Captain Fantastic – Cliche and Complexity


Another Saturday rolls around and its one of the first in a while where we have nothing on. What an awesome feeling… and the morning gets spent reading the paper, watching the paralympics and enjoying ‘second breakfast’.

I scan the movie schedule for something to take the kids to and see Captain Fantastic showing at the Luna, which probably means it a low budget indie and is maybe gonna be on iTunes or SBS in a week or two.  I google a few (very mixed) reviews, watch the youtube preview and decide that it might just be worth it. While Sam stays home, Danelle, Ellie and I head down to chill and take it in.

Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it…

The story follows the journey of an off the grid home school family living deep in the forest and surviving off the land while learning 5 languages, various non-conformist, political ideologies and engaging in intense physical fitness training, all under the guidance of dad who I am guessing is the  ‘Captain Fantastic’ of the movie title.

Early in the movie we learn that mum has died – suicide due to mental illness and the news is presented starkly. There is an extended ‘mourning’ scene with no background music – just crying kids and a stoic father. The absence of any music allows us to feel the loss more intensely.

The remainder of the film follows the family as they go on a road-trip in ‘Peter’ the family bus and seek to attend her funeral (from which they have been banned) and as they encounter ordinary people in real life America and discover they are more different than ever imagined…

It explores a number of interesting themes albeit in a cliched way at times. The kids observe their cousins addicted to devices and struggle to understand their obsession. Dad takes the family out of a cafe because there is no ‘real food’ on the menu. The family’s natural bluntness in speaking is offensive to their relatives and we are challenged by our aversion to telling the truth at times. But this is countered by the sister in law who suggests we need to tell kids what is appropriate rather than giving them all the info all the time.

Dad appears to be an open minded free thinker. He swears & drinks around his kids and they swear & drink too – even the 5 year old – all very permissive and open minded, but when one of his kids asks if they can celebrate Christmas like everyone else, rather than their own ‘Noam Chomsky day’ the child is first demeaned and ridiculed before being told to present his case to the rest of the family who are in support of dad. Like he’s going to do that now…

We see the irony of a family built on non-conformist thinking  that persecutes its own non-conformist. Huh…we all live with complexity and incongruities don’t we?

The tension of conflicting worldviews is interwoven effectively as we see bi-polar mum leaving the forest to enter a mental hospital because she needs help from ‘the institution’. The grandfather is presented as the over-indulgent, (Christian) capitalist and the epitomy of all the family has stood against, yet he is able to see the flaws in their idealistic lifestyle and we have to agree that he has a point… He doesn’t come across as a caricature, but rather just a contrary view.

And the villains are… you guessed it… Christians! As the kids have their first experience of the city they ask their dad ‘why is everyone so fat?!’ And the response is ‘don’t make fun of people. In fact don’t ridicule anyone’, followed by a pause and a postscript, ‘except Christians’.  When the police pull the family bus over for having a faulty tail-light they manage to dispose of the cop by singing a cringeworthy hymn and appearing to be complete weirdos.

Then the mother’s funeral held in a church to the ire of the father, is sabotaged by him because he believes she would have preferred a self styled buddhist type of cremation. As we follow the story, we see that the mother is conflicted and torn between western living and alternative living so at times its hard to know what she really wanted. I think this is intentional – we are always torn between ideals and pragmatics. In the end the family exhume her body from beneath a tombstone with the words ‘Rest in Peace Cared for by God for Eternity’. As the dig begins the youngest is heard to say ‘can’t have her living under this bullshit for eternity’. The subsequent ceremony is accompanied by euphoric music and all of the joy that is not present in the church. 

Its a movie that explores anti-establishment ideals and shows them to be both beautiful and inspiring, but also problem ridden and ultimately unworkable.

The final scene has received a fair amount of critique in reviews, but I thought it was exceptionally well done. The family finish up together again in a semi-rural home, (minus eldest son who takes off to Namibia – because he stuck a pin in a map with a blindfold on) attending school and living a more conventional life. The bus has become a chicken coop and to some degree they have settled. It raises the question of whether ‘compromise is inevitable’, and we wonder ‘what’s next’ for this mob. Will they end up conforming like everyone else? Does the dream have to die?…

I’m no tree hugging, mung bean munching hippie, but I do hope to live somewhat differently to mainstream western society. My aspirations are rooted in the kingdom of God rather than a secular humanist ideal, but here too the tensions of having to live in society  are very real.

I watched it with my 15 year old daughter and we had a good conversation about it after, but if you’re taking kids be aware there is a fair bit of language and one short full frontal male nude scene.

