Friday, April 13, 2018

Fa’afetai Hibiscus and Ruthless: film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 135 plus films later, here is the review for March 2018.

Fa’afetai Hibiscus and Ruthless
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

A year on from the Hollywood-isation of Pacific cultures that is Moana (see review in Touchstone February 2017), Hibiscus and Ruthless offers rich intercultural film making. Told with humour and generosity, this is cinema that engages the contemporary complexities inherent in coming of age in multi-cultural New Zealand today.

Thematically this a film about the intergenerational pressures of education. New Zealand born Samoan director, Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa describes how classic Samoan parenting prioritises learning. But a message sent with concern – “Whatever you do, do it well” – is not always heard as a message love. For Hibiscus (Suivai Pilisipi Autagavaia), aided by her childhood, Palangi, friend Ruth (Anna-Maree Thomas nicknamed “Ruthless”), Samoan parenting is received as a strict set of rules.

Central to Hibiscus and Ruthless is the kitchen table. It marks time and sets boundaries. Every New Year’s Eve, while the neighbours celebrate with fireworks, Hibiscus’ household gather around the table to hear the message of proper planning. Salamasina, the mother, lays down the rules: work hard, pass University, organise family weddings and stay away from boys.

Every day ends with a cup of tea, shared around the same table. As the rules are strained by the enterprising Samoan men interested in Hibiscus, the dynamics around the family table become increasingly tense. In the growing void of words, silence preaches volumes.

Hibiscus and Ruthless is the second film directed by Stallone Vaiaoga- Ioasa. His first, Three Wise Cousins (2016) was self-funded. A single film trailer, the strength of Pacific networks and the power of Facebook ensured a box office success. The profits that resulted were invested in Hibiscus and Ruthless.

Hibiscus and Ruthless is made, set and shot in New Zealand, all within fourteen days. With little fanfare, we are reminded of the diversity of Auckland, from the University campus and Albert Park, to the volcanic cones and Onehunga Foreshore. While Auckland is present, what is surprisingly absent around the family table are Samoan men. Hibiscus is parented by woman, her mother Salamasina (Lafitaga Mafaufau) and grandmother (Yvonne Maea-Brown).

Religion is present, albeit in dialogue rather than visual iconography or characterisation. We are spared the bro’Town stereotypes of angry ministers preaching moralism. Instead, Ruth offers what is a common secular critique, in which the missionaries bring Jesus, only for Samoan’s to have their Sunday’s stolen for the entirety of their lives. A line comically delivered, it diminishes the social and identity forming role played by the church in Samoan culture, in which faith is entwined with family and feasting.

Most gratifying is the applause that Hibiscus and Ruthless is gaining from my Samoan colleagues, particularly Pacific woman. The accurate portrayal, mixed with the easy humour, is making the kitchen table, a place of tension in Hibiscus and Ruthless, a post movie place of intergenerational conversation. For gifts of humour, the unhibited acting of Anna-Maree Thomas and Vaiaoga-Ioasa’s passion for film, I say fa’afetai (thankyou).

Posted by steve at 08:37 PM

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Shape of Water: film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 135 plus films later, here is the review for February 2018.

The Shape of Water
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

The Shape of Water is an extraordinary movie, a splendid example of the power of visual storytelling. Director Guillermo del Toro is a master, and his attention to visual detail is exceptional. He has a history of exploring strange creatures (cue Pan’s Labyrinth) and Hollywood action (cue the Hellboy series). The Shape of Water merges both these genres, in a fantastical fairytale located in the dramatic realism of Cold War America.

Strong characterisation is used to develop both action and romance. A strange creature (Doug Jones as The Asset) is captured from a river in South America. For the military (Michael Shannon as Richard), the Asset is something strange needing to be killed. For the scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr Robert Hoffstetler), the Asset is something rare needing to be investigated. For a lonely cleaner (Sally Hawkins as Elisa), the Asset is something special, needing to be understood.

Elisa is mute, able to communicate only through sign. The Asset is not human, unable to communicate in words. The result is a number of extraordinary scenes, including one in which Elisa insists that her older friend (Richard Jenkins as Giles) give voice to her signing. It provides a profound reflection on the nature of communication, including our passion to be heard and our need of the other in the art of connection.

Another key scene in The Shape of Water involves Elisa tracing the fluid shape of water droplets on the window of a moving bus. Beautifully constructed, it brought to mind Maori understandings of water. Water is essential in Maori creation accounts. When Ranginui, the Sky Father and Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother are separated, one sheds tears that are rain, the other cloaks herself in mist and weeps in springs and rivers. In other words, water is a sign of love. Together – rain from the sky as wai mangu and springs from the earth as wai ma – are wai rua, the spirit that animates all forms of life.

