Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Radioactive: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 150 plus films later, here is the review for September 2020.

Radioactive
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Radioactive is the illuminating story of human brilliance. Brilliance shines from the science of Madame Curie (Rosamund Pike). Living in Paris, she became in 1903 the first woman to win a Nobel prize, for discovering radioactivity. The first ever woman appointed to as professor at the University of Paris, in 1911, she became the first (and only) woman to win a second Nobel prize, for the discovery of polonium and radium.

Radioactive illuminates not only her brilliance but equally her humanity. Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska, she lost her mother aged ten to tuberculosis and her husband, Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), in a tragic accident. Born Polish, she experienced sexism and xenophobia, at times cruelly scapegoated by the populist press in France.

Radioactive draws from the graphic novel by Lauren Redniss (Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout) and is directed by Iranian-born French woman Marjane Satrapi. Perhaps it is the gift of a migrant, to tenderly illuminate the corrosive impact of causal racism and a xenophobic public.

Before directing, Satrapi had gained critical acclaim for her autobiographical novels Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. Indeed, a feature of Radioactive is the attention paid to the visual in storytelling. While sequences like the woman aflame in the second meeting between Maria and Pierre add meaning, other visual sequences offer an overworked hyperrealism that distracts from the unfolding drama.

The ethics of making are central to any dramatic telling of radiation. Science has a human side, and in a final sequence, Maria walks through humanity’s future. She enters a future room in which she glimpses the radioactivity she discovers making good, in the cure of cancer. She then enters rooms in which radiation is making bad, killing tens of thousands at Hiroshima, causing hundreds of thousands to be evacuated at Chernobyl. These ending sequences invite a theological reflection on the ethics of making.

For Christianity, making is never neutral. Things, as well as humans, can always be converted. In Isaiah 2:4, swords can be beaten into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks. Such is the vision of God, as military hardware is redeemed into agricultural assistance.

A similar vision occurs in Deuteronomy 19:1-13. Handmade axe heads can kill. Things made for good – to cut wood – can make for bad – a neighbour unintentionally killed. In response, God’s people are instructed to make again. The love of God converts an eye for an eye into the making of cities of sanctuary. Things made are never neutral. Yet a city well made can transform the corrosive impact of scapegoating.

Such ancient visions have inspired contemporary makers. Recently in Sweden, Andreas Vural turned the metal from seized illegal guns into sets of wireless headphones. The Megatons to Megawatts Program dismantled nuclear weapons, making them into civilian electric power stations. Over twenty years, as much as ten per cent of the electricity produced in the United States was generated from the equivalent of 20,008 made in Russia nuclear warheads. Makers can transform. It is a vision in which human brilliance is dignified and each of us are capable of making, whether for good or bad.

Posted by steve at 11:22 AM | Comments (0)

Monday, August 31, 2020

The High Note: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 150 plus films later, here is the review for August 2020.

The High Note
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“Everyone’s a star in our town, It’s just your light gets dimmer.”
lyrics from California (There Is No End To Love) (There Is No End to Love) by U2

Advertised as a romantic comedy, The High Note offered a light-hearted post-Lockdown return to the cinema. The slow drift toward another manufactured Hollywood Sunset Strip ending is surprisingly dimmed by the arrival of ancient, Biblical wisdom.

The High Note is a 2020 American comedy-drama film directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by Flora Greeson. Set in California, life is a backdrop of palms, pools, and parties, in which everyone is filled with dreams, scripts, and songs.

Like so many Hollywood dreams, The High Note begins in a music studio. By night, Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson), is making music. By day, she is a personal assistant to Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross).

Boasting twelve Grammy’s, Grace Davis embodies diva, with fabulous clothes, private jets, and extravagant parties. But the light of every star in Tinseltown is always slowly fading. This sets up a career tension. Does Grace make another album of new music? Or does she sink into Vegas, a star slowly drawing down on her fading celebrity?

David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) provides character contrast. A young singer, playing community halls, he meets Maggie Sherwoode over an organic orange at the corner store. This sets up another set of tensions. Can there be an ending apart from young love? In Hollywood, armed with a laptop, everyone is a producer. Can personal assistant become a producer of David’s music? As a result, boundaries blur. The tensions around romance and career soon become ethical.

High notes are amplified by low notes. Contrast comes dramatically with an unexpected plot twist, needed to set up the Hollywood ending, as stars new and old fuse in the grand finale.