Saturday Morning in Nebraska


I don’t often watch movies on a Saturday morning, but today I stumbled across Nebraska on the iTunes weekly special list and thought it looked worth a gamble. For 99c what’s to lose?…

Its the story of a cantankerous and doddering elderly man in Billings, Montana receiving a scam letter in the mail telling him he’s won a million dollars and his subsequent journey to claim the ‘winnings’. The movie opens with Woody staggering up the highway, determined to walk the 1000ks to Lincoln Nebraska, because he can’t drive and has no other way of getting there. As a long time alcoholic and showing signs of dementia, he just can’t accept that the letter is a mail-scam and he is determined to go collect his winnings. He wants to be a millionaire. His equally gnarly wife (Kate) tells him  that if he had that in mind he should have started working on it a lot earlier in life and tried ‘hard work’.

Eventually his middle class, middle aged son relents, takes a few days off work and agrees to drive the irascible old man across the country, fully aware that all he is going to do is eventually bring him face to face with reality. The story takes shape on the father / son drive as they revisit Woody’s old home town of Hawthorne, where family and friends get wind of his ‘winnings’ and decide to try and cash in.

Shot in black and white, with a suitably melancholic musical score it is not a fast paced story, but that’s part of the point. Woody has all the time in the world and nothing to do – so why not chase the possibility of a big win? He’d like a new truck… even though he cant drive…

Woody’s wife Janet joins them along the way and adds a fair slice of comedy to the story. She has a bad word to say about everyone and doesn’t hold back. My favourite scene in the movie is her unloading on the redneck friends and relatives in Woody’s home town of Hawthorne who have been badgering him for ‘their share’ of he winnings.

Eventually Woody gets to Nebraska and discovers there is no pot of gold, although he does receive a free hat from the office girl who takes pity on him. ‘Does your dad do this often she asks?’

‘He just believes the stuff people tell him’ replies Woody’s son.

We always knew there was no million dollars, but the punch in the story is what happens next… however I won’t spoil it. Suffice to say it doesn’t change pace, or tone, but quietly takes a direction that offers a smile and some joy for Woody at the end of a long and dark road.

Spend the 99c – you won’t be disappointed.

Dodgy Saints













There hasn’t been a lot worth watching on these cold autumn evenings, but last night we took a chance on Saint Vincent, a fresh  iTunes download and it was really quite good for a Friday evening.

I often can’t be bothered mentally engaging with a complex storyline at the end of the week so this movie fitted just fine. In it Bill Murray plays the role of a grumpy old single man who spends his days drinking, smoking, gambling, living off his reverse mortgage, while avoiding those who he owes money to and hanging out with a pregnant Russian prostitute. As the movie begins he’s a completely unlikeable character, but you don’t find yourself asking ‘why’? You just find him cantankerous and fairly obnoxious.

His new neighbour is a single mum with a young boy who starts a new school, gets bullied and ends up in Vincent’s home on his first day where he is ‘cared for’ until his mother gets back from work. Because she’s desperate, Vincent ends up becoming her son, Oliver’s paid day care provider while she works late to make ends meet.

So Vincent’s method of babysitting involves taking Oliver around on his daily activities – the pub, the track and various other haunts that probably wouldn’t warm his mother’s heart. While the story follows the softening of Vincent’s heart towards Oliver and the quirky relationship that forms, the ‘punchline’ is in the assignment Oliver does for his religious education class on a ‘real living saint’.


While other kids are choosing the Mother Theresa types, Oliver picks Vincent and begins to research his life, discovering that beneath the offensive and unattractive veneer there is a man who does good, who helps others and who may even be considered a ‘saint’. (I’m not talking ‘biblical’ definitions here so don’t get all theological on me) You’ll have to watch the movie to get the whole gist of it, but for this framing of ‘sainthood’ it gets a tick from me.

Vincent makes sainthood attainable and shows that in all of us there is the image of God pushing out somewhere, making none of us either all good or all bad. Vincent presents as a loser – as an unattractive and unpleasant man with no redeeming qualities, but Oliver is able to see the good in him – able to see the light in the darkness that is so much of Vincent’s life. And in seeing the light he speaks to it and calls it out further.

You wouldn’t want to read too much into a Friday night movie, (because it is pretty lite for the most part) but the clear message from this one is that we need to be able to think differently about goodness and the way we type people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Vincent is like most of us – a mix of admirable qualities and some that are really quite disturbing. I often say ‘we are all broken – some of us are just more visibly broken than others.’ The fact that you can’t see my brokenness as obviously as Vincent’s doesn’t mean its any less there – its just that mine is generally more sociably acceptable.

