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Review: Captain Fantastic

January 20, 2017 — 3 Comments

captain_fantastic_posterThe plot of Viggo Mortensen’s latest film, Captain Fantastic, revolves around the character development of off-the-grid homeschoolers. It is a film full of extremes and contradictions.

Mortensen’s character, Ben Cash, along with his wife, Leslie, live in a well established forest dwelling with six of their kids of varying ages. It takes about ten minutes, but the audience soon finds out that Ben’s wife is absent. Leslie suffers from severe depression and has been away receiving treatment for it.

The opening scene shows the eldest son covered in mud, jumping out of the foliage to catch a deer. The scene then shows him slicing its throat. This is quickly followed by an informal introduction to the Cash family, as each child emerges from behind trees and shrubs. It’s soon established that this hunt was part of a rite of passage. Having successfully completed the hunt, Cash “christens” his eldest son a man.

Cash runs a regimented homeschool routine. Each child participates in the equivalent of rigorous military grade “training’’. In one scene Cash is shown abseiling a steep cliff with all six kids in tow. When one of the older boys slips and slams his right hand against the rock wall, Cash forces him to keep climbing. Once at the top all children are shown shivering and exhausted.

Though Cash is himself well-educated and fair, his homeschooling technique and lifestyle combine to create a unique homeschool situation.

When Cash receives news that his wife has committed suicide, Cash, due to threats from his father-in-law, decides not to attend her funeral. It isn’t until his kids remind him of what they stand for as a family; of what he has taught them, that Cash decides to “stick-it-to-the-man.”

This triggers a road trip that reveals the conflicted attitudes wider society has towards homeschooling. Despite Cash’s eldest son gaining entry into every top Ivy League university in the United States, his sister challenges the benefits of home education, particularly when you don’t really have a house to call a home. His father-in-law, though a loving grandfather, struggles to hide his deep contempt for Cash’s homeschooling, which is only complicated further by grief over the death of his daughter.

Through encounters on the road trip, the family discovers social gaps in their learning. This leads to a deep introspective reflection by Cash on how much their decisions might have contributed to his wife’s depression and ultimate end. Cash is slowly awakened to the fact that his and his wife’s extreme lifestyle, and the homeschooling that accompanied it, while successful, isn’t as perfect as he had come to believe.

Captain Fantastic doesn’t hide its ideological influences or its contradictions. In one scene, after visiting a bank, we witness the family discussing their rule that, ‘’we don’t fun make of anyone. Not even fat people, only Christians’’.

In another scene, we’re shown Cash receiving money for homemade products that he had been sold on consignment at a local store. Yet, in another we’re shown Cash ridiculing capitalism to his kids. There is an inescapable irony when a man with the last name Cash, decries the evils of capitalism, having himself just benefited from capitalism.

This is only heightened by further extremes. Cash fakes a heart attack in a supermarket to distract staff so his children can carry out, what was called “operation free-the-food”. Then at a nearby park, Cash rewards the kids and dedicates the spoils to his leftist idol, and modern liberal, Noam Chomsky. Something Cash later justifies, when his father-in-law calls him out on it, as ‘’training’’.

For me, the contradictions and intenseness of the story make it profound, not loveable. There is a pretentiousness that permeates the selective tolerance encountered from certain groups and individuals in Western society. The point being that Cash, while pointing to the extremism he claims to see in others, fails to see his own.

One area where this is highlighted is in how well-read the children are. Yet, there is no real mention of them ever having engaged the Bible let alone picked up, or had their father assign to them a book on 2000 plus years of Judeo-Christian theology.

There is also the unchallenged promotion of Buddhism as being a superior “philosophy” because it “is not an organised religion” (Quote/unquote).

We’re expected to feel sorry for Cash and applaud him, as he and his kids burst into the colourless Catholic Church service in brightly coloured clothes. Then we’re encouraged to empathise with Cash as he interrupts the service. In protest against what he sees as an injustice carried out by ‘’the-man”, he reads his wife’s will out loud to the congregation stating that she was a Buddhist, and would not want to be farewelled under this superstitious, extremist religious ‘’oppression.’’

The audience is blinded by the dysfunction on display, long enough to keep them from sighing with those at the end of Cash’s verbal whip lashing. There is no tolerance shown to other grieving relatives, including Leslie’s parents. There is no compassion for dialogue or serving others. The closest we come to this is Leslie’s, ‘’obedient’’ mother, who is made to look aloof, as someone oppressed under the thumb of patriarchy.