Contrast comes quietly in the form of a text message. Maggie and David are messing about while Katie (Zoë Chao), Maggie’s flatmate and loyal friend, is at work. A theatre nurse, Katie sends an image of an open heart. Everything is meaningless, responds Maggie, showing the picture of the open heart to David. In the middle of a budding romance and California dreaming, do you laugh? Do you return to messing about with your boyfriend? Or do quietly ponder the meaning of life?

“Everything is meaningless” is a line of poetry from Ecclesiastes 1:2. The writer, likely King Solomon, has sampled the high notes of life. In Ecclesiastes chapter 2, the pleasures are listed: urban landscaping, wealth acquisition, and sexual choice. In other words, plenty of palms and parties under the Jerusalem stars! Yet as Ecclesiastes concludes:

For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (12:14)

Whether scriptwriter Flora Greeson is aware of the Biblical allusion or no, the intrusion certainly changes the mood. Every star, whether rising or falling, has a heart. Every human, famous or forgotten, is vulnerable. Every action, whether unethical or wise, will be judged. One image accompanied by three words insert Biblical wisdom into The High Note’s dreams of starlit glamour.

Posted by steve at 08:05 PM

Monday, March 30, 2020

contagion – a theological review in a time of pandemic

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 140 plus films later, here is the review for April 2020. Touchstone have kindly given permission for me to place it online prior to print publication, given the extraordinary times in which we find ourselves

Contagion
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Contagion was released in 2011. It is available on iTunes and Google Play and at prices cheaper than a movie ticket. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, a “stay-at-home” theological film review seemed appropriate.

“Get ready for the future, It is murder,” sings Leonard Cohen in 1992. The song would make an apt soundtrack for the movie “Contagion.” The film, released in 2011, has in the last week, become the second-most popular movie on iTunes. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the movie dramatizes a medical apocalypse that has, in recent weeks, become our present reality.

A mystery virus, originating in China, is swiftly carried by airline travel around the world. Highly contagious, able to survive on door handles and drinking glasses, a global pandemic ensures.

In this future vision (and unlike our present reality), the United States takes the lead. Central to the drama is the team at the Centre Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP). They are researching (Kate Winslett as Dr Erin Mears), communicating (Laurence Fishburne as Dr Ellis Cheever) and testing (Jennifer Ehle as Dr Ally Hextall; Demetri Martin as Dr David Eisenberg). A vaccine takes months. Distrust of science, mixed with the conspiracy, accelerated by social media results, results in looting, panic and vigilante action. As Cohen laments, the future indeed is murder.

“Contagion” has two emotional palette’s. A cold and fearful first half, as initial heroines (Gwyneth Paltrow as Beth Emhoff) collapse and masked medical professionals seek (unsuccessfully) to contain. A more empathetic second half follows, as romance blooms and sacrifices made for the greater good.

The movie cleverly pairs characters – wife (Beth Emhoff) with husband (Matt Damon as Mitch Emhoff); CDCP scientists’ female (Dr Erin Mears) with male (Dr Ellis Cheever). One sex will die, while the other will find creative ways to care for the next generation. Why, even in a pandemic, do gender stereotypes remain?

“Contagion” becomes an important watch amid the COVID-19 pandemic. What is made visible is the interplay between an unseen virus and a palpable human dread.

In the face of fear, we can choose anxiety. Believe social media. Distrust science. Surrender to conspiracy theories. Or we can choose to re-imagine. Open ourselves to love our neighbour as ourselves. Find different ways to care and connect through times of turbulence.

Churches have historically played an essential role in loving the sick. Basil of Caesarea in the fourth century, founded what historians consider was the world’s first hospital. At Basil’s funeral, the hospital he founded was praised as an institution of mercy in which “diseases are studied, misfortune made blessed and sympathy put to the test.” Such is Christianity. Science is valued, and research is respected. Kindness is evident, and greater love casts out fear.

We find ourselves in an unprecedented time in human history. Might the images of “Contagion” and the lyrics of Cohen accurately portray our emerging present? Or will the compassion of Mother Teresa and the innovation of Basil, mark the church as visible in the face of an invisible virus? Get ready for the future, it becomes our choice.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of First Expressions (2019), 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 www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 04:23 PM

Monday, November 18, 2019

ending a 15th year as a theological film reviewer

On Friday I hit send on a film review of Jojo Rabbit. It marked the end of my 15th consecutive year of film reviewing.