So if you find syrupy saints a bit too saccharine for your liking, then maybe Vincent will be more to your taste…

From the Darkness – a Gem









On Saturday night I watched Calvary, a movie I’d been waiting to see for some time. I’d heard good reviews both of content and of the cinematography of Western Ireland. Its not a great idea to watch a movie when you’re weary because you miss so much – and I sensed that was happening as I faded in and out and struggled to stay with the story.

The narrative is pretty dark. Set in a small Sligo town where the people live unusually immoral and depraved lives, Father James Lavelle is their parish priest and while dealing with his own messy life (deceased wife, suicidal daughter, struggle with alcohol), he tries to remain true to his calling of helping them do the right thing. Its a tough gig and he doesn’t get much encouragement from those he is called to serve in fact they taunt him and sometimes despise him – or at least the institution he stands for.

Perhaps its a reflection of the place of institutionalised ‘Christianity‘ in this secular world?

The movie opens with a confessional scene where the man doing the confessing tells of being repeatedly raped as a boy by his priest. The priest is now dead, but the man has decided that someone must pay for the crimes and for that reason he is going to kill a good priest. He lets Lavelle know he has 7 days to live and then he will meet him on a beach and shoot him.

So the film has a ‘passion’ type flavour as we count down the days, but is laden with despair as we see Lavelle do the rounds of his parish, both struggling with how to escape his fate, yet also trying to help his people.

There is a lot of murky grey in this film – Lavelle is both a Christ figure but also a visibly broken and flawed man – and while its cast as a black comedy it is definitely more dark than comedic.

One of the shining moments is when he is called to give the last rites to a man who has been seriously hurt in a car accident. The French tourist is in hospital on life support with his wife by his side as a result of a head on collision with 4 local young people all intoxicated.

Its a tragedy and Lavelle enters to console the wife and farewell the husband. He administers the last rites and then speaks with the wife acknowledging that its usually older people he does this sacrament with and in the case of younger people it is seen as very unfair.

Speaking of people who encounter tragic loss Lavelle says: ‘They curse God. They curse their fellow man. They lose their faith in some cases’.

The wife looks at him quizzically: ‘They lose their faith? It must not have been much of a faith to begin with if it is so easy for them to lose it’

Lavelle replies: ‘What is faith for most people? Its the fear of death. Nothing more than that. If that’s all it is its very easy to lose.’

The conversation continues…

Lavelle: “He was a good man, your husband?”

Teresa: “Yes. He was a good man. We had a very good life together. We loved each other very much. And now… he has gone. And that is not unfair. That is just what happened. But many people don’t live good lives. They don’t feel love. That is why it’s unfair. I feel sorry for them.”

So there’s a perspective changer. In the midst of a dark, cynical story that focuses primarily on the failure of faith, there is someone who is able to see things differently. There is a person of faith who can see differently and remain true when others have given up or when the opportunity is there to walk away.

Teresa questions the integrity of a self serving faith and the way we so easily ascribe the evil in our world to God. She strongly and gently offers a different perspective and in that moment there is a light in the darkness.





baliboThe Aussie movie Balibo has been available for view on ABC iView the last few days, so after beginning work at 7.00 am yesterday and being finished by 8.30am I decided to sit down and watch it .

It is set in East Timor at the time of independence and traces the tragic demise of the journalists sent there to cover the story.

After being a Portuguese colony for many years East Timor was granted independence in November 1975, however this was followed by an Indonesian invasion in December of that year and subsequently much bloodshed under Indonesian rule.

The ‘Balibo 5’ were a group of Aussie TV journos who went to the town of Balibo to cover the story and believed they would be left alone because they didn’t pose a military threat. In the end the invading forces simply killed them, burnt their film and moved on.

The story follows the journey of Roger East – also an Aussie journo – who goes to Dili to investigate the disappearance of the men. He is shown in dialogue with the later president Jose Ramos Horte as the invading forces approach Dili. Horte is fleeing the country and calls East to join him and tell the story back in Australia. East’s response is brutal, but captured the truth of the situation. Paraphrased it was : ‘No one cares about a nation full of Timorese people getting slaughtered – that isn’t a story – but if I can uncover the truth about 5 white journalists who have been killed then it will become a story…’

Ouch… but how true. Tens of thousands of brown people getting slaughtered won’t register with viewers, but five of our own people… now that’s a different issue, isn’t it?…

After choosing to stay, East was killed by firing squad a short time later, and the whole episode has been the subject of a war crimes investigation. What was equally disturbing (according to my reading of events) was that the US and Australia by and large turned a blind eye to all that took place because it wasn’t politically expedient to get involved. The US had formulated a policy of ‘silence’ on the invasion. That coupled with fear of a potential communist state developing appears to the reason the US and Australia kept silent.