The supposed Christian extremism is placed against Cash’s own extremist lifestyle; one that leads Cash and his kids to dig up their mother’s body, and then travel back to the wilderness where they cremate her and dance around the pyre performing the Guns ‘N Roses, song ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’.

While some aspects of Captain Fantastic resonate fairly with the homeschool journey, its extremes are not what homeschooling actually looks like.

Captain Fantastic portrays homeschooling in all its positive tension. Cash has taught his kids well. They’re disciplined, free thinkers who are intelligent and healthy. However, Captain Fantastic also plays into the abuse of extremes.  Its plot quietly rides the anti-socialization myth about homeschooled children and because of this there is a sense that the kids are deliberately portrayed as being socially awkward.

The context of the children’s homeschooling makes this forgivable, but in the end, it doesn’t completely cover up the subtle support this lends to anti-homeschool advocates.

Yet, Captain Fantastic isn’t as iconoclastic as it first appears to be. What is on the surface isn’t necessarily what is underneath.

Here Hollywood is displaying the dysfunction and dissonance in those who advocate an alternative society; who vomit slurs and contempt at the very society they benefit from, without really acknowledging that the same society they ridicule, also protects and allows them the freedom to ridicule it.

In this way, Captain Fantastic exemplifies G.K Chesterton’s statement,

“Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom”. (Orthodoxy, 1901)

and Michael Horton’s view that,

‘Without a serious recognition of original sin, we can easily become passive pawns in the game of dictators and democrats alike. It is the doctrine of human perfectibility that has brought tyrants to the world stage with the worshipful applause of the masses, but the biblical teaching awakens us from our moralistic slumbers, identifying God as the only reliable object of our faith’[i]

[Disclosure: no payment or other incentives were received for writing this review]


Sources:

[i] Horton, M. 2008 Christless Christianity, Baker Books

Captain Fantastic is a Matt Ross film, 2016 Bleeker Street Productions

 

GB 1Ghostbusters along with Star Wars IV, is one of the movies, that as a kid, I remember watching over and over again. I’d fast-forward the VHS tape past the opening scene in the library and go straight to the title. It was part “skip-the-scary-bit” and part, just get me to the Ray Parker Jr, theme song.

As far as the remake goes, each of the main actresses were convincing enough, but they had big shoes to fill. The pressure on them to meet such a high standard would have been enormous. Taking all this into consideration it’s not a really bad film.

Best expressed through the general response of my daughters: “the movie was okay. I liked the gadgets, but there was not enough guys, and they made Chris Hemsworth look dumb.”

Or best summed up by Richard Lawson in his review for Vanity Fair:

‘Ghostbusters is a flat, occasionally charming disappointment. While certainly funny in parts, Paul Feig’s much-debated reboot can’t find its groove…There are brief highlights [but the] film is largely an uninspired slog, everyone doing their best to get to the end without screwing things up too much’ (source)

I had my own thoughts on it, so here’s a short, 16 point review:

1. Cerebrally effortless, fun movies, do exist.

2. Ghostbusters can fit all genres. If you liked The Golden Girls this one’s for you – (minus the humour of Estelle Getty)

3. If you’re obsessed with the Ghostbuster movies, then this is an edition that’ll uniquely sparkle in any pristine, shrink-wrapped, for-display-only, collection.

4. If you like to see men, particularly Australian men, portrayed as dim-witted buffoons, then you’ve picked a winner.

5. If you’re ideologically bent towards supporting the emasculation of a classic, it’s for you, but in answer to the question “who ya gonna call?” – perhaps, first, call a therapist, not Ghostbusters. #justsayin

6. Crude statements about how a woman’s anatomy works, no matter how subtle, doesn’t communicate well for any actor selling a story to a wider audience, outside the teen angst bracket.

7. The storyline was strong enough to withstand the small amount of innuendos.

8. Overreaching in order to empower feminism disempowers feminism (and almost squeezes the life out of everything it touches).

9. Outside the Gilmore Girls, I’m not a big fan of Melissa McCarthy’s later work. (You deserve better, you can do so much better because you’ve done so much better).

10. Hollywood peaked in 1984. It’s been on a slow downward slide since. It seems to have literally run out of really cool, original ideas.

11. Bill Murray is still one of the coolest comedians alive, and Ernie Hudson must be part Vulcan, he’s hardly aged at all.