In August of 2005, I was teaching Gospel and Film at Laidlaw College. The phone rang and Paul Titus, the then editor of Touchstone, the denominational magazine for the Methodists of Aotearoa New Zealand introduced himself. He explained that he had two (free) tickets to Sedition, a documentary about conscientious objectors to war in Aotearoa New Zealand. It was a New Zealand film festival release. Since the film included a number of Methodists, the film would be of interest to readers of Touchstone. Would I be willing to attend (for free) and write a review?  They would pay per word, for a 500 word film review.

I agreed, attended and scratched out my first every film review.  I was a paid writer!

The editor was delighted. As the month ended, he rang again. Would I be willing to become a permanent monthly film reviewer? he asked. Two free tickets and 500 words on the theology of film. Why not, I said. I enjoy going to movies. I teach in Gospel and film. Why not put words where my mouth is?

Every month since, I have turned out 500 words. In the 15 years, that is over 155 film reviews – 77,500 words – and counting. Once Touchstone is out in print, I am allowed to place them online and many are here. Despite shifting countries twice and once changing editors.

“You’re longest running job” commented one of my daughters earlier this year.

Some months it is fun. The film is one I want to watch and the words flow. Many months it is hard. The available films hold little appeal. Those that do are showing at awkward times. Or I’m travelling overseas and the selection is limited.

Over the years – through the fun and the hard – I’ve come to see it as a spiritual discipline. The monthly pattern forces me to pay attention. It might not suit – my interests, my travel schedule, my plans – but that’s the point. In the imposed, I am being disciplined, forced to think theologically. As I do, I am enriched spiritually. I watch things I would not normally watch. I find unexpected insights, gain new perspectives, see (an)other differently.

In 2019 I have reviewed

  • Cold War
  • Storm Boy
  • Celia
  • Daffodils
  • Merata
  • Tolkien
  • Summer in the forest
  • Andrei Rublev
  • For Sama
  • Joker
  • Jojo Rabbit

Some were gruelling – like For Sama and Joker. Some were once in a lifetime – like Andrei Rublev re-mastered on the big screen at the Regent Theatre. Others were delightful – like Storm Boy and Daffodils. In each was the discipline. Paying attention, seeking to approach film as film, and in that discipline become aware that God has yet more light and truth to break forth (to rift off an insight from John Robinson, from his farewell speech of 1620, as the pilgrims were about to set sail on the Mayflower).

Over the years, colleagues have suggested I take film reviewing more seriously. They note I am a missiologist, with an interest in popular culture. Write a book, they say.

I’ve always resisted. It’s just fun. A bit of play. I’m paid to play – paid to watch movies. Isn’t that enough! Besides, each film stands alone. How to turn 500 words into a cohesive narrative? That’s a tall order.

This year, upside down on the other side of the world, I woke with a title and a theological frame. It integrates a Theological Reflection class I teach, on God in the world. The class is 3 hours in length and would certainly provide a chapter or two of theoretical framing. Around the frame, the films could cluster. Importantly for me, the title and frame has liturgical dimensions. It would allow me to turn reviews into prayer, theology into spiritual practice.

It needs some work but it was a landmark moment. Almost like that first phone call in 2005. I sensed an energy. Who knows. Maybe 2020 will not only be my 16th year of film reviewing, but also the year of the book.

Posted by steve at 09:39 PM

Monday, May 20, 2019

Daffodils film review: crafting a Kiwi lectionary

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 140 plus films later, here is the review for May 2019.

Daffodils
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Daffodils packs an emotional punch, a Kiwi soundtrack in which the songs actually silence the words that sustain relationships. Daffodils began life as a play, created by Rochelle Bright in 2015. Returning from New York because she wanted to tell New Zealand stories, she starts close to home with the tale of her own parents falling in, then out, of love.

The plot is artfully constructed. Kiwi songs – Bic Runga’s Drive, the Mutton Birds’s Anchor Me, Dave Dobbyn’s Language and Crowded House’s Fall At Your Feet – are like pearls, each sung by Maisie (played by Kimbra) and her band in front of adoring fans. As Maisie polishes these well-known Kiwi pearls, her estranged father Eric (played by George Mason), dies alone in a hospital bed.

2019 is a year for movie musicals. Daffodils shows New Zealand can foot it with the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born. Songs carry emotion and narrate life.

