Beasts of the Southern Wild is a rich journey of the heart into the dark, damp world of the Southern bayou. It views this world entirely from the viewpoint of its six-year-old antagonist, Hushpuppy. Through her eyes, we celebrate the real meaning of home and the connectedness of all life.
Just as the bayou offers a mosaic of life and death, this film offers many contrasts for the spiritually inclined to ponder. This is not a film that offers specific moral lessons to understand, but rather it is an experience to be absorbed. Viewed through our head, Hushpuppy’s world is one of horrible, unacceptable squalor. Felt through the heart, her world is brimming with the bliss and agony of life. Our moralistic view of poverty is challenged as we observe this child’s uncanny wisdom about the nature of life and the interconnectedness of all.
This film also inspires as a vehicle through which new talent shines. It is the first feature film from 30-year-old Behn Zeitlin, and this freshman effort is already being hailed as a masterpiece and has won prestigious awards at Cannes and Sundance film festivals. Furthermore, the film is cast entirely by unknown actors, all of whom deliver believable, emotion-filled performances. Especially amazing is the flawless performance by Quvenzhane Wallis, only six years old at the time of production. It is a huge risk for any director to take on a film that relies so heavily on the performance of a child, especially one so young, but this young girl carries the entire film from beginning to end with her natural charisma and talent.
Spiritual Bottom Line: This film offers much for spiritual practitioners, both inspiring and challenging the viewer.
Quality Grade: A+
To Rome with Love is the latest offering from movie-making icon Woody Allen. It offers layered storytelling and usual the romantic entanglements, but unfortunately it is neither as witty nor as insightful as most other Allen films.
Like many Woody Allen films, To Rome with Love deals with contradictory aspects of the human psyche, especially those that lead us to be dishonest or disloyal to those we love most. As is typical of most Allen films, no spiritual solutions to humanity’s psychological dysfunctions are presented. Yet, from a spiritual perspective, there may be value in exploring the darker aspects of human nature in order to shed light into the darkness. At his best, Woody Allen does just that – he forces us to look and laugh at the most irrational parts of the human mind, thereby allowing us to stop taking ourselves so seriously – a worthy spiritual objective in its own right. But in this film there are a few observations of human nature beyond the obvious. And worse, this film is just not that funny, nowhere near as funny as you’d expect a Woody Allen film to be.
Woody Allen himself appears as a character in this film, playing the usual nervous, obsessed neurotic. Allen is now seventy-something, and watching him play this character yet again at this age makes me yearn for some evidence of the character’s (and perhaps Allen’s) growth. Other of Allen’s more recent films, such as Midnight in Paris, show that he still has much creative potential, and only time will tell to what degree it and his character’s growth will be fulfilled.
Spiritual Bottom Line: Fails to offer the introspection and insight of Allen’s better films.
Quality Grade: C+
The Dark Knight Rises is the last installment in what is probably the best superhero franchise ever made to date. Like the other films in this series, it offers an artistic, sophisticated take on the familiar Batman story.
Among all the many comic book heroes that were created in the twentieth century, Batman is perhaps the most human and relatable of the lot. Unlike Superman or Spiderman, he has no superpowers. He does not come from another planet and has not come in contact with anything radioactive. He’s just a man with a lot of time on his hands and a few million extra bucks with which to buy cool crime-fighting toys.
What really sets Christopher Nolan’s Batman apart from the many other depictions is the director’s willingness to go beyond the simple good vs. evil motif. This “Dark Knight” acknowledges that his need to fight crime is not as simple as the good guy vanquishing over the bad guys. This Bruce Wayne (Batman’s true identity) knows that his need to find vengeance against the evil that left him orphaned as a young boy leaves him in danger of being swallowed up by his own dark shadow. Nolan very skillfully crafts a tale that looks not only at the underside of the villain, but at the underside of the hero as well. On top of that, this film is a rich visual feast of special effects and top-notch cinematography.
Spiritual Bottom Line: Offers more sophisticated spiritual content than most superhero films as it examines the character’s underlying motivations.
Quality Grade: A
Ice Age: Continental Drift is the fourth installment in the computer animated Ice Age franchise. Less funny and more predictable than some of its predecessors, it nonetheless offers some fun for the family.
Essentially, this is a kids’ film. Its humor and storyline are typical of ordinary animated films. That’s not such a bad thing, except that it pales in comparison to some of the best animated films today, which appeal to kids and adults alike. Fans of computer animation will like the film for the state-of-the-art animation. Otherwise, for anyone over the age of 12, the spiritual themes will seem cliché, offering simple messages about the importance of family and the pitfalls of peer pressure. This film is probably best seen with a seven-year-old in tow.
Spiritual Bottom Line: The movie offers only cliché messages about peer pressure and family loyalty.
Quality Grade: B-
I happened upon this wonderful short film by San Jose State University animation students Kimberly Knoll and Yunghan Chang. It is a wonderfully touching portrayal of the nature of bigotry. The entire film (5 minutes, 43 seconds) may be viewed here. Please watch, enjoy, and comment.