still possessed by exorcisms

The exorcists are exercising the bounds of belief. They are exercised by exorcisms.

At a weeklong conference on exorcisms in Rome last week, over 250 priests, theologians, psychologists and criminologists “rang the alarm on exploding demonic activity being fueled in part by access to the occult via the internet,” writes The Christian Post.

The Devil isn’t just in the details, he’s got wifi, and he’s online. He likely has a blog. He’s spreading porn, death and general hellfire across the wicked wide web, cackling as he types. He’s possessing people through Facebook and Instagram, known tools of Satan.

So, sure, perhaps thanks to the ubiquity of the internet, reports of demonic possession have mushroomed. In response, the Catholic Church is marshaling and grooming its troops to tackle the epidemic. 

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Hence the conference, as well as Pope Francis’s noted approval of the rococo rites, saying exorcists “manifest the Church’s love and acceptance of those who suffer because of the Devil’s works.”

Jesus — er, I mean damn. Because of the spike in requested exorcisms, “There are priests who carry out exorcisms on their mobile phones. That’s possible thanks to Jesus,” an Albanian Cardinal said at the conference, presumably with a straight face. (“That’s possible thanks to Jesus”? What about Verizon?)

Exorcisms on mobile phones? (Dial 666.) It’s hard to imagine. No crosses, rosaries or holy water? No comforting holding of hands and signs of the cross? No projectile pea-soup vomit? Do they use FaceTime, or just speaker phone? 

Most of the aspiring exorcists truly and openly believe in a physical Devil, as does Pope Francis. They believe in full-blown possession of humans by evil spirits. They might actually believe the 1973 film “The Exorcist” is a documentary. 

Demon-possessed people are known to suddenly develop supernatural strength, have radical changes in their voice and speak languages they’ve never known. They sound like superheroes.

“Most commonly they speak Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic,” says Father Pedro Barrajon. “If you show them a holy object, like a rosary or a cross or a picture of the Madonna, they go into shock and start yelling.”

That happens to me often, especially if it’s Madonna on her “True Blue” tour.

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Figuring if actual demonic possession has occurred requires ruling out conditions like mental illness, epilepsy, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or drug abuse.

“Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki. “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person.”

I trip over that last phrase: actually being in possession of the person. Sometimes I feel satanically possessed, but it winds up being just a diabolical case of indigestion.

Yet these people, these hallowed priests and bishops (and pope!), honestly believe the Devil, that online prankster, can possess a human being and take over their mind and body, for whatever unfathomable purpose.   

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It’s no wonder that, even within the Church, stigma and cynicism wreathe the ceremony. It remains controversial, yet, as we’ve seen, exorcism’s popularity keeps swelling.

And the Church isn’t fooling around with that puckish Devil. The Albanian Cardinal said sometimes you had to get tough with him amid the magical theater of an exorcism and actually holler hurtful commands such as, “Shut up, Satan!”

There’s that, or you could call him a big ninny.

Flippancy aside, the truth is that the notion of exorcisms is so far removed from real, actual, everyday life, it simply does not make a single speck of difference, and, frankly, means absolutely nothing. It’s a sham, hysterical hocus-pocus, sheer knowing chicanery that does what it desperately needs to do: help keep a tottering Church from buckling.

To hell with Hell

Pope Francis was quoted last week saying there is no Hell. 

Beautiful, or blasphemous?

Bad souls “are not punished,” the pope told an atheist Italian journalist. “Those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”

Whatever that means. Poof, sinful souls just vanish? They’re off the hook? No eternal rotisserie of mortal flesh and soul? Is Dante discredited? Did my heavy metal records lie? 

The Vatican quickly denied Francis uttered such sacrilege, rebuking the whole conversation, which happened to be between a writer who has historically put words into the papal pie hole. Perhaps the unscrupulous scribe will get a taste of the writhing pits himself. (Or maybe he’ll just disappear. Poof!)

“Had the pope been speaking as the vicar of Christ on earth, he would be contradicting 2,000 years of Catholic doctrine, rooted in the teachings of Christ himself,” writes unreconstructed right-winger Pat Buchanan. “It would be rank heresy.”

APP-033018-POPEI sincerely doubt the pope declared there is no Hell. But I wish he did. Why? Because, I humbly offer: There is no Hell. (Now it’s my turn in Beelzebub’s barbecue. Pass the sunscreen, SPF 50,000.)

The proof is paltry. Yet maybe there is a Hell of the sort Dante depicted in his “Inferno” with such wondrous, gruesome gusto. If so, then there should be a Heaven, too, and I really can’t go that far. All dogs go to Heaven, it’s said. True that. People? I think not, for a panoply of reasons. For one, they’re stinkers. 

Dante limned Nine Circles of Hell for sinners: First Circle (Limbo); Second (Lust); Third (Gluttony); Fourth (Greed); Fifth (Wrath); Sixth (Heresy); Seventh (Violence); Eighth (Fraud); Ninth (Treachery). 

He ticked most of the boxes, though he could be more specific (treachery?). And a little more lenient (gluttony?). And where are rape and murder? Do they fall under the violence rubric? He should have added a Tenth Circle for man buns. I’m afraid Dante’s prioritizing is scattershot.