Individual pearls shine brighter when strung together. Continuity comes in Daffodils with the story of Eric, meeting Rose beside the daffodils in Hamilton Gardens. We watch them fall in love, get married and have children. Yet as they mature, they can’t shake the immaturity of the lies they let themselves believe about each other’s lives.

One way to understand Daffodils is to turn academic. Tom Beaudoin, musician and theologian, touts contemporary popular culture as the amniotic fluid in which young adults become familiar with themselves (Virtual Faith : The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, 1998). We love, laugh and lament to the songs that define our generation. It makes sense of the story of growing up in Christchurch told by local lad, Roger Shepherdson. In Love With These Times (2016) is the story of the birth of Flying Nun Records and the creation of a distinctly New Zealand songbook, songs that define an era and thus a generation.

What is significant for church readers is that the Daffodils’ songbook comes devoid of religious hymns. The tunes from bygone Britain no longer evoke memory or stir emotion. Rose and Eric get married in a church. But when relationships get rocky, the hymns of the wedding and the rote learned vows have no reconciling power.

Yet neither do the Kiwi pearls. This is the ironic sadness of Daffodils. Kiwis might have a unique pop culture soundtrack, but the songs as sung actually silence the language needed to sustain relationships.

For preachers wanting to connect with a Kiwi culture, why not ditch the hymns. Instead take the songs from Daffodils and link them with a Gospel story:

• Bic Runga’s Drive with Mary’s haste to connect with Elizabeth in Luke 1:39-45;
• Dave Dobbyn’s Language in conversation with Jesus Heals a Deaf and Mute Man in Mark 7:31–37;
• Crowded House’s Fall At Your Feet in harmony with the events of the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:36-46;
• The Mutton Birds Anchor Me as a tune alongside Jesus’ reinstating of Peter in John 21:15-19.

In each of these Gospel stories people are living with and in silence. Yet through Divine encounter there are ways to face the lies they’ve let themselves believe.

Posted by steve at 09:01 AM

Monday, December 10, 2018

Film review: Yellow is forbidden

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 December 2018.

Yellow is forbidden
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Documentary is a unique genre. There is no script writer, paid actors or shooting of multiple scenes. Instead there is the promise of true to life insights. But exclusivity comes with a price. The veil onto an authentic self is being lifted, but the gaze of camera and interviewer should be adoring. An overly prying eye or a critical interview could well result in the end of access, a film canned rather than in the can.

“Yellow is forbidden” is documentary. Kiwi director Pietra Brett-kelly follows Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei off the catwalk and into the dressing rooms and digital design studios of the global fashion industry. Several stories are cleverly embroidered together. First the career of China’s most famous designer, including a closeup of the “Magnificent Gold” dress, stunningly worn by Rihanna on the Met Gala red carpet. Made from gold, taking two years to make and weighing 25 kilograms with a five metre hand embroidered train, it placed Guo Pei on the global fashion map. Second, the complexity of a Chinese designer organising a fashion show in Paris, an outsider crossing boundaries of culture and taste. Finally, Guo Pei’s personal life including the backstitched story of her childhood, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, in which golds are the colour of the court and Guo Pei is forbidden to dress in yellow.

Yellow as colour is thus a central metaphor. The movie begins in darkness. A voice calls for a iphone to be turned on and the materials of a dress absorb the stark glare of spotlight. With the iphone then turned off the dress then shimmers with a ghostly radiance. It is a stunning visual reminder of the beauty of fashion and the way technology can be twinned with imagination. As a beginning, it has echoes of John 1. A light shines in the darkness, in order that all of humanity might absorb, then in shimmer in response to Divine Light in Christ.

Historically, religion has lived in an uneasy relationship with fashion. Pietism celebrates the unadorned and naturally human. Yet a rich set of images emerge if humans can shimmer with beauty in response to technology and imagination.

In Christian Scripture, God is a fashion designer. In Job 10:11-2, God is a dressmaker. In Ezekiel 16:9-1, God is a maker of designer clothes, a crafter of perfumes and accessories to adorn the nation of Israel. In Psalm 12:6, God is a jeweler crafting silver. One way to watch “Yellow is forbidden” is thus as an extended meditation on God the maker. The cinematic depictions of fabric being dyed, sequins being painstakingly sown and patterns woven in golden thread, are a window into the way God intends humans to participate in the creative fashioning of life together.