These Maori understandings echo the way water is depicted in The Shape of Water. The film opens and closes in water. Elisa is an orphan, found by a river, while water is essential to the life of The Asset. Water is a place of intimacy that fluidly connects love and life. This provides viewpoints in stark contrast to water as valuable only in support of industrialised farming or summer recreation.

A review of The Shape of Water is not complete without noting it is rated R16, with themes that are certainly adult. An essential dimension of Elisa’s loneliness is depicted in relation to sexual need, explored in a number of water scenes. Love is thus portrayed as highly sexualised, a search for bodily need and intimate communication. This co-mingling of water, life, love and people certainly provides a way to respect the compelling final plot twist, in which water animates the love between Elisa and The Asset. But it does raise questions regarding whether The Shape of Water accurately portrays the entirety of the shape of love.

Posted by steve at 09:34 AM

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

No ordinary Sheila: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for December 2017.

No ordinary Sheila
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

In September this year, Stewart Island nurtured me. I had booked a retreat on New Zealand’s third largest island months prior. Then in late August my sister-in-law was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour. Within days she lapsed in a coma, from which she never recovered. I arrived on Stewart Island broken by her sudden death.

In shock, expecting little, the island enfolded me in a healing balm. It soothed me as kiwi and kaka walked with me through the main town of Oban. It tended me as the sea lapped at every turn I took. Islands called Faith, Hope and Charity spoke to a land soaked in historic grace. My pain remained, but found itself wrapped in the grace of place.

The memory of this grace returned as I watched No ordinary Sheila, the striking story of New Zealand writer and illustrator Sheila Natusch. Natusch is an extraordinary talent, the author of 77 books for adults and children. She was born on Stewart Island, her family gifting Fuschia Walk, which I took daily as part of my finding of peace.

The film is cleverly structured. It begins with a form of genealogy. Sheila and the Traill family might be European in origin, but they live with a profound respect for people and place. This includes naming Natusch’s descent from missionary stock, followed by a montage of Stewart Island scenery, from robin bouncing on forest floor to dolphin cresting a morning wave.

No ordinary Sheila is held together by two woven threads. One is the life of Natusch, the other an interview with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand’s Saturday Morning. A radio interview makes for boring film. So documentary maker Hugh Macdonald cleverly adds interviews. Natusch ponders with her biographer her friendship with Janet Frame. She speaks to tramping photos with friends. She explores Owhiro Bay with local café owners. It is a clever strategy, allowing Natusch to be drawn in real life by those who know her well. What it can’t do is scratch away the creep of nostalgic platitudes, including Sheila’s claim that cancer could be held back by a Kiwi “she’ll be right.”

Religion is present, but never pleasant. It appears when Sheila quotes the Bible on wives being submissive. Ironically, she also shares that the decision not to have children was made by Sheila’s husband. “Women were kept in their place” summarises Sheila, of her non-church-going husband. Perhaps submission was as much to be blamed on culture as it is on religions. Religion is also present in Sheila’s memories of being a student at Otago University, her bemusement that church goers would be praying for her as she laced her boots to tramp in God’s book of nature.

No ordinary Sheila provides for Pakeha Kiwi’s a biography of place. It stands as a reminder of how those who have gone before us traced the grace of this land. My sister-in-law shared Sheila’s love for nature. I wish they’d both had time to meet.

Posted by steve at 09:31 AM

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Blader runner 2049: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for November 2017.

Blade runner 2049
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

4 symbols make a man: A, T, G & C.
I am only two: 1 and 0.

It is a brave person who seeks to reboot a cult classic. Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott, was released in 1982. It created an entirely believable future, set in 2019, in which humans create replicants to do the dirty work made necessary on a dying planet. When four replicants escape, a complex set of moral questions are raised regarding how to tell human from machine.

Blade Runner became a cult classic, considered by critics as one of the best science fiction movies of all time. They point to the birth of cyber punk as a new genre, in which present concerns are placed in a technologically advanced and dystopian future. They point to the visual sophistication of a future world on earth, the clever use of light and dark by cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and the music score by Vangeles (since been sampled more than any other film score of the 20th century).

Adding to Blade Runner’s intrigue was a Directors Cut, released ten years after the original in 1992. It removed explanatory voice-overs and added a dream sequence. The result was a further set of questions regarding human identity and the place of memory and myth in a digital world.

Blade Runner was set in 2019. What was a distant date in 1982 is rapidly becoming a present reality. Hence director Denis Villeneuve attempts in Blade Runner 2049 to throw the future another thirty years forward. Acclaimed for the science fiction of Arrival (Praised in Touchstone December 2016), it is a brave person who seeks to reboot a cult classic.