Balibo is a brutal and disturbing movie on many levels and my brief reading of the history leaves me equally disturbed.

Noah Scmoah

Last night was looking like a night at home until the phone rang at 5.00pm and someone wanted a retic control box installed in Currambine. I didn’t need to do it on the spot, but as it was my job to take the kids to their youth groups I figured I’d drop them off, do the control box, grab some dinner, see the Noah movie, pick the kids up and head home. It’d save driving back to Yanchep… I thought I was on my own until Danelle decided she didn’t want to miss out so came too.

So we managed to cram in drop off, dinner and control box before the 6.30 movie and then sunk back into the chairs to enjoy a movie – first one in a long time and at $19.00/ticket its hardly surprising…

So – Noah… Honestly it was a bit ho hum. I found myself a bit bored with it and while not offended or disturbed by its content it just didn’t strike a chord for me. Plenty of others have written analytical reviews of its biblical truth and error, but I didn’t go there to see someone try to match it word for word. What I did see was a mix of Mad Max, Lord of the Rings and the Bible with Noah as the first nut job fundamentalist, willing to kill his own granddaughters in the name of the cause. There was enough Bible for it to be recognisable as the story, but enough interpretation and adaption to fill it out and make it into a movie length drama. If you’re thinking of going to see it, then I’d say ‘go ahead, but don’t expect it to be either completely biblically accurate or riveting as a story.

What it did, was compel me to re-read the story to see what was actually there originally and what was added in and I am guessing it will be food for conversation around the place. I agree with those who say our job isn’t to defend the bible and its accuracy but rather to engage with the culture as it reads the story. From there we can have a conversation rather than a lecture in correction.

So – Noah – its not the duck’s nuts, nor is it the antichrist… Enjoy it for what its worth, but if I were you I’d wait for the DVD…


The Turning – Just Didn’t Get Close


Its hard to imagine Tim Winton being impressed with the screenplay of The Turning.

In places it captures some of the earthy melancholy of Winton’s writing and mood, but for the most part it is vague and disappointing, suffering from a terminal overdose of pretentious arty-fartiness.

I went today – to the final showing for the short season down at the Luna in Leederville. I’d been excited about seeing this ‘movie’ since I heard about it, so I dropped the kids with the folks and headed down to Leederville – a bugger of a place to park at lunch time and I finished up in a backstreet up the far end of Oxford.

The Turning isn’t a novel and isn’t really a collection of short stories. Its a meld of the two with enough connection between the stories to give them some semblance of continuity. I loved the book and I’ve read it a couple of times. The Australia and the people Winton depicts are the ones I know – the ones I grew up with – so there is a deep resonance in his writing.

But when you give each ‘story’ to a separate director and use a different cast for each segment then that continuity quickly gets lost. Vic Lang is sometimes a pale redhead, then an olive skinned Aussie as well as being portrayed as aboriginal … No wonder the old lady behind me couldn’t shut up about not having a clue about what was happening. I knew the story and I was having trouble keeping up.

My favourite story in the collection is The Turning itself and this was done fairly well. It caught the roughness of Rae’s life and the attractiveness of her new (Christian) friends. The story is a complete juxtaposition of life and hope with darkness and despair and while it ends darkly it also is a wonderful story.

By contrast Abbreviation was never going to make any sense if you hadn’t read the book… and precious little even if you had, while ‘Immunity’ was 10 minutes of my life I will never get back. Somehow the director thought a ‘ballet’ with no dialogue at all was the best way to capture this one… You’re kidding me right?…

I had been warned that it was a disappointment, but I knew I’d be disappointed if I didn’t go, so I went anyway, just in case it was better than I had hoped.

My suggestion – read the book… Its great.

Don’t even bother with the DVD when it comes out. It was an experiment that failed and I hope maybe one day someone will see the energy in the book and take it on as a coherent project.

I was hoping to walk out with my heart stirred, the way I felt when I read the book, but instead I was just glad when it was over. I held hope thru to the intermission, but by the time Immunity came around I was checking my text messages to see what was going on in the rest of the world. Not a good sign…





What can I say?

This has to be one of the most disturbing and horrific movies I have watched in a very long time. On a number of occasions I almost shut it down because I was feeling repulsed by what I was watching, yet at the same time I wanted to keep going because it looked like a side of life I need to see more often – if only to know it exists – if only to ask ‘God – what does this mean for a bloke like me?’

The movie overview let’s you know that its going to be a pretty gritty and confronting story – its a depiction of the ‘bodies in barrels’ John Bunting – serial killer story. But it doesn’t prepare you for the utterly depressing and despairing life of the people whose story it tells.