Drawing on the image of God the maker, theologian Paul Fiddes argues that being made in Gods’ image means humans are made to craft in delight, be open mouthed in wonder and practice perseverance. Such are the possibilities suggested by a theological conversation with the fashion in “Yellow is forbidden.”

Posted by steve at 08:49 PM

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Understanding conversion in light of the “Silence” of religious change

Some writing I’ve been doing over the last few days. I’m trying to knit together a conference paper delivered in August 2016 and a conference paper delivered in March, 2017, for a potential book chapter due mid-July 2018!

Both conference papers stand at around 2,000 words. Together, could the two pieces, make a whole, a chapter for a potential book publication? This will require one central idea and some clear editing. That begins with an introduction. So, can I find an introduction ….

Jesus comes announcing the Kingdom of God is near (Mark 1:15; Luke 10:9). This invites the possibility of conversion. Hence the relationship between conversion and Christian witness becomes an essential area of study for missiology.

The documents of the early church offer narratives in which the proclamation of the Good News is linked with life change and transformation. In Acts 2:41-47, three thousand experience a transformation into a church which practices a passionate spirituality, experiences the supernatural and outworks a radical egalitarianism. The book of Acts chronicles the expansion of Christianity, geographically from Jerusalem to Rome; ethnically, from Jews to Gentiles; numerically across the cities of the Roman empire. Soards argues that the speeches in Acts, of which he identifies thirty-six, are key to the unity and emphasis of Acts. In words, they present “the story of the early church’s bearing witness to God’s will and work in Jesus Christ.” (The Speeches in Acts: Their Content, Context, and Concerns, by Marion L. Soards. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 194). The relationship between Christian mission, conversion and expansion continue through the history of the church. Individuals stand in church to testify to finding faith in Christ and the transformations that result from conversion. Mission agencies draw on accounts of conversion in seeking prayer and financial support. In each case, the assumption is that conversion and transformation are intrinsically linked to Christian mission.

Equally, the historical record, in both Josephus and the Christian Gospels, is that Jesus’ announcing of the Kingdom was met with both receptivity and resistance (Luke 9:51-55). Essential to a non-coercive invitation is the freedom for conversion and transformation to be resisted. The theological challenges that result must be considered in constructing a missiology that is equal parts robust and realistic. Indeed, amidst the expansive narratives of Acts, is the reality that individuals resist the Gospel. It is easy to celebrate the thousands in Acts 2 and 4, but in many of the cities in which the Apostle Paul preaches, there is a refusal to convert and resistance to the transforming announcement of Good news of Christ. Hence study of the nature and dynamics of Christian witness must, in the search for truth, engage with the realities associated with resistance to conversion.

A robust and realistic missiology must include not only the possibilities that surround a lack of conversion. It must also examine the human desire to deconvert. In 2014, in the United Kingdom, National Secular Society supporter John Hunt made headlines when he sought to be “debaptised.”. Adams reports that over 100,000 Certificates of De-baptism were downloaded in five years from 2004 to 2009. While uncomfortable, it is an area that any study of conversion must consider. Who is God and how might conversion and transformation be understood, if there is no conversion? What is the nature of Christian mission given the reality of deconversion? How to narrate Christian witness when expansion is not the entirety of the Christian story?

In the writing on Tuesday, and the rewriting today, things become clearer. It is still draft. But in reaching for words, key points emerge.

Posted by steve at 06:04 PM

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Film review: Mary Magdalene

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 May 2018.

Mary Magdalene
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“Mary Magdalene” the movie was my Maundy Thursday religious experience. It provides rich Gospel reflection, whether watched pre- or post-Easter.

The reputation of Mary Magdalene was ruined by Pope Gregory, who in 591 preached a sermon (Homily 33) that wrongly called her a prostitute. Sadly he never bothered to correct his homiletical error. Mary Magdalene, the second most mentioned woman in the Gospels, became tarred by the church with a label neither deserved nor Biblical. In the Gospel, Mary is introduced in Luke 8:2, named alongside Joanna and Susanna as one who journeys with Jesus.

In Luke 7:37, an unnamed woman who “lived a sinful life” anoints Jesus. Quite how an unnamed sinful woman became, in the homily of Pope Gregory, a named prostitute named Mary has never been made clear. Nor why it took the Catholic Church over 1500 years to clarify a Papal mistake. But on 3 June, 2016, the Catholic church finally relented. Pope Francis gave Mary a feast day, to honour her witness as the first to give testimony to the Risen Jesus.