Blade Runner 2049 makes fine work of meeting a set of impossible expectations. It is a standalone movie, visually stunning, musically complex and intellectually stimulating. It makes numerous references to the original, including the return of key characters like Harrison Ford (Deckard), Sean Young (Rachael) and Edward Olmos (Gaff). Yet at 164 minutes, 43 minutes longer than the original, Blade Runner 2049 deserves a director’s cut, starting with the multiple repeated lingering shots of an expressionless Ryan Gosling.

More specifically, Blade Runner needs a female director’s cut. Both movies present a future world created for and by a male gaze. The original involves Deckard engaging in sexual assault, physically forcing himself on an ambivalent Rachael. Blade Runner 2049 offers extensive female nudity, most evident in the advertising hologram Joi (Ana de Armas).

Dystopia invites us to explore the anxieties of our present world. In a month in which the hash tag #metoo has called attention to harassment, we urgently need to explore a future equally shaped by female concerns for the human body and what makes human identity.

Religious themes are present, albeit opaquely, in both movies. The original provides visual references that do theological work, including the presence of stigmata and the release of a white dove. In 2049, religion is verbal, through a range of obscure First Testament-esque quotes. More important than religion are the theological questions regarding the humanity identity, irrespective of whether the future is 2019 or 2049.

Posted by steve at 08:55 PM

Friday, November 03, 2017

My year with Helen film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for October 2017. It’s a review that met a deadline, but I sent it wishing I had a bit more time.

My Year with Helen
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

In this, a year of election, Aunty Helen is back. In our cinemas, on social media and active at Labour party events. On the movie screen she is the star of My Year with Helen, leading the United Nations Development Programme while also seeking election as the next Secretary General of United Nations.

The movie explains her current real life, 2017 election presence. In one cinema scene, Clark demonstrates to the camera her social media skills as she cross-posts photos between Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. The movie “conveys how tough it is to break the remaining glass ceilings. May it motivate future generations of women to keep at it!” No wonder Aunty Helen is back, tweeting her support for a potential female Prime Minister in Jacinda Ardern.

My Year with Helen is documentary. Behind the camera is Gaylene Preston and her singular passion for telling New Zealand stories. For Preston, “the basic responsibility of New Zealand filmmakers is to make films principally for the New Zealand audience. If we don’t, no-one else will.” For over thirty years, Preston has told our stories, from Kiwis touched by war in Timor (Punitive Damage (1999)) to the impact of Parikaha (Tatarakihi (2012)). Recognised as Officer of the NZ Order of Merit for her services to the film industry, Preston’s skills are clearly evident in My Year with Helen.

All movies have stars and at times, Helen seems more actor than real life Kiwi. The final interview, as Gaylene questions Clark about her election loss is a masterful en-act-ing of reticence. Clark’s reluctance to reveal more than necessary suggests a movie more aptly titled My Year with a Guarded Helen.

Guarded Helen is however warmed by relationships. We see her in Waihi preparing meals for her ninety-five year old father. We see her husband Peter, patiently waiting after an Auckland speech. While each of these scenes humanise Clark, they also reveal her doing more than her being. We glimpse what Helen gives more than what Helen receives from these significant domestic relationships.

The movie is devoid of religion. Such an absence is consistent with Clark in real life. Raised Presbyterian, as Prime Minister she described herself as agnostic. Yet the UN is not New Zealand. As a global organisation, the UN works for 193 countries. Many in these countries are deeply religious. One wonders how these religious needs impact on the development work of the UN, especially given recent research has urged development studies to take seriously the role of religion in development.

Despite being devoid of religion, the movie does offer a commentary on the difficult task of justice making. Breaking the glass ceiling is an expression of the equal worth of all humans a way of making sense of Galatians 3:28. This provides a theological lens by which to understand My Year with Helen. The agnostic Clark, movie star, tweeter and politician is playing her activist part in re-making the world, seeking to make an equal place for generations of future women.

Posted by steve at 04:05 PM

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Big Sick film review: stand up comedy, stand out social commentary

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for September 2017. Its a review that met a deadline, but I sent it wishing I had a bit more time.

Big Sick
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Big Sick is stand out comedy. Well designed and cleverly paced, it offers not only warmly human humour, but a stand out depiction of the complexity of contemporary life.

The movie generates movement through the skilful use of four distinct backdrops. One is the twenty something flat. The modern flat is a backdrop against which Pakistani migrant Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and American student Emily (Zoe Kazan) tumble into love. The flat contrasts with another backdrop, that of Kumail’s family home, in which he weekly fends of his Pakistani parents’ commitment to arranging his marriage. The pace is fast-paced, an energetic plunge into the complexity of commitment across two different cultures.