12. Chris Hemsworth, Australia thanks you for Thor, but we’re pulling faces and scratching our heads over this one, mate.

13. Hollywood is still capable of making a comedy without copious amounts of swearing or sexual innuendos [thumbs up]. It’s the genius in the legacy of Dean & Jerry, the Dick Van Dyke show, Mchales Navy, and Hogan’s Heroes.

14. Ecto-1 remains one of the coolest pop culture cars to have ever been created. With the ban on the General Lee, Ecto-1  moved into the number 4 slot, just under the A-team’s GMC van, KITT & the Delorean.

15. It doesn’t matter how awkward a movie might seem, gizmos and gadgets always make it better.

16. The modern liberal quest for what it, and it alone, determines to be tolerance and equality, creates inequality. In well-timed humour, on screen chemistry and one-liners, this reboot of Ghostbusters is not even close to being equal to its predecessor.

Does the movie speak to it’s audience and Ghostbusters fans? Yes, sometimes.

Does it do anything for feminism? Yes, however not in the way I suspect that it might have been intended. It shows that the frown of feminist idealism is kryptonite. That it’s misandry and overshadowing hypocritical disapproval of men, is toxic. Feminism is fundamentally about empowering women to be as equal-in-value as men. Any medium that betrays this platform rests not on talent, wit and moxie, but on a destructive ideology that perverts feminism, and clouds its positive achievements.

The absence of Ivan Rietmann and Dan Ackroyd is noted. Although, Ackroyd, Hudson and Murray make a cameo appearance, they’re not credited as being directly involved in the remake, which might explain the movie’s awkwardness. The brilliance of the first film was its disciplined balance between the serious and the silly. The retake barely seems to attempt to do the same. Paul Feig (Director/Writer) and Katie Dippold (Writer) could have made the story line deeper and tapped into the tension Reitmann maintained. It’s not clear why they didn’t choose to go in this same direction.

Putting the apparent hi-jacking of Ghostbusters by feminist idealism aside. Dedicated fans of the franchise might not be as thrilled as the fans of Batman were with Nolan’s trilogy, or Bay’s Transformers, however, they’ll probably be more forgiving. This is because Ghostbusters, the reboot, isn’t just a remake. Its in-part, an interesting retake on the whole Ghostbusters story.


Note: Thoughts expressed here are my own. I received no payment of any kind for this review.

Trailer: Ghostbusters, 2016 Sony Pictures

GogglesHere is one the best defences of reading and old-fashioned, elbow-grease research, that I’ve heard:

“You see, you use a computer, you click on the word, ‘ant’, you get the data, fine. You pick up book and leaf through the pages to find the ‘ant’, you’re going to bump into a saint, an admiral, a poet, a town in Connecticut […] You’re going to learn something outside of the assignment, just because of your own undeniable and most valuable curiosity. You’re going to see a word and you’re going to jump on it. Or its going to jump on you. Then you have it forever.”
(Jack Marcus, “Words & Pictures,” 1:31-1:133)

These are not the words of a troglodyte. They’re the words of a once passionate teacher; a writer who’s finding his way back through the fog thickened apocalypse of his own undoing. The story follows the life and slow redemption of Jack Marcus. Self-medicating his problems with Vodka, the story hints at a long abuse of alcohol and his own alcohol induced abuse. It’s a problem threatening to capsize what’s left of his life.  Marcus’ talent suffers. His relationships and the quality of his work careens close to the edge; the precipice of “beyond repair.”

This paragraph occurs late in the movie. With swaggering courage, Marcus emerges from the fog of alcoholism that has numbed him to feeling  and seeing the richness of his world. His talent, once bound, is gradually reawakened.

Could this be a long metaphor for a shorter one? That, perhaps, the ease of Google has replaced the adventurers goggles.That which can only be discovered through them is missed. The high road of adventure and encounter is shortened to the instant mechanic of a click.

Google search

What we find are suggestions of a system. What we see are paradigmatic projections. Don’t read me wrong, Google can be an adventure. The problem exists when, like Wikipedia, Google search becomes the only resource for research, the only source of adventure.

It’s where  Marcus’ words find their relevance and as such, come to life.

“Pick up a book and leaf through the pages […]You’re going to learn something outside of the assignment. […] You’re going to see a word and you’re going to jump on it. Or its going to jump on you. Then you have it forever”

 


Trailer: Words And Pictures

Related post: Answers According to … 

First image is mine.