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Trying to figure with certitude if Hell exists is a fool’s errand. Unless, I suppose, you listen to an evangelical site I tripped and fell upon, chipping a tooth. It talks about people who have had “hellish near-death experiences in which the individual descends into a hellish location — an otherworldly place so frightening, desolate and horrible that it changed their lives instantly” and put them on a path to Christ. 

I shudder. With my luck, if I have a near-death experience, I’ll land at a Celine Dion concert. I’ll return, eyes bulging, screaming the Lord’s name.

But that’s not possible, because I don’t buy any of it. Belief in Heaven or Hell goes hand in hand with belief in the mythological overlords of those domains, God and Satan. They’re like cartoon characters to me, figments of desperate human imagination, magically supervising our collective conscience from an airbrushed ether. 

And Jesus? Well, I’m certain he was an actual historical figure, a masterful personality and a brilliant and wildly charismatic rabbi. He was executed on a Roman cross, for no one’s sins. He never rose from the dead. He was the son of mortals — mom, no virgin — not of gods. He was human, not divine. And he was just one of countless so-called messiahs of his time. But he got the most press. He had an amazing agent.

Queasily, as I type all this, I keep thinking (or am I praying?): I really hope the pope actually said there is no Hell. If not, I’m probably cooked.

Bunnies and the Bible — wrestling with Easter’s confused impulses

As a lapsed Catholic and ironclad agnostic (and probable atheist), Easter means nothing to me. Not literally, not symbolically, not allegorically, not chocolate bunny-y.

It’s but another Sunday that happens to roll around, like a brightly-dyed egg, in the flush of springtime, solemn yet gay, prayerful yet festive, scripture-dry, yet sweet as a gooey, chewy (ew-y) marshmallow Peeps.

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Palm Sunday doesn’t rock my boat. Good Friday — today — isn’t always so “good.” (Crucifixion, anyone?) Sometimes, like this one, it’s just all right. (All Right Friday — What would Jesus do?) It’s a little rainy, and my head hurts.

I’m not offended by the crass commodification of Easter — or, even more egregious, the wholesale whoring off of Christmas. White bunnies, yellow chicks, rainbow jelly beans, baskets stuffed with plastic grass, chocolate everything and those infernal Peeps (seriously, WWJD?) — what does any of this have to do with humankind’s purported savior rising from the dead and sealing the deal?

Nothing, of course. It’s a smoke screen to bamboozle children to get into the spirit, whether that’s the Holy Spirit or the spirit of a plush rabbit named Flopsy.

But can these tenets reconcile and exist side-by-side? Can one believe wholly in the Holy while worshipping at the altar of Cadbury? I found some excellent artwork that argues both sides. Behold:

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The bunny and the beatific one make strange bedfellows. Shoo, egg-monger! And whatever those kids are wearing is certainly blasphemous. 
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A real sport, Jesus blesses the secular trappings of Easter. His favorite: Reese’s eggs.

Am I going to hell for this? Could be. Maybe. Whatever. Pass the Peeps. You should see what they do in the microwave.

Curiosity killed the Catholic

I’m always on the lookout for a little religious illumination, be it the rattling Scientology documentary “Going Clear” to actually inviting a pair of Mormon elders to my home for an eye-crossing lesson in radical historical revisionism. (They were very nice young men, for the record, natty in ties and pressed white shirts. A wee deluded.)

Right now I’m returning to some tried-and-true texts: the four Gospels and Acts in the New Testament, along with “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by E.P. Sanders.

This hidebound agnostic isn’t going reborn, hasn’t “found” anything and anyway isn’t searching for religious enlightenment, a Damascus moment. I’m a minor history buff (literally: it was my college minor) and armchair theologian, which means I sit in an armchair and read about religion with skepticism and a giant cigar.

The cigar’s a jape, but I’m fascinated by ideas of mass worship, divinity, mysticism and the spread of religion through the ages. Seeking “truth” isn’t the object — I don’t believe it resides in a religious text — but merely intellectual stimulation.

(And I have gotten out of the armchair: I was raised Catholic — baptized, Sunday school, weekly Mass, teenage apostasy, the works. In 2000 I made a solo trip to Israel to, among other things, get immersed in monotheism firsthand. It altered none of my thinking on the matter, except to solidify preconceptions about faith and fanaticism.)

Curiosity killed the Catholic. The more religion I ingest, the warier I become. I thirst for facts, historical actualities, not myths or homilies or inspired conjecture. I want the relative power of knowledge, not the affirmation of faith.

What strikes me is how, outside of the academy, intellectual ballast is so often at odds with religion. Example: A good friend in college prided herself on her devout Christianity, chided me for everyday blasphemies, went to church weekly and praised Christ. But she never read the Bible and everything she knew about the religion was received wisdom, blind faith from the church and her parents. Once, when I described to her what Jesus probably looked like, she said, and I quote, “Didn’t he have those beautiful blue eyes?” Yes, and a brushed swoop of sandy-blond hair.

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Would the real Jesus please stand up?

Maybe Jesus did look like Barry Manilow. But I care more about a historically accurate account of what he said and did. I especially want to know how he turned water into wine, a miracle that could save me bundles at Liquor Locker. No one seems to have a complete grasp on the actual Jesus. Even the Catholic Bible I’m reading is strewn with footnotes that cast troubling shadows over the “gospel truth.” Despite my reading, I’m still a grappling student. I’ll get back to you when the heavens crack open.