A second backdrop is the hospital. In waiting room and ward, the pace of the Big Sick is slowed by Emily’s illness. While sickness renders her silent, she is given voice by the arrival of her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). Kumail’s understanding of Emily is redefined by the insights Beth and Terry share. Western marriages might not be arranged. Yet Western parents are like all parents. They hold unique insights into the individuality of their children.

The triangles between each couple and their parents generate the exploration of a complex range of contemporary issues, including marriage, migration and Western attitudes to Islam.

A third backdrop is provided through the use of stand up. Comedy clubs are where Big Sick begins and ends. They are also a venue to which the movie returns at regular intervals. The result is a rhythmic repetition as we hear the same jokes. Yet with every repeated one-liner, the faces in the audience are becoming people that we know. It is like hitting refresh on the web browser. Big Sick offers familiarity in this repetition, yet enrichment as the plot develops.

These four distinct backdrops are threaded together by technology. The use of Uber, the role of fingerprint recognition in opening Emily’s iPhone and the vitality of following on Facebook nourish the on and off-again relationship of Kumail and Emily.

Religion is present in the Islamic practises of Kumail and his family. Early on, Kumail fakes his faith. His parents think he has retreated to pray in the downstairs basement. In reality, he spends his time practising cricket and watching Youtube videos. The corrosive effects of Western individualism present a stiff challenge to the future of Kumail’s childhood faith. “Why did you bring me to America, if you wanted me to marry a Muslim?” he angrily challenges his parents.

Four backdrops and the woven threads of technology ensure Big Sick is both stand up comedy and stand out social commentary. Well-crafted, cleverly paced, it offers a warmly human introduction to the ethics of modern living.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 11:05 PM

Monday, August 28, 2017

the dangers of heavy in weight research

I have been wondering recently if different types of research carry different weight. In July, I was presenting two papers at two different conferences. One was on indigenous responses to Empire. Titled Converting empire: theologies of church and state in the encounter between British and Maori, it involved some pretty sad reading about the impact of the Great War of 1864 on Maori. A second paper was on Christian theology and sexual violence. Titled Sexual violence in the line of David: The possibilities and limits of recapitulation, it involved some equally sad reading on the impact of sexual violence.

Both papers also invited those who might listen into some difficult spaces. The treatment of indigenous peoples and sexual violence engage us body, mind and soul. Who knows who is in the room, and how they might respond, to presentations that engage heart and head.

I finished both presentations exhausted. There is always a degree of anxiety and nervous tension that goes into a presentation. There is a vulnerability in presenting work to peers. There is the inevitable imposter syndrome – the voices saying I’ve not read enough, that need to be met with the realism of “I never will.”

But this time the exhaustion seemed worse.

This was brought into sharp relief, the next day, when I began looking at a piece of contextual theology, a 63 page comic book titled How to Disappear Completely (2017). I had taken it as holiday reading, intending to enjoy it for pleasure. But within a few hours, I was enormously energised. I had sketched out 750 words. I had done an initial literature review. I found, in a 2nd hand book shop in Bristol, a Faber Gallery book on Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection paintings, which opened up a rich vein of potential comparative enquiry. I had spied a potential arts and culture journal and sent off an enquiry email. I was energised. This was fun.

Placing the two experiences of research side by side within the space of a few days was insightful. Sure it is always more fun (for me anyhow) to start something than end something. But something more was going on. I would suggest that some research is light in weight. Not light weight, but light in weight. It takes me into parts of being human that are creative. These are places of joy and life. Other research is heavy in weight. It takes me into parts of being human that are sad. These are places of pain and heartache. Both are important. I need to invest in both, to be light in weight and heavy in weight. For a time, for the time leading up to the two July conference presentations, I had become out of balance, too heavy in weight!

Unknown-2 Last week, the Stanley Spencer Resurrection paintings book arrived. It sits on my desk. I have made an addition to my research pipeline. Under conceiving new ideas and draft proposals, I have added an investigation into Resurrection today, looking at contemporary depictions

Visualising the resurrection in contemporary urban contexts

How to Disappear Completely is the latest offering from UK artist, Leeds-based, Si Smith. It is a 63 page comic that offers a sophisticated visual engagement with the Lenten journey and the city of Leeds, UK.  A commercial cartoonist by day, by night Smith expresses his faith in ways both visual and playful. Previous work includes 40, a creative imagining of Jesus in the wilderness, Stations of the Resurrection as a set of illustrations reflecting on Jesus’ resurrection today and 25 Advent Flatpack a series of paper-based figures to be assembled in the Christmas build up.
This research would bring How to Disappear Completely into conversation first, with the existing body of work, to chart the development of Smith’s visual work.  A key theoretical lens would the work of Scott McCloud, who in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993, 7) defines a comic as “sequential visual art” that works through techniques of “amplification through simplification.” This allows a reading of repeated visual motifs like smoke and pigeons in How to Disappear Completely as visual amplications of human ephemerality in the urban landscape.
Second, I would examine the way that Smith’s work can be positioned in conversation with painter, Stanley Spencer. A Spencer quote on page 2 of How to Disappear Completely offers words to introduce reflection on the nature of contemporary vocation. Spencer painted works on Christ in the Wilderness (1939-54) and Resurrection (1945-1950).  He sought to visualise resurrection as ascent, needing to be depicted in the urban streets on which he worked and walked.  How to Disappear Completely is, I would argue, a response to Spencer.  Both work as examples of imaging the resurrection in contemporary urban context.  Placed on conversation, they allow to consider a constant artistic challenge, that of visualising resurrection. They thus present contemporary attempts to visualise the resurrection not as a historical moment but an unfolding contemporary urban transformation.