I’m not much a fan of ugly movies – movies that wallow in their own nastiness – and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one, but there is no question it achieves what it set out to do. It depicts the squalor and hopelessness of underclass Australian life. It captures brilliantly the look and voice of people for whom hope vanished long ago and it doesn’t finish with any light. It just digs a very deep hole and then slumps in it.


As a summary it looks at the life of one family in a depressed Adelaide suburb. Mum is a druggie and the kids have that ‘lost’ look about them. Her boyfriend sexually abuses them and then along comes Bunting who takes on the role of patriarch to the family. He seems to bring positivity, energy and hope, but the more they get to know him, the more they find themselves implicated in his sadistic and violent life.

Bunting is Australia’s worst serial killer and his story was one I was unaware of until I saw the movie. As you watch you see his evil gradually unfold and while you want to bow out you can’t help wondering where its all going.

As a movie I’d have to say it is brilliant at doing what it does – telling a vicious and terrible story and leaving you smeared with the ugliness of it. The characters are believable, the slice of Australian life it depicts is real and perhaps the question it left me with was ‘what hope is there for people in this place?’

There are some familiar looking church scenes where we see the family part of a working class church community and obviously looking for hope and support. They get it to a degree but the lines are so blurred between church and community that their hope gets mired in the depravity of their culture and as a result lost altogether.

So – be warned – its not a pretty movie and while most of the murders are implied rather than acted there is one brutal strangulation scene that I will be happy to never see again.

What’s the point?

Maybe just to tell a story… Maybe to say ‘this happens – its real.’ I find myself looking at the lives of the characters and realising that they aren’t a caricature. Rather they are one part of Australian society – a dark and depressing part – but a part that is all too real and in need of some genuine hope.

If I get beyond revulsion I find myself wondering ‘how do these people find hope? How do they encounter the gospel and then what?… In such broken lives how do they right the ship and move ahead?’

Is there really hope for everyone? I want to say ‘yes’, but I’m finding it hard.

Higher Ground – When Faith Comes Unstuck

Last night we watched Higher Ground, a well made and quite believable movie about the challenges that come to faith as a person matures.

Set in the Jesus / Hippie era it tells the story of a woman who grows up in a devout and fairly fundamentalist church community. She is happy enough until she begins to ask questions. A good friend gets a brain tumour and becomes a virtual vegetable, her role as a woman is constantly being scrutinised and her marriage falls apart in the process of her faith questioning.

Its a pretty accurate portrayal of that kind of church life and is doesn’t suffer from being a caricature, a cyncical jab or from presenting everything as rosy. I found myself recognising some of the characters from my own upbringing, and recognising the issues from my own childhood.

Corrine is both believable and likable and the movie depicts what many experience but don’t know how to articulate – a real faith struggle by someone who isn’t seeking to exit faith, but is seeking better answers than they currently have. And yet the quest for answers has her bouncing out of her tight knit community as her only way of grappling with the issues. Sad.

I have met plenty like her and I have had some of her experiences. Some days I still have them and that can be disturbing for a leader. Her pastor in the movie is a man with faith like a rock. Towards the end she tells him that she admires his faith – and I think she genuinely does – but I don’t think she wants his faith. While there is something attractive about a simple faith, to anyone who has asked questions there is also a strong degree of dissatisfaction and little desire to go back there.

These days I find myself with very strong convictions on what I consider core issues, but I am also open to new ideas when it comes to questions that don’t have easy answers.

In some ways Higher Ground was a trip down memory lane and yet not an unattractive one. The genuine love for God and desire to follow him from the people in the church wasn’t cheesy or awkward and in that the church looked attractive. But the issues that go with a more fundamentalist approach to faith, were noticeable and did grate on me.

Its not a ‘wow’ movie, or a dud, and it does move quite slowly, but for those who are in that place of asking questions it could be a helpful story to engage with.

Letters to Father Jacob

SBS is currently running a series of films on faith and the other night I happened to notice that this one was scheduled. It was one of those rare and simple films that communicates one thing well.

The story involves a newly pardoned murderer called Leila agreeing to work as an assistant to a blind pastor. Father Jacob spends his days answering the letters of the needy, which Leila finds pointless. Leila’s job is to read the letters to him – a job she does grudgingly. When the letters stop, the pastor is devastated and Leila finds herself wanting to help him, but in the process helping herself as she unfolds her own story to him.

While the storyline was a little predictable there were moments of beauty. Watching the joy the old priest derived from his work was one of those moments. Seeing Leila’s release from bondage another. A simple story, but just a reminder of the brokenness of our world and our common need for healing.