“Mary Magdalene” is an imaginative response, locating Mary alongside Jesus on the journey toward Jerusalem. Woman are portrayed as leaders and learners, baptisers and blessers. The scene in which Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) follows Mary (Rooney Mara) down a long mountain track to a well, all the while protesting that he understands Jesus’ (Joaquin Phoenix) commands better than she does, is a moment that will find many a woman nodding in sympathy. The teaching of Jesus in relation to forgiveness is sensitively applied in relation to women’s experience of rape and gender violence. Mary’s intuition becomes a source of revelation, honouring different ways of knowing that are essential in Christian discipleship. In other words, the movie celebrates what women bring to the mission of God.

Jesus movies are difficult to direct, given an ending that is well-known. Director Garth Davis animates a predictable plot by a powerful portrayal of the first century Roman rule. A sequence of economic injustices are artfully woven into the life histories that shape the call of disciples. Thankfully, and unlike The Last Temptation, the movie avoids any sexualisation of the relationship between Mary and Jesus. The result is a dignifying both of love and gender.

The only blemish is an ending which seems to draw from the Gnostic Gospel of Mary. The Gospel of Mary was discovered in Egypt in 1896. It was not made public until 1955. The most complete text still misses ten pages, including a section from after the Resurrection in which Mary moves from sharing her firsthand experience of Jesus to an ecstatic vision. This missing section seems to resource “Mary Magdalene.” The result is a blurring of lived experience and ecstatic vision and a weakening of the claims for historical accuracy so carefully built in the pre-crucifixion narrations of first century Roman economic exploitation.

Despite this post-Resurrection wobble, the Jesus that emerges is a rich embrace of justice-seeking activist and contemplative: an Easter Jesus worth following, whether first century peasant or twenty-first century #metoo activist.

Posted by steve at 09:53 PM

Monday, April 16, 2018

Black Panther 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 April 2018.

Black Panther
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Black Panther is breaking box office records. Five consecutive weekends at number one leave the movie poised to become the highest grossing superhero film in American history. Commercial success is being accompanied by a wave of critical praise for the way the movie portrays people of colour. This includes the portrayal of Africans as culturally diverse and technologically superior and a dialogue in which white people are named as colonisers.

It is worth repeating: a superhero character gaining critical acclaim for advancing cultural diversity. In other words, the representations of pop culture are deemed to carry culture-making power.

The Black Panther has a past. Marvel Comics cartoonists Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the character in July 1966. The first superhero of African descent in mainstream American popular culture, the comic hero possessed super powers. The Panther’s powers – of strength, speed, stamina and sensory perceptions – were enhanced by access to advanced technology, a mystical precious metal, vibranium, available only in the fictional African nation of Wakanda.

The Black Panther as a Marvel comic character lasted through six volumes. Many of the key characters from the first four volumes are skillfully woven into Black Panther the movie. These include the Black Panther/ T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his technologically gifted scientist sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). They also include his enemies, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the first attracted by his greed for vibranium, the other by an unresolved grievance with T’Challa and the leaders of Wakanda.

This means that alongside the super hero action scenes and the visual richness generated by the rich palate of African cultures is a plot that explores a rich set of essential ethical questions. One involves the consequences when grievance remains repressed. A second is the question of who is my neighbor. Wakanda has vibranium. Yet if you have resource, do you arm the oppressed? Or do you enact social compassion. Hence a final scene, in which Africans begin doing social outreaching in America. Which generates a final ethical question. Can money and technology be deployed in ways that reverse colonization?

The questions generated by comic and cinema popular culture are given an edge by the real time American history being referenced by the Black Panther title. Some five months after Marvel introduced the comic character, a real life Black Panther Party was founded in California. Co-incidence? Or another example of popular culture creating culture?

The Black Panther Party began by enacting social outreach, including free breakfasts for school children and community health clinics. In time, it sought to take up arms against an oppressor and was linked to police fatalities in 1967 and 1968. Hence the big screen movie conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger echo real time questions about black consciousness and how the oppressed might seek liberation.

The result is a movie to be enjoyed, whether you are seeking action, cultural complexity or social debate. And a reminder: that the pop culture world of comics and movies is a powerful culture-maker, busy addressing real time realities.

Posted by steve at 02:30 PM

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