After the recent heavy in weight research, I need some light in weight research. Both are important.

Posted by steve at 11:48 AM

Thursday, August 10, 2017

How to Disappear Completely: a (visual) review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for August 2017.

how-to-disappear-coverHow to Disappear Completely

Films are visual storytelling. The film reviewer examines the craft of images. In this review, I want to examine images from the genre that is comic rather than cinematic.

How to Disappear Completely is the latest offering from UK artist, Leeds-based, Si Smith. A commercial cartoonist by day, by night he expresses his faith in ways both visual and playful. 40 is a creative imagining of Jesus in the wilderness, Stations of the Resurrection a set of illustrations reflecting on Jesus’ resurrection today and 25 Advent Flatpack a series of paper-based figures to be assembled in the Christmas build up. Each is telling of story through pictures.

How to Disappear Completely (2017) is a 63 page comic that offers a strikingly sophisticated visual engagement with the Lenten journey and the city of Leeds. The main character quits work, deleting his facebook account to enter a contemporary wilderness, an abandoned municipal tower. Artistic skills are turned loose on interior walls. Visually, what is abandoned is transformed from the inside out. The results are breathtaking, as the palette, initially black and white, morphs into life-giving blues and rich reds.

The theological work is biblical and imaginative. The 40 days of Lent are linked to the seven days of creation. It is a rich reading of Scripture, weaving creation into the life of Christ. The Biblical instruction of Genesis 2:15 – to till and keep –find expression in the wasteland of urban life. God’s glory is revealed in the work of human hands (Psalm 8:6), Incarnate amid modern day Leeds.

Temptations remain, despite the wilderness. The distraction of social media and the random violence magnified by the alienations of urban life, clamour for attention. As the monastic life has testified through time, isolation only amplifies the soundtrack of our inner world.

Intriguingly, a feature of How to Disappear Completely is the soundtrack. The comic genre might be paper-based, yet a playlist on page 2, provokes the question. Is sound a tempting distraction? Or a source of revelation? The main character is rarely without music. This provides a narrative continuity, first in the lyrics and second, symbolically, in the loss of sound as the iPod dies.

Si Smith works in conversation with painter, Stanley Spencer. A Spencer quote on page 2 offers words to introduce reflection on the expression of vocation. Spencer painted works on Christ in the Wilderness (1939-54) and Resurrection (1945-1950). He sought to visualise resurrection as ascent, needing to be depicted in the urban streets on which he worked and walked. How to Disappear Completely is a fitting response, a work of love for Leeds.

In its urban particularity universal questions are raised. What would it look like for Jesus to enter your town? Where are the abandoned places in which your vocation might be called to create?

How to Disappear Completely is available from Leeds Church Institute (from at 5 pounds plus postage). For those seeking a contemporary reflection on vocation today, it is a life-giving purchase.

A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Posted by steve at 05:20 PM

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Wonder Woman as female Christ figure: a theological film review

ticket-1543115-640x480 Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for June 2017.

Wonder Woman
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Wonder Woman is fun. My three female companions loved it. Each appreciated a strong woman, doing what is right without needing a male savior. For one, there was delight in connecting with 1970’s childhood TV memories of Lynda Carter fighting crime with one golden lasso and two bullet-deflecting arm guards.

Wonder Woman was a comic character, created in 1941, for DC Comics. The opening scene of the Wonder Woman movie pays homage, with a Marvel van delivering a package. Inside is a photograph. It is a smart scene, connecting Diana (Gal Gadot) with the comic genre, locating her in contemporary time, yet with a photographic history that includes World War 1.

Wonder Woman was created by American psychologist and writer, William Moulton Marston. He sought a superhero who would triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love. “Fine,” his wife said, “but make her a woman.” (Lamb, Marguerite, “Who was Wonder Woman? Bostonia). In seeking inspiration, Marston looked to early feminists, including birth control pioneer, Margaret Sanger.