Risen PromoIf the trailers are to be believed, 2016 looks to be a big year for films.

These two, in particular, stand out. ‘The Young Messiah’, featuring Sean Bean – based on Anne Rice’s book ‘Christ the Lord‘ (Indie) and ‘Risen’, featuring Joseph Fiennes (Sony Pictures).

Joesph Fiennes’ performance as Martin Luther in ‘Luther (2003), buttressed by screen legend, the late, Sir Peter Ustinov, who played Prince Fredrich The Wise, was, in my opinion, outstanding. Whilst Sean Bean’s performance in the Napoleonic War series Sharpe endeared my wife and I to him as an actor, my theological curiosity leans me towards seeing how the story-line of the Fiennes’ film plays out. As a side note, the soundtracks for both films sound impressive. John Debney (Passion of the Christ) for The Young Messiah and Kai Rosenkranz for Risen.

Whether you’re fans of interpretations of Biblical stories on film or not, if you’re like me, they’ll at least kindle a cautious intrigue. Especially in how modern day (post-modern) storytellers provide artistic commentary on the context of the bible and the truths its authors painstakingly proclaim to have witnessed. In this case the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Along with seeing life being brought back into this genre.On a mainstream level, it’s encouraging to see well established actors willing to associate, accept and take an interest in playing such roles. That is as long as the filmmakers take the responsibility of their task seriously. Taking care in how they present the theology and handle the history; learning from past attempts, by doing their best to avoid the kitsch and questionable theology, that finds a good portion of these films being too easily labelled as the cheap propaganda of American Evangelicalism or a product of Hollywood’s nascent Christophobia [i].

It’s early days, but these two films show promise. They both suggest a thought-provoking and authentic perspective, thus avoiding the impression that they’re turning a serious message into simple fluffy religious entertainment.

The Young Messiah: Official FB Page

Risen: Official FB Page (worth a look)


[i] Term found in Marvin Olasky’s, ‘Standing for Christ in a Modern Babylon’ (p.66)

In 2006 Father Sergio Gutiérrez, the pro-wrestler monk who inspired the movie ‘Nacho Libre’ told The Guardian:

I didn’t wrestle “for the glory. I wanted money. Thanks to God and to lucha libre my orphanage has produced three doctors, two accountants, 20 computer technicians, seven lawyers, one priest and 16 teachers” [i]

This reformed ‘rebel without a cause’[ii] is a hero for the people. Ordained in 1973, he joined the lucha libre (free fight/wrestling) in 1978.

Part of Gutiérrez’s story, with the help of Jack Black’s performance in ‘Nacho Libre,’ became the stuff of pop culture legend.

However, reviews still appear mixed. That’s because Hollywood missed an opportunity, if not the point. Black does his classic, signature moves and lifts the storyline. He makes the scriptwriter one-liners memorable, but given the strength of its potential, this movie aimed too low.

With the 10 year anniversary of its release next year, Nacho Libre is worth revisiting.

Not so much the film, but Father Sergio Gutiérrez, the orphanage, and the contextual mission that inspired the story.

Perhaps Gutiérrez’s testimony is strong enough for us to be able to piece together the movie and celebrate it.


Source:

[i] Jo Tuckman, 2006 ‘I didn’t do it for glory. I wanted money’ Article sourced from The Guardian online

[ii] ibid

Movie: Nacho Libre, Paramount Pictures, 2006

C.S Lewis Doodle  is one of the best – if not the only – YouTube channel for visualising the writings of C.S Lewis. Each video rests more on the rare art of artistic exposition, than on an entertaining artistic expression of Lewis’ thought, and they work.

Powered by the voice of narrator, Ralph Cosham, the artistry and attention to detail which goes into producing these short videos are of an indisputable, very high quality. They are useful as a visual-aid, helping to unpack the depth of meaning, intent and context of selected material from Lewis’ many works.

I had recommended these just over a year ago and I am more than happy to do so again.

Kalman Kingsley, is the chief illustrator and has added some new material since then. So, if you’ve got a few minutes spare, they’re well worth your time.

‘The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind so long as we are subject to one law.
But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation.’
– (C.S Lewis, ‘The Poison of Subjectivism’ in ‘Christian Reflections‘)

 

 

“Everyone’s going through a refining fire sooner or later, but you’ll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.”