Given these feminist ideals, it is interesting to then ponder Wonder Woman as a female Christ figure. Historically, Christian theology has offered a number of ways to understand the work of a male saviour. Three have dominated, including Jesus bringing victory over evil, offering a moral example and as a substitute for sin. (There are other Biblical trajectories, including Jesus as our representative, as faithful witness, as adopting us into God’s family, as embracing us like the Prodigal Son and with us in solidarity.)

In relation to Wonder Woman, the act of sacrificial love is performed by the male, as Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) offers his life for the sake of the world. Diane takes another approach. In a climatic final scene, she presents in a crucifix position, arms outstretched, radiating white love from her heart to conquer darkness. It is an act chosen after an extended wrestle with the implications of free will.

It is a complex moral question, carefully explored over an extended final action sequence. Will you give someone choice, when they have the ability to choose evil? For Diana, the answer is resolved in remaining love.

“And now I know… that only love can truly save the world.
So now I stay, I fight, and I give – for the world I know can be.
This is my mission now, for ever.”

Confronted with the human potential to bring darkness, she triumphs not with fists or firepower, but with love. In so doing, redemption chooses to participating with humanity, active in a mission in which love wins.

Wonder Woman is packed with action and fun-filled humour. It provides connections for fans new and old. For new fans, Diana’s Amazon origins are describing, while for old fans, she appears in the opening scene in the same clothes as she wore in the much loved 1970’s TV series. At the same time, Wonder Woman is a serious examination of a female Christ figure who responds to the complexity of free will with a remaining love.

Posted by steve at 07:21 PM

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

a fake films film review: Their Finest

ticket-1543115-640x480 Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for June 2017.

Their Finest
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Their Finest is well-made entertainment, directed by Danish director, Lone Scherfig. Scherfig has won previous acclaim, with An Education gaining three Oscar nominations and applause in Touchstone (November, 2009) as “a triumph for the directing skills of Dane Lone Scherfig.” Scherfig seems able to draw exceptional performances from women leads. In 2009, Carey Mulligan gained as Oscar for her performances as Jenny in An Education. In 2017, Gemma Arterton shines as Catrin Cole in Their Finest.

Their Finest draws on the third novel (“Their Finest: A Novel“) from the pen of Lissa Evans. Movies about movies are a well-worn cliché, with over 100 listed on one IMDB database. In war-torn England, a secretary finds herself a script writer. In the aftermath of Dunkirk and the blitz on London, England needs stories of hope. But in the world of cinema, truth soon finds herself playing second fiddle to politics. Is fake news in fact a historic reality? The lines between truth and propaganda become blurred as womens’ roles are cut and new characters inserted, in search of favour from audiences home and American.

The result is a set of ethical questions. Is British propaganda more virtuous than German propaganda because winners are grinners? Is making movies about the process of making movies clever? Or is the whole industry self-referencing narcissism? And is that the point being made by Their Finest?

While Their Finest is based on an exceptional performance by Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, both men in the developing love triangle (Sam Claflin as Tom Buckley and Jack Huston as Ellis), are less than loveable. A chain smoking mansplainer and a philandering artist suggest their is little nobility in wartorn English manhood.

What becomes clear as Their Finest rolls on is that for some, war will be more of a liberation than a deprivation. With a shortage of men, women (like Catrin Cole) who want to script write find themselves achieving in domains previously unattainable. Hence war becomes a theatre in which the emancipation of women is enhanced.

The movie mixes comedy and war time drama. Sometimes the mix is smooth, including the scene in which the German bombing of a London fashion reveals bodies not of humans but of dummies. At other times, the mix is barely believable. A central scene (spoiler alert), concludes with a war-time tragedy that abruptly ends a romantic relationship. As the body is rushed to hospital, the camera remains focused on Catrin Cole. It makes good cinematography, centralising every ounce of grief in one lonely figure. But leaving a victim alone in shock and grief seems a scarcely believable response, in war or peace.

Perhaps this is the dilemma at the heart of Their Finest. The war offers liberation, but only for individuals present in moments of opportunity. It seems a less than fine approach to feminism and opportunity. Does feminism need individual women grabbing opportunity, only to find themselves making fake news? Or does it need a societal restructure, in which solidarity together brings needed change? Their Finest offers entertainment and a pleasing range of puzzling ethical complexities.

Posted by steve at 01:55 PM

Friday, May 26, 2017

two Steve’s in two places

Today, due to the wonders of technology, there are two Steve’s in two places.

First, there is diligent Steve, who is at National Assessment Weekend. I am working with 15 folk from across the Presbyterian Church. Every year, this group gathers in Torbay, Auckland, to discern those called to nationally ordained ministry within the Presbyterian Church. Over the weekend, there will be prayer, listening, questioning, engaging, as we seek to understand God’s call.

Second, with the wonders of technology, there is playful Steve. This person is working in Adelaide, South Australia. They are making a presentation in the Noel Stockdale Room, Central Library, Flinders University, between 2-5 pm. This is part of “Undisciplined Austen” a 2017 interdisciplinary research project run by Flinders Institute for Research in the Humanities.

I will be making a presentation on the role of religion in contemporary popular culture portrayals of Jane Austen. (I described a few weeks ago how this has come about). This type of research is at the margins of my Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership role. So all work done has been after hours. Tele watching in the evenings! On Monday evening I watched Pride And Prejudice And Zombies. On Tuesday evening, I put together my presentation. This involved examining the movie, looking for Biblical references, the portrayal of religious practices and theological themes and language.

I confess to being quite surprised. I began quite playfully. Almost flippant actually. But as I examined the role of sacramental practice in Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, I found myself pondering anew what the Biblical account of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke might actually be saying.

I videod this and sent it to the conference organisers. It will be played today. The interaction of participants and other presenters will be recorded and sent to me. This will then shape the writing of a paper, which along with the other presenters, will become a special journal issue, on the “Undisciplined” i.e. beyond English literature engagement with Jane Austen.

My presentation is titled “religious piety and pig brains: the faith of zombies.” This use of technology will enable me to be Adelaide today, in a somewhat playful space, at the same time as I am in a diligent space in Torbay, Auckland. For those interested, here is “playful Steve”, talking about the faith of zombies in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

steve taylor zombie theology from steve taylor on Vimeo.

I am glad to be both diligent and playful. I actually think this is part my continuing to discern my call, to seek to weave together my desire to keep encountering a God of surprise, in the midst of prayerful search for understanding. I am glad to be part of discerning call. I am also glad to think theologically about popular culture, to review films and consider how religious resources are being used.

Posted by steve at 10:58 AM

Monday, May 08, 2017

One thousand ropes: a theological review

ticket-1543115-640x480 Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for May 2017.

One thousand ropes
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

In February, I urged Touchstone readers watching Moana to keep watching Pacific pictures. One Thousand Ropes by Samoan New Zealander film director, Tusi Tamasese, provides a perfect opportunity. In 2011, Tamasese gave us The Orator, set in Samoa, with a Samoan cast speaking Samoan. Tamasese returns with One Thousand Ropes, again a Samoan cast, again speaking Samoa, but this time set in New Zealand.

Often narrative drives plot. In One Thousand Ropes the linearity of plot is displaced by time. Maea (Uelese Petaia) is a male midwife. Skilled at birthing the future, he needs deliverance from an ever-present past.

Instead, momentum is generated through Leon Narbey’s cinematography. The focus on small detail – lemons, hands, bodies and buildings – allows the plot to move. The movement of time is marked, not by changing seasons but by an apartment block being painted. Or through lemons, which in the beginning are offered by way of thanks. Placed on Maea’s kitchen table, they become an object of contemplation, before becoming liniment, rubbed on the belly of a pregnant woman. These visual details provide strands for continuity.

The reality of domestic violence haunts One Thousand Ropes. It is examined not by moralistic messaging, but in the interplay of symbol and the absence of certain sounds. Symbolically, the camera focuses on hands. They tenderly massage a placenta from a womb and beat dough into bread. They can also bruise the pregnant body of Maea’s daughter (Frankie Adams).

Then there is sound. A cake mixer pounds dough while men chose the violence of actions over the empathy that comes from words. Is it that men don’t talk? Or is it that these particular men from this particular culture, don’t talk? One Thousand Ropes seems to suggest that the actions of human hands are related to the absence of human words.

Controversially, there is the presence of the spirit of a dead woman (Sima Urale). She lives in the corner of Maea’s living room. Cinematically, the character provides a past presence that haunts Maea’s present. But what does her presence communicate about Samoan culture? And what should a Christian viewer make of this ghostly presence? Watching One Thousand Ropes, I wondered what to make of the Christian Scriptures. Old and New Testaments offer stories from life beyond the grave, including the Easter story of walking dead.

The church is absent in One Thousand Ropes. There is plenty of tradition, in the form of traditional medicine and cultural practice. But there is no trace of religion, whether as healing presence, caring community or moral judge. In this sense, the films fail to capture a dimension of culture essential to Samoan life.

Yet redemption is present, located in the actions of Maea’s daughter, Ilisa. Her midwiving father will not help her. Yet in giving birth alone, she finds courage. By her actions, she steps beyond the hands that have beaten her. She weaves instead, for herself and her father, a new future.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 08:35 PM

Monday, April 03, 2017

Silence: a theological film review

ticket-1543115-640x480 Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for April 2017.