– The Message[i]

Last night my wife and I rented the second movie in ‘The Hunger Games’ series: ‘Catching Fire’.

Along with the James. N. Howard soundtrack, the comic relief of Woody Harrelson, catching fire Hunger gamesJennifer Lawrence’s precision acting and the action sequences.There was a lot to like.

For those unfamiliar with the story:

Katniss Everdeen is the protagonist; a disciplined hunter wrestling with the contrasts between a world of poverty and oppression, and the world of the Capitol with its opulence, Epicureanism, control and wealth.
Her battle deteriorates into a personal struggle to come to terms with the brutality of her situation and the hostile environment she finds herself thrust into. One she also hurls herself into it by taking the place of “Prim’’, her sister, who is “reaped” for a reality TV show, designed to control with fear, shame.

 

Among the terms given to Katniss such as “girl on fire”, we also find in her narrative the themes of martyrdom, discipline, community, family, self-sacrifice, integrity, higher purpose and hope.

There even rests an imperative given to Katniss before entering the arena for the second time to, “remember who the real enemy is.”

All of which are intrinsically theological.

Right away we can see, reflected in ‘The Hunger Games’, Jesus’ statement: ‘’greater love has no one than to lay down their life for another”.

However, it is the subtle and consistent focus on discipline that should catch our attention.

Working through some daily readings today I couldn’t help but reflect on ‘The Hunger Games’ and its relevance to what I was reading.

Landing on some material from Charles Spurgeon I found his connection between grace, salt and fire. Expanding on Mark 9:49 and the synoptic equivalents he refers to salt as a ‘grateful emblem of divine Grace in the soul.’[ii]

Despite the lack of sleep (having also watched Ben Stiller’s: ‘The secret life of Walter Mitty’ – a little slow, but well worth your rental dollars) I saw the themes melt together in answer to my questions about the Mark 9:49 reference and its relevance.

‘For everyone will be salted with fire’

Spurgeon wrote:

Some things in the economy of grace are measured; for instance our vinegar and gall are given us with such exactness that we never have a single drop too much, but of the salt of grace no stint is made[1]

Unlike an eternal fire (hell), which is the context of Jesus’ discourse, a “trial by fire” is a measured purifying.  Think here of the parent who, with a “no”, by hiding the sugar, yet says “yes” by not hiding the salt.

Parents need to lock up the fruit cupboard, and the sweet jars, but there is no need to keep the salt-box under lock and key, for few children will eat too greedily from that. A man may have too much money, or too much honour, but he cannot have too much grace (Spurgeon) [iii]

If we view God’s grace as being like salt and fire, it is highly unlikely we would want to abuse it. E.g.: The parent’s “yes” to salt it is not likely to be abused. This logic starts to feed into questions about discipline, costly grace and cheap grace. Mercy and Judgement; Grace and Law.

Suffice to say that, in the refining fire of struggle the call to “remember who the real enemy is” can be found. Not to far from this is the true Evangels who call from both past and present telling us that rescue is real.

They may seem like unlikely conversation partners, yet put together, the parallels between Katness’s story, Spurgeon’s insight and the biblical witness become clear.

In the midst of the fire, those who are called to be salt are encouraged to “remember who the real enemy is.”

I think its fair to say that ‘The Hunger Games’ remind us that the salt of grace is a purifying force inside the fire of trials.

In the fictional world of ‘The Hunger Games’ Katniss is salt to all that leeches, fire fuelling the cause of hope. A hope of peace and true freedom embodied in the symbol of a “mockingjay” bird.

A challenge to human ideas, pride, fear, power and arrogant pageantry.

For this world, Jesus is.

He does this through His presence in the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Evangels, who empowered by grace “remind us about who the real enemy is” and where our true help comes from.

As Spurgeon concluded:

‘Grace kills sin. Like salt kills the leech[iv].

 

[i] Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: The Bible in contemporary language (Mk 9:49–50). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
[ii] Spurgeon, C. H. (2006). Morning and evening: Daily readings (Complete and unabridged; New modern edition.). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
[iii] ibid
[iv] Spurgeon uses the term ‘reptiles’. I have changed this to leeches in order to be more in line with the science. Doing so, in my opinion, does not reduce the veracity Spurgeon was trying to convey by using such a simile. If anything changing the word reinforces his point, while also neutralising any potential criticism about the apparent scientific inaccuracies present.