A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Silence is recommended viewing in the season of Lent. The movie is an extended passion play, in which multiple characters follow Jesus to the cross. Two Jesuit missionaries (Andrew Garfield as Father Rodrigues and Adam Driver as Garupe) believe they are called by God to Japan. It is the seventeeth century and as they travel, they hear rumours of a persecution so brutal that their confessor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has committed apostasy. Silence thus becomes an absorbing, albeit bleak, meditation on the complexity of discipleship unto death.

The strong of faith will find in Silence there is room for doubt. There are the intellectual accusations and theological questions posed by the Japanese interrogator (Issey Ogata as Inoue Masashige). Is missionary religious zeal a commitment made at the expense of those the missionary professes to serve? How can belief in God be sustained in view of persistent failure? The verbal questions are sharpened by the multiple deeds of denial, as Japanese converts deny their faith and Father Ferreira turns to Buddhism. Silence poses to the strong in faith an unrelenting sequence of faith-denying words and deeds.

For the weak of faith, there is comfort in the character of Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubosuka). Unlike Judas, Kichijiro choses not to follow his denial by death. Instead his continual seeking of forgiveness becomes a test of the Christian commitment to forgiveness seventy times seven. Kichijiro’s enduring presence and repeated failures offer a strange comfort to all who doubt.

Silence: A Novel as a book was written by Shusako Endo, one of Japan’s foremost novelists. The movie rights were acquired by film director, Martin Scorsese over twenty five years ago. Scorsese claims a life long fascination with faith. He considers his movie-making an act of prayer, writing “I wanted to be a priest. My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else” (Detweiler and Taylor, A Matrix of Meanings: finding God in pop culture, 155). Silence allows Scorsese to apply all the learnings from a career spanning more than fifty years to the topic of religion.

Silence is a rich reminder of a director at the top of their game. At crucial times, the absence of sound amplifies the internal conflicts central to Silence. In silence – offering mass and considering apostasy – Rodrigues makes significant choices. Each choice drives the emotional register of the movie.

A further demonstration of directorial skill is the final scene, in which a dead hand holds an empty crucifix. The symbolism illustrates the unrelenting ambiguity of Silence. Is this a scene of hope, that one can hold onto faith unto death? Or is this suggesting the end of Christianity, as the Christian cross is reduced to ash in the Japanese funeral pyre?

Such are the questions Silence asks of each and every viewer. Keeping alive the questions of the cross is a central task of Christianity. Such is the gift of Silence to all who walk the Lenten journey.

Posted by steve at 10:35 PM

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Seeing Silence as Cinema

I presented a paper at the Seeing Silence: Interdisciplinary perspectives symposium today. My paper was titled: Seeing Silence as Cinema. In August 2016, in Korea, I had presented a paper on Silence at the International Association for Mission Studies. At that time, Silence the film had not been released, so my paper in Korea was somewhat limited, drawing mainly on Silence the book.

With Silence released in New Zealand in February, my paper today was a deeper engagement with the movie as cinema. My argument was that movies are a visual discipline, so we need to “see” Silence. I used a number of scenes from the movie, including the capture scene, to argue that movies allow us to pray with our eyes wide open. This was based on the quote from Martin Scorcese – “I made it as a prayer, an act of worship. I wanted to be a priest. My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else” (A Matrix of Meanings: finding God in pop culture: 155).


Another key resource was Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film and his types of “Jesus: the movie star” movies. So for example, the capture scene is a fusing of three types: Christ figure, historical Jesus and Jesus art. As a result, Scorsese is changing the fundamental stance of the viewer, from watcher to immersed participant in the reality of God in silence.

My paper was one of six papers at the symposium.

Friday, 17 March, 7.45 – 8.45 pm
Linda Zampol – The Early Modern Jesuit Enterprise in Japan
John England – A Deeper Faithfulness than Martyrdom

Saturday, 18 March, 9.30-10.30 am
Roy Starrs – The meeting of Buddhism and Christianity in Silence
Lynne Taylor – Our Being becomes us: practising Ignatian Spirituality and becoming Christian

Saturday, 18 March, 11.00-12.00 pm
Richard Goodwin – Silence and Presence: The sacramental style in film
Steve Taylor – Seeing Silence as Cinema

The six papers, accepted after peer review, fell elegantly in three pairs – historical, religious and cinematic – and ensured a very rich conversation. We also gained permission from Fuller Studio to show a interview with Silence director, Martin Scorsese, which added a further rich layer. The audience was a mix of lay and academic, which definitely enhanced the conversation.

The event was part of the Christianity and Cultures in Asia series, a joint venture sponsored by Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, the Otago University Department of Theology and Religion, and Presbyterian Research Centre. Each partner brings distinct resources and ensured a thoroughly worthwhile conversation about how to live faith faithfully.

Posted by steve at 04:57 PM